A.R Sara

A breezy & intense eternal teen with a zest for the here and the now

Category: Book Reviews

Top 12 eclectic reads

An eclectic selection of twelve books, both fiction and non-fiction, that offer an unbeatable and unique reading experience.

1.The Girl who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
A coming of age story with a heart and soul, in a fantasy setting, replete with magic, love, loss, redemption, adventure and friendship. It is the stuff epic fairy tales are made of. At the center of the story lies an oppressed village that forcibly snatches a child away from its parents and sacrifices it to a witch every year by abandoning it in the nearby forest, compelled by the elders who govern and control the village. A witch who resides with a dragon and a swamp monster on the other side, rescues the abandoned child every year and transports it to another faraway village, to be raised in kind and loving homes. During one such yearly rescue errand, while transporting the child, the witch feeds the child moonlight instead of the usual starlight leading to an accidental granting of powerful magical powers. The witch decides to adopt and raise the child, naming her Luna and binding her magic from surfacing till she is at an age she can handle it. As Luna reaches that age, the magic within her breaks free to surge and it is upto her to tame and handle it even as a series of events unfold, unraveling the mysteries and secrets surrounding the village and the witch.
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2. The Historian
A heady mix of Dracula folklore and history, it captivates with its atmospheric narrative, slow buildup and is genuinely scary without relying on gore or cliched vampire romance.
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3. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet
A fictional and deeply emotional and moving epic saga with a rich assortment of strongly carved characters and a plot that revolves around the construction of a cathedral in the 12th century English against a backdrop of anarchy, religious conflicts and political intrigue.
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4. Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Pick this up for the sheer brilliance, lucid narrative and astuteness with which the author has presented an interpretation of the theory of evolution from the viewpoint of a gene. It offers a fresh new perspective on what drives the evolutionary process. The numerous analogies are clever and apt and help decode and simplify the complex concepts and comprehend with ease.
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5. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
A concise, compact, thought-provoking and meaningful summary of 200,000 of human history, chronicling the progression of the ape-like simple creature of the homo genus to an intellectual, opportunistic and complex being of the homo-sapien species, who rose to the top of the food chain.
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6. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
This book offers a multi-layered reading experience which stimulates you with mystery, adventure, magic realism and a generous dose of shock value, all wrapped in a dreamlike surreal landscape.
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7. Fox by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks 

It is a fable that has a moving and dark theme, yet carries a beautiful allure that makes it a compelling read. With its powerful and haunting quality, it can sear itself into the reader’s memory.
The prose inspires vivid imagery in the mind with words left unsaid, while the illustrations speak louder than words.
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8.  Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
It is a fictional retelling of the Mahabharata mythology from Draupadi’s perspective. It makes the reader empathize with the tragic protagonist and other well-etched characters, with its poignant and powerful tone.
It is a perfectly intoxicating blend of the raw emotions, descriptions, thoughts to match the interpretation of Draupadi’s viewpoint.
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9. Maus by Art Spiegelman
A path-breaking graphic novel that is historical fiction and both memoir and autobiographical in nature. It is one that proved that literature dealing with deep and serious topics can be expressed using a graphic/comic medium. It is a Pulitzer prize winner.
It unfolds with the author interviewing his father, a holocaust survivor about his life experiences from the days before the World War II to the end of the Holocaust, and a narrative of the author’s life in the present time frame, including his troubled relationship with his father. The dispassionate and straightforward storytelling style has a startling effect and that combined with the depiction of Jews as mice and German’s as cats, infuses the novel with a strange and haunting quality.
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10. Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
A dystopian novel with a marked feminist slant, that manages to disturb and unsettle with a dark plot line that delves into how quickly and devastatingly a society can decline and regress from a progressive to an oppressive society in a heartbeat. It touches on the volatility of women’s status in society and the technical ease with which her financial freedom and basic rights can be swept away in the blink of an eye. The portrayal of the events chillingly feel real on account of the rich, raw, poignant and powerful narrative.
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11. Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo
A magical and charming tale that imparts powerful and sublime messages around personal destiny, true love and self-realization. It follows the journey of a shepherd boy who meets many impactful and colorful characters on the way who transform his thinking, till his quest culminates in a beautiful and stunning discovery that transcends the physical.
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12. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
True to its name the epistolary novel is frivolous, eccentric and weird and a lot more.  It is a story that is set in the period surrounding the WW2 timeline. Friendship, impact of war, life on a small quaint island, wit, humour and a love for literature are all seamlessly woven together in an old-fashioned exchange of letters to create a pleasant, sunny, poignant and memorable effect.
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Thanks for reading till the end. Hope this helps identify your next read or revisit a book or books you have already read.
Have you read any of the above books and did they appeal to you?
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Ten books to enchant and delight the young

Realization that today (2nd April 2018) is International Children’s Book Day, has infused me with just the right amount of motivation to compile the list of books that have been a source of joy and entertainment for my kids and me. So it felt like the perfect day for sharing our favourite set of books starting with an age group of 2 – 8 years. These books are great as read-alouds or as independent/assisted reading. Inviting you to explore.

The age appropriateness is more of a suggested guideline to specify the minimum age limit, based on my personal experience. There is no upper age limit for reading them of course, as books like this are of a timeless nature.

  1. The Very Hungry Caterpillar – by Eric Carle

It is an internationally acclaimed book, considered to be one of the greatest childhood classics. With a simple theme it interactively and innovatively covers the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. It captivates the young audience with a blend of words, look and feel and invites the child to explore. The progression to a butterfly is depicted in a light and humorous manner that will engage the child’s curiosity and interest. Preferably get the board book format, so that it can stand the wear and tear that can be expected with a book of this nature.

Great as a read-aloud for kids, 2 years and above or independent reading from 3 years.

