Shadow Princess [Book Review]

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Rating: 5/5

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Honest to God, I felt a sad prick on my heart when this book ended. I have always been intrigued by the Mughal era for their flamboyance, architecture and trade and to read how this magnificent era ended was distressing. The first thing that comes to anyone’s mind when uttered “Mughals” is THE Taj Mahal, hands down. This epic monument has over the years become the epitome of love and a popular stature for India. This book, Shadow Princess, the third book in the series, narrates the story of Taj Mahal on one hand, and a beautiful story of Jahanaara, daughter of Mumtaz, who isn’t often remembered for her timely contributions to the running of the governance then, on the other hand.

I was taken by surprise when the author decided to skip a generation and focus on Jahanaara instead of Mumtaz. I felt it was a very risky decision as Jahanaara isn’t very well known. I didn’t know who she was, honestly. But that was what made this book really exciting. The story begins with the death of Mumtaz forcing Jahanaara, the eldest daughter, to take charge of the kingdom from behind the screens. Shah Jahan, consumed by grief is beyond any action. Jahanaara steps into her father’s shoes making important decisions and keeping her siblings under control. Dara and Aurangzeb, at 16 and 12, are already plagued by their dream to succeed their father. Jahanaara sensing this, puts an end to it by nursing her father back to normality. But the thirst to succeed endures for both the brothers.

Even though, essentially, the book is about the succession, the story is primarily focused on Jahanaara’s part in the succession. Her wish is for Dara to succeed, him being the legal heir to the Kingdom. At the same time she could see his inability to get the ministers behind him and also his frequent immature and playful actions. Aurangzeb, on the other hand, has proved his metal as a courageous young man on the battlefield. But his arrogance and impatience scares Jahanaara to support him. Meanwhile, while all her brothers are getting married and having their own family and life, Shah Jahan keeps Jahanaara close to him curbing her from having her own family life. Jahanaara secretly has an affair with one of the Amirs, producing a son at the end, a son whom she couldn’t recognise as her own publicly. The book revolves around Jahanaara’s interesting relationships with her father, sister, and her brothers. I absolutely loved her interaction with Mehrunissa. I almost forgot that Nur Jahan was alive when Shah Jahan took over the rein. I definitely felt Mehrunissa had a stronger personality than Jahanaara’s in those conversations.

We also get a glimpse into how Aurangzeb took over the kingdom, as a result of several ignores and insults, killing his own brothers, just like his father, to capture the throne. But this entire capturing the throne was covered in a matter of few pages which was a little disappointing. It was interesting to read how Jahanaara and Shah Jahan spent nearly 9 years in Aurangzeb’s captivity and those years being one of the best days for them. Even though the first half of the book was running in a continuous timeline, the second half had 8 or 10 years being skipping in between which affected the continuity of the story. I still couldn’t get why Jahanaara hated Aurangzeb in spite of him caring for her illegitimate son. Also, Roshanaara had so little to do in the story. I felt she had a very interesting personality.

Another parallel story running is the construction of the Taj Mahal. The idea behind, the immense amount of hardwork behind and Shah Jahan’s only motivating factor to live. I loved the point made how despite great achievements by Akbar and even Jahangir, Shah Jahan is the most popular Mughal king because of this magnificent monument. The same goes to Mumtaz. Even though, she didn’t live for long and had been the Queen for only a few years, she is the most popular Mughal queen.

I loved the fact that this book was both plot driven and character driven. There were moments I was lost in the world of Mughal architecture wanting to be a part of it. I wish the story hadn’t stopped with Shah Jahan’s death. Jahanaara, after Aurangzeb’s insistence for several years, becomes the head of his zenena after her father’s death. I longed to read her role during Aurangzeb’s rein, her feelings towards her new King. Hence, I felt the ending to be a little weak, left me wanting more. Also, only by reading the Afterword, you seriously get to know the parts that were facts and those that were fiction.

On the whole, it was an amazing experience to read this trilogy. A must read for all the historical fiction fans. And finally, a great book to read after a long time.

