Book Review : The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

Book Title : The Night Circus
Author : Erin Morgenstern

First up, let me ease the hearts of those still reeling under the impact of ‘Forty Rules of Love’ by Elif Shafak. Make this your next read.

The Night Circus is a tale of love, that portrays love at its most poignant, an understatedly elegant ‘Romeo – Julietesque’ vein. Celia and Marcus are young magicians who have been competing against each other, with the Night Circus serving as their amphitheater, and each knows that they are in competition but not the identity of their rival. They have  the kind of respect for each other that I wish would be impressed upon young minds – where one applauds the genius of a rival and then considers how to stretch themselves into doing something even better. To paraphrase from one of my favorite poems, ‘I’ll not deny him his merit, but I’ll strive to prove my own’.

At a young age, each has been bound into competing by their teachers, old magicians with the kind of egos that correspond with age and superlative abilties that unfortunately are not tempered by the finest qualities of grace, humility and compassion. They can’t do much but compete and this has to go on until there is a winner.

Central to this is the Night Circus, a gorgeously breathtaking panoply of black and white tents housing circus acts and feats of exquisite uniqueness, fueled by inordinate skill and magic. Under Morgenstern’s pen the circus comes alive in the reader’s imagination, with its richly details descriptions that have the kind of visual appeal rarely found in books – as you read along, you can close your eyes and see the circus and its wonders. This alone was a source of delight to me, especially since most authors tend to write such long winded descriptions that a reader like me ends up skimming through passages about every intricate detail (case in point – Amish Tripathi’s ‘Shiva Trilogy’, especially the second book in the series).

Apart from Celia and Marcus, and their teachers, there’s a wider cast of interesting characters, with plenty eccentricities and idiosyncracies to keep the reader engaged. Backstories are dealt with adroitly, so that one ends up knowing neither too much (familiarity with side characters at times does breed contempt), nor too less (little engagement leaves one feeling that a certain  character is superfluous and essentially unessential to the plot).

Here’s the best part – the book is written in a non linear narrative, so locations and dates at the start of chapters are important, and yet this doesn’t lead to a sense of confusion. The descriptions of the circus are interspersed adroitly between chapters that carry forward the story, and that lends itself well to the overall theme of magic being controlled chaos in essence. It’s rather like walking into a maze with twists and turns and surprises as you turn the page, but all the while you know there’s a ‘method to the madness’, and you’re on the path that leads to an end.

I read this book slowly because I didn’t want it to end. But it has and that’s that.

Freshly minted YAs who are trying to go past the Harry Potter and regular fantasy fiction stories and characters, might enjoy giving this a try as well. As well as those looking for a heart touching read, that pairs equally well with a glass of wine as well as a mug of hot chocolate.

I’ve chosen to caption the pic below “Sweet Delight and Endless Night”.  If you’re aware of the quote and have read the Night Circus, you’ll smile and we’ll know we are ‘Reveurs’.

Book Review : ‘The Fifth Gospel’, Ian Caldwell

Book Review of ‘The Fifth Gospel’ by Ian Caldwell.

Slow burn. Exquisitely slow yet immensely pleasurable burn. The kind that is Caldwell’s literary forte – reading this one, it’s easy to spot his contributions to ‘The Rule of Four’, which he co-authored with Dustin Thomason.

The book is set in the Vatican, a place that continues to remains secret and secretive in so many ways, and is essentially the story of two brothers, an ancient manuscript, and the most famous and controversial relic in Christendom. Tying together these diverse threads, are the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), and the fifth that attempts to unite these into a single compelling narrative of the life and times of Jesus Christ.

Parallel to the main arc, is the personal tragedy that the protagonist is still coming to terms with, and trying to make sense of, when the worst happens, and he has no choice but to play Vatican detective, and go looking where no one wants to, or rather, chooses not to.

The only reason this book hasn’t take the world by storm, the way ‘The Da Vinci Code’ did, is because of its slow pace. Much of the book is set in the short span of three days, but it reads like a chronicle of a lifetime, since the story of the protagonists is as important as the historical background of the manuscript and the relic, and the schism between the Orthodox and Catholic Church.

