Monday, September 27, 2010

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

The Life of Pi's best feature is the basic premise.

Life of Pi: Deluxe Illustrated Edition

I mean, most writers claim that 'all writing is based on other writing.' That there is no such thing as a 'new plot' because nearly every plot in the world has been done to death. Not this one. Its actually a story about a guy stuck on a lifeboat with a hyena, orangutan, a zebra with a broken leg and - wait for it - a 450 pound royal bengal tiger. (Of course, to make it more believable, in the end its just him and one other animal on the boat - guess which one...) I first took this book on the recommendation of a friend, but the second part of what made me borrow this book from the library was, of course, the back cover. I don't particularly like castaway stories, or animal stories, but seriously - I just had to read this one to know what Martel could possibly do with it.

Moving on to the technical aspects of the story - the writing was good. I liked how the story was narrated by the main character, I like how there are interludes in the writing where the author shows the present-day scenario of the same man (I particularly love a heart-warming scene where Pi hugs his daughter and the author steps in to say, 'This story has a happy ending.' This is particularly fun as the next page begins with Pi being assailed by sharks). I enjoyed the end portion (the only part of the book I found laugh out loud funny is the conversation of the Japanese officials with Pi) and in general the writing is crisp and the book moves along smoothly. The characterization is impeccable (of the humans and animals) and I particularly liked the description of the religion and the other larger themes within the book. The story begins with a glimpse into Pi's childhood as a zookeeper's son that really helps you understand where he is coming from.

However, I do believe that the end of this book fell flat. The whole 'island scenario' is both unbelievable and odd, I don't understand either why it has to be put into the story or what it was doing it. As such, (despite the apparent correctness of the biological facts), this story is a little hard to swallow - but you manage if you suspend your disbelief a little bit - but the end just becomes incredulous and absurd and that is not the best of all experiences. Personally, according to me, the ending let-down the book. I could believe everything else but that was a little hard to swallow.

Final thoughts: A good book - great premise, well written, well narrated, well characterized. A bit of an unbelievable book requiring some belief, with a highly absurd ending. Borrow it from the library, I wouldn't buy it.

Other thoughts: I have got my hands on a LOT of books right now - The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown, New York by Edward Rutherfurd, The Color of Magic by Terry Prachett (described as the P.G. Woodhouse of fantasy) and Blue Moon Rising by Simon Green. Expect a lot of reviews in the predictable future.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger is an important book.

The White Tiger: A Novel (Man Booker Prize)

I've heard a lot about this book, good and bad, but the most important things were as follows - that Balram Halwai (aka "The White Tiger") is a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist, that the story mostly works on selling India's poverty (like, according to me, Slumdog Millionaire did) and that is very badly written. From the other side of the table were people who said that it was one of the best books ever written in India, that it was thought-provoking, it was enlightening, and most of all that it was a book that I should read. It was with all of this in mind (along with a lot of heavy expectations) that I read this book, and one must assume that my reading of the book as well as my review is colored by the same.

My verdict? A lot of of this is true.

It is a thought-provoking and intelligent book - a statement on India and why we are the way we are. Even extremely patriotic Indians cannot be so ostrich-like that they ignore all that is wrong with India, and it requires a certain amount of hard-heartedness to ignore the plight of the poor people of India - the rickshaw pullers, the servants, the farmers. One cannot pretend that everything is alright with India, but with that in mind I don't think this book went out and targeted that group of Indians and foreigners who like to read about how India is a dirty country with nothing good about it (quite on the contrary). Also, it was different from Slumdog Millionaire in the sense that it actually had a story, and one that was not based completely on that elusive thing called luck but rather by extreme hard work and courage on the part of the hero.

According to me, Balram Halwai is not an unlikeable main character. Sure there were times when I really hated him and when I was disgusted by his thoughts, but there was no time when the writing became so slack that I did not want to know what happened further in his life. You see Balram from his childhood - you see him make some horrible choices and do some horrible things - but you also see the things that shaped him and made him the way he ended up to be and in the end I don't blame him. The secondary characters are also genius, sometimes slightly two-dimensional and not really multi-faceted, but some of them like Ashok come out from the page as real human beings - leaving you unsure on whether you like them or hate them or really on what is right and wrong.

