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: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin

From the back cover: Moving from the elegant living rooms of Lahore to the mud villages of rural Multan, a powerful collection of short stories about feudal Pakistan.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal MueenuddinThis 247 page volume has eight loosely connected short stories, all related to the family and household staff of the aging landowner KK Harouni. There’s Nawabdin electrician, whose most prized possession is his bike, which he fights to protect from a bandit; and Jaglani, Harouni’s estate manager, who fleeces him while selling his land and gains power and prestige in the village of Multan. There’s Saleema, a servant girl who uses sex as a tool to advance herself through life and Hassan, Harouni’s cook, who has stashed away a significant amount of money by padding the kitchen bills, whose son is now in jail on the charge of having murdered his sister-in-law, a crime that he has not committed. Through the stories of these four characters Daniyal paints a picture of the servants of rich feudal landowners.

For a glimpse into the lives of the landowner and the high society of Pakistan we have Husna, one of Harouni’s poor relatives, who in her mad desire to lift her station in life becomes his mistress in his old age, only to be discarded like garbage by his children after his death. Then there’s Sohail, Harouni’s son, who is in love with an American girl. The relationship goes sour after his parents meet them in Paris, and his mother convinces Helen that by marrying Sohail, she would be setting them both up for sorrow. The depravity of high-society is portrayed through Lily, a bored, rich Pakistani girl, who flits from party to party, drinking, doing drugs and having casual sex, wanting to transform her life, become pure. A chance that she gets with Murad, who runs a farm growing exotic vegetables. They marry, but she can’t take life on the farm, and painfully, within a few months, realizes that she can perhaps never change. And through Razak, who has been hired by Sohail and his American wife Sonya to tend the orchards, we learn of the absolute power of the rich and the abject helplessness of the weak and poor.

The book creates quite a vivid picture of Pakistan. Despite the relatively short length of the stories, the various characters are quite detailed, and you get a good feel for feudal Pakistan. The writing is fluid, and I love the way the book ends – I’m not going to type out the entire paragraph here, just a few lines from various places in that paragraph to give you a sense of what I mean.

“At first the cabin sat inviolate below the swimming pool, locked….Gradually, like falling leaves, the locks were broken off, one person taking the thermos, another the wood table…The door of the little cabin hung open, the wind and blown rain scouring it clean.”

This was a fitting end for that particular short story, but if you think about it, it’s a fitting end for the entire tableau that Daniyal created; indeed, even for life. After all, at the end, all our prized possessions are slowly carted away or discarded, our homes stripped of the character that it once imbibed.

As an Indian, this was a fascinating read about a neighboring country that I don’t know all that much about and probably never will.

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

Book Review: The Wildings by Nilanjana Roy

The Wildings by Nilanjana RoyA small band of cats lives in the labyrinthine alleys and ruins of Nizamuddin, an old neighbourhood in Delhi. Miao, the clan elder, a wise, grave Siamese; Katar, a cat loved by his followers and feared by his enemies; Hulo, the great warrior tom; Beraal, the beautiful queen, swift and deadly when challenged; Southpaw, the kitten whose curiosity can always be counted on to get him into trouble… Unfettered and wild, these and the other members of the tribe fear no one, go where they will, and do as they please. Until, one day, a terrified orange-coloured kitten with monsoon green eyes and remarkable powers, lands in their midst—setting off a series of extraordinary events that will change their world forever.

That terrified cat is Mara, a tiny orange furball who lives with the Bigfeet. Rescued from a drain, her first message to the rest of the cats is: “Mara is worried! Mara is all alone with the Bigfeet! They are scary and they talk all the time, and I do not like being picked up and turned upside down!”

That powerful sending makes Beraal almost fall off her perch and set the rest of the Nizzamuddin cats’ whisker’s on edge. For Mara is special; she’s a Sender. While all cats can link up and talk to one another, only a Sender is capable of sending strong transmissions, where its fur seems to brush by the listener, its words and scents touching the listeners’ whiskers. But none of the cats except Miao can remember a Sender among them, and even she wasn’t this strong. Since the Nizamuddin cats cannot place the Sender’s scent, they decide to kill her. Beraal is tasked with the job, but when she locates Mara, she finds herself unable to land the killing blow. Because apart from being a powerful Sender, Mara is also a charmer; everyone who meets her soon falls under her spell.

