Book review

Origin [Book Review]

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Rating: 4/5

Dan Brown is back with another one of his signature history meets science thriller with his prominent central character, Robert Langdon. To be honest, I wasn’t mad about his last work, Inferno, and definitely was hugely disappointed with The Lost Symbol. Yet, I love the way he sets his story, the locations and the treasure hunt kind of plot. Origin is no different. To my relief, I enjoyed the book very much and felt Brown clicked all the boxes with this. 

Origin begins with Edmond Kirch, a prominent computer scientist, in meeting with three important religious leaders, sharing findings of his recent research. The end of the meeting leaves the leaders baffled. To their surprise and fear, Kirch announces to the world that he was about to present certain findings that will change the entire living system. Lavishly planned in an extravagant museum in Spain, Kirch invites several popular dignitaries, including Langdon, and makes full use of technology to reach every corner of the world. With specialized automated guide to every invitee, Robert meets Winston. You just can’t stop loving Winston. I wish I could have one in my life! A disastrous incident at the presentation puts Langdon, and Ambra Vidal, head of the museum in a treasure hunt to find the location of Kirch’s presentation with minimal clues. (Guess what happens to Kirch!) What is Kirch’s findings? Who wanted to sabotage the event and make sure the findings aren’t made public? Does Langdon and Vidal escape safely from the problems at the end? 

Brown’s first sixer is bringing in the most argued topic in the world – Theists Vs Agnostics Vs Atheists. I jumped in joy when this topic was touched. I was highly excited knowing Kirch’s findings revolved on this. But at the end? I was left frustrated and disappointed. For one, the findings were too scientific for my understanding. I didn’t see the point why Kirch didn’t want the leaders to completely know his findings. 

I have always loved Langdon especially when he goes into his historical mode. He is a genius. His interaction with Winston and Vidal were very nicely written. His adventures are getting interesting and dangerous over the years. I wish we could get more into his character. I feel a lot more depth, a personal case, would do great things for the book. 

One of the main reasons I loved this book more than the last two is its pace. The narration was crisper and the story moved at a good speed throughout. The historical description were really interesting and up to the point. It didn’t go beyond unnecessary. I didn’t feel like skipping pages like I did for The Lost Symbol. The number of characters were limited as well which helped in keeping track of every parallel story. But, I wasn’t greatly impressed with the parallel stories. Didn’t make any contribution to the actual story. I liked the mystery behind the anonymous tipper but nothing more.

Looking at Inferno and now Origin, Brown seems to have delved into science more than symbols and history. I really missed Langdon’s decoding and the connections with historical monuments and religion. There were no great revelation moments either. The ending was quite predictable as there weren’t many suspects to look at. I know the review might sound a lot more complaining than appreciating, especially looking at the high rating, but these are just small disappointments of mine which I wish were better executed. 

Origin is a good read- very adventurous. It has very good suspenseful moments and the connection with history and science makes it even more worth reading.

 

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Standing in Another Man’s Grave [Book Review]

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Rating: 3/5

This book is a usual police procedural. I remember having liked the TV version of this series. John Rebus, the central character, is the driving force. What I like the most is that the plot is both character driven and story driven. Standing in Another Man’s Grave works for me because it involves cold cases. I love cold cases as it’s the most difficult ones to solve. The cases would have transferred hands many times, facts distorted and the actual story blurred. 

John Rebus, now retired, haggard as ever, is part of a cold case unit. When he meets Nina Hazzlit, a mother in search of her missing daughter for 15 odd years, someone who brings to notice that few recent missing persons case could be connected to her daughter’s disappearance, Rebus contacts DI Siobhan, his ex colleague and puts forward his theories. Siobhan is initially skeptical as Rebus is someone known for his off the book handling of cases and she is ambitious to climb the career ladder. But considering the seriousness of the cases, both of them get down to working together, Rebus in a civilian consultant capacity. 

The case in itself has a very interesting background especially the fact that a photo was sent from two of the missing girl’s phone to her friends, identical photo. The best part of a police procedural is the gradual progress in solving the cases, overcoming the random obstacles thrown their way. The supporting characters are interesting, but lacked depth. Rebus being friendly with the “bad” guys, his motive behind was a little confusing. May be because I haven’t read any of the previous books, I didn’t get his character then. The Compliance committee being behind Rebus started off interesting but fizzled out at the end. 

I loved 3/4th of the book especially the part where the case gets transferred to another team and bodies being found in a field, etc. I also liked how Nina’s daughter’s case ended. But the last few chapters weren’t gritty enough. The revelation of the kidnapper/murderer wasn’t impressive, and the ending was absolutely bad. There were no big wow moments. This case deserved a better ending. On the whole, it was an engaging read but disappointing at the end.

I have the next Ian Rankin’s book ready on my TBR. I remember watching Resurrection Man and loving it. I hope the next book lives up to my expectation. 

 

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.

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!

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.

In the Name of God [Book Review]

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Rating: 4/5

Year: 2017

It’s really difficult to find a good Indian thriller. From the experience of having read quite a few number of Indian books in this crime/thriller genre, I find it safe to say that it is heavily clouted by Television/films. The characters and the plots are too filmy and the central character is undoubtedly highly heroic. The story is as always taken for granted and loads of loopholes are left unattended. Breaking the above norms, author Ravi Subramanian has given the readers brilliant thrillers, set in India, with the plot, characters and background as authentic as possible. It is a shame that I have read only one work of his previous, The Bankster, but I remember enjoying it thoroughly, even surprised that an Indian author has been able to come up with such a good crime thriller.

