Sunday, 12 October 2014

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson – Book Review



Publisher’s write-up:

The Exclusive Biography, Isaacson provides an extraordinary account of Jobs' professional and personal life. Drawn from three years of exclusive and unprecedented interviews Isaacson has conducted with Jobs as well as extensive interviews with Jobs' family members and key colleagues from Apple and its competitors, Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography is the definitive portrait of the greatest innovator of his generation.’

We all know about Steve Jobs and the company that he created. I’ve never been a fan of the company that he created and in fact, till date, the only Apple Product that I use is iTunes which is free; nevertheless, I’ve been an admirer of Steve Jobs, for the enterprise that he has created – considering its origin, his ouster and the marvellous turnaround and I always wanted to know more regarding the same and hence, this book was an obvious choice.

The good thing about this biography is that I believe it is fairly accurate, considering it is Jobs himself who has asked Isaacson to take up this project and the latter claims to have come up with this book after a hundred interviews with Jobs, his family and friends. But then, before I chose to read this book, my respect for Steve Jobs was quite high but then, as I started reading this, it was crumbling apart – he was a highly arrogant, self-opinionated who did not accept anything other than his point of view (someone with whom I’d certainly not like to work with). Another problem that I found was that he had this nature to keep everything under his control and that attempt often leads to a lot of problems (this attitude of his could be seen in his products too – where Apple does everything – hardware, software, OS, and everything else). In a way, I felt, Steve Jobs’ story could’ve very well been a case study in management schools on how not to be if not for his success.

However, as I read on, especially after his ouster from Apple, I began to regain the respect, considering his tenacity to stay on the top and creating a successful enterprise in a considerably different field (animated films) not that his personality ever underwent a change despite all that he has been through. The eventual turnaround he achieved with Apple was also well narrated but then, in the last part of the book, my admiration was falling apart yet again, considering him hitting out at competitors for plagiarism, considering he himself believes that great artists steal thereby indulging in such blatant hypocrisy (regarding Google’s Android and Microsoft in general). In a way, you could say that the respect I had for Steve Jobs moved like a cosine graph as I was reading this book.

Coming to the book as such, as aforementioned, I believe this would be the most credible biography on Steve Jobs ever, and I believe Isaacson has done a good job in presenting the same, in terms of language and also structure – where it was fairly chronological rather than moving backwards and forth. But then, I felt it was too long a description of events that occasionally puts you off, especially, in cases where you know what was going to happen (regarding Steve Jobs’ ouster or Apple taking over NeXT). Moreover, I found some of the facts to be repetitive during the course of the book, being Jobs not believing in the idea of products being customisable or the fact of Jobs being a perfectionist. I guess that is all I’ve got to say about this book – it is a very good book for all those Apple fans, Steve Jobs admirers or even for those interested in reading on influential people. I choose to not comment on Jobs’ personal life for that is not why I admire him and also, it is not my concern in anyway and as a result, I don’t comment on the personal aspects of the book.

I’d conclude saying that this is a good read, just too long (and I’m not a fan of Apple but Jobs and I’m not sure of that either, now).  I’d say that it is a good book to read and hence, award a rating of six on ten.

Rating – 6/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Midnight’s Children by Sir Salman Rushdie – Book Review



Publisher’s write-up:

‘Born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, at the precise moment of India’s independence, the infant Saleem Sinai is celebrated in the press and welcomed by Prime Minister Nehru himself. But this coincidence of birth has consequences Saleem is not prepared for: telepathic powers that connect him with 1,000 other ‘midnight’s children’ – all born in the initial hour of India’s independence – and a uncanny sense of smell that allows him to sniff out dangers others cannot perceive. Inextricably linked to his nation, Saleem’s biography is a whirlwind of disasters and triumphs that mirrors the course of modern India at its most impossible and glorious.’

I’d start with a brief summary of the plot before moving into the review – it is narrated by Saleem Sinai who was born when the clock struck twelve, marking India’s independence from the British Empire. Saleem is narrating his story to Padma – his companion and caretaker under the fear that his death is near and starts narrating the story from the time of his grandfather, Aadam Aziz’s young days back in Kashmir. Saleem has telepathic powers and in fact all children born during the first hour of 15th August, 1947 have supernatural powers, and Saleem with his abilities, is able to connect to all such children leading to the Midnight’s Children’s Conference – which gives the book its title, Midnight’s Children. This is not just the story of Saleem but also of the nation that was born along with him and their individual ups and downs mirror each other during the course of the story.

I’ve been an admirer of Sir Salman Rushdie for a very long time and I’ve enjoyed reading his articles, listening to his speeches, often dumbstruck by his ingenious use of the language and also, he stands for the idea that I very strongly believe in – that is, speech and expression is a freedom that can’t be compromised under any circumstances. I quote him too often, including the header of this blog but then, I had not read any novel of his and it was then that I had decided that it is time I pick a book of his and Midnight’s Children turned out to be an inevitable choice, considering it is one of his most critically acclaimed works.