The book is well-written. It is written in the form of letters to a visiting Chinese delegate, with frequent intervals and interludes from Balram Halwai. The writing is clear and crisp and the descriptions (like the chicken coop) are quite brilliant. Technically, I'm sure that no one can refute that Adiga is a very good writer, who has the talent of drawing interesting characters, a reasonable plot, well-described settings, and a good use of language.

Final thoughts: In the end, I found the book very interesting. I'm not old (or really, experienced) enough to know if all of what is written in there is true. I certainly do know that some of it is. The book is depressing, but its also about courage in the face of unbelievable odds, about taking difficult decisions and living through them, and about being a white tiger - someone who comes along just once in a generation. It is a book about change, and progress at its core - in a very uplifting way - and a book that I think all Indians should read.

Other thoughts: Expect a lot of reviews this week and next, because I've been reading a lot (currently reading The Life of Pi by Yann Martel) and have loads of plans for reviews, as well as some time.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a nice book, just not perhaps as good as I expected it to be.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The first time I saw this book in the local Crossword (and it has been on the special shelf forever now) I thought that it seemed like a different book - specifically because of the cover art, which I like very much - though as far as tattoos go, this was probably better. But I didn't buy it at the time because I didn't find the back descriptions particularly interesting (except for the part of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo herself). Later on, however, I read this review, and I decided to read the book after all. But then, obviously, I forgot all about it. And then last Rakshabandhan, I decided that my brother was going to buy me some books, so I bought King's Nightmares and Dreamscapes (which I read and reviewed first, here) and this book.

I won't say I was disappointed. Maybe I just had very high expectations. But there were both positives and negatives in this one.

The first thing was the beginning, which is slow and full of pages and pages of characters telling their stories. I understand why this is important to move the story forward, but to tell the truth I skimmed through the whole long family histories and the exposition in the beginning just because it was plain boring. I do read a lot of description in many books, but the pace I expected from this book was sorely lacking in the beginning, though it picked up phenomenally towards the end.

But if the book began slowly then it certainly ended with a bang. There were loads of positives about the book, starting, of course, from the wonderful characters. I loved the characters - all of them - from the enigmatic Lisbeth Salander (the girl with the dragon tattoo), the honest and hard-hitting and charming journalist Blomkovist and even most of the dysfunctional family that these two unite to probe. None of the characters are totally good - there are shades of grey in all of them, and there are some that are positively black, and the best part is that its not so predictable that you know from the onset which character comes in which category. Larsson has really written many memorable characters in this one, and no matter what I'd felt about this book, I knew from the starting of the book that I would have to read the next one - if just for Lisbeth, who is one of my favourite characters at the moment. The inter-character relationships are also amazingly well done - they're beautiful, complex, and so very human that one can't help but admire Larsson as a writer when you read them.

The plot is quite engrossing, especially after the first thirty or forty pages. In fact, after that point the book is edgy, fast, and extremely interesting - so much so that I couldn't put down the book even though I really had to study for my term end exams because I was so afraid of what would happen to the characters ahead. Through most of the book, I was just hoping that the mystery at the centre of this book was solved in this book itself and not in one of the sequels (I think I would never even have touched the sequels if this had happened, though. I don't mind cliffhanger endings at the end of chapters, but I do hate unfinished books). I really thought the main plot was very interesting, and definitely not predictable (which would definitely have killed a book which is based so strongly on the suspense) - and the subplots (especially the one considering Erika, who is another great character) which weave in and out of the main story without ever drawing the attention away from it.

I also really like Larsson's way of writing from many different point-of-views, because it really helps you to sympathize with a wide variety of characters (though he cleverly avoids showing you a glimpse into the heads of anyone who might reveal more of plot than he wants to reveal at the time). This style of writing works very well with the structure of the book, because the story is quite vast and involves a large cast of characters, and the whole story only becomes clear when you see it with the different views. (I also enjoyed seeing Harriet and Lisbeth's different reactions to similar situations - and Lisbeth's judgement of Harriet for the same - very layered and very interesting. This was my favourite part of the book.)

