The Desert by J.M.G. Le Clezio

Some books are meant to be devoured like a delicious home cooked meal. And then there are books which have to be savoured like a painstakingly created dinner.

Desert by J.M.G. Le Clezio is like that dinner which has to be savoured; its every sentence is crafted to such perfection. Its lyrical, poetic prose brings the desert alive. I could feel every grain of sand, each ray of the scorching sun. The heat & dryness made me thirst for water, I felt my throat parch with every word and I was transported to the desert in all its glory and stark reality.

I took my time reading this book. I carried it around with me everywhere I went. The minute I would open it, no matter where I was, I would be back in that desert. Back in the two interwoven stories – the time around 1910 which follows Nour during the desert tribes’ uprisings against the French and an indefinite time set in a shanty desert town where Lalla; who is probably a descendant of one of those desert tribes; lives with her aunt and cousins.

Both these stories are about searching; searching for freedom, for a place to belong; searching for a home; when the one you’ve always known is made uninhabitable. Nour and his tribe along with the entire clan wander the desert to find a promised land away from the invaders whereas Lalla who is forced to marry, chooses to elope with the Hartani – her closest friend. Nour, Lalla & the Hartani are all searching for a way of life that may be lost forever.

There is a subliminal cry throughout the book to preserve the arid lands of the African desert. Every sentence in the book screamed at me to recognize the beauty and magic in that life – that life of running barefoot across the sands, that life of listening to stories by the fire, that life of having a secret hiding place amongst the rocks where you feel safe from everything, that life where you feel connected to the birds & the wind, the waves & the clouds and every grain of sand & falling leaf. The power of this simple life is evident in Lalla’s unhappiness & horror in the city. Compared to the mystical desert, the city seems robotic & mundane, almost like a prison.

In addition to being an ode in praise of everything nature has to offer and a simple way of life, there are many other themes explored in the book. To me this book also advocates the sanctity of a person’s right to live the way they choose. For Nour and his tribe, this choice is destroyed by the power that money is able to exert, but there is hope for Lalla as she is able to return to the life she loves. Another theme is the insidious power of money that destroys our ability to see that which is truly important; this is visible everywhere in the city that Lalla elopes to and also in the greed of the chieftains which ruins every chance of the desert tribes to keep their land safe.

In conclusion, this book is for the thrill seeker of a different kind. If you go weak in knees at breath-taking descriptions and sentences formed choosing just the right words, like a jeweller would choose diamonds for a necklace fit for the queen, then this is a must read for you. If not, feel free to skip it for the next murder mystery.

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Alberto Moravia’s – A Ghost at Noon

This book was recommended to me by a friend just after my visit to Italy. As half of me was still wandering in that enchanting country; this book which is mostly based in Capri, the place I travelled to on my last day in Italy against all odds; it instantly made a special place in my heart. But that is not the only reason for raving about it.

“A ghost at noon” is the story of the disintegration of a marriage. Moravia has weaved an intricate web of the misunderstandings, assumptions, expectations and miscommunications that slowly suffocate a strong and loving relationship.

Moravia’s prose pulled me into this marriage; I was right there with the husband trying to figure out the workings of his wife’s mind. It took me back to the time when my relationship had ended, and I would spend hours trying to figure out what went wrong, what could I have done differently. The protagonist endlessly analyzes every word, every action of every encounter with his wife in the hope of grasping the elusive answer to the question that rules supreme in all our minds when something doesn’t work out – WHY? And it is Moravia’s expertise as a writer that not even for one second was I bored and that just the way I could never satisfactorily explain the end of any of my relationships, neither could Moravia’s protagonist. Yes, he had many theories, just like me, but which one of them was the right theory? We never found out, we would never find out. And right there in the climax, I found my peace with ambiguity.

This book took me on a voyage, not just to my favourite country but into my past. I related to the confusion and misgivings of the main character. To his need for closure and his desire to be able to read his wife’s innermost thoughts. It made me feel less weird and lonely. I think anyone who has ever been in a relationship, which did not work out, should read this book. It has the added advantage of being beautifully written and set in the most mesmerizing place in the world.

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Out with Corruption -A review of The Redeemers by Suresh Taneja

The book is about how 4 teenagers; Vikram, Yuvi, Manisha & Akshay who have a brush with the deep-rooted corruption in India, in the form of a cop who tries to frame their uncle in a car accident in order to get a bribe. This incident forces them to think about corruption in general and they realize how damaging corrupt practices like bribing, currying favour, fudging financials etc can be. So they decide to come up with a strategy and start a movement to fight corruption. Their movement is a roaring success and it ultimately leads to India being a superpower about 20 years down the line.

There are certain stories which become more effective when fictionalized because the impact of the real story is not as dramatic. Sometimes a fictionalized version promotes a better understanding of complicated issues and makes for more interesting reading. But this is possible only if the real issues and the fiction are intricately woven together to form a beautiful pattern. In this case the fiction doesn’t work because the story, the characters, their lives take a back seat to the corruption and the author’s idea to fight it, which are the main focus of this book.

