Book Review: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

 

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What’s it about:

Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, the keeper of keys at the Natural History Museum. Werner grows up an orphan in a German town, with the future of a mining life looming ahead. But it’s the turbulent times of WW2 and they both get uprooted and cast far away from comfort. For Marie, it’s the excruciating escape to Saint-Malo and the fear of American bombs that drop from the sky. For Werner, it’s the promise of a better life, a life filled with science and discovery but something that soon catapults out of his control. How do these two unite and under what circumstances? That forms the crux of the story.

What I thought: 

Few books in the recent times had my attention the way this one did. From the get go, you fall into rhythm with the narrative that the author is trying to build. He cuts back and forth, past and present, cuts across locations, France and Germany, meticulously building characters and premise. He takes you deep into the minds of the folk who had to experience the war first-hand. Directly or indirectly. So much that war itself becomes a living breathing character.

Apparently this book has been ten years in the making, and it shows. I can’t begin to imagine the countless hours of research that something of this magnitude would take. I haven’t read a lot of World War fiction so can’t say this with absolute certainty, but something that usually doesn’t get talked about a lot is how the World Wars affected the common folk. And how differently the world view appears from the ground up. Doerr succeeds here immensely; he doesn’t sugar-coat, and there’s absolutely no attempt to emotionally entangle the reader. I’ve never seen bluntness used so to such an effect.

The chapters are kept short, some even just a couple of paragraphs, which keeps the momentum going. It’s also a clever way to make the book unputdownable, as there’s always something or the other happening. The language is crisp, yet poetic. And the author is somehow able to set up a whole scene, sights and sounds and smells, with just a handful of words at times.

If I’m talking so much about the technical aspects of the book, I think it’s because it deserves to be highlighted. This is a book where one soon realizes that the narrative is going to be bigger than anything, even if it tells two extremely personal tales. It might not have the gravitas of, say The Book Thief, but it makes one walk away with a feeling that they’ve just beheld something epic.

Keywords:

world-war-II, France, Germany, Saint-Malo, Sea-of-Flames, Jules-Verne, radio, Hitler’s-Youth, Clair-de-Lune

Book Review: They Both Die At The End by Adam Silvera

 

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What’s it about:

Two teenage boys (with some *cough* emotional baggage) find out that they’re going to die sometime over the course of the day (magic of Death-Cast, don’t ask me!). But they end up having the time of their lives when they discover each other through an app called Last Friend that allows the dying to make one last friend. And as is usually with books that are described as “life affirming” or “heartbreaking” or “an emotional roller-coaster”, this one too has a lot of heavy touchy-feely bits. It’s pretty much the Young-Adulting for Dummies!

What I thought: 

It didn’t break my heart. It didn’t even give me the tingles.

Maybe I’m too old for this (at 27!) or maybe I’m just cold inside, but I really really wished that this book had adult protagonists. That would have lent much more gravitas to this otherwise simplistic narrative that never goes anywhere outside of where you expect it to. Yes, the boys are queer and yes they fall in love just moments before death knocks on their door, and yet I wasn’t shook. I just had an “oh okay then” moment and was happy to be done.

Part of the blame could be laid on the characters. Mateo and Rufus are so very cookie cutter that the sense of deja vu completely washes out any trace of empathy. Even the deeply personal moments don’t ring up an emotion. And you know there’s something wrong with the writing when a first person narrative fails to get you into the heads of your characters.

All this but credit has to be given where due, so I’ll say the premise was fantastic. And the world-building was authentic and on point. I liked the little segues into other characters’ lives and how it all intertwines at the end. I liked the clever red-herring, though the author wastes too much time to make it work. And that is pretty much all I got.

In the end, this is definitely a good book but if you’re out looking for LGBT reads, there are much better ones to choose.

Keywords:

young-adult, queer-protagonists, death, family, loss, friendship, self-acceptance, overcoming-your-fear, finding-love-in-a-hopeless-place

Book Review: The Untold Charminar: Writings on Hyderabad by Syeda Imam

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A jewel of a book!

Such an eclectic collection of mostly personal accounts, memoirs, and commentaries on the city that I call home.

From Narendra Luther‘sHyderabad through Foreign Eyes” which sets the stage nicely for what’s to follow, to Bilkees Latif‘s “Rare Visage Of the Moon” that talks about the lesser known Mahlaqa Bai – an Urdu poetess and courtesan, and then you have Sarojini Naidu‘s “Letters too tell stories” which painstakingly unfurls the loss she felt after the death of the 6th Nizam.

