Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review: Angels and Demons by Dan Brown

Dan Brown
Book title: Angels and Demons (Robert Langdon #1)
Author: Dan Brown
Published: 2000 by Corgi Books
Pages: 620
Find it at: Amazon / Flipkart
My Rating: 4/5

Angels and Demons is the first Robert Langdon thriller in the amazing series by Dan Brown. I feel silly not having read this before despite having a copy since ages! Brown's DaVinci Code and The Lost Symbol had been immensely satisfying reads, and Angels and Demons was just as enthralling. I love books that demand all your thoughts, emotions and intellect to be concentrated on it at all times. I've been guilty of reading Angels and Demons while at work and way past my bedtime. It is a book that engages one's intellectual curiosity and provides for thrills, adventure, mystery with scenes that can leave one breathless.

What's inside?
Robert Langdon is an art historian teaching at Harvard. He finds himself at CERN, the biggest scientific research organization located in Switzerland, after the Director shows him an image of a brutally-murdered CERN scientist. He had been "branded" with a mysterious symbol. Robert Langdon finds the situation impossible: he had done some research on the Illuminati and the symbol indicated their resurgence.
Religion and science have always been at loggerheads with each other. The fabled intellectual group that called themselves the Illuminati have resurfaced after decades of hiding, thought to have been extinct by the world. And they have their target in sight--Vatican City, the holiest church. Langdon and Vittoria, the murdered scientist's daughter, leave for Rome to locate the canister of antimatter--that which was stolen after the scientist's death--to prevent it from vaporizing Vatican City! 

One of the book covers
How is the book?
Fantastic. The one thing I love about Dan Brown's books is how the stories are set in such short time spans. Angels and Demons covers Langdon's day beginning at 5.30 am till a little after midnight--packed with historical information, action, suspense and a symbologist's quest towards an impossible answer that could save the world. Readers will inevitably be drawn to Rome's culture and rich art history apart from the marvellous secrets buried within the Vatican.

The story, a race against time as the antimatter countdown nears zero, is intense and quick-paced, Brown's writing style adding to the effect. No words are wasted. The words are chosen carefully. The chapters ending with cliffhangers are the best! I tried to guess the ultimate villain and failed thrice. The book isn't a literary star, but it is totally absorbing. There were some things that seemed a bit unbelievable to me, like how so much could happen within minutes, but I'm not complaining. I was hooked onto the story and felt as much in Vatican as Robert Langdon, decoding answers in popular churches and artwork, trying to stay a step ahead of the enemy and using all possible knowledge to find answers to save the Vatican from being evaporated.

The short chapters moving from one scene to the next, in different areas and different POVs add to the quick-paced nature of the book. It has also been done seamlessly with no scope for reader disorientation. I liked the background stories for all characters--they brought about more depth in the characters. Robert Langdon is a unique character, one of those whose image you can affix in your mind with just a brief introduction. He's intelligent, witty and a little bit wacky. He gets into tough situations because of his curiosity and a sense of responsibility, and it is fun to watch him deal with the new people and circumstances as they arise. 

Coming to facts, I've seen a lot of readers criticising the book because it does not include proper facts and is "anti-Christian". I'm not much aware about those facts, but I do know that it is a fictional story that uses some pre-existing facts to base itself upon. Reaching the end, I did feel that it threw a somewhat negative light on the Catholic Church, but that was because of one of the characters. The book ended with a clear message (according to the author anyway) of what religion/Church stands for and how it is to be seen as separate from blind faith or belief on the basis of fear. This is something I feel a lot of religions deal with.

Nevertheless, I would recommend Angels and Demons to fans of thrillers and to those who enjoyed DaVinci Code. Some language, scenes and gory descriptions/killings might not be suitable for younger readers. Here are a few quotes from the book:

“Nothing captures human interest more than human tragedy.”

“Faith is universal. Our specific methods for understanding it are arbitrary. Some of us pray to Jesus, some of us go to Mecca, some of us study subatomic particles. In the end we are all just searching for truth, that which is greater than ourselves.”

“Science tells me God must exist. My mind tells me I will never understand God. And my heart tells me I am not meant to.”

“Skepticism has become a virtue. Cynicism and demand for proof has become enlightened thought. Is it any wonder that humans now feel more depressed and defeated than they have at any point in human history? ” (This comes from a long speech delivered at the Vatican in the story.)

