Sunday, July 17, 2016

Review: The Hundred Names of Darkness by Nilanjana Roy

Nilanjana Roy
Title: The Hundred Names of Darkness (The Wildings #2)
Pages: 313
Published: 2013 by Aleph Book Company
Find it at: Amazon / Flipkart
My Rating: 4.5/5!

Book Blurb 
Nilanjana Roy takes us back to the Delhi neighbourhood of Nizamuddin and its unforgettable cats - Mara, Southpaw, Katar, Hulo and Beraal. As they recover slowly from their terrible battle with the feral cats, they find their beloved locality changing around them. Winter brings an army of predators - humans, vicious dogs, snakes, bandicoots along with the cold and a scarcity of food. Unless Mara can help them find a safe haven, their small band will be wiped out forever. With the assistance of a motley group of friends--Doginder, a friendly stray; Hatch, a cheel who is afraid of the sky; Thomas Mor, an affable peacock; Jethro Tail, the mouse who roared; and the legendary Senders of Delhi - Mara and her band set out on an epic journey to find a place where they can live free from danger.

My Thoughts
I'd read the wonderful the Wildings (click link to read review) some years ago. I've had this copy for quite some time (an author-signed copy I got at the launch!) but hadn't got around to reading it till now. I was just as enchanted with the author's writing as I had been with the Wildings. It's simply engaging, lyrical and creative with the ability to pull you into a world run by cats, cheels, rats and others we "Bigfeet" either ignore or mistreat. It's such fun to be reading about the world from the perspective of these creatures. They're as varied as we are, though perhaps not as complicated.

Isn't the cover gorgeous?
The setting is in Nizamuddin, Delhi. In the Hundred Names of Darkness, we follow Mara, the "sender" of Nizamuddin's cats, as she grows and learns. Due to Bigfeet activity, the clan is in danger of being wiped out. It takes Mara a while to realize the level of danger, triggered more so when one of her favourite companions gets lost. Mara realizes the importance of her being a sender and having a responsibility towards her clan. She starts leaving her comfort zone and discovers the world as she never knew it before.

There a bunch of new characters whom I loved. I want to particularly mention Doginder Singh, not only because his name made me glad that I'm not the only one who thinks of such straightforward names, but also because--what a lively, cheerful character! The unique friendship between Mara and Doginder serves to break stereotypes in two ways. One is the parallel metaphor to differences in race and another is Doginder's likes and preferences that represent the breaking-away-from-the-norm by following one's heart. I also liked Hatch's character, a young eagle and son of a super-talented flyer, who stubbornly refuses to fly at all. It's a trying time for Tooth, Hatch's father, to get him up in the sky. Hatch is the embodiment of the hidden feelings of insecurity, lack of knowledge about oneself, and under-confidence. It is so easy to lose faith in someone like that. But sometimes what seems to be at the surface is not what is actually at work on the inside. There could be reasons we don't know about and mostly it could be tackled in a new, surprising way.

Compared with the Wildings, this book was more slow and deliberate. It lingered more on thoughts than action, and it showed places other than the Nizamuddin we knew of from the first book. Gone are some Wildings characters and instead we are introduced to some new ones--both the good and the mean. I felt that the second half of the book was better paced than the first, and there were some parts I wished had been described more when they seemed to get over too quickly or happened in the background.

As for the story, it is doubtless a wonderful tale with hidden meanings and references, narrated in a unique way by the langauge of cats. Artful illustrations at the beginning of each chapter add to the charm. The Hundred Names of Darkness is more 'dark' and sad than the Wildings, especially because we get to see the effect human activity has on nature and wildlife. A particular thing about the ending was just delightful (even though it was predictable)! I recommend this book (this author, this series) if you're interested in good Indian writing.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Review: Fool Me Once by Harlan Coben

Harlan Coben
Author: Harlan Coben
Published: 2016 by Century (Penguin Random House)
Pages: 387
Find it at: Flipkart
Genre: Psychological Thriller/Mystery
My Rating: 4.5/5

You think you know the truth. The truth is you know nothing.

