Sunday, 20 March 2016

Dead Famous: Writers and their Tall Tales by Tracey Turner - Book Review

Publisher's write-up:

'You've probably heard of a few writers...

  • William Shakespeare and his popular plays.
  • Jane Austen and her love stories
  • Charles Dickens and his big blockbusters

but have you heard that ...

  • William Shakespeare got mixed up in a plot against the Queen?
  • Jane Austen nearly became a Bigg-Wither?
  • Charles Dickens had his clothes ripped off by his fans?

Yes, even when they're dead, writes are still full of surprises - and the ten in this book are more surprising than most. Now you can get the inside story from their secret diaries, flick through Good Day! magazine for some nineteenth-century gossip, and find out all about the writers whose tall tales have changed the world.'

When I was young, I used to be love the publications, Dead Famous and Horrible Histories, both of them being from Scholastic. While I have already reviewed a few books from Horrible Histories, this is the first one from Dead Famous (though, not the first that I've read from the series). So, the basis of a Dead Famous book is, it features a personality who is famous and dead; so yeah, in this case, the phrase actually carries the literal meaning.

This book is on the life of ten great writers, whom we're all likely to have heard of, regardless of whether we've read their books or not. The authors are Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Bronte Sisters, Dickens, Joyce, Hardy and Orwell. I've heard of each one of them, though, read books of only two of these authors (being Shakespeare and Orwell) and the reviews I have given on those books aren't particularly pleasant but my review shall focus on the book rather than the authors.

I really had the way she had it structured, it was chronological, we all love referring to the olde English as Chaucer's English and hence, starts with Chaucer. This book not only focuses on their life, but also on how their ideas emerged, what brought them to writing and the most interesting aspect of the whole book is, she brought out the rough history of the era in which the authors lived, through the book. So, this book will not only provide knowledge on these authors, but also on a lot of history and also, one could easily see how the society changed over the respective periods in which the authors lived.

The only possible negative that I found is something pervasive across this series, be it Horrible Histories or Dead Famous, being the focus on the British Isles (I'd have just said Britain if not for James Joyce), and here, all the ten authors are from the same region; a bit of diversity could've definitely added flavour to the book. Also, it could have been better if there had been one woman author from the modern era, who didn't face much societal stereotype unlike Jane Austen or Bronte sisters, such as Agatha Christie or perhaps, Virginia Woolf.

On the whole, this was an excellent read, I always love these books because it is not too difficult to read and at the same time, it is highly informative, especially this particular book, which had many facets to it, other than being a biography of the individual authors. So, I'd give the book a rating of eight.

Rating - 8/10

Have a nice day,

Thursday, 10 March 2016

The Scion of Ikshvaku by Amish Tripathi - Book Review

Publisher's write-up:

'Ayodhya is weakened by divisions. A terrible war has taken its toll.

The damage runs deep. The demon King of Lanka, Raavan, does not impose his rule on the defeated. He, instead, imposes his trade. Money is sucked out of the empire. The Sapt Sindhu people descend into poverty, despondency and corruption. They cry for a leader to lead them out of the morass.

Little do they appreciate that the leader is among them. One whom they know. A tortured and ostracised prince. A prince they tried to break. A prince called Ram.

He loves his country, even when his countrymen torment him. He stands alone for the law. His band of brothers, his wife Sita, and he, against the darkness of chaos.'

The Scion of Ikshvaku is the first book of the Ram Chandra series which is in fact, the prequel of the same author's Shiva Trilogy. In the Shiva Trilogy, a past monarch named Ram Chandra is revered, and this is a series about him.

A word of advice to all readers who have read the Ramayan, treat this as a story distinct from Ramayan as there are quite a lot of changes from the original epic (starting from Dasharath and Raavan being enemies even before the birth of Ram, Manthara being the richest person in Ayodhya, Sukracharya being from Egypt, etc.). I see a lot of criticism on this book owing to these deviations which I find to be rather unfair considering this story is not re-telling but re-imagining.

With that said, Prince Ram is born the day his father, Dasharath, the Emperor of Ayodhya, loses his first ever battle to the demon king of Lanka, Raavan. Hence, Ram is seen as the symbol of misfortune by his father and all the nobles in the kingdom. Notwithstanding that, he still loved his country and the people of his country, had a strong sense of right or wrong and believed in the rule of law being absolute. This story substantially revolves around Ram's student years along with his half brothers - Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrugan under the tutelage of their teacher Vashishta and eventually, goes on to his early adult life; marriage to Sita and the exile.

What I appreciate about this book is, yet again, the author has come up with a book which takes an ancient story as the premise to come up with something different which is perhaps more interesting to the current generation of readers. Truth be told, I have never been a big fan of Ramayan and I have always considered it to be quite a boring story and yes, so far, this has been a lot more interesting story based on what, in my opinion, is a boring premise.

The ideological conversations between Bharat and Ram were really good, with the former taking a liberal approach focused on freedom akin to the scenario today (or is it?) and the latter being absolutely strict about the rule of law, even if it is seemingly redundant. The places and the events were also described well and his writing has been progressively improving over the course of Shiva Trilogy and this has been no exception; he still uses modern colloquial language but I have learnt to accept that as his style, considering this is the fourth book of his that I am reading.

