Thursday, 14 March 2019

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘Afghanistan, 1975: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that it to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule to find the one thing that his new world cannot grant him: redemption.’

This was a book suggested to me by a friend of mine seven years ago because of my ‘far from mainstream’ taste. It is also to do with the fact that the story was based out of Afghanistan, a place that most of us know more through international media than stories from the locals.

Coming to the plot, it was about the Afghan past catching up to now successful US based writer, Amir. He grew up in Kabul before the Soviet invasion, with his father and his best friend, Hassan, the son of his father’s domestic help, Ali (of Hazara ethnicity). Unlike the traditional Pashtuns, Amir was more interested in writing and storytelling. It was Hassan who particularly enjoyed Amir’s stories as the former was illiterate. Amir’s father was not encouraging of this hobby but was encouraged by his business partner, Rahim Khan. The big event in Kabul for young boys was the Kite flying festival – where one flies the kite and the other retrieves a kite that falls (known as The Kite Runner) lending the book its title. While Amir and his father moved to the United States after the Soviet Invasion, he had left behind a past in Afghanistan which he did not want to be reminded of, until one day, he is summoned by Rahim Khan to visit him in Pakistan.

This is the second book that I am reading from an author with a Pashtun background and similar to the previous (I am Malala), the book brings out the gradual change in the society over time. Amir grew up during times of relative peace and his father while not rejecting religion, rejects fundamentalist notions and believes ‘mullahs’ to be the biggest threat to peace. At the beginning of the plot, it was normal for them to watch films in Farsi or Hindi, in Tehran or Peshawar. However, this eventually changed with time with the Soviet invasion followed by the Taliban takeover and this change was brought out well and in detail.

The character of Amir was interesting, considering he was not the normal superhero protagonist. He had no extraordinary abilities and his expertise in the kite flying festival was also largely attributed to Hassan. He is also not someone who faces his problems and prefers to stay away from them as much as possible. These traits make it difficult for any reader to develop a particular sympathy for Amir. However, the author was successful in keeping the reader engaged with Amir till the end of the story.

I also appreciate the author taking you through different timelines, the plot grows with Amir; who happens to be growing up when Afghanistan’s fortunes were going downhill. If the reader is not from South Asia, The Kite Runner is not just an amazing story told to you but also a book that gives you a glimpse of Afghanistan’s history, the divisions in the society and the culture at large.

The plot had however slowed down when Amir and his father moved to the United States and remains so till one gets to the final third. The final third, while it was interesting with Amir’s convictions and memories challenged at every moment, parts of the action sequences could be equated with an Alistair MacLean novel – unbelievable and sometimes, beyond logic.

There were instances were Pashto was used for an entire phrase (though the author provided translations in most cases). Since I speak a closely related language, it was substantially intelligible but it could have been difficult for other readers, at times, even annoying.

On the whole, I would say that The Kite Runner is a book that I decided to read long ago, but waited for long. Notwithstanding that, I would say that it was worth the wait – it was a complete package, the story of a boy growing up, amidst crisis, get of it and then the past comes back to get you.

Considering that, I would award the book a rating of nine on ten.

Rating – 9/10

Have a nice day,

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Child Soldiers by Indika Guruge – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘Riza, a young upper-middle class girl from Jaffna, Sri Lanka born during the bloody and brutal 26-year Sri Lankan civil war has her whole world turned upside down when her close family member is killed in the civil war. She didn’t want anything to do with the civil war, but now she was forced to join a side, she had to, even though she was still only a child. The thirst for revenge was too great for her courageous spirit to simply ignore it. Even if it meant saying goodbye to her family she had come to love more than she ever believed possible.

But things wouldn’t go so easy for young Riza, as she delves deeper into the conflict she finds out the dark and hidden secrets of the terrorist forces she joined in the civil war in order to avenge her family member. Riza will truly find out the meaning of a full-scale bloody civil war, and will learn the true meaning of sacrifice and loyalty as she uncovers the ugly side of the people she joined…’

Will she survive the brutal war, avenge her fallen family member and return to her family, or will the horrors of war get the best of young Riza?’

The island nation in the Indian Ocean had a gruesome civil war for almost quarter of a century. Over 100,000 people were killed and 800,000 people were displaced, internally or as refugees elsewhere. Heads of state of two countries (Sri Lanka and India) were assassinated. As someone who is from just across the Palk Strait, I could easily relate to the stories from the civil war. Child Soldiers is a fictionalised portrayal of the reality that prevailed in Sri Lanka during the Civil War.

