Saturday, 7 September 2019

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger disappeared from a family gathering on the island owned and inhabited by the powerful Vanger clan. Her body was never found, yet her uncle is convinced it was murder - and that the killer is a member of his own tightly knit but dysfunctional family.

He employs disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the tattooed, truculent computer hacker Lisbeth Salander to investigate. When the pair link Harriet's disappearance to a number of grotesque murders from forty years ago, they begin to unravel a dark and appalling family history.

But the Vangers are a secretive clan, and Blomkvist and Salander are about to find out just how far they are prepared to go to protect themselves.’

Afin de lire ce commentaire en français, cliquez ici

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first book in the Millennium series from Stieg Larsson. It is said that one should never judge a book by its cover, but that is exactly what I did with this book for several years. Much as I always saw this in the bestseller category in bookstores, judging by the title, I always thought it was going to be a novel under the genre romance (maybe if the Swedish title had been translated word for word – ‘Men who hate women’, it might have attracted my attention). This perception would have continued till I was recently forced by a colleague to start reading the book with it being described as a ‘page-turner’.

The plot has two principal characters – Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist recently convicted for defamation against a leading Swedish investor and Lisbeth Salander, a private detective. The conviction led to Blomkvist having to leave the magazine he founded, and at the same time – receives an offer from the 82-year-old chairman of Vanger Corporation to solve the murder of his niece Harriet – in what was a typical ‘locked room murder situation’ with both the murderer and the victim vanishing without a trace. Blomkvist, at first was not convinced moving up north to a remote island north of Stockholm but agrees as he wanted a break and also how Vanger offered a compensation more than sufficient to cover the compensation he needed to pay as libel damages. Lisbeth Salander on the other side, is working as a private detective in a security services firm and while she does not have any formal training regarding the same, proves to be extremely accurate and detailed in her analysis. The only connection between Blomkvist and Salander to begin with was the latter doing a background check on the former for a client of her firm. 

The book is almost 560 pages long and it never felt that way owing to both, the pace and the manner in which the story was narrated. The plot fell in place one after the other – Blomkvist’s conviction, Salander’s investigation, Blomkvist’s appointment by Vanger; happening within the first fifty pages with the plot seamlessly moving from thereon. Blomkvist’s character was completely revealed at the outset to the reader through Salander’s investigation but then, her own profile is hardly revealed – which also contributed to the page turner effect. Another key character is Henrik Vanger – the chairman of the Vanger Corporation, the ailing businessman whose only obsession in life is to find out what happened to his niece. He does not have a very positive view on his family and is shown to be a suave and achieves what he wants without displaying aggression. The Vanger family has a murky history with its members having had connections with the Nazis during the war and neo-Nazi organisations much after the war, another reason for Henrik’s antipathy towards his clan. 

It is interesting to note that unlike other whodunnit novels, this features a murder, or so believed by both police and Vanger, was committed forty years ago – which adds a complexity to the case. The number of names and characters might be a difficulty to some of the readers but not quite if you have prior experience reading stories with several characters and in my case, having read novels like The Luminaries and One Hundred Years of Solitude helped. While the novel is not exactly a fantasy novel, the city of Hedestad and the island of Hedeby to the north of Stockholm is fictitious and both the places were described in good detail (including a map). 

While Lisbeth Salander was an interesting character and I could connect to a lot of her adjectives such as introvert, socially aloof, etc., there was insufficient detail on how she acquired those skills (hopefully described in the sequels). Moreover, she achieved her tasks with relative ease that she almost seemed like a superhero. It is true that she has gone through a lot of hardships in her life and it has taken her effort to reach this stage; but during the course of the case, she achieved her ends with relative ease. 

The Salander-Blomkvist was good contrast, while the former focuses more on the ends regardless of the means whereas Blomkvist often takes stands on principle, even if it is to his disadvantage. The unravelling of the whodunit was certainly the best part of the novel – the multiple characters they interact with. With that said, the novel was 560 pages long and the final quarter felt like a drag, and in most cases seemed unrelated to the plot. 

