Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian

 

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Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian

Published by: Pan Macmillan

Fiction: Young Adult, 417p

Rating: 4 and a half/5 stars

Book summary:

In a land without a queen, the princess must rise. Princess Theodosia was six when the kingdom of Astrea was invaded and her mother, the Fire Queen, was murdered before her eyes. Ten years later, Theo has learned to survive under the relentless abuse and ridicule of the conquering Kaiser and his court as the ridiculed Ash Princess.

 When the Kaiser forces her to execute her last hope to rescue, Theo vows revenge. Unable to trust even those who are on her side, Theo will have to decide how far she’s willing to go to save her people and how much of herself she’s willing to become Queen.

 *My Review:

 Starting right with the Prologue, one knows Ash Princess is going to be quite the tale of blood and revenge as it describes how the Queen of Astrea is killed right before her 6 year old daughter. The first chapter that follows immediately takes the reader into how the 10 years have played out for Theodosia who has had to suffer immense emotional and physical abuse to the point of pushing away who she is and what she stands for. Every time an Astrean rises in the semblance of a revolt, Theodosia is publicly flogged and humiliated while social occasions decree that she wear a crown of Ash in a cruel node to her lineage where she would have been the Fire Queen.

 The only saving grace about Theodosia’s life as Theo, the Ash Princess in the captivity of the Kaiser is Crescentia, the daughter of Theyn who is the Kaiser’s best warrior besides being the head of his army and the man who killed Theodosia’s mother. And there you have the first plot point where Theo/Theodosia will struggle between being grateful and bonding with Crescentia for the later is the only person who has only shown kindness and extended the hand of friendship.

 Is there talk of magic powers in Ash Princess? You bet there is, for some Astreans have magical powers through certain gems ‘Spiritgems’ that are blessed by Gods and Goddesses. There’s a catch though: only a few of the selected ones with the powers derived from these said gems can continue to be worthy of the powers with many going mad. When the Kalovaxians led by the Kaiser took over the Astrean kingdom, they are kept away from the gems, a great many Astreans are killed while the remaining are imprisoned in deep mines to fetch the gems for their captors who use them as decorative items.

When the Kaiser makes Theo kill Ampelio who she realizes has been a Guardian to her mother and possibly is her father, Theo realizes that she cannot stay forever in the hope to be rescued. But Theo has been mentally and emotionally stripped of her identity and place as an Astrean Princess besides being cut off from anyone who can possibly help her. Enter Blaise, a childhood friend who had been rescued from the mines by Ampelio before his capture and death and then, enter Soren, the Kaiser’s son who does not condone his father and wants to be nothing like him.

 For me, the main crux of Ash Princess is not just the way the story plays out for Theo/Theodosia’s quest for revenge and whether she rallies the surviving Astreans and how she will battle it out with the Kaiser and his Kalovaxians but the every day battles she fights with her own self: How does she look at Crescentia: as a friend or as the daughter of someone who killed her mother? How does she react to Soren who has only kindness and to whom she is attracted: as someone she must use to leverage against his father, the Kaiser or a boy she feels herself falling in love with? The moral wrangling that Theo undergoes at every step of her way is fascinating and keeps one riveted into how things will play out for the protagonists.

 When a love triangle plays out between Blaise, Theo and Soren and then Crescentia falling for Soren, it is a delicious situation that turns many wheels in motion where the Kaiser still holds the upper hand. Ash Princess ends on a cliffhanger and all I can say is I can’t wait for the next book in this trilogy. Much recommended for this book has quite the range of drama and emotions.

 *A huge huge shout out to Pan Macmillan India for this Uncorrected Proof Copy.

The accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet

 

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The accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Published by: Bee Books

Fiction, 258p

Rating: 3 and a half/5 stars

Book summary:

There does not appear to be anything remarkable about the fatal car crash on the A35. But one question dogs Inspector Georges Gorski: where has the victim, an outwardly austere lawyer, been on the night of his death? The troubled Gorski finds himself drawn into a mystery that takes him behind the respectable veneer of the sleepy French backwater of Saint-Loius.

Graeme Macrae Burnet returns with a literary mystery that will beguile fans of His Bloody Project and The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau. Darkly humorous, subtle and sophisticated, The Accident on the A35 burrows deep into the psyches of its characters and explores the forgotten corners of small town life.

