Thursday, 30 November 2017

Sita: Warrior of Mithila by Amish Tripathi – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘India is beset with divisions, resentment, and poverty. The people hate their rulers. They despise their corrupt and selfish elite. Chaos is just one spark away. Outsiders exploit these divisions. Raavan, the demon king of Lanka, grows increasingly powerful, sinking his fangs deeper into the hapless Sapt Sindhu.

Two powerful tribes, the protectors of the divine land of India, decide that enough is enough. A saviour is needed. They begin their search.

An abandoned baby is found in a field. Protected by a vulture from a pack of murderous wolves. She is adopted by the ruler of Mithila, a powerless kingdom, ignored by all. Nobody believes this child will amount to much. But they are wrong. For she is no ordinary girl. She is Sita.’

This is the second book in the Ram Chandra Series of Amish Tripathi. However, this book is slightly different from the more famous Shiva Trilogy of the author wherein, the subsequent book picks up exactly from the point where the previous books left off. While the first book unfolded the character of Ram, this book focuses on Sita, the Princess of Mithila.

King Janak and Queen Sunaina come across a vulture defending a little girl from a pack of wolves and adopt her as the Princess of Mithila, a small kingdom in the east of Indian sub-continent. She grows up to be a strong young girl, taking interest in combat and horse riding. Mithila is a kingdom facing acute financial crisis and completely dependent on the Kingdom of Sanskhaya, ruled by Janak’s brother. However, a confrontation between Sita and her uncle over the unreasonable terms he proposed to Mithila changes the destiny of her kingdom and herself, as she is sent away for studies.

Sita’s growth was brought out well, a highly pragmatic individual who does what she believes is right and agrees to something only if she is convinced about it, even if it is from her teacher. This is often shown when she does not hesitate to speak her mind even in front of highly respected Maharishis such as Vashishta or Vishwamitra. There was also political unrest – ever since the defeat of the Ayodhyan Empire at the hands of the Lankan demon king Raavan and the trade sanctions thereon, the people are looking for a saviour who will save them from the menace of Raavan. However, the ones entrusted with the responsibility to find the saviour, have their own interests to look into and have a dislike for each other. Amongst this existing turmoil, Sita’s skills as the Prime Minister of Mithila is brought out where she improves law and order, builds new houses to increase the standard of living among various other things while also looking out for securing larger interests while going out on diplomatic missions as the Prime Minister.

I have always been reviewing this story as something totally distinct from Ramayan despite the novels being based on the book and thus I wouldn’t comment on the deviations thereon. However, I can’t help but notice a few things. For one, I am tired of Amish trying to milk from the populist sentiment going on in India at the time of the release of his books – he did in the first book, The Scion of Ikshvaku (click here forreview). He did it again here – for instance, there was a reference to surgical strike drawing parallel to India’s cross border military operations during September 2016 (click here for more details). There was more, wherein, there was a part in the story dedicated to Jallikattu – a bull taming sport in Tamil Nadu, southern India, where there were massive protests against a ban on the sport in the state of Tamil Nadu during January 2017 (click here for more details). He went on to describe how the sport was far superior to similar sports played in ‘far away foreign lands’, an open reference to the Spanish bull fighting sport – and similar arguments were used by proponents of the sport in Tamil Nadu which the author has merely reflected in the book. I was tempted to do some research whilst reading those sections and I found that the story, according the author was in 4500 BC whereas, neither Spanish bull fighting nor Jallikattu are that old. Of course, there is also the author trying to pander to the overall Indian nationalist sentiment at present by mentioning the word India at every possible opportunity (which was not the case with Shiva Trilogy) and of course, the trademark catchphrase, wherein, Sita was entrusted to ‘Make India Great Again’ (everyone knows that stupid tagline of the current office bearer of The President of the United States of America).

 I would say that I would laud the author for choosing a different format to present the new series (that is dedicating a separate book to build the main characters) and also the way in which Sita’s character was built. But the philosophical discussions, I would say that he was at it again with his ‘masculine thought’ and ‘feminine thought’; and what I could understand by it was that by the former, he meant conservative ideas and by the latter, he meant liberalism / centre-left ideas – he really need not have associated any gender to these.

To conclude, I would say that this novel did enough to keep me gripped but then, was not free from flaws, and I would have really liked if he had just altogether avoided the populist references, especially where some of them had no relevance to the story. I would award the book a rating of six on ten.