Each chapter charts the evolution of Hyderabad, from the opulence of the Nizams to their eventual downfall, the accession to the Indian Union in 1948, and what became of the city thus, how it transformed into the bustling concrete jungle of today yet never losing the spirit and harmony that has become its trademark. The spirit of Hyderabad and its people being the unifying thread that runs through every essay.

There are other interesting essays that detail the inclusiveness of the Nizams and by extension the city. Yezdayr Kasooji‘s “Growing up a Parsi in Hyderabad” is a wonderful account of the Parsi community and culture and how they had adapted to the local traditions, in true Hyderabad fashion. There’s just so much here for anybody who’s associated with Hyderabad that it makes for an overwhelming read. There’s even an aside on how the peculiar Dakhani language came to be.

Reading this book has given me a newfound appreciation for the city of Hyderabad. And I was saddened that there’s such a rich history to this place that most might never know. This is definitely a book worth picking up!

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Book Review

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The author dedicates this book to all the boys who’ve had to learn to play by different rules.

Little wonder, then, that this one moved me to bits, resonated with my soul on different levels, made me look back on my own life as a round peg in a square hole!!

Aristotle(aka Ari) is quite unlike the every day 15 yo teenager. Introverted and troubled and yet wise and loving, he lives in a cocoon, observes details that nobody seems to care about, and frequently wonders why he doesn’t act like people his own age. He’s got virtually no friends but that is until Dante comes along. Dante is the dreamer, the artist, the kind of an angelic soul with just the tinge of naughty undertone that it’s hard to not fall in love with him.

The friendship between Ari and Dante is so beautifully etched that I started to feel a little envious by the end of it. When people speak their minds without any ego or other kind of bullshit, it’s such a delightful thing, really. And this book embraces it whole heartedly. A lot of dialogues made me go ‘oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh!’ and that’s no small achievement.

It was both scary and thrilling just how much I was able to relate to both Ari and Dante.

“I want people to tell me how they feel. I’m not so sure I want to return the favor.”

The above line by Ari seems like a very simple observation about himself but it struck me deeply as I echo the same emotion. There are a lot of these little drizzles of almost cathartic insights into an introvert’s psyche which I was constantly agreeing with.

The prose is simple, just like how a 15-17 yo boy would think. The books feels like more of an inner monologue; there are no heavy conversations and most of it feels like how you’d talk in real life. And like I said before, sometimes all it takes is a couple of words to trigger a deep response within you.

There’s naught much else that I will say here other then, GO READ IT! This is the best coming-of-age story I’ve read in years. And for a change, I cried because I was happy not sad!

Words are Wind…

 

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Note: This post contains no spoilers.

So the massively-awaited Season 6 of Game of Thrones is now moving ahead of the books. I suppose I knew this would happen eventually. And HBO can’t just wait around for the books to hit the shelves, can they?

Winds of Winter should ideally have been out before the show aired (and yes, I’ve read GRRM’s blog post and kinda empathize with his situation). But the truth of the matter is simply this. I’ve never ever seen a film/TV show without reading the book first. Wut? Yea, that’s me. A book is always a bigger attachment/commitment and I’d want absolutely nothing to spoil it for me. If it were up to me, I’d banish book blurbs altogether!!

Now I don’t know how much of the books the TV show is gonna spoil. But I don’t have a choice, do I? I can’t just wait around for the books pretending the TV show doesn’t exist. The interwebz these days are so chock-full of spoilers at every damn bend that it’d be an effort in futility to even consider that option. And for better or for worse, I know that the TV show and the books have diverged to a point that a lot of stories are just never gonna be the same in both. Yes, the crucial arcs – Jon Snow, Daenerys and Bran (!) might possibly have some semblance in both forms but pretty much everything else is up in the air.

But let’s pause for a moment and try to assess what GRRM is trying to achieve here. I think it wouldn’t be too wrong to assume he has in quite some ways written himself into a corner.  Probably not in terms of how he envisions to end it. But the journey there. As a fantasy writer, it’s quite admirable that he set out to break as many conventions and clichés as was humanly possible. Like, killing off main characters  in much the same way you would swat house-flies? It was mind-boggling at first. But now I’m almost unflinched. “That’s one more person down,” I simply say to myself. With this in mind, and also considering the fact that there are so fewer important people actually left right now, using death as a surprise/twist has more or less reached its saturation point. And they won’t be able to do that without inciting a bunch of fans anyway.