I also have a bone to pick with the English title - as I felt The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was neither the principal character nor the central theme of the book - a direct translation of the Swedish title would have been more appropriate (which I understand was the case in French, for instance).

I judge books by their cover and I have often selected books on that basis. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not, but this is a case where I missed out on a good book by this approach. I do have a fascination for crime stories from this region – having read Karin Fossum as well as having followed TV dramas such as Broen and Forbrydelsen. It was just that in this case, I was not aware that it was a crime novel and judging by all that I have had to say on this book thus far, I would rate this book an eight on ten. 

Rating – 8/10

Have a nice day,

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Soul Matters by Shreyas Shankar – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘The book Soul Matters is built on the writer’s lifelong fascination for the human psyche and answers to humanity’s great questions. What started as timely observations of life’s intricacies collected in a bookshelf that screamed to be heard in some form. From being one of the thousand voices yearning to be heard, it now stands to be read in the shape of a series of 18 wisecrack quips and befitting explanations.’

Soul Matters is a short collection of thoughts from the artist Shreyas Shankar. In this, the author has presented a few quotes and given his interpretation for the same.

The quotes are largely philosophical covering the topics of life - such as the process of learning and also certain one's relationship with the soul. On any such book, I try my best to not let my personal opinions get in the way - for instance, I don't consider the body and soul to be different or independent of each other. The same disclaimer appears here as well before I get into the review. 

I liked the way in which the author presented his book - a full page allowing you to fully read the quote before getting into the chapter to read his take on it. If it was on the same page, we could be tempted to immediately get into the interpretation rather than read a vague quote. I enjoyed reading some of his thoughts, especially on aspects such as silence, perfection, expertise, inter alia. This book was also a very ideal short read and could be ideal to spend to read during your regular commute - for I took just half an hour to complete the book. 

That could perhaps be annoying to some of the readers as they might feel that the book finished as soon as it started. Considering that the author is quite young, both in age and in his career as an artist, this is a first step and I hope in future, this book is expanded by the author. There was an interesting excerpt of a fantasy novel that the author is in the process of writing and I look forward to the publication of the full novel. 

As aforementioned, this is a great short read, but at the same time, could have been much more enjoyable had there been more of his wisecracks and a deeper plunge into each of these thoughts. On that note, I shall award this book a rating of six on ten. 

