Monthly Archives: April 2012

Book Review: Phantom by Jo Nesbo

Title: Phantom
Author: Jo Nesbo
Publisher: Harvill Secker, Random House UK
ISBN: 978-1846555220
Genre: Crime Fiction
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Everyone who was a Swedish crime writer came to front after Stieg Larsson. Stieg’s entry in the popular crime fiction stream through the highly popular Millennium Trilogy paved way for all of them. One of the writers being Jo Nesbo, for which I am glad and thankful.

I have read all the Harry Hole (Nesbo’s protagonist and major detective) novels and been thoroughly entertained by all of them. When I got the opportunity to review Nesbo’s latest Harry Hole novel, “Phantom”, I was ecstatic. Phantom is a riveting read (like most of his earlier books), tightly plotted and fast-paced. The proverbial, never a dull moment is most appropriate to this book.

Harry Hole returns to his home city. Oslo has changed. The drug task force has been successful in erasing the heroin problem from the city. A new drug menace has risen and it’s been delivered by a completely faceless and ruthless gang. The Eastern Europeans are there to stay and aren’t taking no for an answer. Oslo has also had a facelift in its structure. The dirt exists, only needs to be dug deep.

Harry is back and is not wanted or needed anymore. His former girlfriend Rakael’s son Oleg is in trouble. Arrested for murder of his friend Gusto (barely a young boy) and involved with the new drug gang. Harry but of course has taken it on him to save Oleg and find out the real murderer. At the same time, the new gang and the old one do not want Harry alive. It is where the action starts.

The threads are well-connected throughout the book. The book is not cluttered by the over-complication that existed in the earlier books. More so Don Bartlett has provided a brilliant translation keeping in mind Harry’s jokes and the underbelly of Oslo and its description as Nesbo would have originally written.

Phantom’s strength is that it can be a standalone book and readers do not have to refer to the previous Harry Hole books to make sense of what is happening. It is however great to start reading about this detective and what he does right from the beginning to get more perspective. Nesbo’s writing as usual hits the sweet spot of crime and mystery. Phantom is somewhat bleak and realistic portrayal of the drug culture and its impact. The book has clever twists and does not get sentimental, which could have been the danger. It is a captivating read for sure. Top-Drawer.

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Book Review: Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor

Title: Ghost Light
Author: Joseph O’Connor
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 978-1-250-00231-0
Genre: Literary Fiction
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

There is always a set of readers who appreciate a stream of consciousness narrative and those who do not. For me personally, I love it. It is a great form of writing and I have always enjoyed it a little more than the other forms. It is with this spark I started reading, “Ghost Light” and was surprised to know that the SOC narrative was used in this one.

Ghost Light is a brilliantly written small book of many wonders on every page. When I say wonders, I am referring to the literary strokes by Joseph O’Connor and I love how he has melded fact with fiction in this captivating love story, the story of Irish playwright J.M. Synge and his lover Molly Allgood, the Irish actress with the stage name of Maire O’Neill.

The novel opens in a dodgy London boarding house in a shady neighbourhood of 1952, where an older Molly is reviewing and revisiting her past with Synge. She lives alone expect for the ghostly presence of her dead-lover and so begins her story. The stream of consciousness voice of Molly (you are sixty-five now) keeps changing from second to third person narrative (as the years in which the novel is set changes from 1905 to 1952 and back and forth) which adds the much needed flexibility to the novel and also at the same time distances the reader from the characters and read the novel in a more objective manner.

The book is full of Irish references – poems, plays, songs and the landscape. As a reader you can almost imagine what is taking place and how. Young Molly has a brilliant narrative and it is interesting to note how it emerges to be what it is in her old age, from the robust and lively girl who falls for an older man. The plot further moves to letting the readers know that how Molly and John had to keep their affair a secret and the measures taken to ensure that their love was not found out by anyone.

What O’Connor also does is brings to forth the fact that in the good old days of 1905, it was very risqué of women to act in a play and Molly but of course was an actor, which is another interesting angle to the book. The book has several parts which are real and the rest are fiction according to the writer. Mr. O’Connor grew up next to the Synge house and the novel is a result of this fascination.

The novel like I said is not for everyone. Only if you think you have the patience for this kind of narrative and structure then you should pick it up, mainly because of the writing. Having said that, the novel has great structure and a grand scope that any reader will immediately take to. The love story is poignant and touches the right chords of the heart. The sense of place is vivid, which is what is expected in a book like this one. Last but not the least the book is truly mesmerizing. A must read.

