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 !

Book Review : ‘The Graveyard Book’, Neil Gaiman

Now why exactly would you hand a kid a book with a title as spooky as that; and one that starts off with a murder?

Maybe you want to introduce them to grim realities, to the genre of mystery and spook, and to the fact that the world is a very mixed up place indeed, full of equal parts kindness and otherwise. In which case, Gaiman hands us a tale well told that starts with a family murdered while the baby crawls out of the house and all the way to the nearest graveyard, where he’s promptly adopted by a kindly couple and raised as their own. Obviously though, the couple is ghostly, as are all the people around ‘Bod’ (they name the baby ‘Nobody Owens’), who grows up with all kinds of interesting graveyard privileges, exciting (but macabre and spooky) adventures, and a very colorful cast of characters.

What I loved most in this book is the simplicity of Gaiman’s writing – even as a ‘grown up reader’, the child in me was utterly fascinated by the manner in which Bod’s adventures are narrated. Big words are seldom bandied about carelessly, there’s always a context and a certain manner of writing that will make most readers curious to know more about the word itself. So even though the vocabulary used is one that most kids will find enriching and easy to use, the prose itself is not didactic.

I grew up reading stories by Edgar Allan Poe and Guy de Maupassant, but when it came to introducing ‘spook’ as a genre to young minds (8+), so far I’ve always hesitated handing out books written by the above, fearing the experience may be too macabre at that age. This book, in my opinion, is the right bridge between childhood naivete and the reality of life, and may make perfect sense for children who don’t want to read ‘happy’ stuff all the time, and have outgrown Lemony Snicket.

Full Moon March 2019 : Spring has sprung!

There’s so much going on with this ‘Full Worm Moon’ of 2019 – it coincides with the ‘vernal equinox’ in the northern hemisphere, and is also the third (and final) straight Supermoon of 2019, thus amplifying the effects of the Full Moon itself. This is also the moon that starts the new Lunar Year.

Signifying ‘Resurrection’ to many, this full moon starts a time when there is greater light than darkness. So for people who have been doing a lot of inner work and releasing lower emotions and vibrations – you will start to notice a feeling of being ‘made anew’ within you. Don’t be surprised if you suddenly start to feel like you’ve been ‘born again’, because a lot of baggage that you’ve been working on releasing, has finally gone out of your system, and the space within is waiting to be filled with the choices you make now. In that sense, this is now a chance for you to powerfully ‘reinvent’, ‘rejuvenate’, and ‘resurrect’ yourself. Life actually starts again now, with a reset button, if you’ve been so inclined. You will find it easier now to be the kind of person you’ve wanted to be in a long time. Use this time wisely and make the right choices. It’s not every March that the Full Moon coincides with the Vernal Equinox, and is a Supermoon to boot.

The sign of Aries begins today, making this the beginning of the energies of confidence and leadership. Adding to this mix, is the sign of Libra (which is where this full moon is, at this time of the year) – so a lot of us are going to want to clean out our inner and external environments. This is real spring cleaning, and goes beyond setting our summer wardrobes in place ; this is when we set our summer attitude in place, and it’s just the right time to define what we want the summer to be like this year. So if you feel the urge to clean, organise, and tidy up, act on it now!

One area of life that will also reflect the Libra qualities of balance right now, is ‘relationships’. To start with, you may feel more at peace with yourself, more comfortable with who you are truly, and at ease with your own physical, mental, emotional states. You might also want to acknowledge all the spiritual progress you’ve made this last year, and that’s not about the frequency with which you meditated, but the changes you see now in yourself – maybe you’re kinder, nicer, more compassionate and forgiving than before, or have greater focus and clarity, or are more generous than you were earlier. Think about your inner virtues today, and acknowledge the progress you’ve made.

Next, look around you at the relationships you have with others today – the people you want to be with and the ones you are letting go of. For once, you’ll feel more at peace with the way of things right now, with the ‘hellos’ and the ‘goodbyes’, in equal measure. If you do want to tally up, you’ll find that the scales are quite equally balanced – there are people who love you, and those who don’t. Use the confidence you feel now, to walk away from the ones who don’t, and open yourself to receiving greater love and support from those who do. For once, this Full Moon will not make you feel ‘out of sorts’ with yourself, but more introspective and in tune with who you are.

