Category Archives: fiction

Book Review – Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa


Rashomon and Other Stories (Tuttle Classics)Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Short stories have always been a a challenge for me, and this is probably the most cryptic set of stories that I have read yet.

What is it about these enormously acclaimed Japanese authors of the earlier 20th century. The first I read was Yukio Mishima, who over and above being known for his controversial novels, is most remembered for his ritual suicide by sepukku; and now Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, who is called the “father of the Japanese short story” and has Japan’s premier literary award named after him, is also remembered for having killed himself at the age of 35.
Their literature and writings seem to have a cult following, because they definitely aren’t mass market material – and this is what attracted me to read some of their works.

This is a set of 6 tales that essentially explore dimensions of human nature. I don’t want to summarize the stories here, but I have to say that after reading each one of them, I looked up analyses online to understand the latent meanings that were clearly evading me – and in some cases I was surprised that I had almost completely missed the point – which in itself was amusing.

These are good stories to be read aloud, discussed and ruminated over. A good choice for book club reading. They are not very long, but some of them are complex.

The movie Rashomon was made based on two stories from this set and is highly acclaimed even today – with a rating of 8.3 on IMDb. That will be an interesting followup to the book.

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Book Review – Across the Nightingale Floor (Tales of the Otori – Book 1) by Lian Hearn


Across the Nightingale Floor (Tales of the Otori, #1)Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I quite enjoyed this book. I don’t usually pick up “fantasy fiction” unless I am really convinced. There seems to be some mental block from when I may have read a really bad one, and I’m always weary of picking up another. Anyway, I decided to give Tales of the Otori a try because stories set in “Japanese” environs are always attractive, with the hope of magic and mysticism and some smooth samurai action – and I must say I wasn’t disappointed.

In a gist, the story follows Takeo, an orphaned boy from a remote village who is forced into the complicated lives of ruling factions in the region, jostling and plotting for power, and finds himself tied to his destiny of defending the honor of those who have looked after him and his obligation to those whom he owes his lineage. Takeo is a respectably likable protagonist, who has a pretty impressive set of skills that he himself discovers and sharpens through the book. He is grounded and humble and quite believable, which really helped me connect with his character.

What I really appreciated was how the reader is instantly plunged into the story – its like you hit the ground running and there’s hardly ever a dip in the pace henceforth. The background is revealed as the story progresses and makes enough context to understand the motivations of the various characters, but also reveals hidden aspects gradually, so that the true nature of a character comes as a bit of a surprise.

Liam Hearn’s language and writing style has that Japanese “feel” – the dialogue is very restrained and to the point, in some parts poetic. It makes for simple reading – not complicated or weighed down by complex or elaborate text.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking for something light but not meaningless and with enough emotion and depth to continue reading the series. Ultimately, it’s a story about love, loyalty, power, politics, illusion and revenge – and with that combination, you can’t go wrong.

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Book Review – Behind Closed Doors by BA Paris


Behind Closed DoorsBehind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The danger with reading something that comes with such high praise is that you set yourself up for disappointment.

Crime fiction / psychological thrillers are my antidote, my cure for a reading slump, something that consumes my mind in the most deliciously twisted way, that I come out of satisfied and happy – marveling at the author’s ingenuity, intelligence or creativity; their timing; their ability to bring out the worst in human nature in the most believable way.

Probably, for many readers, this book delivered that. But for me, even though I was hooked to see what happened next, a large chunk of the story got very tiresome and there were many moments of impatience where I just wanted them to get on with it. The story tries hard but lacks depth. The villain is portrayed far too evil to be believable.

So even though I found myself reading it in every free minute I had, I also wanted to get done with it a.s.a.p. to be able to move on to something more meaningful – so its been a bit confusing to understand whether I liked it or not.

I can however say for sure that I did not “enjoy” it. I did not come away with a feeling of being on a roller coaster ride that was over too soon, or with an overwhelming feeling to make my friends read it 🙂

I think I’ve been #muchtoocritical on this one. But it is how it is.

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Book Review: Unraveling Oliver / Lying in Wait – Liz Nugent


Unravelling OliverUnravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can’t remember where I read about Liz Nugent’s novels, but I don’t think it was on any of the popular / conventional thriller lists. So I am very glad I came across them.

