Book Review: Sophie Says by Judy Balan

Sophie_Says_Judy_BalanEver since I read Sophie Kinsella’s I’ve Got Your Number, I’ve developed a new-found love for “chick lit”. I thought it was all sugary sweet teeny-bopper love stories, and I really have outgrown those. But it isn’t! It’s romance all right, but pretty darn believable, told from a woman’s perspective with issues that modern women can totally relate to. But I’m still skeptical about Indian chick-lit, largely because I’m skeptical about most Indian authors. So when I got an opportunity to review Judy Balan’s Sophie Says, I took it – mainly because the story sounded interesting.

Sophia Tilgum has dated all kinds of men in thirty years. Men who’ve stalked and pleaded, men who’ve lied and cheated, men who’ve written songs and wanted to play house after three dates. And equally scary, men who’ve sported hot-pink bow ties and called her Sweet Cheeks.

So after a decade-long attempt at sustaining long-term relationships, Sophie has finally thrown in the towel and has found her calling as The Breakup Coach via her super-popular blog: Sophie Says – in which she makes a case for Single-Singles or people who are wired to remain single (because according to Sophie, commitment phobia is not a real thing) and shares her many theories on breakups.

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Book review: The Sea of Innocence by Kishwar Desai

Goa, south India. A beautiful holiday hideaway where hippies and backpackers while away the hours. But beneath the clear blue skies lies a dirty secret…

The Sea of Innocence by Kishwar DesaiSimran Singh, a 40-something social worker-come-crime investigator is holidaying in Goa with her teenage daughter Durga. All she wants is the sun, sand, and an idyllic, relaxed holiday. But all of that is spoilt when she gets a disturbing video clip featuring a young girl being attacked by a group of men. And then comes Amarjit, her on-again-off-again flame, to spoil her holiday.

He begs her to send Durga back home to Delhi and help him to find out what happened to the Liza, the girl in the video. Enter Marianne, her sister, who fills in some of the details of the crime but is deliberately vague about the exact timeline.

As Simran gets pulled into the case, she finds out more than she bargained for about Goa’s dark underbelly:

the web of lies and dark connections that flourish on these beaches. Everyone, it seems, knows what has happened to the girl but no one is prepared to say. And when more videos appear, and Simran herself is targeted in order to keep her quiet, the paradise soon becomes a living nightmare.

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Book review: The Virgins by Siddharth Tripathi

I wanted to read Dan Brown’s Inferno. In fact, I had just finished a book before I had to leave for work that day, and was anticipating going home and immersing myself in Robert Langdon’s world of art and Dante and symbology. Then, I received a review copy of The Virgins in the mail, and I was torn between Langdon and this book. I knew I would go through Inferno slowly, savoring the art and detail in the book. And that after that, most books would feel flat, even if they are actually good books. So I thought it only fair that I should finish reading The Virgins before losing myself in Inferno.

The Virgins by Siddharth TripathiSet in Banaras, a town that’s famous as a Hindu pilgrimage spot and for it’s Banarasi saris, The Virgins is a story of three friends and their “sexpot” adventures. Guggi, the son of a local politician, is a spoilt rich brat who comes up with crazy ideas for fun and adventure. In one of their first “sexpot” adventures, the three friends stand outside the girls hostel of Banaras Hindu University as Guggi screams “Hey GIRLS, OPEN EVERYTHING….NOW!” As the girls freeze, a beat constable comes rushing onto the scene to apprehend the eve teasers. Guggi escapes on his scooter with Bandhu, while Pinku is left to fend for himself. As he is running away from the university with the cop at his heels, he realizes that being the poorest of the three, he is always the one who is left behind. Even his drunkard father had disappeared one day, leaving his mother alone to fend for her seven children. The 19-year old school dropout has only two dreams left: to open a cassette shop one day and to marry the plump girl who caught him stealing flower pots. As he is running away from the cop, Pinku promises himself that he will take on the job at Cheeni Chacha’s grocery store and walk on the straight and narrow, staying out of Guggi’s crazy plans.Continue reading

Book review: The Other Side of the Table by Madhumita Mukherjee

Circa 1990.
A world drawn and woven with words.
A bond punctuated by absence and distance…
Two continents. Two cities. Two people.
And letters. Hundreds of them.
Over years. Across oceans. Between hearts.

