Book Review — The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

It is 1785 and Mr. Jonah Hancock, a merchant trader from Deptford has chanced upon a miracle like no other. Having lost his prized ship Calliope and left with a mermaid, Hancock can barely contain his dejection. But much to his wonder and disbelief, he comes to realize what a jackpot he has struck upon when this mermaid launches him into a world of fame and wealth. It is there that he meets Angelica Neal, a renowned courtesan. Afraid that his reputation would take a nosedive, he tries to extricate himself from the company of those who engage in prostitution. Hence begins the story of a man and woman whose lives are propelled in different directions by the very creature that he has caged.

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The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock was equal parts enjoyable and overwhelming. Set in the 1780s London, we are privy to a society that is not only speckled with simplicity and sophistication but also far removed from other cultures in its mannerisms. Imogen Hermes Gowar’s writing is one with the times, ornate and flowery. Some of the phrases, although alien in today’s time, represent an era bygone. And it is because of that very reason that it took me a while to fully get accustomed to the writing style and thereby, the novel. At times I found the narration to be discursive, so focused on the descriptions of nature and setting that it drew away from the core of that scene.

The plot in itself is very rich, filled with all the likeliness of a classic novel. I particularly enjoyed reading about their avant-garde lifestyles; of gowns and social calls, marrying for stature and deriving at a sense of self through ostentation. The mermaid, while central to the progression of the story, takes a backseat and leaves the humans to their own devices. Of course there is a hint of the surreal, especially in the chapters that displayed the mermaid’s consciousness and when the mortals were within it’s vicinity. The ending wasn’t entirely clear to me, but I can guess.

Enveloped in a stunning velvety cover that has embossed oyster shells, this historical fiction displays an array of characters, some down to earth in their profession and others wanting of the highest glory. Mr. Hancock, in my mind, is a simple man, whose life becomes much more complicated than he’d like. Angelica Neal, on the other hand, is someone who doesn’t leave any leaf unturned in her attempt to be loved and come by a fortune. Apart from the storyline of the main characters, I was intrigued by that of Polly’s. What little I saw of her personality, I quite liked and I would have liked it even more if her story had been pursued to a proper end.

I also found it amusing that the mermaid captured by Mr. Hancock almost becomes their undoing. In trying to be masters of a foreign species, they themselves become puppets to its allure. This is an approx 500 paged novel, but it feels so much longer. I would suggest reading it at a comfortably slow pace and not in a hurried manner. If you’re looking to breeze through a historical fiction, then this is not the one. That said, it is beautifully written and will transport you to another world; so give it a try, if the synopsis sounds agreeable to you.

Ratings – 3.5 out of 5 stars

What do you get out of it? A surreal tale of 18th century London that has all the likeliness of a classic novel plus a hint of magic realism.

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

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Book Review — A Murder on Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

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Sujata Massey’s historical fiction, A Murder on Malabar Hill takes us through pre-Independence India, positing Parveen Mistry as the first female solicitor in 1920’s Bombay. Working at her father’s law firm, Mistry Law, Perveen dives neck deep into the family matters of the Farid widows, who having lost their husband, Mr. Omar Farid know not what’s in store for them, financially and socially. But when secrets begin to threaten the foundation of this family, Perveen realizes that she will have to get to the root of the murder that occurs in Malabar Hill in order to protect the interests of the women and their children.

WOWOWOWOW. This is such a fast paced and wonderful read! It surpasses your expectations for a normal detective fiction, with its inclusion of cultural emblems and addressing of social issues. For what’s inherently typecasted as a murder mystery, there’s a second story that runs parallel to the main plot. That is of Perveen and a man she falls in love with. And for the longest time I wondered why it had been included, but soon you come to understand that the flashback chapters which are set in 1916-17 help give depth to Perveen’s character in a way you don’t, initially, see coming. This novel has been well written and saying that Sujata Massey has a brilliant grasp over the language would be an understatement in light of how masterfully she has given life to the book.

