Thursday, 3 April 2014

Harry Hole series, Jo Nesbo

Titles – Red Breast, The Bat, Nemesis, Devil’s star, Redeemer, The Snowman, The Leopard, Police, Cockroaches, Phantom

Author – Jo Nesbo
Publisher – Vintage Books
Genre – Thriller
Rating – Very Good

Last time I wrote on this blog was last year..... I read daughters of war and didn't get to writing the review.
Jo Nesbo, Gillian Flynn, Keigo Higashino, Jussi Adler-Olsen to name a few had set my pulse racing.
Cud'nt put down till the last page, cud'nt wait to open another book. 
The adrenalin rush these thrillers give is addictive. And this is my purgerance. To write about and get them out of my system.  
Why is human frailty so hard to not observe?   
Jo Nesbo 

Jo Nesbo is being touted as the next Stieg Larsson of the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” fame. As gripping as his tales are, he still has some catching up to do in the dexterity and twists in his tales. Especially at his closures, Nesbo tends to spill the beans in the 2nd last chapter itself. He laboriously explains the entire sequence of events and leaves nothing to the reader’s imagination. Most stories have a second sub plot running in parallel. While this does confuse the investigation and the reader, one gets used to this after the first couple of reads.

Then why did I rate it “Very Good”? 
Fascinating plots, twisted insights into human behavior, thousands of motives for who dunnit and a tragic love story.

Nesbo delves into the criminal’s mind with compassion. A realm I'm personally uncomfortable with because I want to judge this person, not get into the whys and whatfors. Delving into his motives, one realizes the criminal is also human. Yes, the outcome of his actions is one which is unacceptable but one wonders whether this man/ woman deserves sympathy or punishment!

Jo Nesbo  works with certain beliefs about serial killers – that they take to this extreme form of punishment on society to feel normal about themselves. In so many ways an individual may feels isolated, humiliated, barred. But where is the tipping point?
To what extent do these societal norms contain human bestiality and where does it cause it to spill over? Should all behaviors to be considered normal? So that no fringes are caused to spill and turn into beasts? Or should such divergents be expelled and kept separate from a society that follows its norms? When we imprison our criminals we are doing just this. Formerly no one bothered to probe into the question why. Those who knew kept quiet.

So who is the criminal?
A Government which authorizes carpet bombing of an entire city or a survivor who comes into the former’s gardens and kills its civilians?
Parents who humiliate their child on discovering his/her aberrant sexual behavior or the grown up child who rapes and silences at will?
The police officer who takes law into his hands to punish criminals who would otherwise escape the law or the lawmakers who make lenient rules and give multiple chances to correct.

The world is changing. A person is no longer the inhabitant of a village or a city. We are all global citizens and expose ourselves to global trends and perspectives. 

Stage one is done. We were brave enough to open ourselves to the onslaught of different cultures, religions, philosophies, rights and wrongs ... Now are we strong enough to withstand it? 

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Read along

Was writing the review of Daughters of War and read two books in between.
1) The Zealot - Aslan Reza
2) Gone Girl - Gillian Fynn
No more in between readings till I get out the Daughters of War review.
But I have to tell you, the other two books are excellent.

Aslan Reza has written a racy, well researched book on the alternate life of Jesus and the evolution of Christian doctrines.
Gone Girl is a psychological thriller. A watertight case of two murders and the demands of a married life.

If you can get your hands on them, read them. Then write a review before me  :)

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Bartimaeus. The Ring of Solomon



Author – Jonathan Stroud
Publisher – Corgi Books, Random House Children’s Books
First published – 2010
Rating – Excellent
Shortlisted for the 2010 COSTA Children’s Book Award, this book is one of the best Fantasy novels I’ve ever read.  It’s got an evil king with a magic ring, scores of magical creatures and evil magicians at his command, a maiden - a queen none the less in distress, a devoted servant and a mischievous jinni.
History lessons go awry when one realizes that the evil king is none other than Solomon of Palestine. That same Solomon the wise who wrote the beautiful songs to God. Here he is the powerful king who rules with terror. Terror which he can infuse in the greatest of magicians with a twirl of his ring. Because this ring is the portal between Earth and the spirit world. And the master of the ring is the master of the spirits. So while a decent magician may have 4 or 5 spirits at his service and an excellent one a couple of dozen, King Solomon has an entire army.   
Bartimaeus, or Barty as he called by the spirits in lighter moments, is a djinn and a slave of on of King Solomon’s court magicians – Khaba the cruel. The magicians enslave the spirits though incantations and bind them to do their will. The spirits have amazing powers and can build temples, pyramids, forts, canals, roads etc in weeks with their magic. However the spirits are dangerous slaves. They hate their captivity and look for the slightest mistake from the magician to devour him or any other human for that matter. Nothing stops them from making the most of life in the meantime – making merry, bantering, fighting etc.  even in their slavery. 