If your husband was murdered,
And you were a witness,
How do you explain, seeing him on your nanny cam?
You thought you trusted him.
Now you can't even trust yourself.

Dark secrets and a terrifying hunt for the truth lie at the heart of this gripping new thriller.

My Thoughts~
It was the blurb that had me inclined to read this book. I hadn't read any book by Harlan Coben before, but after reading Fool Me Once, I'm sure I'll read some more of Coben. Fool Me Once is a thrilling read, a book full of suspense, complicated twists and turns, and mind-boggling answers.  

It opens with Joe’s funeral. Maya was there when Joe died, so how can Maya possibly explain having seen Joe on the nanny cam she installed after Joe's death? It is one of those freaky moments when you need to pause and gasp for breath because you can't understand how it could possibly be! (Even though it wasn't really a "surprise" twist.) What follows is Maya's search for the truth. She collects all possible information, follows the leads, manages being questioned by the detectives, and goes around in search of answers, while trying to make sure her two-year-old daughter is safe. What complicates matters is her own past in the military, which looks like a big enough reason to cause catastrophic events and wreaks havoc in her (and the readers') mind. 

Following Maya's story soon turns into a chase with many clues but also many assumptions. The narrative is in third person, written in an easy-to-follow style. The sentences are simple and short (which is something I've seen is used a lot in thrillers). The characters used in the story have not been explored in detail, so I couldn't really connect with anyone much, let alone figure out who could have carried out the murders. It does become a bit complex in the later half of the book, when I felt “unintelligent” because it was hard to follow. But that only makes it guarantee a re-read. The twists and turn follow you to the end. There isn't a moment when something isn't happening.

I liked how the story had a female lead character with a military past, and who's struggling with a civilian life. It was good to gain insight about what makes the ex-military live their lives differently, how, when they look at things with a suspicious perspective, it's not just paranoia or after-effects of shock or trauma. It could just be a part of their nature.

I did feel sometimes that the descriptions lacked balance—some parts were explained unnecessarily, while some were left too early. The story has multiple layers of mystery. You could sit back and think about how one thing led to another, if you went back all the way and "connected the dots". Like with an unnerving number of books, I didn't feel enthusiastic about the ending. It wasn't exactly "wrong" but it also wasn't the only way. 

Some things also made little sense to me. I won't go into the "why"s of characters' actions, because it is human to make errors of judgment due to emotions. I'm going to let those inconsistencies get away. I could write more if I dug deeper for flaws, but I'm not going to. I liked reading this. It made me feel things. I read it my way through work, through travelling, and through the night. Not all books make you do that.

Fool Me Once is a gripping and compelling page-turner. It has the ability to turn your head, mostly because you don't want to stop reading. It just STAYS in your head all the while you're not reading. It was impossible to keep the book down. I ended up sneakily reading it while at work. It has a good story, good plot twists, and good suspense. Though it has some flaws, Fool Me Once is a great fix for thrills.

Some quotes that I liked:
“When you can see the stakes, when you realize the true purpose of your mission, it motivates you. It makes you focus. It makes you push away the distractions. You gain clarity of purpose. You gain strength.”

“Your fellow soldiers had to know that you had their back. That was rule one, lesson one, and above all else. If the enemy goes after you, he goes after me too.”

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Review: Evading the Shadows

Title: Evading the Shadows
Author: Rajesh M. Iyer
Published: 2016 by Kriscendo Media LLP
Pages: 338
Genre: Spy thriller/Indian mythology
Find it at: Amazon

My Rating: 3/5

Book Blurb
India. Circa 3100 B.C. 

As the thirteenth year of their exile dawns, the Pandavs realise a dangerous game unfolding, with hundreds of Kaurav spies trying to hunt them down by exposing their secret identities. 

Kedipal, one of the Kaurav spies, has stumbled upon a clue that could spell doom for the Pandavs. 
Duryodhan smells blood. It means a world to him; unquestioned domination for thirteen more years. 

Pandavs though aren't completely oblivious to the danger looming large. They know that uncovering their identities means another round of exile, as decided during the game of dice. Will the Pandavs be as lucky as they were in the past? 

