Thursday, February 4, 2016

Review Shots # 2: Imaginative and serious children's books

Book # 1
Wisha Wozzariter by Payal Kapadia

Published: 2012, Penguin
Find it at: Amazon 
Pages: 77

I sometimes stalk book lists just for fun, and this one came up in quite a few lists with key words: children’s books, Indian authors, best reads, and the like. One of my reading preferences for the past few years has been children’s books, so it was only a matter of time before I found myself face to face with this book and picked it up. Now let’s get to the point.

The book is about a ten year old girl who loves to read. I loved the way the book started, talking about Wisha’s reading habits (she read before and after school, dinner, and all the time in between). Such a heroine for a bookworm kid! (Or an inspiration for a I’m-yet-to-turn-into-a-bookworm-kid) But she isn’t just a reader. She reads a good book and thinks that she could have written it too (like err… To Kill a Mockingbird). Then a bookworm (character Bookworm) pops up from a page and asks, “Why don’t you?” And thus Wisha is all set for an adventure. It involves Bookworm and other characters that come along the way as Wisha takes the Thought Express to go to the Marketplace of Ideas. Basically, the entire book is a personification of the writing process written from the perspective of a child, for children.

The good parts:
1. What fun language! It’s sure to have the reader keep reading. It’s action-packed and does not drone on and on about a single thing. It’s also quite short at 77 pages. I really liked the writing style.

2. Well-created characters for so short a book. Each character is distinct and so well-described that you’re least likely to forget any. You’ll even remember the minor characters (perhaps because they’re reinforced through Wisha’s thoughts in the later part of the story, but still).

3. The whole idea of explaining the writing process as a story. There’s a bottle of inspiration, a room to sit in and think, an imagination balloon, the marketplace of ideas (where you get all sorts of ideas – new, old, rotten. You cannot buy any, but you’re free to exchange them!), and a market where you can get your story’s heroes: brand new ones are costly, but you can always get some at the thrift shop. And of course, because this story is about a realistic scenario (what happens to a writer during the writing process), you also need some luck.

The not-so-good parts:
There’s only one. Two pages into the book, and I had a horrible feeling of déjà vu. “This is so like The Phantom Tollbooth,” I thought. It was with feelings of dread that I resumed reading, but thankfully it soon became clear that the similarities ended there. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is a book that takes young Milo on an adventure through a magical tollbooth. It uses places, time and events as characters, and full of phrases used as real things (Milo sets off on the road to Expectations, Princesses Rhyme and Reason need to be rescued to return to the Kingdom of Wisdom, etc). And oh, there’s also a market for words where you can buy and exchange words. Hmm…

Still, the author has put her own spice, ideas, and STORY that makes the book feel like it has influence from another book, but has a different story in its own right. So that’s good. The imaginative ideas related to books, reading, and especially the writing process, are well-thought out.

Recommended for children who love reading, or think they’d like to write too! If you’re interested in kids’ books (like me), you could read it just as well.

Book # 2
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

Published: 1998, HarperCollins (originally published in 1971)
Pages: 252
Find it at: Amazon / Flipkart

This was a luckily spotted book in a second-hand book stall at the New Delhi World Book Fair. I’d read about this book being one of the good children’s books, and one of the very good books centred around the Holocaust told as a children’s story. So I felt really lucky to have found it at all, more so when I read and loved it.

Anna and Max live a comfortable life in Berlin, going to school and playing on their games compendium. Their father is a popular writer, which was part of the problem for them at that time. They were Jewish, and what their father wrote was not taken well by the Nazis. In a sudden flight to leave Germany and go to Switzerland, the family leaves their home and their life behind as they flee to safety. They were lucky. Just the day after they left, the Nazis had come for their passports.

The edition I have *_*
Narrated from the perspective of children, the book brings out Anna and Max’s curiosity for the world, while keeping their personal life and experiences at the forefront. Anna is actually excited to go to Switzerland, living in hotels, looking at the fabulous mountains and making Swiss friends. Gradually, their financial status takes a downturn as Anna’s father gets a price on his head and the Swiss people are not too keen to get him to write for their papers. Meanwhile, Anna and Max adjust to their new school and a life in an inn. When it doesn’t work out in Switzerland, they move to Paris. 

Their new home is tiny as compared to their house in Berlin, and their mother has to do all sorts of household work which she couldn’t do before. They keep a tab on all their expenses, and it becomes a subject of argument between the parents. This tale of a family’s move from their home to other countries to seek refuge and safety succeeds in bringing out children’s view of the world, complete with their innocence and hearts full of wonder and love. It also effectively brings out the fears and struggle faced by refugees while trying to protect their children.

