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Water for Elephants


waterForElephantsIn essence this is clichéd love triangle where a guy meets a girl. She plays a damsel in distress and the guy rescues her from her evil husband. I know this doesn’t in the least sound new or exciting but I have to confess that an unusual setting and a great narrative is all it takes to make even such a clichéd story line gripping and  entertaining.

This story is set in the post war depression period in the US. Jacob who is a medical student at Cornell university – studying to be a vet. He looses his parents in a car accident and doesn’t have a home or money for tuition. In a moment of daze he leaves he climbs onto a train which happens to be the Benzini Brothers circus train. Soon he finds himself as the vet for the exotic animals there.

The circus here reveals something dark and grim under the glamorous and entertaining appearance. When the number of people on the train grew more than its capacity or if some employees suffered from incurable diseases due to contamination, the solution was to simply execute them by pushing them off the moving train.

Another classic example for this is Marlena’s marriage to August. On the exterior their marriage is rosy and picture perfect. August seems charming, caring and more. But on looking a little deeper you realize the reality isn’t quite this. Marlena suffers in the relationship as August is a schizophrenic – she eloped from home for the charming August who in reality did not exist. Not having a home to go back to, Marlena silently suffered in this dysfunctional relationship. And then Jacob comes along and there is an instant attraction and rescues her.

Overall, this is a good read. But like I said earlier the main story line is not unheard of but the setting in a larger than life post-war US circus is a winner. Another positive is the narration – the whole story is narrated by Jacob who is in his 90s and in a nursing home. A casual summer read – not something that will knock your socks off.

Overall verdict : 3.5/5

Beneath a marble sky


marbleHistoric fiction has come to be one of my most loved genres and I couldn’t help but fall in love with this book. This tale has everything that a great story has – battles, victories, romance, politics, greed, lust and more. Hailing from India and never having visited Agra or seen the Taj Mahal this book has made my urge to visit Agra more fierce.

As a chapter in history we have read about Shah Jahan building this architectural marvel of a mausoleum in loving memory of his wife and also about the wrath of Aurangzeb and his succession to the throne. But never have given such a first-person (though fictional) thought to the process.

The story is narrated by Princess Jahanara who is the daughter of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. She is intelligent, witty, a hopeless romantic, brave and knows the rules of politics and power. As a child she learned a lot from her mother Mumtaz who herself was a kind and intelligent women. Other important characters are Jahanara’s two brothers – Prince Dara & Prince Aurangzeb. Dara was to be king in succession is portrayed to be kind and open to all religions while Prince Aurangzeb is someone whose greed for the Peacock Throne and conservative interpretations of the Koran portray him as insensitive and brutal.

Meanwhile, Jahanara is married off for political reasons and loathes her husband. He is everything she despises – insensitive, does not respect women, illiterate and crass. During a childbirth Mumtaz passes away. After her demise, Shah Jahan becomes inconsolable and lost in grief. He decides to build a mausoleum for Mumtaz and asks Jahanara to head the project. This is where she met her Isa, her lover.

Jahanara suspects Aurangzeb’s intentions to succeed to the throne and overthrow his father and does her best to warn and prepare Dara but unfortunately that doesn’t have quite the ideal outcome. Aurangzeb kills Dara and imprisons Shah Jahan and succeeds to the throne. Jahanara manages to escape and leads one of those ‘happily ever after’ fairy tale endings.

My favourite character of the book is Ladli – who is Jahanara’s gorgeous, witty and loyal Hindu friend. She comes to Jahanara’s aide when the Peacock Throne needs her. Her language and use of expletives just cracked me up. She adds some more colour to the already wonderful tale. This book is a must read! Entertaining and gripping all at the same time.

Overall verdict: 5/5

The Great Gatsby


I was quite ashamed of not having read any classic literature at all so I resolved to read this all-time classic which is on every ‘Books to read before you die’ list I have come across.I am not sure about how to gather my thoughts on this book.