Now King Solomon is enamored by the Queen of Sheeba. However, things turn nasty when with his fourth proposal, he also sends a threat. Sheeba should accept King Solomon as it’s sovereign and send Palestine royalty in frankincense or else face the wrath of it’s king. A small nation, Sheeba does not have the means to defend itself. In a desperate bid, the queen sends her personal bodyguard to assassinate the king.
The bodyguard is a chit of a seventeen year old girl! A girl with uncompromising fealty to her queen and a youthful straightness of purpose which does not cause her to pause and question her queen’s orders – that she be too young, inexperienced, with no magical abilities to go on such a dangerous rendezvous.  She is a wide eyed girl filled with thrill at her queen’s confidence on her.

With sheer luck and foolhardy courage, the girl Asmira overcomes some low ranking spirits on the highway and meets Barty – who was patrolling the highway at that moment. Her shoddy alias story, request to be taken to King Solomon and skill with the knife made Bartimaeus hesitate and he does not eat her as he was wont to.
Through twists of destiny and Asmira’s pluck Barty finds himself her slave on the diehard mission to kill the king and steal the ring. Disobeying a master would mean the spirit would have to face the deep hole for all eternity. So against his better judgement Bartimaeus complies. The resourceful Bartimaeus reaches Asmira to the King’s chamber.

And there they discover the secret of the ring. The ring feeds of its master. King Solomon is thus and old man much before his time. The king understands the cruel power of the ring and seeks to use it sparingly.  Asmira learns that it was Khaba who had sent the subordination message to her queen. King Solomon was unaware of such a message.
Asmira realises that the king is not evil and is unable to assassinate as per her orders. She however takes the ring which is given without resistance by Solomon for her Queen. However Khaba intercedes her. Unable to get herself to wield the power of the ring, she unwittingly lets the ring go into Khaba’s hands. Khaba unleashes the power of the ring for personal power. He wants to destroy Palestine and establish the seat of power at Egypt once more.  Asmira sees the destruction the ring can bring in the wrong hands. She appreciates that Solomon had curtailed the power of the ring and used it mostly for good.
A last attempt ensues in which Asmira retrieves the ring from Khaba and returns it to King Solomon. King Solomon takes the weight of ring again on his wise shoulders.
For Asmira however, the world has turned upside down – Her Queen is not infallible, in fact she is selfish and foolish, unable to appreciate the service given to her.  She discovers her ingrained sense of duty to the queen made her a slave just like Bartimaeus. However unlike Bartimaeus her chains were so doused in a sense of duty and patriotism that she did not recognize her servility.  

And Bartimaeus is free at last. Until someone else manages to snare him into his pentagram.

