Thursday, May 29, 2014

REVIEW: Prisoner of Night and Fog - Anne Blankman

Gretchen Muller is the daughter of a man who died to save Adolf Hitler. The daughter of a sainted martyr. Even when no one else understood her, Uncle Dolf was always there for her. He taught her music and art, he told her about the sacrifices one must make for their fatherland. Gretchen understood completely, she was the perfect Aryan. But one day, a chance meeting with the Jewish reporter Daniel Cohen forces her to question her beliefs. And she has to confront another question, the most disturbing of all – could Uncle Dolf have another face?

I must not have stressed this point enough – but I love history. So throw anything at me with tags like war, Holocaust, civil rights, and I will catch.

Books I’ve usually read dealt with the Holocaust, or was set during WWII. So this book enticed me the way shiny things attract a magpie. Hitler isn’t chancellor of Germany yet, he’s a politician and the leader of the National Socialist Party. And I ask you, how many books dared to cast Hitler as a character in a fictitious story?

I have exams going on and the fact that I finished this book in two sittings is testament enough to the engrossing plot. People could say, “Well obviously, it’s just some fictitious characters woven into the actual story – that’s not very original”. True.  But there is a lot of skill involved in writing this book. Manipulating a real piece of history to serve as a background for her basic plot starring Gretchen is challenging. As far as you and I are concerned, this is a compelling story, one we could have come across only if we were history students. I don’t do twofaced things like condemn a book that I enjoyed because the complete storyline wasn’t born out of the writers’ minds. I mean, has no one got a problem with Shakespeare?

Casting someone like Hitler whose personality is treated as a case study by psychologists takes nerve. And we get the image of a loving uncle along with that of the psychopath he actually is, we get another angle to look at the short man. How he used mere words to start a war. 

Then there is Gretchen and Daniel. Maybe the circumstances in which they met were a bit too deliberate, and maybe they moved onto the ship a bit too quickly – but I’m grateful because that would have meant stretching the story. All the characters in this book felt like they had their own stories. Their development must have taken a lot of pain, especially Reinhard’s (read, and you’ll know who and why).


The writing was very dull. There could have been a lot of German woven into the writing, but there is none, save for the “Fraulein's” and “Herr's” and the occasional “Heil Hitler's”. The writing style was simply a medium to tell the story, nothing more. And the world building involved could be likened to that found in a history textbook – this is where he lived, that is where she danced, this is where he was killed.
But this is a really good story, trust me. Shame on you if you pass up on this one.

VERDICT: 3.5 stars

P.S. – This one is a series, you hear? *rubs hands gleefully*

Friday, May 23, 2014

Man Vs. Wild - Part 2

It’s been summer for a few months now. Water is drying up, and we are officially banned from taking long showers. I was doing laundry one day, and filling a bucket when I saw a red thread. I was going to ignore it when it wriggled.

 A worm.

I didn’t panic, FYI. I just emptied the bucket and refilled it. Two more worms. That was when I abandoned my laundry basket and ran screaming like a madwoman. Later I came to know, that the first worm had been sighted A WEEK BACK by a girl who didn’t bother telling anyone, BECAUSE NO ONE CARED. Honestly, this is what they said.

The Unfeeling Unsanitary Bitches: Worms?  That’s ok, just throw it away and bathe.
Me: (screaming internally) Have you heard of cholera? Diarrhoea, maybe?

One sympathetic soul confided that their previous hostel was worse, at least our hostel entertained worms only seasonally. She said she’d even slept with a rat, only to find its body by the door next morning. She figured she must have flung the rat in her sleep. “Man vs. Wild, man. We could give Bear Grylls a run for his money”. She was laughing when she told me all this. I on the other hand had nightmares filled with exotic pests.

I have now adopted a filtering system. Even if my bladder is fit to burst, I tie a hanky around the tap, and after I’m finished with my business, I pray to God to give me the strength to face the horror, untie it, and quickly wash it. I must have interviewed quite a number of people on the best way to tie a hanky.

For those of you shaking your heads, thinking, well, why the hell haven’t you told your warden? - Do you honestly think I haven’t done that? I rounded up a small army and went into the office. She remained sitting there, cool as you please, and said, “It happens everywhere this time of the year”. She lied, I know now. She dumped bleach into the tank, so now we *only* have to deal with wormy dead bodies in the water and hair falling in clumps.