An illustration from The Wildings by Nilanajana RoySo Beraal takes Mara under her wing to teach her how to control her powers. On one of her experiments, to see how far she can send, Mara travels all the way to the Delhi Zoo, where she meets Ozzy – a Ranthambore tiger, his mate Rani and their cub Rudra. Needless to say, even the tigers fall for Mara’s charms.

But Senders don’t come along that often – they typically come during times of dire need. The cats can’t figure out why the Sender’s here now, because the going has been really good. Little do they know the danger that lurks around the corner, just biding its time. For when the Shuttered House opens, the ferals will come out. This is a band of cats, led by Datura, who live in the house with an ailing man. Having never stepped out of the house, never smelt the outside, these cats have gone rouge. And it’s just a matter of time before their worlds collide.

The Wildings is a stunning, richly imagined debut by columnist and editor Nilanjana Roy. By now I’m sure you’ve figured out that the main characters are the cats and the other animals and birds that live in Nizamuddin. The story is told from their perspective, in their voice and language. And it’s so well done that you’d be forgiven for thinking that a cat learnt how to write and spun this yarn for us Bigfeet!

I found myself staying up well beyond bedtime devouring this book. Then, as I reached the last two-thirds, I started getting distracted – setting the book aside and playing a game of Solitaire or checking my Twitter and Facebook feeds obsessively. Not because the book lost pace, but because I didn’t want it to end! In fact, as I was flipping through the pages looking for an illustration that I’d like to share in this review, I found myself getting pulled into the story again! I have a sneaky suspicion that I’m going to start re-reading the book very soon.

I can’t end the review without mentioning the wonderful illustrations by Prabha Mallya. Her beautiful work echoes the tone of the story without giving much away if you just causally flip through the book. Apparently, she undertook a textured, tactile illustration process, in which constructing, cutting, taping, splotching, stonewashing and layering featured prominently. And it shows. One of my favourite illustrations is the diagrams depicting a cat’s grooming process – I’ve seen all these actions multiple times a day courtesy my very own furball Pepo!

My cat, Pepo

If you’re a cat lover or cat-owed, you’ll love this book. If you’re not, chances are you’ll find yourself falling in love with (or at the very least, developing a soft spot for) cats. But whichever camp you fall in, go out and buy this book. Now! You will not regret it!

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!

Book review: The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco (book cover)19th century Europe, from Turin to Prague to Paris, abounds with the ghastly and the mysterious. Conspiracies rule history. Jesuits plot against Freemasons. Italian priests are strangled with their own intestines. French criminals plan bombings by day and celebrate black masses by night. every nation has its own secret service, perpetrating forgeries, plots, and massacres. From the unification of Italy to the Paris Commune to the Dreyfus Affair to the notorious forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Europe is in tumult and everyone needs a scapegoat. But what if, behind both these conspiracies both real and imagined, lay just one man? What if that evil genius created the most infamous document of all?

That, then, is the premise of The Prague Cemetery.

I’ve always been attracted to Umberto Eco’s books, but never really had the courage to actually read one. So when I got an opportunity to review this book, I jumped at the chance.

But it wasn’t an easy read. In fact, within the first 10 pages I was cursing myself for taking it on . It starts with such hatred – for Jews, Italians, Germans, French, women, that it’s hard to read. Until you realize that Simonini, the architect of the entire conspiracy, is an evil man. Pure evil. It takes that to do what he did – create a forgery that led to the persecution of the Jews, of which he was actually proud! Then, once I managed to get through that part, it started to become confusing, what with the Carbonaras, Garibaldi, Piedmont and The Kingdom of Two Sicilies. This is a part of history I wasn’t too familiar with.

A 1934 edition by the Patriotic Publishing Com...

A 1934 edition by the Patriotic Publishing Company of Chicago. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then, remembering something I had read once about Eco – that he sets off into history confident that the reader will be able to keep up with him – I took a deep breath, set my horror aside, and jumped right into the book. And realized just what that comment meant.

I referred to the guide at the back of the book where Eco lists the relationship between the plot and the story to ensure I got the time periods right, and I was sailing right through it.

The entire novel is told through Simonini’s diary. When he seems to forget some events, the mysterious Abbe Dalla Picolla pops onto the scene to fill out the gaps. These gentlemen live in adjoining flats and are quite oblivious that they are neighbors, occasionally finding traces of each other in their apartment. So while Simonini is confused about who he really is, he locks himself in his house and scribbles away in his diary to get to the root of his problem, as was recommend to him once by Dr. Freud. When Simonini and Dalla Picolla’s accounts get confusing, the Narrator steps in to clear things out.