Personally, I feel today a greater sense of self, and a stronger connection with myself, my Spiritual Teacher, and God. I have greater faith now in these significant relationships, and a better ability to calmly detach from and let go of all who no longer match or measure up to who I am and would like to be ; where in the past I have often felt a sense of loss and deep sadness, today I feel lighter, and free!

So use this powerful time to set your summer goals, your summer attitude, and your priorities straight. This is the reset button we’ve been waiting for, and it’s time to really create the reality we’ve been wanting for a while now.

I plan on meditating today with this meditation by Master Stephen Co and you might like to give it a try too :

Have a wonderful start to the Lunar New Year. Renew, Rejuvenate, and Resurrect!

Series Review by Aniruddha Rege: ’50 Shades of Gray’, EL James

(This review was originally posted on the ‘Senior Reading Raccoons’ page on Facebook. I enjoyed it so much that I requested Aniruddha for his permission to repost it here. I hope this tickles your fancy far more than the books ever can!)


50 Shades Of Grey Trilogy – The Definitive, Incoherent Review of a Tortured, Traumatized Soul:

Three months ago, I was set on a quest that would change my perception of all literature. A friend of mine, with all the goodness of her heart and maliciousness of her mind, challenged me to read a book series which she surely thought would enhance my world-view and add an entirely new dimension to my grasp of what constitutes good literature. The trilogy, over the next three months, proceeded to do exactly that. “Iconic”, “Immediately recognizable”, “In a league of its own” and “Absolutely Exemplary” are few of the phrases I would use to define 50 Shades of Grey, and my perception that being associated with these phrases meant that the book is good was forever changed.

Any good book, however great, has three basic ingredients at its core and the quality of the book is essentially decided on how well each of these ingredients balances with the other two. In 50 Shades, this question becomes irrelevant. The ingredients don’t have to balance each other, because the ingredients barely exist. But I am getting ahead of myself here and am probably progressing the plot of the review faster than the trilogy did in its entire run.

So let’s dive into a slightly detailed analysis of what these ingredients do for the defining trilogy of the 21st century!

1. Plot: What do we say of the plot of this trilogy! It is singularly one of the deepest psychological dramas ever penned, with the protagonist suffering from demons which would take a lifetime and half to resolve. The struggle of a woman in love with such a man only serves to enhance the sympathy and empathy we feel for the incorrigible Mr. Grey, and truly hope for him to conquer his demons and live the life he so richly desires and deserves. Throw in some well-placed antagonists with a great reason to hate Christian Grey, his guts and fortune and you have a drama which Shakespeare himself would be envious of. Well, in the hands of a competent author, this is what it would have been. Instead, with majority of the book being focused on sex straight out of a teenage boy’s fantasy of what sex must be like, the superb Ms. James chooses to fast forward the inconsequential aspects of the plot such as the so-called villain sabotaging and trying to kill Christian as well as destroy the lives of both lovers in order to focus more on the aspirational sex scenes which would seem to be more at home in a serial killer novel if Mr. Grey were a tad bit poorer.
The result is that we have a miraculous conquering of demons in possibly a week, the sort of which wasn’t seen since God threw Lucifer from the heavens. But of course, this is just one of those three crucial ingredients. While the plot could have been better focused on something of relevance and paced in a more realistic manner, surely it is well-balanced by the other two factors.

2. Dialogue: With “Oh Ana” and “Oh Christian” – you can possible guess the context – dominating most of the words that come out of either character’s mouths, the dialogue holds less than superb versatility. But that does not mean that the dialogue is anything less than pure prose from a sonnet composed by the angels themselves. They are just not exactly what any normal person would ever utter while speaking to another normal person. Maybe the saving grace is that no person in this beautiful art of a trilogy is exactly normal. They talk like they inhale the dictionary for breakfast, season their lunch with a thesaurus, and participate in the World Spelling Bee for high tea. Excellent and innovative phrases such as “fuck me seven shades of Sunday” and “closed off like an island state” are some of my absolute favorites. They show that Ms. James is not afraid to play with the English language, forever ruin it and then dance on those ruins using the tears of her readers as fuel. Absolutely lovely, I must say. Add the long pauses Anastasia is prone to while admiring Christian for the 17328th time in 2 hours, and you have the potential to become an authority on narrow eyes and smacked behinds.
For anyone wishing to see how human beings never speak to each other and think in their own minds, this trilogy is an absolute must-read!