However, when I got into the book, I was continually wondering whether I made the right choice for, at the outset, I felt the prologue was too long and it was beginning to test my patience. However, there is Padma, with the reader for company, who isn’t much different from us and cuts Saleem short whenever he is digressing too much. If digression was a crime, then perhaps Saleem should be imprisoned for life.

 However, as I moved on, I got used to it and I started enjoying the way the story was developing (one suggestion to the reader – please read the first book as Aadam Aziz’s story), the way in which he was developing every character – it was enjoyable to read Aadam’s musings which were way ahead of the time in which he lived in, whose ideas are vehemently opposed by his wife Naseem, later referred to as Reverend Mother by Saleem. The story when it moved to its next phase – of Ahmed Sinai and his wife, when they had just moved to Bombay months before Saleem’s birth and India’s independence – and for me personally, the setting in Bombay was the icing in the cake, thoroughly enjoyable to read the description of the city in the 40s and the early 50s.

My favourite aspect of the novel however was the authors extremely clever use of allusions, linking most of Saleem’s events with that of what was happening to India at that point in time – be it the 1965 war, the Bangladesh war or the emergency (where he made his antipathy towards the Gandhis very visible – a stance which would please a substantial majority of the present day Indians). Moreover, I felt a lot of work has gone into the research on the two nations political history – those who are familiar with it can easily connect to it and recall your history and those who don’t, it is a very interesting for I’m pretty sure many are parts of history that are unknown to most. The uncertainty of the novel was another very good part of it – to what extent was Saleem making it up for there is nobody to verify his account in the present day and Padma (who, in my opinion is the personification of the reader) has not met any of the other Midnight’s Children and hence for all you know, this whole account could entirely be Saleem’s own imagination.

However, despite my praise for the author’s allusions and the subtle digs, I wonder to what extent it could be appreciated by a person who isn’t very familiar with India and Pakistan’s political and cultural history. Moreover, while I also appreciated the deep research of the author, there were some factual errors that could have been avoided – Ramayan wasn’t dictated to Ganesha and as per the myth, it was the Mahabharat (the irony being, Saleem goes on to praise himself for his knowledge using a similar parenthetical comment such as this one) and also, Annadurai was not the founder of the party ADMK but you never know whether these were factual errors committed by Salman or Saleem. Last, all said and done, this book was long, and in some cases unnecessarily long and some of the parts of it was extremely boring, especially the stage of Saleem’s adolescence – that was where the story seemed too petty and yes, I found the excessive use of nicknames irritating, at times (Reverend Mother, Brass Monkey, Eyeslice, Hairoil, etc.).

I’d conclude my review saying that this is a novel that’d test your patience, but it is worth undertaking the test and coming through it.  It took me nearly three months to read this book but I feel it is three months very well spent. It was a book with an excellent story, with the characters, language of the author and the narration of Saleem outdoing the excellence of the story. It is an excellent read for anyone provided you’ve that one ability – perseverance. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book in these three months and I’d give it an 8 on a scale of ten (somewhere between 7.7 – 7.9 to be precise).

Rating – 8/10

Have a nice day,
Andy



Sunday, 29 June 2014

Ajaya: Roll of the Dice by Anand Neelakantan – Book Review



Publisher’s write-up:

‘The Mahabarata endures as the great epic of India. But while Jaya is the story of the Pandavas, told from the perspective of the victors of Kurukshetra; Ajaya is the narrative of “unconquerable” Kauravas, who were decimated to the last man.

***

At the heart of India’s most powerful empire, a revolution is brewing. Bhishma, the noble patriarch of Hastinapura, is struggling to maintain the unity of his empire. On the throne sits Dhritarashtra, the blind Kind, and his foreign-born Queen – Gandhari. In the shadow of the throne stands Kunti, the Dowager-Queen, burning with ambition to see her firstborn become the ruler, acknowledged by all.
And in the wings:

·   Parashurama, the enigmatic Guru of the powerful Southern Confederate, bides his time to take over and impose his will from mountains to ocean.

·    Ekalavya, a young Nishada, yearns to break free of caste restrictions and become a warrior.
·     Karna, son of a humble charioteer, travels to the South to study under the foremost Guru of the day and become the greatest archer in the land.

·     Takshaka, guerrilla leader of the Nagas, foments a revolutionby the downtrodden as he lies in wait in the jungles of India, where survival is the only dharma.

·     Jara, the beggar and his blind dog Dharma, walk the dusty streets of India, witness to people and events far greater than they, as the Pandavas and the Kauravas confront their searing destinies.


Amidst the chaos, Prince Suyodhana, heir of Hastinapura, stands tall, determined to claim his birthright and according to his conscience. He is the maker of his own destiny – or so he believes. 

While in the corridors of the Hastinapura palace, a foreign Prince plots to destroy India. And the dice falls…’

Roll of the Dice is the first book in the Ajaya series written by Anand Neelakantan. The author already having tasted success in his earlier counter-perspective novel Asura, featuring Ravana as the protagonist contrary to the ancient Indian novel Ramayan, he does it yet again, with Ajaya, featuring Suyodhana (mocked in the victor’s version as Duryodhana) as the lead character and the whole story is from the perspective of the Kauravas.

