The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest – Book Review

August 22, 2011

My eyes are hurting. I took up the book at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning and was compelled to put it down when Amit told me it was midnight on Sunday night. I’d begun the book a couple of days earlier, I don’t recall exactly when. It would not be incorrect to say that the days have passed in a blur since then, with all time not spent with the book being spent waiting to get back to the book. Husband and kids have been given short shrift.

It’s a long, long time since a book had me hooked this way. To put it another way, this is probably one of the best – if not the best – action-thriller books I have ever read. Not that I’ve read much of this genre in recent years, but there was a time 20-something years ago when I read them faster than they were churned out. In those days, I was very well acquainted with the works of Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth and the rest of their ilk. I recently read and complained at great length about Frederick Forsyth’s recent attempt to write a book – The Cobra. At that time, I was wondering if I’d forgotten what this genre was like, or if I was wrong to have a completely different level of expectation from what The Cobra provided. This book proves that I wasn’t wrong and I hadn’t forgotten.

It has everything that Cobra doesn’t. It draws you in quickly. It has a vastly complicated plot with many different aspects, but all the threads are drawn together and tightened and then unraveled in an absolutely masterful way. There are as many or possibly even more characters than in Cobra, but the key characters are well defined and even some of the bit-part players are more memorable and human than the key characters of Cobra. You know, as you read the book, that each character was a person to the author – with a complete history, context, and three-dimensional personality, only a fraction of which is actually specified in the writing. That’s something completely lacking in Cobra – each character was just a pawn on a chessboard in an immensely boring and low-skill version of the game.

The book has an incredible pace – 740-odd pages of non-stop – not action, but development. All the time, there’s something going on. There’s never a dull moment, never a pause. You get to see a piece of everybody’s picture, so that often you know things that another actor in the plot doesn’t know. It makes you wonder how on earth the author managed to keep it all straight in his mind and get it down on paper without stumbling all over the hundred tangled threads of the plot. What’s more, each change in perspective, each shift in scene or setting, is done smoothly, flawlessly. Despite the number of people and perspectives, the reader is rarely confused.

One of the things I found fascinating was the ethical norms implicit in the book. There are the bad guys who should have been the good guys (and thought of themselves as such but kind of got carried away). There are the good guys who are law-enforcement guys and tread very, very carefully, always considering which laws they are over-stepping and why and by how much. There are the good rogue guys – the journalists, who play by completely different rules from the law-enforcement guys, twist and bend a lot of laws, but still attempt to be largely ethical. And then there’s the victim – victimized, vengeful, violent, and not afraid to break any law that comes in her way.

I’ve never read a book with so many women in it, many of them in quite significant roles both in the plot and in their society. And so much openness about matters sexual. There’s no explicit sex scene, but sex is treated in such a matter-of-fact way that for me it was completely surprising. Very early in the book, there’s reference to a man and his partner – his male partner – which is mentioned so casually I actually had to rub my eyes and check that both people were male. (Their names are confusing.) Later on, a woman takes our hero to bed in a very brazen way (multiple times, I might add) and another woman seems to have an interesting marriage which not only has involved a threesome at least once, but also allows the woman to have a lover on the side that her husband knows and doesn’t bother about. Then our victim, who is not at all the passive, helpless kind, propositions a man on one occasion and a woman on another. The man accepts, the woman doesn’t, and both of them are only slightly taken aback by it. All this is very strange not just to my not-very-conservative Indian way of thinking, but also in the context of so many other books mostly by American authors, where sex is usually not such an extremely casual matter. One thing that does come out, because of this or regardless of it, is the position of equality and strength of women. It is tempting to say that this is reflective of Swedish society, but, who knows, it might just be this particular author, or this particular work of fiction.

The conversation in the book is fun. A lot of it is very terse and snappy and some parts are breathtakingly rude. Again, I don’t know whether this is reflective of Swedish society in general, or just the way people in this particular book talk. Either way, it was enjoyable and subtly added another dimension of racy action to the book.

