Reading Reflections 1 (31 Dec 2017)

I finally found one of the old Russian fairy tales I had read as a child. I have so far read 3 of them in the book - The Fire Bird, The Frog Tsarevna and  Chesnut Grey. All these 3 were part of my first Russian fairy tales book - a nice fat one. I hope I am able to find all of them from that book.

In all the 3 stories, the hero has limited agency. The hero is Tsarevich Ivan in the first 2 stories and Ivan the fool in the third. I remember noting back then that invariably the heroes in Russian stories are called Ivan. Later I came to know Ivan is the Russian form of John. I was quite fascinated by words such as Tsar I used to use them in creative writing class at school in place of king. Again later I discovered the origin of the word Tsar - apparently it is a condensation of the word 'Caesar' - I guess German Kaiser also derives from the same route. Julius Caesar who was killed so that he does not become emperor ended up with his surname becoming word for king in so many countries.

Anyways coming back to the story, these  hero almost does nothing in any of the 3 stories. In the first, he manages to keep awake when his brothers sleep off and discovers that the fire bird steals his father's golden apples. Then he has luck to have his horse eaten by the grey wolf. The grey wolf is a benevolent character that I have noticed in more than one Russian tale. The grey wolf then offers to help him in return for eating his wolf. It manages to tell him how to steal the bird. But he is told not to touch its cage. He gets tempted and ends up doing the very thing. The Tsar to who the bird belongs asks him to bring the horse with golden mane in exchange for which he will be forgiven for trying to steal as well the bird with the cage. Again the wolf helps him and while stealing he disobeys the wolf's instruction not to try and grab the golden bridle. The Tsar to whom this belongs again offers him a condition in exchange for release and horse. He wants a princess to be stolen. The princess - the wolf shape shifts and steals for him and rides him back. But prince wants to keep princess. So wold shape shifts and fools the Tsar. Then price wants to keep the horse. The wolf shape shifts and fools this Tsar as well so the prince manages to get all the 3 due to no effort of his own. And even these 3 he does not manage to successfully take back. His brothers run into him at a tavern and kill him. Again the wolf emerges and summons a raven to get dead water and live water. Dead water puts the pieces of his body together and live water brings him to life again. He goes and claims his princess, horse and bird. They are restored and he lives happily ever after. The thing is the prince does nothing. It is the wolf through and through. And as far as the wolf goes, it seems almost invincible. So I wonder what is the interest in the story?

The second story is that of a princes having to shoot arrows and marry the woman whoever finds his arrow. The youngest prince here finds a frog and has to marry her - kind of gender reversal of Frog and Princess story. He is not willing but has to. Again, see - no agency. And his father sets the wives of the princes various tasks - make a garment, make bread, come and dance at dinner. The frog transforms into Vasilisa the wise and accomplishes each of these. One memorable scene - she pour mead into left sleeve and swan bone into right sleeve. Then while dancing, by stretching left hand she is able to create illusion of lake and through the right hand swans floating in the lake. So far she is invincible. But the price burns off her frog skin and immediately she falls into the clutches of Koschei the Deathless, again a character who reappears in lot of Russian fairy tales. Here Ivan gets to do stuff. He meets Baba Yaga the witch and seeks advice on how to find her. Baba Yaga, living in a house that stands on chicken legs, is another recurring feature - sometimes she is benign, sometimes malign. Here she is benign. She gives him a ball of wool to follow to find Koschei's place. And Koshei's life apparently is within a needle which is inside an egg which is inside a duck, which is inside a hare and that is inside huge trunk on top of an oak tree. Very similar to how Indian Rakshasha's lives are hidden. So the information just comes to him without any effort. As far as getting the needle goes, here we have some agency. His kindness helps him here. He helps a bear, a hare, a drake and a pike. Each one helps him get past one layer of protection of Koschei's life. All Ivan has to do is break the needle. He gets his princess and lives happily ever after. Fun, isn't it?

The third Ivan is a fool, not a prince.  This is a again a gender reversed Cinderella tale of sorts. His father dies and asks his 3 children to visit his grave. The other two sons don't and this Ivan ends up visiting all 3 days. So his father gives him magic to summon a horse called Chesnut Grey. The king calls for suitors to marry his daughter. His brothers go to try their luck. He is made fun of for being too plain and stupid. However he calls Chesnut Grey and then goes into one of its ears and emerges handsome form its other ear. He is able to make his horse jump highest to win the contest for the princess and receives a kiss on his eye brow. The kiss serves same purpose as glass slipper. It remains a permanent glowing mark on the prince's eye brow. The mystery prince disappears. The princess looks for him and finally discovers him thanks to the kiss and the live happily ever after. 