*My Review:

Graeme Macrae Burnet’s The Accident on the A35 is not a fast paced fictional thriller where the pages are strewn with plot twists and red herrings. Rather, it is a delicious slow burn when Inspector Georges Gorski looks into what looks like a routine ‘normal accident’ case. There is nothing out of the ordinary at the scene of the accident where Bertrand Barthelme, a lawyer has crashed his car.

Very soon after, Gorski visits the widow to relay the news of the fatal accident and the Inspector is struck by the lack of lucidity of the wife and the totally unaffected response from Raymond, the 16 year old son.

There are minimal characters in the book’s narrative with Inspector Gorski occupying center stage and gradually we begin to see more of Raymond and his world that crisscrosses between literature, sexual discoveries and a slow descent to what may or may not lead to juvenile behavior. The narrative alternates between an unraveling of Gorksi and Raymond and their lives as both pursue certain leads into the life that Bertrand Barthelme led.

We begin to see Gorski at his workplace and him being out of sorts in his marital life where his wife has left him after a fight that neither is willing to patch up. Raymond on his part, is pushing the boundaries that had been set tight around him when his father was alive. His jaunt into his father’s study leads him to lie, stealing and play truant from school and stalk a girl even as he denies it to himself.

If there is third character that is integral to The Accident on the A35, it is the town of Saint-Loius itself of which the writer has this to say:

In Saint-Louis, it is frowned upon to have good posture, or to walk purposefully along the street as if one is in control of one’s destiny. If asked how one’s business is doing, the customary response is : ‘could be worse,’ or ‘just about surviving.’ Anything more upbeat is reckoned insufferable boasting. In Saint – Loius as in all provincial backwaters, the inhabitants are most comfortable with failure.

With a narrative that is in no hurry to bring in an element of edge of the seat thrills, what is it about this book that readers can get out of it? For me, it was the small town flavor, it’s people and their nature that carries the thread in the book: it is slow but not painfully slow and there is a definite charm to the air of indifference that most characters and even situations are etched with.

If you read this book, be prepared to let it take its time with you: at no point will you be left holding your breath but by the end of it and especially the wickedly written afterword, you will be surely looking up the ‘history’ with the manuscript that led to this book. I will recommend this book for serious readers who want to explore more writing styles. I am certainly looking ahead to reading more of Inspector Gorksi and the town of Saint-Loius.

 

*Thank you Bee Books for the review copy!

 

 

In A Cult Of Their Own: Bollywood Beyond Box Office by Amborish Roychoudhury

 

 

 

 

 

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In A Cult Of Their Own: Bollywood Beyond Box Office by Amborish Roychoudhury

Published by: Rupa Publications

Non Fiction/Film Writing , 260p

Rating: 4 and a half/5

Book summary:

A tongue-in-cheek ode to the cult movies of Hindi filmdom, In a Cult of their Own is unique in that it celebrates these underdogs. Drawing from his own reminiscences of growing up on these delectable and also face-to-face interviews with actors and directors such as Aamir Khan, Pankaj Kapu, Deepti Naval and Rajkumar Santoshi, the author lucidly inks a kaleidoscope with films like Mera Naam Joker, Chashme Buddoor, Chameli Ki Shaadi, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander, Gunda, RGV Ki Aag, among others that are pulled out of obscurity to have their time in the sun all over again.

My Review:

In A Cult Of Their Own: Bollywood Beyond Box Office by Amborish Roychoudhury is a delightful read and I am going to say that I am totally biased in rooting for it for it appealed to the Bollywood lover and follower and me. Yes, I just said Bollywood lover and follower, for despite its major shortcomings, Bollywood films has it all: the drama and the madness that one needs for escape and I love to watch them in between the world cinema and other Indian non Hindi films.

This book lists 20 cult Hindi films that the author has listed on the following basis:

There are some films that sure fizzle out of the theatres in a heartbeat, but figure out a way to survive. Through a torrent leaked online, on an old bootlegged DVD or VHS, or YouTube upload and then in the hands of the omnipresent Twitterati—the films form a ‘cult’ of their own.

The chapters devoted to the 20 cult Hindi films do not follow a set template: some have reminiscence of the actors or film maker involved in the said film, some have trivia and some are just good journalistic approach where the author puts together what is available in public domain. The first chapter on Guru Dutt’s Kagaz Ke Phool is poetic and lyrical almost in tandem with the film and that is the brilliance of the writing. The tone changes to one of wicked humour when the film choices move on to the Mithun Chakraborty starrer Suraksha or the Puneet Issar (of Duryodhan fame) starrer Superman besides a few others. The only chapter that came across as tired and repetitive was the one on the Anurag Kashyap directed and John Abraham starrer, ‘No Smoking’ but a careful editing of the chapter will take care of that.

