Book Review — The Sacred Sword by Hindol Sengupta

Thank you Penguin Random House India for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

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Summary – The Sacred Sword chronicles the rise of Guru Gobind Singh, a Sikh warrior to be reckoned with. At the prime age of 9 years, Gobind Rai’s childhood came crashing down when his father, Guru Tegh Bahadur, was assassinated by the Mughals. In order to restore the Sikh faith in the minds of thousands of people, Gobind assumes the position of guru and begins to train villagers. He builds the Khalsa, a group of extraordinary warriors who mirror the values of Sikhism and fight to defend its honor. Despite all of his successes, the northern kings underestimate his power, plotting with Emperor Aurangzeb to defeat the guru. But they too learn by experience, what it is to cross Guru Gobind Singh. Hindol Sengupta’s novel merges history and fiction to create an empowering tale.

Review – Historical fiction is one of my all time favourite genres. I have never read anything by Hindol Sengupta, so this one was a pleasant surprise. Even though the author forewarns us that there’s a good mixture of fiction in the novel, I found myself rooted to the spot with all of the events I was learning about. I have never been exposed to stories about the Sikh community. And I felt like this book was great in conveying their values, mannerisms and other sensibilities. The fact that their sayings or proverbial phrases were even translated in English was a wonderful addition. You get to understand their religious texts and their perspective about God. Naturally, religion is a major theme in this novel. It poses quite a few questions about the clashing of two religions. In light of their outlook, you find yourself evaluating certain perspectives of yours. Further, the novel also explores elements like war, blind faith etc.

The writing style is refreshing and vivid. For a majority of the novel, I was so inspired by the portrayal of Guru Gobind Singh that I could almost imagine myself as a character in the story. Aurangzeb’s depiction did him no good. I wanted to punch him every time his narcissistic persona made an appearance. The battle scenarios were invigorating to say the least. All those who aren’t familiar with Hindi or Punjabi terms, fear not; there’s a sizable glossary at the end. While the story reflects Guru Gobind Singh’s expertise, we are not made privy to how he became so well versed. I would have liked to know about his upbringing and training. That would have made the story more realistic. Some of the poetry included is truly splendid. I really enjoyed reading The Sacred Sword because it was a worthy history lesson devoid of the monotony of textbooks. It is told from the point of view of Gobind and that makes it more special. If you enjoy historical fictions, PICK UP this novel.

What do you get out of it? Invaluable lessons about loyalty, bravery, the Sikh faith and the tyranny of the Mughals. Overall, a good update on Indian history.

Ratings – 4 out of 5 stars.

Book Review — One Of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus

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Five students with distinct identities are seemingly tricked into detention, but what comes after that is no joke. One of them is dead and the four who walk out aren’t exactly blameless. They all have an ax to grind with the dead boy, Simon. You see, he was to set in motion a series of events that would threaten to ruin their lives. But now, they’re doomed to a fate of harsh judgment, discrimination and possible social isolation. While their world is being ripped apart by the police and media, they find solace in unexpected ways. The truth about Simon’s death is a lot closer than they think.

The premise of this book is so fantastic that I knew I’d love it. You couldn’t possibly go wrong with a mystery like that. But unfortunately, it all fell flat after the beginning. The initial couple of chapters are interesting because we are slowly submerged into their world, trying to understand the characters and the storyline. After that I felt like the story wasn’t progressing AT ALL. Almost three forth of the novel comprises of the students being questioned time and again by detectives, with no leads whatsoever. And that was frustrating. The only saving grace in 66% of the novel was Bronwyn and Nate’s chemistry. That being said, the rest 34% of the novel was as mind blowing as I’d hoped the whole novel to be. It was fast paced, the characters were actively contributing to the plot, the mystery was getting solved, additional themes were being established.