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Book Review: Embassytown by China Mieville

Title: Embassytown
Author: China Mieville
Publisher: Pan MacMillan
ISBN: 978-0-330-53307-2
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 405
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

There are very few authors who consistently write enthralling books month after month or year after year. China Mieville happens to be one of them. His books are of the “New Weird” genre and I am not kidding about that. I remember reading, “Perdido Street Station” a long time ago and completely taken in by his style and the magnificence of his writing. Since then I have read most of his books – from King Rat to The City and the City, Kraken and now “Embassytown”.

“Embassytown” for me was not an easy read. It doesn’t start off easy, being the hard-core sci-fi novel that it is. It took me quite a while to get into the book and enjoy it more so only after 100 pages or so. Let me now tell you something about the book.

The book takes place on a planet known as Ariekei. A colony of human beings has formed an improbable and unheard of alliance with an unusual species, the Ariekei, known by those who live on their planet as Hosts. What makes the Ariekei strange is the fact that they have a different language. Different in the sense that they utter each word in two distinct simultaneous voices, without any words, they cannot distinguish between the sounds they employ (I found this very fascinating), the meanings they intend therefore are not clear, and so they cannot lie or recognize meaningful speech (I found this quite futuristic and scary). The only pair of humans, who have been specifically modified for the purpose of coordinating their voices and their thoughts, can communicate with the Hosts. These paired humans are known as Ambassadors.

Avice, the narrator and protagonist of the story makes us see Ariekei right through her childhood and youth – portraying an urban existence so different from ours and yet deep-rooted in universal aspects of city life. In the first couple of chapters, Avice’s complicated history with different powers of Embassytown is detailed, leading to the one evening when everything changes. The overlapping sections are well-paced, revealing the narrative secrets one step at a time. Who is Avice? What happened to her? Why are she and her husband Scile back? What is the actual science fiction element of the novel? Mieville sure doesn’t serve anything to the reader on a platter. The mystery of Ariekei and Embassytown is revealed layer by layer for the reader. The suspense element is right high on the charts and makes you turn the page, wanting more.

Mieville weaves the story so well – taking something as common-place and often taken for granted, language and showing us its real nature – as a jumping-off point – the novel is not as much of ideas as it then becomes of images. The idea of a city in transit and the cultural clashes by synergizing humans and aliens is remarkable and scary at the same time. China Mieville makes the necessary paradigm shift required for the “science-fiction” novel, by bringing out the nuances and elements of the robust world-building and the distinct awe and terror required for such books.

“Before the humans came, we didn’t speak so much of many things. Before the humans came, we didn’t speak.” That is the crux of the book. Embassytown greatest strength lies in the fact that it speaks about the fragility and duplicity of language, about the meaning, its creation and how sometimes language just doesn’t remain a reference point. What I did not like about the book is that the brilliant secondary characters were not explored more. I would have loved to see them shape and have their own voices.

Embassytown is everything you wanted though in a sci-fi novel – weird, inventive and nail-biting intrigue. If you have the patience needed for such a book, then you will not be disappointed by it at all.

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Book Review: The Man Within My Head by Pico Iyer

Title: The Man Within My Head
Author: Pico Iyer
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin India
ISBN: 978-0-670-08627-6
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 242
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

We all have our literary heroes. Sometimes in the form of characters, which we have loved reading about and idolizing while reading or sometimes in the form of writers themselves, who bring stories and characters to life. For me, there are so many writers who have changed my life and the way I see things and the world around me and then there are those who stay on irrespective of time.

Pico Iyer’s new book, “The Man within my Head” is homage to Graham Greene, and at the same time, it is a travelogue, a memoir and a literary biography of sorts. It is everything rolled into one, taking pieces from Graham’s books and his life and that is what makes the book an interesting read.

The book opens during a visit to La Paz, Bolivia and the imagery that Iyer leaves you with is fascinating. A lot but of course has to do with the fact that he can describe a regular scene with great intensity, and make it appear magical to the reader. I picture Iyer on his journeys, sinking in what he sees, settling in his hotel room and writing for his readers, writing about Graham Greene – his writing style, his books and his life. He does all of this and at the same time, gives us a sense of his (Iyer’s) life, juxtaposing the two, which makes for great reading.

Graham Greene was always an outsider and that sentiment was forever depicted through his characters – from the whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory to the adulterous wife in The End of the Affair to The Quiet American, Iyer takes the reader through a Greene journey, and pushes readers to visit Graham Greene.