I didn’t find the mystery predictable and so I really enjoyed the long drawn process of discovering clues, unearthing suspects etc. The author does take her time in establishing the case, but it’s all worth the wait. There were many a times I got furious, because we are made privy to how women were treated in early 1900s. Themes of female seclusion, male dependence, domestic abuse are dealt with by the story and you can’t help but get angry at how easy it is for people to oppress women. Especially when Perveen’s desire to study law was met with such sexist criticism from her male classmates and professors. I was glad that Perveen’s parents were the supportive, understanding kind. One of things I loved about A Murder on Malabar Hill is that we are introduced to Parsi culture as well as personal laws. This helps shape our opinion about 1920s India. The suspense will keep you at the edge of your seat throughout. All in all, I really liked this book and I would recommend it to everyone who enjoys fiction.

Ratings – 4 out of 5 stars

What do you get out of it? A bewildering mystery and an inspirational female protagonist who stands for women’s rights at a time when they were considered inferior.

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

Book Review – – – Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

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Austen’s writings always have a touch of romantic intrigue, positing atleast one character in an unstable relationship. Sense and Sensibility is no different in that regard, but it allows us a glimpse of harsh familial realities when wealth is in question. Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, are forced to leave their home in Sussex and move to Barton for reasons best described as unfortunate and estranging. It is here that Elinor must cope with being separated from Edward Ferrars and Marianne finds a handsome beau in Mr. Willoughby to lessen her sorrow of being distant from her childhood home. Many social calls and acquaintances later, the two sisters come to realize just how many double standards govern the society.

I love Jane Austen’s books, but Sense and Sensibility was a little too overwhelming. Reading the unabridged version felt like reading a book in slow motion. Every scene is described in such detail that you feel like even though nothing much is going on in terms of action, you’re still unable to move past it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in awe of her writing style! As you’d probably know, her books tend to be very wordy, with long drawn out sentences and unusual word usage. That style of writing is allegorical of her times and enables her to narrate the story of each character with a precision that’s unknown today. And I admire that! It’s just that it took me forever to finish this book… The plot has many similarities with her other works. But somehow it never gets old. I really like how the novel doesn’t aim for a HEA for all the characters and just leaves some of them dealing with the broth they’ve cooked. The reason why Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters were forced to leave the place they’ve called home all their lives is quite disheartening.

As for the characters, once again, I only liked a couple of the main ones – Marianne, Elinor and their mother. Every other character, although not villainous, has some role to play in the mob psychology that heavily influences the happenings of the novel. Mr. Willoughby is a spineless fool and I couldn’t bring myself to pardon him. The third sister, Margaret, doesn’t really make much of an appearance. At times, you may wonder why Elinor chose to stay silent about her sufferings, but it says a whole lot about the strength of her character. There are some cliches at play in the book, like jilted lovers, condescending mother-in-laws, pedestaling beauty and wealth. Overall, it’s a draggy yet moderately enjoyable read. If you’re looking to try classics, I’d recommend Pride & Prejudice and Persuasion by Jane Austen. On the other hand, if you don’t mind a slow paced book, you could pick this one. Let me know what you think about it, if you have read Sense and Sensibility. 

Ratings – 3 out of 5 stars

What do you get out of it? A slow decent into Victorian society that highlights the errs in judgment and injustices people were accustomed to. Also, this book places great importance on collective living, social life etc.

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 — This Was A Man by Jeffrey Archer

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

The final book in the Clifton Chronicles, This Was A Man is a finale like no other. Jeffrey Archer, effortlessly, brings together several generations of the Barringtons and Cliftons; binding them in a stronghold of family, friendship and love. While Emma and Harry Clifton are steadily climbing the ladder of success, knocking off obstacles with a flick of their hand, their granddaughter Jessica gets blinded by a carefree lifestyle, careening into a destructive future. Lady Virginia Fenwick plays the part of a puppeteer in an attempt to stay afloat at the cost of others’ despair.