Center Court

I am not a sports enthusiast. There was a phase when I got in Sports enthusiasts. For those 4-5 years, I used to ardently compile a cricket scrap book full of pictures and all statistics of almost all the major active players. At that time I would watch all the major tennis grand slam matches as well as major international soccer tournaments. This phase came suddenly and went suddenly. Books have been my true love before and have continued to be even after that phase. As far as playing sports goes, the only way I scored runs was by distracting the bowler to laughter with my amusing stance. If humor was my signature in cricket, violence was my signature in football. Whether I got the ball or not, I would definitely get the player. Such has been my harrowing experience with sports. So I am hardly the right reader for a sports novel. But since Sriram is a good friend on virtual communities and his previous book "Rain" was pretty decent, I ended up picking this one as well. And what a book this turned out to be! A complete page turner! A theme that does not interest me at all and main characters who are not at all like me. Yet the story hooked me from page 1 and kept me hooked till the last page.

Right plot, right characters, right language, right narration - this book has it all. The main characters are Shankar Mahadevan, India's top Tennis player, the first one to ever hold a chance at a Grand Slam. The venue is Wimbledon, the Mecca of Tennis. Shankar's father and coach form the main supporting cast. The story flows seamlessly taking the reader from match to match as Shankar makes his way through the 7 rounds of the tournament with the interval between each match interspersed with Shankar's back story, his social life, tit bits about Tennis history and the author's general philosophy about life. The author has managed to blend all of this elements very well and the reader's interest does not sag for a moment. There is quite a lot of drama going on both on court and off court. The notorious paparazzi  seeking sensational news, the corrupt sports federations, girl friends form the off field drama. Each player, each match is so different from the other - one player is a cheat, one player is a genius, one an ambitious upstart, one a complete jerk to name a few.

The author also manages to share his philosophy and impress on the reader his view of sports as an art form. He also manages to show us his vision for sports in the country. That was the story is not just entertainment - there is a message as well. The ending was also very good. After all the start I feared the author will wind up the story to a tame end. Luckily he did nothing of that sort.

I guess no review is complete without nitpicking somewhere and finding some flaw. So here goes - I felt probably the voice of the father and the voice of the son both seemed similar in some places. They did not seem distinct enough. Sometimes it felt as if Sriram himself was launching into a monologue of sorts that his friends on social media and probably in real life as well are used to.

Overall, a fantastic read that I would strongly recommend to just about anyone.

The Alphabet Killer - a review

Detective stories tend to follow a regular pattern - a crime, an interesting investigator, clues, investigation and final apprehension of the criminal. Now the way each author makes their work unique is through adding special elements to one or more of these elements. Say an unique crime not committed before. For example a person killed without any signs of violence or money just disappearing from a safe without it being tampered in any way. This is like magic. The story is about demystification of the magic. The crime may also be interesting in a different sense that it is a reflection of some aspect of society. The next is the investigator. We have Sherlock Holmes, a relentless scientist who treats a crime like a Mathematical problem, Poirot, a relaxed unassuming gentleman who contemplates his way through or Father Brown, who looks like a dumb priest but takes everyone by surprise by the intellect he hides beneath is exterior. Then we have the clues. It is somewhat related to crime. What does one make of steps that go one way but no return steps. What does one make of victim's hair and nails being scraped off. Then last but not the least the whole investigation procedure. In some cases, it can be a very technically intense pursuit, giving reader insights on how real crime agencies work. Then there is a pursuit of a psychological trail. There is also piecing together various facts like solving a puzzle. And last but not the least, a hulk like investigator who bashes his way through problems. In some of the stories, the criminal becomes the object of interest, either due to their intellect, their brutality or their motives which win reader's sympathy. Then there is this whole tone of narrative and the mood it creates - it can be philosophical, poetic, humorous, Gothic horror to name a few.  So in appreciating a crime novel I would try to look at these elements.

So coming to "The Alphabet Killer" by Prachi Sharma, the most interesting elements are the investigator and the social aspects of the crime. The main investigator is Mia Santos is a strong woman like a bull in a China shop, who has strong views and can go to any extent to uphold her view. She is human with human frailties, passionate about feminism, dedicated to a cause and given to quick anger. Despite being a strong feminist, she does not suffer from monomania and wants to enjoy life as well which probably will make readers relate to her. The opening scene introduces her nicely with a scene where she beats up a bunch of potential rapists. She also has a history about which hints are dropped initially and are unraveled fully towards the end. That is probably the most interesting aspect of the story.