Now to Iyer’s writing style – at times it is broken, fragmented, but then I love that kind of writing. I like writing that makes you think, that has layers and that is not given on a platter to ease the reading. The man inside Iyer’s head is Greene for most of his life, and later does he realize that there is another man who he has never known and lives within him – his father. Through this book, Iyer then learns how fathers and sons function – the relationship they share, what are they made of and what it takes to bind them.

Iyer’s writing is crisp and almost there – it made me stop and wonder about life at various points and if a book manages to do that, then for sure it has done something to you. We all have a man within us – someone different, someone similar, and someone who sometimes we want to be. As Iyer, eloquently puts it, “A man within your head whispers his secrets and fears to you, and it can go right to your core”. A must-read.

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Book Review: A Life in Words: Memoirs by Ismat Chughtai

Title: A Life in Words: Memoirs
Author: Ismat Chughtai
Translator: M. Asaduddin
Publisher: Penguin India, Penguin Classics India
ISBN: 978-0-670-08618-4
Genre: Memoirs, Autobiography, Non-Fiction
Pages: 282
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

It is sometimes sad to know that readers (most of them) only remember Ismat Chughtai for “Lihaaf” or “The Quilt”. She has written a lot more and the “more” is even more interesting than “Lihaaf”. I remember the first time I was introduced to her works. I had turned twenty-three and my friend had taken me to watch a play, “Manto Ismat Hazir Hain” produced by Motley, – which featured two short stories by Manto, a story by Chughtai and an essay by her as well with reference to the court trial that almost got both the writers imprisoned in the 1940s for so-called “obscenity” in their writing.

I was mesmerized after watching the play. The urge to know more of her and read more works by her was immense. I had read a bit of Manto earlier, however Chughtai took my attention and held it there. Prithvi theatre bookshop was the ideal place to find her books, though translated in Hindi (now I cannot read Urdu. I only wish I can someday). I remember reading almost all of her books, except her memoirs, “Kaghazi hai Pairahan” which I ultimately did. I did struggle a bit as I do not read so many books in Hindi (and am not proud of the fact). The beauty of the language was brilliant. The words used to describe her life from early childhood to being a mother and a wife and a famous writer before all of that resonated way after finishing the book.

I received the much-awaited English translation of “Kaghazi hai Pairahan” from Penguin Books India, aptly titled, “A Life in Words: Memoirs” and delightfully translated by M. Asaduddin. The minute I started reading this edition, memories of the Hindi edition came sweeping by. The same intensity with which Ismat Aapa (I cannot think of anything better to call her) wrote in the original (I am assuming) is captured vividly and precisely in this translation.

One cannot define Ismat Chughtai’s character as anything but colourful and introspective. May be to a large extent that passed down to her by her large and varied family. When you read the memoirs, it almost feels like you are reading a story. One gets the necessary information about her works as well – from short stories to novels to essays (as footnotes) which is needed while reading about a writer. What I loved the most about this book was Chughtai’s family and their antics. Ismat Aapa was born into a large family – she had nine siblings – so one can only imagine the life lead during the Indian Independence and seeing times through Partition, her schooling, her youth, her stubborn nature, her want to get educated and then subsequently the need to write and tell tales.

Chughtai’s tone is fictional and caustic throughout the book. There are a lot of diversions which are fun, despite the danger of losing track of semi-plots and characters, but I guess that can be overlooked when reading memoirs. It is quite natural that the tone will shift, which works well to hang on to the reader’s attention. There are pieces which I loved – for instance, “Aligarh” – which depicts the writer’s hostel life, “In the Name of Those Married Women” – the piece on the much talked about courtroom trial of Manto and Ismat, “Sujat” – revolving around politics and “Chewing on Iron” – depicting class differences.

For me, reading this in English was a treat, thanks to the wonderful translation by M. Asaduddin, who has translated Chughtai’s other works. The translation is subtle and he doesn’t shy from using the words as used in Urdu by the writer sometimes, owing to the fact that there is a glossary as well, which serves the purpose well.

“A Life in Words: Memoirs” by Ismat Chughtai is an honest and stark account of a writer’s life – from childhood to youth to old-age. The ideas in the book are numerous – from women’s liberation to class differences to the inner-life of a Muslim girl. Here is a book that is integral to its ideas, structure and words. I cannot recommend this one enough and while you are at it, please read more of Chughtai’s works. You will not be disappointed at all.

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