3. Characters: “Poof!” you must say by now to me, citing that the heart of the book is not in the plot or the lofty dialogue, that I have missed the crux of the beautiful story by getting embroiled in the irrelevant aspects such as the aspirational sex or the aspirational words. The soul of the book is encompassed in Ana and Christian and the love of the ages that they share. Yes, the characters are the heart. Like mentioned before by yours truly in the current piece of drivel you are reading, the characters are compelling and an exact copy of that other monumental and epic achievement of modern literature – Twilight. You could essentially take each character of Twilight and overlay them on 50 Shades, and you would not really notice much of a difference, even with them sparkling in the sun.
The coveted hearts of the trilogy show exactly one dimension less than Homer Simpson, who is a drawing on paper. Setting aside the extremely quick conquering of demons by the perfect Mr. Grey, their entire purpose in life seems to be shouting at each other and then having some innovative sex before shouting some more through gritted teeth and narrowed eyes. The other characters exist to merely admire Ana and Christian while validating each action through constant smiles and nods of approvals. The villain, who is in danger of showing some actual multi-dimensional traits and personality growth, panics the author and she quickly disposes of him. His departure is more sudden than any rare glimpse of quality Ms. James might have experienced while writing this most perfect set of books.

Establishing that the series is beyond my comprehension and possibly because I have not yet reached a stage where I can appreciate great books without the above ingredients, I have solemnly decided that I shall henceforth leave things like these to those of a higher plane of existence and only hope that I shall one day reach there. My friend tried to get me there, but finally, I think she has given up on the fact that I shall be capable of achievements such as admiring this series.

This review is already better-articulated (though lacking in innovative and senseless phrases) than all three books put together and also has more plot. Hence, I shall stop embarrassing Ms. James and only hope that those who read this book are able to conquer their demons just as quickly as Christian and are able to get into rehab faster than Anastasia gets in Christian’s pants.

Because I shall see you there.

#BookReview #50ShadesOfGrey

Book Review by Shikha Uma Agarwal : ‘Sister of My Heart’, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Sister of my heart is the 2nd book that I’ve read from Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. After I finished reading The Forest of Enchantments, I sat speechless for a while. When my mother called out for me, she could have easily guessed from my muffled voice that I was crying. It wasn’t the storyline, rather the ‘Sitayan’ version of Ramayan and the details of all significant women in the story captured perfectly by the author that urged me to read nothing else but something from her again.

So Chitra Banerjee’s ‘Sister of my heart’ happened to me. The moment I started reading it, I was plunged, engrossed and immersed into it. Did I just say I found it compelling?

This book strengthened my belief (at least my conviction) that there cannot be a bond stronger than that of a sister ; it reaffirmed that it is absolutely ok to have shades of grey to one’s side, and most importantly the fact that a woman can indeed be a woman’s saviour in the truest sense.

The manner in which the story emerged, characters are revealed, mysteries unfolded, and truth exposed, does not overshadow the plot nor does it deviate from the storyline.

So what all does the story includes to engross you?

A mother and her undying love for her daughter, the plight of a widow, the vulnerability of a father (yes, men are also allowed to be frail), a man who longs for some alone time with his beloved, attempting to keep her daughter away from her for a while, a married man secretly admiring his wife’s soul sister, a mother in law hungry for a grandson to keep her ‘vansh’ alive…and amongst all these, the two sisters whose strings are attached to each other through their hearts. The characters and their conversations remain very real and raw, mixed with innocence, fragility and strength at the same time.

The protagonists, Sudha and Anju, display mixed emotions throughout the novel for each other. Sudha believes that her father’s lies and scheming had led to the untimely death of Anju’s father, which has now cast an obligation on her to give back to the latter in every way possible through her sacrifices. Anju, on the other hand, has her own insecurities and jealousy pangs towards Sudha for the fact that her husband is besotted by Sudha’s beauty. They make mistakes in their quest of finding the truth, get judgemental from time to time, behave impulsively at times and even blurt out their inner fears (they are humans after all). But their love for each other beautifully transcends these emotions which further fortify their relationship.

All in all, this is a must read novel, for nowhere it takes you away from any reality. You can hate them for a moment, yet relate to them in a split second.

So, Happy Reading Folks!