That’s what I liked most about this book, that unlike a DVC it doesn’t take you on a thrills on wheels style frenetic chase, but still retains an essence of urgency, and an overwhelming need to know – what really happened? Why is the eccentrically brilliant curator of a mysterious upcoming exhibition dead under suspicious circumstances? Why is the priest accused of his murder quiet and why does he refuse to defend himself? And above all, what’s the truth about the ‘Shroud of Turin’?

Incredibly well researched, slow and measured pace, a contemplative narrative, and an outstanding first person voice in ‘Alex’ – this is the kind of book that’s well worth the eight year wait!

Avoid it if you like your thrillers fast, because this book is tantalizingly slow.

Book Review : ‘The Last Queen’, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Maharani Jindan Kaur – the last, and (as recorded accounts tell us, the loveliest) wife of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the most famous and iconic ruler of Punjab, a figure we know very little about, when compared to other historical figures from her era.
There’s still much that’s known about her son, Maharaja Duleep Singh, the ‘Black Prince’, the last Maharaja of Punjab, but of the brave, wily, enigmatic mother, historical accounts are by no means abundant, perhaps because she was a perennial thorn in the flesh of the avaricious British intent on annexing this richest of the last remaining independent kingdoms of Hindustan.

Lucky for us though, that Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, decided to write ‘The Last Queen’, in her own inimitable style of connecting the dots and filling in the gaps on what’s not known. I think, apart from her style of writing, Divakaruni has this special knack for really delving deep into the psyche of her female characters, be it Draupadi, or Sita, and now Jindan Kaur, and writing their point of view, with a surreal realism . She makes them come alive, almost as if in their own words, like a medium channeling the memories of a long departed soul. This isn’t just about meticulous research, which she’s done plenty of for writing ‘The Last Queen’s, because Jind Kaur isn’t a woman of myth and legends (like Draupadi or Sita), but one of history, and that too recent and pivotal history. Sketchy though, there are accounts of Jindan’s beauty, her poor antecedents and chance meeting with the Maharaja, her marriage to him by sword, and the birth of their son, and all that followed by way of death and war and treachery. Divakaruni takes all of these and deftly weaves them into a seamless narrative, written in her trademark first person style, to give us a rich tale of rags to riches, rise to power, duty and love – for land and child, people and family.

There are all these emotions, that women are familiar with, and that can too often become our motives for doing or not doing something, reacting in a certain way, and that is a nuance that is found in all of Divakaruni’s books, and that to me is her biggest USP – she takes these women from the pages of history and gives them color, she turns them into flesh and blood characters right in front of our eyes, in their finery and austerity, with their wisdom and their whims and petulance and pride and passion.

In real life too, Maharani Jindan Kaur lived a tumultous life but died a quiet death, and this transition doesn’t come across as forced in the book either – there is no hurried writing towards the end, the narrative does not falter in its pace, and that is what makes this a book that kept me awake over the last few nights, promising myself that I would read ‘just one more page’ and then sleep.

If you enjoy reading fictional accounts based on essential grains of historical truths, then this is a well written one, about the woman once called the ‘Messalina of Punjab’ by the British invaders, to whom she was a constant thorn in the flesh in all kinds of ways, lending as much support as she could to the war for independence in her life and times. Even though they took her son from her, brainwashed him using his childhood as a convenient excuse, even made him convert his religion, stole the Koh-i-noor and his birthright, she did manage to win him back in the end, and that too was an essential win in all kinds of ways.

“Jo bole so nihaal, Sat Sri Akaal “, indeed.

Book Review : ‘Pachinko’, by Min Jin Lee

Book : Pachinko
Author : Min Jin Lee

Zainichi : Foreign Resident Living in Japan. A word used to describe even fifth generation Koreans in Japan.
This is what makes ‘Pachinko’ not just a compelling but an essential read. That Japan invaded Korea and did their best to wipe out Korean culture and identity, is something history has recorded faithfully, and so we know. But the repercussions and ramifications of these acts of inhumanity, are still existant and that’s the recurring theme of this book, that chronicles the lives of three generations of Koreans in Japan.