Note: I’m going to assume that you’ve some knowledge on Mahabharat and hence, I believe I’m not giving any spoilers in the subsequent paragraphs.

The prologue starts with Bhishma, the Grand Regent of Hastinapura ransacking the Kingdom of Gandhara and taking Princess Gandhari as the bride for the blind Prince of Hastinapura, Dhritarashtra and ends up committing the blunder of leaving the Princess’ younger brother, Shakuni alive which was going to backfire several years later. The story immediately shifts early days of the Pandava and Kaurava princes, their mischief, their schooling, the rivalry between the cousins, etc. Prince Suyodhana is not satisfied by the way things are run at Hastinapura owing to the misery of the poor, the prevalence of the caste system, suppression of talent among several other reasons and is determined to succeed his father and change the way things are run at Hastinapura.

To start with, it was a very courageous attempt from the author; while it isn’t too difficult to write a book featuring Karna despite him having sided with the antagonists in Mahabharat since a lot of people have a very positive opinion on the character and in fact have a lot of sympathy towards him but it does take some courage to feature Duryodhana as the lead character, someone who has only been portrayed as the very personification of all evil deeds and considering that, it was certainly a challenge to make the reader like this character as the protagonist and see things from his perspective but the author goes about the task very well. For starters, he made the character oppose all the systems that most of the members of his target group hate, that is, the caste system, an unquestionable authority, having no value for merit and of course, an education system which doesn’t encourage any freedom of thought. I wouldn’t say that there is anything particularly noteworthy about the plot considering that it isn’t something that needed any deep though; however, I’d appreciate the author for maintaining the crux of the story of Mahabharat despite narrating it from a counter perspective. One more thing I liked about this book, purely from a personal angle was the portrayal of Krishna, whose actions, I totally don’t approve of, at all, in the original work and at times wonder how despite such actions of treachery, deceit and manipulation, people still see him as someone divine and the author brought out these characteristics of Krishna so explicitly which I so thoroughly enjoyed. The author’s pragmatic view over the whole novel was another thing that was very interesting, the way he saw the so called divinity of the Pandavas, the way he narrated the supernatural incidents of the original text in a perfectly logical way, was certainly very enjoyable to read. It was also good of the author to give a background to the story, as to why he decided to write a story on Duryodhana and substantiating the same with his personal experience in Poruvazhy, in his native state, Kerala. The last I’d say is that, he writes with a lot of flair which is sadly lacking in most of the popular Indian authors of the present day (barring a couple of editing issues which I shall gladly overlook considering that the alternatives are authors like Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi).

A significant disappointment of mine in this book was again, the character of Suyodhana. While this point might seem contradictory since a while ago, I had praised his characterisation but, I found his behaviour to be contradictory; like how he backs merit in all other cases barring in his own considering how he himself had acknowledged once that Yudishtira was more capable than he was, however, he was strongly of the opinion that Yudishtira had no legitimate claim to the throne considering he didn’t have the paternal lineage. In a way, he supports merit for everyone else barring him making him an ordinary hypocrite and not the ‘Mr. Perfect’ he tried to be. Moreover, it is also surprising that someone who is so assertive, who could didn’t hesitate challenge the authority of Bhishma or Drona, could so easily be drawn into the devious plot of his uncle Shakuni. Barring this, I found the emphasis on Jara completely destroying the flow of the novel. For starters, Jara wasn’t even a significant character, had absolutely no role in the main plot, sings blindly in praise of Krishna despite his idol having no respect for him and his kind whatsoever. Jara was certainly a digression that could’ve been avoided and also something that could’ve shortened the book by at least forty pages.

On the whole, I’d say that this was a very good read and was a real pleasure to go through a book that mirrors your thoughts on something where you hold a view contrary to the view of the majority, in this case, Mahabharat. This is a very good read and could be enjoyed if you’ve a fair idea of Mahabharat (though, it is not a pre requisite, just that if you do, it could be enjoyed more) but if you find this review in any way blasphemous to your long held beliefs, I suggest you to not read the book. Based on the start that the author has given to the story, I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel.

Rating – 8/10

Have a nice day,

Andy

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Capitol Limited by David R. Stokes – Book Review



Publisher’s Write-up:

‘Long before they famously debated each other during the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon debated the merits of the new Taft-Hartley labor law in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, in April 1947. But their minds were clearly on bigger things.

As fate would have it, Kennedy and Nixon shared a Pullman compartment on a famous train called The Capitol Limited, the pride of the B&O Line, for an overnight trip back to Washington. They stayed awake all night talking about their lives, hopes, and visions for a better world. Capitol Limited is based on a very true story.

Bestselling Author David R. Stokes imagines how the conversation might have unfolded that long-ago night. Based on extensive research, and complete with a lengthy and unusual-for-a-novel biography, Capitol Limited gives readers the change to eavesdrop as two men have an animated conversation about history, world leaders, and the brewing geopolitical issues they would one day face as leaders of the free world.