Rating – 6/10

Have a nice day,

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Charles Darwin: A Life from Beginning to End by Hourly History – Book Review

Charles Darwin, is a well-known British naturalist who challenged the very idea of creationism by proposing the theory of evolution, which is debated by creationists till date. This is a short biography of his by Hourly History.

Charles Darwin was born at the time when the Industrial Revolution was reaching its peak. He initially studied medicine but very quickly dropped out and started learning taxidermy and about animals which is where his fascination for nature began. The book then goes on to describe his voyages around South America in his ship Beagle and his observations thereon in his book On the Origin of Species and The Voyage of the Beagle.

The book covered a good amount of Darwin’s work and also his personal life. It focused on both, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and the Theory of Natural Selection and the subsequent discussions and debates between various naturalists then. However, Darwin was different to Galileo in the sense that despite opposing a popularly held belief of a religious body, he was well recognised by his country and was well respected in his field. This fact was brought out well wherein, many do have the notion that Darwin too might have had a difficult time considering his theory but that certainly wasn’t the case.

This is a good book giving an insight into both Darwin the person and also his works and if a person needs a quick reference, this could be a good refresher. On that note, I would award the book an eight on ten.

Rating – 8/10

Have a nice day,

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Narcos (Season 3) – Review

‘Agent Peña, how much do you know about the Cali Cartel?’ was a question directed from the DEA Operations staff in US to Javier Peña, the last words of Season 2 of Narcos (click here for accessing the review of the first two seasons). This story’s entire focus is on the Cali Cartel, which had a very minor role in the Pablo Escobar saga as the patron’s main rival.
From left to right: Matt Whelan as Daniel Van Ness, Pedro Pascal as Javier Peña, Michael Stahl-David as Christ Feistl

Javier Peña is now the narrator in the story and is sharing some light moments back home in Texas before leaving for Bogotá. He has now been promoted and he has two Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents under him – Chris Feistl and Daniel Van Ness. This is the first time we get to see Peña as the boss -  who plays very tough in front of his subordinates but actually tries to facilitate easier working for them from behind the scenes. It also brings out his courage, being in a more responsible position, he is often seen to take on powerful people within the US Government and the Colombian government.

Cali Cartel was very unlike Escobar’s Medellín Cartel – while Escobar channelled his excess funds to the people of Medellín to gain public support, the Cali Cartel ran banks and were in good touch with the elites. The story revolves around the patriarchs of the cartel – the Rodríguez brothers (Gilberto and Miguel), Chepe (their man in New York) and Pacho Herrera. With Escobar’s fall, Cali’s cocaine business flourishes even more but then, Gilberto makes a revelation, that in six months, the cartel is going to surrender to the police under a deal and in these six months, they are going to maximise their wealth.
From left to right: Matias Varela as Jorge Salcedo and Francisco Denis as Miguel Rodríguez

The story showcases a lot of aspects here, such as how the Rodríguez who were so united – start to see cracks in their relationship as a crisis emerges – there is ego clash, the need to show who is a superior boss, among various other things. On the other side there is Peña, who tries his best not to repeat his past of employing any means to justify the ends but sometimes he is forced to give in. There is also the continued story of corruption in Colombia’s police force in Cali and also among politicians, at the very top level. The frequent arguments between Peña and the Stechner (the CIA agent in Colombia) was definitely one of the highlights of the season.

Another side to the story is that of a security officer of the Cali Cartel – Jorge Salcedo. Cali uses high end technology and Salcedo is an engineer who is in charge of the security of Miguel Rodríguez. Unlike the traditional security men, does not carry a gun and instead, watches what is happening by tapping phones, going through computer records, etc. He wishes to leave the cartel and start his own firm but is unable to come out of the cartel and the show brings out the problems he faces in his personal life owing to the continued association of his with the Cartel.

An aspect that could have been better was to have focused a little more on Feistl and Van Ness who were merely being Peña’s puppets. Even Feistl was occasionally shown to be an intelligent person and someone with a strong sense of judgement but Van Ness seemed a mere addition to the whole plot.

However, I would say that this scored on fact checking better than the previous two seasons wherein most of the main characters were in fact real, barring the fact that it was not Javier Peña who was involved in bringing down the Cali Cartel as he had returned to US along with Steve Murphy after bringing down Escobar.

The producers of the series had a good story to tell, with characters built with good amount of detail, especially Jorge Salcedo and Javier Peña, but then, one could say that it was a little too short and the mighty cartel fell apart in quick succession. However, out of that, serendipitously, there was extreme pace at which the season was carried out keeping the viewer gripped till the very end.