The other side of the table by madhumita mukherjeeI was delighted, and a little apprehensive, when I read the back cover. Delighted because three of my favorite books are epistolary works – May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude; Helene Hanff’s 84, Charring Cross Road; and Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Apprehensive because I am generally wary of Indian authors, even though there are some excellent novels out there – Indu Suderasan’s brilliant Taj trilogy comes immediately to mind. But then, there are also disasters, like I, Rama or How About A Sin Tonight. And telling a story through letters isn’t the easiest thing to do.

The Other Side of the Table tells the story of Abhi, who is training to become a neurosurgeon in London, and Uma, who has just entered medical college in Calcutta. They write to one another about medicine and life, love and friends, about travels and family, and things that are close to their hearts and about nothing at all. Each letter reveals a tantalizing glimpse into their lives.Continue reading

Book Reviews: I’ve Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella

When Poppy Wyatt loses her engagement ring in a hotel fire drill she goes into a state of panic. After all, who wouldn’t? That’s the one thing you’re really not supposed to lose, especially when it’s been in your fiancé’s family for three generations! To add insult to injury, in the panic that follows the loss of her ring, her phone is stolen. As she paces around the hotel lobby in a state of borderline hysteria, Poppy chances upon a phone in a trash can. After a quick internal debate, she picks the phone up and passes the “new” number around to the hotel staff and…gets a call. From the phone’s owner, businessman Sam Roxton, who isn’t amused that she has “stolen” his PA’s phone. Somehow, Poppy manages to convince him to let her keep the phone just until she finds her ring, and promises to forward all messages and emails that come on that phone to him at once. But sharing a phone isn’t easy, as both of them soon find out.Continue reading

Book review: Bartimaeus: Ring of Solomon – Jonathan Stroud

English: British versions of the Harry Potter ...

British versions of the Harry Potter series (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve developed a love for fantasy fiction. It started with JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which I read through college and into adulthood. After a long break from this genre, I returned to it with Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, which was recommended to me by a colleague in the US. (I don’t understand the hysteria around these novels – after reading the first book I wanted to gag, but they did seem to get better. Or maybe I knew what to expect.) Then came Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass), the brilliant and complex Fire & Ice series by George RR Martin and Joanne Harris’ novels based on Norse mythology (Runemarks and Ruinlight), and I was firmly hooked onto the genre.

 
So when I got the opportunity to review Bartimaeus for RHI, I jumped at the chance.
 
The novel starts with one of King Solomon’s 17 magicians commanding the demon Bartimaeus to search the known world for objects of beauty and power at the behest of the king. But keeping charge of a demon is no easy task. You have to be sure that your commands are worded without any loopholes that can be exploited and that you are always within your pentacle, or the demon will be quick to kill you to gain its freedom.
 
Rizim had put the other eye out on a rare occasion when our master had made a slight mistake with the words of his summoning. We’d additionally managed to scorch his backside once or twice, and there was a scar on his neck where I’d come close with a lucky ricochet, but despite a long career commanding more than a dozen formidable djinn, the magician remained vigorous and spry. He was a tough old bird.
 
Bartimaues: Ring of SolomonA feat that Bartimaeus accomplishes within the first few chapters of the novel. And that earns him the retribution of Solomon, who orders the magician Khaba to summon and enslave him. At the same time, he tasks Khaba with constructing a marvellous temple with a workforce comprising of a bunch of demons, including Bartimaeus. But true to form, Bartimaeus manages to irk King Solomon yet again, getting Khaba kicked off the temple project and sent to the desert to hunt bandits.
 