And so you set off on a journey through the unification of Italy, Garibaldi’s campaign, and the French revolution. It’s not always easy, considering the numerous conspiracies and espionage and counter-espionage and treason woven through the book, and given that it’s all true, except for the character of Simonini. In fact, some of those truths are very relevant today.

Like this conspiracy attributed to the Jews:

Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague

Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague (Photo credit: GothPhil)

We shall bring about a universal economic crisis using all secret means possible, with the help of gold, which is all in our hands. We will reduce vast hordes of workers throughout Europe to ruin. These masses will then throw themselves with alacrity upon those who, in their ignorance, have been prudent since their childhood, and will plunder their possessions and spill their blood.

The Eurozone debt crisis, anyone? Isn’t that what this, in a way, is?

And Simonini’s observation about the population in 1860 are probably even more relevant today:

I’ve heard it said that over a billion people inhabit this earth. I don’t know how anyone could count them but from one look around Palermo it’s quote clear that there are too many of us and that we’re already stepping on each other’s toes.

I liked the way Eco built up Simonini’s character. As you read the book, you realize his triggers, the factors that shaped his ideology, and the way he justified everything that he does. The book is also richly populated with historical characters – from Dr. Freud to Dumas and even a guest appearance by Monet. Gives you a real feel for the place and the time, and raises your curiosity, making you want to read more history – which is a great thing for a historical novel to accomplish.

An illustration from The Prague Cemetery

An illustration from The Prague Cemetery

More chilling is the portrait of man – of the depravity and scheming that goes on behind the scenes of every political regime, of the selling of morals just for a few francs. Most chilling, perhaps, is the picture of the secret service, who

is lost when he has to deal with something that has already happened. It’s our job to make it happen first. We’re spending substantial amounts of money organizing riots on the boulevards…To ensure that decent citizens are kept in a state of fear, and to convince everyone that tough measures are needed.

This made me wonder if maybe modern day politicians have read this book and taken this paragraph to heart.

Oh, and the many illustrations in the book – a majority of which are from Eco’s own collection, are excellent – helping you to more richly imagine the people and settings Eco describes in the book.

All-in-all, if you’re willing to put in some effort, you will be richly rewarded for reading this book.

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

Book review: How About A Sin Tonight? By Novoneel Chakraborty

Set in the glamorous world of Bollywood, the book traces the lives of four main characters as their lives intersect one another.

The premise of the novel is interesting – a casting coup that brings together the biggest Bollywood star Saharan Ali Bakshi, his wife Reva Gupta, newcomer Neev, celebrity kid Nishani and her childhood friend Kaash. All of their lives are interwoven – Reva and Neel began their struggle to enter the industry together. As they interacted with one another, they fell in love and started living together. But Neel was a Casanova and Reva had a sexual relationship with another man she never saw (they met in dark rooms, apparently) to get back at him. Then, a chance encounter with Saharan opened new doors for Reva, and she left Neel for her shot at stardom.

Ever since Nishani kissed him when they were children, Kaash has secretly loved her and would do anything for her. Although they were in the same school, Kaash’s family moved suddenly and they lost touch with one another. Through a few chance encounters, Kaash ended up with a role in a low budget movie that went on to do really well, and happened to bump into Nishani at a Bollywood party.

Nishani is the daughter of forgotten superstar Shekhar Rai. During a shooting with then newcomer Saharan, a freak accident left him paralyzed – both physically and emotionally. He was never a father to Nishani, and for that she blames Saharan and vows to destroy him.

And Saharan is in still haunted by this first love Mehfil, a prostitute whom he met while he was still struggling to get a toehold in Bollywood. As their stories take center stage, the industry’s underbelly is left exposed and the gossip-hungry media has enough on it’s plate to last a lifetime.

First, the good: The basic story is interesting – love and hate and lust and revenge all set in Bollywood. There are some interesting reflections on love and relationships. The letters Kaash writes (but never posts) to Nishani are nice, though sometimes it’s hard to believe that those deep reflections could come from the pen of a young man.

The story starts well, but the writing starts getting on your nerves very soon. I’ll never understand why most Indian authors can’t write simple prose. Why does everything have to be forced and convoluted? Like this:

It was raining morning, noon, and night. Streets, along with their numerous dimples of potholes, were filled with water most of the times. From a bird’s eye view, Bombay would have looked like an omnivore’s digestive tract with everything – from snakes to human infants – swimming in water filled lanes, streets and roads.