The book is based on the post-war  times in the US where the society is fully materialistic and everything is measured by the length of your car, the size of your mansion and the depth of your pockets.

The central character Gatsby is someone who comes from a simple background. He joins the army to impress his lover – Daisy who meanwhile marries the richest boy in town to lead a simple and easy life. Years later, Gatsby gathers enough wealth so he can match up to his Daisy’s family. The story is from the perspective of Nick who happens to be Gatsby’s neighbour and friends with Tom and Daisy. Nick is the conscience of the plot. He sees things as right and wrong instead of being carried away with the flow of the materialistic world.

There are some lines from the book which are going to be remembered for centuries more (assuming the world doesn’t end this dec 😉 ).”Whenever you feel like criticizing any one…just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

I think it is quite an interesting read but needs quite a bit of patience for a noob in classic literature like myself. I am used to reading light entertaining books so I had to push myself to get through even though it was just 179 pages. The words are quite heavy so you cant just flip pages like you can with a  Memoirs of a Geisha. I am glad I read it as it marks one of the most significant literature of that time but somehow wasn’t gripping enough.

Overall rating : 3.5/5

Memoirs of a Geisha


One of the best books I have ever read! It has been everything that you need a book to be – entertaining, enthralling, mesmerising and more! This an amazing tale of the coming of age of a little girl, geisha rivalries inside the okiya, her struggle for freedom and her search for her prince charming. As for me, I knew nothing about Geisha’s and their quaint little world or even how you say the word ‘Geisha’ (gay-sha) – so it would be fair to say reading this book was quite educational for me.

This story is about a pretty little girl – Chiyo who comes from an impoverished family. Her family comprises of her father who is a fisherman and barely manages to make ends meet; her mother a very beautiful woman whom Chiyo has inherited her lovely looks and grey eyes from and suffers from a terminal illness; her elder sister Satsu who has inherited more ordinary looks from her father.

During the Great Depression in Japan, Chiyo’s father is forced to sell both his daughters into slavery. Owing to her unusual and charming looks, Chiyo is sold into an okiya which is a Geisha house while Satsu is sold into prostitution.

Coming from an extremely humble background little Chiyo is amazed by the glitz and glamour of the Gion. The first part of the book is the transformation of a simple girl into a sophisticated and superstitious Geisha. It also gives us an idea about her Geisha studies – singing, dancing, tea ceremonies, along with the hardships and rivalries at the okiya with the okiya’s top girl – Hatsumomo.

Soon as an apprentice geisha Chiyo follows her ‘older sister’ Mameha – a successful geisha around the gion and meets potential patrons. During her coming of age, there is a bidding for her Mizuage after which she no longer needs to be accompanied by her older sister. She takes charge of her life and tries to free herself of the debts owed to the okiya.

The two key characters are Nobu and Chairman both of whom are partners in an electrical company. Nobu is an ugly yet kind hearted sumo wrestler while the Chairman is a refined, classy man whose words gave Sayuri (Chiyo’s geisha name) the strength during testing times. Sayuri had grown to be obsessed by him and his thoughts. Sayuri has come to find a friend in Nobu. Nobu who wishes to be her ‘danna’. Danna is someone who takes a geisha as his mistress. It is interesting how until the end, it is undecided who Sayuri’s fate holds for her – Nobu or the chairman.

It is very rare that you come across a tale so complete and entertaining! Though the downside is that some elements to it are too extreme or fairytale-ish. For instance the character of the chairman comes across as one which perfect and this worries me as it is too ideal and far from being realistic. Having said that, I wish there were other books by Arthur Golden because am sure I would be waiting to read it. A (almost) perfect tale – it has all the elements a new world, the victories and struggles of a little girl, her romance, her education.

Mr.Golden – Please write another book! I would love to go on another exotic and entertaining journey via your book.

