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BOOK Review: A Column of Fire [Kingsbridge no.3] – Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (Kingsbridge, #3)A Column of Fire by Ken Follett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received this book for an honest review and my first thought was about its physical form. 919 pages are crammed into tiny font on thin paper in a voluminous paperback that makes it really uncomfortable to hold and hard to read. If this had been a standalone book, I would not even have picked it off the bookshelf. But I read and enjoyed ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ and the slightly less romantic ‘World without End’. As book 3 in the series, I had to start this one and once I did, true to Ken Follett style, it had me gripped.

‘A Column of Fire’ is set in the 1500s in a Kingsbridge now torn by conflict. Here’s where you get to see how religion goes from being a spiritual guide to a dangerous political machine. In the past two books (and centuries), monarchs battled over land, property and wealth. In this one, they begin to battle over something even bigger – people’s belief and loyalty. Protestantism and Catholism go head to head in vicious, intolerant massacre. Overlaying these are the political machinations of the surrounding regions like France, Spain and Scotland.

History buffs will enjoy the references to the major Queens of England. Kingsbridge, having grown from the little village of the 1100s of The Pillars of the Earth, is evidently a bustling city by the 1500s and it produces several people who go onto play key roles in the fates of these kings & queens (Mary of the Scots, Elizabeth of England, Felipe of Spain, James of England). The Pope & the Catholic Church come across as just as powerful political forces as each of the monarchs.

These fictitious characters play major roles with Mary, Elizabeth and the others being support characters. That said, the Kingsbridge books have started to feel less and less about intimate stories of ordinary people and more about chronicling history in a fictional setting. While ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ was about small, unimportant people (of their times) like a stone mason, a woman of the forest and a monk, ‘A Column of Fire’ deals with the decisions and tribulations of successful traders, landed peers and political advisors.

I also saw a few modern phrases/references slip in which seemed incongruous to the timeline of the story. For instance, Page 99 had a mention of ‘a few Native Americans’ when I’m not sure if they were called that in the 1500s before the colonisation of America.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the previous two (especially the first!). The plot seemed more important than the characters and I found it easy to skip past entire pages. Given how long the book is, at some point of time it became about identifying what parts of the story were going to meander into things I’ve read about in history already, rather than where the plot itself was going to take me next. I do however want to mention that this is an extraordinarily clear-headed look at the exploitation of women & other races by a white male author. It’s also good to read a book that doesn’t pull any punches when it addresses the unfettered greed for power by the Catholic Church as well as the Protestant community, when it addresses history.

If you are new to the Kingsbridge series, don’t worry about not having read the previous two. Each book in this series stands by itself, being that they’re each set 200 years apart. But going through them in order allows you the additional enjoyment of watching regular lives turn into history and then legend and then be forgotten.

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BOOK Revi: Thirteen Reasons Why – Jay Asher

ewThirteen Reasons WhyThirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book after hearing everyone talk about the television show (which I still haven’t seen). The Wikipedia entry promised that this would be dark and it wasn’t lying. It’s nowhere close to Gone Girl but I’d say Gone Girl’s Amy may have been something like this book’s Hannah Baker when she was younger.

The things that happen to Hannah expose the brutal gendered violence and hostility meted out to women all over the world, even in privileged groups like white urban America. Slut-shaming, fuckboy manipulation, bullying, stalking, harassment, rape…all of these find graphic mention in the story. These are important issues that do not get addressed enough and worse, are invalidated by even the legal systems across nations.

The blurb already tells you about the dead girl’s suicide note via cassette tapes. There is a whiny, accusatory tone throughout, which I suppose stays true to this being a diary entry style confessional about a suicidal (now dead) teenager. There is a very specific point where Hannah’s narrative goes from shocked victim to mentally unstable. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing since it seems to indicate that depression could be caused by external events rather than being an illness of its own kind.