Final thoughts: It begins slightly slowly, but overall its a good book - with a nice plot, fast pace, and highly interesting characters. Its quite graphic (definitely not for kids) but if you're okay with that and like action/suspense, I'm pretty sure you'll like this book.

Other thoughts: Well, after a long time the books I've read are going ahead of the reviews I've written. I'm going to write a review of Which Witch? pretty soon, and I've also read Adiga's White Tiger, a review of which will also be coming fast.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King

Nightmares and Dreamscapes was my first Stephen King book.

Nightmares & Dreamscapes Nightmares & Dreamscapes (Hardcover)
(I unfortunately didn't get to pick any of these two covers...mine was plain and green and had a toad on it - unfortunately I only realized it was a tone after reading one of the scariest stories in this book)

Yes, this (along with the term-end examination) has been what has taken me so long. (In the interval, actually, today, I've also read Eva Ibbotson's Which Witch, which is a fun if childish book - I don't know if I'll be reviewing that one, but anyway, I digress) It took me a while to even pick a Stephen King book. I mean I would go to the bookstore, meaning to buy one of the huge books in the Stephen King section (yes, he has his own section) and would always be so overwhelmed by the choices that I would promise myself that I would research a little bit more and come back. Anyway, last time I just decided to take the plunge and buy myself a book, any book (and since I have recently come to like short stories I decided to pick this book) by the "King of Horror and Fantasy".

I had a wonderful time.

I mean, I won't say all the stories were equally appealing. There was story called Fifth Quarter about a map in four pieces and a guy who wanted revenge that I just skimmed through, and there are two stories in the end about baseball that I am finding hard to even start. But its the other stories: the two stories about a mysterious vampire (and one which features his remarkably cool grandson!), the two stories about what the author calls "those mysterious little towns" (one of which is about the toad mentioned above), the Sherlock Holmes story where Watson gets to solve a case (I loved this - Watson is one of my favourite characters ever), Umney's Last Case (which was about the relationship between a writer and a character and just so bloody cool), a story called 'Suffer the Little Children' which actually made shivers run down my spine and so many others in this wonderful collection (if I sit and name all of them, it won't be much of a review, so I'll break off now...)

What I love about Stephen King is his characters. His characters are all very distinct and they tell their stories their way, and they think in complicated ways (and sometimes speak in complicated ways, too) but the reader is not pampered...and by throwing you into the minds of these people (half of which, in this book, are remarkably disturbing minds) makes you sympathize with even the horrible guy who kidnaps children to sell them or the guy who plans to bury a few people alive in a cadillac under the desert (this is the first story in the book and sets the tone - its a highly, highly creepy story about a highly odd man, except that he's avenging his dead wife and you can't argue with a motivation like that). King's characters are all very human (even the non-human ones) and you just get immersed into their lives - and what interesting lives they are, too.

This book has been described as 'horror' (and often with a disdainful tone at that). I don't know if I would call it that. I mean, some stories are definitely scary (once, while reading, I woke up at 2:00 am in the night thinking about the vampire story and almost freaked out) and most border on the supernatural and all of them are slightly off-center (I don't know how to put this better - but they're different, though according to me in a good way) but they're not your typical horror books (there are no buckets of blood and floating eyeballs as far as I remember) and I think they would be enjoyed by readers who like all types of books.

Final thoughts: Most of the stories (I think this depends on your personal taste) in this book are absolutely brilliant. They're deep, layered, fascinating - the character's are so real and the plots to original that I can't help but recommend this collection to any lover of fantasy and/or horror. (And any open-minded lover of books).

Other thoughts: I forgot to mention my favourite story - it was The House on Maple Street, where King writes the perspective of children so brilliantly that I loved it. I also loved the Notes, though, as the author says himself, they're not for everyone.

I'm going to start on the first book of the Millenium Trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo soon. Looking forward to it. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

P.S. - If you've read and liked this book, read Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things (reviewed here). It reminded me a hell lot of this book.

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