As far as social aspects go, this book focuses on crime against women and the challenges faced by those fighting for feminist causes. It also focuses on social stigma faced by women who are victims of sexual abuse. The author also keeping with the asks of the modern times creates main characters who are not sexually prudish.

The author shows good amount of competence with language and the book has been copy edited and proof read. However the narration is neutral and does not attempt to create a mood or evoke strong emotions. The plot as such is straightforward. Regular readers of crime would find the character of the criminal, the way he commits the crime and his motives quite familiar. The investigation as such is also pretty straightforward - regular things such as footprints and video footage. There is also an element of romance in the story. I guess that should appeal to the population who love to read romance genre.

Overall it is pretty breezy read and a decent one time read for people who like crime genre and are looking for something in contemporary Indian settings. 

Birds of Prey - Review

Crime used to be my famous genre during my childhood days. In addition to the children’s crime stories – Famous Five, Five Find Outers, Secret Seven, Three Investigators, Hardy Boys – I also started Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. So much so that I wanted to do my graduation in forensic sciences or in some electronic technology that helps be build cool surveillance gadgets used by detectives. But somewhere along the way, my interests changed and I went over to the realms of science fiction and fantasy. Since then I have not read much crime except for the works of Keigo Higashino which I found really brilliant. But overall I am not a hardcore crime fan. But Archana Sarat being one of my really good online friends, I picked up her ‘Birds of Prey.”

I found the story to be extremely gripping and I finished the entire book in 2 sittings – the journey to my office and the journey back. The scenes are short and the story keeps moving all the time. The language is not unnecessarily complicated. Overall the books was an easy read. It was not an easy one though in terms of subject matter. It deals with the extremely uncomfortable topic of child abuse. The criminal in this story is a victim of child abuse. On one side the author starts the story of a policeman called back from voluntary retirement to pursue the case of disappearance of a few men, that has been baffling the police force. And on a parallel track, we get glimpses of the criminal’s childhood days and the suffering she had to undergo. The author makes the reader really feel for her and almost makes the reader also want to seek revenge for everything done to her. In parallel, the author tries to make the reader root for the detective as well by showing his conflicting priorities – family versus profession. He is extremely passionate about his profession but his wife is concerned for his safety and wants him to leave the job. However between the two, the criminal wins hands down.

Since we know who the criminal is beforehand, it is not exactly a whodunit. The suspense is more around discovering what crime the missing men committed to deserve the attention of this criminal, how the detective through his investigations finds his way to the criminal and in the flashback how the criminal managed to eventually get out of her situation and reach her current position.

Details are clearly the author’s strength. The author makes the entire story come alive with her attention to even the minor details in the descriptions and in the natural dialogues. One can clearly see the story come alive right in front of one’s eyes. That combined with the fast pacing, makes the book a completely unputdownable read.

One area that I felt could have been better was the plotting. While the pacing and the horror of the theme keeps you so engaged that you miss these points while reading, when you reflect after you finish the final chapter, lot of things don’t look so plausible. As I said I am not a connoisseur of crime genre. But from what little I know, I feel this is a genre where plotting should be water tight – both from the point of view events leading to the crime, the circumstances and motivations of the criminal as well as the investigation procedure. Here I found too much depended on serendipity and overall suspension of disbelief was not very easy.

Overall I would say this has been a wonderful debut by this author and I look forward to her next books. It is a really light engaging read and I would recommend any reader with a couple of hours or so to kill to pick it up. There is not a single dull moment and you will just watch the time whiz past you.

You can buy the book here on  Amazon in India or here globally.  

Pishacha - Review

Horror is not a genre I normally favor. But when I heard an Indian author has attempted this genre, I was curious to pick up the book. And Maya’s New Husband did not disappoint me. Having seen the author’s display of writing skills in Maya’s New Husband, picking up his next offering ‘Pishacha’ was a no brainer. Pishacha in some ways has the horror much more toned down making the book accessible to a wider audience. While it too has its share of killings, the author does not delve deep into the minutiae in graphic detail. Also a ‘Pischacha’ does not feel as real to a reader as a flesh and blood mentally deranged man who could be living in our midst passing off as a normal colleague or neighbor.