Unfortunately, without realising it, I picked the third in a set of three books – because this was the title I’d heard most about. I am sure I’m going to read the first two books in the series as well – but I’d better not do it right away or my family will disown me (not that I’d notice it). My greatest regret is that the author, Steig Larsson, unfortunately died unexpectedly after having completed only 3 books – apparently, he intended a series of 10. What a tragedy. But, when they turn this into a movie, as I’m sure they will sooner or later, I’ll be standing in line.

Book Review: The Cobra

June 20, 2011

I just finished – or should I say, I just managed to struggle through to the end of – this best seller by Frederick Forsyth. I think I used to read Frederick Forsyth twenty-odd years ago. I’m reasonably certain I read The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File and The Fourth Protocol. Maybe also The Negotiator. I had the impression of good, fast-paced, thrilling action books, with intricate plots. Either my memory sucks, or the Frederick Forsyth who wrote The Cobra is not the same Frederick Forsyth who wrote those masterpieces. Because, I don’t care how many million copies he’s sold and what the rest of the world says, in my opinion, The Cobra is no masterpiece.

There are many problems with the book. The first and foremost is that it just doesn’t draw you in. A good book should draw you in no matter what point you flip it open at. And certainly, it should draw you in at the beginning. And even if it wants to get off to a slow start (which it shouldn’t if it is supposed to be an action-thriller) it should still get going in the first 50 pages or so. This one doesn’t. I waited for it to get going for the first 292 pages and then realized that it would finish in another 100 pages. Mind you, a riveting climax after a 300-page yawn would still be something – but nope – no climax, riveting or otherwise.

The book doesn’t have much of a plot. It has a problem statement, which is to the effect: Cocaine is bad. It destroys people. The “plot” if you want to glorify it by the name, is to get rid of the cocaine industry. In my dictionary, the word “plot” involves some twisting and turning, something well woven together, multi-dimensional. Something that goes in a straight line could possibly be a “story” but even a story should have some elements of interest, some element of surprise. On reading the Pied Piper of Hamelin recently (kids’ version – is there any other?) I discovered that it has a twist in the tail. I either never knew, or had forgotten, that after he rids the town of rats, the Pied Piper is cheated of his payment and takes his revenge by walking off with all the children of Hamelin. That’s what I call a story. Without that part, it’s hardly even a tale worth telling. The Cobra doesn’t have that. There is something that happens at the end, but, to be honest, I didn’t get it. And in any case, the main aspects of the ending were such a let down, that it was hardly even worth wondering about the details.

Even books without a plot are carried through sometimes on the strength of their characters. Wuthering Heights, for one. The plot is one that has been repeated a thousand times before and since. But the characters – ah! What characters! It’s probably unfair to pit a lowly work like The Cobra against a true masterpiece like Wuthering Heights, but if you’re supposed to be an international best seller, then you’re asking for it.

Next problem – The Cobra is full of people – so many that the author thought best to list them out in the beginning and probably had to refer to the list himself to remind himself of who’s who. That’s what it comes across as. Each person is a name and a designation (of sorts) but nothing more than that. Even characters who play key roles, who occupy the central parts of the narrative, such as Cal Dexter, The Animal, the Cobra himself, the Don, all of them are two-dimensional. The only character who has a shade of a third dimension is Senor Cardenas, and that’s only because he effectively sacrifices his life for his daughter, a daughter he dearly loves – this, at least, is something the average reader can relate to. The rest of the characters – nada.

And the biggest let down – for an action thriller, this book is completely lacking in action and thrill. There is something happening, of course. Something is happening right through the book, all the way to the end, almost. But it’s not exciting. You don’t get right into the action – you see it from a mile above. There are a lot of dry details about how the “war” against drug trade is planned. You might well be impressed by the author’s knowledge of ships and planes. You might also, towards the end, be impressed by the number of gangs he names in various parts of the world. But come on – this is not a text book on ships, planes, and gang names. I want the action, gimme the action!