Rating - 6/10 

Have a nice day,

Monday, 29 July 2019

Moneyland by Oliver Bullough – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:
‘Investigative journalist Oliver Bullough reveals the obscene dark side of globalised finance, a shadow realm of oligarchs and gangsters, unimaginable power and zero accountability. It’s a place you are unlikely to visit, buy you can see its effects everywhere. Just look around. 
How did we get here? In the 1950s, a small group of bankers in London had a clever idea: ‘offshore’, an imaginary zone where money could flow free. Their breakthrough created a vast reservoir of secret wealth, one that bends the laws of every nation on Earth in order to protect its masters. 
Thanks to offshore, for the first time thieves could dream big. They could take everything – which is exactly what they will do, unless we stop them.’
Moneyland is a book with the subtitle – Why Thieves & Crooks Now Rule the World & How to Take it Back, from the investigative journalist Oliver Bullough. Moneyland is the term the author uses for describing the current financial structure. The case is built over nineteen chapters in the book as to how in this hypothetical country sans physical presence, those with money can legally enjoy their wealth, regardless of its source. 
He begins building the case with Ukraine – and this is taken as the prime example of kleptocracy throughout the book where corruption is so rampant and still; how their former President Viktor Yanukovych had large amount of wealth in London. He also describes how even most basic healthcare services cannot be obtained in Ukraine without bribery. He then describes the problem in most developing nations in Africa or former Soviet states as to how; there is extreme inequality with those in power holding unusual amounts of wealth, all hidden in offshore assets and with properties all over the world, expensive clothes and watches (for which he gives the example of Angola), etc. It was an interesting observation he made that in the Corruption Perception Index from Transparency International; while countries like Angola or Ukraine have a very low rank, their wealth is stashed away in UK, Switzerland, Cyprus, etc. who rank very high on the corruption index and in a way, they are guilty. 
He also talks about how corruption can completely destroy the economic prospects of a country and criticises Western complacency over developing nations that they would eventually transform themselves into economies similar to that of the developed world. However, he explains how it is against the interests of those in power to be more transparent and so long as they are able to hide their assets, they prefer maintaining the status quo. 
The author writes about various financial instruments and how they have been misused, be it the Eurodollar bonds, or the offshore companies in Cayman Islands or Saint Kitts and Nevis, how even diplomatic immunity is available for purchase, the misuse of libel laws in London and so on for if I keep going, I would be listing all the chapters. While I appreciated the deep research involved in all of these topics – it was evident considering the sources mentioned at the end of the book; however, I had an issue with some of the sweeping statements, an example of which I am giving below:
‘You may have read how millions of dollars have been sent back to Nigeria, Indonesia, Angola or Kazakhstan, and that is true. But they represent less than one cent of every dollar that was originally stolen.’ Chapter – Aladdin’s Cave, Page #13
While I am not defending the record of any of these countries but when such statements are made in a book of this kind, it must be backed by sources and number. How many millions went back to the countries (some references are made in future chapters) and what is his basis for making the less than one cent for every dollar allegation? He probably has a basis for this claim but I expected a footnote or some such detail and considering this was something I read in the very first chapter, it put me off. 
I appreciate the author for building the case against corruption and I could relate to most of the examples considering I lived most of my life in a country which ranks 78 in the Corruption Perception Index and many of the problems he cited in Ukraine are very similar. His fundamental basis for making the case was ‘money could move borders, but laws do not’ and thus, how the corrupt manage to move their stolen wealth to countries with favourable laws and exploit the same.
The author admits that there could be genuine reasons to use offshore accounts to hide their money from vindictive governments but the issue of laws being different is fundamental to the very fact of us having so many different jurisdictions in the world. The reason why I am saying jurisdiction instead of country is because the author explains how within US, they exploit favourable laws in Nevada making it a de facto tax haven. 
The author also cracks down on the ability to purchase passports and while it is true that many exploit it, it is also a very practical solution in many cases. Imagine a business person holding a passport and is called for a meeting by the client; someone holding the right passport just needs a ticket, otherwise, you need to apply for a visa and prove your credentials and tell your client to wait till then which simply isn’t practical. The author being someone who holds a British passport would never be able to understand the pain of a visa application process; I can even cite a personal example where I once joked with a HR in one of their random questions – ‘what would you do if you win a lottery?’ to which I responded that I would secure a Maltese nationality. Much as I would like to satisfy requirements in a proper way, if there is a legal alternative available, I would take it in a heartbeat; a lot of opportunities are denied for the sheer lack of a passport and thus, several countries are definitely going to offer schemes to overcome this ridiculous system currently in the world which has no logic whatsoever.
To end the digression, I would say that I certainly enjoyed reading the book but the author did mention ‘how to take it back’ and all he did was dedicate one chapter to it; that too mentioning that he does not have a very clear solution. I am fine with that, the author I understand is not from a banking / financial services / legal background and has presented the case well; but in that case, he should have refrained from promising the sky in the cover page.
To conclude, the book is informative, and can be read by those who are not finance professionals as well (no unexplained jargons); and my hint is do not be deceived by the title. I shall not let what I disagree with on a personal level get in the way of my review (like the passport issue) and so, I award the book a rating of six on ten.
Rating – 6/10
Have a nice day,

Saturday, 27 July 2019

The Relic by Eça de Queiroz – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘Teodrico Raposo, the novel’s anti-hero, is a master of deceit; one minute feigning devotion in front of his rich, pious aunt, in order to inherit her money, the next indulging in debauchery. Spurred on by the desire to please his aunt, and in order to get away from his unfaithful mistress, he embarks on a journey to the Holy Land in search of a holy relic. The resulting fiasco is a masterpiece of comic irony as religious bigotry and personal greed are mercilessly ridiculed.’

