Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Baaz by Anuja Chauhan - Book Review

I think I was always going to like this book. After all, I loved Anuja Chauhan's first book (The Zoya Factor) - it is one of the few books I've read twice. Her books are well-written stories for people wanting an escapist romance, a page-turner for a few hours. Baaz follows almost the same formula, though its setting and ending make it a leeettil bit different.

Baaz is the story of Ishaan 'Baaz' Fauzdaar, a boy from a small village in Haryana, who joins the Air Force and becomes a famous pilot during the 1971 war. It's also the story of Tehmina 'Tinka' Daddyseth - a photographer and a pacifist. The two meet and fall pretty much instantly in love - but how does their love story work out against the backdrop of a war?

For me, the Ishaan-Tehmina story was less important than the background against which it all plays out. We get a sneak peek into the lives of Air Force personnel and the planes they fly. Since the story is set against the 1971 war, we see a lot of the action live (though from the aerial perspective, of course :D). The book's cover says it's Anuja Chauhan's 'homage' to India's armed forces, and that definitely shows.

Despite a rather somber setting, Anuja Chauhan's wit and voice sparkle throughout the book. (The fact that the book is written in present tense is a bit jarring though.) Her writing is so vivid that you feel like she's drawing a picture with words right in front of you - I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the aerial battles.

How do I compare The Zoya Factor with this one? TZF, I felt was funnier, and had the most outrageously awesome plot (a woman who can ensure a cricket team's victory just by having breakfast with them? I mean, wow.). But it could have been about a third shorter than it was.

Baaz, on the other hand, is less funny, but more tightly written. The action pretty much never falters. Those who don't like the lovey dovey stuff can wait for the fighting. (Though I do know somebody who stopped reading the book because she didn't like all the descriptions of planes and fighting.)

Overall, a bitter-sweet read, but lovely nonetheless.
• • •

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

(Book Review) Yashodhara Lal's When Love Finds You

Yashodhara Lal's last book, There's Something About You, was the first book that I read as part of a book reviewing program I signed up for last year. I loved it and it really changed my perspective on Indian chick-lit. So when I was offered the chance to read and review her latest, I signed up quickly.

It was a ten-day wait to receive the book, presumably due to all the festivals we've been having lately. But once I received the book (thankfully on a Friday night), it took me just a few hours to read it, despite having a very demanding toddler at home. (The fact that it was the weekend helped.)

Before I begin, let me just get this off my chest quickly - I didn't enjoy this book as much as the last one. Sure, it's a good read and unputdownable and all that, but it doesn't have the wit and sparkle of the last book.

Lal presents us with a really dislikable protagonist - Natasha Patnaik is a 35-year-old Vice-President of Sales at an HR software company. She's extremely ambitious and a tough boss, very sure that she has to be doubly hard on her team to overcome their resistance to having a female boss. She's single, and not sure if she wants to mingle. She clearly has health and body image issues (though she doesn't seem to realize it).

Unfortunately for her, all the sacrifices she has made for her career don't seem to be enough. Her boss feels that she needs to develop her "people skills" and brings in an extra layer between him and her - a business head who seems to be all style and show, but who is supposed to mentor her.

Throw in a hot new colleague at work, a crochety old neighbour and a sexy gym instructor, and you've got everything you need for a riveting few hours.

You'll enjoy the book if you don't expect much more than your usual romantic potboiler. Personally, I had high expectations thanks to her last book, but this one doesn't quite match up.

All of Natasha's troubles are over by the end of the book. But there's no clear reason why.

(Possible spoilers begin)

Yes, she finally decides to deal with her past, but why? Yes, she suddenly becomes a manager the team loves performing for, but why? Yes, the guy she likes falls in love with her too, but why?

(Possible spoilers end)

Other peeves, while we're on the subject. Natasha introduces herself to her new boss in the first half of the book as an IIMC alum. In the second half of the book, she says she did her MBA from FMS. WTF.

And my major peeve from the last book holds true for this one as well - the cover. Dayamn, that is one terrible cover. And let's not even talk about the title, which is so generic it must have come from some Random Romantic Title Generating Machine. 

Overall, general timepass read that your brain cells can sleep through.
• • •

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Big Magic

Elizabeth Gilbert says in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, "The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them."

This belief in the Universe and its connection with creativity is a recurring theme in this book on creativity and inspiration. Indeed, that's what she refers to as Big Magic.

