Review Room

Book reviews and miscellanous thoughts

Audiobook Review : Sycamore Row by John Grisham

Written By: amodini - Nov• 20•14

Sycamore RowTitle : Sycamore Row
Author : John Grisham
Narrator : Michael Beck
Genre : Contemporary (Legal thriller)
Publisher : Random House Audio
Listening Length : 20 hours 50 minutes
Source : Library
Rating : 3.5/5

This book has lawyer Jake Brigance unwittingly caught up in a legal wrangle involving a dead wealthy man and his living children. Seth Hubbard hung himself from a Sycamore tree, but not before willing away most of his property to his African American maid Leticia “Lettie” Lang. Expectedly, the children and the grand-children contest this second holographic will, and it is up to Jake to ensure that the old man’s wishes be carried out as stated.

I haven’t read Grisham for a while, although there is no one better to turn to for legal thrillers. If you have read “A Time to Kill” which also featured Jake Brigance, you know what you are getting with this book – good, solid writing, and a storyline which touches on the racial undertones of the South. I did see “A Time to Kill” although I haven’t read the book. Many references are made to it in this book, as in the “trial three years back”, but “Sycamore Row” is not strictly speaking a sequel; it stands alone quite well.

Cortroom drama forms the bulk of the book, but we also get to see snatches of Brigance’s personal life and how it has changed after the previous trial. The fictional town of Clanton, Mississippi and its residents are described quite well. I like that Grisham looks at the race angle from both sides, as in people will be people, and there are good and bad folks all around; skin color no bar.

Grisham delivers yet another engrossing legal thriller. And narrator Michael Beck makes it better. This is the book to read/listen for Grisham aficionados.

Wordless Wednesdays #35

Written By: amodini - Sep• 24•14


Book Review : Trouble Has a New Name

Written By: amodini - Sep• 18•14

Trouble Has a New Name (Mills & Boon Indian Author Collection)Title : Trouble Has a New Name
Author : Adite Banerjie
Genre : Romance
Publisher : Harlequin
Pages: 192
Publish Date : July 15th, 2014
Source : Author
Rating : 3/5

This is author Banerjie’s second romance novel after “The Indian Tycoon’s Marriage Deal”. And in this novel, she has model Rayna Dutt meet arrogant hotel owner Neel Arora at a big fat Indian wedding in the Andaman Islands. Not theirs of course. Rayna has recently been dumped by her boyfriend via text message, and Neel might just be the antidote for her bruised ego. Especially when smarmy ex-boyfriend Sid Verma shows up with a new girlfriend in tow.

“Trouble Has a New Name” has all the ingredients for a smoldering romance – a beautiful model and a “Greek God with washboard abs”. Rayna and Neel both come with a lot of baggage and Banerjie does a nice job fleshing that in. Rayna is an orphan, who’s got her disapproving brother and bhabhi looking over her shoulder. Neel has had traumatic events happen in his own family, and the past has scarred him so badly that he is wary of getting too involved. And since the venue for all this is a lush Indian wedding, we have nosy wedding guests including royalty, scurrilous media reporters and a smidgeon of Bollywood all mixed in.

This book is a fun beach read, although it is a tad cliched with the fake fiancé romance formula. Banerjie does Indianize this theme with the familial “what will everyone say?” attachments, and the whole “fair vs. dark” skin debate (Rayna is a dusky beauty) – so that was nice. However with this book, we get closer to the Page 3/beautiful people/Karan Johar-esque romance formula (I think this book would make a great Bollywood film, especially with the sheen and the glamor of the beautiful locales), so I’m hoping that in her future work she breaks out and gives us a distinctive voice with more character development; I’d like more of Rayna and Neel.

As before, the author does well on the attraction-that-can’t-be-denied theme, and the blow hot-blow cold storyline keeps things rolling. If you are looking for an entertaining romance read, this is it.

Audiobooks that failed me (and other sad stories)

Written By: amodini - Sep• 10•14

Ready Player One: A NovelYes, this is that kind of a tale, so you might grab a box of tissues before you sit down to read this.