The author’s writing style is great, because it builds the right kind of atmosphere, encouraging you to try to put the pieces together. I just wished that a majority of the novel had as much depth. Because the synopsis is evidence to how much potential this novel had. It resembles Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars and The Lying Game to a great extent and I loved that quality! The novel follows some tropes like that of the bad boy lead, geeky girl protagonist and high school hierarchy. While it addresses important issues like that of peer pressure, bullying, depression etc, it doesn’t add much value in terms of how to tackle those concerns. On the other hand, it’s treatment of gay sexuality is commendable. I liked how the climax played out and little else. I’m one of those few people who didn’t really love the book.

Rating – 2 out of 5 stars.

Book Review — Encounters Of A Fat Bride by Samah Visaria

Thank you Penguin Random House for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

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Encounters of a Fat Bride unveils the humiliation and harsh circumstances that an overweight woman has to undergo in order to find a groom in India. Madhurima Pandey has learnt to set aside her complex about feeling like the quintessential DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend). While all her friends find fairytale-esque romances, Madhu has devoted her time to work and study, so as to steer clear of the reality that no man in his right mind would ever choose her. But as per societal norms, marriage is the most essential rite of initiation into adulthood. And soon, her middle class family begins to invite a bevy of eligible men in the hopes that one of them would accept Madhu into their household. Samah Visaria’s novel aptly reflects the age-old customs of dowry and arranged marriage, complete with nosy neighbors and body-shaming parents of potential grooms.

It should be noted that some people may view this novel as being offensive, but I assure you that it is not. The author, in no way, propagates discriminating against “fat” brides. She is merely trying to convey to the audience that women should be confident regardless of their physical appearances.

As lighthearted as this book is, it also approaches some very serious issues like that of fat-shaming, mental health disorder, the dowry system (wherein the family of the bride compensates the groom’s family in cash or kind for going ahead with the marriage) and gender bias. While a lot of these issues are dealt with rationally, I wasn’t comfortable with the way mental health disorders were handled. You begin to think that Madhu is a very mature and educated woman, but then her sidelining of mental instability as “retarded” or “losing it” is totally not acceptable. On the other hand, through Madhu’s strength of character, we see how other negative elements are treated strictly. Her acceptance of her body image and understanding that all genders ought to be equal attempts to remove society’s misconceptions.

What’s unique is that the chapter titles feature a countdown; so you are made aware of the ending but you don’t know how that transpires. See, there’s some mystery in there too. The author’s writing style is colloquial, humorous and incorporates few Hindi terms. There are a couple of cliches, but nothing major. She makes several references to the movie industry, juxtaposing Madhu’s behavior and feelings which made light of the situation at hand. The narration is so convincing that I’d feel just as infuriated at society as Madhu does. I mean, it is appalling that people expect you to be a certain way and if you aren’t, they rain down the most horrible comments on you. I really liked the plot because it is still so relevant. Some aspects of the story were a little over the top, but you can’t expect anything less from a dramatic character like Madhu. Her character arc sees quite a change throughout the novel. Initially, she is against the idea of arrange marriage, then tired of being lonely, she begins to crave it. Even her outlook undergoes certain essential changes. Without a doubt, Madhu’s funny quips renders the entire novel so enjoyable that I finished it in one sitting. I liked the book and I look forward to anything else the author may write in the future. You should check it out!

Ratings – 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Book Review — Against All Odds by Danielle Steel

Thank you Pan Macmillan India for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

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Against All Odds comes together in the most seamless manner, portraying all the sentiments and decisions that knit a family close together. Kate Madison, after the death of her husband, has adeptly managed bringing up 4 children. She has also made a name for herself in the fashion world with the success of her clothing resale store, Still Fabulous. Now that her children are all grown up, she is more worried than ever, for they seem to be testing fate and making irrational decisions. Izzie, Kate’s oldest daughter, has fallen for a drug addict, with no job and no sense of responsibility. Justin, one of her twins, is planning to have children with his gay partner outside of wedlock. Whereas his sister, Julie can’t fathom the change in tide that threatens to rip her apart from her family. Willie, the youngest of the four leads a sparkling life, disparate from his family, who know nothing about his whereabouts. Despite her warnings, Kate’s children are hell bent on having their way and pay no heed to her. How she manages to protect them is a tale told in delicate and homely fashion in this novel by Danielle Steel.

