Short Book Review: The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh

The Glass PalaceSBR: The Glass Palace is a work of historical fiction spanning generations over a period of more than a hundred years. The book’s history is good, but the fiction is not. Often I felt like asking the author to relax and let his characters breathe. They can live their own lives and don’t have the obligation to jump from one historical event to the next so that they can tell us everything you have learned from your research. There can be no denying that Ghosh’s history research is solid. The insights into the curious relationship India and Burma had during colonial times were enlightening to me, and the subsequent disconnect between the countries disheartening. The characters of the book, however, are stiff and the story often sounds forced.
To read or not to read: Read for the history, not for the story.

Short Book Review: My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

MyNameIsRedSBR: What do you say about a book which is very well written and incredibly boring to read? No. Not in the way some people find classics. My Name is Red really is well-written for a modern audience. The translator must have done a hell of a job for it not to feel awkward anywhere. It even has a fairly good mystery plot. But the beautiful chapters, written from a thousand different points of view, repeat the same things over and over again and by the time the story moves, you don’t care about the mystery anymore. Besides whatever you have to learn about the Persian vs. Turkish vs. European painting styles of the sixteenth century, you learn in the first few chapters and could do without learning over and over again. There is a daastaangoi  kind of experience with fantastical, mythical stories making their appearances, but that too gets too repetitive after a time.
To read or not to read: If you are someone who can experience the joy of reading something beautiful for the heck of it, please go ahead. But if repetition tires or bores you, you will be pulling your hair out within the first hour of reading. I wish I could categorically say, don’t read it. Unfortunately, I can’t.

Short Book Review: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

TheNameOfTheRoseSBR: Unlike my previous reads Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is a piece of historical fiction (specifically mystery) which does bring modern sensibilities into a story set in the 14th century. Especially is philosophical debates. But that has a charm of its own. A story like this can provoke you to examine your own unassailable beliefs and make to think if they really are that unassailable.
If you are looking purely for a mystery novel, you might be bored by the philosophy intervening. But I liked it because it felt like a good supplemental reading to the scholastic philosophy chapters I encountered in The History of Western Philosophy. The problem in this book was the frequent use of (untranslated) Latin phrases and sentences. This meant that I could not curl up in the bed to read the book. I often needed to consult this good man’s work and Google Translate.
To read or not to read: Read if you can enjoy the dossier on the religion of middle ages, monasticism and scholastic philosophy and are willing to work on your (ahem!) Latin.
  1. I realized while reading this book that the expression “It is Greek to me” might be from the time when people spoke Latin. We can, perhaps, shift to using”It is Latin to me”.
  2. I didn’t start reading the book after the news of the author’s death. He died while I was reading the book. An eerie feeling!

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.
  • 1
  • 2