Monday, 12 August 2013

The Help


Author – Kathryn Stockett
Publisher – Penguin Books
First published – 2009
Rating – Awesome
Here is a simple book filled with light hearted humour and heart warming moments dealing with the complex issue of apartheid in a newly free society.
Written in a style I was personally new to – it is an autobiography of the book. It added a fifth dimension to the already vivid book.
The other side of “Gone with the wind”, “The Help’ is about confidences. Set in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, the book is about what domestic helps - all coloured in this case encounter. Slavery has ended, the lot of the black people is better, they get paid, their children go to school, and they have their own homes. However with race triggered white backlashings like beatings, lychings, branding and even shootings, equality is still a dream.
The women have gumption, I give them that. The coloured and the whites. A battle of the males is quick. A woman’s battle is long drawn.
Aibileen is a gentle coloured maid who has raised 17 children in town. She fights apartheid in her own way. By teaching the little ones of kindness and equality and love. Minnie is a sassy maid, but because her cooking is great, she still manages to get hired. The woman, become the unwitting leaders of their community when they decide to take a bold step -to contribute their stories for a book.
The stories of these women could be of domestic helps anywhere in the world. The employers want them to be like elves. Magically doing all our work without making any demands and better without being seen.
The help sits on the floor.
Thats the way its been!
On the other side of the fence are the white women.  The white women of the South stick together. They fight wars through their clubs, benefits and balls. The ring leader is Hilly. An autocratic woman who believes in the segregation of white and coloured race.
When Euginia, a close friend shows integrationist tendencies, she uses all arsenals in her kitty – exclusion from various clubs, eviction from posts, cold shoulder from friends, even telling on her boyfriend, to intimidate her former friend.
However, Sheeter as Euginia is known to friends and family has something else to fill her empty space. She is onto a project. A project with the househelps under aliases of course, recording their testimonies on the white ladies they serve.
At first there is reluctance. Skeeter has to work hard to win Aibileen’s trust. Aibileen has to work hard to get Minnie to trust Skeeter. But when Hilly gets her maid thrown in jail for a petty theft, the other maids too decide to include their testimonies.
So stories are told and eccentricities are recorded.  The separate bathroom for helps drive by Hilly, how a white lady is too caught up in herself to even love her child, the failed  attempts of a poor white woman now married to a rich white man to join the genteel women society, the cleaning of the help's hands with bleach. There are good stories as well.  White women going out of their way to help a maid’s son injured in racial clashes, white woman defending her maid from a pervert with a fire poker in hand.....
The woman hope that something good will come of this book. It is not a way of getting back at their employers but to cast the helps in a human light, something the employers would prefer to forget.
In a scenario where I myself employ a help at home, I cannot but empathise with the white woman sometimes. After all we are all at the mercy and whims of our bai’s. But these bai’s and mausi’s have a life and want to be treated as equals. Would we treat them so?
 Indian households even today segregate utensils used by their help. The help generally sleeps in the kitchen. Their clothes are stowed away in some corner. How are we to let them lead the lives of decent humans if we are to maintain our superiority and thus make them do our dirty work see?
At work we want our holidays, lunch breaks, bonus, notice periods, the occasional office trip or picnic. But for the help to have these perks? Hah... who will do the work then?
Imagine if your maids came out and wrote a book about you ladies!! OMG!!
Even speaking for myself I have a long road to go.....

Our Kaamwaali bai.

