Saturday, June 29, 2013

Book Review: The Virgins by Siddharth Tripathi

Graduating from being a boy to becoming a man is the most important event in a guy's life. The path that his later life takes depends on this crucial period. That is the reason why lot of 'coming of age' tales are told in novels and movies. Normally such stories take two routes- positive or negative. Siddharth Tripathi's debut novel The Virgins chose to take a safe middle path.

The Virgins tell the story of three friends- Guggi, Bhandu and Pinku, growing up in Banares. Pinku, a school dropout whose drunkard father is an abuser, leads a poor life. He falls in love with a girl who pointed a gun at him and decides to change his ways. Parents of Bhandu live apart and are on the verge of divorce. He used to be a good student, but his company and his frustrations over the impending separation of parents is making him lose his concentration. Guggi is the spoilt brat who is the master mind behind all schemes that always lands the trio in deep trouble. His biggest intention is to hijack and run the protection racket in his school. Then there are a pack of reckless supporting characters who adds much color to the proceedings. The story deals with how the ambitions of these motley crew gets intertwined.

The narrative beautifully portrays the rugged life in Varanasi. More than the plot (which is almost non existent), the beauty of this novel lies in its narration and characters. The pacing of the novel mirrors the recklessness of the characters. Lot of expletives are filled in the dialogues and it contributes to the authenticity. It takes some time to get used to the slang and atmosphere of the novel, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes enjoyable. The writer never tries to do change the natural flow of the story by involving any motivational element, nor does he makes the whole ending tragic, which is the usual norm in such stories. The climax is unexpected and chilling. It makes the reader to think back and re-evaluate the motives of characters. There are several laugh out moments studded in the narrative. Only minus that I can think of is the presence of several subplots that eventhough well written, just don't gel with the main plot.

Siddharth Tripathi has written a good debut novel and overcomes its incoherent plot with well developed, realistic characters and a galloping narrative. Its worth a read.

Publisher: Fingerprint!
Cost: 250
Source: Review copy by author.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Lamb: Gospel According to Biff

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff is a humorous mythological novel written by Christopher Moore. Before proceeding, a word of caution. This book may offend you. It may offend you big time, because this novel tells the story of Jesus Christ, it liberally deviate from the Scripture and it portrays a Son of God who is never reluctant to enjoy a light moment even in severe adversity. This novel may offend even those who are not Christians as there are several references about Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism, and not all of them in a flattering way. The novel is about the formative years of Jesus. It is about that decades of his life which is never mentioned in any of the written gospels.

The novel starts when a man is awaken from death by an angel in the contemporary world. The man is revealed as Levi aka Biff, who was the intimate friend and companion of Jesus, but never getting a mention in any of the written gospel. The angel takes him to a hotel room and makes him write his version of gospel. The story proceeds in two levels- through the gospel written by Biff, telling the story of his life with Jesus and his interaction with the angel in modern times. Biff finds about Jesus' (referred as Joshua, the Hebrew version of the name) gift of healing in an unusual way. From that time they become close buddies, doing all the buddy things together. Joshua knows he is the Messiah whom Jews are waiting for, but other than that, he is unsure and confused what to do. Both the friends feels an infatuation with a neighbouring kid, Mary of Magdalene who also joins in some of their adventures together. Joshua decides to follow his destiny by searching for the three messengers from East, who were the first to identify his divinity. Biff decides to accompany him. The novel deals with their journey, their experiences and lessons they learn on the way.

The book is written in an irreverent and absurd style. Though it gives a feeling initially that the writer is attempting a spoof, later on we realise that he is more concerned about filling out the blanks in the life of Jesus and postulating how he might have prepared for his later greatness. More interesting is the character of Biff, who though destined to be a sidekick, rises far above his scope. Initially Biff seems to be an arrogant and irritating kid. But later he reveals to be much more better person. He becomes a loyal companion in Joshua's spiritual journey and in time acquires unique skills. Lamb: Gospel According to Biff is a fun read with many laugh out loud moments, but not so politically correct. Reading it is a pleasant experience and once you finish it you will come to know it is not malicious in any manner. But if you are easily offended, I would recommend to stay away from it.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dan Brown's Inferno: The Assembly Line, Travel Guide, Mystery

I finished reading Dan Brown's latest novel Inferno the last day. Opinions about his novels and writing style has totally divided the readers, much like our own Chetan Bhagat. Many readers like his novels for the escapism it provides, for the relentless pace and for the unique conspiracy theory ridden potpourri of themes connecting history, myth, art, literature and ancient architecture to modern world. His detractors cannot stand the lazy writing, narrow plot structure and cheesy conversations. I had read the first two Robert Langdon novels, Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons and had found them entertaining reads, if not ground breaking literary masterpieces. As the one that came after, The Lost Symbol, drew overwhelming negative criticism from all quarters, I decided to skip it. Before reading I was a bit apprehensive about Inferno due to these factors. 