The book starts on a fast note, almost as if to hurry us along to the moment Sunja and Isak arrive in Osaka, moving in to the Korean quarters, eerily reminiscent of Jewish ghettos in Nazi Germany, except thankfully the Japanese did not exterminate the Koreans. Or maybe that would have been a merciful end, because ‘Pachinko’ is a quietly written chronicle of just what life can be like when you’re a stranger in a strange land that looks down on you and nothing better than dogs on the street. The Koreans in the book, work hard and they do move on to better days, but the greatest price they pay is the loss of identity.

That in fact is the point this book underscores – that for a Korean who has been born in Japan and can trace his ancestors back by five generations in Japan itself, this country still uses the word ‘Gaijin’. North Korea isn’t really an option, and South Koreans look down upon such people because to them they are more Japanese than Korean, and that’s unforgivable because the wounds upon their collective national psyche inflicted during 1910 – 1945, are as yet sore, festering, unhealed.

So where do they belong then? The rich Koreans of Japan and the poor alike, are people with no real country to call their own, and no cultural identity to cleave to, except perhaps just an earnest yet naive belief that they belong atleast in some way to the land of their birth and that the people they think of as their own, can rise above old prejudices, as the generations grow…

As a book, Pachinko is very well written indeed, and it doesn’t suffer from the ‘lost in translation’ challenge that sometimes accompanied books written around the theme of diaspora and the dispossessed straddling multi-cultural mores.

I am glad that this is my first read of 2021, and that my copy of it is a treasured birthday present from 2020 .

Book Review : Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

Book Review : Ender’s Game
Author : Orson Scott Card

Throughout reading this book, I kept thinking ‘Seriously? This came out in 1985? Wow, just Oh WOW!’.

Ender’s Game is set in a world where humanity has repelled two alien invasions¬† by a species called ‘buggers’, but at great cost – this happened some 50-60 years ago. There is an anticipated third invasion, and the need for a supremely talented Battle Commander, and so, gifted children are monitored, and if found suitable, sent to ‘Battle School’, where they live and learn military tactics and strategies, and are given command over armies and platoon that wage mock battles in a simulated environment.

All of this usually happens at age 6.
Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggins, is a ‘Third’ – couples cannot have more than two children by law, but because Ender’s older siblings showed much promise (but ultimately were rejected for battle school), the ‘authorities’ give the Wiggins’ formal permission to have a third child.

The story starts off with Ender getting his monitor removed, getting bullied and pushing back, and then getting bullied at home by his almost ‘psychopathic’ elder brother Peter, and protected by his elder sister Valentine – all of this happens within the first chapter itself. It’s a fast paced book!

Ender gets picked up for Battle School and there on starts a journey that at times left me in tears for Ender and for everything he is put through so he can be the saviour of mankind.

As a theme, there is savage indictment of how adults wring children through the sieves of expectations, using end goals as justification. There is also a great deal of hope and an emphasis on Ender’s greatest quality being his refusal to be broken down by the mental and emotional games the adults play with him. Ender is an insanely compelling character and I ended up crying for his lost childhood while marveling at his sheer tenacity.

At times, I had to put pause on reading and just go and hug the 6 year old around me and tell him that I love him; at one point I told him I’m reading a book about a gifted boy sent off to military school to play games, and he looked at me and said ‘Chachi are you thinking of me while reading?’, and I had to ask myself just who was I really crying for – my lost childhood, Ender’s, or the fact that due to the ongoing pandemic, Nirek no longer goes off to play outdoors, or be schooled at a formal classroom with other kids around.

The writing is mesmerising and the pace, though fast, doesn’t compromise on the integrity of the narrative – there are no loose threads and even if you choose to not read the sequels, this book by itself is a complete and riveting story. I personally felt that it’s a great way to also encourage teenaged readers to learn and think about some of the deeper issues that impact our world even today, under the cover of superbly written sci-fi, which by the way doesn’t seem outdated at all despite the exponential advances in technology from 1985 till date.

Last year, Elif Shafak’s ‘Forty Rules of Love’ made me cry, even as it took me on a spiritual journey. This year, it’s ‘Ender’s Game’, and if you’re wondering how a Science Fiction novel can also be deeply spiritual, read it for yourself!

Don’t take the shortcut of the movie though, it won’t leave the kind of impact the book makes. The movie works as a great way to get over the hangover of the book thought, so it’s a must watch once you’ve finished reading, and are wondering how to stop feeling the way you feel.

