Saturday, April 21, 2012

Books I read in 2011

The timing of this review is somewhat like Microsoft - who launched Windows 95 in November 2005 and Ms Office 2007 in Jan 2008. I am now in the esteemed company of Bill as I am writing about the books I read in 2011 when we are four months into 2012. Despite this resemblance in timing, there exists some economic disparity between me and Bill - which, is grossly unfair. But then, I always suspected that life is not really fair. 

This time I decided to write about the books I read last year. Though I don't have the qualifications to write such reviews (except being an avid and indiscriminate reader), but like every self-respecting "intellectual' bong, I have an opinion on everything, books included. So why should books (or rather the authors) be left alone? Only an engineer's prudence has made me write about these books from a purely personal perspective - about what I liked (or disliked) about these books. This allows enough leeway to wriggle out of situations lest someone accuses me of not being "intellectual" or "knowledgeable" enough. So, here's a list of the significant books that I read last year, in a random order.

1) Immortals of Meluha : Amish

I came across this book by a chance encounter. I was at Kolkata on my birthday last year for a business meeting and Sujata, my school friend, dragged me to her home to have breakfast with her. She didn't have time to buy a gift for me and handed me this book which she had originally bought for her. I finished the book in or around 48 hrs - stopping occasionally only to push a few stuffs down the oesophagus or to catch a few winks. Rest of the time, I was glued to the book. 
Amish has started with a presumption that the present day "Gods" were, in fact, humans with extra-ordinary talent and with the passage of time, people had elevated them to "god-hood". The book is set vaguely in the times of Indus Valley civilization (which Amish calls as Meluha) and the central character is pot-smoking devil-may-care hero called Shiva. Shiva has still not got elevated to "god-hood" and is a mortal of immense mental and physical strength and a simplistic clarity of vision. All the mythological characters like Sati, Daksha, Brihaspati etc are interwoven exceedingly well into the plot. 
What I loved about the book is the smartness with which Amish has been able to handle the contradictions in our mythology. For example, our mythologies often talk about "Amrita", the nectar of immortality, which came during Samudra-Manthan using Mandar Parbat. "Amrita" is replaced here with "Somras" (also referred in our mythologies as an alcoholic drink) which is "manufactured" in a factory at Mandar Parbat. Even better is how Amish establishes Meluha as the Kingdom founded by Ram (and hence "Ram Rajya") and is therefore the ideal Kingdom. The contradiction of Sati (who is the daughter of King Daksha) and Parvati (daughter of the mountains or Parvat) both being Shiva's wives in two different births has also been handled with aplomb (by naming the Army Chief of King Daksha as "Parvateshwar" and making him the godfather of Sati). 
The only short-coming of this book is the language. Amish does not seem to have the command of language to sustain the drama in the book. Occasionally his expressions seem pedestrian and dilutes the plot / situation. Had Amish been able to handle this, the book have been extra-ordinary. 
A word of caution : this is a work of fiction - not an interpretation or explanation of Indian mythological history. Hence all the scenarios set by Amish are not necessarily historical facts or interpretations accepted by historians. It's a good read that tickles the brain and makes you wonder whether this could have been the case. Leave it at that - and you will enjoy the book immensely. 
Rating 4.5/5

2) Secret of the Nagas : Amish 

I bought this book from the Reliance book store on the first day of this book launch. This is the sequel to the "Immortals of Meluha" and takes off exactly where the first one had stopped. The thrill of the first novel has been well retained in the second book. 
Amish handles another contradiction quite well - of Kali as well as Parvati both being wives of Shiva. Also he has introduced Ganesh and Kartik into this novel and the entire plot has been woven so well that everything falls into their rightful place. I loved the Parashuram in this novel as well as the journey through Dandakaranya into the Naga capital. In fact, the concept of "Nagas" being the clan of deformed humans shunned by the society who have created their own kingdom is itself praise-worthy. And the twist at the end was also well handled. 
One waits eagerly for the third and concluding part of the trilogy - "The Oath of the Vayuputras". Hope it comes out soon. 
Rating : 4/5 

3) The Corridor : A graphic novel by Sarnath Banerjee 

This is my first encounter with a graphic novel - thanks to my friend Durba, who decided to give me this "non-occasion" gift while we were rummaging through books at Arobindo Market bookshop. A refreshing concept that worked exceedingly well with the present storyline. The plot (or whatever you can describe as plot) is actually an attempt to depict the fragmented and detached urban generation through a series of bizarre incidents. The book is full of tongue-n-cheek humour, which, by virtue of the format of the book, makes it crisp and compact. 
The focal point of the novel is one Mr. Jehangir Rangoonwala - a second hand book seller by profession whose bookshop creates the entry point of colourful collage of people we meet in the book. We come across  Profession DVD Murty, HOD of Forensic at Saftarjung Hostipal and an avid poetry reader, who, after being completely stoned in the middle of CP, makes the supreme pronouncement about the Universal death rate "One death per person". Or Digital Dutta, the Marxist IT professional, who lives in his head - where he has played guitar with Django Reinhard, solved equations for Heisenberg and has even been the mixed doubles partner of Chris Evert Lloyds. There is love affair of the narrator and Kali, (with prophetic realisations like "Women are not goddesses or bitches; often they are both" or   Shintu's escapades in Daryagunj to sort out his sex life (with Sande Ka Tel - a pale yellow extract from the bile of rare lizards; available for only Rs 1000/- - cash or Visa). Or the story of .....err - no more. Go get the book - and read it!!  
Rating : 4/5 