It was the dawn of the Cold War, and these two formed naval officers were developing a vision for the world, one that would be “tempered by a hard and bitter peace”. And years later, the political torch would be passed to John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, who represented “a new generation of Americans”. They would become America’s premier Cold Warriors.’

Capitol Limited is a book written by the American political commentator, broadcaster and columnist, David R. Stokes. It features the two newly elected members to the US House of Representatives post the Second World War, Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

The story begins with the news of Kennedy’s assassination and Nixon recollecting his past experiences with Kennedy. It goes back to 1947, when the two newly elected Congressmen had to visit the Pennsylvanian mining town, McKeesport for a debate on the Taft-Hartley Labour Bill. While the debate was hardly the highlight of the novel, it was the return journey of the two, back to Washington, from McKeesport, where they have a conversation over nearly every contemporary issue, personal, what is best for the country, the incidents around the world, Israel, the rise of communism in Eastern Europe, et cetera.
I was really keen on reading this novel since historical fiction is my favourite genre and I’m highly passionate about politics. Moreover, my knowledge on the political environment of The United States till 1990 is rather superficial especially on Richard Nixon, on whom I had known nothing about barring Watergate and him being the only American president to have resigned and despite that, I’ve been told by some of my American friends that he is the best President that they’ve ever been under; and hence, I thought this could be an excellent read. True to my expectations, I had an extremely well written and well-presented novel with adequate actual historical references (marked in bold and italics, during the course of the novel).

What I really liked about this novel was how he the author brought out as to how Nixon and Kennedy are different in every way barring the fact that they had both served in the navy but are still such close friends. Nixon and Kennedy had come from totally different backgrounds, while Kennedy was from a well to do family whereas Nixon had to struggle to come up the ranks and despite this, both of them represented political ideologies contradictory to their background which was brought out well during the debate at McKeesport. I also really loved the way in which the author had brought out the personality of both the future presidents, with Nixon being the shrewd dedicated politician who thoroughly researches on something before making any statement whereas Kennedy is more of a politician by accident relying more on his innate abilities as a journalist but living the dream of his deceased brother.  The friendship between the two of them was something really good, considering how it is nearly unimaginable today, especially when the rivals run such bitter campaigns, particularly the 2012 election between Obama and Romney.

The only thing that I found on the flipside was that, I found Kennedy to be someone too weak who was just trying to be a shadow of all the other world leaders he had met so far (like Churchill, where Kennedy was continually referring to Churchill’s mannerism to justify his own, including for eating a boiled egg!) whereas I believe the reality is far from it. Probably, I got under this notion because during the course of the novel, I agreed more with Nixon than Kennedy, owing to my personal capitalist views.

I’d conclude saying that this was an excellent retelling of a historical event clubbed with an excellent imagination and could be enjoyed by anyone who is interested in politics and considering the aforementioned points, I’d award this book a seven on ten.

Rating – 7/10


Have a nice day,
Andy

Friday, 30 May 2014

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry – Book Review



Publisher’s write-up:

‘In wartime Copenhagen, the world is suddenly a scary place for ten-year-old Annemarie. There are food shortages and curfews, and soldiers on every corner in the city.

But it is even worse for Annemarie’s Jewish best friend, Ellen, as the Nazis continue their brutal campaign. With Ellen’s life in danger, Annemarie must summon all her courage to help stage a daring escape.’

Number the Stars is a Newbery Medal winning novel written by the American writer, Lois Lowry. It is based in Copenhagen during the Second World War, featuring the ten year old Annemarie Johansen and her Jewish friend Ellen Rosen.

This happens after Denmark falls into Nazi control and Copenhagen is stationed with German troops all over. Like any other day, Annemarie was walking back from school along with her sister Kirsti and friend Ellen and as always, they were racing back home, only to be stopped by two German soldiers and being strongly reprimanded. Eventually Annemarie is informed by her parents that Jewish shops are being closed and the Germans are planning to arrest all the Jews in Denmark and Ellen would have to stay with the Johansens. The story’s main theme is to move the Rosens and other Jews to Sweden till the war is over.

There are a few things I liked about this book; to start with, its simplicity (I’ve never read a simpler holocaust novel) and how you can actually read the whole book in hardly three hours. Another equally good aspect of the book is that of Annemarie’s character – determined and smart, especially when she pulls the Star of David necklace off Ellen so that the Nazis fail in identifying Ellen as a Jew. Her determination was also seen when she had put her life on the line to deliver the package to her Uncle Henrik on time so that he could ferry the Jews over to Sweden. Another aspect I liked about this book was how the author was able to convince the reader that there are occasions when it is better to be ignorant (something continually told to Annemarie by her Uncle Henrik).