And then you have people who are dead in the TV show but not in the books and vice-versa. Keeping track of all this is gonna be one pain in the ass but of course there are always mad fans (I’m crazy, not mad) who’d do that job for you. The reason I refused to watch the TV show for a very long time had indeed been for the simple fact that once I realized the show was doing things differently from the written material, I just couldn’t wrap my head around two different realities of the same story.

GRRM may well be one of the best contemporary epic-fantasy writers we have today and he started something that knocked the world’s socks off. And maybe he takes five years to write a book, granted these are not your everyday fiction. I just…just wish he’d finish it with as much aplomb as he started them. The last thing I want to happen is to lose interest in this series. Because if I’m being honest, we’ve been on a dwindle ever since the third book.

So it’s time to pick up the reins again and show us what you got, George. Also, please don’t die.

Career Of Evil – Robert Galbraith – Book Review

J.K.Rowling isn’t just famous because she was creative enough to come up with a whole new magical world of her own. She is actually a damn terrific writer who knows how to create strong characters, people you can’t help fall in love with. She’s also amazing at writing a whodunit (pretty much all Harry Potter books are whodunits). Why I say all this is that, with the third book in the Cormoran Strike series that JKR authors under the pen name Robert Galbraith, she finally gets to show the best of herself: the way she can weave a deeply personal story out of a mystery thriller.

For people who are unaware of the story thus far, Cormoran Strike is an ex-military officer who’s lost one of his legs in war and he now runs a little detective agency in London. Robin Elacott joins as his assistant and the only staff member, and slowly becomes his confidante and good friend. Robin is very unconventional in the sense that she doesn’t care about the meagre salary that Strike pays her but stays with him because she actually loves the job! Something her fiancé Matthew seems to hate and constantly prods her to look for a much more “safer” (and boring) job. In the first two books, Cormoran and Robin team up to solve some high-profile cases and get some good press which leads to a flourishing clientele.

But just when I was thinking that we know everything we needed to know about Cormoran and Robin’s personal lives and their past, Rowling drops Career of Evil, a book which entirely deals with their demons from the past. I was not expecting that we would get to know these people at such a deeper level but Rowling is after-all a master at this sort of thing.

So the basic premise is this: Robin gets a package delivered to her one day at the office front door and when she opens it there’s a severed leg of a woman inside. Cormoran immediately suspects that whoever did this did this to get at him, using Robin as a weapon. So he digs into his past and comes up with three people, one of which being his own step-dad, who he knew would have a vengeance against him. The rest of the book follows Cormoran and Robin’s investigation on each of the suspects, revealing a lot of backstory in parallel. It’s an intriguing tale told in a slick way and never gets heaved down by its own story.

What also keeps the proceedings interesting is the increasing romantic tension between Cormoran and Robin. Sure, Corm has a girlfriend and Robin is actually engaged to be married to someone else, but there are some fleeting moments where Rowling lets us see how these two are just perfect for each other. And she also doesn’t shy away from letting her characters actually consider this alternative. You just have to read this book to find out how it ends.

It was also quite a brave move to deal with a concept as mind-boggling as Body Integrity Identity Disorder wherein a person would actually wish to be an amputee (don’t worry this isn’t a spoiler!). It adds a whole new layer to the book and I thought Rowling was probably making this all up but I looked up online and apparently it’s really a thing.

If there was a little negative, it’s only that the clue-dropping wasn’t effective enough. This is not the kind of book that is gonna give you a lot of AHA! moments on your second read. When the murderer is finally revealed, you don’t go “Of course! How did I not see that!”

But I still think that this is a brilliant addition to the detective novel genre and since Rowling has said that there is seemingly no end to the books that she could write in this series, I’m sure we’re gonna get a lot of exciting books in the future.

Turns out I’m a Ravenclaw after all.

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Have y’all tried the Sorting Hat on Pottermore?

Well I just did and after a flurry of curious but undecipherable questions, the Hat placed me into Ravenclaw! And I’m actually content with the decision because as cool as Gryffindor is, I know my heart echoes more of what Ravenclaw stands for.

And the quiz is actually not very straight-forward, so you can’t really trick it into giving the house you desire (read:Gryffindor). I mean: Moon or Stars? goes a question. How could that possibly be linked into any of the houses’ qualities I cannot say. But I’m sure there’s some deep psycho-analysis between every answer as it was pretty accurate in my case.