I read both her books, “Lying in Wait” and “Unraveling Oliver” back to back and this is almost like a joint review of them. Both books base their stories on a foundation of human depravity and auto-centric conniving characters. I like that every chapter is narrated by a character, moving the story forward, revealing differing perspectives and conclusions on the same event. This is especially interesting when one of the characters fails to understand / discover the depths of another character’s deceit or duplicity.

The story begins with a powerful hook and you cannot help yourself but read on, because the reveal is so gradual – the event itself becomes less important, its the reasons that lead to the event that become much more interesting. There is something satisfying about the author’s unrestrained depiction of her low-life characters.

This is not a ‘whodunnit’, but more of a ‘whydunnit’ – and that is what makes it psychologically thrilling.

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Book Review – Belonging by Umi Sinha


5/5STARS!!!!!!!!

Probably one of the most undiscovered and underrated books from the past year. I would never have discovered it myself, but for a completely unplanned (impulsive) trip to the local bookstore where I made a very poor choice and was back to exchange it for something better. And this time too, with the bookshop owner waiting to close shop, I almost randomly picked up ‘Belonging’. The cover was beautiful, but the author and book were completely unheard of, and a quick check on GR told me that with a 4+ rating it was a safe buy.

But I was not prepared for this book to be as fantastic as it was! Why hasn’t it showed up on any lists!? And I am surprised that even the Guardian hasn’t done a review on it, when it seems to review every new book that comes out! – – especially since this one has such a contextual British-Indian theme.

I seldom describe a book as “well crafted”. Many are well written but this one has something beautiful and intricate about it, much like the fine embroidery that adorns its cover and is a pivotal part of the story. As a debut author, Umi Sinha has set the bar very high and admirably demonstrates, by example, her background as a creative writing mentor and manuscript appraiser.

There is something about epistolary novels and I loved this one even more because nearly two-thirds of it is written in the form of letters and diary entries – making the reader so much more involved and engaged with characters and their deepest emotions. Sinha treats her characters with a lot of compassion and sensitivity and one comes away understanding each one – why they became who they were, what shaped their lives.This is a book worth reading again. Beautiful and elegant.

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Book Review – The Killings at Badger’s Drift by Caroline Graham


4/5 STARS

The Killings at Badgers DriftA classic mystery thriller that takes you back to those quaint English villages, where time seems to move slowly, everyone knows everyone, and everybody has something to hide. Yet, while the story seems to be set in a conservative time, it brings out a most sinister and twisted plot and a range of characters, all of whom seem to have a motive to kill.

The writing is so different from how books are written today, refined in a way that you cannot rush through the book, and definitely something that can build your vocabulary. Reminded me a little bit of Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories where you are always guessing till the end and this one definitely keeps the final revelation hanging to the last.

Featured Image: http://www.kittlingbooks.com
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Book Review: The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz


The Girl in the Spider's Web (Millennium, #4)The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I feel bad to rate this book anything less than 4 stars, especially since I was rooting for Lagercrantz, a writer of such established precedence, to bring back the Lisbeth Salander magic that was created over a decade ago. But sadly it did not happen.

Too much seemed to be going on. There were too many parallel narratives from varying viewpoints and most of them ended on a hook that surprisingly got frustrating after a point. I got lost in names and the multiple associations across characters and by the time Lisbeth Salander showed up in the flesh, I realized I was half way through the book already.

I think the trap here is that there is only so much you can milk from her background story, which I thought was well done in the second and third book, conclusively. Only her evil twin remained the hanging link to be carried on in subsequent volumes. But then even that, I felt, wasn’t well developed or exploited in this book. I think there was so much more scope for Lisbeth and Camilla to come face to face and really bring out the fierceness in both their characters, but I came away much more disappointed than expected.

The other reason could also be that the fourth book may seem better when read in continuity to the other three. Because after ten years, when you’ve forgotten the details but only remember the impression the trilogy made on you, the time gap is too long to recover the same intensity. Lisbeth herself seems to have lost a lot of her characteristic singularity.

I remember tearing through second and third Millennium books and at the same time trying to slow down so they didn’t finish too soon. But here I was constantly checking my progress after the 85% mark, just to wrap it up and be done. I appreciate the author’s effort and probably its too much to expect of him to deliver the same experience as Steig Larsson did in the first three books, but then that was why the fourth book was even attempted I presume.

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Featured Image: Goodreads.com
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Book Review: The Dalai Lama’s Cat by David Michie


5/5 STARS!!!