4) Raiders from the North : Alex Rutherford

A historic thriller based on the life of Babur and is the first part of the "Empire of the Moghul" quintet. This was recommended by my friend Amit and usually his recommendations are at least worth a read. This book reconfirmed my faith in his judgement.
This book is a lovely interplay of drama and history written in lucid English. The book also covers Babur's life before he came to India - the initial years at Farghana and Samarkhand, his struggle and repeated defeats and finally his evolution into a man. All of a sudden, Babur becomes something more than a cut-out hero from my old history book; he is now a flesh-and-blood person I can relate to. Also significant is the depiction of the politics and life in those days especially in the Moghul courtyard. 
A trivia : Alex Rutherford is the pen name of a husband-wife team of Diana and Michael Preston. This is the first time I encountered one pen name being used by two persons (unless you count those Ellery Queen novels where multiple authors seem to have written books under the same name). 
Overall judgement : A must read for all those who are fond of Historic Novels. 
Rating : 4/5

5) Brothers in Arms : Alex Rutherford

This is the second part of the Empire of the Moghul series and is reasonably well written. After the fiery page-turner lifespan of Babur, Humayun's age is more of the internal struggles of Humayun. Humayun's attraction towards opium, his "astronomical carpet" with planets and stars drawn on them and his eternal naiveness creates an interesting character. Unfortunately after the blood and iron Babur, Humayun is a weakling who fails to keep your attention for long. He is definitely the least interesting character amongst the Great Moghuls fumbled through his life before stumbling down the staircase to an inglorious end. 
Read it if you are a die hard fan of historical novels or you are passionate about the Moghul history. 
Rating : 3/5 

6) The Interpretation of Murder : Jed Rubenfeld

This is one of the best thrillers I have read in a long long time. It is set in 1909 when Sigmund Freud visited New York along with Carl Jung and Sandor Ferenczi. A girl is murdered in New York and there is an attempt to murder a second girl who miraculously escapes. The second girl, however suffers from trauma which has led to a loss of memory. Sigmund Freud is invited to examine this case and he passes it on to one of his american disciples (Dr Younger). Dr Younger starts investigating the case using Freud's psycho-analysis techniques. This is thus a crime thriller based on the Freudian theories and their application. Brilliantly conceived, lovely language and intricate plot - this is as good as it gets in terms of a thriller. 

Rating : 5/5

7) Come, tell me how you live : Agatha Christie

My wife almost force-fed this book to me and I am eternally grateful for that. Seldom have I read a more cheerful and bright book. The book is full of sunshine and brightness and a general feeling of warmth and joy - the kind you feel when you enter a bakery and smell the freshly baked cakes!
This is a travelogue cum auto-biography of Agatha Christie. She had joined her husband Max Mallowan in a number of archaeological expeditions  in Syria and Iraq and this is a chronicle of these travels. It is full of funny anecdotes written in perfect British English. The stiff-upper-lip brand of humour reminds you of Wodehouse and from time to time, you feel like closing the book and laughing to yourself. 
Like the first night at Amunda :
"No sooner have the lamps been extinguished than mice in their scores - I really believe in their hundreds - emerge from the holes in the walls and the floor. They run gaily over our beds, squeaking as they run. Mice across one's face, mice tweaking your hair, mice! mice! mice! I switch on a torch. Horrible! The walls are covered with strange pale crawling cockroach like creatures. A mouse is sitting on the foot of my bed attending to his whiskers! 
Max utters soothing words.
Just go to sleep, he says. Once you are asleep, none of these things will worry you.
Excellent advise,but not easy to act upon! One has first to get to sleep, and with mice taking healthy exercise and having their field sports all over you, that is hardly possible. Or it is not possible for me. Max seems able to do it all right!"
The episode ended with the narrator threatening to leave by the next available train and eventually sleeping out under the clear sky. 
This is the kind of book which you would like to keep in your bookshelf to cheer you up on depressed days - a thoroughly "feel-good" book. 