The premise of the story as the title suggests is about an undead being returning from death to claim the love of his life from the days of his mortal existence. She is now reborn in modern times while he is a supernatural being who has to kill humans and feed on their flesh and blood to keep himself animated. The story takes us through the Pishacha’s journey to bridge this gap between life and death – a journey filled with blood and gore. Meanwhile we are introduced to the life of the lady in question – “Neetika”. We get to know of her boyfriend, her father and her friends. We also see the impact the Pishacha’s intervention has on her life and her attempts to understand and deal with the effects of the same. We also seem to have a seemingly unrelated arc of Nakul going on that ties in nearly towards the end.

The best thing about Neil’s works is the writing. The reader can cut through his writing smoothly like a knife through butter. The whole narrative flows smoothly without any bumps and potholes – the reader can finish the entire book in a single setting. The language level is just right – neither high flowing and flowery that has you rushing for a dictionary every second page nor completely watered down to cater to the tastes of the lowest common denominator. The descriptions are also pretty well done and gives the reader a holistic audio visual olfactory experience.

The other thing I like about Neil’s works is the novelty of the concepts in his book and how he draws from not so well known aspects of local folklore. Last time he took on the concept of aghoris. This time he takes on the concept of pishachas. He has also built a bit of mythos around what exactly is a pishacha as against the other paranormal beings. In this work, we encounter other beings such as rakshashas, dayans and kalinis as well.

People who watch Bollywood paranormal flicks may find the general direction of the plot quite familiar. Ancient love story in the time of kings. Love triangles. Tragic untimely deaths. Characters returning in present times as paranormal beings and reincarnates. Where Neil differentiates himself is in the quality of writing and a bit more fleshing out of the logic of paranormal occurrences. Of course as a hardcore science fiction and fantasy buff, I still find the paranormal world building logic not strong enough. But then this book is for the regular folks not the fantasy buffs. So from that angle it stands notches above Bollywood.

As far as characterization goes, this is again an area of Neil’s strength. He has managed to create multiple memorable characters, all of who remain in the reader’s mind even after completing the book. But one grouse would be that I did not relate to any of the characters of the book. So I was not overtly concerned about the fate of any of them. In fact, the sadistic part of my mind was hoping all characters would commit mass seppukku together towards the end. Of course the pishacha would have found it challenging being already dead. But then he was trying to become mortal again.

Overall a pretty engaging light read that I would recommend to most people. And I am eagerly waiting to see what Neil comes up with next after Aghoris and Pishachas.

Rain - Review

Around 12 years back, I read a book called Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham that made me rethink my priorities in life and see the whole idea of the meaning of life from a new perspective. It is one of those rare books that I can claim influenced me deeply. Somehow reading Rain by Sriram Subramanium reminded me of that book. Of course the protagonist's character and circumstances that lead him on a unusual journey in the physical work are quite different in the two books. However both the journeys in the real world, lead to bigger journeys in the spiritual world for the respective protagonists. Here again there is a deviation in the final destination of the two. But parallels do exist.

Let me start with the things I liked most about the book and move on to things that in my opinion could have been better. The character of Jai Dubey seemed very real and someone I could relate to. The clash between ideals and monetary requirements for maintaining prestige in family circles, the disgust with certain ways of the world while being forced to play along, temptations and human failings are all things every person goes through at some point in his or her life. All these were brought out really well. The secondary characters -his wife Sarika, his in laws, his friends, his coworkers, the street boy Raju and his mother, his clients, local politicians - every one of them was really well etched and one can remember them distinctly after finishing the story. An unique primary character and distinct secondary characters are definitively one of the strongest points of the book.

I found the language to be quite good and the narration flowed smoothly. While remaining simple, the language was still elegant with absolutely no crassness. The pacing was perfect and the book can easily be finished in a single setting. The author manages to maintain the interest throughout, leading the reader effortlessly from one event to the other. The use of right amount of Indian words at appropriate locations also manages to give the local flavor.

The plot is interesting. The protagonist is an architect who on one hand wants to opt out of the rat race and the demands of  society but at the same time wants to prove himself to his wife's family. The story starts off with the protagonist taking an ambitious and challenging project to earn money quickly to build a house for his wife. But there are challenges and early rains can play spoil sport to all his plans. Thus the title of the story. As the story progresses, we discover what role the rains play in the protagonist's life and the strange twists and turns it takes him through as well as the mental demons from his dark past and the role they play.