This blog post is a story – a story of how “mainstream reviewers” can fail you and of how the most raved about book might not be for you. Yup – boohoo and all that. The book here is “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline.

I’d heard so much about “Ready Player One” that I was ready to read/listen to it like now. The other book I’d heard so touted, had been Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” which I loved; it remains one of my favorite books. I figured I couldn’t go wrong with “Ready Player One” either. The library had a waiting list (of course) and so I waited, until I could put on my headphones and Wil Wheaton’s voice would deliver to them a story I’d love, love, love. Well, my turn came. I checked out the book. And listened. And am so not moved. Ah, disillusionment!

RPO is a treasure hunt of the future (2044 to be precise), a dystopian future where our intrepid young high-schooler hero, one Wade Watts, lives in the “stacks” – the vertical trailer parks of the future. The internet has spawned a virtual world, the OASIS, where one can immerse oneself, for hours on end, completely free of charge. The creator of the OASIS, an ubergeek named James Halliday, is dead and has left behind a great puzzle for the world to solve. The prize to this puzzle is Halliday’s massive fortune. Wade, along with scores of other treasure hunters (called gunters) have devoted their lives to treasure hunting for Halliday’s famed “easter egg”.

Sounds interesting enough, right? I thought so too. So what went wrong? Firstly, this is probably a Young Adult novel, written in a very YA fashion. The language isn’t too sophisticated, but I don’t think I would care about that as much if the characters had been interesting and not so annoyingly infantile. So, yes you say, the hero is a high schooler – what did you expect? Valid point, I rebut, but could he have been a little less cloddish?

Wade is your average bombastic, braggart-ish young man and I found him aggravatingly puerile. He’s an underdog, no parents, lives with his nasty aunt and is dirt poor – I want to root for him, I really do. But I can’t. His attitude puts me off. Wade and his friends are a bunch of nerds (great) who may not take kindly to you if you express disinterest in their geekfest (not great). They are not grown-up, considerate, tolerant people (like all brainy geeks should be), but shallow and a little mean-spirited. The fact that they bandy about juvenile-sounding insults like “suck”, “shit”, “f*ck” doesn’t endear them to me either.

Then there is a female gunter, Art3mis, for whom Wade has feelings. But, she, smart and self-deprecating, is described from the male point of view as “hot”, “all curves” etc. (you know, because the gaming industry doesn’t objectify women enough). Within seconds of meeting her (in a virtual world), Wade wants to propose marriage. Indeed.

The writing is clunky and there is a whole lot of “telling” (not showing) going on in this book, as Cline fills us in on Halliday’s treasure hunt. I had to give up on this book, after about 4 hours of listening, when I realized I didn’t care about Wade anymore.

I’m going to chalk this one up to lad-lit. And really, lad-lit is so much worse than chick-lit.

Book Review : The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet

Written By: amodini - Sep• 04•14

The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet: A NovelTitle : The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet
Author : Bernie Su, Kate Rorick
Genre : Romance
Publisher : Touchstone
Pages: 400
Publish Date : June 24, 2014
Source : Netgalley / Publisher ARC
Rating : 2.5/5

I am a certified fan of Pride and Prejudice. I have read the book too many times to count. I have listened to the audiobook a number of times. And I have watched/tried to watch all tv/film adaptations of the novel. My favorite one is the 1995 BBC adaptation starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. So ofcourse when I see this Lizzie Benett spinoff, touted to be a modern interpretation of P & P, I am all over it.

This book is an adaptation of the web series which is availale to watch on Youtube here. You know the story of course. This book follows the original plotline, where all situations have been upgraded to a more modern version.

Lizzie here is a student doing a bunch of video blogs for her thesis project. Her elder sister Jane is still nice and kind, and gentle and considerate and works for a pittance in the fashion industry. Lydia is still the trouble-making and boy-crazy younger sister to the prudent and smart Lizzie. Bingley is now Bing Lee , a soon to be doctor, who has taken up residence in a mansion. He has brought along with him his sister Caroline and his standoffish and icily rude friend William Darcy. Bad guy Wickham is a semi-sleazy swim instructor.