HC

 

  1. Owl Babies – Written by Martin Waddell and illustrated by Patrick Benson

A tender, soothing and simple story, that touches on a rather familiar theme of a child missing his/her parents, during the parents’ temporary absence. It is about three owlets that wake-up at night to find their mother owl, missing from the nest. They express their worries about her absence and are happy and relieved when she finally returns from her flight. This is a feel-good book and makes for a warm read-aloud at bed-time or for that matter any at time of the day.

Great as a read-aloud for kids, 2 years and above or for independent/assisted reading from 4 years and above.

OB

  1. The Rainbow Fish – Illustrated and written by Marcus Pfister

This is a set of five colorful books, with vivid and sparkling illustrations. I own it as a compact boxed set with the board books neatly stacked inside.

Rainbow Fish to the Rescue

Rainbow Fish and the Big Blue Whale

Rainbow Fish and the Sea Monster’s Cave

Rainbow Fish Finds his Way

Rainbow Fish Discovers the Deep Sea

Apart from being engrossing with an adventurous theme, it does carry subtle yet meaningful messages about self-awareness, overcoming fear, acceptance, happiness, humility, sharing and friendship. Of course there are some debates around the book sending the wrong message of giving up individuality or sacrificing or compromising. But then it also depends on the parent, care-giver who helps the child interpret the story.

RF

Great as a read-aloud for kids, 3 years and above or for independent/assisted reading from 5 years and above.

  1. The Berenstain Bears by Stan and Jan Berenstain

This is a series that can be read in any order. It covers various common themes that children and parents can easily relate to and each story delivers a useful message. Each story is an easy read to impact a basic life lesson. For example why it is important for kids not to wander away from parents in a public place, why bullying is bad, or why sharing your toys is important to make friends, or why telling lies is a bad idea and many others. All these messages are effortlessly weaved into interesting stories revolving around the Berenstain bears’ family and their friends and the environment around them.

Great as a read-aloud for kids, 2 years and above or for independent/assisted reading from 5 years and above.

TheBerenstainBears

  1. The Gruffalo – written by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler

The lyrical and gripping flow of the story apart from the engrossing story line can engage the kids apart from inspiring a love for words and encouraging the right enunciation.  The beautiful illustrations add to the enchanting effect. It is told from the view point of a mouse. A mouse that ventures into a forest filled with dangerous predators. It navigates through the forest, evading each and every creature with a charming retort and cunning move till it finally comes across the legendary and terribly dangerous Gruffalo. With sparkling wit it saves itself from this monster and in the process creates a legendary status for itself too.

Great as a read-aloud for kids, 3 years and above or for independent/assisted reading from 5 years and above.

TG

  1. Goodnight Moon written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd

It is a book that can quite easily become part of a child’s bedtime ritual. The narrative is like a sweet lullaby that creates a hypnotic effect and induces a feeling of assurance and comfort to relax and give in to sleep. The pictures have a soft, dreamlike quality to them.

Great as a read-aloud for kids, 1 year and above or for independent/assisted reading from 4 years and above.

GM

  1. Where the wild things are – by Maurice Sendak

This is a classic and an enchanting tale that can create an instant connect with the young and the old. The story line is fantasy, adventure with a touch of humour which can be a little edgy, depending on the interpretation. Max is a little boy who is sent to bed without supper by his mom, on account of his mischief. He falls asleep and his room transforms into a dream forest. He embarks on a journey in a boat, to find himself landing on a strange faraway land. There he comes across the monstrous inhabitants called Wild Things. He fearlessly tames them and is crowned as their king. Finally a hot delicious supper back home seems to draw Max back to the real world.

Both my kids found the theme funny and entertaining rather than frightening. But some mothers have given me their feedback about their kids finding the illustrations and the story line a tad bit creepy.

Great as a read-aloud for kids, 2 years and above or for independent/assisted reading from 4 years and above.

WT

  1. The Emperor of Absurdia by Chris Ridell

Join a little boy on a smooth flowing dreamy fun-filled adventure, as he tumbles out of his bed into a strange fantasy world of dragons, wardrobe monsters and more. Your kids and you are in for an amazing treat with this one! This book has an easy flowing, bizarre yet interesting story line generously laced with humour, and has vivid and colourful illustrations to match the theme.

Great as a read-aloud for kids, 2 years and above or for independent/assisted reading from 5 years and above

EA

  1. Cat in the Hat by Dr.Seuss

It is a story that is a wild, wacky and funny read with easy rhyming sentences that make it a popular one. The theme is light-hearted with a mischievous cat wearing a curiously tall hat, that pays a visit, when the mother is away and the little brother and sister, are home alone. The cat encourages them to join in and create some havoc around the house even as their pet goldfish responsibly keeps warning them. The cat also summons two bizarre and funny creatures, called Thing1 and Thing2 to help with the mischief.

Great as a read-aloud for kids, 3 years and above or for independent/assisted reading from 5 years and above

CH

  1. Gruffalo Child

This is as delightful and lyrical as its precursor story, The Gruffalo. This story is narrated from the point of view of the Gruffalo’s child, who wanders into the forest one night, without the parent Gruffalo’s knowledge in search of the legendary mouse, considered to be terribly dangerous. On the way it meets the various forest creatures who warn it about the legendary mouse. Finally it encounters the mouse and is outwitted by the little mouse and believes itself to have escaped from a terrible fate and returns to the safe, secure and cozy comfort of its dwelling. A memorable and enjoyable read, that will have you return to it several times.

Great as a read-aloud for kids, 3 years and above or for independent/assisted reading from 5 years and above

GC

Hope this list helps you reconnect with your already favorite reads or aids you in discovering books to captivate and enchant you and your kids with many hours of joyful reading and bonding. Do leave a comment if you found the list useful.