 The story starts with Robert Langdon finding himself in a hospital in Florence, Italy, with a severe wound on his head and a lost memory. More attempts are made on his life and he escapes with the help of a mysterious woman, Sienna. With much surprise he finds out that he was on the verge of solving a mystery involving diverse pawns like Dante's classic about the experiences in hell, a secret organisation who are ready to go to any length for fulfilling their client's wish, World Health Organisation trying to prevent a lethal plague and a maniac genius hell bent on killing most of world's population. For saving the world Langdon has 24 hours time and a worldwide trail of clues to solve, all based on Dante's Inferno. 

 Major saving grace of the novel is its pace. The narrative has enough twists and turns in it for keeping the casual reader intrigued. There are lot of chases and suspense thrown out at regular intervals that gives much needed momentum to the plot. The novel happens in Florence, Venice and Istanbul. There are many passages dedicated to discuss the exotic locales in these places which gives the novel a feel of travel guide sometimes. But I found most of it interesting and adding value to the plot. 

Biggest letdown of Inferno is its assembly line structure. All Robert Langdon mysteries has a uniform structure. This novel also never even tries to move out of it for good. Shoddy plot and weak characterization plagues Inferno. Another problem is repetition of certain plot elements throughout the story. For example a video made by the villain is seen by every other characters at least once. Each time someone view it we are made to read the whole passage again which tries the patience. Certain mannerisms of key characters are repeated many times to the point of irritation, like Langdon's dressing style and his affinity for a limited edition Mickey Mouse watch. The climax also was a big letdown for me as nothing spectacular happens! It feels like all struggle Langdon has endured to reach the conclusion has gone waste. 

I was also a bit perplexed by the author's views on population explosion. It seems for him, every problem in this world is due to an evergrowing population- poor and illiterate, consuming all the limited resources available to them. Though population growth is a major hindrance for mankind's survival, many studies have concluded that uneven distribution of wealth and over consumption of resources by the lucky few has caused a major damage for our survival. I would recommend buying this novel only for die hard Dan Brown/ Langdon fans. For others, I recommend borrowing it from the fans who have a copy.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth

Frederick Forsyth writes spy thrillers in which fact and fiction is blended in such a way that it is difficult to guess which is which. Many of his novels have explosive actual events as the basic plot to which some fictional characters and events are embedded. I have read a few of them and The Fist of God automatically figures in the top of the list due to the meticulous research that has gone into the writing of that novel and the sheer magnitude of its plot. The Fist of God is set during the first Gulf War when Iraq invaded Kuwait and deals with the frantic search of Allied Forces (US–British) for a secret weapon of mass destruction that has the potential to change the outcome of war and code named The Fist of God by Iraqis.

The year is 1990, a few days after Iraq has invaded Kuwait. International community is putting pressure on Iraqi leader Saddam Husain to withdraw from Kuwait or face the attack of the Allied Forces that can take Iraq back to stone ages. Saddam’s reluctance to do it make the Allies to think that he has something in his sleeves that will be used in case of any military action against him. A mention about The Fist of God in a radio message from Iraq make them suspect it is a weapon code named The Fist of God, which he will use against any invading army. Only person who can provide information is a mysterious insider code named Jericho. He works for Mossad, but is dormant from some time. Mike Martin has to enter Baghdad as an Arab, establish contact with Jericho, find out the secret of The Fist of God and foil the plans of Saddam. The Fist of the God, which spans for more than 600 pages, is a very long read, but keeps the reader engaged most of the time.

