Short Book Review: Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)

SBR: Lethal White is the fourth one in the J. K. Rowling’s Coromoran Strike series that follows the exploits of its protagonist, a private investigator, and his assistant Robin Ellacott through some complex, high-profile cases. This is perhaps the best book in the series. It is long but didn’t feel so. Besides, on Kindle, you can’t “see” the length. A wide assortment of characters keeps the story lively. And the turns in the personal lives of Cormoran and Robin give a glimmer of romantic hope amidst the moral decrepitude, treachery, and murders that their professional lives necessarily wrangle with. People who don’t like books with too many characters to keep track of might find this overwhelming. But a large number of characters works for me when done right.

To read or not to read: Yes. If you are mystery reader or Rowling fan, then don’t give it a miss. Even otherwise Rowling’s writing is always charming.

Short Book Review: The Dark Vineyard by Martin Walker

SBR: The Dark Vineyard is the second book in the Bruno, Chief of Police series. Like the first one, this is also set in the Dordogne region of South West France. The crime being investigated starts with a fire, likely to be a case of arson, and escalates only later in the book. The resolution of the mystery was, to be honest, underwhelming for me, but you can get drawn into the comfortable existence of a small town and its close-knit community. The stories of some of the recurring characters progress further and I found myself totally caring about those everyday stories. In what seems to be a pattern (if two books can define a pattern!) the crimes involved may shock the community, but their resolution do not seem to disturb it. And as the protagonist seems to care about the community’s well-being above the letter of the law, that is perhaps a desirable outcome. Will it make the crime and mystery part of the future books boring? I will know when I read the next one!

To read or not to read: Yes, if you are into this genre for entertainment.

Short Book Review: The Birth of the Maitreya by Bani Basu

SBR: The Birth of the Maitreya is the English translation of a book by Bani Basu which is considered a modern Bengali classic. But I didn’t really like the book. I went through it because I want to learn more about the different period of India history, and I like historical fiction as a vehicle. Set in the time of Buddha and tracing the politics and intrigues of the different Indian kingdoms of the time, especially Bimbisara’s Magadha and Prasenjit’s Kosala with a dash of Takshashila and Avanti, the book’s canvas and the complexities it attempts of tackle are admirable. But the characters are confused mix of traits, motivations, and stages of mental development; and the descriptions of the courts, bazaars, people’s wealth and social settings appear to be an appeal to our fantasies more than an attempt to recreate realistic history. Modern concerns of nationalism, feminism, tribal issues, science have been unabashedly spouted by characters situated in a very different era. Discussion of timeless or contemporary issues through historical fiction is an admirable goal, but its execution is not easy and the attempt doesn’t succeed in the book.

To read or not to read: No. Unless, like me, you are also on a mission to read everything related to Indian history or historical fiction.

Short Book Review: Europe – A History by Norman Davies

SBR: As the name suggests Europe – A History is a book on European history from the earliest time right up to the 1990s. It is one of the most recommended popular history books on the subject and it assumes that mantle very responsibly. Readable and comprehensive, it avoids one of the most common pitfalls of the popular history books, which devote too much space to modern history – reflecting the abundance of the source material rather than the relative importance of a period. The space devoted to different periods is much more balanced here. The histories of many modern nations of Europe are so intricately connected with each other that reading national histories may not make much sense if you don’t have an idea of the overall history of the continent. A book like this comes in very handy when you hit that wall.

To read or not to read: Yes, if you are interested in the subject, i. e. European History.

Short Book Review: The Walled City by Esther David

SBR: The Walled City by Esther David is a coming of age story set around (and mostly after) India’s independence. It is based in the city of Ahmedabad. It is a rare window into the lives of Indian Jews, especially women. That itself should be enough of a reason to give it a try. Its evocative writing is a huge cherry on the top. For those like me, who are unfamiliar with the community, it is also very educative.

To read or not to read: Yes.

Short Book Review: Lord John’s Dilemma by G.G. Vandagriff

SBR: My mood was particularly bleak and I didn’t think I could handle anything with even a whiff of the real world in it. Lord John’s Dilemma by G.G. Vandagriff is a romance novel that came in handy. Inspired by and compared to Georgette Heyer’s books, this is a Regency romance and paying due respect to the period, the protagonists do not jump into the bed from the very first page, which is such a relief. It has the feel-good, happy ending you want to read in the genre, where good people get all they deserve, namely money and their chosen life-partner. It tamed my bleak mood sufficiently.

To read or not to read: Yes, if you are a romance reader.