Friday, 19 July 2013

The Blind Mans Garden

Author – Nadeem AslamPublisher –Random House India
First publication – 2013
Rating – Great read
I said great read but there is a caveat...” ONCE ONLY”. The book is just too heavy... physically and mentally.  The writer has strung his magic though many inter-weaning incidents of the denizens of a country which though not at war, is fraught with war.
Anyway, the setting is Pakistan and I picked up this book because I wanted to know more about my neighbour. To get to know a people socially, a story is the best way.  After all fiction borrows from truth.
Author - Nadeen Aslam
The story is of a Pakistani household headed by Rohan. An idealist who, with his wife Sofia started a school where the glories of Islam would be taught along with modern education.  Pakistan is a country of strange beliefs – there is the bird pardoner; he traps birds. People pay him to set the birds free due to the belief that the helpless bird will say a prayer for it’s liberator. An ascetic goes around the country wearing chains. People add their own chinks to the chain. These chinks are their prayers. The holy man prays that the peoples wishes are fulfilled. As his prayer is answered that chink falls off.  Well beliefs are beliefs. The notion of the sacrificial lamb is not new. The Christians worship Jesus for agreeing to pay for humankind’s sins with his life. Its a cruel world!
This bipolar compassionate cruelty is in Rohan too. He withholds his wife’s medicines and tears her paintings while begging her to ask forgiveness from Allah for drawing life forms. This results in her premature death. Even after her death he prays and fasts that she might not bear the tortures of hell; never thinking he has erred.
All this human suffering seems mundane when fighting breaks out in Afghanistan and the Muslim world is moved to respond to this western threat. Termed Jihad – Holy war, the youth from Islamic countries are roused by their mullahs to fight for and alongside their Afghan brothers. Jeo, Rohan’s son and Mikal, Rohan’s adopted son decide to go to Afghanistan.  Jeo is a medical student and wants to treat the wounded in ground zero. Mikal only wants to ensure that Jeo is safe. However, the people who arrange for their transit into Afghanistan arrange for them to be sold to the enemy due to a grudge against Rohan. To complicate matters, Jeo’s wife Naheed was Mikal’s sweetheart before their marriage. Jeo discovers this while they are being held prisoner by an Afghani warlord. The camp is attacked by Americans and Jeo’s dying thoughts are of suspicion about his wife and friend.
Even in death, the good husband suspects his good wife!
Mikal is captured, he escapes and is captured again by Afghani warlords. From here begins his journey from one warlord to another searching for Jeo. The warlords sell captives as mercenaries to fight their wars, sometimes to do their sundries and sometimes for plain cash. Mikal is again captured by the Americans. This time he is interrogated and tortured but he relents only when his captives lead him to believe that they have Jeo. Mikal admits to everything that his captives ask him to save Jeo.
Ultimately  he is set free but with no knowledge of  Jeo. Mikal is confused whether the Americans have Jeo or have killed him or are taking him away to kill him. Survival instincts at high alert, Mikal reacts instinctively when his American captors turn around to free him. He kills both of them and flees. He gets asylum in a safehouse run by the family of his fellow inmate at the American prison.
However, America does not forgive. A manhunt is on for Mikal. One of the soldiers on this mission is the felled American’s brother.
Meanwhile Jeo’s body reaches home.  The family plunges into grief and Naheed dons a widow’s garb. The communalists who have taken over the school run by Rohan introduce new laws like restricting the entry of woman in graveyards.
The same fanatics capture the missionary school in which Basie, Mikal’s brother and Yasmin, Mikal’s wife and Jeo’s sister teach.  The communalists want to close secular centres of learning. Basie is killed by the captors in the encounter.
Rohan haplessly fights for a way to connect with his dead son when he decided to go on a daredevil trip with the bird pardoner to free his son from Afghani warlords. The price for the boy is too high and the atrocities in the prison too much to leave the poor boy. Rohan trades the young boy’s freedom for his wife Sophia’s ruby found on Jeo’s person at the time of his death. But for the affronity  of refusing to shake the warlord’s hand, the warlord crushes Rohan’s eyes.  This was Rohan’s last stand against the non-tolerance that has taken over his country. A non-tolerance from which he himself is not untouched when, he expels a student for being a prostitute’s son; withholds his wife’s medicines so she asks for Allah’s forgiveness. Such brand of exclusionism was practiced by his generation, the next generation has taken it further. Where is the line between right and wrong? It is only in one’s mind.
At this point Mikal re-enters the  household. Mikal at last learns of Jeo’s demise. He also gets to know that an unscrupulous man Sharif Sharif who already has three wives and is double Naheed’s age has spoken for her hand and has agreed to pay for Rohan’s eye operation expenses.  Desperate that Naheed not be snatched from him a second time, he takes his proposal to Tara, Naheed’s mother.  She had rejected Mikal’s proposal the first time in favour of Jeo and this time too, she does not see any security for her daughter with Mikal. Naheed and Mikal however enter into a physical relationship.
Local peoples fear and hatred for America
Suddenly, Mikal’s friend who gave him refuge comes seeking him. The Americans had stormed into the hideout. He is on the run and asks Mikal to deliver money to his newly married sister- Salomi, so she can start a new life. The sister was married to a Taliban leader and is on the run. Mikal cannot refuse one who has given him refuge and sets out to look for Salomi.  He can find no trace of the sister as the Americans completely razed the safe house. He comes across an almost dead American solider and takes him prisoner in the hope that he might be able to tell him about Salomi’s whereabouts.  Unknown to him, the soldier is the brother of American Mikal had killed; and is out for revenge. The people however, want nothing to do with an American and want o kill Mikal too for harbouring one. Mikal risks his life numerous times to save the American and in the end loses it to save him.  In the chaos of his rescue by his countrymen, the American could not to keep track of the Pakistani who risked his life several times to keep him alive. 
Back home, Naheed delivers Mikal’s baby but the family covers the truth and lest out that Yasmin, also with Basie’s baby at the same time, had delivered twins. The brothers grow up side by side as the woman and Rohan watch over them.
Naheed studies to become a teacher,  Yasmin begins to teach at Aligarh secondary and High school... and life goes on.
At the end of the story, all I could think of is “How can these people still be sane?”  Through all mindless cruelty, redrawing of moral and social codes, human merchandising, wars, bombing of towns.... But flowers still continue to flower and guardians still watch over their wards in never ending hope.
I contrasted this story to the teenage American saga I read earlier “The perks of being a wallflower”.  There are demons everywhere. From within or without. It is the individual who makes a choice. To succumb or rise.