The book also has some philosophy in it, most of which I tended to agree with. However I felt the philosophy did not blend seamlessly with the story line. At places the philosophy seemed to stand apart as a digression from the story. I felt the same about some of the detailed descriptions as well. While the descriptions were really well done, recreating most of the story surroundings in the reader's mind, at places they seemed to distract from the plot.

Talking of the plot, I did feel there were a few loose ends. Quite a few of the minor elements in the story did not find closure. Probably the author intended it that way. But I generally like everything to be neatly tied up. The other thing I found was some of the decisions by the protagonist seemed abrupt. I am not sure though if it is a problem with the plotting or just the character of the protagonist to take impulsive decisions without much thought that I am not able to relate to, given my own temperament. Also some of the events in the story seemed a tad too cinematic to me - the ones that involved local politicians and policemen. It is of course possible that is how the real world works and I am not exposed to that side of the world.

I also felt the title did not do proper justice to the story. It somehow seems too drab and immensely forgettable. It does not intrigue the reader and grab the attention. Nor is it related to a deeper philosophical undercurrent running across the story.

Overall I would say it is definitely a book worth reading. Possibly a second reading as well. It managed to remain light and breezy while at the same time giving some food for thought. 

Kissing Circles - Review

For long I have stopped taking books for reviews. But now and then I take up one if someone I am well acquainted with has written a book and wants me to review it for them. So here comes my review of the book “Kissing Circles.” by Nitin Tewari. I picked up the Kindle copy . So I can’t comment on the cover design, paper texture and other production values. Therefore I will straight away get on to the story.

My overall impression about this book I would say was quite positive. I found this book much better than many of the popular Indian best sellers published by the big publishing houses while catering to more or less the same audience. Why I found it so, we will get there presently and also have a look at some of the things that could have greatly improved the book.

The overall story line was quite sound. The theme of two North Indian boys going to Kerala to join as trainees at an IT company and through their association with a local colleague, getting involved in a high Adrenalin drama pertaining to a local tradition is quite an interesting theme. The author has done a good job taking us through the characters of the two North Indian boys, their Keralite colleague and the protagonist of the local drama – the captain of one of the boat teams for the annual race. He displays very good understanding of the characters of his protagonists and brings out their desires, aspirations and thoughts very well. The drama builds up nicely from around a third of the book and manages to keep the reader hooked.

The other strong element of the book is the research the author has done on the local culture and traditions. We get to learn the history of the local people, their traditions, the origins and the social milieu. So if nothing, somebody who has read this book would have learnt something useful about Kerala. 

The language in the book is decent but quite inconsistent. At some places, it looks simple and in others it looks more refined. I am not sure if this has to do with the author’s innovative approach of having each chapter told from a  different point of view - first person narrative of the main characters, omniscient third person point of view, third person object on the wall narrative and also actual narratives by Gods and odd objects. Talking of this narrative approach itself, while I appreciate the author’s attempt to innovate, this did not work out so strongly. There was no obvious reason why this form of narrative had to be chosen from a storytelling perspective except for the sake of sheer novelty. And the writing by itself did not stand out so differently between the various narratives for the reader to be able to recognize immediately who is narrating without seeing the chapter title.

The book title "Kissing Circles" was something I really liked. It is really intriguing and has the reader thinking.The explanation for this that comes around mid way through the book and the way author links it at a physical and metaphorical level was interesting. I would have probably liked to see more of the kissing circle idea thread through the story.

The starting was a bit slow and many readers may be tempted to put off the book at this stage itself. While reading about the life of trainee engineers in a software company brought back some old memories for me, I did not find these chapters particularly interesting. Nor was I too keen to learn about the competitive landscape in the software industry and tit bits about the software industry  keep popping up regularly throughout the story. If the author had started in the middle with the boat races coming in the first chapter itself, things might have been much more interesting.

The book has no strong female characters and might feel a bit misogynistic in the overall tone, especially in the sections narrated by the two north Indian boys. But then that is exactly how the mindset of young Indian engineering graduates tends to be. I can vouch for that having been through that phase. So it can be justified as a realistic portrayal of the characters he has made the protagonists of his story.

In terms of plot and narrative, I feel he could have done a much better job in the sequencing of events, blending exposition with the story line, deciding between realism and fantasy, choosing which events to highlight and which to push to the background etc. A strong developmental editor would have really helped in all these elements and added much value.

Overall a light breezy read that I would recommend to most people. If someone doesn't find the initial few pages interesting, I would suggest to skim through and hang on till at least till the boat races make their appearance.

The book can be purchased here on Amazon.

For whom the bell tolls

A book of faces