Short Book Review: Poonachi, Or the Story of a Black Goat by Perumal Murugan

SBR: Having read and admired One Part Woman, I was looking forward to reading this “comeback” novel by Perumal Murugan. The most interesting part of Poonachi, Or the Story of a Black Goat, however, is its preface and not the actual content. The author’s frustration takes a witty turn in it when explains why he chose to write about a goat. The actual story itself seems to be concerned with too many things at once – poverty, authoritarian and paranoid regime, parental oppression, the lot of women in the society, agrarian distress, etc. A few more were left dangling some of which I could make out, others I couldn’t. The issues are all important, but they seem to be forced down the reader’s throat one after the other and I couldn’t quite connect with the story.  I am happy that the author has come back after the pathetic and dangerous controversy around One Part Woman had made him swear to never write again. But he appears to be in a hurry to write about everything to make up for the lost time.

To read or not to read: You can skip. Read One Part Woman, if you haven’t already. Perhaps other earlier books by the author would also be better picks than this one.

Short Book Review: B is for Burglar by Sue Grafton

B is for Burglar by Sue GraftonSBR: After starting the Alphabet series by Sue Grafton on a high note with the first book A is for Alibi, I didn’t enjoy the second book B is for Burglar that much. The mystery part of the story was entertaining enough. But since the story is written from the point of view of the detective-protagonist (a female private investigator Kinsey Millhone), mystery-solving proceeds at a realistic, slow pace. We face the drudgery of the job just like her, documenting all her jogs and runs along the way. Nothing else in the story enlivens the experience. We read detailed visual descriptions of what everyone in the book wore and what their hairstyles were like. But we don’t really see them, not in any interesting multi-dimensional form well-written characters should take, not even through the dialogs and conversations. We learn nothing new about the protagonist or any recurring character from the first book of the series. Overall, I found myself plodding through the book, which isn’t an experience I seek when I am reading mystery.

To read or not to read: The series has its share of fans, but I wouldn’t recommend it moving on the top of your TBR pile.

Short Book Review: Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee

Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. CoetzeeSBR: Before I ever read Waiting for the Barbarians, I had been exposed to so much admiration for it from many people whose recommendations I take seriously that now I feel annoyed at myself not really liking it. I also feel very lonely in my distaste for the book. Ah! It feels good to be able to say that out loud.
Coetzee’s prose is beautiful and the story is an important one. But what is the protagonist of Disgrace doing in this story? Why is this story being told from the point of view of a middle-aged man who is obsessed with his sexuality, who seems to secretly loathe himself for it, but who preys upon young women all the same, and then instead of dealing with his self-loathing, tries to philosophize about it pointlessly? He achieves nothing, he can achieve nothing in the story but for some reason, he is at the center of it. It is annoying that the most important observations of the story are being spouted from his mouth. It doesn’t help that female characters exist not to be fleshed out, but only to be used (by him!). My complaint is not that the protagonist is not likable. (Who wants a goody two shoes for a protagonist?) But that he has been indulged so much by the author in a story that doesn’t belong to him. All the torture meted out to him is purely wanton. And one wonders why would he be given so much attention even as a receptacle for the violence of his captors. In a messed up system they belong to, surely they have more cunning usage for their violence.
Dusklands was great, but after Disgrace and Waiting for the Barbarians, I think I am done with Coetzee for a while. If I do pick up another book, I would need some serious assurance beforehand that it doesn’t have a self-loathing, middle-aged man philosophizing about his libido and getting off on being disgraced.
To read or not to read: Not on my recommendation. But it is an acclaimed book, so I won’t stop you from reading it!

Short Book Review: Everybody Loves a Good Drought by P. Sainath

SBR: Everybody Loves a Good Drought by P. Sainath is a book that can shake you to the core. Even if the situation of the poor and most vulnerable people in our country described there is not a surprise to you, reading the hopelessness of it all laid bare is a chilling experience.
For reading in 2018, this book is old. Published in 1996, it is essentially a collection of articles written during a journalism fellowship between 1993 and 1995. So, the data is old. Some of the developments people wished for (mid-day meals in schools, for example) are more widespread. But what is also unfortunately true is that the stories have not changed.
The one complaint I have is that the book is simply a bunch of newspapers articles collected and printed together. Some additional information has been provided by the author here and there. But there are lots of overlaps in the stories because multiple stories have been written from the same region. The book would have been much more concise, and still impactful if the content had been redone to avoid repetition and bring out the themes more lucidly for the reader. Right now, you are reading about the “third crop” or high productivity of the poorest region in Orissa multiple times and the task of connecting related information in different articles is left to you.
To read or not to read: Yes. Although if you are short on time, you needn’t read cover to cover. You can pick up a couple of stories from each section and get an excellent insight into what is really going on with the people we don’t see.