She believes that "creativity is a force of enchantment--not entirely human in its origins." Also, "Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life form. ... And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner." She even provides "proof" for this belief - an idea that supposedly jumped from her to another writer because she didn't give it enough time.

A bit hard to take in? Same here. But who are we to judge what helps her write?

And to do her credit, the rest of the book is a bit more realistic. The book apparently grew out of her famous TED talk on creativity, and it's a compilation of her thoughts and research on the subject. It's divided into six parts, each dealing with one of the six ingredients she thinks essential to creative living - Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust and Divinity.

Gilbert's idea of creative living goes beyond the usual "artistic pursuits" such as writing or painting. Do something, she says, ANYTHING that takes you out of the mundane and the ordinary. "By completely absorbing our attention for a short and magical spell, [creativity] can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are."

Despite her belief that ideas have a life of their own, she places great importance on hard work. Creativity is a fickle partner, she says. If you keep waiting for creativity to show up before you do your thing, then you will end up waiting for ever. You need to work steadily, day after day, even when you would rather be doing anything else. In her own words, "I sit at my desk, and I work like a farmer, and that's how it gets done."

In fact, for her, the outcome is less important than the process itself.
What you produce is not necessarily always sacred, I realized, just because you think it's sacred. What is sacred is the time that you spend working on the project, and what that time does to expand your imagination, and what that expanded imagination does to transform your life.
Her language is, as usual, conversational and free-flowing. Each part of the book is divided into short chapters, and she includes plenty of inspirational stories to illustrate her point.

I think different parts will appeal to different people. The parts on Courage and Persistence, for example, appealed to me. The one on Enchantment (in which she talks about the whole Ideas as Disembodied Beings concept) - not so much.

But perhaps different parts will appeal to the same person at different points in the creative process as well. If you're feeling stuck, for example, and the ol' Muse just isn't making an appearance, you could probably go back and read some of the chapters in Persistence. But if you're stuck at the beginning, aware that you want to do something beyond your daily routine, but not sure what, then the chapter on Trust will help you out.

Overall, a short accessible how-to guide to creativity, and a good behind-the-scenes peek into the thoughts of a writer.
• • •

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Sriram Karri's Autobiography of a Mad Nation

Disclaimer: I read a free preview copy of this book.

A good idea, badly executed. That about sums up this book for me.

Sriram Karri clearly has a lot of anger bottled up inside him. He's angry at the system - the politicians, the bureaucrats, the media, the corrupt, the greedy, the silent majority - and he has let all his anger spew out in this book. It reads less like a novel and more like a criticism of the functioning of the Indian democratic system.

But to begin at the beginning. The President of India has received a strange letter from a convicted murderer awaiting execution - a challenging letter, a letter that demands justice and not mercy in the form of a pardon. Intrigued by the letter, the President asks his old friend Vidyasagar, the retired former head of the CBI, to investigate. Did Vikrant actually commit the murder he has been convicted of? Vidyasagar digs into the crime, only to find that things are murkier than they appear. The trail of one crime leads to another, and yet another.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part flows quickly - Vidyasagar's investigations, combined with what appear to be Vikrant's diary entries. I was actually enjoying the book at this point, despite the sometimes amateurish writing and the irritatingly self-righteous diary entries.

Unfortunately, the book starts to fall apart in the second part. Ideology-filled monologues dot the text, especially in the latter half of this section. The author seems to be making the characters speak for him, expressing his anger at all the ills affecting the nation.

The third part does a good job of tying up the whole. The threads of the mystery are satisfactorily untangled, and what appeared to be an insoluble mystery does end up having a logical, clear and satisfactory ending.

Unfortunately, it isn't enough to save the book. What could have been a unique novel ends up being a trite obvious diatribe.
• • •

Friday, July 10, 2015

Yashodhara Lal's There's Something About You

I've been on a non-fiction streak lately. History, travel, what not. But there's only so much non-fiction I can handle at a time. After a point, I need a quick light read to relieve a bit of the seriousness. So when a mail popped into my inbox offering me a preview copy of Yashodhara Lal's There's Something About You, I clicked through to the free three-chapter preview with interest.