There is an entire chapter dedicated to the Ramsay Brothers for their films that had quite a loyal audience that lapped up sauce passing off as blood and crazy masks and crazier film settings. If you are a multiplex generation and have no clue about any of the names I have mentioned or you have grown up along with social media, fear not for you surely would be familiar with KRK aka the foul mouthed one on Twitter and his Deshdrohi is written about in all its great details.

This book deserves all the love it can get and more for it truly is a labour of love: one can imagine the amount of film viewing and discussions in various film forums online and offline that would have led to the book in its present form. What I loved most is that not only did the book take me back to the memory  of my own raised eyebrows while watching the very films talked about but it also made me curious to watch the ones I haven’t. And oh! Did you know that much before the 7th Fast and Furious film scene where cars leapt out of planes with parachutes, the same had been done and dusted in a Bollywood film 36 years earlier? No? Read this book not just for such priceless film trivia nuggets but to also marvel at the way films got made under circumstances that were way more than just difficult.

My only complaint with the book? Why is it that the Jeetendra -Sangeeta Bijlani starrer Hatimtai didn’t make its presence in the book?!

Thank you Rupa Publications for this review copy.

 

Murder in Paharganj by Kulpreet Yadav

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Murder in Paharganj by Kulpreet Yadav

Published by: Bloomsbury India

Thriller, Fiction 274p

Rating: 3 and a half/5

Book jacket summary:

On a cold December morning, a white woman is found murdered in a cheap hotel in Paharganj, New Delhi. Vicks Menon, an out-of-work journalist, is tipped off by the hotel’s receptionist and is the first to arrive at the crime scene, where he discovers a lead. It’s the bus ticket used by the dead woman two days earlier. But Vicks is battling personal trouble. He has no money, an alcohol problem, and a nearly broken relationship with Tonya, his estranged live-in partner, a clinical psychologist who specializes in profiling hardened criminals. Moving in and out of the shadows, Vicks pushes his investigation harder as it takes him from Udaipur to Bangkok. On his side, for resources, he has a nameless intelligence operative, and to read minds, a lover who is beginning to trust him again. But above all, his instinct to stay inches ahead of death will be the key to his survival. If Vicks lives, this is one story that will change his life forever.

My review:

Murder in Paharganj is a page-turner and I would recommend that readers finish it in one sitting for if you stop in between the flow; one tends to look for holes in the turn of the narrative. The action scenes or rather, what comes close to anticipating action scenes in the book are done very well considering the author was formerly in the Armed Forces. The scenes are taut and crisp and pull in the readers right into the events that unfold on the pages.

Thriller lovers will know that the genre is either about a who done it narrative where the writer will put in red herrings and keep the readers guessing or one where the readers are clued in as to who is doing what and the narrative that follows is then a cat and mouse game where the protagonist and antagonist try to outwit each other and race towards a confrontation. Murder in Pharganj falls into the second category where Vicks Menon, a journalist stumbles upon the murder of a white woman in a seedy Paharganj hotel after a tip off from a friend. Out of a job and out of the life of Tonya, the woman in his life due to his alcoholic stupor, Vicks Menon gets on the murder trail for he sees it as his lifeline to bring him back his job.

Vicks’ s journalistic instinct helps him follow some leads and he is soon after a mysterious but dangerous man with many names. The play out of the cat and mouse game between Vicks Menon and the man with many names are interspersed with some international players that includes good old Delhi police too and a fair bit of romance when Tonya is in the picture. There is an interesting note with the connect to international spy agencies and the threat to geo political tensions but some story sub plots that are linked to the first murder in Paharganj is a bit loose.

I quite enjoyed it while I was reading it but once I turned my mind into the story flow, I found quite a few things that do not fit into the scheme of things. For one: an out of work journalist who has been booted out will not be given the huge financial advance for a story that starts out with a murder of an unknown white woman in a seedy hotel. I have been a journalist and an Editor of a newspaper and trust me: no newspaper in India would devote news space to a murder in a seedy hotel, much less agree to advance requisition for money to a former employee who is in love with alcohol: they would send in a current employee who covers the crime beat. The final chapter of the book plays out in Sikkim, which is a state and not a city and its mention as a location every time that makes it look like a city or town is misleading. I would have rated this book at 4 out of 5 if it were not for these points.