 

Book Review of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

If you are looking for a captivating, warm and gooey read with just the right mix of fragrant spices and a touch of pathos blended in, then this is just the book for you!

What a frivolous, eccentric and weird name for a book! That was my immediate reaction when I heard the name of the book “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. True to its name it was all that and a lot more. Friendship, impact of war, life on a small quaint island, wit, humour and a love for literature are all seamlessly woven together in an old-fashioned exchange of letters to create a pleasant, sunny, poignant and memorable effect.

When a friend suggested this book to me I had my reservations. I had never attempted reading an epistolary novel before. A novel entirely conveyed in the form of letters. How very odd and unusual!? That was my initial thought. A writing style that raised my suspicions about its power to draw me in as a reader.

With lingering reluctance I plodded through the first few letters, trying to sink my mind into the plot unfolding in the form of letters. After nearing the end of the letter from the Guernsey Islander, mentioning the literary club, is when the charm and magic of the narrative began to seep through me unbidden. Soon I was breezing through the book at a steady pace effortlessly piecing together the story from the delightful avalanche of letters exchanged between the various characters. As the letters flow back and forth, a plethora of realistic, spirited and vulnerable characters emerge from a narrative that is whimsical and witty, yet grounded in the harrowing reality of post-war period. The characters’ unique personalities are etched through the distinct writing styles in their individual letters. The letters manage to evoke a myriad of emotions as the content ranges from warm, funny, witty, serious to tragic and moving.

It is a story that is set in the period surrounding the WW2 timeline. With a generous touch of warmth, humor, romance, wit, adventure and pathos, the author effectively strings together friendship and the love for literature and food with the horrors of war and post-war poignancy, trauma and recovery to create a rather startling and extraordinary effect.

The story begins with Juliet Ashton, a moderately successful author and writer of a British humour column in her early thirties. Her life moves at a predictable and comfortable pace, interspersed with some drama, after the uncertainties and destruction brought about by war destroyed her flat, reducing it to rubble, forcing her to move into a temporary residence. To add to the post war return-to-normalcy, she is courted by an American publisher, Mark Reynolds. After having being under a recent spell of ennui, she basks in the fawning attention showered on her by Mark, while she swears allegiance to the current publishing house she is associated with. One that is run by her best friend Sophie’s brother Sidney. Both of them have been a steady and positive presence in her life, since she had made her acquaintance with Sophie, on entering boarding school at 12 years of age, after having been orphaned and proving to be too much to handle for her uncle.

Unexpectedly a letter arrives addressed to her from Dawsey Adams from Guernsey one of the English Channel Islands. Dawsey has chanced upon a Charles Lamb’s book previously owned by her and writes to her to express his delight and keen interest in reading more of the author’s works. This gives rise to a string of letters back and forth between Dawsey and Juliet. She learns the name of the literary club that Dawsey is a part of and the unusual origin of its name, which is the same as the title of the book. A bizarre name that instantly piques her curiosity. She is captivated and requests permission to learn more about the club and its members and to write about it and publish it. It sparks off engaging conversations between her and the other members of the literary club, unfolding in a series of letters as she starts by convincing them of her trustworthiness and promises to keep her writing serious, without belittling the story surrounding the club, considering her main genre till then has been humour. In the process she is introduced to the lovely and eccentric group of members and also hears about an ebullient, courageous and gentle woman who is the founder and driving force behind the literary club, Elizabeth McKenna. Though Elizabeth makes her appearance only as a memory shared in the various letters, yet she leaves a resounding impact and is a tangible and strong presence in the story.

All this serves as a writer’s muse for Juliet, one that culminates in leading her to the beguiling island of Guernsey, the place that is home to the club and its members. It is portrayed as a charming place that was touched by war and loss, yet remains a beautiful island made special by a set of people who infuse their lives and those around them with hope, courage, resilience, laughter and love.

As the story progresses it lingers on the harrowing experiences of war and its effect on adults and kids as relayed by the islanders, balanced with the light-hearted theme of an unlikely and lasting friendship that develops between quirky and endearing characters brought together by the vagaries of war, fondness for Elizabeth, a love for literature in its various forms and food.

A surprising and unexpected special guest appearance by a very eminent author sets ablaze the novel that is already crackling with exuberance and luminosity.

Definitely a recommended read for the heart-warming and unique reading experience it renders effectively.

Looking forward to seeing the movie adaptation of this book to grace the silver screen soon.

Karna’s Wife Vs Palace of Illusions

Has any book made you drop it suddenly? Turned you off so much, after initially enthralling you, that you felt compelled to just stopped reading it and moving on to the next book?

Well, “Karna’s wife” by Kavita Kane, turned out to be one such book for me…unexpectedly.
The narrative is enticing and the language rich with strong imagery. As for the plot it started as an entrancing retelling, re-imagination of a slice of Mahabaratha with the focus on Karna and told from the perspective of his second wife Uruvi.
I got as far as the part where post Uruvi’s Swayamwara, Uruvi is trying to explain what drew her to Karna from the time she set eyes on him.
I remained unconvinced and infact at this stage began to find the dialogues a little jarring. While my mind was already questioning the regressive tone…Uruvi is told that Karna is already happily married with kids…yet she yearns for him…the height of infatuation perhaps? When asked if she was forced to choose Karna, she denies it and her character is shown as completely and totally taken in by Karna’s negative/tragic hero image, his golden looks, his archery skill. Even when Karna casually and calmly states how he lost his son Sudama during the scuffle at Draupadi’s Swayamvara, she takes it in her stride just like that and the conversation moves on smoothly without a single hiccup.
At this point my mind is suddenly screaming…wait…what? Karna already had a child when he attended Draupadi’s Swayamvara, who was killed during that event? Is this true as per the earlier version of mythology? He claims he is happily married and yet turns up at the next princess’ swayamwara, he got the invite for?
Suddenly both the characters, the flow of the story quickly lost the pleasantness and charm and abruptly invoked an opposite emotion.