Overall verdict : 5/5

Mayada, Daughter of Iraq


This book by Jean P Sasson like all of her other books has a female protagonist in a middle-eastern setting. This is a true story about Mayada Al-Askari who belongs to the royal family. Her grandfather Sati Al-Husri is a much known and respected Arab nationalist and her paternal grandfather Jafar Pasha Al-Askari was a World War II hero. Coming from such a family, Mayada had known people in the government and officials high up and led a privileged life. She worked as a journalist in a magazine and had met Saddam Hussein twice in person and had been personally awarded by him for her outstanding work.

Slowly as the Saddam regime grew powerful, the condition of people became worse and more and more people fled to nearby countries like Jordan. Mayada’s mother, Salwa was also one among them who moved to Jordan to escape the terror in her homeland. She had tried to convince Mayada who couldn’t quite think of leaving her homeland and did not want to believe that things were quite so bad because it hadn’t affected them yet. The blue bloods always don’t quite see the real state of affairs quite when the commoners do because of this Mayada’s vision of Iraq was rosier than the reality.

Unfortunately for Mayada, her dreams were shattered when one day she was picked up from her printing shop and was locked up in jail without being told why. She was also not allowed to inform her children about her arrest. Her inability to reach out to her kids Fay and Ali troubles her. She is thrown into cell number 52 in the Baladiyat prison with 17 other inmates called as the ‘shadow women’. Each of them have a very similar story of being thrown into prison without any reason and each of their inability to inform their relatives/children troubles them.

These reality of what happened inside the prison can stir your insides. The torture the prisoners are put through for no apparent fault of theirs is just shocking and sometimes it is so inhumane that it is even hard imagine the existence of something that defies every human right out there. Pulling out the nails, electrical shocks with women coughing smoke later, beatings, abuse – every possible method of torture was employed by the secret police of the dictator. It is really touching to see how these shadow women did not envy or feel jealous of Mayada when she was to be released from the prison. On the contrary, they rejoiced her departure from the torture prison and were happy for her. They were also happy that someone would be sent out alive to tell people their stories, inform their relatives so they could help try and get them released from the prison.

The other important character is Samara another shadow woman of cell 52. She is one of the most beautiful and supportive shadow women in the cell. She is the one who helped Mayada and other women the most to build their will power and get through the hard times. Unfortunately the contact phone number she had given to Mayada when she was leaving the Baladiyat prison was not in use and thus no hope of relatives trying to help her get out of the prison. There was no silver lining for that cloud. Most of the investigation done by Mayada and others suggest that probably most of the inmates were executed before the war.

Overall, this book gives a good insight into the harsh realities under the Saddam regime but it isn’t a great read in terms of the way it has been put together. I think the content is what makes this book work. Sasson could have done a better job of stringing the story together in a better way because it does seem to get like your history textbook sometimes but I have to say it would be a gripping chapter in history.

Final verdict: 3/5

The Palace of Illusions


Mahabharata from Draupadi’s perspective! What an absolutely brilliant idea! I think the whole plot in itself deserves 5/5. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has a mind of her own!

This has been my most favorite book for 5 years now and I just realized I havent blogged about it! Since I read a long time back my memory is a little hazy to do a full review but I can assure you this book is gripping! I ended up finishing the book in 1.5days. This is the first book that got me interested into alternative history and then came along the Shiva Triology (You can find the reviews for the first two books here: Shiva-1 and Shiva-2).

What I liked the most about it is how some hero’s are portrayed while some other characters whom we don’t give enough importance to while listening to the normal Mahabharata turn out to be hero’s for Draupadi. Her birth in fire to being married to Pandavas (the 5 brothers) to her strategic duels with Kunti(her mother-in-law), her attraction to someone else (often portrayed as the villian) – this truely is Draupadi’s tale – I cant begin to emphasize enough – a MUST read! 🙂

Overall Review : 5/5 (no brainer here =] )

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle


This was my first ever Haruki Murakami read and I must say it messes with your head! You read things that make you question reality. Despite the book describing a lot of fantasy/super-realism it seems weirdly familiar which is what messes with your perception of reality and makes the book extremely gripping.