Friday, 21 June 2013

The perks of being a wallflower

Author – Stephen Chbosky
Publisher – MTV books
First published – 1999
Rating – Wow
I’m convinced I’ve read a modern classic. A book riveting in all it’s pages and a bombshell at the end.  These lines will stay with me forever “we were infinite”, “We accept the love we think we deserve”. This is a story of triumph of the human spirit and the exercise of free choice in navigating the labyrinth of life.

Charlie is an introvert all seeing teenager with few friends until he takes up with a bunch of seniors.  Written as letters from Charlie to an anonymous friend telling him/ her about his day, can’t help but be taken in by the raw honesty. But why is this honesty only in his letters? Why not with his family or his friends?
In the beginning, I found it strange that his family had hardly any time for him when he wanted to talk or be with them.  Sister with boyfriend, mother with cooking, father with game on TV, brother with game on field! And therein I thought lies the problem – that there is no one in the family the child can talk to! However this scenario is stated pretty matter of fact in the book, like it is one of those things of growing up.
 Anyway to the story, Charlie finally feels part of a gang and has a social life. He has friends he sits at lunch with, goes to a local hangout place with, exchanges gifts with, is invited over to parties and has his first girlfriend. Which complicates matters because Charlie is in love with Sam who is older and is going out with another guy. Mary Elizabeth, Charlie’s girlfriend is opinionated and is of the opinion that only her opinion counts. That is what Charlie thinks until they break up and she starts going out with another equally opinionated guy and they constantly differ and argue on their opinions. Sam opens
his eyes to the fact that he needs to participate in life around him instead of just watching and being there for people as they would like him to be. To be true to oneself and one’s friends. So when Patrick, Charlie’s gay friend and Sam’s stepbrother kisses Charlie when he is heartbroken because of his relationship breakup and Charlie lets him even though he does not like it, Sam tells him he was not being a good friend to Patrick because he was not true to himself.



Towards the end of the academic year as Sam is about to leave for college, Charlie and Sam get together after a bitter breakup for Sam with her boyfriend. However as they initiate physical intimacy, Charlie breaks out in sweat. He does not know the reason since he has been in love with Sam since he saw her and while he passes out he dreams of his aunt Helen touching him the same way as Sam had.
This is the turning point in the story and the reader now has a concrete reason for Charlie’s introvertism, passivism, violence at times, depression etc. Aunt Helen was Charlie’s mother’s sister. She was molested as a child and had quite a few unhappy relationships. His mother gave her a place to stay in her home and she used to watch over the children whenever the parents went out. She especially loved Charlie and always bought an extra present for Charlie on his birthday. The day she died in a car accident, she had gone out to buy Charlie’s extra present.
The breach of trust inside the family with a defenceless, innocent young one is tragic. As a parent of two small little girls, it is frightening for me. I don’t know how to and from whom to protect my little ones. The thing I vouch to do is give time and listen to my young ones.
However, for Charlie, he does not want to let the incident with aunt Helen dictate his life. He decides to choose the course of his own life and not be tied down to what happened in his past. He signs off his last letter “please believe that things are good with me, and even if they are not, they will be soon enough.”
I cannot get stats on and intellectualise this topic. It touches a chord too close to home.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Inferno

Author – Dan Brown
Publisher – Bantam Press
Rating – OK
With this book Dan Brown has almost exhausted his buyability based on “The Da Vinci Code”.  I’ve read “Angels and Demons”, “The Lost Symbol” after I read his most successful book – “The Da Vinci Code”. I’ve been unsuccessfully looking for the fast paced thrill, discover religious symbologies, underground associations and conspiracy theories that set “The Da Vinci Code” apart. However, as with the “inferno”, the other two books feel short of the author’s promise.
The saving grace of the book is the central theme – overpopulation. This, the villain of the book claims as the root of most problems that humans are facing today. I checked the population statistics by an organisation of repute and the stats are shocking – In 10,000 BC, the human population was 1 million, in 1 AD the population was 170 million, by 2000 AD the population has crossed 6 million. We in 2013 are sitting at 7 million and counting.