But overall, Murder in a Paharganj is definitely a book that I can recommend without guilt to those who love fast paced reads. Vicks Menon is an interesting character with enough drama and suppressed emotions: his back story with his abusive father who rides roughshod over him and his mental fight every time he sees a drink make him stand out for me and makes him believable. I would love to read more of him in the future but in more believable story settings for sure.

My heartfelt thanks to author Kulpreet Yadav for sending me this review copy.

 

 

 

 

In Pursuit of Conflict by Avalok Langer

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In Pursuit of Conflict by Avalok Langer

Published by: Westland Publications

Non Fiction/Reportage, 250p

Rating: 3/5 stars

Book summary:

Parts of the Northeast have been engaged in a relentless war with the Indian State for more than seven decades, experiencing political and cultural alienation. Avalok Langer, a young conflict journalist, was drawn to it, because he thought it would make great copy – tribal wars, separatist groups, drugs and illegal taxation.

He travels across the Northeast, home to numerous underground movements, gaining access to top separatist leaders. One such leader tells him their war had military patronage from China, Myanmar and Bangladesh; an Ex General of an underground group admits that he travelled to China disguised as a Chinese missionary; and a former separatist cooks him a wonderful meal. He studies the people’s rage against AFSPA; anger about the racial discrimination faced by youth who leave their homes to seek education and employment in mainland India; the widespread use of drugs and also the cultivation of narcotics for subsistence. Langer tells these and more stories of a long and difficult war.

My Review:

First things first about this book: the use of the term ‘Northeast’ by the author is jarring (North East of what? North East from where?) and tells those living in this North Eastern part of the country how conveniently we can be brushed off: is Northeast a place, a country, a state, a homogenous entity? Now that I have gotten the ‘Northeast’ part off my chest, I can get to more about the book.

In Pursuit of Conflict left me with conflicting thoughts. Here is a book written by a journalist who is based in Delhi, has a connection to Nagaland (through his mother, is an army brat : the term is used in the author bio note) and is self admittedly ‘drawn to it because he thought it would make great copy’. It is this last part that is problematic for as you turn the pages, one finds that the back story of his travel to meet selected leaders of the armed movements in Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur and Nagaland are more interesting than the sum total of his observations. The first chapter ‘Day 1’ about the author’s first day in Nagaland is the most dramatic where the author is caught in a situation where his Naga girl friend is breaking up with him following pressure from her mother on the grounds that he is ‘non Christian’ and ‘non Tribal’ (I know many Nagas who have married non tribals and non Christians). The author goes on to how an Army official in civilian clothing comes to ‘rescue’ him in a Gypsy! This, when there was nothing happening that compromised his safety!

In the chapter ‘Reverse Racism’ Avalok Langer while describing the total ignorance of people in mainland India towards people from the North Eastern states of the country describes how his girlfriend (the same he is made to break up with) holds the sleeves of his jacket ‘conscious of stares’ as they make their way to meet his friends. Yes, we face stares and we face ignorant fools who ask us whether we are foreigners but when you read that the said girl friend works with a prominent Delhi based Television channel, you are bound to ask: why would she hang on to his sleeves? Wouldn’t she have been familiar with the stares and had her own ways of dealing with it? In this chapter, Avalok’s premise that people in the region practice reverse racism is shallow for he fails to point out that here we have close knit communities and kinships and the term given to outsiders is not discriminatory or derogatory but one that says he/she is different from the rest. In mainland India of course, we are called by derogatory names and subjected to abuse and discrimination. Again, the waves of political agitation against outsiders in certain parts of the region: Assam and Meghalaya in the 80’s was in response to how local economies were being taken over by outsiders.

I spotted a factual error on page 135 of In Pursuit of Conflict where the author, talking about Manipur says “Hinduism found its way through the Meitei kings of Manipur from Assam in the 1700’s”. The timeline is correct but Hindusim came to Manipur courtesy a Hindu ‘missionary’ of sorts by the name Shanti Das Goshai. In another chapter where Avalok talks of ‘There is something wrong with Manipur’, he says “There are about thirty odd underground groups; no one trusts the Indian Army; the Manipuri Commandoes, an elite police task force, kill people in broad daylight; the state government is not known for philanthropy…”. This mention of only the Manipur Commandoes as killing people in broad daylight as it were while the cursory mention of a trust deficit in the Indian Army without mentioning the sheer number of cases where they have been involved in fake encounters, the Thangjam Manaorama case, the gross human rights violations in the name of counter insurgency is unnerving. I found it strange that Avalok talks to only security personnel and only a few leaders of armed underground groups: nowhere does he mention anyone who has had family members killed through staged encounters under the impunity of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

