Book review

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.

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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.

The Kind Worth Killing [Book Review]

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Rating: 4/5

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Psychological thrillers have increasingly become very popular in the last few years. With Gone Girl turning into a massive hit, there has been a heavy rush of books set in the same genre. I am probably one of those who couldn’t complete Gone Girl in spite of being enthralled by the suspense. I ended up watching the movie to know the ending. Anyway, The Kind Worth Killing is almost very similar to Gone Girl. It’s a revenge saga and every chapter gives account of the happenings from each character’s perspective and as a reader, we need to deduce which one of them is narrating the truth, start reading between the lines and understand that each one of them is leaving out certain details which would entrap them. I really enjoyed reading this book though at the end I felt like, “What a sad and devious story! Sadistic!”

Ted Severson meets Lily, a complete stranger to him, at the airport and begins talking to her about his personal life over drinks. He confesses that his wife was having an affair and how he craves to see her dead. Lily, out of the blue, offers to help him carry out the murder! Insane, right? We then get to know the background life of Lily, how she had always led a lonely life and how she had already committed murders to save herself, how she felt happy after every murder! Ted and Lily meet few more times to discuss their plans. What happens next? Does Ted and Lily succeed in killing Miranda, Ted’s wife? Above that, do they get away with the murder?

As with any thriller, the success lies with the impact of the turning points and how it takes the readers off guard. There were quite a good amount of those moments in this book which makes it really exciting and engaging. Though after a point, I admit it became a routine, predicatable. The author has definitely given a very air tight story. I loved how Lily’s mind worked and how she always made sure all the loose ends are tied. Miranda’s character was a surprise and I am sure who have read the book would understand what I mean. The book doesn’t give a pleasant feeling at the end though. It’s not a pleasant read. There is a lot of wickedness in every character and you realize you don’t like any of the characters in the book. You don’t feel sad and have any sort of sympathy for anyone. May be, that’s what psychological thrillers are all about?

The author has done a very good job in building suspense throughout the book. As a reader, I understood the psychology of every character and the reasons behind their actions. The murky rainy weather added a lot of character to the story. The fact that Lily and Miranda have crossed paths in the past and how that had sowed the intent of revenge was clever work. Having read a good amount of psychological thrillers, I realize I don’t really enjoy them much. But for the ones who love reading this genre, this book is definitely a very entertaining one.

The Feast of Roses [Book Review]

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Rating: 5/5

Year: 2007

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I remember having history lessons on Mughal Empire when I was in school and I used to be so fascinated by the grandeur life of the Kings and Queens, the magnificent architecture and the stories behind their establishments. The Mughal Raj is always looked at as a time when India flourished in trade and economy. The same era was also very popular for its love stories- I mean Taj Mahal! Can any sign of love beat this beautiful monument? My point is- the Mughal era instigates a certain amount of interest in everyone’s mind. I am no different. Look at the amount of movies made based on the Mughal kings. It’s really difficult to read the essayed account of the Mughal period, it’s too theoretical. That’s when my friend suggested me The Twentieth Wife- the first book in the Taj Trilogy. I absolutely loved The Twentieth Wife. It amazingly blended facts and fiction to give a perfectly entertaining and engaging book. The Twentieth Wife follows the life of a young and ambitious girl, Mehrunissa- her aspirations and plights and how she eventually becomes Nur Jahan, Jahangir’s wife, Jahangir’s 20th wife.

The Feast of Roses continues Mehrunissa’s life, her life as a Queen, as Nur Jahan. Commonly, when talked about Mughal Queens, the first name to pop in our minds is Mumtaz Mahal- mainly because of Taj Mahal, right? It’s surprising to see how much Nur Jahan had contributed to the development of the empire. She wasn’t a puppet queen. She was more of a King; her decisions were Jahangir’s decisions. She was a headstrong, powerful and practical woman, who understood the nuances of politics to the tee. She was always ready with her next move, calculating the moves of her enemies perfectly. Reading Mehrunissa was a delight! She wasn’t hasty. She knew she had to move through the ladder slowly, without offending her husband, the King. Her biggest strength was her husband. Jahangir’s love and support for Mehrunissa is commendable. He never discriminated her. In spite of the fact that Mehrunissa couldn’t bear him a child, his love for her never decreased or ceased. One sad point was the meager amount of time Mehrunissa could spend with her daughter, Ladli, from her first husband. I loved reading the interactions between them.