And oh, there’s a similar quiz thingy to pick your wand too – I mean, your wand picking you of course! 😉 And turns out mine’s an adventurer’s wand! Yay!

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P.S. If you have been living under a rock and do not know what Pottermore is, it is an exciting new online platform from JKR herself to keep the Harry Potter world alive. There are news articles with the latest happenings, and not to forget: exploring the books again in detail with brand new information from Rowling thrown in. It’s the place to be for any true blue Harry Potter fan!!

The Hindu Lit For Life 2016 – Day 2 & 3

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The brochure!

Lit For Life 2016 is the  sixth edition of Chennai’s own literary festival, organized by The Hindu newspaper.

The three day deluge of stimulating conversations has come to an end and I’m here  now with my mind going off in multiple places. I have to thank the people at The Hindu for bringing this to Chennai. The city has definitely bagged one more feather to its cap. And I hope to see this festival blossom into an even bigger phenomenon to become a go-to literary festival for South Indians at least. The Jaipur Literature Fest has already set the benchmark quite high.

There were two themes that will probably be my key takeaways this year – one has to do with “taboo” fiction, and the other is the whole mythology/religion/intolerance debate. While it’s true that the audience is equally split between the older and younger audience, it’s nice that we are able to have these conversations without anybody batting an eyelid. I mean, I expected there to be at least a groan or two when author Ananth read out an explicitly raunchy conversation from his erotic novel, but nothing happened and no ambulances were required after all. 😛

As Devdutt Pattanaik rightly put it in his speech, progress do not arise out of a tug-of-war. Nobody will gain anything if either side takes an unassailable position. One has to give a little for the back and forth debate to happen. That’s the only way we can sustain a healthy conversation. It also tied in neatly with the whole freedom-of-speech conundrum in that currently it is indeed very true that the “leftist”  society is going too left that they almost seem like the right wing.

Anyway, without further ado, here are my favourite sessions from the final two days of the fest…

True Detectives: Of sleuths in Gaborone and Edinburgh – Alexander McCall Smith

Am I the only one who hasn’t read Alexander McCall Smith, y’all? Well apparently, he’s this very popular British writer with a staggering number of 84 books under his belt and he’s still writing! This had been a fun session as the author himself seemed like a jolly good man, with a lot of funny one liners that had the audience in splits. And I’m most definitely gonna pick up his title “The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” as everyone had great things to say about it.

Kama’s Sutra – Amrita Narayanan, Ananth Padmanabhan, Margaret Mascarenhas

An interesting discussion on erotic fiction. Though all three panelists wrote erotica, they all had different sensibilities which really made me see the number of ways one can approach any topic. My favourite was Amrita Narayanan’s attempt to delicately sexualize everyday life in her short story collection, which for the most part is not even given a curt nod to in this part of the country.

Coming Out – Sandip Roy, Living Smile Vidya, Philip Hensher

I was pleasantly surprised that they even had this session. As expected, the auditorium was only half filled for this one but what matters is that people came at all. Sandip and Philip are both openly gay authors and Vidya is the first transgender woman in India to hold a proper corporate job. The discussion was a bit desultory given the breadth of the issue at hand but it was interesting nonetheless.

Forbidden Fruit – Lionel Shriver, Manil Suri, Amrita Narayanan and Annie Zaidi

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver will be the next book I read. The book became a widespread phenomenon for its content which is of a mother hating pregnancy and childbirth and then her son, later on. The rest of the panel too had written something on the lines of a “forbidden fruit” which is the danger zone in literature, the unnecessary line that you are expected not to cross. Lionel’s words that while you’re breaking taboo several new ones are continuously taking birth ring very true.

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As one will eventually come to realize, smartphone cameras are just not made for zooming! You can barely make out Amish here. 

Scion of Ikshvaku – Amish

The penultimate session for the year, author Amish got a full house with this one. And as for something that I had been wondering myself, he explained why he cut down the “Tripathi” from his name. Turns out, Tripathi is a caste name in the north and he did not want that to be part of his identity. Which is thoughtful, I guess. Amish came in last year as well which was when he revealed that he was working on a new series which came true in the Ramachandra series. This time the conversation flowed more towards the concepts of religion and belief which I always find interesting. And I’ll admit that while I’m not a fan of the author himself, I’m grateful for what he’s done to increase the readers in our country!