It is also simply written, and will hold a reader's interest for the most part. It got a little slow for me somewhere in the middle, but overall it was a very good book. It's not too 'heavy' either, and keeps Hitler and his details to a minimum while showing the effects of what he did in Germany. I greatly enjoyed reading this, and will recommend it to kids and adults alike.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Review Shots... To Kill a Mockingbird and Career of Evil

I've been too much behind schedule to be able to review books regularly, thanks to the new routine that leaves absolutely no time to write, though thankfully lots of time to read! The few books I missed writing about are mentioned in this post with short, quick reviews (in two parts).

Book # 1
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee 

I am really not ‘reviewing’ this book, because it doesn’t need one. This is about me and this book.

If it hadn’t been a gift on my birthday, this classic would have stayed unread for a long time. Earlier, I’d thought that it would be a heavily-written book (like so many prize-winners are), but it turned out to be such a surprise! (This reminds me that I should do away with my fears of spotting a spoiler in reviews and go read Goodreads reviews anyway).

Harper Lee narrates the story of a black man falsely accused of rape in the town of Alabama. Written from the perspective of Scout and her brother Jem (first-person narration by Scout), the book revolves around life in a sleepy town in Alabama, touching upon themes of racial discrimination, societal discrimination and adult expectations. It is a childhood tale that explores the many facets of human behaviour—innocence, curiosity, kindness, sympathy and love.

Scout and Jem are being raised by Atticus Finch, a lawyer who faces threats and societal pressure for defending the black man. I can’t decide who I like best in this book—Scout or Atticus. Ever-curious, smart and sincere, Scout hangs on to the teachings of Atticus (they call their dad by his name!) and it all comes out so well-formed. She dislikes school because they teach stuff she already knows, because Atticus taught her to read way before she began school, but she is encouraged to manage it anyway.

I remember reading an article on the best fictional fathers, and Atticus Finch was among the top. Now I know why. Apart from the (biased view, perhaps!) fact that I saw so many similarities between him and my father, he came across as such a well-balanced man. For traditionalists, he might not seem like an ideal father, but the way he is presented, everyone seems to want Atticus Finch for dad.

As far as writing style is concerned, it is one of the best I’ve read. Dealing with a “serious” and “heavy” theme, one might suppose (as I had done) that it’d be a difficult read. But the book is narrated from the POV of children, and those with brains, so it makes for a witty, funny and engaging read.

And then I read somewhere that its next book, Go Set a Watchman, shows Atticus in a negative light and Scout is all grown up, which was such a bummer because I was also gifted a copy of that book. It will now rest on the shelf till I feel well enough about having to read something not-so-glam about my beloved Scout and Atticus. (To be fair, other characters in the book were quite awesome too. Special mention for Jem, Miss Maudie and Dill, their friend. 

Some quotes from the book I loved:

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.” (Hmm...)

“They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions... but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.” 

Book # 2
Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (We all know it’s really J.K. Rowling) 

The third instalment of the Cormoran Strike series (after The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm) is as thrilling as its predecessors, though even more gruesome and very much for adults. It has all the elements of the kind of book that I, as a reader, am not comfortable with, but it’s a universally known fact that I’m in the magical snare of Ms Rowling and just cannot feel anything but excitement for anything she writes. Actually, cross that out. It only goes to show how the author can tackle horrifying themes and include it them in her writing without making the reader want to stop. This book is so unputdownable! (not an actual word, but just THE word!)

The book alternates between a third person account and a first person account of... the killer! In an online article, I read J.K. Rowling’s statement that she had literal nightmares while she had been researching for and writing this book. She had to delve deep into the psychology of a psycho killer, and it couldn’t have been pretty. She used that knowledge very well, though, in bringing out this killer character with a first-person account. He really makes you want to get inside the book and stop him, but you end up biting your nails or your tongue or the insides of your cheeks as the killer goes around doing psycho stuff.

One of the best things about this series is just how much like a series it feels, even though it is a thriller series, which usually keep characters’ personal lives to a bare minimum and focus on the case. In this series, Strike and Robin’s personal lives not only intermingle with the case but also depict character development over a period of time, so that it ends up feeling like a long, ongoing tale. I like how that feels.

Another thing I noticed was a marked difference (improvement) in writing style. In some places in The Cuckoo’s Calling, it didn’t seem well-put but it didn’t feel that way in this book. What I liked less in the previous two books was a lack of explicit explanation in the end. It was the same problem in this book, although it was definitely better than in the previous books. It works for some people, but I need some explaining (not an active thriller reader, I guess). In any case, if thrillers are your thing, the Cormoran Strike series is a must-read! 

“You could find beauty nearly anywhere if you stopped to look for it, but the battle to get through the days made it easy to forget that this totally cost-free luxury existed.”

“Those who did not know the ocean well forgot its solidity, its brutality.” 


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