Short Book Review: Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

WolfHallBringUpTheBodiesSBR: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are the first two books of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel, the third book has not yet been published. The best thing about these books is that the author doesn’t let our modern sensibilities come in the way of telling a story of 16th century Tudor England. Not just with her use of present tense throughout the books (which, it seems, irks come people, but I found it all right), but also with the thoughts she puts into the characters’ heads, the way she makes them behave and talk and the way the narration goes. Excessive use of pronouns also irks some people, and I admit that it is confusing at times, but I find the distinctive writing style charming. Both the books are Booker Prize winners.
 To read or not to read: Yes, read 🙂

Short Book Review: Last Train to Istanbul by Ayse Kulin

Last Train To IstanbulSBR: Last Train to Istanbul has an interesting premise and story. It is a second world war story that is not from America, but from Turkey, a country that maintained a precarious neutrality through most of the war, dealing with the political and military pressure from the allies as well as the axis powers, and in the process creating scope for the events that the story is primarily about – their diplomats saving Turkish as well as many non-Turkish  Jews from the clutches of German-occupied Europe.
It is a story of politics, calamitous changes, war, and love. That sounds like a thrilling back cover text, but unfortunately, the book is not well-written. Part of it could be the fault of the translation, but part of it is definitely original. The dialogs are stilted, language cliched and the story jumps back and forth, rather than flow. Characters could have been more vibrant that ‘he loves her’, ‘she is rebellious’, ‘he is stubborn’, ‘he is a gentleman’. You don’t feel the time, the people and the situations. You have to take things on face value with the over exposition by the author.
To read or not to read: Read only if you have read too many American world-war II stories and need  change. Else, I hope to find something else from this region that is better written.

Short Book Review: The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent

TheHereticsDaughterSBR: The Heretic’s Daughter is a well-written story which culminates in the time of Salem witch trials. The story is partly historical and partly recreated from the family lore by the author who is a descendant of the story’s protagonists. The latter has introduced a certain romance in how the characters are portrayed. But it serves well to heighten the sense of horror that an episode like the witch trials is bound to induce. You can feel the exasperation, fear, and helplessness of the people who were going about their lives, working hard on their farms and indulging in regular, petty scuffles with neighbors, and then one fine day find themselves in manacles, being dragged into courthouses and prisons with nothing to do or say that would prove their innocence, often their family following the same fate close behind.
The book doesn’t dwell on the trials as much as on the effect it had on people. As in the case of communal riots, you have neighbors and friends turning on each other, even the family members and relatives. The most merciful torture methods to induce confessions are also enough to choke you with mere imagination. The most reasonable of the theologists advice against using spectral evidence (where accusers claim that they had been harassed, pinched or prodded by a specter resembling the accused) not because it could be unreliable, but because there was a theological debate over whether or not the Devil needs your permission to use the specter.
It was used anyway!
To read or not to read: It may feel slow or boring in the beginning, but I would suggest reading it.

Short Book Review: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

SBR: What a contrast The Pillars of the Earth is to my previous read Fire from Heaven. If the latter’s writing craft was too evolved for regular readers, the language and the style in The Pillars of the Earth is plainer and more boring than the school essays. The author feels the need to spell everything out for the reader, and even then he repeats things every once in a while. There is far too much “telling” and no “showing” whatsoever.
The characters are one-dimensional and flat. Whatever little comes out of them is more 20th century that 12th (which the book is supposed to be set in). Given the tumultuous background of the clash between the state and the church, the succession war and the machinations ambitious and opportunistic nobility and clergy, you would expect to see complex, gray characters trying to cope up with and make the best of the conflicts and the uncertainty. But the book sorely disappoints.
The scenes of rape, sex and violence are described in (porno)graphic details. Their sole purpose is to titillate; they don’t add anything to the story or the character development. They represent sadist male fantasy more than the reality.
The accuracy of the historical setup is questionable. The only research seems to be in the area of the cathedral architecture, which was the motivation behind writing the book. But that too, unfortunately, doesn’t add anything to the story.
The plot, I think, is meaty enough, but the treatment spoils it all.
To read or not to read: Don’t. This book is a classic example that famous need not be great.

Short Book Review: Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault

Fire From HeavenSBR: Fire from Heaven is the first book in Mary Renault’s Alexander trilogy – historical fictions based on the life of Alexander the Great. This book traces Alexander’s life from his childhood until his ascension to the throne after his father’s death. The author’s formidable grasp of Greek history, politics, religion, culture and mythology shines unmistakably, without looking deliberate or ostentatious, in the realistic reconstruction of the ancient Greek society .
The language and the writing style has a literary beauty. But it sometimes becomes too convoluted to be comprehended. Combined with the extensive use of Greek vocabulary the book is a difficult read. Another gripe I have about the book is that the characters are not made realistic and relatable. Alexander’s portrayal is romantic and mystic. It seems like the author has not wavered from the depiction provided in her sources and has not attempted to humanize him. I find that disappointing.
To read or not to read: If you are familiar with Greek terms and geography, or if you are willing to put in the effort, you can read it for the history and the literary merit. If, like me, you want human, realistic characters in historical fiction, you’d be disappointed. Also avoid if you are looking for a quick, entertaining read.