Meanwhile, in far away Sheba, the Queen receives a messenger from the King. Seeing as she has refused his offer of marriage multiple times, Solomon now orders her to pay him a tribute of frankenseince or see her city destroyed at the hands of an army of spirits. What makes Solomon’s threat so ominous is the ring that he discovered years ago, which allows him to summon an untold number of spirits and command the forbiddingly powerful Spirit of the Ring. The threat of this ring brings a number of magicians to Solomon’s court, whose summoned demons are used to build temples, maintain law and order and keep the peace. It’s a ring that everyone wants…but no one should have. Anyway, back to Sheba. To save her country, the queen sends Asmira, a loyal captain of her guard, to Jerusalem to kill the king and take his ring. And this is where the real fun of the novel begins.
 

Jonathan Stroud’s version of Jerusalem is peopled with monstrous djinnis, marids and afrits, all of whom are enslaved to a magician and must carry out their every command. He’s taken stories about King Solomon from the Old Testament and given them a magical spin, with Bartimaeus cooking up trouble, cracking humorous wisecracks and causing mayhem wherever he goes. The story has some interesting twists and turns, with evil getting its due reward (or rather, punishment) in the end.

The principal character of the novel is Bartimaeus, and he is absolutely delightful! He’s got this wicked sense of humour

 
“Then again, Solomon was human. And that meant he was flawed (Go on, take a look at yourself in the mirror. A good long look, if you can bear it. See? Flawed’s putting it mildly, isn’t it?)”
 
with a side of sarcasm
 
“It’s the same with spirit guises; show me a sweet little choirboy or a smiling mother and I’ll show you the hideous fanged strigoi it really is. (Not always. Just sometimes. *Your* mother is absolutely fine, for instance. Probably.)”
 
along with a healthy dose of boastfulness
 
‘The Evasive Cartwheel’™ ©, etc., Bartimaeus of Uruk, circa 2800 BC. Often imitated, never surpassed. As famously memorialized in the New Kingdom tomb paintings of Rameses III – you can just see me in the background of The Dedication of the Royal Family Before Ra, wheeling out of sight behind the pharaoh.
 
Jonathan has also taken care with his human characters. Asmira, for instance, goes from being convinced about her mission to kill Solomon, to feeling helpless and worthless, and finally finding her sense of purpose as the story unfolds. King Solomon too, despite being a known figure, has been given some rather interesting character twists.
 
Most of the chapters are narrated by Bartimaeus, and these include back stories and explanations of various magical (and other) terms – told in the form of footnotes – in his distinctive (read: witty and sarcastic) voice. Some of the chapters are narrated by Asmira and others are in third person – and all of these transitions are handled well.
 
What I enjoyed most about the book, though, was Bartimaeus and his wit! The Ring of Solomon is the prequel to the Bartimaeus trilogy, which I haven’t read. So, I can say with full confidence: if you haven’t read the trilogy and don’t think you want to get into one, read this one book – it works perfectly as a stand-alone novel. Me? I’m going to be reading the rest of the trilogy – I need to know what trouble Bartimaeus cooked up in modern day London! 😉
Disclaimer: I got a copy of this book from Random House India, but the review and opinions expressed are my own.

Book review: Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

Midnight's Children

Midnight’s Children (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Midnight’s Children tells the story of “Saleem Sinai, later variously called Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Buddha and even Piece-of-the-Moon,” who was born on 15 August 1947 at the stroke of midnight – at the same hour that India won her independence. It is a story that first chronicles 32 years of his grandparents’ and parents’ lives, before focusing on Saleem’s life in Bombay, Pakistan and Bengal. It is also a novel about India; tracing her journey from the heights of independence (infancy) to her ordinary adulthood, culminating with Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule.

But this bland description doesn’t do justice to Rushdie’s sweeping novel. It says nothing about his magical prose, about the explosion of colors and smells and sights and sounds. So let me tell you a little more about Snotnose.