Book Review : ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man and the Sea, is at once a story of man’s courage and fighting spirit against the elements of nature, as also an allegory of spiritual struggle. It’s a short novella, the main protagonist of which, is an old fisherman who has not caught a single fish for eighty four days. On day 85 though, something big catches on to his bait line, and tugs him out to sea. The ensuing battle between man and fish, fought amidst the battleground of the ocean, can also be read as a simile to the soul’s journey on earth as it strives to learn life lessons and evolve over its trials and tribulations.

It is a book that, while appearing bleak and futile (in the vein of ‘what is life but a series of trials to overcome, and do we ever win?’), is oddly hopeful and optimistic. The old man does live to fish another day, even if his circumstances do not change much (or maybe they do – you decide).
Sometimes that’s all you need though. The fact that the old man, bruised and bleeding, does live to fish another day.

Hemingway writes fluidly, his words have movement, and it feels like you’re watching a live action movie unfurl within your head, as you read on through to the end. He doesn’t waste his words either, there are no long winded descriptions of anything, just well chosen words that easily transport the reader into the setting and action. This is writing at its finest,¬† and it’s easy to see why Hemingway is a much lauded writer, and this book considered a timeless classic.

Book Review : ‘Gone with the Vindaloo’, Vikram Nair

‘Gone With The Vindaloo ‘, Mohit Singla informed me, was published at the time when Western publishers were just about discovering Indian authors, and long before the ‘Chetan Bhagat’ wave of literary madness took over our senses (and therefore, publishing sensibilities). That’s just a factoid for you, it has nothing to do with the book or the review.
The first thing I will talk about is the language, because that in itself is a double edged sword, a ‘dodharee talwar’, as Mr Nair would put it – the language¬† appeals immensely to native hindi speakers and will keep them amused. It will though, baffle everyone else, and make this a disconcerting and off-putting read for the non Hindi audience. Not just non – Indians, mind you, but non Hindi speakers. Unlike Kevin Kwan, who chose to include translations of ‘Singaporese’ (I coined that word to describe the multitude of dialects that are found in Kwan’s books) on every page of his ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ trilogy to make them readable for a wider audience (thereby ensuring a highly distracting read – a lot of people tend to drop the first book and watch the movie instead, because of this very reason), Nair is clearly in no mood to appeal to anyone except the people who are ‘ekdum desi’ and therefore will guffaw over the liberal inclusions of colloquial hindi phrases and Hinglish.
So, read on only if you’re desi, otherwise give this a miss.
Now let’s talk story, narrative, pacing etc. Toh plot yeh hai ki there’s Pakwaan, a young third generation cook who starts off with a wet dream that involves making Vindaloo, thereby prompting his father, Param (the head cook in an important IAS bureaucrat’s household) into telling him the story of his grandfather and his cooking heritage. Pretty much 2/3rds of the ‘kitaab ka safar’ passes in this, interspersed as it is with peeks into the present day and the people who make up Param’s world. The narrative then segues into the story of Svetlana, and the American love affair with Indian Spirituality, Gurus, Rishikesh, Swarg Ashram etc etc.
At the start of the last third of the book, Param finds himself in America, embarking on his dream of cooking Vindaloo for the firangis, in what is referred to Vilayat 2.0 (the original Vilayat being ‘England’ the home country). Thereon, the epic tale of dreams starts to sour, even as Nair skilfully writes his expose into America’s obsession with consumerism and how they have a knack for idiot-proofing everything for the sake of capturing mass-market revenues. The pace of the book is like a ‘tonga ride’ that starts off slow while you adjust to the rhythm of cartwheels and clip-clopping hooves, and then the pace hastens until you realize that what for you has been a leisure ride to take in the sights, is a journey the tonga-wallah is keen to finish quickly because he has other things to do.
Like ‘Gone with the Wind’, the book too ends on an ambivalent note, and you don’t quite know what to really make of it, except that with all the food references you’re hungry for dal-roti and maybe some tikka and boti.
It’s a really well written and well edited book though, and light hearted enough to while away time on a sunny wintery Sunday. It’s witty, irreverent, and the kind of hook you’ll read once, and then pass along to someone else saying ‘ek baat toh padhiyo zaroor, kaafi funny si hai’. But don’t expect this one to find a permanent place on your bookshelves. In the vein of some of Mr Nair’s bawdier remarks, the hook he wrote over a period of ten years, is like Umrao Jaan Ada – pleasant company to pass away time with, but not biwi material.