It’s not very clear why Clay is part of this story at all, given there’s absolutely no foreshadowing or indication that she even knows of his existence. Similarly, Tony is a bit too deus ex machina. All the characters other than Hannah and Clay appear one-dimensional. I’m not sure that this is a deliberate attempt to establish an unreliable narrator. It just seems like poor characterisation. Even given the first person narrative, it’s interspersed with enough of Clay’s point of view to balance out the other characters. The book does not do this.

I guess in sum, I’d say this book could have been better but considering there isn’t one mainstream one addressing these issues among teenagers in an easy-to-read way, this is as good as it gets. It’s quite readable.

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Aren’t You Glad I’m Not Carrie?

I tell people being an only child made me a reader because there was nothing much for a kid in 80s to do. I tell them I grew up in an environment surrounded by books so it was inevitable I’d become a reader. I say being a writer is a subset of being a reader and I’m even more voracious than I’m prolific. But the truth is, like the category of this post is called, my soulmate truly is a book. Books have appeared, like guardian angels or fairy godmothers (whichever mythical being you like better) in my life at opportune times with appropriate messages. People and situations now feel like illustrations of whatever the books I’m reading are trying to teach me.

A fortnight ago, Vivek Jejuja put out a call asking for people with whom to discuss Stephen King’s Carrie. I haven’t been a fan of Stephen King for a number of reasons I’ll explain later. But I have been dying for a book conversation and I have been wanting an inroad to get to know the magnificent Vivekisms (who is already a good friend, only he didn’t know it yet). So I bought the book.

In the same week, an old school classmate called to tell me about a high school reunion. These two events are significant but only if you know what the book is about. So if you haven’t read the book and plan to, here’s your SPOILER ALERT.

I was far from being the popular kid in school. By far I mean, the exact opposite. I know a lot of people now who lament that nobody knew them in school. That’s really not the worst thing to happen to a child. The worst thing to happen to a child is other children who know you but not as someone they want to be nice to.

I am not going to lament the tortures I suffered in classrooms. I know that children have no perspective on the future or morals. I know a lot of them grew up to be pretty decent adults. And like the characters in ‘Carrie’, many of them probably didn’t even realise what was happening and if they’d thought about it, they’d be as remorseful. The big problem with bullying and harassment is that they look disproportionately different depending on which side of the fence you’re standing on.

Last year I was added to a school Whatsapp group and I had a firsthand experience of why this is a groanworthy ordeal for us digi-nerds. My phone was pinging at all hours of the day and night with 768 notifications from people from all over the world, the messages ranging from “HELLO GM! Sooo great to see everyone here!” to selfies to “Who’s here? Oh him!” I bore well with it for 2 days, setting it on mute even as it annoyed me. I am one of those people who only relaxes when all notifications have been cleared, unread emails/messages read and responded to and so on. Then one more member was added and the string of “Hi!”, “What’s up with you?”s began before he asked the inevitable “Who else is already here?” (honestly, can 37 year olds not figure out how to go to the Members list on a Whatapp group?). I groaned at the slew of repeat introductions, repeat-repeats and interruptions that would follow. Someone said “Ramya’s here too.” To which he responded,

“What? Buck-teeth Ramya?”

I stayed on the group another hour, long enough to read people’s sniggers, someone else say, “Dude, she’s here and can read your message” and his “haha, just kidding” followed by awkward silence on a group that had been pinging nonstop for 2 days. I shouldn’t have wasted even that hour before I took myself off the group.

I have learnt that people have zero empathy. I have learnt that people like to play ‘My woes are worse than yours’ which is the death of that thing called empathy. And I can tell that that boy (if I think of him as a man, it will make thinking about the human race too sad) doesn’t even think he did anything wrong. Who is laughing at a joke about somebody’s bad teeth? Everybody. Because this is not about bad teeth, body shaming or any of those things. It’s about getting used to treating people one way and logic, empathy or even human fairness be damned. It’s about robbing a person of who they want to be and forcing them into an unpleasant role for your own entertainment.