I would say, read this book with a pinch of salt. This is certainly not a book that comes anywhere clear of describing the politics and history of conflict in the North Eastern region part of the country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bhava by U.R. Anantha Murthy (Translated by Judith Kroll with the author)

 

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Bhava by U.R. Anantha Murthy (Translated by Judith Kroll with the author)

Published by: Penguin Random House, India

Fiction, 183p

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary:

Seventy-year-old Shastri, a reciter of Harikatha, encounters an Ayyappa pilgrim on a train. Around the pilgrim’s neck is a Sri Chakra amulet which looks like one that belonged to Saroja, Shastri’s first wife. But Shastri thought he had killed Saroja years before, believing she was pregnant by another man. If the amulet is Saroja’s, then she might have survived, and the pilgrim (Dinakar, a television star) could be Shastri’s son. A similar story is revealed when Dinakar visits his old friend Narayan: either could be the father of Prasad, a young man destined for spiritual attainment. The interwoven lives of three generations play out variations on the same themes.

Whose son am I? Whose father am I? Where are my roots? These mysteries of the past and present are explored, but there are no clear answers. And while significant in daily ‘being’, such questions lose urgency in the flux of becoming’ (‘bhava’ means both being and becoming). So we are led to consider that samsara – the world of illusion and embodiment – may not be very different from sunya, the emptiness from which everything arises. At times a drama of cruelty and lust, at times a lyrical meditation on love and transformation, Bhava is an exceptional novel by one of India’s most celebrated writers.

My Review:

My head is still reeling after reading U. R. Anantha Murthy’s Bhava, translated from the original Kannada by American poet, essayist and translator Judith Kroll, with the author. At 183 pages that includes an Afterword by Judith Kroll that has a critical commentary on Bhava where she links certain themes with the author’s other work Samsara and a ‘Notes’ section that is a little more than a glossary of terms and phrases used in the book, it is quite a literary work that makes you think and rethink issues around life, one’s existence and the fluid path between doubt and acceptance. For me, the book title Bhava reflects the path from doubts of the self, the questions that we as individuals have to one of acceptance and surrender, reconcilement and then holding peace with what we finally can come near to as answers.

As mentioned in the book summary, Bhava starts with Vishwanatha Shastri’s eyes falling upon an amulet around the neck of the man sitting opposite. The sight takes his breath away and tilts his sense of equilibrium making Shastri to re examine his life actions for the amulet is similar to the one that his first wife Saroja used to wear. The passenger in the train Dinkar has Saroja’s eyes and Shastri feels a strange connection with him even as he faces a tumult of emotions: Could Dinkar be Saroja’s son or is he the result of his wife’s affair with another man that had led him to kill her? Did this then mean that his wife was alive after all: that his life of guilt and penance was not necessary? He has only felt remorse and has tried to overcome his guilt over the years by a becoming reciter of holy verses but, if Dinkar is indeed Saroja’s child, it can only mean that Shashtri may not have been guilty and he could achieve peace of mind at last. We then get a peek of how Shastri has tried to cope and move on in terms of his personal life and how the people in his life look at him, that despite a second marriage that has given him a daughter and the presence of Radha with who he has had a physical and at times emotional connect over the years, there is little left for him to give meaning. The reader gets the drift that Shashtri’s guilt and deep feelings over Saroja’s death has left him unable to really live his life.

Dinkar on his part is on his own crossroads in life: he is jaded by the fame that comes from his work and his numerous affairs with women. Dinkar is defeated in parts after discovering that his wife is happy in the arms of another man and at the time of his train journey during his vow of Ayappa (a pilgrimage where devotees wear black and takes a vow to submerge their individual identities and observing certain practices), his meeting with Shashtri makes him reconnect with his own past and connections. The reader also finds a similar set of circumstances that Dinkar is faced with when he is told that Narayan, the son of his benefactor had a physical relationship with Gangubai who begets Prasad who could either be his son or Narayan’s.

Those familiar with U. R. Anantha Murthy’s works will know that his writings are deeper reflections on life, individuals and society. The mention of Dinkar engaging with Tibetan philosophy of ‘the bardo or intermediate state’ even as Dinkar and Shashtri’s life are centered on the Hindu philosophies is a very interesting footnote. The Afterword section written by Judith Kroll is brilliant in the way it contextualises UR Anantha Murthy’s writings, the themes that feature in Bhava and Samsara as commonalities and variances. I would recommend this book for serious literature readers and those willing to try the beauty and depth of Indian literature.