Then there’s the forced dirty language, and just the horrible grammar. Like this:

Nishani could have stripped him of his pretence and spit on his pathetic nude self, but she played on because all she was interested in knowing was why they were sharing time when neither wanted to get married. And one didn’t want the sex part either.

This didn’t need the stripping and nude and spitting on anyone bits. It could have been just as effective if it had been kept simple. Maybe something like: Nishani saw through his excuses, but allowed him to try and justify himself.

Then, there are parts of the novel that could just have been cut off – some of the earlier lives of the charterers are unnecessarily long and don’t really contribute anything to the story.

Some of the key characters are a collection of cliches. Think of a starlet who is trying to get into the movies without a godfather. Chances are she would be willing to do anything – even be part of the casting couch – to get a break in the industry. That’s Reva for you. She’s confused about love, will do anything to get into Bollywood, treats sex casually and still has guilt issues attached to it. That’s about all you know about her, really.

All-in-all, the book could have used some serious editing, with portions of it needing a rewrite. Read this one at your own risk!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from Random House India. I was not financially compensated for posting this review, nor are my reviews influenced by the publisher. The opinions expressed are my own and are based on my observations while reading this novel.

Book Review: The Confession by John Grisham

It’s been really long since I’ve read Grisham. I’ve always enjoyed his books, so I was looking forward to revisiting his writing.

The Confession tells the story of death row inmate Donte Drumm, who has been sentenced to death for murdering high school cheerleader Nichole Yarber. Though he always claimed he was innocent, the courts upheld his sentence based on his confession to the guilt, an admission that he was bullied into making. Four days before his execution, Travis Boyette, who has recently been released from prison and parole and is suffering from an inoperable brain tumor, reaches out to a Keith, a Lutheran minister, and admits that he had raped and killed Nichole. And so begins a last minute dash from Kansas to Slone, Texas, as Keith takes Travis to the offices of Robbie Flak, Donte’s lawyer. But will the courts listen to this last minute confession by a serial convict?

As usual, Grisham’s narrative is gripping. He builds up his story piece by piece, throwing in minor characters to paint the town of Slone as it is gripped by a race riot at the wrongful condemnation of an innocent man. Grisham always has been a master of courtroom drama, and he doesn’t disappoint.

The story is also many layered – “Texas style justice” juxtaposed with death penalty abolitionists; one mother’s love and grace under pressure contrasted with another’s desire for revenge and constant appearance in the media; and a minister’s predicament between his faith and the repercussions that his actions will have on his future in the Church. Add to the mix a flamboyant lawyer, dirty politics and a detective who is convinced that what he did was right, and you have all the ingredients for a thrilling novel.

The book kept me up late at night, turning the pages, hoping for justice for Donte Drumm. If you’re a Grisham fan, this book is a must read. If you’ve never read him before, read this and you’re likely to become a fan

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from Random House India. I was not financially compensated for posting this review, nor are my reviews influenced by the publisher. The opinions expressed are my own and are based on my observations while reading this novel.

Book review: Colossus: Stone & Steel by David Blixt

Set in Judea in 66 AD, Colossus details the Judean uprising against Nero’s Rome through the eyes of two brothers – Judah and Asher.

Judea has been suffering under the greed of its Roman Consular General, but when their temple is desecrated, an angry mob rises up against and defeats the Roman legion. They know that this act of rebellion will set the stage swift and merciless action by Emperor Nero, and must prepare to defend themselves against the Roman invasion. Almost unwillingly caught up in the middle of all this turmoil is Judah, a stone mason and hero of the uprising at Beth Horon. Since he is unable to win approval to marry the woman of his dreams, he and his brother Asher devote all their energies to defending the besieged city of Jotapata.

This is the second book by David Blixt that I tried to read. The first, Her Majesty’s Will, left me cold – I couldn’t get past 50 pages. So it was with some trepidation that I approached this book. However, I was pleasantly surprised. The story drew me in, painting the cities and the people and the setting vividly in my imagination. The plot is taunt – it’s not a fast-paced book, but it will keep you engaged and eager to turn the page. When the book came to an end, I was a little sad to be leaving the brothers in Jotapata and coming back to my everyday life! He’s built up the characters and the time period very well. The story is set around the time when Christianity was still starting – it had few takers, and most followers of Christ had to be careful about when and where they would meet as the clergy at the time was not convinced that Jesus was The Christ that was spoken of in prophesy. Blixt brings to life the city of Judea and Emperor Nero and his court, as well as the customs and daily life of people during that time period through his vivid descriptions. The characters, especially the key players (but even the smaller cast) are well crafted – you know their motivations and their fears and hopes and dreams.