To be honest, the three days flew so fast that time doesn’t seem to be have passed at all and yet here I am at the end of the third day with a lot of experiences and memories to cherish. So long for 2017 now.


Here’s the recap of Day 1 – > link

A Man Of Some Repute – Elizabeth Edmondson – Book Review

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This is the first book in the A Very English Mystery series penned by Elizabeth Edmondson.

Firstly, there’s no way I’m going to resist a book set in 1950’s Britain and has a cover that looks as delicious as that. And now that I’ve read it, I don’t regret my obsession one bit. I’ve always been quite drawn to the Victorian era. The castles with their butlers and towers, sleepy villages, the slightly regal language and mannerisms – it’s one of the reasons I enjoy reading Conan Doyle and Wodehouse so much! Now Elizabeth Edmondson has come up with an equally delectable tale and I can tell it’s a great start to a potentially delightful series.

As is usual with mysteries, some one is dead at the beginning. In this case it’s the Lord Selchester, Earl of the intriguing village Selchester. He is presumed dead after he goes missing one stormy night never to return again. Seven years later, our protagonist Hugo Hawksworth (an ex-army official) and his teenage sister Georgia arrive from London as temporary lodgers at the castle as Hugo is given a desk job at a local office following his leg injury. The police seem to be on the verge of closing the case but the death of the Earl naturally kindles his curiosity and he starts to poke around until one shocking discovery which will change everything. Motives are sought, friends are questioned and the mystery becomes more woolly as the truth gets revealed in layers. It ends rather unexpectedly but in a satisfactory way.

I also liked how unpredictable the plot was. Sure, you have a standard template when it comes to crime-detective books but this one took nice detours along the way. The characterization was also something to be given credit to, as it is evident that the author took a special interest in giving all the characters some personality quirks that made them stand out in someway or the other. For example, Georgia’s gluttony. It’s a random detail and isn’t really relevant to the story but it makes the character that much more three dimensional.

I did have a minor issue with the way dialogue was used as information dump, especially at the very beginning. I was saying to myself that people don’t generally speak this way in real life, unless they’re characters in a play. And maybe that was the intended effect as each chapter was indeed divided into ‘Scenes’, but it did feel a tad awkward but thankfully got better as the book progressed.

All in all, a great cozy afternoon read if you’re into the kind of books this one falls under. Highly recommended and I will be picking up the second installment soon as this one does end on a surprise reveal!

So Hermione Granger could have been black…No Big Deal!

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Jamie Parker (Harry Potter), Noma Dumezwani (Hermione Granger), Paul Thornly (Ron Weasley)

 

JK Rowling is apparently thrilled that Noma Dumezwani (an award-winning theatre actress) is cast as Hermione Granger in the stage play ‘Cursed Child’, which is also – for all intents and purposes – the eighth installment to the Harry Potter series!

Did the internet go a little wild after announcement? You bet it did. But again, we’re way past the racism crap now. Right now it’s more of a consistency issue. For somebody who has grown up seeing a Caucasian Hermione Granger (and the amazing Emma Watson), it did strike me a teeny bit odd to see a woman of color reprise the character. But a little switch turned on in my head. And a couple of minutes later I was gladly embracing this new version of my beloved heroine.

The books never indeed mention Hermione’s color, but there’s an unwritten law that every character be assumed as white unless specified otherwise. Which is probably not very progressive in hindsight, but it works because it is convenient.

If I have one pet peeve with JK Rowling, it’s that much of these fringe character traits seem to be cropping up outside of the books. Dumbledore is gay, but if Rowling hasn’t revealed that info we would have been none the wiser. These things almost sound like an after-thought, something she decided to throw in to make her world more diverse. On which note, if you ask me, I could only quote Dean Thomas and Angelina Johnson as the only other black people, off the top of my head.

Anyhoo, back to the ‘Cursed Child’! I cannot contain my excitement as this is the official continuation of the Harry Potter series when Harry, Ron and Hermione are all grown up and battling middle-age. The cursed child here is apparently Harry and Ginny’s youngest son, Albus Severus!

In case you missed it, here’s the synopsis from Pottermore!

It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.

While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.

I have no idea how people outside of the United Kingdom will get to watch this play though!

Let me know what you think of the above and if you cannot wait to know what the story is all about!!!

Image Source: Original article on Pottermore