What do you think? Have you read the book or watched the movie?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Book talk: Jurassic Park and The Lost World by Michael Crichton

This post is not exactly a review, so I haven't included even a bit of a storyline. You might find the names codswallop if you haven't read the books or seen the Jurassic Park movies.
What am I talking about?
Book titles: Jurassic Park and The Lost World
Published: 1991 and 1995 respectively
Find your copy at: Amazon / Flipkart
Genre: Science fiction
My rating: 5/5 (expect fangirl moments)

We're all familiar with the awesome Jurassic Park movies that generated (or rekindled, in some cases) our interest in dinosaurs--those majestic, prehistoric beasts. My favourite parts in the movies were to do with the tyrannosaurus rex. What a huge, terrifying creature! When I picked up the Michael Crichton novels on which the movies are based upon, I didn't know what to expect--could the books be better?

Verdict--The two are awesome in their own place, but if you are even a teeny weeny bit interested in dinosaurs or the science of evolution, Jurassic Park and The Lost World are a MUST to read. They're fabulous, unputdownable, and filled with science info you wouldn't really wish to miss. Some readers might find the mathematical and science theories too integrated in the books, but it really worked well for me. For one, I understood the story depicted in the movies a lot better than just watching them. Two, nothing seems unrealistic when you're reading the books (except perhaps for the dumbness of some characters). The creation of dinosaurs for the world's most fantastic theme park, the ideas behind it, the way things go wrong--I enjoyed reading every.single.word! It was impossible to put down. I've read these books through nearly everything, including work. I found Jurassic Park more exciting, and The Lost World a little slow, but they're both worth reading.

Literary view--The writing style might not appeal to all readers. I found it a bit... 'unpolished' if that's the word. But that's just it. The mechanics of writing are in place, the text ensures you are immersed in the story and can imagine everything happening, and you wouldn't stop reading the story unless you wanted to look too closely into the writing style. I also sometimes thought that the characters don't develop very well either (except for the children maybe). The focus is all on the story. I thought about it, and... well, why not? It's not expected to be a literary genius.

The book presents a warning to the concept of genetic engineering, and bases a lot of value on its rationale using the mathematical 'chaos theory' (read it on Wikipedia here). It seemed to me that this whole concept was missing in what I knew of Jurassic Park so far.

So... what's different in the books from the movies?
The books are 2. The movies are... what? 4? Imagine a stock of information, action, descriptive scenes without the needless ooh-aahs of the movies. Quite obviously, there are changes in characters and storylines in the movies where they've deviated from the books. Examples could be: having an older girl and younger boy as children in the first movie as opposed to an older boy very much interested in dinosaurs and his six year old sister. Another example--The Jurassic Park book begins with the beach scene where a small girl is attacked by "a" compys, whereas The Lost World movie begins with that scene, with the added spice of lots of compys attacking her. These are still the minor changes. The third and fourth Jurassic Park movies use the characters and the backstory from one and two, but there are no books on which they're based.

Besides, I also thought about that mighty T-rex. Though it makes a heavy impression every time it appears on the scene, I felt the real terrors in the books were the raptors (velociraptors). They're small, they're strong, they have sharp bites, but most of all, they are intelligent and have a brain sense more than any other dino, making them truly dangerous. The raptors ruled the books. It was real fun to learn so much about dinosaurs (their traits, social behaviour, etc. even though a lot is still not known and it was based on many assumptions). I mean, I could talk about a T-rex, compys (Procompsognathus), velociraptors or sauropods without at least stumbling upon their names. I'm much more interested in not just dinosaurs now, but also about evolution (my next read is The Sixth Extinction).
Beware of the raptors!

This OMG scene was just as (if not more) scary in the book.

Any of you read the Jurassic Park books? What are you waiting for? Life’s really short. Get going already! Here are some quotes from the books to inspire you some more:

“In the information society, nobody thinks. We expected to banish paper, but we actually banished thought.” 

“Living systems are never in equilibrium. They are inherently unstable. They may seem stable, but they’re not. Everything is moving and changing. In a sense, everything is on the edge of collapse.” 

“Because the history of evolution is that life escapes all barriers. Life breaks free. Life expands to new territories. Painfully, perhaps even dangerously. But life finds a way.”

“Whatever it is you seek, you have to put in the time, the practice, the effort. You must give up a lot to get it. It has to be very important to you. And once you have attained it, it is your power. It can't be given away : it resides in you. It is literally the result of your discipline.” 

“All your life people will tell you things. And most of the time, probably ninety-five percent of the time, what they'll tell you will be wrong.” 

“All your life, other people will try to take your accomplishments away from you. Don't you take it away from yourself.” 

“Life is wonderful. It's a gift to be alive, to see the sun and breathe the air. And there isn't really anything else.” 

Okay, I'll stop. You get the drift. Go get these books now!

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. 


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