Hush! Don't read so loud. Kaurav spies are everywhere. You don't want the Pandavs to get caught, do you? 

Showcasing a little known segment of the much-chronicled epic with taut, edge-of-the-seat narrative, the action-packed spy thriller intends to draw readers into the amazing universe called Mahabharata. 

My Thoughts
Though I've grown up around stories of Indian epics displayed in various forms, especially on TV, I rarely had much interest in them. Part of it was because I found it confusing (so many characters!), and partly because they weren't a part of my family life. When I came across this book, I wondered if my lack of knowledge about the Mahabharata would hamper my understanding of the story. Nevertheless, I was pretty much intrigued reading the blurb, which promised spies and thrill, that too amongst the royals! I have to give credit to this book--it not only simplified my understanding of the basics, but it did so in an interesting and easy way. 

Evading the Shadows is a quick read, despite its length. It is fast-paced, and the story tends to keep you interested. The beginning few pages offer a quick background narrated in story-style, setting the base for the year during which this particular phase of the story is set. The readers are given a glimpse of the Kauravas and the Pandavas' lineage, and their relationships, so that it becomes easy for the uninitiated to understand the dynamics between characters, as their backgrounds are already (and so popularly) set. Narrations include simultaneous present and past scenes, ranging from a few lines to a few pages in length. This style initially made the story a bit confusing, as I didn't know who all the characters were exactly, but it got pretty much clear in the subsequent pages. The story definitely makes you want to keep reading, and I did. I ended up liking the concept, the storyline, the effort and the writer's attempt. The author seems to have good knowledge of the epic (but again, since I'm no expert, I can only judge according to my own limitations). The storytelling and style followed seemed balanced--you had a glimpse of the Pandavas and the Kauravas and their spies simultaneously. There are rarely any dull moments, and readers are taken into the characters' lives and thought processes as they have been depicted in the Mahabharata. 

Throughout the duration of this book being in my "currently reading" phase, I found myself wanting to go back to it, to know where the Pandavas were trying to disguise themselves, and if they were being successful. To know what Duryodhana and his team were up to. To want to see the Pandavas winning the game with elan and little loss. I really liked Draupadi's character: it seemed the most well-formed of the lot. I found it to be a good story. Something that keeps one asking, "What happens next?" There's also light-hearted humour and a good amount of wit.

This book has been attempted really well, but I found the implementation somewhat "unfinished". I wouldn't call it an "amazing" book, because a lot of basics--in storyline, character development, grammar, plot points--were underdeveloped. The book could have been helped with some good editing, especially in terms of grammar. The language used was, again, attempted well. I'm a bit disappointed because I really think the book had potential. Perhaps it would work for a number of readers who care more about the story than all these, but to some like me, these points matter a lot. There were inconsistencies and some points that felt too rushed up or left unexplained. The scenes could have been better described (or even lengthened), and some glimpses into the past could have been avoided. Basically, it looked a bit unfinished, but if you're into mythology and mystery, you could give it a read. It is enjoyable, nevertheless! The language used is good (minus the errors), and it feels like an easy read. Whatever else it did, it has certainly made me curious to read more books based on Indian mythology. Just like I understood Greek mythology more with such books, I realise that exploring the fascinating Indian mythology could be fun!

Recommended for: Indian mythology fans, readers looking for an interesting, quick thriller, fans of mystery stories

Note: This is a requested review. Opinions expressed are personal and honest. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Review: The Girl on the Train

Paula Hawkins
Author: Paula Hawkins
Published: 2015 by Doubleday
Pages: 316
Find it at: Amazon 
My Rating: 3.5 stars
Genre: Mystery/Thriller/Psychological thriller

My Thoughts!
For a long time, I did not know whether or not I wanted to read this book. When it first became a rage, I did not want to read it. But it became a regular feature in several lists, and I couldn't hold back anymore. Never has a book gone on and off my Amazon cart as many times as this!