On that note, I would award the series a rating of seven on ten.

Rating – 7/10

Have a nice day,

Thomas Jefferson: A Life from Beginning to End by Hourly History – Book Review

The name that immediately comes to our mind for an early American president after George Washington is that of Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd President of the United States. This is a short biography of Thomas Jefferson from Hourly History.

Jefferson is from Virginia and was part of the elite of the society. His family owned plantations and several slaves and he himself owned several slaves during his later years. However, he also pursued a career in law and has several times, argued for the freedom of certain runaway slaves. The book then goes on to his disagreements with President John Adams whilst he was vice-president, then on to his own Presidency, where he organised the Louisiana Purchase and enacted certain controversial Acts removing the natives from the area. The book then focused on his post retirement career of an academic, establishing the University of Virginia.

It was a well-structured biography – from the times Jefferson was a patriot to the cause, then his stint as an Ambassador in Paris, followed by his entry into politics, presidency and finally retirement with each given an individual chapter. The various disagreements he had with his political masters, his paradoxical personality (refer the above slave example) – was brought out very well. There was also a decent focus on his personal life without going too much into it.

However, the book also excessively referred to aspects of US history surrounding the independence even in places where Jefferson was not involved and need not even have been mentioned. Without it, perhaps the book could have focused on some of the finer aspects of Jefferson’s presidency without compromising on the ability of the book to be read within an hour.

Based on the structure and the depth of the overview that the book gave, I would award the book a rating of seven on ten.

Rating – 7/10

Have a nice day,

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin (#1 of A Song of Ice and Fire) – Book Review

Age group: 16+

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher’s write-up:

 ‘Kings and queens, knights and renegades, liars, lords and honest men. All will play the Game of Thrones.

Summers span decades. Winter can last a lifetime. And the struggle for the Iron Throne has begun. It will stretch from the south, where heat breeds plot, lusts and intrigues; to the vast frozen north, where a 700-foot wall of ice protects the kingdom from dark forces that lie beyond. The Game of Thrones. You win or you die.’

Ever since HBO launched a TV show based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire; where the TV show was named after the first book of the series, Game of Thrones. While I was suggested the TV show by many of my friends, I could never get past twenty minutes, for I found it too gory but then, I decided to give in years later when I picked up the first book of the series.

 It happens in a new world created by the author which is simply referred to as the known world­ in the books. The story is divided into chapters told from the third person perspective of the main characters which include Eddard (Ned) Stark, Catelyn Stark, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark, Brandon Stark, Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen.

In Westeros, a continent to the west of the known world, Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King (chief adviser) of the Seven Kingdoms, dies under mysterious circumstances. Eddard Stark, the Lord of Winterfell and a close aide of King Robert Baratheon succeeds as the new Hand and moves to the capital with his two daughters and starts investigating the cause of Jon Arryn’s death. His daughter Sansa is betrothed to Joffrey Baratheon, the song of King Robert and Queen Cersei. However, strange events start to unfold – Ned Stark’s young son Brandon is pushed off the tower and whilst he was being treated, there was another assassination attempt on him. Catelyn Stark, the Lady of Winterfell gets to know that the knife used in the assassination attempt belonged to Tyrion Lannister, from the house which Queen Cersei belonged to. This leads to political instability and a war between the House of Stark and the House of Lannister.

On the other side, in the continent of Essos, you have the Targaryen siblings – Viserys, the pretender to the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms and his sister Daenerys, plotting to retake the throne for the family. The Targaryens were ousted by Robert Baratheon twelve years ago by means of a rebellion. Viserys is trying to form an army large enough to travel back to Westeros and retake the Kingdom and for this, he secures an alliance with a nomadic tribe, the Dothrakis, by marrying his sister to their leader Khal Drogo.

There is also another angle to the story, from the point of view of Jon Snow, who joins the night watch, who guard the Northern Wall of the Seven Kingdoms. Jon Snow is the bastard son of Ned Stark and the more he spends time at Night Watch, the more he gets to know the truths of the order.