The story features an upper middle class Tamil family comprising John, a Colombo based doctor, his wife and two children. The eventual persecution of the Tamils in Colombo and other Sinhalese majority areas of Sri Lanka forced the family to move north in Jaffna. This is a story of how John and his daughter Riza, eventually are radicalised and join the militant separatist movement – the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The author has paid extreme attention to detail in the story – giving an elaborate background as to what led to the troubles in Sri Lanka. Very little is known about the gruesome war outside of Sri Lanka and in the state of Tamil Nadu in India and the background is needed to appreciate the story. The character of John was built well, a moderate, who was initially against the militants and extreme circumstances made him to eventually give in. Riza was an even more interesting character, well read and someone regarded as the ‘intellectual’ in a class. Her journey from the pacifist to a child soldier and a totally committed LTTE warrior was a highlight of the book. The internal functioning of LTTE was brought out well, including aspects like jealousy and caste / religious consciousness within the ranks.

I believe the author could have avoided the use of representative images in the book – the writing seemed so akin to non-fiction that for a while, I thought it was perhaps a real story before I read the initial disclaimer again. While I appreciate that the style gave the feeling of reading the story of a real person, as a reader, I would always prefer to visualise the scene myself and a representative image limits a reader’s thought.

While John and Riza were characters with a high level of detail, sufficient attention was not given to any of the others. Under such circumstances, an epilogue stating the fate of every character was unnecessary.

This was a war with extreme level of human rights violations from both sides. Persecution from the Sri Lankan Army on the one side, brutal suppression of any opposition by LTTE, not to mention them using children as soldiers. However, what I felt was the most shocking was presence of political and ideological support right across the Palk Strait in Tamil Nadu (India) and an equally alarming is the fact that hardly anything is known about this outside of South Asia.

Thus, I feel it is great from the author that an effort has been made to bring out this story and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story (would have been able to even if I was from outside of South Asia). On that note, I would give the book a rating of seven on ten.

Rating – 7/10

Have a nice day,

Sunday, 27 January 2019

The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – Book Review

Note: I had originally read the book in French

Publisher’s write-up (translated to the best of my ability):

‘We have all been the Crown Prince of a kingdom called childhood. The prince is here the king of a herd of a single sheep. The pilot was invited to draw, after crash landing into the Sahara Desert. There, The Little Prince and the pilot fly from planet to plant and they meet in every planet a single man who becomes a new citizen of the utopian and imaginary kingdom’.

The first time I heard the author’s name was in my old office, where there was a quote on the wall – ‘If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.’ I had searched more about the quote and the person and learnt that the book ‘The Little Prince’ by the author was one of the most sold books all over the world. Since I was always interested in learning French in the future, I had decided that when I read it, it would be in French, even though it took nearly five years.

So, the story of ‘The Little Prince’ is quite simple. A pilot has crash landed into the Sahara Desert and has just eight days of essential supplies to survive. It was then that the pilot met a little boy whom he preferred to address as ‘The Little Prince’. When the pilot was young, he was extremely interested in drawing but the adults around him found his ideas crazy and bizarre and was thus discouraged. However, when he showed one of his drawings to The Little Prince, to his surprise, the latter had guessed his idea correctly and they start to discuss and develop a bond. The Little Prince talks about his planet and his experiences in travelling various different planets. So, will the pilot be able to survive beyond eight days? Can The Little Prince find a solution to the problems of the pilot?

I understand that even the book is meant for young readers, the author also gives his opinions on a lot of pertinent subjects through the story and the character of The Little Prince. The Little Prince had visited a lot of planets, each of them with a single inhabitant, such as a king who only gives orders which are possible to be followed, a man who drinks in order to forget his embarrassment over his drinking problem, etc. as if I reveal any further, it would be like adding spoilers. But I can say this that through this book, the author challenges various ideas of the modern world, such as the way businesses are carried out, the extreme level of self-importance bordering on narcissism, the idea of specialisation, etc. I found these themes interesting regardless of whether I agreed with them or not.

The writing style of the author was also simple considering, my French is still not at a near fluent level, I could still understand most of the words without using the dictionary. I also appreciated the fact that I felt the story to be so real even though it was filled with supernatural elements such as aliens, planets with just a single inhabitant, interplanetary travel, etc.

However, I don’t accept the idea that the way in which ‘adults’ think is a problem which is a repetitive theme throughout the book and like any other person, I also identified the initial designs of the Pilot to be what it looked like – simple objects like a ‘hat’ and did find the ideas of the pilot a little bizarre and perhaps the only difference would be that I wouldn’t personally discourage a child from pursuing the creativity. I don’t personally believe that being unable to make bizarre guesses to be a problem among adults.