Source – US census bureau
The carrying capacity of the Earth, the villain Bertrand Zobrist, an eminent gene scientist reasoned has been over-breached. This has resulted in humans indulging in the seven deadly sins – pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, sloth for it’s extinction and hence it’s very survival. Since all world leaders and world organisations primarily WHO is in denial and talks about long term measures like education and contraceptives as their solution for the problem, the doctor decides to take things in his own hands.
The theme is bold and forces one to face the stark problem. Is it really a problem though? Countries that are the most populated term their billion population as the source of economic power while the ones scarcely populated are the ones crying foul. The gap of course is about the Developed vs Developing and underdeveloped countries.
Robert Langdon, the unwitting historical sleuth is inexplicably involved in this chase to stop the eminent doctor because Bertrand Zobrist is also a Dante fan and leaves an altered picture of Boticelli’s “Inferno di Date” and a video based on Dante’s play, “Divine Comedy”.  Robert Langdon goes on a wild chase across Florence and Venice with the governments of every country trying to overpower him. Langdon had a bullet wound on his head by an assassin and does not remember what happened for the past two days and why people are following him. All he gets are visions of a lady with silver hair beseeching him to “seek and find” and a man with the deathlike plague mask proclaiming himself to be death.
As an Indian living in one of the most congested metropolis Mumbai, I see poverty and crime everyday and try to live a sane life despite the human suffering all around. I try to live a responsible life, fulfilling my family’s needs. Is that a sin? According to Bertrand Zobrist it is. “The lowest places in hell are reserved for those who preserve their neutrality in times of a moral crisis”, he says.  How many of us help the displaced farmers who pour into Mumbai everyday? We even desist from giving them alms hiding behind reasons like beggar cartels, lazy people, promoting begging etc.  Or to cases which have hogged the headlines – Theft and murder of the elderly, rape of innocent girls even minors!
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To link all these problems to overpopulation is oversimplification and far fetched. After all, crime exists in less populated as well as overpopulated countries. Like Mahatma Gandhi said Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not enough for any man’s greed”.  The rich keep acquiring more resources even though they have more than enough. So Mukesh Ambai makes a  27 storey house while there are people still sleeping on the pavements.  Let me complete Gandhi’s quote “So long as we cooperate with the cycle of life, the soil renews its fertility indefinitely and provides health, recreation, sustenance and peace to those who depend on it. But when the ‘predatory’ attitude prevails, nature’s balance is upset and there is an all-round bio-logical deterioration.”
On a Global scale, the Developed nations scream about overpopulation in the developing and underdeveloped world. Are appalled at the poverty and crime when they visit Africa, India, Middle East, Erstwhile USSR and yet go into denial when these people talk about their history. When these same continents were affluent – economically, socially, culturally before the people from the developed countries interfered. Where are the riches of these countries today?
Who is wearing the blood diamonds from Africa? Not the Africans.
Who has the Kohinoor? Not India.
Who has the petrol? Not Iraq.
Civilizations are plundered for the greed of powerful nations and then these same nations turn around and blame the poor nations for stressing the world’s resources!
I quote Mahatma Gandhi from the following passage from an article commissioned in 1926 by an American journal, World Tomorrow , and published in its October issue (and then in The Hindu on 8 November). In this passage, the term “the movement” refers to the peace-movement of the 1920s:

“I cannot help the gnawing fear that the movement will fail if it does not touch the root of all evil – man’s greed. Will America, England and the other great nations of the West continue to exploit the so-called ... uncivilized races and [still] hope to attain [the] peace that the whole world is pining for? ...Will Americans continue to ... [engage in] commercial rivalries and yet expect to dictate peace to the world?”
The Mahatma has touched the root of all evil – Greed.
After all excessive urge of one’s offspring to occupy the Earth is also greed.
Sources -