Book Review : ‘Notes on a Scandal’, by Zoe Heller

Book Review : Notes on a Scandal, by Zoe Heller.

Starts off as what the title says – notes on a scandal that the first person character is penning down, hoping to turn into some kind of a bestselling book, and some kind of redemption intermixed with fame (of the pompously virtuous variety).
Right at the start we get to know that the scandal involves a teacher who had an affair with a student – Sheba is this artsy new pottery teacher at a public school for (frankly they sounded more like juvenile delinquents) a somewhat low class neighbourhood. She received advances from a 15 yr old pupil, rebuffs him, gives in.

At some point it is clear that she chooses to confide in our narrator (they’re supposed to be friends), who actually is the lead protagonist the novel is based on, with Sheba as a supporting character.
Barbara as a character is vicious. She’s nasty, self serving, and absolutely delicious to read about and read through as a narrator. As the story of the scandal unfolds, you start to realize the subtle shift in the narrative that’s the genius of this book. The scandal is just a backdrop to what this book actually talks about and to say more would be to give the plot away.

It’s a crisp, and short read, riveting and vicious. It’s also got some well placed words I’d definitely never heard of before. Oh and the author has penned down some seriously harsh but worth acknowledging truths, about people, about friendships, conversations, motives.

My favourite is “One pretends that manners are the formalisation of a basic kindness and consideration, but a great deal of the time, they’re simply aesthetics dressed up as moral principles, aren’t they?”.

Well, aren’t they?

Book Alert (well it isn’t a review, grown ups can’t call it that) : ‘The Little Prince’, by Antoine de Saint Expury

*Alert* Do not read this book, if you’re a grown up, to whom stars are not five million friends but just wealth to be counted and noted on paper. For if you do, this book shall refuse to make any sense to you.

‘The Little Prince’ is a book that one can call a friend, for it can be read at any time of the day, at any hours, in any situation, however one is feeling or may have felt before reading and re-reading. Unless of course the alert applies to you, in which case you would be better off not reading this book.

To read ‘The Little Prince’ you must be able to see, instead of a hat, an elephant inside a boa constrictor, and you must not wish to save fifty three minutes a week by swallowing a pill for attending to your need for water.

Reviewing this book would be too much of a grown up thing to do (grown ups are like that… I would know…. I do regress into grown-up-ness ever so often), so I shall simply point out to you the alerts you must keep in mind, when deciding whether to make this book your friend, or leave it a beautiful stranger.

Oh, and if by chance you do make of it a friend, know that you are not alone, there are those of us with roses like yours, and we too are foxes that will be unique to you and you alone. There are many of us on asteroids like yours. You are not alone.

Book Review : ‘The Silent Patient’ by Alex Michaelides

Book : The Silent Patient
Author : Alex Michaelides

First read of 2020 done and dusted and what an amazing read! Complex and intense. Kind of like dark chocolate.

I’ll admit this didn’t grip me right from the start. But as I continued to read, the hooks started to go in, because this book has the essential elements needed for a gripping read : a layered plot that is neither over-simplified nor too complex, compelling characters, and good language.

At the surface, the premise is simple enough – there’s a celebrated painter accused of killing her husband, locked up in an asylum for not having spoken a word since she and her deed were discovered. There’s the narrator, a psychologist who seems obsessed with helping this woman.
Why is she silent? Why is he obsessed with helping her?

In between the answering of there two questions, lies the real truth, readable, plausible, and well written. Predictable though? Yes, for people tuned in to reading thrillers, at some point the plot does give itself away, however the book continues to compel you to read on. So to quote the inimitable Mohit Singla (Blind date with a Book – look up his review of it), it’s predictable but unputdownable.

If you love thrillers, do not miss out on this one. Whether it gets you from the start or grips you in the middle, at some point it will be a book glued to your hands as you read on with a bookworm’s intensity !