Born at midnight, at the precise moment of India’s independence, Saleem was “mysteriously handcuffed to history…thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks.” His birth was celebrated with fireworks. His picture was printed in the newspaper. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sent him a letter saying “We shall be watching over your life with the closest attention; it will be, in a sense, the mirror of our own.” He grew up with a sense of his own importance. He grew up wondering about his purpose. And in his quest for a quiet place in which to think, he found himself retreating to his mother’s laundry hamper. Where one day he discovered his gift for telepathy. From the age of nine, he could enter into other lives at will. And finally, he found all the other magically gifted midnight children scattered across India. At the age of 10 he set up a Midnight’s Children Conference, where he hoped the children could come together to discuss the fate of the nation. But like all 10-year olds, they were overtaken by petty squabbles and dissonance.

As you read Saleem’s story, the “chutnification of history” and “the pickling of time”, you can see parallels with India. Allegorical though they may be, some of them are only hinted at, but they are there. The signs of the potential that India could achieve at birth, the quest for purpose, the slow, inevitable decline to mediocrity. Of course, a lot of events take place because of Saleem. After all, the reason for the Indo-Pakistan war was the annihilation of the Sinnai family!

What more can I say about Stainface? He’s pompous, arrogant, self-centered, grandiose, and somehow loveable. As the narrator of this audacious novel he is absolutely brilliant. He jumps around from one time period to another. When he makes his tall claims, his companion Padma tries to ground him to reality, but of course, he refuses to be so grounded.

In this sweeping canvas of a story, Rushdie brings in the details of a miniaturist. The places and times are captured down to the last detail. Like the Pioneer Café, where Saleem’s mother meets her first husband Nadir Khan.

“…with filmi playback music blaring out from the cheap radio by the cash till, a long narrow greeny room lit by flickering neon, a forbidding world in which broken-toothed men sat at reccine-covered tables with crumpled cards and expressionless eyes.”

The characters, even the minor bit players, are finely detailed. No player, or event, has been tacked on as an afterthought just because an “India novel” would be incomplete without it. There is a lot of history, even though the timelines may not always be right, because Saleem admits that “Memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events…”

In the hands of an inept writer, it would have been an impossible book to read. But Rushdie’s fine art of storytelling turns it into a rich and magical tapestry. Saleem (and through him, since this is magic realism, India) “have begun to crack all over like an old jug–that my poor body, singular, unlovely, buffeted by too much history, subjected to drainage above and drainage below, mutilated by doors, brained by spittoons, has started coming apart at the seams. In short, I am literally disintegrating, slowly for the moment, although there are signs of an acceleration.”

But it does end on a note of hope. Although Saleem, who holds the dream of India within himself, believes he will “eventually crumble into (approximately) six hundred and thirty million particles of anonymous, and necessarily, oblivious dust” as national unity seems like an unachievable dream, he does leave the reader with a sliver of hope. His son Adam, gifted with “elephant ears”, is also inexorably tied to India. In him lies the future of the nation. And who knows what feats he might achieve.

Having read the book, I am now all the more eager to watch the movie, which is slated to release in December 2012. Since Rushdie has been closely involved in the movie making process, I have high hopes from it! Overall, I think this is an excellent book, and I highly, highly recommend it.

Disclaimer: I got a copy of this book from Random House India, but the review and opinions expressed are my own.

Book review: Turquoise by Ayshe Talay-Ongan

“Set against transcendent love, unrelenting hatred and loyalties to friends and family, Turquoise is the story of an enduring and passionate love affair between Yasmin and Renan, which spans two decades, two marriages and three continents.”
Turquoise: A love story by Ayshe Talay-Ongan

This opening blurb was enough to pique my interest in the novel. That it is set in Turkey just added to my curiosity. Yasmin, the main protagonist of the novel, is an independent Turkish woman who refuses to follow tradition to find a husband and settle down to married life. The daughter of a Turkish diplomat, she’s been brought up in a liberal environment, sheltered from the ethnic differences between Turks and Armenians. After completing her degree in psychology and working in New York for a few years, she returns to Turkey, where she runs into her Armenian classmate Ani and her husband Renan. As soon as Yasmin locks eyes with Renan, she knows she has found her Love. But seeing as he is a married man, and is married to her one of her closest friends, all she can do is love him from afar. Though her love is reciprocated, neither of them will do anything to jeopardize Ani and Renan’s marriage.