Before I continue, I should confess something. I don't generally read such books. And by "such books", I mean the ones that directly or indirectly trace their lineage back to Chetan Bhagat's Five Point Someone (the book that kicked off a whole industry of Indian "commercial" fiction). I've tried a few of these books and been turned off by the shoddy sentence construction, the deluge of typos, and the way they talk down to the reader.

So when I see books packaged (yes, that IS the best word) in bright colours, with long titles that give away the plot line of the book, my brain generally tends to hit Skip. 

Which is why, when I started to read the preview chapters, I didn't expect Yashodhara Lal's book to be much better. But I was surprised - pleasantly. It was so nice to read an Indian "light read" written by somebody who can put a sentence together properly. I binge-read the three chapters in the preview (and then her blog for good measure) and realized that I would have to read the rest of the book somehow (she really knows how to throw in a cliffhanger). 

The book isn't releasing until July 20th, so I responded to the mail and asked for a preview copy. The book popped into my mailbox (the real life physical one) three-four days later. And I finished it before the day ended. When the mother of a five-month-old says that about a book, you better believe that that's one unputdownable book. (Or maybe I have a bad binge-reading disease. Possible.)

So what's the book all about? Though it's been billed as the Romance of the Year, it's actually much more than that. It's about Trishna Saxena (Trish), an overweight 28-year-old who uses sarcasm as a defence mechanism. She feels the need to protect herself and her family (a father with Alzheimer's and a mother who tries to dominate her life) from any intruders. Her nice comfy life is disrupted when she loses her job. To add to the confusion, there's a seven-year-old who behaves like a teenager, an agony aunt column, a tragic accident, and of course our male protagonist, Sahil. 

Yashodhara Lal writes well - she's funny (in a sarcastic way). There are some interesting non-cardboardy characters, a decent plot that is predictably feel-good, and yet has some surprising elements (does that even make sense?), and a love story that is kept subtle and low-key. 

The best part of the book was that it didn't talk down to me, the reader. It expected me to be intelligent and yet want to have a good time - something other writers in the genre don't seem to have understood yet. 

And - hell - I might as well confess it. I LIKED Trish. I identified with her, I liked her sarcasm, I liked her flaws, I liked how she didn't have everything together in her life (at the beginning of the book anyway).

I do have a few things to crib about, of course. By the end of the book, there are just too many plotlines. Those who read the book will understand what I mean - the final plot element is a bit too dramatic and hard to take in.

The second crib I have is the cover. I mean - would you look at that cover? Is that supposed to be Trish? That looks more like a fashion-conscious teenager than a 28-year-old overweight writer. But I guess this cover will sell better.

Overall - a well-written, light, feel-good read that has ensured that I won't discount all commercial fiction out of hand in the future.
• • •

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Monica Ali's Alentejo Blue - Review

Monica Ali's Alentejo Blue was a random buy from Blossom's many years ago. I had heard of Monica Ali thanks to her acclaimed debut novel, Brick Lane. I hadn't read Brick Lane, but this book, her second, promised me the story of a town told through the stories of many of its residents and visitors. I bought it for the princely sum of 130 rupees (the price tag is still on the back cover).

After I got home, I discovered that I couldn't read beyond the first two pages of the book. The beginning, a man named Joao coming out of his house early one morning to discover a friend's body hanging from a branch, somehow didn't make me want to read on.

The book's jewel-pink cover has been glaring at me from the bookshelf since then. I used to finger it guiltily once in a while, but I never actually opened it. You know how it is - if you start a book and then don't finish it, you develop a mental block about it and you can somehow never get yourself to get back into it again.

But a couple of weeks ago, I decided that it was Time. I would finally Read the Book and Put the Ghost to Rest. To encourage myself, I opened the book randomly somewhere in the middle, and what I read was reasonably interesting - the narrator was not a morbid old man, but a harmless English female tourist.

"Fine," I thought, "I'll somehow get through the first few pages with the old man and the body, and then I'll see if I like it or not."

And that's what I did. For a while, it looked like I had done the right thing. The old man turned out to have an interesting past, so I didn't struggle too much to read the first chapter. Then the second chapter introduced me to an English writer chap who was spending some time writing in the town (which is called Mamarossa, by the way). The writer was actually more boring than the old man, but I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But then, just as I got invested in the writer, the chapter abruptly ended, and I was suddenly reading about the owner of the local cafe. And then, a few pages on, about an English boy whose family had somehow landed up in Mamarossa. And so on... You get the picture.