Who will succeed Jahangir? That’s the basic plot of this book. With Mehrunissa unable to produce a child, Jahangir is forced to look at his other sons. Khusrau, his first, blinded as punishment for revolving against him before, is a weak contender. Parviz, a drunkard, is never in the competition. Shahryar is very young. That leaves with Khurram, young and dynamic man, who later wins the title Shah Jahan. Mehrunissa’s goal is to win Khurram’s support. It’s important because, at the death of her husband, she would be left alone and she would need the support of the next king for survival. Thus begin the battle of wits and valor. Mehrunissa, by marrying her niece Arjumand (Mumtaz Mahal) to Khurram, believed Khurram would be grateful to her for that. But she never expected Arjumand would silently turn Khurram away from her. There are many more instances like when Mehrunissa commands Khurram to marry Ladli, and he refuses. I felt really bad for Ladli. She was just a coin in the game, a game she never wanted to participate in.

I found little interest in the English-Portuguese-Mughal treaty part. Even though, that sowed a lot of discomfort in relationships within the family, somehow, it wasn’t engaging enough. I was surprised at the significant role Mehrunissa’s brother, Abul Hassan played in getting Khurram crowned as the next ruler. Hoshiyar Khan, Mehurnissa’s aid eunuch, stood out at the end as someone who didn’t betray his mistress till the end. I wonder how he did that? He worked for the previous queens too, but stayed true to Mehrunissa, supporting and guiding her at all times. On thinking, Khurram never won the throne on his own. He wasn’t nominated by the King or the Queen either. He just attained it because the rest were killed. Now that’s not a good start for a king, is it?

The narration was brilliantly paced. You never realise that you are running through years within a few pages. The description of the Mughal cities and their architecture was beautifully worded. I never wanted to skip any of the descriptions as it was so captivating. I wonder why Jahangir and Nur Jahan are never talked much as compared to Shah Jahan and Mumtaz. It seems like Jahangir did a lot more to the empire than Shah Jahan. Guess, it’s thanks to Taj Mahal!

I am eagerly waiting to read the next part of this series- The Shadow Princess. If you want to read and get transported to the Mughal age, this series is THE ONE!

Go for it!

The Importance of being Earnest [Play Review]

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Rating: 5/5

Year: 1895

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It has been only in recent times I have started exploring various genres and just not crime fiction. I have also developed a growing interest in consuming Classics. Traveling through Shakespeare and Dickens, I recently landed on Wilde. Before I read this work of Oscar Wilde, all I knew about his work was some popular quotes. However, this play – The Importance of being Earnest made me realize why there is a huge following for this brilliant author.

Reading a play might be easy and interesting but writing one? I consider it very difficult. In a novel, the author gets to set the scene taking all the time, describing even the smallest of the things in the scene by its size, quality and color. But in a play, that’s not possible (Unless presented on screen). The author gets very few lines to set the scene, those few words should be so effective to enable the reader the visualize the scene. I believe being able to visualize the story is the key to the success of every literary work. If you are able to use fewer words to achieve the same, the work is undoubtedly going to be a remarkable one.

This play – The Importance of being Earnest strikes at the very early with its tagline. ‘A Trivial Comedy for Serious People’. There are three acts in the play. The first act introduces most of the characters. Ernest, friend of Algernon Moncrieff, is a fine young man who is in love with Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen, who plans to propose to her the very same day. Algernon demands an explanation from Ernest when he finds Ernest’s cigarette case with the inscription, ‘From little Cecily, with her fondest love to Uncle Jack’. Ernest confesses that he leads a double life- John or Jack Worthing in the country, where he takes care of his ward Cecily, to whom Ernest is her Uncle’s brother and Ernest in the London city. Algernon then confesses to his own double identity, the name of his alter being Bunbury. Jack later proposes to Gwendolen, who accepts and admits that she loves him mainly because his name is Ernest. Algernon acquires the address where Cecily lives, and impersonates as Ernest, her Uncle’s brother. Cecily immediately falls in love with Algernon primarily because his name is Ernest! Follow me? Both the ladies love Ernest and Ernest doesn’t exist at all. Now this confusion is the plot of the story. What follows is confusions, misunderstandings and misidentities. The whole getting ready to be christened again was so funny. The ending was really unpredictable, a route which I never expected the author to take.