You’d think that with that many fast-paced action thrillers under his belt – which I presume he has, though I haven’t read all of them – the author would know by now how to get the reader right down into the action. But either Frederick Forsyth has forgotten his craft, or I’ve forgotten how to read this genre.

Another Review

June 13, 2011

It’s so nice when you come across perfect strangers who have read your book and liked it enough to say so. I know I’m being disgustingly vain now, but what the heck – my two seconds of fame, I might as well enjoy it.

Book Review: Purple Hibiscus

February 28, 2011

When I started reading this book, I found it too slow and a bit difficult to get into. I was in the mood for something intense and gripping. But I stuck with it and I’m glad I did. I think it’s going to be the kind of book that stays with me for a long time.

It’s a slow story, one that builds up slowly and, after it’s reached the climax, lets you down slowly, so slowly that it’s only a day or two after finishing the book that you realize where exactly the climax was. It’s a thoughtful book, intense in its own slow, descriptive way. The characters are drawn in a few strokes, but they seem real all the same. The most shocking part of the book, deliberately, compellingly, inhumanly shocking, is the domestic violence, which is described objectively, matter-of-factly. It is so extremely matter-of-fact that you can hardly believe it is violence being described. What’s even more difficult to stomach – though I don’t disbelieve it; I just don’t understand it – is how the girl still loves her father so much. And that he also probably really loves her – and the rest of his family – in his horribly twisted, violent way. In that way, it’s a chilling book.

At first the book reminded me of To Kill a Mocking Bird. By the time I’d finished, I could still see some similarity, though obviously the storyline is completely different. The narrative style is similarly simple and direct, without decoration. And the voice is that of a small girl. The difference is that here, the girl is hardly a small girl – she’s 15. The entire time that I was reading, I could not picture a girl of 15. She sounds about 7. That disconnect adds to the impact of the story she’s telling. With a life like that, what would you expect?

Having myself come from a largely “normal” family (whatever “normal” might be) it is very difficult – actually, impossible, maybe – for me to imagine or accept that all around us there are families where these things happen. This book forces me to think about that. While many works of fiction are forgotten soon after you put them down, this one forces me to accept that a different kind of family, a different kind of reality is out there. This book brought that reality to life for me in just one story. Very few books can do that.

Book Review: Slumdog Millionaire

October 9, 2009

This is what I read on the long train journey to Delhi ten days ago.

I wasn’t greatly impressed with this movie when I saw it back in February. It wasn’t the much-talked-about depiction of poverty and slum life that got me; I just didn’t think much of the story, nor the manner in which it was told. But I resolved to read the book, some day. I decided that the long train journey was a good opportunity. I obviously couldn’t study on the train, there are always numerous distractions, especially with the kids.

Within the first couple of pages, I decided I liked the book. I’m rather wary of Indian writers in English, the more so since the rude shock of reading Chetan Bhagat recently. But I liked the style of this book, light and racy, but not pretentious. I don’t often like books written in present tense, and even less so books that mix up present and past tense without respect for actual chronology; but I decided I’d overlook that for the moment. The writer managed to slip in a few excellent witticisms early on, which had me hooked, though they dried up after a bit. Still, I generally found the style quite readable.

The storyline, of course I knew, having seen the movie, but I soon saw that the book handles the theme far better than the movie does. The book is written not in chronological order, but in broken up bits and pieces, ostensibly in the sequence the questions are asked. (You have to be familiar with the general concept of the book or movie for this review to make any sense.) I’m not actually a great fan of this chopped up chronology, but in this book it does work, sort of, given the context of the quiz show. I feel that if the movie had been made in the same way, it might have been much more interesting. The movie could also have added suspense by removing the police investigation, which, in the movie, adds no value, and leaving you guessing at each stage whether or not the hero will be able to answer the next question. At any rate, the chopped up jigsaw-puzzle chronology worked fantastically in Pulp Fiction, which I think is the supreme example of this kind of jumbled timeline and apparently disconnected events. Whether Slumdog Millionaire could have come close to it or not, I don’t know, but, given that the book is written that way, it was worth trying.