Soon enough, political tensions in Turkey force Renan and Ani to immigrate to Sydney, and eventually, Yasmin also decides to move to San Francisco. It helps that her brother lives in California and that her father has been posted to Los Angeles as the Turkish Consul General. She soon finds a job and a house and settles down into her new life. Through her group of friends, she meets Curly, a Stanford professor, who she eventually marries even though she is still in love with Renan.

While in the US, her father is assassinated by Armenian terrorists, who were fighting to compel the Turkish government to acknowledge its responsibility for the Armenian genocide. That tragedy impacts her life in numerous ways, forcing her

“to make a choice between the passion that defines her and the reason that guides her. When so much is stacked against Yasmin and Renan, how can love possibly triumph?”

I quite liked Yasmin’s character. She’s independent, thoughtful and caring; a go-getter, unafraid to take unconventional decisions; someone who isn’t afraid to turn her professional dreams into reality. I could identify with her to an extent – the easy life (sure, there are struggles, but none really depressing or gloomy), her independence and ability to look at the bright side of things, to have faith that things will work out for her (like when she was looking to buy a house in San Francisco, she knew exactly the kind of house she wanted and was sure she would find it even on her limited budget – and find it she did), her engaging social life and the support of friends, and her many soulful, self-reflective quests.

She’s also believable, thinking things that a lot of us would do or think about in real life. Like when she thinks to herself, “Dear God, let him be jealous of me!” as her obsession for Renan deepens. I think that’s honest – I don’t see why a novel should take the high road.

Or her thoughts after they make love for the first time:

“My eighteen hours with him…skin on skin, breath in breath. Pristine and ordained. Our bodies feel like a Homecoming with one another, like a cherished poem remembered verse and line. A sense of deep familiarity, of knowing and awaiting for from a time immemorial.”

I thought that was beautiful, especially when you see how deeply connected they feel to one another.

That said, there were times when I also found myself getting irritated with her – if she loved Renan so much, why would she do nothing about it? Why did she settle for Curly? Why the continuous soul-searching and yearning? And then I would have to remind myself that the novel is set in the 1980s, when some of today’s more direct approaches probably wouldn’t work. Moreover, for all her liberal environment, she also belonged to a conventional society, so there were those limitations as well.

A few of the others characters, including Renan, aren’t very well-developed, but seeing as they play fleeting roles in the novel, it doesn’t make much of a difference. Since Yasmin has such a large circle of friends, developing all of them would be pointless in any case. Another character that is really well-developed is that of Yasmin’s mother. She’s a lady of strength and such a huge support system for Yasmin. In a lot of ways, she reminded me of my mum.
If you pick this one up hoping for a regular romance, you will be disappointed. The novel, which is told from Yasmin’s viewpoint, unfolds at a languid pace. Although Renan plays more of a cameo role in the book, her love for him permeates her entire life, and therefore the entire book.

This isn’t a page-turner; it isn’t a quick read or a book that you can skim through – it’s a long, leisurely account of Yasmin’s life, of her overarching love for Renan, and the many life choices she makes. It delves into the many facets of her marriage with Curly, who can only ever be second best to Renan; and her struggle to keep her love for Renan compartmentalized so that it wouldn’t hurt his marriage or hers. This isn’t just romance between a man and a woman either; it also delves into Yasmin’s relationship with her mother, with her husband Curly and Sam, the son from his previous marriage.

This book requires patience…and if you need to take the time to savor it…and remember that it’s set in the 1980s in a more conservative era and society, it’s totally worth your while. Yasmin is a well-developed and very real character – by the end of the novel, you feel like she’s a friend! The story unfolds slowly and languidly, and again, is very realistic.

If you enjoy literary fiction, this one’s for you.