Family drama is a genre right up my alley and this one was no different. It has all the makings of a winter, cozy read, while still exposing you to the alarming nature of some people in this world. It brings to light the woes of a single mother, who stops at nothing to prevent her children from making mistakes. Danielle Steel’s writing style is very comforting and easy to grasp. Her descriptions aren’t heavy, but just right. One thing I found odd is the repetitive sentences, i.e. a single sentence would be written in two different ways back to back, which made the paragraph a little monotonous. Some scenes weren’t as fluid as they could have been. Apart from that, I have no complaints. The way this story is narrated is quite different from Danielle Steel’s other novels.

The plot is wonderful and circles three generations of a family, along with their differing perspectives. Grandma Lou is a fun-loving character, without a worry and brings to life the term “wanderlust”. While she shares her daughter, Kate’s concerns occasionally, she has a more modern approach to parenting. Kate, on the other hand, takes way too much stress. I guess, it’s understandable. But at times, she’s bit of a hypocrite. Izzie and Julie’s characters were beyond my comprehension. They failed to see what was right in front of their eyes, particularly for girls of such high caliber jobs. I wished they had been smarter in dealing with their personal lives and had been more open with the rest of the family. I liked the section’s pertaining to Justin’s story a lot. His determination to start a family of his own perfectly reflects the values that were passed down to him. I loved the bond that all six of them share. It was the highlight of the novel. Willie doesn’t make much of an appearance in the book, except for the last couple of chapters. Initially, you are wont to think that Kate’s fears are irrational. But as the story progresses, I began to wonder if she was a psychic or not. There’s nothing extraordinary about this book, but the emotions that hold it together, makes it so endearing. I definitely enjoyed reading it and I’d recommend the book to all those who like Contemporary Fiction.

Ratings – 4 out of 5 stars.

Book Review — Domina by L.S. Hilton

Thank you Bloomsbury India for sending me a copy of this book for review. 

Having gotten away with a host of crimes in Maestra, Judith Rashleigh is living the high life of an artist. But good things do come to an end, and she becomes a victim of zersetzung, a German psychological technique of messing with the opponent’s mind. All of Domina chronicles Judy’s single mission to discover the Trojan horse who betrayed her to the Russian mafia. Judy’s people skills reward her with a network of individuals who pave the path towards the boss of the mafia, Yermolov. She must further utilize her power’s of persuasion and wit to barter a good deal with the devil, so as to keep her head, at the end of the day.

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Unfortunately, Domina wasn’t better than the first book. While Maestra had substantial plot points, Domina felt like an elaborate goose chase and that too, not an interesting one. The whole book simply revolves around Judith trying to find the one person who alerted Yermolov (the big bad wolf) about her antics. It gets very monotonous and quite a few of the sections were so boring that it was a struggle. Even the places she visited felt like a weak attempt at making the book interesting. The only thing that keep me going was the expectation that L.S. Hilton’s writing had to create some kind of a blast. Because she is so on point and knowledgeable about art, it’s impressive!

Towards the end, it does pick up pace. Once Judy has found the mystery man, she quickly moves onto coming up with a game plan. And she is damn good at it! All of those sections were captivating. Moreover, the character of Judith has been altered. In this novel, we initially see her as someone who has lost her enthusiasm for blood shed and sex. She’s almost like a drone, atleast in the first half. But one thing I enjoyed about this book was getting to know her backstory. We learn of her past life and somehow, that makes her character more appealing. After the climax, you don’t know what to expect and that ambiguousness also added brownie points. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this book. But I hope that L.S. Hilton comes out with something that places Judith in a different scenario.

Ratings – 2 out of 5 stars.

Book Review — Maestra by L.S. Hilton

Thank you Bloomsbury India for sending me a copy of this book for review. 

Judith Rashleigh, an undervalued art enthusiast begins to tire of her job at the London auction house. A chance meeting with an old friend draws her attention towards the Gstaad Club. Soon, she is rolling in money, but even such luxury comes at a price. A vacation gone wrong is the first step in her unbecoming. From there, she embarks on a journey of darkness; full of sex, swindling and swapping identities. In an attempt to escape her past, she is always on the run, thereby cornering herself into a place of bitterness and social isolation. L.S. Hilton’s Maestra is a lesson about cause and effect, delivered brutally through the peculiar persona of Judith.