Maybe the fact that I had already read Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, added to the disillusionment with Karna’s wife.
Ofcourse the book Karna’s Wife offers just another perspective and while I absolutely encourage and welcome this growing trend of portraying multiple perspectives of the various characters from mythologies, and the diverse interpretations, this particular retelling did not appeal to me.

Palace of illusions completely mesmerized me, invoking strong and powerful emotions. In a way Karna’s wife did that too I guess, though not in an appealing sort of way. Probably there are fixed expectations in my mind blocking me from appreciating the story.
Palace of Illusions made me empathize with the characters. That was a fictional interpretation of mythology too. It created a strong base, infusing it with a realistic feel that justified the resulting emotions and the thought process of the protagonist Draupadi and her perception of Karna and others and her doomed tragic love. A perfectly intoxicating blend of the emotions, descriptions, thoughts to match the interpretation of situations, it was.

Btw, I confess I read “Menaka’s choice” by Kavita Kane prior to “Karna’s Wife” and enjoyed that one! Liked the portrayal of the characters and emotions apart from the flow of language and story. I didn’t realize there was so much mythological content around Menaka.

Disclaimer: Just felt like sharing my thoughts, as the way the book effected me, took me by surprise. Actually I am very interested in knowing how others felt about the book, as that would help me analyse my own knee-jerk reaction towards the book. Probably unfair of me to juxtapose Palace of illusions with Karna’s Wife…as that was not the underlying intent here. Please don’t let me influence your decision to pick up the book. Just as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, I believe appeal for a book lies in the mind of the reader.

Book review of Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge

This author is surely one of a kind!
A dystopian fantasy world summoned from a delightful riot of words.
Mosca Mye flees the dreary and oppressing place of Chough with her dangerously mischievous and notorious pet goose Saracen, after accidentally setting her cruel uncle’s mill on fire. She is the daughter of Quillam Mye, a radical who is no more. Only legacies he has left her are her love for words and her name. She lives and finds comfort in a world of words. So it is no surprise when she crosses path with Eponymous Clent, a traveling wordsmith, conman and spy, that she decides to join him on his journey hoping for a better future in Mandelion and access to schooling.
As the story unfolds we become familiarized with the current political landscape. One dominated by guilds of Stationers, Watermen and Locksmiths, followed by remnants of monarchy and the dreaded radical religious movement of Birdcatchers who seem to be reappearing on the scene after they were believed to have been killed. It is a rather dim landscape where all books and writing apart from the approved ones are banned, and a few groups control all aspects of the realms. As the story progresses protagonist Mosca Mye gets embroiled in the political intrigue at the crux of the story.
Each line in the book appears carefully and lovingly crafted. But does not come across as contrived. Rather the effect is effortlessly dazzling. It is listed under fantasy genre, though the setting appears to be an alternate dark and twisted version of 19th century England with no explicit magic. The fantastical elements are conjured by the absurdly beautiful narrative with its outlandish metaphors and similes brimming with dry and crackling humour.
Apart from being an unconventional literary treasure and a celebration of language that tests the limits of its delightful usage, you realize the intricate complexity woven into the plot, as each layer is revealed in chapters that are appropriately named after each letter of the alphabet.
The character names are bizarre yet fit right into the narrative.
From the fascinating Lady Tamarind, who leaves a life-changing and lasting impression on Mosca Mye, Captain Blythe the Highway man to Eponymous Clent, the character sketches are very distinct and etched, in the manner of speech and choice of words, apart from physical attributes.
A recommended read for avid readers who love a play on words and don’t mind lingering over outrageous sentences crafted to wicked perfection, apart from enjoying the engrossing plot with a thrilling pace.
I saw the intended target reading level as middle grade. For kids in that age group, the violence in the book might be over the top, grotesque and sinister, though not gross and more implied than obvious. The shades of political satire and intrigue may be too complex for this reading level. But depends on the maturity level of the reader.

You can find the book here –

#FlyByNight
#BookReview

Book Review – Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

Finally got to read The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak and sharing some thoughts on the same.
Some spoilers ahead!

I found it to be a fascinating read that leaves a lasting impression. The narrative is simple, unassuming and takes you on a lyrical journey filled with timeless mystical romance that transcends space and time. I found the writing style a little reminiscent of Paulo Coehlo’s earlier books.

It begins with a run-of-the-mill present day plot of a frustrated and placid Jewish housewife Ella facing cliched middle-aged blues and identity crisis, replete with a cheating husband she cannot emotionally connect with anymore, a rebellious teenage daughter and twins on the verge of teenage, dealing with issues of their own. With her husband’s reference she lands a job at a literary agency as a reader. She receives a manuscript for review on her very first assignment and therein unfolds the magical thread that connects the current day story to an epic mystical romance from the 13th century steeped in Sufism’s forty rules of love. Ella’s curiosity is kindled on reading the manuscript that spellbindingly narrates the events that led to the transformative and mystical relationship between Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. In a move surprising herself, she begins a clandestine email correspondence with the author of the manuscript. A bold step that causes ripples in her tranquil and uninspiring existence, bringing with it life-changing consequences for the author, Ella and her family. Her email exchanges change into a philosophical relationship with strong romantic undertones, carried online then progressing to phone calls before finally culminating into something more tangible. The author Aziz is a globetrotting photographer and blogger of Scottish origin who happens to be a Muslim convert on the path of Sufi mysticism.