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The Shadow of the Wind [Book Review]

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Rating: 5/5

Considering my very dismal streak of choosing good books to read this year, The Shadow of the Wind ended my poor reading experience. Written by Carlos Ruiz Zafon in Spanish and English translated by Lucia Graves, this book is unputdownable.

Set in Barcelona, this story is a story within a story. When young Daniel Sempere is taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his father, he picks The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax as his companion. Extremely intrigued by the story, Daniel sets forth to read more books from the same author but fails to find even one. He also discovers a strange man following him, very similar to one of the evil characters in The Shadow of the Wind, whose mission is to burn all of Carax’s works. Years pass but Daniel couldn’t let go of Carax. He wants to know who he was and what happened to him. Daniel, along with his friend Fermin Torress, sets out following clues and characters, putting pieces of Carax’s life together into a timeline.

It’s absolutely difficult to not give away the entire story. Through Daniel’s investigation, we are let into Carax’s life, which in a way is very similar to Daniel’s himself. Daniel realises that the underlying reason for all the happenings is the love story between Julian and Penelope. He explores Julian’s birth and childhood, his acquaintance with Penelope, his friends at school, his plan to elope with Penelope which failed, his inspiration to write books, etc. There are different versions from different people who were involved in Julian’s life in someway. Ultimately Daniel wants to find what happened to Julian and Penelope at the end. In between all this, we have the tyrannical Inspector Fumero who is behind Fermin, and also hindering their investigation. But why?

While reading, I really began to worry for the characters and that shows the success of this book.  The story is a dramatic one but who doesn’t love drama. Even though Julian Carax isn’t part of the present, the book is all about him. Every character, though there were a little too many, had a very important part to play in the story. They were like the glue which got all the pieces stuck together. You can actually see the entire story through Daniel’s eyes. The one thing which didn’t impress me much was Daniel’s personal story itself. It wasn’t as powerful or interesting as Julian’s. Daniel is adorable for what he sets out to do but he isn’t a very strong protagonist, may be that’s what the sweet part is. I absolutely loved the part where he visits the old house of Penelope’s. Very thrilling sequence. The language is really good for a translation.

The Shadow of the Wind is a wondrous work. A must read!

Gently in the New Age [Finale] (TV Show Review)

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Rating: 5/5

Fitting, satisfying but a depressing end to an absolute marvel!

Inspector George Gently has always been one of those series which I just can’t stop admiring. I don’t know if it’s because of the 1960s setting, or the blending of the then relevant social issues with intriguing crime cases, or the brilliantly picturesque setting or the fantastically amazing cast- it’s just very difficult to pick one reason. 8 series- 10 years! That’s a journey to applaud. When it was announced that this series would be the final one, I was in a way happy because ultimately the show would get a fitting closure and Wow! What a closure!

Before I get to the part which eventually turned this usual finale into an extraordinary one, a little about the case. It’s the 1970s now. We have two cases running in parallel, connected by one person, Michael Clemens, an ambitious politician and a potential winner for the next PM. George Gently, after successfully proving corruption within the police system, is approached to look into the murder investigation of Leslie, a case involving Clemens in some way. On the other side, a undercover reporter is murdered publicly at a union protest, the reporter who laid his hands on a proof concerning Clemens. John Bachchus and Rachel Coles run the latter investigation while Gently takes the cold case. We also catch a glimpse of the state of politics then and the government cover ups. But what’s interesting and better than the actual case is how every character reacts to the case.

George Gently! This show has always been about him more than the cases. An honest man with extreme integrity, at the verge of retirement after the assassination of his beloved wife Isabella, he moved down from London to lead a quiet life, to cope with his pain and loss. This finale portrays how George never really overcame his grief and come to terms with his loss. He had distracted himself with work and nurturing his protege John Bachchus, but with the changing world and his inability to adapt to it, it results in absolute frustration and opens the door of helplessness and loneliness for him. The friction between him and John doesn’t help him either. In a way, George feels like an outcast unable to compromise with his principles or accept the harsh corrupt world. At the end, the season finale ends with George finding closure over his wife’s death.