And the other day, I saw another friend fiddling with something on the window sill at, like, 9 am. Since she is not known for her hyperactivity in the am, and because I’m nosy, I went to see what she was up to. This is what I saw.

Me: Um, what is that?
She: He’s cute, yeah?
She: A baby bat. I woke up to find him in my hair. Aw, look at his wings.
Me: How did he end up in YOUR HAIR?
She: Ah, I don’t know. He can’t even fly. So maybe the delivery happened in my hair when the mummy’s water broke mid-flight.
Me: (pauses) He is cute.
(We both prod it so it stretches one wing lazily)
Me: Hang on, let me go get my phone.

I have improved a lot, mind you. I used to be the girl who threw out chapattis on finding them violated by ants (which by the way everyone tells me are good for your eyes, didn’t you know? Ants, not chapattis). Now when a bug comes from my own personal hell and makes itself at home on my laptop screen, I merely continue typing.

Like I’m doing now.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

REVIEW: Grasshopper Jungle - Andrew Smith

CAUTION: Reading this book has licensed me with the authority to use the word that is a more commonly used synonym for excrement.  You have been warned.

Austin Andrzej Szerba is his name. It is Polish. Since human beings are genetically predisposed to record history, (we believe it prevents us from doing dumber and dumber shit), Austin takes on his role as a historian recording the end of the world. 
There are things in here: babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza and cruelty.
This is his history.

From the various sources of bookish information, I have concluded that the bookish population doesn’t know WHAT TO SAY ABOUT THIS BOOK. In this post, I shall be attempting something that resembles a review.

I mean, hello, HAVE YOU SEEN THE BLURB. I guess that itself vindicates the varied reactions this book got that ranges from “Holy Shit.” (Excrementum Sanctum) to WHAT THE HELL WAS THIS BOOK to I LOVED THIS.

Again, I shall be merely attempting.

The first coherent thought that my brain grasped at was “Austin Szerba is an extremely horny, confused Polish kid”. This point in itself is half the story. The other half is credited to the emergence of six feet tall bug-like creatures that do only two things: f*** and eat. Therefore, they bring the end of the world with them.
The writing is unadulterated, unedited, incoherent first hand witness account. A history textbook written by a horny teenager nearing Doomsday.

Excrementum Sanctum.

You know how if you pick up a book and read it, you’ll straightaway come to know the author is John Green? I have a feeling that if I pick up anything so much as a grocery list written by Smith, I’ll know.

This is a compliment.

This book has titles for each chapter. And not the one-word/poetic/thematic kind. The “Denny Drayton Has a Gun, Motherf*****” kind. The “The Right Kind Of Cigarettes to Smoke Just Before You Kill Something” kind. The completely awe-inspiring kind.

The characters introduced in this book come with their history. Robby and Shann come across t-totally. I have unashamedly fallen in love with Robby (who’s gay, so even if he existed in real life, I’d still be doomed to having a crush). You get introduced to Austin’s whole family tree, including the scandalous twigs.
This book constantly jumps back and forth in time. Not through the plot, per se, but by how we come to know certain things. Just like a history account – there is no suspense. The climax has already come and gone and this is a mere account.
And so I loved the way this book was written.

But not so much the story. You take away the writing, and I could probably tell the story in ten minutes or less. But then again, I don’t think this book was meant to be plot-intensive.
Actually, I don’t know what this was meant to be.

There is a whole lot of other shit. Shit we know couldn’t have happened in real life, but is tweaked into this book anyway. Shit about Nixon, Pope Paul VI, the Chinese prime minister Chou En-lai, and others.
This book also ponders over why history is always abbreviated. Why it’s never been written Winston Churchill took a shit sometimes. Shit like that.

Weird shit, this book. Weird plot, weirder writing. The first “weird” was said in a disapproving tone, the second “weird” was “hell, yeah”.

History lesson is over for today.

VERDICT: 3 stars

P.S.: Judge the book by its cover. I dare you to.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Man Vs. Wild - Part 1

I think it was around seven in the evening when a girl came to the toilet corridor and had a heart attack. In the dim light she found a figure, crouched beside a small bucket of water, shining a flashlight into it, and peering into it with the utmost concentration.

She: (clutching her chest) What the hell are you doing?
Me: (glancing up solemnly) Inspecting the water for worms.

Today, I shall be propounding my argument that a person staying in my hostel, is deserving of a degree in Entomology.

I wasn’t surprised by the state of things in the hostel. I had prepared myself mentally before coming here. In Dubai, where I lived, my knowledge of the pest kingdom was limited to geckos, houseflies, cockroaches, and ants.