Rating : 5/5

8) Snowman : Jo Nesbo

I picked up this book from my favourite bookshop "Quills and Canvas" in the Galleria Market. I had entered this shop at the end of a gruelling week in a brain-dead state and asked the shop-owner for a decent thriller - a nice whudunit or a body-at-the-end-of-every-second-page type. She recommended this and I must say I enjoyed it thoroughly. 
It is a thriller by the Norwegian Author Jo Nesbo featuring his unorthodox, alcoholic "loose cannon" cop hero Harry Hole. This is, in fact, a part of the Harry Hole series but there is little reference to the other books and therefore each book can be read as a stand alone novel. 
The book starts with a dramatic start where, on a typical November night in Oslo, a young boy wakes up to find his mother missing. As he starts searching for her, he discovers wet footprints on the stairs which lead down to the garden. In the garden, amidst the fresh snow, is a snowman with his mother's pink scarf around his neck. It soon becomes the chase for a serial murderer who strikes when the snow falls and his signature is a snowman. 
On the whole, it's a good thriller for people who enjoy this genre of literature. 
Rating : 4/5 
PS : Jo Nesbo is now being promoted as Steig Larson's Norwegian equivalent. Nesbo is good but let's not get carried away - Steig Larson is a class apart!!

9) An Autobiography : Agatha Christie 

This was also my wife's recommendation, though this time she didn't have to push it much. After reading "Come, tell me, how you live", I was more than eager to read this one. This is written in the same vein as "Come, tell me, how you live" and is also quite enjoyable. This is, perhaps, not as cheerful as the previous one but gives a nice look into the early 20th century England. 
It is full of anecdotes which are described in a charming voice. One almost feels like having a chat with an elderly witty old relative (I suppose she was elderly and doubtlessly witty when she wrote this book) while reading the book. It is a book to be savoured - to be read slowly, smiling through the experience and feeling very contended at the end of it. 
For example her description of introduction of mixed bathing :
"The first thing mixed bathing entailed was wearing far more clothing than before. Even French ladies had always bathed in stockings, so that no sinful bare legs could be observed. I have no doubt that, with natural french chic, they managed to cover themselves from their necks to their wrists, and with lovely thin stockings outlining their beautiful legs, looked far more sinfully alluring than if they had worn a good old short-skirted British bathing dress of frilled alpaca."
The book is full of many charming descriptions like this and is definitely a must read for people who love the language.
Rating : 4.5/5

10) I'd tell you that I love you, but then I'd have to kill you : 

This is a young adult book (YA book to generation Y) which I wanted to read ever since I read the review. I found the name intriguing and the fact that it rates among top ten YA books of past 5 years aroused my curiosity. Finally I gifted the book to my friend's teenage daughter - but not before quickly reading the same. 
It is a book by Ally Carter and is a part of the Gallagher Girls series. The protagonist is a 15 year old girl (Cammie) who stays in a board school - but wait - it's not an ordinary boarding school, it's a boarding school for spies. Thus their coursework is about gadgets and covert operations and learning 14 languages et al - a kind of "Spy' equivalent of Harry Potter. The girl then falls in love with a town boy, to whom she cannot reveal her actual identity (and hence the funny title of the book). 
Overall it's a fun novel though it occasionally gets too "girly" for my comfort (I was flummoxed when they were disputing about lip-gloss vs lipstick as I was clueless about their relative merits and demerits). Nevertheless, as a YA book, it is certainly recommended.
Rating : 3.5/5

11) The curious incident of the dog in the night time : Mark Haddon 

I was persuaded very strongly by my friend Durba to buy this book. Later I came to know that it is, in fact, a rather well known book that had got the best Commonwealth Writer's award as well as the Whitbread book of the year. 
The book is written as a first person narrative of a 15 year old child who is an autistic child (probably suffering from Asperger Syndrome). The child is also a mathematical genius who decides to become an amateur crime investigator who investigates the murder of his neighbour's dog. Soon the investigation sky-rockets into something completely different. 
The book is extremely stylishly written with a narrative style that an autistic child would probably use. The chapter numbers are also not in sequence  but as per the prime numbers as a mathematics-obsessed autistic child would probably do. It is not a particularly easy book to read but certainly worth the effort.
Rating : 4/5 

12) The Avenger

This is an out-and-out Forsyth novel with all the usual characteristics : a relatively slow build-up, exceptional plot, superb suspense and a twist in the tail. Added to it, the Forsyth's adherence to details and background makes it a fascinating read.
The protagonist is Cal Dexter a.k.a Avenger, an ex-vietnam soldier who has an alternative side to his declared profession of a lawyer. He is one who brings justice to people who are untouchable due to diplomatic connections or political power. In this novel, he hunts down a war criminal of the Bosnian war through a maze of espionage, terrorism and counter-terrorism in a banana republic. Added to it is Dexter's clash with Paul Devereux, the number 2 in CIA who is determined to stop Dexter from killing the war criminal for reasons of his own. 
Rating : 4/5

I had read some more but are probably not worth mentioning. One also has to keep in mind that any further additions would probably push publishing this blog by another 2 months so better to publish it as it is!!