The problem for me was, when I chose this book, I didn’t know that Lois Lowry is someone who is into children’s literature. Moreover, I got it at a throwaway price of 29 INR (roughly around 30 pence) since a bookstore that was closing in my locality was offering discounts and I thought it might be worth a try. I was carried away by the write-up behind the cover and expected a wonderful holocaust novel along with an excellent Scandinavian touch but then, this was too childish and a way too straightforward to an extent where the simplicity was a drawback. Also, there was no other noteworthy character barring Annemarie and her deceased sister’s fiancĂ©, Peter Neilsen. I also felt that the author could have researched Denmark better – while I’m no connoisseur when it comes to knowledge on Denmark, I’m pretty sure that the name is spelt ‘Nielsen’ in Danish and also that cupcakes were popular in America for a long time but spread to the rest of the world only after the second world war (just to confirm this point, I found that it was introduced in Denmark in 1990) and Annemarie longing for cupcakes that they once had seemed to be rather inappropriate.

On the whole, I’d conclude saying that this is a below mediocre holocaust novel and you can read this if you wish to have a light read with a happy ending.

I’d give this book a rating of 4/10.

Rating – 4/10

Have a nice day,

Andy

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Three years, and counting

17th May, 2014, this day, that is, marks the third anniversary of this blog. Over these three years, a lot of things have happened, both for me personally and for this blog. For starters, when I started, I was still in school and yes, looking back at my initial reviews, that fact would seem more than evident.

This blog started solely because of a grave personal failure of mine, that being, writing my own work of fiction. While, the term ‘writing’ alone might seem misleading considering I’d have written close to 1,000 the seven year life of that ambition, but the misfortune being, the 1,000 pages were accumulated over 30 different plots; with me rejecting each one of them after the very first self-review and ultimately, none of them were completed. Yet another constraint to this ambition of mine was that reading was hardly a hobby of mine, and I had always preferred to create my own rather than read someone else’s. Unfortunately, it took me too long to realise that my writing isn’t good enough – considering how my expectations were so high and I was never able to meet them.

Just then, I had come across a blog of my friend, who wrote anime reviews and that is when, there was a thought that came by, a move by which, I could save my writing habit, and at the same time, come closer to making my ambition of becoming an author closer to a goal than a dream. That is when I decided to take a sabbatical from crafting works of fiction on my own and start reading works of other authors and get an idea on how to go about the job and after reading a book (after all, taking idea from a source is plagiarism, but if the same is done over several sources, it is deemed to be creativity in this world), I’d write a review on the same, thereby retaining my habit of writing something on my own (not as creative, but a reasonable alternative). So, finally my blog, http://vata312.blogspot.com (I beseech you, please don’t ask me for the expansion of vata or the significance of 312) going by the name ‘The Viscount’s Reviews’ (as I said, I was still in school when I opened this up and just before opening this blog, I had read about Horatio Nelson, and the fascination about led me to give myself the self-proclaimed title). The first review up was on Ian Rankin’s Knots &Crosses – the first book in the Inspector John Rebus series.

From then on, then on, fortunately, the blog has only seen a rise. Understandably so, my initial reviews were too rigid and drab and I still guess have a lot of scope to improve, despite being in this for three years. What came as a pleasant surprise to me was in October 2012, nearly one and a half years after I had started off, when I received a direct request from an author for a review. This was pleasant, considering how, when I had started off, I never knew such perks existed on this job. I’d like to thank all the twenty odd authors (whose names I’m not at a liberty to disclose to prevent my otherwise unquestionable objectivity come under scrutiny) who’ve had their faith in me and I wish to have all your continued support. I guess I’d also have to thank them for the patience they’ve had in me, considering that my reading is extremely slow, for a fact that it was never my natural hobby but something that I’m carrying out with a vested interest.

The Road Ahead

Instead of looking things at retrospect, I’d rather introspect into what could be done in with the blog. Fortunately, before too long, I had renamed by blog Astute (inspired by Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes Minister, who continually uses the word in a rather… astute manner) and followed by a quote from an author whom I strongly admire and deeply respect.

My primary concern, at the moment is the design of the blog which I believe could be presented in a much better manner, which could immediately grab the attention of the reader. The list of reviews for instance, is an extremely user unfriendly list for the reader to manoeuvre through for the review that they wish to read. Anybody who can help me on this, please contact me and I promise, I shall repay you with loads of gratitude (*winks*).

I also plan to expand the base of books in order to turn it into a genuine book reviewing blog. As of now, although I’ve a considerable readership, most of them seem to be for my non-core Scandinavian drama series (as seen below in the screenshot I’ve attached). The only way I see for this is to improve my quality of reviews, presentation, and perhaps, also get a good spin doctor (*winks again*).



While I certainly feel that this blog has come a long way from my first review, Knots& Crosses till I am Malala, with the difference being more than evident, I still thrive to make my next set of reviews to be of a much higher standard than what I’ve done in the first three years.

Ultimately, I’ve to return to my primary goal sooner than later and I hope I hang on to this tomfoolery for a maximum of another 18 months and get back to writing (I do have a reasonable idea for a historical fiction in place) and let me see how that goes.

Thanks to all the friends (whom I’ve asked on countless occasions to review my reviews), authors and of course the readers and I'd hope for all your continued support.

With this, I end my write-up on the completion of three years, and counting, for a long time to come.