The author has tried hard to bring an authenticity to his protagonists by giving them individual personalities but the only one who stands out is Yuvi. She is the ideas person, the youngest of the four and quite mischievous.Though every instance of trying to make her seem naughty just comes across as fake. All the other characters are mere fluff and could easily blend into one another. There are too many characters and yet not enough time is spent on any of them and often the author refers to the four protagonists as G4 (gang of four), a single unit. This I felt is a flaw since the four of them are the ones who start this movement and realistically there would be differences galore when taking up a cause this important. But with these guys there seem to be no differences, they agree with each other about everything and enhance each other’s ideas all the time, they never have arguments or any difference of opinions.

The entire book is this way. There are no pitfalls despite talk and hints of problems cropping up, the author does not follow through with genuine issues. Every problem that comes up is very quickly nipped in the bud within two pages. For example, the protagonists talk about the issue of increasing complacency and loss of interest in the movement over time as something this big would take long to yield any concrete results and they talk about guarding against it. But there are no instances of people losing interest or even the protagonists themselves becoming bored and how they actually deal with it. We have to remember that the author is talking about school and college kids here who usually have short attention spans especially when it comes to serious issues. If a movement like Anna Hazare’s fizzled out, what chance does a movement aimed at college & school kids have of sustaining interest. If the author had shown some idea that one of the four came up with to keep the momentum going despite meager results, the continued success of the movement for almost 10 years would have seemed more real.

While the ideas in this book are fresh and innovative, I don’t think that they have been thought all the way through to make a truly engaging, interesting story of a fight against corruption and the rise of a country to super-power-dom. This lack of thought; a lack of true immersion in the story is painfully obvious throughout the book. As a side note I must mention that the grammar in the book is atrocious and I only mention this because it was impossible to ignore and it took a lot away from the story. Read this book for the author’s out of the box plan to rid India of corruption, other than that the story hasn’t much to offer.

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The Cuckoo’s Calling -Review

Though undeserving of praise such as it is a must read, the best detective novel of the century blah blah blah, “The Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Galbraith a.k.a J.K. Rowling is an enjoyable read. The premise is simple; Lula Landry, a super model dives to her death from the balcony of her flat. The police investigation concludes that she committed suicide. Three months later, her brother, unhappy with the verdict brings in a PI, Cormoran Strike to re-investigate.

The characters in this book, especially Cormoran Strike, who you care about almost as much as the mystery is the reason this book is fun to read. Because Strike is so secretive about his own past, his back story is revealed over many pages and we are left to interpret and draw conclusions about him with a little bit of information that is provided initially. It managed to keep me hooked and interested despite the slow pace of the investigation. At one point I wondered if there was going to be any real investigation because Google searches was all Strike did. This was definitely a refreshing change from all the serial killer mysteries and CSI style detective stories. This book is more reminiscent of Perry Mason except that Strike is nothing like the suave, charming, always impeccable Mason. Strike is more what you would think a private eye to be in this day and age. He is broke, financially and emotionally, too proud for his own good (he refuses help even from his sister), has had a difficult and murky childhood, he is prone to use alcohol as a shield, he is mostly honest but his honesty is peppered to some extent with self-interest. This last trait more than anything makes him very relatable along with the fact that unlike many detective stories, the work does not completely overtake Strike’s life. His problems are still intact and they continue to affect him in numerous ways. And though Cormoran is the star of the book, the rest of the characters are not ignored, each one has their quirks, each one is described in enough detail that they leap off the page.

The pace of this book, from its almost lethargic beginning where Strike’s every movement is recorded, from his taking the afternoon off to drink at the local pub, to his spending the nights in his office etc to the increasing speed of the story as it nears its conclusion where days/nights are skipped over to get to the relevant appointment which would further the investigation, was almost like listening to a symphony with its ever-increasing tempo to the final crescendo.

The revelation of the mystery came as a slight surprise and was completely satisfying. My only gripe was with Strike’s monologue where he explains every nuance of his investigation. Though the explanation of his process was necessary, the way it was done in the book felt unnatural.

In the end, I would say the book was an entertaining read and if you are a fan of detective novels then this book will not disappoint.

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The Homing Pigeons -Review

The Homing Pigeons by Sid Bahri is Aditya and Radhika’s story. They love each other but things never go as planned for them. At every stage of their life one thing or another pulls them apart. But like homing pigeons, they always come back to each other. The concept of the book is lovely. The idea of two people whom life keeps bringing together but they are just unable to make their relationship work is great. And yet this story fails miserably in execution.