The story from the 13th century centered around Shams and Rumi, inspired by historical facts and narrated from the angles of different characters, is interspersed with a rather ordinary, plain and predicable story from the present day. But the overall effect is anything but ordinary as both the stories told in parallel unfold with startling clarity, fueled by mesmerizing and lucid prose, generously peppered with Sufi quotes and anecdotes, giving it an hypnotic effect. The story-telling is stunning as it meanders through the perspectives of multiple characters, whose lives were touched, transformed for better (and in the case of some, for worse) by the larger-than-life wandering Sufi mystic, Shams of Tabriz from the 13th century.
The flow of the novel is natural, smooth and riveting, with seamless and harmonious transitions between the two parallel stories and the several viewpoints.

The only parts that I found grating on my sensibilities and that had a jarring effect were the ones pertaining to the second half of Kimya’s story and Kerra’s treatment by Rumi. Rumi is shown as being empathetic and forward thinking in taking Kimya under his wings and helping her grow spiritually and helping expand her knowledge, and in pushing the boundaries of his spiritual realization after his association with Shams. But then is shown as resenting his wife Kerra’s interest in his books and treating her with casual indifference. Kimya’s story starts out promising and inspiring. Coming from a modest background, her broadminded father acknowledges the special gift she possesses and takes her to Rumi to shape her journey towards knowledge and spirituality. Rumi, recognizing her spiritual gift, graciously accepts the girl child into his household with a generous and kind heart and begins teaching and guiding her, as an adoptive father. But in an unexpected and shocking turn of events Kimya is shown to have developed romantic infatuation towards Shams and is married off to him at the tender age of 15 and soon meets her tragic end, heartbroken. It is an unconsummated marriage. A marriage that Shams, soon after the ceremony, views as a trap and a deterrent to his spiritual journey and this makes you wonder how Shams having been portrayed so far as someone so wise and enlightened and having established a divine relationship/companionship with Rumi, could be shown as even having agreed to a union like this. This struck a discordant note as it appeared rather incongruous with his character sketch painted so vividly and consistently in the rest of the book. I am not aware about the underlying historical facts that might have inspired this part of the story, so that could be a cause for my startled reaction towards this portion of the story.

That apart, I found the rest of the book compelling, filled with several thought provoking instances and all in all found it to be a beautiful reading experience the author has created by weaving a rich tapestry of historical and imaginary events expressed in a powerful and moving manner.
Something I found really noteworthy is the way the author has leveraged Sufism to deliver a sublime and non-preachy message of tolerance and embracing differences with numerous examples of religious and cultural co-existence throughout the book. Also the abstract comparison and connection between the characters of Rumi and Ella and between Shams and Aziz, wandering souls both, is exquisitely drawn. The comparison between Rumi and Ella is implied especially based on their inner renouncement of worldly relationships for an all-encompassing divine love and mystic companionship, renouncing reputation, changing way of life and finally loss of soul companion.

Below are some memorable extracts from the book that strike a realistic chord and makes one ponder.

“Most of problems of the world stem from linguistic mistakes and simple misunderstanding. Don’t ever take words at face value. When you step into the zone of love, language, as we know it becomes obsolete. That which cannot be put into words can only be grasped through silence.”

“Hell is in the here and now. So is heaven. Quit worrying about hell or dreaming about heaven, as they are both present inside this very moment. Every time we fall in love, we ascend to heaven. Every time we hate, envy, or fight someone, we tumble straight into the fires of hell.”

“Do not go with the flow. Be the flow.” – Found this to be a recurring theme in the book, right from the beginning, in the reference of the effect of throwing a stone in a lake versus a flowing river to the essence of a wandering mystic.

“East, west, south, or north makes little difference. No matter what your destination, just be sure to make every journey a journey within. If you travel within, you’ll travel the whole wide world and beyond.”

“The universe is one being. Everything and everyone is interconnected through an invisible web of stories. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all in a silent conversation. Do no harm. Practice compassion. And do not gossip behind anyone’s back – not even a seemingly innocent remark! The words that come out of our mouths do not vanish but are perpetually stored in infinite space and they will come back to us in due time. One man’s pain will hurt us all. One man’s joy will make everyone smile.”

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Book Review – My cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier

My cousin Rachel. A bewitching and remarkable multi-layered novel.
Warning! Spoilers ahead.
So glad I discovered this book via a book lovers club. Not sure if my write-up qualifies as a full-fledged review rather than as a set of observations and analysis of the story.
It is one of those books that tends to “over” stimulate your thinking and compel you to re-read several of the parts to unwind the strings of a mysteriously and intricately knotted yarn to get to the oblique and elusive core that lies at the heart of the plot and minds of the main characters.

What started out as smooth and gripping, slowly gave way to a disturbing turn as the realization set in that this is an obscure psychological thriller at its core, a satire on social norms and attitudes with a sharp and incisive feministic slant of the gifted author’s pen, a sophisticated play on the dark and twisted side of human psyche cloaked in common emotions, beguilingly wrapped in family sentiments and romance in a Gothic setting.
The narrative begins as the brooding protagonist’s reminiscence, at the end of the dark deed that serves as a finale or an invite to delve into the story after having read it.
As you linger over the last line of the novel with a deepening frown, it makes you wonder if the event described at the very beginning was being served like a self-fulfilling prophecy and to instill the niggling feeling of censure in the reader against a parent figure exposing a child of tender age to such a disquieting experience, a strong clue to dysfunctional parenting and sadistic behaviour. Multiple clues, both subtle, strong and nuanced seem to have been planted strategically in multiple places in the narrative, challenging the reader to extrapolate and interpret beyond the narrator’s viewpoint, which rather than setting a limitation as a “single point of view handicap”, functions to provide a complex and kaleidoscopic view of the events and characters.