The Relic is a novel set in the late 19th century from the Portuguese author Eça de Queiroz. It features Teodrico Raposo, a well-educated man who wants to inherit the wealth of his rich aunt. How I stumbled upon this book is something similar to what I mentioned in my review of The Unbearable Lightness of Being – that is, buying an English version book of a local author as a souvenir; in Porto (incidentally in JK Rowling’s favourite bookstore).

Teodrico is a brilliant young man, who lost his parents when he was seven but under good care from his rich aunt. He was sent to study law in the best university in Coimbra; but spent most of his time in taverns and with women while feigning piety through the letters to his aunt. This goes on till Teodrico asks permission to go to Paris; and the conversation turns around with eventually Teodrico agreeing to go to the Holy Land and seek a relic which will cure his aunt of all his ailments. However, the intention with which he agrees to go is solely to ingratiate his aunt and get the inheritance, which she might well bequeath to the church.

The book attempts a humorous take on religion and bigotry and it is a bold piece of work for the period in which it was released. The parts of the novel where Teodrico and his German friend - Dr. Topsius spent in the past was hilarious and was well made satire. The book could also be described as a good 19th century travelogue where the lead character travels to Alexandria and eventually to Jerusalem, giving you a glimpse of how these cities were in the 19th Century (Jerusalem, which Teodrico agreed was worse than Braga).

However, with that said, when you are writing a novel based on an anti-hero, the story needs to be character needs to be convincing. It is not exactly a good example when I shift to manga and anime but then, to me, Yagami Light from Death Note was a very convincing character for an anti-hero.

Coming to Teodrico, he wants to enjoy the pleasures of his youth but at the same time, is extremely keen on his inheritance; while he knows that he cannot have both at once. Much as Teodrico hated going to the church and detested feigning being pious in front of his aunt and her friends, he was not exactly an atheist either. Very often, especially in Alexandria and even in Jerusalem, he had the feeling of superiority because he was a Christian even though he was not too keen on his Portuguese identity – he even claims himself to be a citizen of the world unlike his German companion who bordered on jingoism when it came to Germany. Moreover, Teodrico genuinely looked a relic rather than falsifying that too (if I reveal how he got around it, it would be a spoiler).

While I enjoyed the satire, I felt it was a tad too much and that it got boring beyond the first 12-15 pages. Had the lead character been built better, this book could have been a lot more enjoyable but then, all we have is Teodrico and as a result, the book enjoys a rating of four on ten.

Rating – 4/10

Have a nice day,

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a story of irreconcilable love and infidelities in which Milan Kundera addresses himself to the nature of twentieth-century ‘Being’, offering a wide range of brilliant and amusing philosophical speculations. First published in 1984, Kundera’s masterly novel encompasses extremes of comedy and tragedy and was hailed by critics as a contemporary classic.’

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a narrative written by Milan Kundera which covers various philosophical aspects such as connection of an individual with their body, misunderstood words, human relationships and infidelities with a touch of politics. The political aspect is made interesting by the fact that the plot is based in the backdrop of a Soviet invasion in Czechoslovakia.

This is based on two couples during the Soviet era in Czechoslovakia – and 3 of the principal characters involved are Czech. The story features Tomas, a married man whom I believe to be anywhere between mid-30s to early 50s as the story progresses. He is a womaniser and has strong views about love and sex – wherein, he loves his wife Tereza but at the same time, has multiple sexual partners and sees no contradiction in this position. Tereza does not object to Tomas’ behaviour and instead sees it as her own weakness; she herself has strong views and is a photographer – often involving in dissident photography. Then there is the character of Sabina who is an artist and Tomas’ mistress and the story mainly revolves around these three characters.