I’ve been troubled ever since I received the invitation to the school reunion, not wanting to seem petulant, wanting to be that ‘good sport’. But I realised as I read Carrie, that this was never going to change. People who saw me a certain way as children, are never going to see me differently. They will react badly if I try to get them to do so. High school reunions are for those who were cool in school. But if their lives continue to be so wonderful, why do need to go back to their childhood/adolescent selves? And how are they going to behave in order to fulfil that need?

chool was possibly the worst time of my life and that’s counting abusive relationships, dirty politics at work, unemployment and people I know dying. I had agency in all those cases, even if only over how I could respond. I had none in those horrible years between 3 and 16. I have no desire to relive it.

I do not have Carrie’s powers and that’s a good thing for the world. It’s time life started being things that were good for me too. So on Saturday, I chose not to go to the school reunion and spent it reading Carrie instead. Thank you, Vivek, for two new friends – you and a book. 😊

Here’s my review of the book:


CarrieCarrie by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been skeptical about Stephen King for over a decade now, mostly because I read ‘Misery’ at 20 during a breakup and just when I was working to be a writer. Years later, I read ‘Dreamcatcher’ which even King fans tell me is not one of his good ones. A friend asked me to read ‘Carrie’ so I could discuss it with him, so I decided to give King novels another chance. I’m glad I did.

Much has been made about the first period experience, which triggers off the plot of this story. Stephen King does a commendable job, as a male writer, of highlighting girl/women’s trauma. Parts of it still had me thinking, “No, that’s not what a period feels like. A man obviously wrote this.”

For me, the more interesting parts were the rabid religious beliefs and the effects of toxic/abusive upbringing on a child. What set this story apart for me is that it tells of such a child who did rebel and break out of it (even if, with disastrous results).

The bullying aspect also felt realistic, not painting the bullies as bad people but just people caught up in things that they don’t think about and regret later.

And finally, there was the semi-epistolary narrative (the story switches between excerpts of news reports and actual plot). It felt like a bit too much emphasis on Carrie, the WEIRD one. But perhaps the novel wouldn’t have been as impactful without it.

I can see why Stephen King is considered one of the best popular fiction writers of out times. And I definitely intend to check out his other books now.

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If you liked this post, you’ll want to follow the Facebook Page and the Youtube channel. I’m Ramya Pandyan (a.k.a. Ideasmith) and I’m on Twitter and Instagram.

BOOK Review: Looking For Alaska – John Green

Looking for AlaskaLooking for Alaska by John Green

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My first John Green was ‘The Fault in Our Stars‘ which I came to reluctantly, assuming it would be soppy and shoddily written. I was wrong. Falling in love with that book led me to rush out and buy ‘Paper Towns‘. And that was a HUGE letdown (with a great title). I also bought ‘Looking for Alaska‘ but after ‘Paper Towns‘, I put it away, my taste for John Green’s neurotic teenagers soured.

I picked it up again this week, meaning to clear my unread shelf and we’re back in love. Just like ‘Paper Towns‘, the heroine of this novel is self-absorbed, flaky, impulsive and just plain bad for you. But unlike in that one, she’s glorified a little less and the protagonists are a bit more self-aware of how destructive she is for them.

The ending (or should I call it the middle, since the book is roughly split into Before, During and After) is a shock in a good way because it makes you realise just how much you care about the characters. The lines are funny and then tragic but always poignant in that teenage way where everything is intense but also true. The plot transitions smoothly too even if it takes awhile to get started.

John Green’s writing is warm and intimate and makes you feel close to the situations and characters even if you don’t like them or relate to them much.

I don’t know what went wrong with ‘Paper Towns‘ but ‘Looking for Alaska‘ gets it right in all the ways that ‘The Fault in Our Stars‘ did. If you liked the latter, you’ll definitely like this one. I’d even go so far to say this is the better book, because it manages to touch you without all the cancer melodrama of TFIOS. Skip ‘Paper Towns‘, move right on to Alaska and the stars.

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BOOK: A Pinch Of Nutmeg – Christine Ambrosius

It has been awhile since I posted a book review but this one was such a fabulous read, I wanted to bookmark it here.