The story is stretched so much that it comes apart at the seams. The many situations that Aditya and Radhika end up in, though genuine at first began to come across as contrived. They seem made up just to keep the story going in a certain direction. Every relationship in this book is treated frivolously except Radhika and Aditya’s love for each other. Both the main characters are estranged from their respective parents, Radhika has divorced her first husband, her second husband is dead, she hates her step daughter, Aditya and his wife loathe each other but there doesn’t seem to be an  adequate cause for the hatred. It just became tedious to read the two characters reminisce about their troubled relationship.

The narrative style the author has used, where he uses the perspective of both his lead characters to tell their story, resulted in repetitions of the same events and an over simplification of the plot. The book alternates between Radhika and Aditya’s voice with one chapter in her voice and the next in Aditya’s. This is a clever device but I think the charm of a love story usually is that the reader is left wondering along with the protagonist what is going on in the other person’s mind. Since this story is written with two perspectives, that mystery is gone.  Also, the author went back and forth from the past to the present. This would have been very effective if the author had put some effort into the transitions and created an interesting present for the characters. The present day Aditiya and Radhika live in the past, they don’t have anything significant, no family, and no friends in their present life. The switching between the two perspectives, the two different times did not add much value to the story; in fact it made the reading tiresome.

The book is not well edited. It is peppered with grammatical errors, some bad metaphors and it is too long. The book would have worked if the writing was brilliant and the book was shorter.  I struggled to get to the end of this book, I wouldn’t recommend it.

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When the Signal Turns Red

“When the Signal Turns Red” by Jayanand Ukey is a modern-day love story. The main characters, Girish & Prajakta have been together for 4 years and are about to be engaged. With their engineering degrees and job offers from prestigious Indian companies, they seem to be set for a bright and happy future. Unfortunately, before their engagement, both Girish & Prajakta’s job offers are rescinded due to the slowing economy. This puts a dent in their happily ever after, mainly in the form of Prajakta’s father who refuses to marry his daughter to someone without a steady income.
The book would have been an enjoyable read despite the generic plot, if not for the following reasons. The topmost being the mediocre writing and the dialogues which were labored, unoriginal; and lacked wit or humor. There was no natural flow to the story. In fact the same scenes are repeated so often, I felt I was reading a very badly written version of the Groundhog Day. There wasn’t a single sentence in the book that made me feel like the book was worth my time.
Sometimes the saving grace for a book with bad writing and a generic plot can be well etched characters. People in the book who incite emotion in the reader, it could be love, hate, curiosity anything but indifference. The characters in this book though were completely flat. There wasn’t an adequate physical description of any of the characters, the back stories for all of them were thin and uninteresting, and all the characters lacked depth or dimension. It was impossible to make any emotional connection to Girish or Prajakta or anyone else in the book. It became a chore just to finish the book despite the short length.
By the time the climax came around, I thought it was impossible for me to be any more disappointed with this story but I was wrong. The way the problem of the loss of Girish’s job was resolved, the way the new man favored by Prajakta’s father is taken out of the picture, all of it just brought home the staleness and lack of imagination evident in every aspect of this story.
I would not recommend this book unless you are stranded on a deserted island and this is the only available entertainment, maybe not even then.

(Note- A free copy of this book was received from the author for this review)

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The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed

Mirza Waheed’s “The Collaborator” is the story of Nowgam, a border village in Kashmir, set in the early ’90s at the height of the insurgency. The narrator is the son of the village headman, stuck in his village becasue of his father’s decision to stay, even after everyone else flees either across the border or further into India.
The narrative moves from the present, where the son of the headman is forced to work for the Indian Army, to the past, when the village was a happy place, full of life. This structure works well in creating a stark sense of horror, tragedy and loneliness. Especially when the narrator recalls the many hours he spent in the valley near his village playing cricket, singing songs, talking about mundane things with his four best friends while working in the same valley, now a dumping site for the dead bodies of alleged insurgents killed by the Indian Army. Or when he walks down the main street of his village which some time back was alive with men and women he knew and greeted every day.
The character of the narrator, a 19-year-old boy, who lives in a ghost village, has lost his best friends to the insurgency and is forced to spend his days working for someone he despises, doing work he hates, that of collecting weapons and Id cards from the dead bodies in the valley, engages your attention and immediately pulls you into his story. You see the world from the eyes of this Kashmiri boy, his confusion with regards to what is true and where he belongs, summarized in this line, “For a Kashmiri there is always an Indian and a Pakistani version of everything”, his desire to be a part of the movement at the same time his reluctance to do anything as drastic as kill his boss, the Indian Army Captain, his need to understand the reason his friends did not ask him to join them across the border, his memories of his beautiful village and most of all his hopes for his and his family’s future. All of it is brought to a not unexpected but elegant conclusion, the only way this story could have ended was with a lot of questions left unanswered.
The book is a serious read. It has vivid images of death and torture and the destruction of a way of life. Though the language gets slightly over descriptive and wordy, I would still recommend this book because it tackles the subject of militancy, a sense of country & belonging, loyalty, friendship and kinship with a rare insight.

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