Rachel takes the same train every morning to go to London to work. She is familiar with the landscape outside her window. The train often stops at a red signal near a residential street, and Rachel glimpses the lives of people living there... sometimes with painful longing, because she used to live there once. A few houses down from her old house live a beautiful couple who had come to stay there a little while after Rachel had left. She calls them Jess and Jason, and thinks they're lucky to live the kind of life she had dreamed for herself. Until one day, she sees something that disturbs her, something she can't get off her mind.

Almost as soon as you begin reading, you can see that there's something about Rachel that's off the mark. Then you realize that she is an alcoholic. Her muddled mind is a cause of concern not just for her, but also for the reader, because she can be what some people refer to as an 'unreliable narrator'. What are you supposed to believe? Unwittingly, Rachel finds herself entangled in a criminal investigation. She knows what she saw, but her own interpretation of it, combined with her own doubts about her actions, makes it difficult to stay focused on facts alone.

I was hooked onto the book right from the beginning, spending a whole day reading it. That felt nice, especially as it had been quite a while since I'd had that sort of reading engagement. Whatever else it doesn't do, I'd give it a full score for being able to hold my attention throughout. The storyline is fast-paced; you wouldn't find it dull. The book is also about the secrets we all keep. How you cannot really know a person from afar, how there's so much behind closed doors that it becomes essential, and uncomfortable, to go into uncharted territory to really understand what's going on.

It was the writing style where I thought it could have been better. Perhaps it was the same format (first person narration in diary-entry style) for different character narrations, but there seemed a slight lack of distinction among the three different narrating characters. They seemed to have the same voice. And then the characters--I'm not sure I liked any of them. Sure, everyone has problems, and the plot needs people to behave in weird ways to keep up the suspense, but the dumbness and sadist pleasure needs to be controlled somewhere! [Spoiler: I haven't been as frustrated with a character as I have been with Anna, wife of Rachel's ex. For a while in the later half of the book, I thought I'd like to really shake her by the shoulders and shout some sense into her ears.] I also felt that the overall impression of women seemed negative. All the women characters in the book are either weak or unreliable or insecure or dependent on some male. None of them can think for themselves. Not really a good thing to show.

Nevertheless, that's the thing about this book, something I'm having a hard time trying to put into words--No matter how I thought that the writing style was not up to the mark, I still read the book in one sitting. The tight plot was a good idea. I just wish whoever thought of that had also thought of making the characters more interesting. The ending began to feel intriguing, but then it became a mess yet again. I admit to not having guessed the culprit (that could have been because of my general lack of interrogation as a reader), but even then it somehow fell a little flat. 

I would still recommend it to anyone who's looking for a quickie read in the thriller category. Final verdict: A bit overhyped, but can be read if you're craving some quick-paced thriller.

Anyone who's read it too? What do you think about it?

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Emotional Rescue by Dzogchen Ponlop

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche
Title: Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You
Author: Dzogchen Ponlop
Published: Tarcher / Penguin
Release Date: 19 April, 2016
Pages: 180

Emotional Rescue, as the detailed title suggests, deals with the subject of emotions and how one can use emotions to live meaningfully and happily. So many times we get swayed by emotions and often wish we hadn’t done what we end up doing. The book looks at emotions in a very positive way, and explains not only how emotions work and affect us, but also how one can use them to transform their outlook.

The process seems simple, like most important things are. It has been broadly divided into three phases (or steps) that not only help you understand your emotions better but also, if you use this knowledge and practice it, to be more aware of them when they come up, and being able to work with them effectively (which here means being able to control your 'reaction', in word, action and thought, to those emotions). The three steps are:

1. Mindful Gap: Look – The first step deals with making oneself 'aware' of emotions as they rise. Observing them. Trying not to react as soon as you feel something. As we pause, it creates a gap or space, even if it is for a second, which gives time for emotions to run their course and give one enough breathing room. Being more mindful/watchful of what we do and what we feel brings clarity and makes one more attentive. The book tells us how to bring about this 'mindful gap'. It is more about attaining self-knowledge than anything else, and oh, how that helps!