Pinch of Nutmeg, APinch of Nutmeg, A by Christine Ambrosius

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Let me start by saying I loved this book and I’m neither a foodie nor an enthusiastic cook or traveller!

Jake’s adventurous life has humble beginnings, as a little helper to his grandmother who assists in the kitchen of a duke in medieval England. He learns about vegetables and meats and cooking as he runs errands and even as his grandmother dies suddenly. His talent attracts several mentors, friends but even more enemies and he finds himself thrown into new situation after foreign kitchen. Jake moves from England to Italy to Turkey to France. Every journey, every place brings him new learnings about flavours, vegetables and cooking techniques. He earns to haggle with traders, fend off thieving merchants, avoid politicking courtiers and manipulative mentors. He also finds love, loses it, embraces new cultures and creates many culinary delights.

This book will interest anyone who loves cooking because of its numerous descriptions of dishes ranging from the simple to the spectacular. It’s also a great look at European history via the lens of food. And finally, it’s just a really great novel. It was a lot longer than I usually have the patience for, but somehow it carried me through.

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Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings – Kuzhali Manickavel: Quirky & Enjoyable In Tiny Doses

Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have WingsInsects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings by Kuzhali Manickavel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book piecemeal, stretched out over several months. Halfway through, I decided to finish the rest in one go. My conclusion is that the first style is better. This book is filled with strange, sometimes beautiful, sometimes bizarre snippets. Fantasy, memory and stark reality intermingle. It seems a bit much when consumed in one go but works well when you read them one or two at a time only.

I particularly enjoyed ‘You Have Us All Late and Follow’,’Coconut Water’,’Information Regarding the Two Main Characters’ and ‘The Queen of Yesterday’. After awhile, the styles start to get repetitive. (For instance, ‘Jame That Bread of Life’ is much like ‘You Have Us All Late and Follow’).

The voice is certainly unique as are the settings – Tamil Nadu with an uber-urban bent of mind. So you have characters named Malar, Alarmel and Senthil in live-in relationships, filthy roommate camaraderie and suicide-from-boredom. Kuzhali’s stories fall just on the right side of crazy – quirky enough to be entertaining, mundane enough to be relatable. This is poetry masquerading as literature.

I’d definitely recommend a read, for the novelty value alone. But you probably wouldn’t want to have a shelf full of books like this.

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Sita – Devdutt Pattanaik: Repackaging The Indian Superhero With The Same Old Religious Tripe

Sita An Illustrated Retelling of the RamayanaSita An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana by Devdutt Pattanaik
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I am utterly disappointed with this book. Let me make it clear at the start that I’m disappointed because of my expectations of the author, based on past books, and not because the book itself has major flaws.

After reading and enjoying ‘The Pregnant King’ and ‘Jaya’ by Devdutt Pattanaik, I had high expectations from this book. Dr.Pattanaik’s story-telling, I thought had a marvelous way of constructing the narrative, devoid of the over devout tone that one finds in all religious stories across India. With ‘Jaya’, it allowed me to discern larger lessons, more intricate realizations from the nuances of Mahabharata, since it did not stick to the formula of the Pandavas as starkly good and the Kauravas as big villians. ‘The Pregnant King’ had a similarly objective tone, while also telling a great story.

Sita, I’m afraid is a cop out. It is a narration of the Ramayan, exactly the way I’ve heard from every single religious person I’ve know. The title appears to be picked to throw you off, give the impression that this is another point of view of the Ramayan. But truly, Sita is a cardboard character at best, in this narrative and appears in very few chapters.

Ram is the starring superhero who can do evil. All his violent acts and decisions are miraculously vanished away by the victims claiming to be a curse that they are liberated from, by being slaughtered by Ram.

From a fiction point of view, Lakshman is the classic sidekick character, created only to glorify and showcase the protagonist’s superiority. The only thing he does is pitch fits at every given opportunity, giving Ram a chance to say something profound.

Ravana is the worst depicted of the lot. Unlike Jaya, where character nuances were explored, in this tale, Ravana is depicted as an excessive supervillian. His wisdom and kingdom sovereignity (that have been talked about by historians) are brushed away with flimsy explanations, painting him out to be a bad guy, simply because he is BAD.