The plot was slow, and the title was highly misleading, for, the Game of Thrones does not even begin till the death of the King, which took place after I was much more than half into the novel. Till then, all I had was some childish fighting between teenagers – Sansa and her sister Arya, Arya and Prince Joffrey. The first 500 odd pages of the book effectively seemed like a filler wherein the story was going directionless, there were three different perspectives, and within that, excluding Daenerys and Jon, the six others are at different locations within Westeros, each of them pursuing different interests. And when you have so many perspectives, inevitably you also have so many characters that it was becoming extremely difficult for me to keep track of characters, events, the setting and the whole unfolding of the plot lacked coherence. I had to take multiple breaks while reading this book and from the time I started reading this book till the end, I read six books in between to keep me distracted from the utterly boring pages of this book.

I understand that this is a long novel and I have experienced something similar with The Luminaries (which is slightly longer than Game of Thrones) and there too, I felt lost for the first 200 pages but it didn’t run as long as in the case of this book. But I would concede that the author did a reasonable job in establishing the characters during the initial stages – Ned Stark as the man bound by honour and duty to the king, Tyrion Lannister – the cunning yet witty dwarf of the Lannisters, Cersei – the manipulative queen, Joffrey the arrogant young prince who feels too entitled, Sansa the conformist and Arya the rebel. I felt that Tyrion Lannister proved to be the only saving grace whose presence would help the reader to at least look forward to the next chapter from the perspective of Tyrion for at least, they were interesting.

After the death of King Robert, the novel, took the turn for the better, with things moving fast, the war for succession getting very tense, with the Starks on war against the Lannisters, the King’s brothers staking a claim to the throne, I breezed past the final third of the novel and considering that the series would continue along similar lines, I would give the series another chance and would eventually read the second book in A Song of Ice and Fire.

With that said, an interesting final third does not exonerate the author for boring me with fillers for a substantial part of the book and on that note, I would award Game of Thrones, a mere five on ten.

Rating – 5/10

Have a nice day,

James Monroe: A Life from Beginning to End by Hourly History – Book Review

We know about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson when it comes to initial Presidents of the United States. However, beyond that, most external observers tend to know only from Abraham Lincoln onwards. However, the 5th President of the United States, James Monroe – the last of the founding fathers to be President was most famous for his Monroe Doctrine. This is a short biography on the former US President by Hourly History.

Monroe was the third time a Virginian became the President of the Country (after Washington and Jefferson). The book starts with his origins in Virginia, from a wealthy slave owning family. It then moves on to his period in the army, where he has fought wars on the side of the settlers and subsequently against the British during the American War of Independence. It then touched upon his time as the United States Ambassador to France, overseeing the Louisiana Purchase. The book then moves on to his two term presidency and his eventual death.

The book brought out aspects of US history, which I did not know much about, which is, the period between Jefferson and Lincoln. It also brought out Monroe’s personality as a sound diplomat – wherein he developed relations with France and at the same time, maintains good relations with the British in order to enforce his Monroe doctrine – which stated that Europeans shouldn’t colonise the Americas any further and he needed the British naval support to enforce the same.

The book was disappointing that the focus on his two term presidency was not elaborated much and instead, his personal life was given a lot more focus, with repeated mention of how his daughter’s wedding was the first ever wedding to be conducted at the White House.

The book was a reasonable read, but there was nothing significantly noteworthy to call it as a must read of Hourly History. I would award the book a rating of six on ten.

Rating – 6/10

Have a nice day,

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Narcos – Pablo Escobar Saga (Seasons 1 and 2) – Review

Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar

Disclaimer – My usual norm for TV drama reviews apply, that is, I analyse only the story and not the other aspects of a TV drama such as acting, direction, background music, etc.

The first I heard of Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord from Colombia was whilst reading about the footballer Andrés Escobar (not related to Pablo) who was shot in Medellín, Colombia, in 1994 following Colombia’s elimination from the football World Cup owing to the own goal he scored. I read that if Pablo had been alive, the incident would not have happened as he is a die-hard fan of football and the Colombian team and nobody would have dared to attack a footballer in Medellín, Pablo’s hometown.

Thanks to the recent crime thriller from Netflix, being Narcos, on the life of Pablo Escobar – I could get to know more about him. The story is told from the perspective of Steve Murphy, an officer in the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of the United States who arrives in Bogotá on a mission to take down Pablo Escobar. He joins his DEA colleague Javier Peña – a Texan who has already been in Bogotá for a while.

The story then moves to Pablo Escobar, who starts his career as an ordinary smuggler of electronic items and cigarettes before starting to enter the cocaine trade – sending the drug in large quantities to Miami, US – and inevitably, the US has strong interests in bringing down the cartel. It shows the rise of Pablo Escobar in Medellín – how he forms an effective cartel combating his enemies, including Colombia’s communist guerrilla M-19 wherein he brings drug lords together to combat M-19’s kidnapping tactics. The story brought out the aspect of Pablo Escobar’s rise very well – how he rose to prominence so quickly.