Have a nice day,

Andy

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai – Book Review



Publisher’s write-up:

‘On Tuesday 9 October 2012, she almost paid the ultimate price. Shot in the head at point-blank range while riding the bus home from school, she was not expected to survive.

Instead, Malala’s miraculous recovery has taken her on an extraordinary journey from a remote valley in northern Pakistan to the halls of the United Nations in New York. At sixteen, she has become a global symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I am Malala is the remarkable tale of a family uprooted by global terrorism, of the fight for girls’ education, and of Malala’s parents’ fierce love for their daughter in a society that prizes sons.

It will make you believe in the power of one person’s voice to inspire change in the world.’

The incident that took place on 12th October, 2012 had taken the world by storm. It was just another mundane day for the teenage blogger / activist, Malala Yousafzai who was returning from school when all of a sudden; her bus was stopped by two men who posed a question to everyone, ‘Who is Malala?’ and before too long she was shot at point blank range and in no time, tehreek-i-taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack.

The autobiography, co-authored by the well-known British war correspondent, Christina Lamb covers events from Malala’s birth till her recovery from the bullet wounds. I loved the way in which the book started with description of the incident which put her into global spotlight and moves into the story with a very strong closure on the prologue – ‘”Who is Malala?” the gunman demanded. I am Malala and this is my story.

To begin with, I’d say the story was structured very well with clear temporal and situational demarcation. In most autobiographies, the lack of this feature is the problem that readers usually face (though, to be fair on them others, Malala just had to cover fourteen years). The first part of the autobiography is on her life in Swat before the entry of taliban, and begins with her father celebrating her birth, which is unusual considering how Pashtuns are a society that prizes sons. Then she goes on to describe her humble origins where money was scarce and her father was pursuing his dream of starting a school in Mingora, the largest town in the Swat valley and the eventual beginning of the realisation of the dream – describing the founding of Khushal Public School (named after the family’s first son, Malala’s younger brother) and how it grew step by step. Malala drew inspiration from her father and developed similar ideologies, be it on the emphasis on education, the love for poetry, oratory, devotion to Islam and also with regard to the disagreement with taliban’s interpretation of the same. It was also good as to how; sufficient focus was shown on giving a reader an insight into the history of the Swat valley (I fail to understand how she feels it is a valley of peace when it is a part of the Pashtun tradition to carry a rifle with them), the history of Pashtuns, their traditions (The Pashtunwali code), the history of Pakistan (need not be very relevant for a reader like myself considering I’m from the neighbouring country and I don’t need any further insight, but certainly for all useful for all the readers outside South Asia).

The second phase of the autobiography was my favourite where she beautifully brings out the gradually changing environment in Swat with the entry of the taliban. I had always wondered as to how the taliban had such a strong support among the locals, be it Helmand, South Waziristan or Swat Valley, Malala gave me the answer as to how the warlords portray themselves as pious people to begin with and win the minds of the people and then, eventually get on with their own agenda. That transition in Swat valley was brought out very well during the second phase as to how taliban gradually began to exploit the trust that the locals had in them and whatever they had taken for granted, such as attending school, singing, dancing, films, television were all banned by them, virtually making the locals prisoners in their own valley (such restrictions would certainly be difficult for someone like Malala considering she is a fan of Western works like Twilight).

The third and fourth phase are what people all over the world know better, that is, the shooting and the aftermath, the only irony that the reader could enjoy is this was possibly one scenario where the Pakistani Army and the Government were on the same page, that is saving Malala at any cost.

The only negative aspect I found in the book was the involvement of Christina Lamb; while I presume she’d have done a commendable job in fine-tuning the work and editing (after all, good editing is when the reader doesn’t get to feel the editor’s work), however, the originality was lost. While I’m sure that giving an insight into the politics and history of Pakistan would’ve been her work which was one of her positive contributions but at the same time, with the reader easily able to spot who wrote what isn’t exactly a good sign. For instance, Malala, who doesn’t even know where Birmingham is, there is no way she could’ve made a comparison between the radius of the earthquake in Pakistan in 2005 covering an area close to the size of the US state of Connecticut. I personally feel that the book would’ve been much better had it fully been her own which would’ve been the easiest way of conveying her thoughts and ideologies to the reader.

What makes me really admire Malala is her courage – contrary to the popular belief that she got famous only because of being shot by the taliban; she has been campaigning on this issue for a really long time which is what had brought her into their radar. However, despite the threats that she received, neither her father nor did she budge, and instead, she threw her pseudonym off and started appearing on TV – a sort of courage that is hard to find. Another reason why I admire her is her agenda – that is education for all, irrespective of gender. I’ve known activists who run a single point agenda on girls’ education whereas totally ignoring the other 50% of the population, especially when there are a considerable number of children being denied the privilege of education in that 50% and Malala is certainly not one such activist and certainly runs a much broader agenda and I hope she continues to campaign for the cause even though she is in a place far away from her home where she longs to return (which I guess is unlikely, considering all the appalling conspiracy theories that I hear in the neighbouring countries – even in well-known newspapers).