2. Clear Seeing: Explore-- It is about getting to the big picture once you've seen the individual things in step 1. You are aware of not only what you feel but also what else is around you and how you affect them. When you begin seeing the big picture, you form patterns in your relationships (those formed with the world). You are able to 'see' the impact of those emotions as and when they rise, and you can respond more skilfully to what's happening around. It involves a good deal of reflection so you also see the hidden emotions.

3. Letting Go: Relax-- This is about the practice of letting go of your negative emotions. It is not about rejecting your feelings and emotions, or avoiding them, but to welcome them as they are while being aware of them and knowing what they are (step 1 and 2). How can you look at so much energy (because that's what it is) as a potential creative one?

You'll find ideas and steps you can take to avoid unnecessary confrontations--at home or at work. There are tips for dealing with difficult people and with conflicts in relationships. The author encourages you to look at emotions in a healthy way, step back from them in the process, but also to keep them as a creative force.

The situations described are easy to understand and universally relatable. When you're in the first phase of the book, you're drawn into it, nodding your head at nearly every page because you GET IT. You are shown what you can be, how you can help yourself, what the ideal situation is, but it takes some more time (and pages) to actually get down to it. However, that's a pattern. Don't stop reading, but be persistent. The author is first ensuring that you are made aware of your emotions enough before spoonfeeding you the correct dose.

But again, I find there is no 'correct dose' for such things. It mostly depends on how you see it or how you work with it. I'm glad the author points that out too. There are no views of an ideal situation without being realistic; it could take a lot of time and practice, because emotions are such difficult things to deal with (at least that is how we see them). The author mentions early on how we tend to assume ‘emotions’ as negative. There are positive ones too, but because the negative ones cause us most distress, the book talks about those.

The book then goes on to suggest exercises to get you to follow the three steps. Those exercises are mostly to make you aware of yourself, but they are very much workable. They are detailed, and not exactly a step-by-step 'how to' process, but by making you reflect and get in that mind frame. There's a Part 2 of the book that talks about a Buddhist approach to emotions, which is similar to what has been described in the book but talks about it from the perspective of Buddhism.

Emotional Rescue encourages you to think, reflect, re-read and search for answers within yourself instead of hand-holding you through the process. It will help you identify your emotions, especially the ones that disturb you, help you think about them in a useful way, to begin to see them in a clear light, and tell you what to do with them. That's as much as a book, text or lecture can do. I'm quite glad that, like a lot of self-help/philosophy books do, it does not loudly proclaim that you can win at life if you do so-and-so things. In a very real way, it 'helps'. That is what one actually needs.

The writing style is clear, easy to understand, and very engaging. There's not much you will find out of your range. The book is also not too long. There's only so much you can talk about emotions, and explaining in detail the three steps I mentioned above. It can be read in a flow without seeming to get boring, which is a rare thing for books in this category (or maybe I was too keen to know how to be emotionally rescued, the topic being close to home and all). I thought of it as a positive coincidence that I got this book just when I could do with some guidance on the emotions front. I joked, "If this book helps me, it'll get a 5 star rating." That was a funny idea, but a novice one. Like the author suggests, transformation cannot happen suddenly. You have to practice these steps. BUT. Ever since I started reading it (not only when I finished it, mind), I have been able to pause and reflect before reacting, and thus have had minor confrontations where otherwise there might have been huge blow-ups. I think that’s a start. I plan to follow the ideas and exercises mentioned in this book, and will add later what came out of it!

Recommended for: Anyone looking to learn more about emotions and how you can regain control of them. Suitable for all ages—early teens to major adults.

About the author: Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is a leading Buddhist teacher in North America. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche was recognized by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and His Holiness the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa as a reincarnate lama of the Nyingma tradition. He is the founder and president of Nalandabodhi, an international network of Buddhist study and meditation centers, and of Nitartha International. Rinpoche is most active at Nalanda West, in Seattle, Washington, which offers public programs by teachers from many traditions that support a meaningful, contemplative life. His previous books include Rebel Buddha: A Guide to a Revolution of Mind.

Note: This book was received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.  


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