To summarise, it is a good read, with a lot of ideas compressed in a rather short story and I found that interesting. I did not agree with a lot of ideas expressed by the author but that is more a problem about me than the book by itself and I personally believe that it is good to read content that I don’t agree with, at times, to escape the vicious circle of confirmation bias.

Considering the story, the ideas of the author, the character and the simplicity in writing, I give the book a rating of seven on ten.

Rating – 7/10

Have a nice day,

Australian Memories by Ndèye Labadens – Book Review

Australian Memories is a novella featuring the memories of the author, Ndèye Labadens during her journey around the country starting from Sydney and covering substantial parts of Northern Territory, Tasmania and a bit a Melbourne.

The author adds both a personal element and also tries to suggest from experience to future travellers. The book includes both places she liked and her opinions on the places as well as her own recommendations on what one could do in each of the places she visited – I found it particularly detailed in the case of Tasmania, be it at Launceston or Strahan. The book also had pictures taken by the author during the trip which helped me visualise her experiences further.

I enjoyed reading her experiences of the author during her long car drive in the Australian deserts as well as the details of her interactions with the Australian Aboriginals and their music which she had enjoyed. The Ayers Rock / Uluru has always been a place of interest for me and I got good insights on the travel arrangements and one could expect from the place from the book.

The book is structured like a personal diary making it very easy to read. However, I felt this was also a flipside to the book. She has covered a large landscape – starting from Sydney, on to Tasmania and then the entire Australian outback and finally Melbourne and when we consider this enormity in locations covered, the book is rather short to capture all of these experiences. There were also occasions where I felt that the author could have been more verbose where I had to fil the gaps with the pictures in the book of the location (like the Queen Victoria’s Building in Sydney).

It is certainly a good read for a person who is a travel enthusiast and has a plan of visiting Australia in the short term or sometime in the foreseeable future. This is a start for a person with the intention and I can vouch for the simplicity of the reading considering I read it around 90 minutes during a long bus journey.

On these notes, I would give this book a six on ten and I would like to try out the other books of the author.

Rating – 6/10

Have a nice day,

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Pawan the Flying Accountant by Sorabh Pant – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘Arjun Singh is an accountant by day and a demigod by night, though he cares more about GST than about his own superpowers – and even lesser about life itself.

Arjun is indestructible. It is a power he would gladly trade for some bananas and rum. But now some people know exactly what Arjun is capable of.

They force him to work for their ‘unofficial’ army, assassinate terrorists and fall into life-and-death battles with a Chinese dragon. Worse still, they’ve not cleared his taxes.

Combining dark humour with a whirlwind plot, Pawan is the story of a reluctant superhero, the futility of war and a whole lot of rum.’

This is a novel from the Indian stand-up comic, Sorabh Pant. I enjoy his live shows – his ability to create jokes out of a wide range of topics from politics to everyday activities, etc. The very story of my getting this book was when I attended his live show in Chennai and post his show, he offered the book at a concessional rate, an autograph and a selfie, an offer which I didn’t want to turn down.

Coming to this very book, there was probably going to be more personal connect with this book considering the lead character of this book Arjun Singh and I are of the same profession, that is, a Chartered Accountant. I found the premise of the book extremely interesting and I got to reading this book immediately after buying it.

This book starts off with a bunch of disclaimers and rightfully so, considering he touched some of the most sensitive topics in the country. However, the disclaimer also said ‘however, if you still choose to be offended by these jokes, just remember that the gods have a better sense of humour than you’.

On that note, Arjun Singh, a reclusive Chartered Accountant working as an auditor in a firm with a lot of suicidal tendencies. His job is his only passion. He is invincible because he is from the same race as the Hindu god Hanuman; had superpowers but didn’t care about using them. He eventually comes in contact with India’s secret army who are meant to protect the country. It is revealed that Arjun is a Pawan, people from his race who emerge in every era to protect the country, starting from Hanuman to now, Arjun.

The trouble faced by India was that China had its own covert plans to take over a town in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and the secret army had to overcome the Chinese plan.

There is no other book that I have read so far, which I felt had so many phases and my levels of enthusiasm varied in each of the phases. This book mocked some of the topics very well, such as politics, Indo-China relationship, the current exploits of top corporates in India, certain Indian stereotypes where it goes to the extent of hostages refusing to be rescued by a woman, etc. The author was also bold in places, wherein, there are certain perceptions about the country from a lot of Indians but would dare not say the same in public, the author astutely combined all of those and projected that as the speech of a Chinese diplomat in the book. The book had an interesting start, wherein there were cases where it was shown as to how the country was more obsessed with symbols than actual practice – such as Arjun befriending a gang called The Secular Gang with each member belonging to a different religion.