The first half hour of the episode, I felt the story was going nowhere. It didn’t feel like it was a finale. But the next 1 hour! Mind blowing! Seeing George struggle with his emotions was agonizing, especially his call to Rachel in the middle of the night and the subsequent breakdown. I was surprised how George called Rachel and not John. That scene was so endearing. It was the first and the last time we see George so vulnerable. I absolutely admired how George wasn’t ready to give up his integrity even though he was about to retire in a week. That’s Gently for you! We never got many scenes of George thinking about Isabella over the series, may be a few here and there. This episode showed how much George missed Isabella and how he just can’t live without her or how every day has been a struggle for him. Another strong point of this episode was how it was and is highly difficult for an honest cop to work in the real world. The last scene between John and Rachel showed George’s success- creating two potential and capable police officers.

A little disappointing was the very few interactions between George and John. They have been through their ups and downs over the years and in the previous episode we saw a huge clash between them. I expected them to mend their relationship or something that would mean they were at a better place. I wasn’t sure at the end if George and John were Ok. I mean, they would have definitely been, courtesy to the lovely friendship and bonding they share, but- I wish there was one scene to show their strong bonding, to show what each meant to the other.

Coming to the performances. This episode, hands down, belonged to Martin Shaw. What an actor and performer! Shaw portrayed Gently’s frustration and pain so well, it just hit me. He effortlessly lets the viewers into Gently’s personal and vulnerable side. Even though the rest of the cast and supporting cast did a great job, they didn’t have much to do in my view. It was all Gently throughout, which I actually felt was the right way to go. Kudos!

I’ll miss George Gently a lot but I am really happy that the show got a wonderful ending, which many series doesn’t get. This show had one of the best story narrations and the pace of every episode was almost equal to perfect. Appreciation to every one of those involved in the process of making this amazing series. George Gently will always hold a special palace in my heart.

The Paying Guests [Book Review]

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Rating : 2/5

Have you ever felt helpless and hopeless about a book, yet still hopeful for a turnaround? Confused? Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests falls into this category. I picked this book up because it was listed as one of the best fiction books ever. Really? This is the last I am ever going to trust a list. The back cover premise did sound interesting, I admit. It’s about a couple who move in as paying guests and their interaction with the house owners. Most importantly, this sentence, “a love story which is a crime story”, pulled my attention. Having read so many crime fiction over the years, I am at a stage to explore other genres, more like crime mixed with other genres? This seemed the perfect recipe. Was I wrong? Not entirely, but majorly.

Set in 1922, spinster Frances Wray lives with her mother and is solely responsible for managing and maintaining their massive house. With no certain income, they rent the upstairs rooms to a young couple- Lilian and Leonard. Frances is intrigued by the couples’ relationship. She gradually forms a growing interest in Lilian. They begin to spend a lot of time together, sharing intimate details of their life. Their relationship, which becomes more than just a friendship, draws rift between Lilian and Leonard. An argument among the three, consequently becoming physical, ending with Leonard’s death. Frances and Lilian covers it up, Frances doing most of the brain job. With the police arriving, do Frances and Lilian get away with murder? Or not?

The above might sound interesting, I would say very simple too. But this simple story rambles on for nearly 600 pages and that’s where I began to lose patience. I never warmed up to Frances and Lilian’s relationship, not that I am against these relationships. I somehow never got to like any of them, or felt sympathetic or empathetic towards them. I know, it’s not necessary for us to like the characters, yet, I feel it’s necessary. Confused again? This is a strange story. I feel strange writing this review, honestly. The pace of the story wasn’t bad. It smoothly shifted gears throughout. It must have been engaging enough, as I didn’t abandon it half way. But, I don’t know. I feel highly disappointed for some reason.

This book isn’t like the normal, fast-paced, racy crime story- I get that. This is more about characterization, the 1920s setting, the social problems then, etc. I quite enjoyed the beginning as well. It was written beautifully and took me in a journey. But after Frances and Lilian admit their feelings to each other, I felt it was going nowhere. The author took a good time to get to the crime story from the love story. I felt the narration became dull and there were too many thoughts description (like what one felt and thought) rather than some action. At the end, instead of feeling triumphant, I felt relieved that the book was over.