Me: Visual on target. 8 o’ clock.
My sister: Roger that. Bedroom corridor clear. RUN!!!!!
And we both run for our dear lives. From a cockroach.

Now, my knowledge of the pest kingdom extends indefinitely into the six-legged and the leg-less variety.
The New Me: (snorts) Cockroaches? Who’s scared of them?

First it was the mosquitoes. At 6 pm sharp, I would get on the bed, and cover up. If I felt those bloodsuckers on my arm, I wouldn’t slap them – I was too scared for that – I would try to blow them away in the hope that they will get the hint and hurry up. The other girls would feel sorry for the poor foreigner. Now I’m proud to say, that I am willing to turn the room upside down, applauding, till I am satisfied with a decent graveyard of de-juiced mosquitoes.

Moving on.

It’s the UFBs next. Unidentified Flying Bugs.  I would be diligently studying at 1 am when these things crowd under the solitary tube. They kept dropping their fried carcasses and stool onto my table.  I swear, these things have no brains. I would keep the window open and tell them, “Come on, this way out”, but will they listen? No. They keep bombarding against the ceiling fan (which is just a prop, it’s ancient), and as a result of botched suicides, again keep falling on me. And they also want to investigate the inside of my nose, so they crawl in, and halfway in change their mind and buzz out and around. Meanwhile, I spend the next half hour, agonizing over if I have a bug trapped in my airways.

Me being the vegetarian I am, shouldn’t entertain such murderous thoughts, but I do. Do I actually get around to it, though? Um, too scared to. In fact, we have these staring matches at odd hours instead. Let’s see who moves first, yeah? It twitches – I run.

Then there are the rats, but if you leave them alone, they return the favour. I have taken to making loud noises before I enter corridors after 9 pm. So they only inspire an occasional scream from me.

Thing is, I’m always haunted by these pests. There I am, plucking an innocent looking book from the library shelf, when I open it and find an insect neatly preserved between the pages. Or else, my aim is dust off those books a week before the exams, but practically I have to brush off suspiciously poop-like pellets from them.

Have I earned your sympathy and admiration yet? If not, I will. Watch this space for the sequel.

Monday, May 5, 2014

REVIEW: Love Letters To The Dead - Ava Dellaira

Dear Laurel,

Honestly? You ticked me off. You started writing these love letters to dead people as an English assignment that got personal, when your sister May’s death was still raw. In the beginning, the whole thing felt unnecessary. Everything you said felt flat – like you were saying things on purpose to have an effect. You didn’t sound like how you were supposed to – a girl in need of closure. Rather, you sounded like a writer who’d borrowed your name to write literary fiction. And I could not understand how seeing Sky FOR THE FIRST TIME inspired such lovesick reactions from your side. I gagged, Laurel, I did. And then, in class, when you were called to recite a poem, you said you were extremely nervous, but you understood the poem nevertheless, even though it was your first time reading that poem. Which isn’t possible. And like Jen at YA Romantics said, you were writing Hollywood biographies – about Judy Garland, River Phoenix, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse – and you found some way, after a long winded narration, to identify with them. I felt sorry for you Laurel that you identified with people who’d lost their fight with life.

I didn’t like you at all. You didn’t get the sympathy you deserved from me. You kept talking about how you wanted to be strong, how you wanted to be as brave as May – wearing short skirts, smoking, flashing people. Maybe, in your head, losing one’s morals takes courage. But, in actuality, it isn’t bravery to do what the “regular weird” people tell you to do. It would have been bravery to not do it.

But then, you started revealing yourself more, and I could see that you were messed up. Really messed up. So the things that I didn’t like about you started making sense. And in some way that isn’t palpable enough for me to pluck out and write, your writing matured. Your narration continued to irk me, but you didn’t. Not anymore.   

I liked the way you introduced the people in your life. They didn’t feel like props in your letters, they felt like they had a story of their own. And even though your narration was initially so slow that I drifted off, towards the middle, you found your pace.

I like you now.

Yours Truly,

VERDICT: 3.5 stars

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Saving The Dreams Of Rainbow Coloured Kids

In an earlier post I confessed something about POCs and MCs in books. This is what I said, verbatim: “No, I don’t care that there is a severe lack of POCs as MCs.”

I need to explain.