Interior of the Basilica di San Clemente, Rome...

Interior of the Basilica di San Clemente, Rome, Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This book is supposed to be the first in a series of books on Rome and the rise of Christianity, but it starts “small, almost intimately, with two Judean brothers at the siege of Jotapata.” Author David Blixt hit upon the idea for this novel after a visit to St Clement’s in Rome, where they have excavated and created a tour through the history of the city.

“As a city that’s always building up upon it self, it’s often hard to see ancient Rome in anything but the famous edifices and the shapes of the streets. But here is Rome encapsulated. You start in an 17th century church, then descend into an early 12th century church, then to a 4th century church, a 3rd century Mithraeum (temple to the god Mithras), then finally to a 1st century Roman street and insula (apartment). You can hear the Tiber running just under your feet through the ancient sewer system.
I never got past that 1st century street. Because I started looking into Saint Clement himself, and what was going on when he was living there – the fall of Jerusalem, the building of the Colosseum, the rise of Christianity in Rome. That was how the Colossus series was born.” – David Blixt, on the inspiration for the novel.

Blixt will widen the scope out in the next several book, keeping Judah and Asher as the central points, exploring how drastically the world changed in a short period of time.

I have to say that I’m looking forward to the rest of this series, though the book does excellently as a stand-alone novel as well.

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: I Rama: Age of Seers by Ravi Venu

“There will be a time when men will fight among themselves in the name of God, when peace will fail; at that time a part of me will re-emerge.”

Here’s another retelling of the Ramayana, this time, told from the perspective of Rama. The blurb on the back and the fresh perspective sounded promising, and I was really looking forward to reading the book. When I got it in the mail, the first thing that struck me was how slim the volume is, just 257 pages, considering it’s supposed to be a trilogy. But I cracked it open with great excitement.

The story is narrated by Rama at a time when he knows he is about to leave the mortal world. Starting from when he was around 17 years old, the book traces his story until he is sent into exile by Queen Kaikeyi.  A major portion of the book deals with the lessons he and his brother Laxman learnt from Bramha Rishi Vishwamitra when they went with him to fight the demon Tataka and her two sons.

The most interesting twist in the story is that of Queen Kaikeyi. Instead of the usual portrayal as a woman who sends Rama into exile to put her son on the throne, Venu casts her as a key to unfolding the legend and allowing Rama to go after his destiny. She tells Rama about the signs she has seen and the intelligence she has gathered, about how important it is for him to go alone and fight the demon king Ravana. She tells him that she plans to use the two boons she won from King Dashrath in battle to ask him to send Rama into exile and put Bharat on the throne, as once Rama has gone, his father will not be in a state to rule the kingdom.

That, I have to say, is the only interesting part of the book.

Unlike Ashok Banker’s excellent Ramayana series, in which he has humanized Rama, or Amish’s brilliant story telling in the tale of Shiva, whom he imagines as a normal man who attained the status of God through legend, Venu has presented this tale as a fantasy of unbelievable proportions. According to him, the seers and sages who roamed the planet at the time were actually supernatural beings who came to earth through time portals, using earth to exert control over many astral planes. Which is the reason why, we are led to believe, celestials (good forces) and demons (negative forces) fought to gain control over earth. But while the celestials use their positive energy to foster humans, demons just want to gain supremacy over earth and feast on humans! All developments in art and science were also apparently brought to humans by these supernatural celestials. Total suspension of belief required to read this, if you ask me.

At this point, I must say that I enjoy fantasy fiction. (The Song of Fire and Ice series, anyone?) But in fantasy fiction, you create a different world with magical beasts (like dragons) and different countries (like Westeros). You don’t create fantasy fiction out of religious texts! You either humanize the characters and present them as  more believable human beings (Ashok Banker) or imagine them as normal human beings whose legendry deeds made them into Gods (Amish) or present a different take on the story if you like (in this one, for e.g., the re-imaging of Queen Kaikeyi). But you don’t convert it into fantasy fiction!

Apart from this, the writing is shoddy. Sample this:

“The brothers had acquired this art of stealth movement as Mother Sumitra grew them both alike in their skills.”

Or this:

“Before the sages took over, Earth developed itself by means of organisms and huge monsters; it took a long time for this planet to evolve from those large beasts to the present human kinds.”

Overall, this is one series you can safely miss. Read this one at your own risk!

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!

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.