The emotions and sentiments presented initially, appear rather commonplace and universal really, applicable to even the current day social structure. Especially the aspect of blaming a male relative’s change of attitude or his dismal fate to the woman he has married and the influence she is perceived to have wielded over him, apart from being regarded as an intruder and usurper and the “sibling-rivalry” like reaction of the closest blood relations of the male relative towards his wife.
This story started out no different than countless formulaic Indian movies I have seen over the years, in terms of the underlying sentiments presented.
A boy having being orphaned at a very young age is raised by his older cousin Ambrose, an introverted bachelor who plays the role of a mother and father to the young boy Philip, imbibing in him the moral values very specific to the world they dwell in. Ambrose is an eccentric and egocentric and he raises the boy who happens to be his look-alike, in his own mental image in a male-only household by design, in the backdrop of a man-centered world which holds a rather derisive and lack-a-daisical view towards women in general. Given the circumstances of his sheltered upbringing, Philip considers it a rather happy childhood filled with warm memories and Ambrose has grown beyond a parental figure into a larger-than-life hero in his mind, who he wants to mimic. When Ambrose travels to a foreign country on account of his ill health and meets and marries a foreigner, it brings forth a surge of uncomfortable and unexpected emotions in Philip. Emotions of jealousy, possessiveness and sibling-like-rivalry against this mysterious new woman, dominate the mind of Ambrose’s young adoptive son, as he tries hard to conceal them, castigating himself for harbouring them in the first place.
The last few letters with writings or ramblings of Ambrose before his death, scar Philip’s psyche irrevocably, triggering in a way the feelings that lead up to the tragic turn of events.
As the story progresses, Ambrose’s widow who starts out as Philip’s singular object of hate and vengeance undergoes dramatic multi-dimensional transformations with almost surgical precision after she meets him and starts staying with him, as she takes on the persona of a stranger who thaws the cold suspicion in his heart with a sense of humour that seems to both irk and please him, a friend and confidante, a strange foreigner, a mother figure, a lover, a potential wife and finally emerging in his mind as an untrustworthy, cheating and manipulative evil woman deserving of his hate and vengeance, coming a full circle.
A multi-faceted realistic and plausible personality of a fiercely independent and impulsive woman of the world, both frail and strong with a feministic edge is painted in the process, despite being rendered through the point of view of a single character, Philip.
The physical appearance of his object of desire, suspicion and hate, Rachel, is glaringly at odds with what he perceives her to be, even after meeting and spending time with her. Philip finds himself unable to reconcile her dainty looks with her exuberant and gregarious personality. This is apparent based on the various times he remarks especially on her small stature.

Some mind-boggling questions that stay with you after you have read the book –
Was Ambrose truly innocent or manipulative as he knowingly or unknowingly planted the evil seed of doubt and vengeance in his young impressionable cousin’s mind knowing the powerful influence he wielded over him?
Was Louise’s interpretation of the letters truly objective or with a manipulative motive, geared against Cousin Rachel so that she could earn Philip’s affections? Did Philip’s godfather Kendall’s motive mirror Louise’s once he realized the extent of Philip’s infatuation towards Rachel and was dismayed that his daughter Louise doesn’t stand a chance of marrying Philip with Rachel in the scene?
Almost every character viewed through the jaundiced eyes of the narrator come across as milder versions of Philip, narcissistic, self-serving, possessive, jealous and selfish if you delve into it, including the domestic workers whose loyalty and attitude conveniently and swiftly swing towards who they believe will head the household and control the purse strings.
Was Rachel truly innocent or manipulative as she played with the younger man’s emotions, knowing the devastating effect she had over him? Or did she equally find herself helplessly and hopelessly drawn into the web of desire spun by the “poisoned” mind, ironically, of a man who bore a marked resemblance in looks and thoughts to the man or rather his ghost she was still obsessively in love with, despite his abuse?
Did Rachel even reciprocate Philip’s love at any point of time or consummate it or was that just a delusion of Philip?

Finally what was the purpose of Laburnum seeds found in her drawer, if they were not a product of Philip’s hyper-active imagination?
Was it planted there by one of the other characters in the story to deliberately arouse and fan the flames of Philip’s suspicion into a raging fire? Louise or Mary Pascoe or Seecombe maybe?
Or slick Rainaldi planted it perhaps, considering he is the common thread that runs havoc in both Philip and Ambrose’s lives and rather than really desire Rachel for himself as he seems to let on, he actually plans to usurp Rachel’s and Philip’s and Ambrose’s properties? This possibility gives the already tragic story a more intensely sad edge as you berate the protagonist for having been fooled so pathetically.

Or did the seeds really did belong to Rachel and were part of her truly diabolic plan or her flimsy “stereotypical woman’s” defense against physical and mental abuse she anticipated from Philip, who she perceived to be the younger double of a man who seems to have subjected her to mental and physical torture or perhaps she innocently used them as an insecticide or to kill weeds considering she is passionate about gardening?

Starting as a deceptively objective narration it smoothly turns unsettlingly subjective as you realize the events and all the characters in the story are experienced through the warped and delusional mind of a young man who happens to be narcissistic and hypocritical, apart from harbouring other psychological issues probably due to a combination of his genes and rather unnatural upbringing. Glaringly hypocritical state of mind is exposed at multiple levels, as apart from other things he seems perfectly comfortable flouting the social norms without so much as a mere thought as he cavorts and covets his cousin’s widow openly, while she is expected to conform to unrealistic norms ranging from her dress to interactions and choice of day to day activities and her spending habits.

Well, it was overall a fascinating and entertaining read, that begs to be dissected and pondered over. A novel that I found to be unconventional and far ahead of its time.