Short Book Review: The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

The Strange LibrarySBR: I. Don’t. Get. Haruki. Murakami. There is magical realism, but I don’t get it at all.
The most interesting part of The Strange Library are its illustrations which entwine with the text in interesting, quirky ways.  Good production quality enhances the appeal. So a print edition is preferable over a Kindle one (I had a hard cover print edition).
At the end of the day, however, I don’t get it.
To read or not to read: If you are a Murakami fan, go right ahead. If not, read at your own risk. The story is very short, though; so you don’t have to worry about the time spent. The production and illustration might be worth it for those visually inclined. Pick up the print edition.

Short Book Review: Dubai Wives by Zvezdana Rashkovich

Dubai WivesSBR: Dubai Wives is a book that could have been. The author has enough material in the variegated, but connected stories of the plethora of characters she explores in the book. But the book needed a sincere rewriting and a ruthless editing. The size could have easily been two-third of what it was, probably smaller, endlessly repetitive parts should have been torn away, and some very obvious language issues should have been dealt with.
To read or not to read: Don’t pick up unless a better edited edition comes out.

Short Book Review: The Circle of Reason by Amitav Ghosh

 Circle Of ReasonSBR: I picked up The Circle of Reason without knowing that I was getting into magical realism. Magical realism, for the uninitiated in simple words, is a genre that combines fantastic and real worlds and goes on as if it is all normal. There won’t be an explanation of the “magical” parts.
In the book the real part is realistic enough. The friendship of college days that lasts even through the subsequent divergence in personalities, views and lifestyle decisions, the phrenology obsessed middle-aged teacher in a quaint Bengal village constituting mostly of refugees from East Bengal, the tragic culmination of paranoid politics and individual madness and a bird-watcher police officer thrown in the chase owing to some complicated turn of office politics make for a strong story. Then the magical elements become more prominent and although I follow the rest of the story, I don’t quite get the point. Since I haven’t read the seminal works of magical realism like One Hundred Years of Solitude by  Gabriel García Márquez or those by Salman Rushdie, I am not sure what to compare it with. Perhaps I will return to this book after I have read some of those.
To read or not to read: If, like me, you are not into the magical realism genre yet, you probably don’t want to start with this book and instead pick up something more widely talked about. If you have read some of those, it might be worthwhile giving this book a try. If you just want to read Amitav Ghosh as an author, I would suggest The Shadow Lines. I am not too fond of his Ibis trilogy, but that has a fan following. So that can also be a good starting point.

Short Book Review: Shiva to Shankara and Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell you by Devdutt Pattanaik

Shiva to Shankara: Decoding the Phallic SymbolSBR: I am reviewing two books together because I read them not more than a month apart and they are both about Indian mythology from the same author. In both the books the collection of mythological stories are good. If you have grown up hearing Indian stories, some of them will be familiar. But Dr. Pattanaik, true to his vocation as a mythologist, collects them from many different sources; so you are likely to find stuff that’s new to you, or at least a variation on what you have heard.
What doesn’t work in both the books is the part that I expected to find scholarly. In Shiva to Shankara: Decoding the Phallic Symbol,  the historical changes happening in the society and the stories being added to the Shiva canon are treated equivalent. It is good poetry and makes for a nice read, but doesn’t help in “decoding the phallic symbol” in a satisfactory fashion. The author’s philosophy is to treat mythological truths no different from other kinds of subjective truths (historical truths, for example, which can’t be always accurate, but which historians and archaeologists go to great lengths to try to prove or disprove). I appreciate the sentiment, accept the importance of mythology, I know the truth is almost always subjective, but don’t like the conflation of the two kinds of truths (if I am allowed to have different kinds that is).
Shikhandi and Other TalesShikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You has to be appreciated simply for its subject matter. The author has drawn attention to the issue of queerness through the Indian mythological stories where gender and sexual identities are often fluid, without any apparent discomfort to the society. It points to a much more liberal tradition in our country than what we have today. But in the introductory chapters and in the footnotes after each story (which are sometimes longer than the stories themselves), he gives scholarly inputs and interpretation, which are often careless generalizations and simplifications. Having read about some of them from other sources, I know that I can’t trust him to even try to be objective there or to not twist perspectives to fit his pre-decided, resonant narrative.
To read or not to read: Read for the stories, but keep your judgmental antenna up on the parts that deal with history, philosophy or interpretation of the stories.

Short Book Review: Old Paths White Clouds by Nhất Hạnh Thích

Old Path White CloudsSBR: The book Old Paths White Clouds is a confusing experience. With a subtitle like Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha, you would think it is some kind of travelogue through Buddhist landmarks, but it is not so. It is categorized on the cover as a Biography. What I found it really to be was a work of historical fiction based on the life of Buddha. But unlike regular historical fiction, it makes no attempts at making the story relatable and interesting. It consists of one sermon after the other, punctuated by some miracles and is full of unbelievably devout people. It is supposed to be read as the biography of Buddha by those who already believe in the current Buddhist lore or have a predisposition towards it. Not surprisingly the book bored me to the hilt. But I read it through the end because I was trying to learn more about Buddha at that point of time and it is a good collection of stories that Buddhist tradition believes about him.
To read or not to read: If you have religious or Buddhist inclinations, go ahead. If you have academic interest in Buddhism, it is a good resource. Otherwise spare yourself.