Book review: Saving June – Hannah Harrington

When June commits suicide, her younger sister is left in a quandary. June was always the perfect one, the one from whom everyone had the most expectations. To be different, Harper was everything that June wasn’t – a rebel, hiding her insecurities behind black nail paint and smoking cigarettes on the sly. June’s suicide leaves her shocked, because it was completely unexpected; she doesn’t know how to react or what to do; she’s unable to cry or grieve; she’s panicked and numb. The only thing she knows is that she somehow has to “save” June, help her to finally, in death, get away from her small town existence to California, where June had always wanted to go but wasn’t ever able to. So with the help of her best friend Laney, she hatches a plan to somehow take her sister’s ashes to California.

Jake used to know June. The school had set him up with her for tutoring. She helped him with his studies, encouraged him to go on when he wanted to quit, and they developed a friendly relationship. When he overhears Harper and Laney talking about taking June’s ashes to California, he offers to drive them across the country. Since they can see no other way to accomplish what they want to, they accept.

Saving June - Hannah Harrington

What follows is an interesting road trip across America. They make a side stop to take part in a student protest, visit Fridgehedge – a Stonehedge like sculpture done up with old, used refrigerators – and take in a rock concert quite by chance, before finally reaching California. During the trip, Harper is finally able to come to terms with herself, accept June’s suicide, and grieve her death. But the one thing she cannot fathom is why June didn’t at least leave a note. Or did she?

The novel has a strong grounding in music. In fact, at the end, there’s a list of all the songs that played a part in the story. The musical aspect of the book and the road trip lighten the heavy theme of suicide somewhat.

Harper is a difficult character to like. She’s been a rebel without a cause, and even though she realizes that with her sister’s death something needs to change, she refuses to give up her rebellious ways. Her decision to take her sister’s ashes, the only thing that her parents have left of her, also seems heartless. In some ways, it’s a struggle to like her.

There’s no closure to June’s story either. Why would a girl with the perfect life commit suicide? To get away from the perfection? That, to me, seems ungrateful. Some other plot points seem to be introduced just to create conflict between the characters, but overall, the story flows along smoothly. The characters have also been developed well, even though they may not always be easy to like or understand.

Overall, I’d say it’s a fairly interesting YA story, you could give it a try.

Book review: Caught in Crystal – Patricia C. Wrede

I seem to be on a reading and reviewing roll lately. Here’s another interesting read for all you fantasy fiction buffs out there.
Caught in Crystal - Patricia C. WredeCaught in Crystal tells the story of Kayl, an inn keeper struggling to maintain her inn and raise to two children. Things seem normal until the arrival of Corrana, a member of the Sisterhood of Stars (a coven of witches). It turns out that Kayl was a member of the sisterhood too, but she left her position as one of the best fighters and strategists of the coven after a mission went horribly wrong. But now, the Sisterhood needs her to return to the Twisted Tower, bringing Kayl’s past crashing down around her.

The first half of the book traces Kayl’s journey back to Kith Alunel – the dangers on the road, flashbacks into the past, and her struggle to regain her fighting form and keep her children out of harm. Though interesting, it makes for very slow reading, because nothing really happens during this time. However,  Patricia Wrede’s charecterization is quite good, making you plough through the pages because you want to know how things turn out for Kayl and her children.

It’s in the second half of the novel that things start to pick up. Kayl realizes that she has no option but to return to the Twisted Tower, and that no matter how hard she tries, her children will be involved in the mission. As they journey towards the Tower, we get a glimpse into the shadowy events of the first mission and the secrets and motivations driving the members of the circle. There’s magic and action, secrets unfolding, and the center of it all, the Twisted Tower and the sinister sorcery inside it.

Overall, then, the story is interesting and the charectors are likable. The plot, however, plods along in some places and zips through in others, making the pacing a bit uneven. The other bone I have to pick is with the setting – some places, like Kith Alunel are described well, but I couldn’t quite get a feel of the place she set this fantasy story in. This could be, in part, because Caught in Crystal is a series  – its the fourth book in Patricia Wrede’s Lyra series. I wouldn’t call it a deal breaker, because even though I haven’t read any of the other books, I had no problem following the events in this one, which makes it perfect as a stand alone read.