‘Jaya’ referenced several local legends and religious myths to add detail and colour to a complex story. ‘Sita’ in contrast, consistently refers to 4 or 5 other tellings of the Ramayan and in this book, just attempts to collate all of them in one narrative. Since, none of them really vary in any significant manner except for the most minor of details, this barely adds anything to the story.

If you have never read or heard the Ramayana, this is one narrative that’s decently written. That said, it paints a very one-sided stark view of a narrative that is much more complex and thus, is incomplete and superficial.

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The Divorce Papers: Susan Rieger – Wholesome, Smart and Funny

The Divorce Papers: A NovelThe Divorce Papers: A Novel by Susan Rieger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a story of a divorce, with minor sub-plots of corporate politics and a side romance. I enjoyed the epistolary format (this one used not only correspondence but also notices, newspaper clippings, invitations, lists and legal documents). In addition, the pre-millenial nostalgia wave was charming with its old fogies protesting the informality of email, the blatant sexism in its dying moments before it became politically incorrect to be so.

I thoroughly loved the key protagonists, Mia Mieklejohn Durkheim and her reluctant divorce lawyer Sophie Diehl. They are fiery, willful women who sail through their personal battles with wit and dignity but also plenty of laughter. The ugly divorce, down to custody battles and infidelity is laid out without flinching but miraculously in a funny, engaging manner.

The only part that held me back from giving this book a full five stars was the amount of legalese and bureaucratic paperwork that one had to read through. I imagine that the author tried to de-jargonize the language as much as possible without compromising on the flavour of a law proceeding. Still, since the documents told the story, they had to be pored over and official documents are never interesting to read. In addition, to a person not absolutely in love with numbers and accounting, the long lists of monies would be definite roadblocks. This said, I’m not sure if the book could have been written any other way. It makes a very clear point of the fact that a divorce is not not closure or therapy but a commercial exercise to fairly divide all the assets and wealth within a marriage.

I skimmed through most of the legal papers and completely skipped the number lists, relying on the letters, emails and other parts to get the gist of the story. And I found the book thoroughly enjoyable. I got this off NetGalley.

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Donny and Ursula Save The World – Sharon Weil: A Love Story For Naturalists & Conspiracy Theorists

Donny and Ursula Save the WorldDonny and Ursula Save the World by Sharon Weil
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A quirky little novel that manages to touch on several large issues – the danger of commercializing agriculture, the importance of orgasms, Mother Earth’s good housekeeping, conspiracy theories. And in the midst of all this is a strange but lovely love story.

Donny is a regular Joe, a slob who enjoys smoking, video games and hoarding comic books. He meets Ursula at a party and decides to follow his head (the wrong one) and pursue her. But wooing the prudish, New Age travel service operator turns out to be much more than he imagined. In the quest to get her into bed, he stops smoking, spruces up and ingests copious quantities of vile-tasting liquids that Ursula serves him as natural, healthy drinks.

Ursula’s character is detailed a great deal more with some nice touches like her postcard-populated world map, her surreptitious mushroom mothering and her struggle to get her body to belly dance. Even so, the more ordinary character of Donny and how he falls in love with her, despite himself, is what catches your attention.

The story starts of seeming to be a regular if somewhat flaky love story but suddenly races into the sub-plots of conspiracy theorist Paul (Donny’s best friend) and his adventures in survival camp. Along the way a slimy Mr.Ed, representing government/commercial interests gets a tiny story of his own. And about two-thirds into the book, the naturalist element takes over with M.Earth setting the plot right.

The book’s blurb says that it is about an orgasm that saved the world but in truth, the connection is a bit tenuous. The tenses shift like crazy, giving the narrative a slightly flaky feel. Yet, somehow the concept is new and delivered with a light touch so the book entertains and engages. I enjoyed the wry humor in the titles and the sometimes paragraph-short chapters interspersed with long rambling ones. I got this book off NetGalley.

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