In this book the protagonist Toru Okada is an otherwise ordinary man with a rather ordinary life. He works at a law firm. First he quits his job then goes to lose his cat and then he even loses his wife- Kumiko. That point on nothing about his life continues to be ordinary. There is a big void in his life – during this time he meets psychic sisters named Malta Kano and Creta Kano who initially help him find his cat. He also receives some mysterious phone calls from women who claim to know him.

Other than Toru Okada there is another important man in this plot -Noburu Wataya, Kumiko’s brother. Toru and Noburu have a mutual relationship has been that of extreme hatred. Toru has always liked to keep a distance from Noburu but the course Toru’s life takes makes him come face to face with the existence of his brother-in-law. Noburu is a politician and has anything but an ordinary childhood. It has involved the loss of his sister, this man is loved by the public and has very strong influence owing to his political position. Yet this very same man has defiled a number of women including Creta Kano and his own dead sister.

When Toru went out looking for their lost cat he met a teenage girl called May Kahasara. She is far from an average teenager – she is obsessed with death, doesn’t go to school and has been a part of a motorcycle accident in which her boyfriend died. She indulges in a lot of profound thoughts about life and death and how the presence of death alters the meaning of life. This school of thinking made me take a break from reading and I took the liberty to go ahead and think of what the life and thoughts of a teenager whose life doesnt involve carrying out a lot of mundane tasks would be like especially when their thoughts are so different, strong and special. I would love to know someone like this. I think May was my favourite character in the book. She makes the book even more intriguing. Her job at the wig factory, the duck people and everything make May quite interesting.

After May, the mother son duo of Nutmeg and Cinnamon Akaskara come into Toru’s life. Nutmeg was a top class fashion designer and suddenly lost her interest in designing and started a new career of ‘fitting’ people. She is described to have a good taste in clothes and presents herself with great class. When she sees Toru she realizes that he can help her with ‘fitting’ people. Her son Cinnamon is my second favourite character. He is someone who has truly impressed me – being punctual to the dot, being prim and proper, conveying everything without words, the smart, organized young man who willingly took on the responsibility of the household when his grandmother passed away. Intelligent, punctual, well-dressed, emotional, a great listener – sounds like every girl’s dream to me! He adds a new dimension to the Wind-up Bird chronicle also because he is the one who saves Toru Okada’s life. His actions seem to convey how much he cares for the man.

Other significant characters/things that make this story intriguing are – a dry well, Lieutenant Mamiya, a psychic Mr. Honda, Toru’s mark on the face and how the historic events of Japan’s war relate to Okada’s life in a very convoluted way. The description of the war events like skinning a man or the killing of the animals to name a few is very realistic. The intricate details make the event spring to life. What still amazes me is how these historic war events juxtapose with Toru’s mundane life.

Overall a errm weirdly gripping read – fantasy described in the most familiar or known way possible. I am not sure I can quite describe what it is like to read this book – I would recommend you read it to go through those roller coaster of emotions yourself.

Overall rating: 4/5

What to gift your less favourite folks


Buying gifts always needs creativity and enthusiasm especially if it is for  someone you aren’t quite fond of… That makes the whole process more painful.

Recently, I read something that I thought could be a perfect gift for someone I don’t like! The book is none other than Revolution 2020 by India’s most loved author (unfortunately that’s true) Chetan Bhagat. I had quite enjoyed Bhagat’s first book five point someone and read the subsequent books (Three Mistakes of my life, Two states) and dint quite like them. But it is the first time that I couldn’t get myself to complete a Chetan Bhagat book. Revolution 2020 was absolute torture! I tried pushing myself through it but after about 130pages I decided it was time to throw in the towel. Nothing I have ever read has been more dull, dragging, boring and absolutely painful. 