Those were the phases that kept me going in the book. But at the same time, it needs to be said that the author was confused as to where he was taking the book. He tried to craft it the way in which he conducts his live shows – that is smartly connecting dissimilar topics and presenting a diverse show but that’s now how a book works. The fact as to whether Arjun was a Chartered Accountant or not made very little difference to the plot and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) related innuendos were so less that you could have very much ignored them. The book initially had a humorous feel to it, and then on, it had a bit of humour and seriousness but in the final third, it ended up being a lesson on philosophy, a serious story going on between the Indians and the Chinese, though, I do agree that he did have his one liners deftly placed throughout the book.

Coming to character building, Arjun was one character where some effort was put into – hedonist, has strong views on countries and the very need for them, being rational in situations, etc. and as a reader, one could predict Arjun’s behaviour as the tale progressed. However, this was lacking in other characters of the book, including Kelly, a fellow member of the secret army; the lack of which made the romantic sub-plot somewhat drab. The author has put in a good amount of research into the situation at Arunachal.

This is a book filled with highs and lows for me, and when it was in the latter phase, I wouldn’t even feel like resuming the book and when it was going good, I read 70-100 pages at a stretch. This book had the promise and could certainly have been better, but it is worth a read for those who are familiar his shows as they could connect with the type of humour better. For those who haven’t been exposed to his programmes, it could still be enjoyed if the person really is aware of what is happening in India at present and the situation surrounding it (for those who read subsequently, by at present, I mean 2017-18).

On that note, I would award the book a rating of six on ten, I hope for a lot better books from the author in the forthcoming years.

Rating – 6/10

Have a nice day,

The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors by BBC – Documentary Review

Producer’s write-up:

‘Rageh Omaar traces the history of the Ottoman empire. A super-power of a million square miles, it matched the glories of Ancient Rome and collapsed less than a hundred years ago.’

This is a documentary produced by the BBC in 2013 – presented by the British journalist Rageh Omaar. Ottoman Empire was in existence for nearly seven centuries and its height, stretched from Budapest to Baghdad – this covers the rise of the Ottoman Empire and also its eventual fall over three hours split into three different episodes.

The documentary starts with Rageh Omaar exploring Istanbul and introduce us to the empire founded by a group of nomadic horsemen that stretched three continents for nearly 700 years. An emphasis was also placed on the fact that regions that were historically seen as Christian strongholds such as Constantinople (present day Istanbul), Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Hungary, etc. fell under Muslim rule and that there was a Muslim empire right at the doorstep of Central Europe – being Austria. So, how did the empire begin? How did they a Muslim dynasty manage an empire whose majority population was not from a religion of their own? How are they going to establish their authority to rule? All these questions are explored as Omaar interviews historians and an Eastern Orthodox Church priest, the latter who puts forth the views of the Christians who lived in the Ottoman Empire.

The producers certainly got their visuals right, be it the Hagia Sophia, the Bosphorus Bridge, Topkapi Palace, Semiliye Mosque – all of them were captured brilliantly. However, this focus on visuals occasionally digressed from the theme, wherein, clips of modern day Turkey made it seem more like a travelogue. The architectural aspects that were being talked about for each of these monuments was interesting, especially the Semiliye Mosque – where the architect was in fact said to be a conscripted Orthodox Christian who was converted to Islam. The Janissaries are quite known to even those who are not Ottoman aficionados – wherein the Turks took Christian boys when they were young and were converted and trained to be powerful soldiers, government officials, etc. How the Ottomans ran that system and how it ensured the stability of the kingdom was explained well and both perspectives were presented, the historians as well as the priest’s.

However, it is to be said that it lacked detail in how administration was carried out in the kingdom. I do agree that they covered how the empire managed to balance the religious laws and civil laws and how they had a parallel court system. It was certainly not the case where the Sultan ruled the entire empire residing at Istanbul – even Machiavelli in his book The Prince had explained how Ottomans split their empire into Sanjaks and how the Ottomans established a system different from the European hereditary feudalism, ensuring stability in the kingdom. None of it was even mentioned here and was focused entirely on the glory of the empire.