There are many descriptive passages about warfare technology throughout the book which will interest the readers of the genre. Many real life personalities make appearance in the novel- prominently Saddam, who is a major character. George Bush, Thatcher and many others appear in the story.The plot is brilliant and dazzling with sophisticated use of technology. The line between fact and fiction seems to be narrow that it made me feel the scenario in this book is plausible. But the book falls way short in characterization. None of the major characters manages to create a sense of depth. Some of the plot twists are evident to the reader from miles away, but the characters never come to realize them. And sometimes comes the feeling that our hero is achieving things in a way too easy. But while reading The Fist of God, the atmosphere of the novel was so tense that I ignored these shortfalls. The Fist of God is an interesting and gripping read which manages to keep the reader forget its shortcomings at least while he is reading it.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Blindness by Jose Saramago: An Allegory on Seeing

Blindness is a spell binding novel that I read recently. It was definitely not an easy read. The novel is long, grim and tiresome without much scope for any entertainment anywhere in it. Still like any great piece of art, it gives the reader a chance to think about life and living. Written by Jose Saramago in 1995, this Portuguese novel is translated in English by Giovenni Pontiero. The novel set in an unnamed place with all the characters unnamed is about a mysterious epidemic of white blindness that causes entire population to go blind. The plot of the novel forms the unpleasant and brutal after effects of this illness. The novel was adapted into an acclaimed movie.
The novel starts when on the middle of traffic, one of the drivers runs out of his car yelling he cannot see a thing. Peculiar thing is that instead of darkness which is usually associated normally with blindness, all he can see is a white light all around. Soon everyone who comes in touch with him starts turning blind. The novel follows the story of first few people stricken by blindness. Government fearing the contagious nature of the disease quarantines all blind in an old building. The doctor who checks the first blind person is also blind now, but peculiarly his wife is unaffected. She accompanies her husband but does not reveal that she can see. The number of quarantined people increases exponentially and life in the building deteriorates. Slowly the people turn into less than animals and doctor’s wife, who is the only one with vision alone stands witness to all these.
The structure of the novel is very peculiar. There are long sentences, sometimes covering entire paragraphs and there is minimal usage of punctuation  None of the characters are having names and they are mentioned by descriptions like Doctor, Doctors’ wife, Man with black eye patch and so on. The narrative nowhere spares the reader any respite. All the goriness resulting from the deterioration of culture is put forth in detail for us to read. I feel Saramago’s novel is an allegory. A fable that tries to remind us what will happen if we do not see the obvious. Blindness is the malady of ignorance, not just ignorance but the willingness to remain so.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Book Review: Shoes of the Dead

Stories of one man single-handedly fighting the system against all odds are abundant in literature and movies worldwide. May be the reason is its mass appeal. People generally love to see a hero standing tall for everything that is right. One limitation that can be observed in the execution of this theme by various media is that ultimately the wrong doer is limited to an object- a single man or a group of people up for mischief. This objectifying of evil causes two negative results generally- one is the dilution of the case the writer is trying to put forward and the other is the protagonists resolving the issue using extreme acts that glorifies socially unacceptable practices. These were my thoughts while I took up Kota Neelima’s political novel Shoes of the Dead for reading. The biggest virtue of this book is that it does not tread the convenient path of objectifying that I was mentioning before.
Shoes of the Dead tell the story of suicide by farmers due to debt. The story starts in Delhi, in the residence of Keyur Kashinath, new MP and son of a political bigwig, deep in trouble due to the growing cases of farmer suicides occurring in his constituency Mityala. He is trying to manipulate the cases and prove majority suicides are not due to debt with the help of moneylenders and real estate grabbers who are one of the major reason for the trouble. Nazar is one journalist who finds out about his plan and tries to do something about it through his fearless reports.
The story then shifts to Mityala, were Gangiri Bhadra former teacher turned farmer breaches into the corrupt suicide committee that certifies even genuine cases of debt suicides as ineligible for compensation. He is the brother of a farmer who committed suicide due to debt, but the committee denies compensation by painting him as an alcoholic. He intelligently networks inside the committee and turns the table on Keyur by making more and more applications for compensation eligible. From then the narrative shifts between Delhi and Mityala. Keyur decides to eliminate Gangiri, but things change when Nazar enters the scene. From then the story turns into a game of political one-upmanship between one person’s ego and arrogance and another’s belief in bringing a positive change in society.
As I told earlier, the story does not overtly blame or vilify a single person for all the bad things happening to people. It is basically about rising above the levels of mere existences, which is displayed by Keyur and other negative characters, and show the courage to stand for what is right and deliver it at any cost. Gangiri faces so much adversity in many levels- political, social, emotional and economical, but stands for justice to the family of diseased farmers even when his own existence is fatally threatened. The narrative is rather slow, building up the characters and making the reader comfortable with the nuances of the story, but never slows down to make it even a bit boring. The characterization and plot is very realistic and readers will be empathized with it. One subplot about an industrial concern in Mityala is mentioned but not touched upon with any detail.
All in all considering the social relevance and urgency of the subject and the overall readability of the book, which I would opine is nothing short of excellent, I will recommend this book to all readers.  
Publisher: Rupa Publications
Book Source:
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