Coming to think of it, Chetan Bhagat is more a one book wonder. After that first book his books had the ring of a third class bollywood movie. I can’t get myself to even gather my thoughts on the book because I just dont have the guts to think through those 130 pages again. And that’s when I decided that this is something I will gift people I am not too fond of. Let them enjoy Mr Ex-IIT-IIM’s torture!

I was thinking to myself if I was being too harsh on having such negative thoughts on the book and thats when I realized that I was not alone in despising Chetan Bhagat. I thoroughly enjoyed a statement which called Chetan Bhagat the Karan Johar of the publishing insudtry! 😀 Couldn’t help but laugh out loud!

Final Verdict: 0.5/5

The Secrets of the Nagas



Today, He is a God.

4000 years ago, He was just a man.

The hunt is on. The sinister Naga warrior has killed his friend Brahaspati and now stalks his wife Sati. Shiva, the Tibetan immigrant who is the prophesied destroyer of evil, will not rest till he finds his demonic adversary. His vengeance and the path to evil will lead him to the door of the Nagas, the serpent people. Of that he is certain.

The evidence of the malevolent rise of evil is everywhere. A kingdom is dying as it is held to ransom for a miracle drug. A crown prince is murdered. The Vasudevs Shivas philosopher guides betray his unquestioning faith as they take the aid of the dark side. Even the perfect empire, Meluha is riddled with a terrible secret in Maika, the city of births. Unknown to Shiva, a master puppeteer is playing a grand game.

In a journey that will take him across the length and breadth of ancient India, Shiva searches for the truth in a land of deadly mysteries only to find that nothing is what it seems.

Fierce battles will be fought. Surprising alliances will be forged. Unbelievable secrets will be revealed in this second book of the Shiva Trilogy, the sequel to the #1 national bestseller, The Immortals of Meluha

This is the second book of the Shiva Trilogy by Amish. Normally when the first book is fantastic, the sequel barely ever lives upto it. This book was a welcome change. This is an action packed book with a lot of of food for thought. An extremely well thought out book with some very strong messages which have been weaved intricately with Indian mythology and lots of imagination. This reflects a lot about the author and his idea of eutopia.

One of the main ideas in the book revolves around the question -‘What is Evil?’. This is closely related to the phrase – ‘Har Har Mahadev’ which means there is God in everyone which was a phrase used by Shiva’s army while attacking the Chandravanshi’s. The other main idea involved is that of a caste system by skill instead of by birth. This is where Maika, the birth city comes in. The author truly believes that each person should be assigned a caste (which equates to role in the Indian caste system) depending on the skill-set the child possess not the household he/she is born in. To be true to this thought, the author does not have his last name on the cover of the book as his surname Tripathi is associated with the Brahmin caste.

This book focuses on Shiva’s quest to find the murderer of his dear brother-like friend Brahaspati, the chief scientist of Mount Mandar. Shiva is also determined to find an unknown skilled assassin who attacked Sati thrice in the past. Both of these motives lead Shiva to the Nagas. Despite the above facts the question is – are the Nagas evil?

In the process of getting to the Naga kingdom, Shiva discovers some shameful secrets about Maika, the city of births. Some of these secrets affect his near and dear ones. Shiva along with the Suryavanshi and Chandravanshi soldiers proceed to the Branga territory as the Brangas are said to have close ties with the Nagas.

Shiva’s entourage consists of both the Suryavanshi’s and the Chandravanshi’s. Shiva leaves Sati behind with a heavy heart as his son Kartik is too young for the journey. During their journey to the Branga territory, there is another shackle that is broken for the Suryavanshi General Partvateshwar.

Parvateshwar had vowed to be a celibate as a family decision to protest against the wavering Maika policy for the various castes to respect his grandfather’s word. He had been true to his vow for 120 years. Anandamayi the Chandravanshi princess, fell in love with Partvateshwar and tries her best to rope him in. The character of Anandamayi is that of an bollywood ‘chamia’ who would do anything to get her man. She is saucy, tangy and everything more!