On the whole, I’d say that this book is an excellent read on all grounds, the content, information, the way in which her experience was presented, her language (I don’t know to what extent Christina Lamb is involved, while I know that Malala speaks English very well, I can’t really comment much on her writing skills) and was completely worth the money that I had paid for it. I’d also like to thank the publisher who cleverly hid Kashmir in the map of Pakistan that was shown for the reader’s comfort before the prologue because had they taken any stance on the demarcation, even if they had plotted the actual jurisdiction, I might have not had the privilege to read the book in my country of residence considering how 31 issues of the British magazine, The Economist was banned back in 2009 over the same issue.

As always, I shall not rate an autobiography, however, I’d say that it is an excellent read which could be recommended to anyone. 

Have a nice day,

Andy

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The Shadow Throne by Aroon Raman – Book Review


Publisher’s write-up:

'A mysterious murder at the Qutub Minar triggers a call to ace journalist Chandrasekhar from his cop acquaintance, Inspector Syed Ali Hassan. The victim is unlike anyone Chandra has ever seen: a white Caucasian male who has all the looks of a throwback to Greek antiquity. Soon after, Hassan calls in to report the case has been taken away from him – in all likelihood by RAW – the Research & Analysis Wing, the uber-agency of Indian intelligence.

What began as a murder enquiry soon morphs into a deadly game of hide-and-seek within the shadowy world of Pakistan’s ISI and India’s RAW; and Chandra, his friend history professor Meenakshi Pirzada and Hassan find themselves in a race against time to avert a sub-continental nuclear holocaust. As the action moves to its hair-raising climax in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan, Chandra must face up to the fact that Inspector Hassan is not all that he seems …'

The Shadow Throne is a conspiracy thriller with a glimpse of history written by Aroon Raman. It didn’t take me too long to get intrigued by the write-up of this book – with a touch of history (including a history professor for a protagonist), a murder, cross border conspiracy and of course, with the plot also moving into Afghanistan.

It had an excellent start, with the author giving the reader a full insight into the main protagonist – Chandrasekhar (whose part is narrated from a first person perspective) – a middle aged widower bereaved by the recent untimely death of his wife who is a freelance journalist based in Delhi, passionate about his profession. And once the character introduction was done, the action began in no time, with Chandra getting a call regarding an unusual murder at Qutub Minar – with the victim being one of the descendants of the ancient Indo-Greeks. But, the murder is linked to a much greater conspiracy involving multiple factions including RAW of India, Xiphos Soter (a group of Indo-Greeks in Afghanistan trying to reclaim their past glory) and the ISI of Pakistan with India facing a potential nuclear threat. It all comes down to Chandrasekhar and Syed Ali Hassan (an inspector in Delhi Police) to go all the way to Afghanistan serving both India and Pakistan and to stop the nuclear threat against all odds and are in the process helped by Meenakshi Pirzada, a history professor and a friend of Chandra’s late wife.

I felt this novel had the perfect start, as aforementioned, giving an insight into the protagonist and then, straight, going on to the crux of the novel without beating about the bush. The reason why I’m a little sceptical about trying out new age Indian authors is primarily because of clichĂ©d mundane plots being presented in sub-standard language but thankfully, I had a pleasant surprise with this novel. I enjoyed the author’s language and the description of the scenes of the novels, and thanks to his emphasis on detail, I had no issues in visualising the novel. Another great aspect of this novel is the good research – with the author having to touch up on a wide range of things, such as the border security along the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, nuclear missiles, the Indo-Greeks and their practices, the internal functioning of intelligence agencies, Afghanistan, etc. It was also great to see the character of Hassan and Chandra develop so well during the course of the novel bringing out the complexities so well. However, the best part I felt about this novel was, that despite all the write-up, Pakistan / ISI is not the enemy. When I initially read the publisher’s write-up, I thought it was one of those Pakistan bashing stories which sell so well in India (not sure about books, certainly in films) but thankfully, it wasn’t and in fact, it was pleasing to see such collaboration that one would just hope for it to happen outside a work of fiction, too.

However, despite all the positives, one disappointing thing about the novel was that the Afghan setting, in my opinion wasn’t utilised well enough. I’d have enjoyed the novel a lot more had the author touched more upon the surroundings at Ghazni and the journey to Bamiyan, even if it had extended the novel by another twenty pages. While the character development of Hassan and Chandra was excellent, at the same time, Meenakshi could’ve been given some attention too as I could never connect with her very much, as a reader – seemed more like one of those sundry characters who give a couple of vital clues and just fade out.

While I read comparisons of this with Dan Brown, I wouldn’t stop at that, I also found an element of Henry Rider Haggard in his work, regarding a lost race with huge dreams and touch of Alistair MacLean, as far as the action (and needless to say, the protagonist surviving against the unlikeliest of odds). It was pleasing to read such an excellent piece of work from a modern Indian author and I wish to read more of his works. To summarise, this is a fabulous debut and I wish to read more of his works.