The fall was covered extremely well, starting with their defeat at Vienna and how from being feared, they ended up being ridiculed in Europe as the sick man. The final half an hour was entirely about modern day Turkey and the aggressive reforms of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk which brought about the recovery of the country post the First World War. Atatürk’s aggressive secular stance, pro-Western stance drew supporters and dissidents alike. However, this is where the series missed out – wherein, what was presented was a highly one sided picture of Atatürk. With regards Atatürk, I myself stand for every value that he stood for but with that said, I am sure that there would have been a lot of residents who would have been against the aggressive reforms, such as completely removing religion from public life, banning traditions they have been following for centuries, changing the script of the language, banning every Ottoman symbol, etc. They could have taken the views of people who were against Atatürk as well. If everyone were so pro-Atatürk even today as they project (this documentary is from 2013), we would never have seen the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) who are hard-line Islamists who strongly believe that the empire was glory days; AKP have been holding power for nearly 15 years now.

Overall, I would say that this is a good watch – in a totally unintended manner, this documentary has created an interest in a Turkish soap opera - Muhteşem Yüzyıl – a story where a lot of modern Turks feel the empire was unnecessarily glorified but still, is one of the most watched shows in Turkey.

This show has tried to appeal to all audiences – the history enthusiasts, the travel enthusiasts and in that attempt to please everyone, this show missed out on a few important details for which I would pull down the rating to six on ten.

Rating – 6/ 10

Have a nice day,

Friday, 15 June 2018

The Total Zone by Martina Navratilova and Liz Nickles – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘Sixteen-year-old Audrey Armat is a combination of sugar and steel: Grand Slam contender with a scorched-earth serve and hub of the nine-million-dollar business that is Audrey Armat Enterprises. She rarely loses. Luckily.

Professional tennis: high pressure, high profile. But what is the impact on young players? What happens when the line between privacy and the public is crossed?

No one knows better than Jordan Myles, former tennis champion and sports therapist, who works with the top players and aspiring champions, all drawn to the Desert Springs Sport Science Training Center. Their goal: achieving the Total Zone, when the mind and body are in perfect harmony and winning is inevitable.

Audrey Armat comes looking for it but disappears. And in launching a hunt for her, Jordan uncovers a startling story of abuse, suicide and murder.’

I bought this book after looking at the person who wrote it, a person who has lifted a trophy in Grand Slam tournaments 59 times, Martina Navratilova. For starters, I didn’t even know that she was also had a crack at writing, that too fiction – based in the world of tennis. There is a co-author, Liz Nickles, but I am unsure about the extent of her involvement.

The novel’s central theme is the life of a sixteen-year-old teenage sensation, Audrey Armat. The parents of Audrey have absolute control over her life – where she goes, who she meets, her endorsements, her style of play, her diet; and has been coached by her father since six. Lately, she has been experiencing a lot of health problems and that is when she is brought to Jordan Myles, a former tennis champion (including grand slam tournaments) who now works as a physiotherapist post a career ending injury. Things don’t go on well between Jordan and Audrey’s mother, especially when Audrey goes missing and she places the blame on Jordan and her organisation.

Jordan suspects extreme abuse on Audrey at the hands of her parents and decides to uncover the mystery behind her going missing. It was a reasonable premise that the author had and yes, she is someone who knows entirely as to how the system works – who are the persons involved, to what extent sponsors and endorsements have a role, the role of administrators and the games that they play. Jordan had quite the adventure, stretching from New York to California to Florida and then on to the UK (for Wimbledon) with public perception going increasingly against her following the lawsuit from Audrey’s mother.

However, the author’s only effort had been to try and build the character of Jordan Myles – as to who she was, her past, her planned future and what she believes in and what drives her. Barring her, no other character was built with such care – be it her colleague Gus, or the detective who helped her – Fish, her journalist friend Cas or even that of Audrey. Very often, reading her book felt like reading a tennis’ players journal – when she described how to play a particular shot or about achieving the ‘total zone’ – that is perfect mind and body harmony while playing.

The plot was loose, and begins to unfold very late, after a very slow introduction. I felt a lot of pages in this whole book was unnecessary, such as the entire Wimbledon saga. However, I did like the part that the author did not try to make herself the protagonist even though she brought a character similar to her into the book – a character named Mariska from Eastern Europe who had defected to the United States. I am sure that the author is more qualified to comment on the situation at Wimbledon than I am but I would say this that by reading this book, one might come to the conclusion that being a tennis player at Wimbledon is possibly one of the most dangerous things that a person could do.

This was a thriller novel which had a reasonable premise from an author who could very much put herself in the shoes of the characters but the narration was totally botched up, with uninspiring writing and while she thought of writing a rather gross climax, it just turned out weird and creepy.

I did not enjoy reading this book and in fact, took quite some time to complete it and on that note, I award this book a rating of three on ten.

Rating – 3/10

Have a nice day,
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