It is not often that a book completely gets me gripped within the first twenty pages, but this was one such book. The fact that I had very little expectations was another factor – where I have the convention that my souvenir in any place is normally an English translation of a book from a local author and after a long search for a book from a Slovak author in Bratislava, I settled for this book originally written in Czech (from a writer of Czech heritage who prefers be identified as French).

It started with a very interesting character – Tomas; and threw in a lot of ideas which are revolutionary even in today’s time that it was interesting to read. The best aspect of the book was the complex characters the author built – Tomas and Sabina with the characteristics as mentioned earlier and Sabina herself, had very strong views on love and commitment. The story also deals with other aspects such as homesickness such as homesickness, where Tomas and Tereza settle in Switzerland and longed to return to Prague despite the regime. Being someone who enjoys Greek mythology, the allusions to the myth was another highlight of this book (like the story of Oedipus).

The book had a proper blend of politics, romance while retaining the philosophical nature of the book. My bone to pick might be the fact that the author went back in time so late into the plot; wherein, there is a point where sub-plot involving Sabina goes way ahead of time and then it returns to the past (which for large parts of the novel is the present from the reader’s perspective). The book was also not free from repetition when it came to the repeated mention of destiny and coincidence – the repeated reference to the Beethoven symphony I felt was one too many.

This book is an excellent read unless the reader is a person who already has strong views on a lot of these subjects where a conflicting view strongly disturbs them. Rather than just penning down a non-fiction philosophy book, the author has made an interesting plot with complex characters and political backdrop while sticking to the larger objective.

On that count, I would award the book a rating of eight on ten.

Rating – 8/10

Have a nice day,

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Incidentally Creative by Vijay Subramaniam K – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘Ever thought about why someone is creative when someone else is not? Incidentally Creative is a collection of poems written over a span of 8 years in which different ‘incidents’ and experiences gave rise to words which have been penned down. Everything from hobbies, work, studies, occurrences, and what not have contributed to the poems in some form or the other. Without intending to be creative, when being penned, the words that form these poems, turned out to be incidentally creative, alluding to the title. Poems like Voices of life, Frozen Light, Choices and True Men will leave one introspecting on their life. Then there are ones like Ardor, Odium, Like Her and Plagues of Humanity where emotions run rampant. The incidents behind the poems are commonplace; as will be the connection a reader has with these poems.’

Incidentally Creative is a collection of 30 poems written by the poet Vijay Subramaniam K. It covers a variety of topics involving human relationships (friendships, familial and romantic), hobbies, the poet’s general views on the world, the poet’s appreciation of nature, aspects of life such as school, work, hobbies, bereavement, inter alia. It covers a diverse range of topics within the given thirty poems.

The poet uses a style that is normally abstract and uses imagery to put forth his point; much as he has a clear idea on what he is trying to say, he leaves a bit to the reader to interpret. The poetic devices used were mostly imageries, similes, metaphors, alliterations, occasional satire, and even some free verses. The fact that the poet has compiled thirty different poems is a great aspect for a book on poetry as you get to cover a diverse array of topic. Moreover, this is also a book that gives you an insight into the poet’s process of growing up into an adult from a teenager, as the book contains poems he wrote when he was a fifteen-year-old till date and the poet is still young in his early twenties (as on the day of writing the review) – and so, there is a potential for a lot more poems to be added up as time goes by.

However, while the poems span over a nearly ten-year span, it must also be noted that poet, if I may so, has deftly not placed them in a chronological order – giving the reader the scope to guess which stage of his life he was in when he wrote the poems and can accordingly adjust their interpretations.

The poems are quite difficult – both in terms of language and content and to enjoy it best, the reader requires a peaceful surrounding and not read too many poems at once – unless they are an absolute poetry enthusiast who can go on marathons. However, to ease the tensions, in anticipation of the fact that a lot of readers might be a novice when it comes to reading poetry, the author has given the background to each of the poems he has written.

With that said, the background could be the first bone of contention to poetry enthusiasts – as it sets boundaries to the limits of your imagination in terms of interpretation. It is true that poetry is often interpreted based on the life experiences of the poet and thus, a very elaborate ‘About the Poet’ in the book could have sufficed.