Yes, yes, I know - that's exactly what the back cover of the book promised, and I shouldn't be complaining. But the thing is - I got a sense of neither the town nor the people. None of the chapters (I can't call them stories) really end satisfactorily. Most are vignettes, and most feel like the last few pages are missing. I kept wondering what the point of all this was.

Sure, there are a couple of themes that you can see if you look closely enough. Many of the residents of Mamarossa just want to leave and settle abroad, while many others (the writer, the English family, one of the tourists) want to just settle here. We all want to get away from the everyday reality of our existence, move to some far-away fairy tale land that we believe will be better, where we believe we will be happier.

The other theme is about the difference between how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. The writer, for example. He thinks he's pretty sexy, but here's how one of the visiting English tourists sees him, "He was the kind of person you felt sorry for but went out of your way to avoid. He was patronizing and probably misogynist and his mouth was unnaturally moist."

And it's also about how relationships can sometimes look totally different from the perspectives of the two people in the relationship. In many of the relationships portrayed in the book, one person is unhappy, while the other person is happy and blissfully unaware of the other person's feelings.

The last chapter reads like a belated attempt to get things together. All the characters finally come together, and things happen, small-towny things. But again, there's no "closure" (I hate that word, but how apt it is in some cases).

When you've had as phenomenally successful a first book as Monica Ali did, you might react in two ways. You might suddenly find yourself under so much performance pressure that you develop Writer's Block. Or you might go in the opposite direction and think that everything you write is awesome - pure gold that people are just waiting to lap up.

Well, the latter seems to have happened with Monica Ali. Either that, or she was just indulging herself - publishing some material she wrote for practice. And don't get me wrong - the woman can write. I just wish she had put her talents to better use to give us a more fulfilling book. 
• • •

Friday, November 21, 2014

Our Moon Has Blood Clots

"The best in me are memories. Many people will come to life in them, people who gave their blood while they lived, and who will now give their example." 

- Anton Donchev, Time of Parting

How do you write about the past - about emotions and memories? How do you know if you are being objective? How do you know if your memories are even real, much less accurate?

Rahul Pandita's Our Moon Has Blood Clots is about the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir Valley in 1990. The book is necessarily full of his memories - memories that are more than two decades old, and which have probably been stained, for good or bad, by nostalgia and longing.

As a journalist used to sticking to facts and data (though he has written some great opinion pieces as well), it must have been difficult for Pandita to write a book filled with so much pain. He deals with the problem by sticking to the facts - as he remembers them. His language is cold, clinical, unemotional. In fact, the first three parts of the five-part book read like a bald robotic description of what happened.

It reminded me of something Akhil Sharma said in this Guardian interview, published after he wrote his intensely personal book Family Life:
he decided to eliminate elements of what he calls "the sensorium" resulting in minimal description of sound, smell, or feel in the novel
Pandita seems to have attempted something very similar. He talks about how the Valley was when he was growing up (he had many Muslim friends, despite the fact that the Pandits and the Muslims supported opposing sides during Indo-Pak cricket matches). How the atmosphere slowly changed in the eighties, how the killings started, and how the Pandits started worrying for their lives. And then, the exodus - the terrible choice between leaving their home, and losing their lives. And how life is as stateless refugees who have lost everything they had.

The tragedy is that this isn't even the first time that they had to move. Part 4 of the book, narrated by his maternal uncle, describes the earlier exodus. The family had earlier lived in Baramulla - their home was destroyed during the Pakistan-supported Pathan invasion of 1947, and they had to shift to Srinagar. And barely a few decades after they had picked up their lives, they lost everything again.

It's in the final part of the book that the dam bursts. All the emotions that Pandita has held in check in so far erupt in a flood - the pain of homelessness, the longing for home, the helplessness he feels in being unable to take his parents back home. It's this part of the book that puts everything else in perspective.

Though the book's sub-title says it's a memoir, I do wish that he had let his journalistic side out a bit more - he could have done some analysis on what caused the sudden outburst of militant activity in the eighties. Maybe it's tough to bring that level of objectivity to something that's so close to your heart, but it would have added a deeper layer to the book.

Pandita ends on a positive note. "I will come again," he says, "I promise there will come a time when I will return permanently." This seems quite optimistic, given the current situation - but we can only hope.
• • •