The characters are a little younger than in the original, or maybe they just appear younger. In Victorian England our Lizzie is a veritable old maid at 20, but their comportment and the formality of the era might have added to us perceiving them to be older. Nevertheless I was a little perturbed to see Bing Lee a young medical student (no one has any sense at that age!) and his friend Darcy, the owner and brains behind a computer gaming corporation.

The book reads like it is geared towards the YA market. The characters seem a little underdone and rough around the edges, and it seems post-read that the book has been contrived to fit around the P & P storyline. While the original Lizzie was a character in her own right, the book’s interpretation of her just seems like a superficial copy – which is a pity, since in the web series she does seem to possess a witty, sparkly personality.

I remember years ago that an Indian tele-serial had been based upon P & P. That had actually done quite well, because in modern day Indian society, marriage to a suitable young man is still the supposed goal of every young woman. In present day American society, the “man in want of a wife” scenario does not fit quite as well. I have watched a couple of the vlogs this book is based upon, and Mrs. Bennet’s Victorian mindset is much easier to take on film rather than in print.

This book might work as a companion to the web series (which is quite fun), but unfortunately (for me and all other readers) this does not work on its own. The authors seemed to have a fairly vivid imagination; I wish they’d put it to work on an original storyline.

Book Review : Flying Shoes by Lisa Howorth

Written By: amodini - Aug• 27•14

Flying ShoesTitle : Flying Shoes
Author : Lisa Howorth
Genre : Contemporary
Publisher : Bloomsbury
Pages: 336
Publish Date : June 17, 2014
Source : Netgalley / Publisher ARC
Rating : 3/5

Mary Byrd Thornton has received an unsettling phone call from a reporter seeking details about her little brother’s unsolved murder. The police are apparently reopening this 30 year old cold case. Mary and her family have since moved on. She now lives in a small Mississippi town with her art-dealer husband Charles and two kids. Since the police want her and her family back for questioning – they apparently have new leads – she must go back for a meeting. An unexpected ice storm is moving into the area, and Mary, petrified air-traveler, must find some way of getting from Mississippi to Virginia in really bad weather.

That’s the beginning of the novel, and it hooks you right in. However, right after the introduction of the murder mystery, the novel sidetracks into full-blown description mode, detailing for us various eccentric characters in Mary’s life. There’s Mary, her husband, her kids, her husband’s old schoolmate Mann, who’s a rich chicken farmer of sorts. Then there’s Mary’s help, an African American lady called Evagreen, with whom Mary has an odd relationship. There are also other characters around town – an odd-job man called Teever, and Ernest with whom Mary has a semi-flirtatious relationship. All these characters are in the novel because they influence Mary’s life. All are well-drawn.

From the book blurb I was expecting a murder mystery, and while that is present it is given very little space, and appears almost like a backdrop against which the character descriptions are set. Lisa Howorth writes beautifully, and her writing flows. I was quite content to go along and listen to her descriptions. It took me a while to realize that the descriptions and the vignettes of Mary’s life formed the bulk of the book, and that was a little disappointing. This novel is not for those of you who expect a straight-forward crime thriller or police procedural. This isn’t one; rather it is a novel detailing the aftermath of a terrible tragedy and the plight of a family-member desperately seeking some form of closure.

Given Howorth’s obvious talent, this book should have been an absolute must-read, for the right kind of audience. Publicizing this book as a murder mystery (when it isn’t one) does it a disservice and places this book in the hands of the wrong audience – an audience whose expectations it won’t meet. That said, I have to give credit where credit is due, and it goes to the author for pouring her heart out on paper (the book is based on a true unsolved murder).

Even though this book doesn’t deliver on it’s blurb’s promise, this is a good read for all those folks who enjoy a well-written, exquisitely described story of healing and closure.

Wordless Wednesdays #34

Written By: amodini - Aug• 20•14

Gaudi's Casa Mila, Barcelona, Spain

Book Review : Lock In by John Scalzi

Written By: amodini - Aug• 13•14

Lock InTitle : Lock In
Author : John Scalzi
Genre : Sci-fi
Publisher : Tor
Pages: 336
Publish Date : August 26, 2014
Source : Netgalley / Publisher ARC
Rating : 4/5

Amazingly, I lover-of-all-that-is-hard-science-fiction hadn’t read John Scalzi before. I corrected that by reading “Lock In” who’s protagonist is a disease-inflicted human living his life with the help of an android body.