As a whole, I completely enjoyed reading the story. But when I sit down to dissect and look into the characters in detail- I feel a strange amusement. As long as this story is considered to be a comedy, something of a satirical nature, it could be accepted as fine. But the female characters in the story- Gwendolen and Cecily – the reasons for their love being just the name is a mere joke. Don’t get me wrong here. I understand the story is based on this- the confusion with the name and the ladies’ obsession with the name Ernest. Yet, I couldn’t stop wondering if someone could have been so naive?! Somewhere, this fact of the story troubled me at the end. The women did raise questions on how both the men lied about their identities, but they were so quick to accept their explanation?! May be I am taking this story a little too seriously than needed. May be!

Ultimately, this play is an easy, quick and an entertaining read. Very pleasant and enjoyable. Very clever and witty of the author.

Don’t miss it!

The Murder at the Vicarage [Book Review]

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Rating: 4/5

Year: 1930

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I have no qualms in admitting that I am a hardcore Agatha Christie, specially a huge Hercule Poirot fan. One of my main reading goals is to complete reading every Agatha Christie work and I am slowly working my way through it too. One of the mind blocks I am facing is to enter the Miss Marple series of the author. I faced huge disappointment reading The Caribbean Mystery, as the lead detective Miss Marple was neither as clever nor as interesting as Poirot. I had heard a lot of good things about this book, The Murder at the Vicarage. Since I had replenished all the Agatha Christie books I had on my shelf, I picked this one up. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Murder at the Vicarage, like all Christie’s books, has a murder, a list of suspects, clues and timelines, and Miss Marple successfully solving it with her deduction and theories. The premise was no different or extremely interesting when compared to the author’s best works. Yet, this book works because of its setting and few of the characters.

Colonel Lucius Prothoroe, a strict disciplinarian, not liked by many in the town, slightly hearing impaired, is found dead it the study of the Vicar- Leonard Clement. A list of suspects is immediately drawn.

1. Lawrence Redding- a young artist having an affair with Mrs Prothoroe.

2. Mrs Prothoroe- wife of Colonel Prothoroe, wanting to break from the shackles of her husband.

3. Lettice Prothoroe- daughter of the Colonel Prothoroe, a sad young girl wanting to lead a life of her own without her father’s interference

4. Mrs Lestrange – new in the neighbourhood, a strange woman with a secret history unknown to anyone

5. An outsider

Clement meets an agitated and confused Redding on his way to his study before he finds the dead Colonel. Even before he could lay his doubts on Redding, Redding himself surrenders to the police for committing the murder, only that he couldn’t have killed the Colonel. Dr Haydock’s findings and Redding’s own movements and alibi prove he couldn’t have committed the crime. Then who did it? Why did Redding surrender himself?

If you had seen the premise, there is no Miss Marple around. In a way, Miss Marple’s presence in the book is too few and that might be one of the reasons why this book worked for me. Most of the investigation is carried out by the Vicar Clement, Inspector Slack and Redding himself. Miss Marple, who is a part of the neighborhood, offers her theories and observations in between. We have statements gathered from everyone in the neighborhood to fix the timeline of both the deceased and all the suspects. We know someone is lying, and as a reader I was conducting my own investigation with all the clues presented. The character psychology was established so well I was trying to get into each one’s head, to measure each one’s need to see the Colonel dead. The victory for the author was I couldn’t get into her head. I could feel Clement’s frustration when the statements and the actual happenings don’t add up. Having read so many works of Christie’s, adding to that the numerous other crime fictions, I had a list of options for the culprit and the reasons for the murder. The actual ending did manage to be one of them making me feel a little proud but that doesn’t take away the intelligence of the author.

I loved how every character did have a motive to kill the Colonel. It’s a matter of weighing every motive. There was a point where I even suspected the Vicar, (Can’t forget The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). The plan maps of the Vicarage and the neighborhood helped in visualizing the physical premise of the story. The only problem I had with this book was Miss Marple. Alright, I accept Jane Marple can’t be another Hercule Poirot but I expected a little bit of more extraordinaire from her, just to make her stand out from normal human beings. I felt this book could have been a fantastic standalone if they had made Clement solve the entire case. It would have made no difference. I am not sure if I would pick another Miss Marple anytime soon. But that’s just the character.

The case and the book as a whole was excellent. Enjoyed reading Agatha Christie after a long time.