To talk about the negatives, I have one significant set of events in the book - which was an allusion to the 2012 Delhi gang rape tragedy (including the  and his description of the public execution was absolutely ... grotesque, to say the least and I couldn't stand it beyond a point. There was absolutely no reason to bring this issue into this book and this was just a move to strike a chord with the majority opinion of the public and honestly, one shouldn't write a story with commercial intentions in mind. Coming to the philosophical aspects of the book, I found it rather silly to associate gender with principles of governing a country and there is excessive content on this book as to how the system followed in the story during the time being feminine and how Ram wishes to bring the change by bringing out the best aspects of the masculine system. Moreover, like any other Amish book, there was some appalling use of pseudo science while attempting to rationalise some of the events of Ramayan which very well could've been skipped. 

To conclude, without drawing any reference to Ramayan, for if you do, you'd inevitably form a negative opinion, I would not say this story scores with regard to writing or an excellent case of imagination or anything along those lines but then, it was readable. Hence, for me, other factors ignored, if you just deliver a good story, I award them a standard rating of six on ten and this book is no exception to that principle of mine.

Rating - 6/10

Have a nice day,

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton - Book Review

Publisher's write-up:

'It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous sum of money has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.'

So far I have read one book from an author who won the Nobel Prize for literature and one book that has won the Man Booker Prize; the latter gave me a reading experience for a lifetime (being Rushdie' Midnight's Children) whereas the former was possibly the worst book that I have read till date (being Herta Muller's The Land of Plums). I have always wanted to read a good mystery novel written by a woman (as I rarely have any, in my shelf and I wanted the diversity) and yes, there came a crime story based during the Victorian Era, a Man Booker Prize winner in the form of The Luminaries and there wasn't any better chance than this one to increase the diversity of my bookshelf.

This story is set in the 1860s in a small town in the West Coast by the name Hokitika, during the period of New Zealand's gold rush. The story revolves around many characters; as given by the publisher in the write-up, twelve men gather at a hotel to discuss these crimes as each of them are directly or indirectly affected by them. These twelve don't have any direct connection with each other and are from varying backgrounds starting from a wealthy magnate to an indentured Chinese labourer. For starters, a drunk hermit has been found dead with a huge fortune in his house, a whore was saved from the brink of death and subsequently charged with attempted suicide and finally, a wealthy young man has gone missing all of a sudden and the twelve men at the hotel are in some way or the other, related to the events or affected by the events and all of them have their own reasons to find answers to these mysteries.

I'd say that to read this book, it requires a lot of patience, it has 832 pages, the longest that I have ever read and it has too many characters and to be very frank, I myself took two spells to complete reading the novel. As I said, with each of these twelve narrating their story from their own view point, by around 180 pages, I completely lost track and took a break from reading this book but then, the mistake I made was, she has given the list of characters at the start of the book and fearing spoilers, I never looked at it; and when I picked up the book again and got the flow, there was no question of putting it down (yes, that list of characters was helpful and contains no spoilers).

To be honest, whenever I have read such awfully long novels, including Midnight's Children, where despite the story being brilliant individually, I have felt that the size of the book is not justified but this was one such book which I felt, that despite the size, every page of the book was justified and there was movement in the story every passing moment with all kinds of twists and turns, exactly what you would want as a reader in a mystery novel. Those who enjoyed watching the picturesque locations in New Zealand in The Lord of the Rings can certainly try this, with Catton describing the Victorian New Zealand beautifully in her various pages and also bringing out the life of all classes of people during that time - a politician, a lawyer, a clerk at the magistrate, an indentured labourer, a hatter, a business magnate, captain of a ship, a hotelier among various others.

I also loved Catton's writing style, which was lucid, yet, not drab, long, but had still had the content and of course, the characters, the more you get to know them, the more complex they become with you beginning to suspect every person and there were points where I even suspected the versions of the stories of certain characters eventually, even though I unconditionally accepted them in the beginning. So yeah, I acknowledge the fact that the author could very well manipulate my thoughts regarding the individual characters of the book and that is something that I admire about the book.

The only demerit I found is that I really don't agree with the way in which she closed all her loose ends - I don't deem this information to be a spoiler, but the story ends before the beginning of the last hundred pages and then, she just ties up her loose ends; while it is commendable to leave a mystery novel with minimal loose ends, I feel this is not the best way to have dealt with it.

I wouldn't comment on the metaphorical element of the book as, understandably so, this book has a lot of references to astrology and zodiac signs but then, the reference was too subtle that you don't really need to know them to love the book and appreciate the story and I am one of those readers who has no clue about astrology.

To conclude, I wanted to diversify my bookshelf and ironically, I finished the book and the review on International Women's Day (8th March, 2016) and yeah, reading this was indeed a complete reading experience, in terms of language, a good story to tell and for a history enthusiast like myself, I go back with some knowledge on New Zealand's gold rush and 19th century New Zealand, in general.

On the whole, I would give this book a rating of eight.

Rating - 8/10

Have a nice day,

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