I understand writing such stories like these aren’t easy. To understand the year/age the story is set it, and to involve a love story between two females and how it was looked upon then and weaving them into a story is brave. I give that. I wish, the book was a little more shorter, perhaps?

If you like slow paced, character oriented, period story- this is the one to go for. Else, it’s not.

Atypical (2017 – ) [Review]

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Rating: 4.5/5

Number of episodes: 8

Atypical is an innocent and endearing tale about Sam, an 18 year old boy who is on the autistic spectrum. During one of his sessions with his therapist, Sam divulges his wish to have a girlfriend and is extremely surprised when his young therapist encourages the idea. The first season of this beautiful light comedy follows Sam and his amazing methodical ways to acquire a girlfriend.

The best thing about this show is it doesn’t expect the audience to sympathize Sam and his condition but just to accept him for what he is. Sam is autistic but very intelligent. He is passionate about Penguins and Antarctica and can speak non-stop on the subject. He has problems socializing and is troubled with overly noise. Apart from this, he is normal. And yes, he is radically truthful.

The family is a normal middle class family. Sam’s dating mission sends his mother, Elsa into intense restlessness. Having always been the go to person in the family, Elsa feels used and left out when Sam and the rest begin to lead their life on their own not wanting her help, sending her into having her own affair. I loved how the show portrayed different dynamics in the relationships within the family.

Sam and his sister Casey are amazing. Casey is so protective of Sam and loves him to the extent of sacrificing her own goals. She knows the family revolves around Sam and his needs. Yet, there are times when she feels her wishes and dreams are compromised for him. This scenario was beautifully written and executed. Sam and his father have a very interesting relationship. Doug has always had troubles connecting to Sam. There is a visible distance. But when Sam embarks on his girlfriend mission, he turns to Doug for guidance which surprises and excites him. Wonderfully, he takes the situation seriously and really wishes Sam could succeed in his mission.

A must mention is Casey’s boyfriend, Evan. Somehow, Evan seemed to be the most matured guy both in his relationship with Casey and his understanding of Sam. Also, not to forget is Paige, Sam’s trial girlfriend. Her understanding and handling of Sam is marvelous, especially her idea of having a silent prom.

All said and done, Atypical works for the most part. The part it falters is in the handling of emotions in the scenes. Every time, I feel a void in the scene. Is it the writing or is it the actors, I am not sure. You don’t feel completely involved in the scenes. You enjoy them yet it is forgettable. The track of Elsa’s affair is boring and irritating. You don’t feel for Elsa and her needs. Equally irritating is Sam’s friend Zahid. It’s good that Sam is having good friends, but Zahid is extremely irritating and is forced to be funny.

Keir Gilchrist as Sam is amazing. He brings a lot of life to the character. Brigette as Casey is wonderful. The rest of the cast are good enough but not fantastic.

Atypical is a feel good show. It’s not perfect nevertheless there are loads of moments which you would thoroughly enjoy. It gives a different take on autism and at the end, it is very lovable.

Last Tango in Halifax (2012 – ) [Review]

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Rating: 5/5

The premise reads, “A romantic comedy between two 70- something widowed people”. For many, this would be enough to effortlessly overlook the show. But for many others, this would be enough to sit back and experience this intriguing story. I belong to the latter. The show boasts terrific actors like Derek Jacobi, Anne Reid, Nichola Walker and Sarah Lancashire and I have already enjoyed each one’s work except for Reid (I mean I haven’t seen her work before). This show is a breeze of fresh air. It presents the perfect balance between comedy, romance and sentiments. 

Attracted towards each other in their teens and unfortunately parted ways then, Alan Buttershaw and Celia Dawson, now in their 70s, find each other on social network and communicate after like 60 years. Their mutual attraction and silent love for each other hasn’t fizzled out. At the end of their first meeting, they decide to GET MARRIED! Haha. Now that’s the best possible way to begin the series. Season 1 follows Alan and Celia’s journey towards getting married. In a way, it’s after making the decision that they begin exploring and understanding each other. They get to know each other’s family. Oh yes! The scene where they inform their respective daughters of their wedding plans was so much entertaining. But it’s just not all about their innocent bubbling romance, it’s about the life they have led, a struggling life, and how they really wish to enjoying their remaining life to the fullest, especially when life is so unpredictable. The entire sequence where Alan and Celia get locked up in a Cathedral/Hall beautifully shows the ease between them and the comfort they seek in each other. Their family is skeptical and so should they be. But is it concern for their parents’ future or is it their own future they are worrying about? I felt they were probably jealous of their parents having found true love while they were struggling with relationships. 