A parting thought. Considering the movie based on this book is to be released soon, can’t help but share some views on this as well.
I wonder if Rachel Weisz was casted because of her middle parting hairstyle among other things. Would have helped keep it true to the book, if the identity of the actress playing Rachel and her face was not revealed in the poster or the trailer, considering that in the first quarter of the book, Rachel does not even make a physical appearance, but takes various shapes and forms in Philip’s fertile mind. Something that adds to the charm and enticingly mysterious nature of the narrative.

Book Review – Second Glance by Jodi Picoult

I am mostly a selfish reader and prefer to keep my thoughts about a book that I read, to myself, unless of course something about it compels me to share. Books that urge me to express, are seldom and hard to come by, though this urge is not a measure of my fondness for any book.
This is one such reading experience, that just demands to be shared.
This books lifts the veil off a little known dark phase in American history, around 1930s. The country has dabbled in Eugenics. This book presents a startling and sordid revelation about Native Americans being subjected to forced sterilization during this unsettling period.
Going by brief googling, the country has more than dabbled…there was a full-fledged American Eugenics Movement that has peaked in the 1920s and 30s. Something Hitler drew inspiration from, the book claims. As per further google lookup, the movement just crumbled and was discarded in the face of WW2 Nazi horrors and this part of American history was either carefully swept under the carpet or just slid into obscurity.
Can only imagine the amount of painstaking research that must have gone into gathering the historical details and I applaud the author’s courage and talent for presenting this controversial topic in a complex, layered and engaging story line with a powerful and moving narrative.
The disturbing facets of this slice of history (including the then prevalent racism) set in the backdrop of the present day advancements in genetics, have been tightly interwoven into an elaborate drama spanning four generations, with a supernatural angle. Sufficient doses of mystery, ghostly phenomenon, romance that transcends the barrier of time, familial love, loss, desolation, perseverance and redemption made it a gripping read. It packs in an emotional punch, with its intricate portrayal of relationships. It probes into and raises some uncomfortable questions around destiny, science and controversial topic of eugenics, genetic engineering and where does one draw the line when it comes to genetic screening and who has the right to decide on the worth of a life.
A multitude of characters, beautifully sketched out, carry the plot line to exquisite completion without loose ends, giving it a compelling and believable edge, in spite of the paranormal occurrences.
The friendship between a girl who is afraid of ghosts and dark places and a boy with a medical condition that makes any sun exposure lethal, is particularly an endearing one.
This is my first book of Jodi Picoult and I found it riveting. I deliberately stayed away from her books in the past, believing that they revolve around themes of depression, loss and grief involving kids, which can leave one with a lasting sense of unease and sadness. I happened to pick up this book on a whim after reading the blurb. Glad I did. This one did touch upon those themes, I tend to generally shy away from, but brought it all to a heartwarming upbeat conclusion filled with love and hope. But not without leaving some lingering hard hitting questions to ponder over.
Reading a good book leaves a delicate flavour in my thoughts, not unlike retaining a flavour of chocolate after it has been consumed. A feeling that can’t be expressed and has to be experienced to be truly understood. So have just attempted to offer a glimpse of the same here, considering I am not much of a reviewer. Including a picture of the front cover, like I would a chocolate wrapper.

Book Review – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

This was an opportunity to discover, read and reflect on a fascinating book.
I read through the entire book over a period of four weeks. I managed to cover more than one chapter on certain days, while my reading speed ranged between few lines to a few pages on others. Entirely possible I might have missed reading or remembering certain key areas in the book as I compiled my thoughts on it below.
*******

The author must be gifted and talented to pull off such an ambitious and epic feat and that too with such finesse, logical continuity and adroitness.
To summarize 200,000 years of human history in a compact, concise and meaningful manner, all in about 466 pages, stringing together four key stages that transformed humans, the environment and led to the current state we sapiens find ourselves in today…is an amazing and incredible effort. A current state characterized by technological advancements, sophisticated socio-economic order and rise of collective consciousness, yet sapiens remain a discontent species partitioned by more criteria than ever…race, religion, sex, caste, language, region,”culturism”… and edging towards ecological disaster or technological paradise.

He has picked certain key events and ideologies that shaped and changed the course of history quite dramatically and unexpectedly and not always in favour of the well being of the sapiens and other earth dwellers.
Found some of the analogies cited, a little far fetched and over enthusiastic.
I felt it emphasized primarily the oppressive aspects of sapiens and that it could have striven for a more balanced view. But that didn’t diminish the overall essence of the book.
The author’s attempt to inspire empathy by drawing parallels between slavery and the modern animal industry is sure to strike a chord with many, in my view.

Overall it presents a provocative birds eye view of history not characterized just by wars, conquests and biological drivers but by the underlying socio-economic, agricultural, political, industrial and technological transformations.

The author has skillfully and coherently highlighted various key drivers of rapid human progression from an ape-like simple creature of the homo genus to an intellectual, opportunistic and complex being of the homo-sapien species with capacity to think, communicate, grow its own food, manipulate, cooperate, store/merge knowledge and apply it to further it’s own interests, multiply and ensure its own existence with a marked indifference, apathy towards the other earth dwellers and the environment. A species that believes it has achieved dominance over all other species to rise to the top of the food chain and seeks to gain control over the processes that determine its mortality to achieve an immortal status. But then continues to be restless, ruthless and discontent thanks to a deep-rooted unease and vulnerability. A sub-consciously insecure species that is driven and propelled by its insecurity, individual vulnerability, awareness of its ignorance among other factors rather than a pursuit of happiness.

Can’t think of any other book in this genre that attempts to cover human evolution history in a well rounded empathetic manner from multiple angles and render it with such logical clarity and with a heart and soul.