The book also has more interesting events and more varied characters and situations, many of which the movie does not make use of. The movie, therefore, ends up much the poorer than it might have been. The romance in the book is much less improbable, even, in fact, less romanticised than it is in the movie. The situations in the book – the chawl in Mumbai, Neelima Kumari, the contract killer, the Australian spy, Father Taylor… each of the characters an d situations comes with its own social context and its rich ambience, that makes for a pleasingly rich and varied tapestry.

My one complaint with the book is that, at times, it ranges far from the boundaries of the probable and the believable, especially with the voodoo episode. Its one defence is that the audience, Smita, usually reflects the skepticism that the reader may feel, acknowledging the far-fetchedness of the scenario. The voodoo episode in specific, is also one step removed in being the story of some total stranger and not something that happens directly to the hero or even to anyone he knows. It can, at a pinch, be written off as the ravings of a drunkard.

I appreciated the twists and turns that take place in the quiz show – how, at first, the anchor actually helps the hero, then, towards the end plays a dirty (and not very convincing) trick on him. The twist in the tale, where our hero pulls a gun on the anchor, while also not very convincing is at least satisfying in terms of plot.

So overall, I’d say that they book is much better than the movie. I don’t think I’d have thought very much of the book if I hadn’t seen the movie first though – the movie made me set my expectations really low for this one, so I came away feeling quite… if not happy, at least relieved.

Book Review – Are You Experienced?

March 28, 2009

This book, by William Sutcliffe (whom I haven’t previously heard of) I picked up on a whim. It was – on the face of it – about a young British chap travelling in India. What it actually turned out to be was as much about his love life as about his travels, but it was quite entertaining all the same. I’d say it was worth a read, though maybe not quite worth buying.

One part of it was just fabulous, though. The guy was traveling on a bus from Delhi to Manali and a Hindi movie was playing. Here’s his description:

“As far as I could tell it was about a guy who wants to marry a sexy girl, but his parents want him to marry an ugly girl. Just when he’s about to marry the ugly girl, he discovers that the sexy girl has been kidnapped by an ugly man who wears black leather and scowls at the camera. The hero rushes out on a horse in search of the kidnapped sexy girl, and has a punch-up in the desert with the ugly man. He’s about to save the sexy girl when it emerges that the ugly girl is in cahoots with the ugly man, and she has somehow tied the father to a chair in the sand and is in the process of pouring petrol all over him. The ugly girl pulls out a box of matches, and they all pause to sing a song. Just then, fifty blokes in black jump out from behind a bush that wasn’t there until they jumped out from behind it and start shooting at the hero, who hides behind a small wooden box. Eventually, he comes out, holding a white handkerchief, but when the ugly man in black comes to gloat (which he does in song) the hero trips him up, steals his gun, and shoots all the fifty men in black who jumped out from behind the magically appearing bush.

The father, whose petrol seems to have dried off, frees himself from the chair and has a comedy fight with a fat man who appears to serve no purpose. The sexy girl points out to the hero that the ugly girl is escaping through the desert just as the father defeats the fat man by putting a bucket on his head. The hero, the father and the sexy girl then all sing a song in which the father seems to give his blessing to their marriage. Meanwhile, the ugly girl on the horizon shakes her fist, and says something which can only be a vow of revenge. A few seconds later, just as she is on the point of dying of thirst, she comes across a lonely hut on top of a sand-dune. She knocks on the door and is welcomed by a man who tries to seduce her (in song). She is unimpressed by his advances until she notices that in the corner of the room is a mini-laboratory, containing what appears to be a half-finished nuclear bomb. Together they hatch a plan.