Chris Shane lives in a futuristic world where a contagious disease, dubbed Hadens, causes a “lock-in” among its victims. Hadens affects humans in different ways – most have little to no side effects, some are completely physically paralyzed  or “locked-in” with fully functioning brains, and the third category have their brains modified by the disease enabling them to become (if they choose) Integrators.

Since there is no cure, and Hadens takes a toll every year, technology has been developed to enable paralyzed Haden’s sufferer’s (also called Hadens) to live out their lives in a physical world via robot bodies called threeps. “Locked-in” Hadens also have another option should they wish to traverse the world physically – they can up-load into another human, an “Integrator”, and assume control of that body for a short period of time. Our hero Shane having experienced complete lock-in as a child, and now a newly appointed FBI agent, fulfills his work requirements via his high-end threep.

Shane is assigned to the Hadens crime unit with his senior partner Agent Leslie Vann, and when a mysterious murder involving a Hadens Integrator comes to light, Shane has his first case on the job.

Lock In is a murder mystery set in a futuristic world. There are political influences – there is a new law ending subsidies for all Hadens, causing much protests and action in the Hadens community – none of which endear them to the larger non-Hadens world. Then there are economic implications of this law, which give rise to a whole other set of problems. When a Hadens dies in such an environment, everyone is suspect.

While the murder mystery is well done and works on its own, I really enjoyed the novel because of the skill with which this futuristic world is constructed. Scalzi gives much thought to details and answers the how-what-why questions which come with this fictitious world, so the sci-fi part of the story is well-grounded (IMO, half-baked sci-fi settings cause many a could-have-been-great novel to sink). It was quite interesting having the first person point of view from Shane’s threep, a robotic body which is also an advanced computer letting him have advantages like built-in recording, instant database lookup etc. that ordinary humans don’t.

I also liked Scalzi’s characters. Chris Shane is a rich kid with a privileged upbringing. He doesn’t need to work for a living, but does so because he wants to. He keeps a balanced head on his threep and is generally good humored, patient and pretty sharp. It’s also kinda helpful that bullets just zing off his metallic alloy body :-) and that he can simply dial down his threep’s pain receptors, when in a potentially painful skirmish. Agent Vann has her problems but Vann and Shane work well together as a team.

This was a well-rounded sci-fi novel – just my kind of book. I enjoyed it very much and look forward to reading other Scalzi novels. Hopefully a sequel or series based on Team Shane-Vann too?

Book Review : Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

Written By: amodini - Aug• 06•14

Born ConfusedTitle : Born Confused
Author : Tanuja Desai Hidier
Genre : Mystery
Publisher : Scholastic
Pages: 512
Publish Date : July, 2003
Source : Netgalley / Publisher ARC
Rating : 3.5/5

I’m no teenager and generally try to keep away from Young Adult books, but I chose to read this one because of the familiar Indian strains in it. Born Confused (taken from the acronym ABCD – American Born Confused Desi) is told in first person by Dimple Rohitbhai Lala, an American teenager of Indian heritage. Dimple’s parents are Indian born, with strong ties to their roots and culture. They attempt to instill their cultural values in Dimple, but she at 17, is resistant, and wants to be true-blue American. However change is coming, in ways Dimple never imagined.

Born Confused touches on various finding yourself /coming of age issues, the angst of growing up, and yes – the obligatory romance. When Dimple first meets frumpy desi-boy Karsh, she is not impressed and says as much to her closest pal Gwyn. She realizes later that appearances can be deceptive, when she meets him later sans familial interference, at a desi party. As her own interest peaks, his cools, and she finds herself at the opposite end of her usual quandary: maybe she is not desi enough for him?