Season 1 also traces the lives of the daughters of the elderly couple. Alan’s daughter Gillian (Walker) runs a farm and works temporarily at a retail store. She has a teenage son. A suspense track runs throughout the first two or may be even three seasons over Gillian’s husband’s death. The writer very interestingly gives us bits and pieces of information in every episode and we know that it’s not the end of the story. As a character, I felt Gillian lives with an inferiority complex. Her tendency to have casual flings doesn’t help her personality. When she meets Caroline (Lancashire), she feels lower to her. Caroline, with a PhD in Chemistry, is the headmistress of a school. She is a confident and bold woman, many a times arrogant. A mother of two teenage sons, she is at the verge of divorcing her husband after she found him having an affair. During this situation is when she realized her inner feelings, of her being a lesbian. Both the daughters are plagued with their own problems which seeps into Alan and Celia’s relationship, even nearly breaking it at the end of season 1. It was really interesting and realistic to see both Alan and Celia wanting each other but unable to leave behind their family. 

Season 2 is a marvelous set. Primarily, it’s all about Alan and Celia’s wedding. They have two weddings which is an added treat. We have Gillian having an on and off relationship with her husband’s brother Robbie. Personally, I never really liked Gillian’s love track. According to me, she isn’t trustworthy. Caroline begins a serious relationship with her colleague, Kate, and sees its ups and downs. Season 2 for me is full of life. Just looking at Alan and Celia so excited to begin their life together gives so much positive energy. We could also get to see more on their personalities. Alan is calmer and softer while Celia is more straight forward. Alan tends to look from everyone’s perspective which Celia takes time at. Alan is more a country man while Celia is purely a city woman. They tend to balance each other, but at times there is friction too. In totality, they are such an adorable couple, admired by everyone. Caroline warms up to Alan easily but Gillian takes her time. The grandchildren are all too good. 

There are two scenes which you just can’t stop watching it again and again. Alan and Celia jiving in Season 1. OH MY GOD! Both of them matching each others steps and that sheer energy! Wonderful! The second is Alan singing for Celia at their wedding reception and Celia’s expression of surprise! Wow! 

Now, this is the part which is going to be difficult to write. As much as I absolutely marveled at the first two seasons, from season 3 I could see the show struggle. I would say, it was because the makers couldn’t answer, “What next for Alan and Celia?”. Last Tango is predominantly Alan and Celia’s life. That took the backseat from Season 3. Not knowing what track to write for them, the season had the most outrageous track of Alan having had an affair some 30 years ago, and a son out of it. One of the main reasons Celia adored Alan is for his integrity. Her own late husband had multiple affairs, the reason for her life’s suffering. A track to compare her husband and Alan on the same factor was stupid. It destroyed Alan’s character completely and the beauty of their relationship. The makers could have ended the show with season 2 as the basic story was a finite one- Alan and Celia’s wedding. This season also focused on Caroline and Kate’s wedding and Gillian and Robbie’s wedding. I don’t want to say much more on this season. It was a complete disappointment and I just wish to forget how Alan’s character was butchered in this season. 

Season 4 had just two episodes as Christmas Specials. It had Celia exploring her acting skills which was rather funny and entertaining. The rest was the same as all the other seasons. 

As much I love the interesting personalities of Gillian and Caroline, their own strange friendship where they confide their personal secrets yet don’t like each other, somewhere it slowed down the narration. They never really had a solid story. It was the same story going back and forth throughout the seasons. John, Caroline’s husband has to be one of the most irritating characters. I felt there was absolutely no growth or redemption which was sad. I would have loved tracks between the grandchildren and Alan-Celia. 

One question which kept nagging my mind: How come Alan doesn’t know his best friend Harry’s own granddaughter? Won’t reveal much about the track. 