After that, the plot became a bit too difficult to follow. As far as I could tell, in the end the sexy people married each other, the ugly people got blown up, and the fat people ended up with buckets on their head.

Now that’s what I call quality entertainment.”

To Kill a Mocking Bird: Book Review

November 3, 2008

I’ve read this book before, of course, but it must have been 20 years ago. Still, I thought I remembered it, and was surprised to find that I didn’t, actually. Not at all.

The story is set in a different era and – for all practical purposes – in a different world: Alabama, in the 1930s. It’s a story about racism, but that’s only a very strong undercurrent; on the surface, it’s a story about a little white girl and her family.

The story is told with great skill. While the eight-year-old relates the tale in first person and is obviously older by the time she tells her story, there is no interpretation of events by the older person. Conversations and events are presented as they occurred, sometimes accompanied by the narrator’s wrong or incomplete understanding of affairs. The reader never learns of anything except what the narrator has direct or secondhand access to.

The way various threads of the tale are interwoven is wonderful. A theme that seems to have completely faded out in the middle of the book suddenly finds its way in at the end, tying it up nicely with the early part of the book.

The writing style is, of course, unusual for today, but it takes very little getting used to and after that, it’s a joy to read. On the whole, a thoroughly enjoyable book, with some real gems of wisdom hidden here and there. I’m glad I read it a second time, and I hope I have the sense 15 or 20 years down the road to read it one more time.

The Kite Runner

April 20, 2008

Christina gifted me this book and I have to say, Thanks a Lot, Chris!

(If you haven’t read the book, none of what follows is going to make much sense. Also, if you intend to read it, you probably don’t want to know all of this; there are spoilers.)

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I loved the book… but I’m glad I read it. I really enjoyed the beginning, the Kabul parts. I think they created an environment that makes you feel like you’ve been to the place. Being Indian, there were a lot of things one could relate to – servants who stayed in the family for generations and seemed almost like friends, only you didn’t play with them when your social peers were around; kites; kabobs; some of the words and concepts, like Zendagi, khastegari…

I also thought that the whole tragic episode, the subsequent actions of the protagonist, and the deep, convoluted guilt trip were very well done. That reminded me, in a parallel way, of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, which I read about a hundred years ago. There, too, an abiding sense of guilt and even more, of shame, shaped the course of the protagonist’s future life and actions.

What I didn’t like – the whole America episode. It was unnecessarily detailed. All that detail was irrelevant – only Soraya need have been explained – and the whole could have been summarized in one page, or at most two. Unlike the Kabul part, which created such a wonderful atmosphere that I almost fell in love with the city sight unseen, the America part created no atmosphere at all, despite a feeble attempt to at least convey a flea market scene. It fell as flat as though the author had never even been to the US (which is patently untrue), while the Kabul parts rang true as though the author had spent his childhood years growing up there (which, in fact I think he did).

Then, the redemption theme – I thought it went very well… up to a point. For me, the entire adoption bit and the culmination of all the problems with the final kite flying/kite running incident was completely redundant. It seemed to me like a put-on attempt to tie up all the loose ends, to connect everything in the beginning with everything that comes later. I would have been happier if the story had ended with Amir reaching Peshawar or Islamabad safe and sound, and with the visa part working out as it finally did, without any undue complicatioins. A “happily-ever-after” ending, in other words. Or, even better, I’d have been happy with it ending with Amir walking out of that house in Kabul, half-dead, and falling into Farid’s arms. Not quite happily-ever-after, but tending towards it, leaving the details unsaid.

And what I really don’t understand is that, even if Amir had been stupid enough to provoke that suicide attempt, how come he wasn’t later haunted by the guilt of that action? That, too, was due to his own stupidity after all.

So all in all, I would not say that I absolutely loved the book, but I’m glad I read it, and I thought the first part was really, really good. Would I want to read A Thousand Splendid Suns? Probably, but not in a desperate huryy.

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