This book starts off pretty well – I liked Dimple and her wry sense of humor. She seemed reasonably grounded and an all-around nice person. Her angst and the questions in her mind were to be expected; the burden of preserving age-old heritage is heavy :-) . The story was predictable and ran the route of most coming-of-age novels, but it was pleasant enough and believable enough. Hidier does try to force a wide variety of issues into this one novel with the attendant cliches, but that again is par for the course, it being her first novel when the outpouring of feelings and emotions is generally unrestrained and makes it into print.

On the negative side, there were a few issues too. I was a little bemused to see Dimple’s parents pushing her towards a “suitable boy” at 17. I can understand her parents wanting her to understand and respect her culture, and preferably choose a partner from the same background, but this early? I just couldn’t imagine them pushing her towards a (serious ?) romantic relationship this young. Then I was a little surprised to see some of the activities Karsh thought suitable while hanging out. Also while I did like the fact that Hidier tries to give us an inside look at Dimple’s state of mind, at times the description meandered into pages and pages of juvenile-sounding introspection. Good editing might have transcribed this fulsome prose into reader-suitable words.

This is an interesting book for teens, although there is some content that may not meet parental approval, so I’d suggest reading it prior to buying it for a young one :-) .

Audiobook Review : The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Written By: amodini - Jul• 31•14

The Goldfinch: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)Title : The Goldfinch
Author : Donna Tartt
Genre : Contemporary
Narrators : David Pittu
Publisher : Hachette Audio
Listening Length : 32 hours 24 minutes
Source : Library
Rating : 4/5

The Goldfinch in print is 775 pages long. In audiobook form this comes in at a whopping 32 hours! The longest audiobook I’ve listened to before this is Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance which was a long 24 hours, although so finely written that one didn’t quite notice the hours slip by. I listen to these audiobooks on my phone, and a 24 hour long audiobook is pretty large sized; my trusty little Samsung would take a minute or two just to start and stop the audio reading – so it’s not something I did thoughtlessly :-) . When I noticed the length of the Goldfinch, I shuddered to think of my poor phone struggling with the file size. Regardless I went ahead – because what’s a minute or two of load time when listening to a thing of beauty. Because thing of beauty it is – a long, long deliciously wrought and painstakingly explained thing of beauty.

Theodore Decker is our hero, and he’s only a boy of 13 at the beginning of this novel. When a tragedy leaves him an orphan he floats from one home to another, surviving childhood to grow up into an almost respectable member of society. However the mistakes of his youth have followed him into present day, demanding a high price.

That’s the nub of it really and the center of it all – Theo Decker’s rather colorfully varied life. Theo himself is not an unlikeable character. For a lot of the novel, he is a figure to be pitied, an orphan at the mercy of other adults. He is also the underdog as we see him struggle and sometimes succumb to situational pitfalls. But then there’s this other side to him, a desperate side hungering to fill the hole inside of him, not to picky about the means he chooses to fulfill this need.

I like Theo because Tartt sketches him so well, well-meaning but weak, striving to do the right thing, but getting side-tracked along the way; life is such a slippery slope. In my mind’s eye, Theo is a real person, so well has he been sketched. And not just him, the entire novel is proof of Tartt’s firm hold on her subject and story-line. She writes with such surety; her characters are rock-solid. You could come at them 10 different ways and they wouldn’t budge because they are who they are. We know them so well, that when they act, we just nod and go along with the flow.

As good as it was, I do think this tome of a book could have used some editing. In many places Tartt seems to go on and on, describing fairly esoteric experiences like Theo’s drug proclivities or descriptions of places and people. Normally I love description – a fulsome description helps the emotion sink in – but there has to be a balance and this book did not have it. If I had been reading these passages, my eyes would have glazed over. Since I was not reading but listening to it, I tended to drift off and lose the flow, only alighting back on earth when her ethereal description seemed to come back to the present point in the story. Not quite ideal – this drifting off, but there you have it.

The narrator David Pittu is exceptional. Consider that there are quite a few characters in this novel – Theo, his mother, the Barbour family, Theo’s friend Boris, furniture maker Hobart, and Theo’s lady loves – and Pittu gives each one an almost unique voice and style of speaking. Quite amazingly done!

Despite it’s length, this still remains a remarkable book. Recommended for people with the patience gene.