Book Review – Kafka on the shore by Haruki Murakami

Alert!! Long winding post written in one sitting, squinting and typing with one finger on the tiny smartphone keys, while travelling, with minimal editing. Kindly excuse. Some spoilers in store too.
Read on if you dare…
Finally finished reading Kafka on the shore. I took my time with it. Reread several lines which considerably slowed my progress. But it was worth it. It enveloped me in its other-worldliness. A welcome diversion too, from the overwhelming grief of losing a dear aunt and friend recently. The book absolutely commands one’s attention with its mesmerizing tone, silky smooth flow of language and mind bending riddles that overlap and intertwine.
While I can claim to have read it fully…it still continues to linger in my mind enticing me to unravel the riddles so finely intervowen.
Ceaseless questions about the book continue to churn. It is like an abstract painting or a sculpture that realigns and changes shape and form depending on the time of the day you observe it and which direction you view it from.
It is a multi-layered reading experience which stimulates you with mystery, adventure, magic realism and a generous dose of shock value, all wrapped in a dreamlike surreal landscape.
If you peel away the layers, at the bottom lies a seemingly coming of age story of a 15 year old boy who runs away after facing parental abuse. Unspeakable mental abuse by his father by way of imposing a shocking prophecy with incestuous implications on an impressionable young child’s psyche and abandonment and rejection trauma brought on by his absconding mother who left with his sister, leaving him behind. Something that continues to haunt Kafka, triggering and directing his decisions and actions, rendering him mature, way beyond his years, trapped by inner demons and his destiny shaped and bound by a seemingly self-fulfilling prophecy.
Parallelly run two other stories.
Story of an endearing old man with a pure heart and a clean slate of mind. Nakata. Someone who is open to magical possibilities and receptive to ideas, however outrageous, with a strong moral compass and sense of justice. Courageous and compassionate inspite of his perceived shortcomings. A man with the heart and mind of a child, shaped by a life changing childhood incident shrouded in unearthly mystery. A piece of him locked away in an alternate reality. Later in the story he is joined by another man, Hoshino, who is almost on a similar wavelength. One who admires and follows Nakata and has the potential of carrying on Nakata’s legacy so to speak.
Nakata’s character of living in the present moment and being alert and conscientous about his actions is juxtaposed against that of a woman’s: Miss.Saeki who lives in the past, her current existence characterized by frozen feelings and her actions in auto-pilot mode and her present experiences swiftly captured in a journal, then promptly purged from her memory. The girl-woman who triggered the mayhem and uncanny happenings by discovering and tinkering with the “stone” in the first place enabling her to lock away a piece of “love-struck version” herself in an alternate reality. Timelines probably don’t matter once the portal is open and time can flow in any direction and events occur in parallel.
As the plots diverge and collide, we run into several characters from talking cats, to international brand icons for liquor and food personified as evil and neutral beings that create turning points in the stories.
There was an underlying theme of feminity and feminism under fire. I could be wrong ofcourse. I draw this interpretation from his portrayal of the women characters, and the scope, depth and intent of their roles, apart from the below.
– Kafka’s mother who abandons him and walks away with his sister, unless ofcourse she and Kafka’s sister were murdered by Kafka’s father.
– The sadistic and gruesome killing of cats by Johnny Walker, cats symbolizing the feminine.
– A teacher who flies into a rage driven by shame about her feminine waste being discovered by a student. Then hits the student, causing him to faint and conceals this bit of information.
– An erudite and suave Oshima who is implied as being a woman physically, yet with a masculine psyche, who dresses as a man and prefers relationship with men. Creation of a situation by the author to delve into the shallow nature of two women with a misplaced sense of women’s rights and feminism, who are cleverly upstaged by brilliant Oshima who leaves no stone unturned in belittling the two. What is the relevance of this incident?
– Miss.Saeki who languishes for her lost love. Opens the portal causing some kind of time shift, alternate realities leading to havoc. It takes Nakata to step in and save the day with Hoshino’s help.
– the young girl version of Miss.Saeki drops in every day in the cottage in the woods to cook for the boy she loves…in an eternal cycle.
Some more questions to add to the questionaire that might be already whirling in your mind.
– Maybe the Oedipus prophecy and theme is a red herring, as in it is a false or misinterpreted prophecy intended to divert and confuse.
Take this away and try interpreting the story, can we?
– Was Hoshino’s meeting with philosophy spouting 19year old girl arranged by Col.Sanders, signify a meet between different versions of Nakata and Saeki respectively?
– The two soldiers mention to Kafka that most kids don’t make it beyond a certain point on their journey to the “Neverland” in the woods. Rather than Kafka, Nakata and Oshino’s elder brother, by ‘most kids’ are they referring to the other school kids who returned before reaching the destination?
– Is Sakura a figment of Kafka’s imagination? His description of her face is rather unusual. Also refer his first meet with her. She sits on a seat next to him. (Continue to the next page.) She looks at him or converses with him from across the table. Noticed a discrepancy here. (Maybe he made her up.) The police could not trace his call to her. Her phone is conveniently prepaid, which cannot be tracked.
– The two women questioning the absence of separate restrooms for women in the library…could they be Kafka’s long lost estranged mother and sister? Little far-fetched maybe but unable to discard this compelling question.
– Does Oshima’s fetish for sharpened pencils directly correspond to his keeping his intellect sharp, clear-cut and incisive while his identity might be ambiguous, something he keeps bringing up?
– Does the crow (rather than being Kafka’s subconscious) signify his mother’s spirit and Johnny Walker his father’s?
– Saeki’s prophetic “one hit wonder” song versus Kafka’s dad’s prophecy, both potent and connect, twist, turn and drive the plotlines or is it just Kafka’s over enthusiastic interpretations of them?
– The silvery slimy eel-like being that emerges out of Nakata on two occasions. What is it?

Need to stop typing now. Abruptly. Time to pick up the next book to read.

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