Its amazing that I found this book three years ago, slotted it in my to-read folder, and only happened to finally read it now. I guess I was ordained to meet His Holiness’ Cat now more than ever. This is a wonderfully written book that brings forth the basic tenets of Buddhism and the whole point of its philosophy very gently and subtly through small day to day examples with a handful of characters in Jokhang and McLeod Ganj.

The author, David Michie, is very convincing in telling this story from the intimate confines of the Dalai Lama’s own residence and you can almost feel the positive and glowy warmth of his presence and the kindness, wisdom and patience of his words. I marked so many passages from this book on my kindle app. A happy book that must be read.

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Source: Goodreads.com

“The thought manifests as the word; the word manifests as the deed; the deed develops into habit; and habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care, and let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings … As the shadow follows the body, as we think, so we become.”

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

In Rinpoche’s own words – “This is exactly that kind of book.”

 

Featured Image Source: http://www.llhhdl.org/
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Book Review: Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima


Spring SnowSpring Snow by Yukio Mishima

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spring Snow is not a book you can rush through. The very style and period of writing gives it a reserved and restrained feel, as if it’s almost impolite to be reading it any quicker. Considered Japan’s most famous writer, Mishima’s own story is so strange that it almost doesn’t fit with his intellectual and philosophical writing style. But then again, probably only such a man, who so definitively broke cultural boundaries and traditional aesthetics, would have as strange a story as his own.

While the book isn’t a difficult one to read, there are many lengthy philosophical digressions, and some very very descriptive passages about the environment the characters are surrounded by. Sometimes a whole chapter will consist of only the description of the snow, trees, blooms, the sea or procedures of a ritual, often disconnected to the actual story. But what it does do, is that it creates a very detailed picture and mood of Japan in the 1910s.

I felt the need to read a couple of reviews and analyses after finishing the book, probably in an attempt to understand if there was more than met the eye and a deeper essence that I was supposed to have appreciated. In the end, the story was a simple tale of rash youth that ends in tragedy (an avoidable waste of lives), but the mystic setting of early 19th century Japan and the interesting characterizations that appear to be so mute and demure on the outside, but are really so vocal and unquiet on the inside give it a very classic ‘Japanese’ feel – which to me was the main appeal of the book.

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Book Review: The Story of the Lost Child – Elena Ferrante


Whoopie! This review was listed on the official Elena Ferrante website! Check it out: http://elenaferrante.com/reviews/the-brain-curry/

4 STARS ****

And so, finally I come to the end of this saga.Reading the #NeapolitanBooks has been like a journey almost – of which, sometimes I was a part, and sometimes I was  a removed observer. Ferrante writes very well, her range is remarkable, her expansive web of characters, feelings, emotions and personalities is captivating. Her writing comes from a depth that makes you feel certain that this is her story or a major part of it is a ‘fictionalised’ autobiography – – – and somewhere, possibly the very personal nature of the story compels her to protect her own identity as well as of those who may be easily identifiable from the book.

Ferrante’s story interweaves conflicting feelings like affection, anger, concern, desire, despair, empathy, malice, grief,  happiness, love, pride, rage, remorse, shame almost simultaneously. The essence of all 4 books in the series is that they present a narrative that is transparent – laying bare each personality’s flaws, failures and self centered narcissism at risk of judgment, and also revealing unexpected instances of benevolence and consideration – that you constantly remain in an  ambivalent state of mind and come away with possibly inconclusive emotions to fulfill that need to compartmentalize individuals as a result of their actions.

And yet I give The Story of the Lost Child less than a perfect score, possibly because the  tumultuous friendship of Elena and Lila has reached its most disturbing and unpredictable form. It became constantly more difficult to be okay with the suffocating, often controlling and spiteful co-dependency that Elena and Lila shared through their turbulent adult lives.

This quote sums it up perfectly:

Every intense relationship between human beings is full of traps, and if you want it to endure you have to learn to avoid them. I did so then, and finally it seemed that I had only come up against yet another proof of how splendid and shadowy our friendship was.

—— Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child

In the end, my month with the Neapolitan Books was extremely rewarding. I can now say that all the fuss and buzz around her is completely authentic and well-founded. Being nominated for the Man Booker is well deserved and if we take into account the entire series, I think she is a definite front runner. I wish her all the best!

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