Considering the plot, the pace, the language, the character development and the research involved to put together the 320 page ‘page-turner’, I’d give this book an eight in my scale.

Rating – 8/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Monday, 10 February 2014

The Istanbul Puzzle by Laurence O’Bryan – Book Review




Publisher’s write-up:



Sean Ryan is horrified to learn that his colleague and friend Alek Zegliwski has been savagely beheaded. His body is found hidden near the sacred archaeological site of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.



When Sean arrives in city to identify the body, he is handed an envelope of photographs belonging to Alek and soon finds himself in grave danger. Someone wants him dead – by why?



Aided by British diplomat Isabel Sharp, Sean begins to unravel the mystery of the mosaics in the photographs and inches closer to snaring Alek’s assassin. But evil is at work in Istanbul and when a lethal virus is unleashed upon the city, panic spreads fast across Europe. Time is running out for Sean and Isabel. They must catch the killer before it’s too late…’



The Istanbul Puzzle is the first novel in Laurence O’Bryan’s Puzzle series featuring Sean Ryan, a widower working at The Institute of Applied Research, Oxford.


It begins with the murder of Alek Zegliwski, an employee at the Institute of Applied Research, Oxford. The murder attracted a lot of attention considering how he was beheaded in Hagia Sophia. This brings his closest acquaintance into the scene, Sean Ryan, the director of the institute and by entering the scene; he ends up risking his own life as Alek’s assailants are willing to do anything to let the murder remain a mystery. However, this doesn’t worry Sean in anyway whatsoever, and is equally determined to unravel the mystery behind his colleague’s death and is helped by British diplomat in the process. The story is narrated by Sean in first person (his parts). 



A one liner I’d say for this book is that the write-up on the back-cover flatters to deceive. While it starts very well, with a barbaric beheading followed by Sean Ryan urgently heading to Istanbul to investigate the scene and ends up getting attacked on the same day with Isabel coming to his rescue. However, with that, everything came to an end. The author was too much in awe of Hagia Sophia, the friendly nature of the Turkish public and Hagia Sophia and ends up describing every brick of the city with such details that he gets lost in proceeding with the plot. In fact, the sub-plot on the planning of the bio-war turned out to be much more interesting and considering the end, I’m in a dilemma as to decide which is the plot – Alek’s murder or the sub-plot describer here but owing to the number of pages occupied by the former, I’d advisedly use that description for the latter. It gets nowhere till Sean and Isabel find an ancient manuscript beneath Hagia Sophia, giving a glimmer of hope to the reader that things are going to get interesting from thereon but then, it flattered to deceive too, like the overall write-up and in fact, the find had no real impact in the story, in the end.



However, some praise worthy aspects of the novel are is the description of Istanbul as aforementioned. Upon reading this, your urge to visit the city where the cultures of East and West merge would just be on the rise considering the picturesque descriptions of the various monuments such as Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and Hagia Eirene (though I don’t know why the Blue Mosque was completely ignored) and the Bosphorous. In fact, I’d rate it as a good travelogue with a story in the background. The way in which the author brought out the rising trust between Sean and Isabel was also good – rather than putting up with another love at first sight, Isabel falls only out of growing respect for Sean and also made a good combination together considering Sean’s tenacious and Isabel’s pragmatic approach.


However, while I found the coordination between Sean and Isabel to be praise worthy, however, I felt that as a reader, I couldn’t involve myself with any of the characters individually and in fact, Sean was even quite ignorant (well, how could someone be totally in the dark about a mass demonstration that was going to take place in his city of residence, especially with it being reported in the news for so many days). Moreover, the number of loose ends were a way too many beyond the tolerable limit for a thriller – just to name a few; the search at Sean’s house in Fulham – who did it and why was it done? Ultimately, it had no impact on the plot, either. The visit to Iraq is quite similar where they find no significant lead and the only result of it was the death of the Greek Orthodox priest (not to mention, there were several other similar pointless deaths – such as… well, nearly every acquaintance of Sean in Turkey). And to top it all, this list isn’t even exhaustive. Perhaps, the only justification for the loose ends is that there is a sequel but I guess following this, I’m hardly motivated to read it, following this novel.



While I had been reading that this work could be compared to that of Dan Brown’s, it inevitably led to a huge disappointment as it wasn’t even half as good as The Da Vinci Code with the only similarity being the occurrence of a murder in the prologue and historic references to happenings during an ancient era. I had very high hopes on the author’s work myself considering his tweets and the contents he shared in his blog that I was too keen to only read a story of his; only to be deceived, in the end. To my fellow readers – don’t read this expecting a The Da Vinci Code style thriller – have your expectations really low.



I had been looking for this novel for a really long time and considering the scarce availability of it in my country of residence, I bought it from a neighbouring country and considering my expectations, the effort I took in hunting for this novel, and it was a huge disappointment. I hope something better in the sequel, in case I find the sudden motivation to read it.


I’d be generous enough to award The Istanbul Puzzle a 4/10 (only for the description of Istanbul).



Rating – 4/10



Have a nice day,

Andy

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