The main cast is so powerful you can’t take your eyes off them. It’s like a competition which everyone is winning. The locations are eye pleasing. The background music is so full of soul. 

Last Tango is a must watch- the first two seasons especially. It’s such a feel good show, something which is missing nowadays. It’s a great opportunity to watch stalwarts like Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid in an ordinary family drama instead of lavish period drama. This show without doubt will bring a huge smile on your face. Regardless of my disappointment with the last seasons, I still go with a 5/5 as the show’s first two seasons are a masterpiece. 

 

Soppana Vazhvil (Play Review)

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Rating: 4/5

Seeing a live performance is one of a kind experience. You get to see the actors on stage, performing their roles that very instant, reciting their lines with no retakes, emoting their expressions with no editing. You get to see the collective work of the entire team right before your eyes- the background music in-charge meticulously changing the tunes according to the scenes, the costume in-charge on his toes getting his actors ready for the next act, the stage manager making sure the right set is visible on stage for the viewers, and loads of others who work in tandem to get the play on stage perfectly right. I had the pleasure of seeing Y Gee Mahendran’s Kaasethan Kadavulada for my first theatre viewing. I was so impressed with the entire notion of theatre and drama that I had no qualms in making my presence for the 100th show of this endearing tale, Soppana Vazhvil. Hearty congratulations to the entire team on this impressive feat.

Soppana Vazhvil follows the life of Ganesan (YGeeM), a simpleton. His wife Meera (Yuvasri) is highly annoyed and worried that her loving husband is the target of fun and mockery in the society. She tries making her husband understand, but Ganesan is happy with the way he is. He realizes he isn’t normal, but is helpless. He seeks peace in his wife’s love. An unfortunate accident, a hit on the head enables Ganesan to acquire special powers to dream the future. Simpleton Ganesan is replaced with Future Reader Ganesan. Ganesan resorts to help the police using this power but a meeting with a weird lady from France puts wicked ideas in his mind. He decides to misuse his power to seek revenge on the people who made horrible fun of him. Does Ganesan succeed in his new cunning plan or does he get caught? Will the old simpleton Ganesan ever rise back?

The beauty of this play is its simplicity. It’s a simple story with no conniving plots or twists. Every scene is written with a purpose either to move the story forward or project Ganesan’s thought process establishing his character. I felt the end mission of this play is to drive few messages forward. Don’t resort to revengeful acts. Don’t make fun of people with physical or mental disabilities. I can confidently say that the troop successfully accomplished this mission and very effectively as well. There was a lot of emotion in the narration. You can feel for Ganesan. You feel he is one of our own and feel the need to protect him. You feel proud on his victories. You feel sad on his failures. This, I accredit as success to the actor and the writer. This play belongs to the marvelous Y Gee Mahendran. He shouldered the entire play wonderfully. Gopu Babu, the writer, beautifully puts together all emotions required for a perfect entertainer. Great job!

If you may have noticed, even though I say the play was a perfect entertainer, I still have given only 4 on 5. That’s because the show was near perfect, but fell short on certain factors. The humor quotient! References to Big Boss- was a clever move. Big Boss is what is on everyone’s mind now. But it had nothing to do with the play, hence it didn’t fit well. Same goes to political jabs which I felt was completely unnecessary. I wish, the play, the characters and the situations were more comical. Also- one of the main scenes of the show is Ganesan’s meeting with the lady from France which I felt fell completely flat. Ganesan’s motive for revenge was never properly established. To add more, I felt the supporting cast was completely wasted. Yes. This play belongs completely YGeeM, still I wished to see more from the supporting cast. Ganesan decides not to use his powers at the end. Isn’t he restraining himself from helping the public from troubles then? A slightly better ending may be?

Coming to the performances. I have already said a lot about Y Gee Mahendran’s magnificent performance, a special mention to his monologue at the end. Yuvasri was fantastic so were the rest of the cast.

A round of applause for the crew- Music, Costumes, Lights and the Set. It wasn’t extravagant but suited the play very well.

Soppana Vazhvil is a wonderful family entertainer with a beautiful message. Powerful performance from Y Gee Mahendran is all that is needed to watch this excellent play.