Meanwhile Sati discovers another tradition which like the Vikarma law is unfair. She sees her dear ones suffering because of that and makes a brave, over-the-top attempt to stand against it. As you may have guessed, I am not quite impressed with the role Sati plays in this book. There is nothing exciting or unexpected about her. How can a woman leave her infant to fight against the lions??!! Like I said earlier, a little over-the-top.

Aside the role of Sati and some rather loose language, a fantastic read!

Overall Verdict: 5/5

The Immortals of Meluha


1900 BC. In what modern Indians mistakenly call the Indus Valley Civilisation. The inhabitants of that period called it the land of Meluha a near perfect empire created many centuries earlier by Lord Ram, one of the greatest monarchs that ever lived. This once proud empire and its Suryavanshi rulers face severe perils as its primary river, the revered Saraswati, is slowly drying to extinction. They also face devastating terrorist attacks from the east, the land of the Chandravanshis. To make matters worse, the Chandravanshis appear to have allied with the Nagas, an ostracised and sinister race of deformed humans with astonishing martial skills. The only hope for the Suryavanshis is an ancient legend: When evil reaches epic proportions, when all seems lost, when it appears that your enemies have triumphed, a hero will emerge. Is the rough-hewn Tibetan immigrant Shiva, really that hero? And does he want to be that hero at all? Drawn suddenly to his destiny, by duty as well as by love, will Shiva lead the Suryavanshi vengeance and destroy evil?

This is the first book in the Shiva trilogy which was a national best-seller. This book portrays the vivid imagination of the first time author Amish. In one line this book sets the myth of Shiva in today’s world which makes the readers more receptive and open to it. It is key to note that this book is classified as the ‘Alternative History/Fiction’ genre so the original myth has been twisted and turned to make the story more gripping and dramatic.

Shiva is the leader of the Guna tribe of Tibet which occupies the area near the Mansarovar lake at the foot of Mount Kailash. The ways of being of this tribe are rather barbaric and their constant challenge is to fight the aggresive Pakrati tribe. Shiva is convinced by members of the Suryavanshi tribe to immigrate to the other side of the hills – to India.

After Shiva immigrates to India (or Meluha), he consumes the Somras – a medicinal drink created by the Meluhan’s which transforms his throat colour to blue. This causes a certain excitement and anxiety among the Meluhans. Shiva seems puzzled at the strong devotion of the Meluhan folks. He later discovers that according to the Indian legends – an immigrant with a blue throat or a neelkanth would be the destroyer of all evil.

Shiva is invited to the city of Meluha and meets the emperor. He is astonished by how well planned the cities were. They were a sheer engineering marvel. Once he is at Meluha he falls in love with princess Sati who is a great dancer and a fierce warrior. Sati is also subject to some unfair traditions of the society called the Vikarma laws. Shiva removes the Vikarma law which was an unfair tradition being followed among the Meluhan’s. He also discovers that the reason for the rather long lives of the Meluhan’s is their secret medicinal drink – the Somras which is manufactured at a secret facility at Mount Mandar. During his stay and travel Shiva makes many friends. Some key characters like: Nandi – the Meluhan chief who convinced Shiva and the Guna’s to migrate, Brahaspati – the chief scientist at Mount Mandar, etc.

Throughout the book there are some hooded creatures (the Naga’s) who try to attack and abduct princess Sati. They are believed to be notorious and their fighting skills are feared. Not much is revealed about them in this book but their presence makes the book even more gripping.

The story about the union of Shiva and Sati as per the book is not in-line with the original myth. Shiva is pictured as an ordinary human being with his desires, flaws and regrets. His flaws to smoke weed, desire to obtain Sati, regret from a childhood incident where he did not perform his duty. This makes the story more acceptable to the mordern logical Indian who cannot accept the existence of a ‘perfect’ soul. To conclude, this book is an absolute page turner and a must read!

Overall Verdict: 4.5/5
PS: I may be biased in my overall rating as I love Indian Mythology!

 

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