The same could be said for the poems not being in chronological order, wherein, in some cases, it could also be a curse – especially for a poem like The Life of a Detective ; where the premise had so much scope and after reading great heart felt poetry like Frozen Light, Ode to Trees, Plagues of Humanity, etc. the expectation on this was rather high for me but it was evident that it was written something early on and did not live up to the premise.

With that said, there is another detail to this review I need to add – I never disclose my prior association with the writer of the book even if there was one (in the 200 odd reviews I have written) but I believe I need to make an exception on this. The poet in question here is one of my closest friends, since school days and in fact, I was the reviewer for most of his poems – during school days and later on, even in our professional lives. In fact, I have been party to some of the incidents that inspired the poet for the poems (including the very first one in the book). The reason I am disclosing this is for two reasons – the fact that it was probably easier for me to interpret and as a result, I may not be entirely objective over the review. However, I would assert that I have made my best to ensure that the personal relationship has not been a factor in anyway.

I would look forward to his next compilation of poems (I know a few which were not part of the book but deserve to be part of the next). I would say that this is an excellent book for poetry lovers and on that basis, I award this book a rating of seven on ten.

Rating - 7/10
Have a nice day,

Saturday, 27 April 2019

Dubliners by James Joyce – Book Review

Said to be one of the classics in English, the Dubliners is a collection of fifteen short stories from the Irish author James Joyce. True to its name, all the stories take place in Dublin and covers themes such as Irish nationalism, the Catholic – Protestant divide and certain Irish stereotypes such as indecisiveness. What needs to be kept in mind is that the book was published in 1914 (before the Easter Rising of 1916) and the stereotypes persisting then may no longer apply to Ireland today.

The story covers various characters, people in their youth, clerks, rich men, parents, etc. but comes around to conclude that all of them have similar characteristics. The themes that the author repeatedly touches upon is how their indecisiveness affects their lives, their high handed approach leading them to make rash decisions before being brought to the reality, the impact of religion in their lives, etc. The author also makes good use of the city of Dublin, describing the various localities – true to the publisher’s description – ‘in case Dublin vanishes without a trace, it could be rebuilt in entirety by reading Dubliners from James Joyce’.

The stories I had particularly enjoyed include After the Race and Grace. The former tried to symbolise Ireland through four friends from four different countries and each character alluded to their respective countries. Grace was a story on a group of friends trying to get their drunkard companion to embrace Catholicism – it was a humorous take on the idea of god and Catholicism and no wonder Joyce faced backlash in Ireland then as Irish nationalism was seen as being synonymous with Catholicism.

Joyce uses a lot of terms specific to Ireland throughout the book, which might be difficult to understand to those who are not accustomed to it (much as there is a glossary, it is annoying to read a book by constantly referring to the glossary). Many of the stories, in hindsight seem good after reading the notes for interpretation from the publisher as the background to the story is explained in detail. I consider myself as someone well-versed in post Industrial Revolution history, including the history surrounding the independence of Ireland and if I had some difficulty in getting to appreciate some of the stories, I would say that for readers who are hardly aware of the events would struggle to relate to the stories.

Some of the stories, such as Eveline, though tries to bring in the theme of indecisiveness among the Irish, it was very short and simple and I would go as far as saying that it ended as soon as it started. And it must also be noted that the story Dead was over a fifty pages long considering in a book comprising fifteen stories, one of them took a little over twenty percent of the book, meaning the rest are too short.

Stories like Two Gallants had a great prospect to be a full-fledged novel but could not be appreciated in its entirety as a short story.

I did occasionally feel that Joyce tried to repeat the same theme fifteen times through fifteen different stories and could have well written a novel featuring Dublin.

Notwithstanding my criticism on the Dubliners, I would still look forward to reading Ulysses from the same author sometime in the future. Considering the above points, I award Dubliners a rating of four on ten, indicating that I was mildly disappointed by the book.

Rating – 4/10

Have a nice day,

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,
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