The synopsis of this book does a great deal in creating an air of mystery around the story. But in actuality, once you’ve read a decent chunk of the book, you get the gist of how the rest of it is going to unfold. As such, there isn’t much of a surprise in terms of what befalls Judith. L.S. Hilton’s eye for detail is commendable. Some of the scenes are very elaborately laid out and at times, I’d lose track of what is relevant to the scene. A lot of the art terminology just flew above my head, so those sections felt a bit lackluster. Judith’s character is as normal as can be when the curtain raises. But gradually, we find out that she has some very odd tastes, very psychopathic in nature. Her sexual preferences are probably the most normal thing about her. I was quite astonished to see her character arc. Apart from the need to put her past behind her and a troublesome childhood, I couldn’t think of any reason for her alarming personality. My only hope was that she’d be redeemed towards the end.

The author paints a very intrinsic picture about the world of beauty and wealth; drawing a positive correlation between the two elements. When you factor in the extent of crimes committed and the ease with which they were brushed under the carpet, you are left wondering just how gullible security forces can be. This book is upheld by very few substantial characters – a quality I found to be impressive. In comparison to the descriptive content, there’s very little conversation between characters. And that itself depicts how reclusive and aloof Judith has become. It can be very draggy to not have a good balance of influential characters. But somehow, the author manages. Probably through the use of Judith’s fluctuating identity and adaptability to new places. One other thing I loved about the novel was the traveling. You are literally taken for a jolly ride around Europe, that too, in full glory. And you (the reader), unlike Judith, don’t have to deal with the mess she creates. All in all, I enjoyed reading Maestra; it was unlike anything I’ve read before. But I simply wish that there was a little more value in terms of story progression and thematic development. I am a bit confused as to where the second book is headed, since all the loose ends tie up nicely in this one. Check it out if this review or the plot further intrigues you.

Ratings – 3 out of 5 stars.

Book Review — Dangerous Games by Danielle Steel

Thank you Pan Macmillan India for sending me a copy of this book for review. 

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Alix Phillips has always been a zealous reporter; racing headfirst into the most risky jobs. She cares little for her own safety and so is able to devote her every waking second to the tasks at hand – be it visiting terrorist laden countries or interviewing volatile protest groups. But when she gets neck deep into a political affair that threatens to impact the nation at large, she is forced to reflect on the repercussions of her action. Not only her life, but the lives of people she cares about, is jeopardized as a result of her daring. Danielle Steel’s Dangerous Games, while juxtaposing the ethics of a reporter to that of the corrupt morals of a politician, brings to the limelight the transience of human life.

I was positively intrigued by the synopsis and was even more pleasantly surprised to find that the novel does great justice to it. The theme of politics is explored to a certain extent, but not so much so that it becomes draggy. Alix’s job and her perspective holds the entire story together. Battling the constant odds of surviving, she and Ben make for an excellent duo. It was a matter of time before the inevitable happened. Tony Clark’s mien has been penned down so meticulously that, as a reader, I abhorred him wholeheartedly. I wished that a certain community of people had been represented in a better fashion, as they tend to be naturally compartmentalized as villains. The characterization in the novel is wholesome and somehow, in the span of 300 pages, we are able to see characters grow and flourish.

A predictable plot point, in this novel, is fueled after the climax, which I felt added uniqueness to the structure. Usually with suspense novels, the climax is the absolute ending of the book. Here, Danielle Steel goes on to tie all the loose ends. The way things are delineated in this book makes for an interesting play on concepts. There is very little stereotyping and a larger questioning of the boundaries set by society, with special emphasis on labels, education and societal norms. As the story progresses, we are forced to think about life, priorities and weighing the pros-cons of a predicament. All in all, it was a bountiful experience and I would surely recommend this book to those who enjoy a good suspense.

Ratings – 4 stars on 5

Meera