NovelSounds posted on the vacuum in the book industry we have because there is a very limited variety of books wherein a POC character is the MC. I read this post among the recent slew of posts I read as part of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.
It was when I commented on that post that things fell together about how exactly I feel on this subject.

Where I live, the number of people who read as (ir)regularly as me can be counted on one hand. The concept of Teen/YA literature for them is limited to even fewer number of books written by Indian authors in English about family - forbidden romances against the backdrop of an engineering/medical college. For someone who cannot stand such repetitive stories, such as yours truly, I turned to American/British/Australian publishers.

As a result of my current bookshelf and movie favourites, I know the Miranda rights by heart; I know what constitutes the American breakfast, I can identify bridges and train stations in London, I have an Indian accent but my vocabulary consists of both British English and American words (even though I’m supposed to technically be a “Borrowed English” speaker), I know what to do in the event of a zombie apocalypse, I can recognize an Australian accent; and I don’t find gorgeous enough guys here, thanks to Spanish guys like Jesse from The Mediator series and gay guys like Neal Caffrey (ugh, Matt Bomer you twit). I don’t even appreciate the glamour of the “moochi” (moustache) Indian guys have here.

Hush, don’t tell. Not that I’m breaking any hearts anyway.

The worst part: When I replace myself as Katniss in my dreams, I’m white. Not the Indian version of Katniss the reasonable/indignant/conscious part of my brain would say I’m supposed to be.

There was a reason why I said I didn’t care much about the lack of POC characters. I know, when I’m picking up a book, it’s going to take place somewhere in Seattle, or London, or other places I’ve never been to. So I know I can’t expect people to eat chapattis for dinner, or have their parents fix their life partners for them. I know it isn’t fair to ask J. K. Rowling to make Ron black and Hermione Hispanic, in the name of diversity when they’re people she dreamt up. You can’t give birth to characters whose ethnicity you’re not too familiar with. What if you inadvertently do them wrong?

Then there are the POC writers themselves. Some of them don’t want to cast POC MCs because it would make them look like narrow-minded people. So the only way we can have POC MCs if they come alive in the writers’ heads of their own need to save the world.   I personally don’t want to read books for which writers sat and scribbled bios of their characters THEY WANTED TO HAVE instead of characters THEY NEEDED TO HAVE. As in “I want my heroine to be named so-so, she should have freckles, and green eyes, and short red hair”, vis-à-vis - “this boy came in my dream last night – I wanted to know his story.” Psychology can tell us that when this happens it’s usually a character of our own ethnicity. How could I blame white writers for casting white characters? Should I blame a black writer for not casting a Japanese protagonist? Hence, the second sentence of this post.

Look at me. I’m telling people how a character should evolve when I’ve written – hang on, let me count – ZERO books.

*pauses a moment to strangle yours truly*

That said, I don’t want my kid cousins to think America is full of only beautiful white girls. I don’t want my sister to think black boys can never be a Marvel superhero, only a sidekick. I don’t want myself to have crushes on only the white guys with a spare upper lip and brown messed up hair because they look so dang good in tuxes brandishing an FBI badge.

I totally worship Marie Lu for what she did. She did a tumblr on her inspiration for casting Day as a Mongolian kid (not fully, more of a mixture of different races). She also said that since the Legend series took place in a dystopian universe, instead of ethnic segregation, she chose wealth segregation. That’s logical. Therefore, you can find her book filled with characters of so many different ethnicities that it’s beautiful.

Another confession:
I want to write a book someday. I have never been to the US or anywhere else. Do I set my story in Dubai where I grew up? Or India where I’m living now? If I do, I can guarantee that my audience will be limited as well. Most writers have to confront this problem to write in the first place. You probably haven’t have heard of the Shiva trilogy which is a bestselling series here. I have read of teenaged writers who WROTE UNDER PEN-NAMES so that the book has an international market. There are books featuring POC characters but because the international bookish population can’t relate to them, they come and go like a breeze and gather dust on shelves in their home bookstores.

This is what I have to say: We need diverse books. Period. But diverse books can’t thrive ondiversereaders alone. Books need to be read by everyone, diverse or not. It’s not that hard for me to get into the head of a white kid even if I sometimes simply do not get American high school and teen pregnancies. Similarly, it’s not that hard for the “default kind of readerto get into the head of a Filipino kid saving the world.
Readers, Publishers, Writers, save the world. Maybe necessarily in that order.

Add your graffiti here before you leave; this wall needs all the colour it can get. And check back, I always reply as promptly as the wifi allows me to. ;)