In the Name of God is predominantly set in the backgrounds of Kerala, specifically the very popular, and if I may add, and the very rich Anantha Padmanabha Swamy temple. The central idea behind the book, with respect to the narration, is having various storylines running in tandem and connecting them at the end. Hence, first, the story begins in Dubai, where the jewellery shop at the Wafi Mall is attacked by a bunch of thieves, one of whom leaves behind a clue which sets the ball rolling from Dubai to India. Kabir Khan, CBI is invested with this case. Simultaneously, we have a bomb blast in Mumbai at Zaveri Bazaar, the acute center for all the top rated jewel designers. Nirav Choksi, a leading designer, leads the jewelers in the protest against moving to another building. At Kerala, Rajan wants the State to take control over the Anantha Padmanabha Swamy temple, seizing the powers from the current King and controller, Dharmaraja Varma. Rajan believes hidden malpractices are in motion, and lodges a case in the court, which he subsequently wins, but also which leads to a huge lot of chaos and riots from the King’s supporters. The court orders an audit team led by Vikram Rai to open the vaults and calculate the value of the treasures in it. When Rajan’s friend, Kannan is found murdered in the temple premises, Kabir Khan is presented with the case. All the above happenings are connected in some way. How?

Every case is written with extreme conviction that it’s very difficult to pick which one of them was the best. Of course, my point goes to the Padmanabha Swamy Temple Vault case since a lot of historical references are involved. The narration is very racy. The chapters are short, sometimes too short, but it jumped between cases and places at ease and clarity. The investigation process, how so many organisations are involved, how contacts are useful, how political pressure brakes the progress of the case, how religion seeps anywhere and everywhere- the author brilliantly yarns all the social factors into this story. The dilemma between truth and belief is subtly portrayed differently for different characters. The bringing together at the end was very nicely done, all stories covered and ended.

There were way too many characters, not to my liking honestly. Kabir Khan was exceptional. His passion for his work and his intelligence during the case investigation was very entertaining. I loved Krishnan. He represented most of the top ranking police officials. Bound by pressure from the top, helplessness over being unable take necessary steps for the case, adding to it his own personal life troubles. The rest of the characters had their own contributions to the story, no character was wasted.

The book works for most part of it. There wasn’t anything that nearly sabotaged the story. But there were certain things which I felt pulled the book back from being perfect. For one, I wasn’t really keen on having very short chapters. Even though it helped in having the story in fast forward mode, it contained me from involving myself into the story, like I didn’t really have the time to delve into the writer’s world. Way too many subplots, perhaps? Loads of clues open gates for several storylines and it becomes difficult to keep track of everything. For eg: Who opened Kannan’s Swiss account? The Madurai smuggling? Suthamalli theft? These may not have any bearing to the actual story, but these gates were opened and left open at the end. I wish the story still stayed on the Temple Vaults case, rather than drifting away into something completely different. Also, I admit, I wasn’t greatly impressed with the climax. The timelines got way too complicated and repetitive. I expected it to be much more.  But that is just me.

As a whole, In the Name of God is a fantastic read. It combines history, art, smuggling, terrorism, police- everything into one story, and with amazing clarity.

Page-turner!

 

Faceless Killers [Book Review]

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Rating: 3.5/5

Year: 1991

For the success of any book, series or a movie, the key is the central character. If you like or get down to love the lead, you naturally garner interest in knowing what happens to his or her life. The central character of this Henning Mankell series, Wallander, is a troubled, drunkard and an ordinary police officer, and yet there is something about him which glues you to read the books. I watched the TV adaptation of this series with Kenneth Branagh playing Wallander, before I started reading the books. I was pretty impressed with the TV series as it was a complete contrast to the usual cop procedural. As I said before, the lead character is not a likeable one. Yet, there is a good dosage of realism in the character portrayals which forces you to accept the flaws of the characters.

An elderly couple is brutally murdered in their farm and Wallander is assigned the case. When a clue points that the suspect could be a foreigner and when this detail leaks out to the press, a racist war breaks out where refugees gets targeted leading to more killings. Wallander, a disturbed middle aged police officer, with a troubled personal life, tries meticulously to balance his personal and professional life, mostly failing when he succumbs to drinking. But with a very capable team behind him, he navigates through the obstacles to solve the cases.

A little more on Wallander as the series seems to be more about the man than the cases per se. He is very sincere when it comes to his work but has a very muddled thought process. He struggles to prioritize his work. His wife has applied for divorce, his daughter lives independently and away from him and his father suffers from dementia. Now that’s more than a difficult personal life. Perhaps, it is this that becomes problematic with the story after a while. There is too much self pity and self loathing which isn’t very impressive for a police officer. I don’t mean to say that a policeman cannot have his own problems, but it just seems too much. His professional conduct, like his cleanliness for example is highly questionable and cringe worthy if I might add. On TV, Kenneth Branagh performed the character really well that I didn’t really hate him, but on paper, the character isn’t definitely impressive for me to worry about him.

Having said that and coming back to the story, the two cases are really interesting and the way the police works with the other departments and plan their course of action is commendable. The racist attack case takes predominance after a point even though the double murder case seems more interesting and contains more scope for a powerful story. I was waiting to see how they tie up the horse connection but was left disappointed with the answer.

The book is a Swedish series. Hence the character names and locations are in Swedish which causes huge trouble in understanding. The author has described the locations so beautifully well that I could feel the chillness of the cold and the soggy rain.

I wish the author had made Wallander a little more likeable especially considering this book is the first one in the series. Yet, as a whole, I really liked the story telling and want to see how Wallander breaks away from his depression and leads a normal life, become a normal person.