The story then moves on to his next ambition – Escobar had a lot of money, and as he couldn’t hide it, he started distributing it to the people, building houses for them that he became very popular. As a result, Escobar ran for parliament, with ambitions of becoming the President someday but the fellow Congressmen were not too welcoming of Escobar’s presence in Parliament. As a result, Escobar’s downfall began when he started to kill politicians opposed to him. From here on, the series proceeds with the story of Escobar till his death.

The story had an all-round focus – the situation in the US embassy; the tiffs between the DEA and the CIA; the political situation and the campaigns for presidency in Colombia and Escobar’s interests in suppressing the campaigns; how the war affected the personal lives of two of the central characters – Steve Murphy of the DEA and Pablo Escobar himself.

From left to right: Maurice Compte as Horacio Carrillo, Boyd Holbrook as Steve Murphy and Pedro Pascal as Javier Peña
The story also brings out the character of each of the main persons involved – Javier Peña – who is willing to risk the means so long as it satisfies the ends, Steve Murphy – who becomes too attached to the task of finding Escobar that he begins to start to feel at home in Bogotá and even picks up a bit of Spanish, Horacio Carillo - the fearless head of the Search Bloc of the Colombian police and one of the rare incorruptible officers, Pablo Escobar – the astute and megalomaniacal drug lord who is also extremely concerned about his family, Gustavo Gaviria – the loyal cousin of Pablo and his right hand man, César Gaviria (not related to Gustavo / Pablo) – the Colombian President who begins his tenure on a principles and eventually starts to make compromises in the war against Escobar. The perspectives of the characters were portrayed so much in depth that at times, you’d have some sympathy for Pablo Escobar.
From left to right: Juan Pablo Raba as Gustavo Gaviria and Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar

In this story, they bring out a lot of aspects – such as the society in Medellín back then, corruption in the police, politics and media, etc. It also was a story dealing with various human obsessions such as power, greed, pride, jealousy and revenge making Narcos rather a complete package.

The first episode of Narcos starts with a quote:

‘Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe. There is a reason magical realism was born in Colombia.’

We read / see a lot of characters doing absolutely unbelievable acts and we wonder someone could do it in real. On that note, Narcos scores high as they did pick up a real character, often showing real footages and photographs from the police records (such as Escobar’s mugshot) and videos from the Colombian political campaigns. The very fact that this story is about a real person and most characters who appear are people who are real and still be interesting is something that provides a significant boost to the series.

However, on that note, while the producers agree that there are fictional elements for the purpose of dramatization, that makes fact checking a very important activity for a trivia crazy person like myself. While most characters were real, there were a few who weren’t such as Horacio Carillo; who was an entirely fictitious character. Some names have been changed of key characters but I would understand that as owing to certain legal constraints (such as Escobar’s wife and his journalist contact – both of whom are still alive) but I felt having key fictional characters was something that could have been avoided. Moreover, the show suggests a lot of conspiracy theories which alleged Escobar to be the brain behind the incidents such as; the attack on the Supreme Court of Colombia carried out by M-19 and also the murder of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán to be actually carried out by Escobar whereas in reality = the link between M-19 attack and Escobar is yet to be established and Galán murder is unsolved till date. 

Considering that, I might have preferred if they had taken an entirely fictional approach based on Pablo Escobar which would have given them full creative liberty and at the same time, weave an equally interesting story. Instead, I had to often pause my viewing and perform fact checking and sometimes, was disappointed over the producers portraying as though at a particular point in time, Escobar was in fact the most powerful man in the world. I don’t know whether other viewers also would tend to pause the video often while watching but in case they didn’t; they might believe in the portrayal of Escobar verbatim.

Furthermore, I felt that they prolonged the story a little, just a brief look at the timeline, the first season portrayed Pablo Escobar’s life from the start of his activities till 1992 and the second season for the same length, covered till his death, which just happened a year later, in 1993.

Whilst I generally don’t have the patience to watch TV shows, Narcos proved to be something different, it made me binge watch, often six hours (excluding the hours spent on fact checking) at a stretch. This was a highly gripping plot and those who enjoy a story containing crime, politics, police procedural, all at once, Narcos is certainly a must watch. On that note, I would award the show a rating of eight on ten.

Rating – 8/10

Have a nice day,
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