Brother and sister are pitted against each other in their own battle for justice when Emma and Giles’ views on a bill demand their efforts to be poured into oppositional political parties. Whereas, fate plays its part in the lives of Adriane Sloane, Desmond Mellor and Jim Knowles, as a wicked turn of events has them scurrying to gather support. This last installment, applaudable in every right, is a reminder of the glory of a writer – be that of Jeffrey Archer or Harry Clifton – both of whom, have left a marvelous legacy behind.

Having read the previous book in the series, I was eager to know how everything would be concluded in this one. Even though the book opens with a mystery, I felt that the initial few chapters were a little slow paced and often, I found myself trying to hard to stay tuned to what was going on. I didn’t care much for the politics. But Jeffrey Archer is no ordinary writer. And I was buckled in for a thrilling ride soon after. One of the major brownie points that this novel garners is its characterization. The depth of character is evident as we follow multiple storylines taking place simultaneously. I particularly loved the sections with Jessica Clifton and Lady Virginia, because they were so unpredictable. Samantha Clifton doesn’t have much of a presence in the book, but that is alright.

This novel only gets better and better with each chapter. It engulfs you with myriad emotions at the most unexpected of times. Needless to say, Giles Barrington is a splendid orator. His speeches, his points of debate left me in awe of the power he possess to tide over his audience with mere words. I haven’t read the whole series and yet I was so drawn towards the book, I can’t begin to imagine the state of other Jeffrey Archer fans who have been following the Cliftons from the beginning. The bonds of family and friendship that have been highlighted are beyond commendable. So much so that I wanted to be a part of something as magnanimous. I definitely loved this book a lot more than the previous one. And would encourage you to pick it up, if you haven’t already. It will keep you hooked till the very end and when it does end, you’d be left with a feeling of something great that has washed over you and is now receding. Kudos to Jeffrey Archer! This Was A Man, indeed.

Ratings – 4 stars on 5

Meera

Book Review — Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

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Set in 1880s Paris, Belle Epoque explores commercialization of beauty but with an appalling twist. In an attempt to leave behind her restrictive life back home, Maude runs away to Paris, with grand dreams prodding her escape. But the Paris of her dreams shatters to present her an unwelcome reality – that wealth and appearance are what elevates one’s status in society. By chance, she comes across a job opportunity that requires her to abandon all shame and pride, so as to work for the upliftment of the upper class folks. Will Maude give in to serving others while disregarding her esteem or weave a better future for herself at the risk of losing her means of survival?

This book was a gem from the start. Maude’s plight is truly deplorable and so I was more than overjoyed when she makes the acquaintance of Paul. Initially everything passes smoothly, even though she has to swallow her esteem. But soon, she is balancing two swords on her head, and any mistake on her part will definitely lead to chaos. The storyline is exceptional, nothing I’ve ever read before. It is not draggy at all and everything is narrated superbly. The author’s writing style is easy to get accustomed to and doesn’t distract you from absorbing the story. I found myself enjoying every bit of it. The author makes references to the construction of the Eiffel Tower and how some of the people in Paris considered it a monstrosity. This further reiterates the fact that tastes are always changing and what is of value at one point, need not remain so later.

Maude’s character has been penned down to be a survivor – strong and diligent. No doubt, she makes some silly mistakes. But with the concept being about embracing your flaws, I think the book sends out a wonderful message that is very relevant even today. Her friendship with Marie-Josee is a welcome reprieve. Marie-Josee acts like an elder sister and I felt that her support was what made the whole ordeal easier for Maude. Isabella’s character was refreshing, because not only does she stand out with her unconventional views but also because she fully makes use of the rebel in her. All in all, this was a lovely book; one that I would recommend to all who enjoy contemporary fiction. I will definitely be looking out for other works of the author.

Ratings – 4 stars on 5

Meera

Book Review — Let The Game Begin by Sandeep Sharma

I received this book as part of a giveaway on Goodreads. 

Sandeep Sharma in his novel, Let the Game Begin, explores the world of monarchy, curses and the origin of chess by creating a wonderful concoction of two genres, namely, Historical Fiction and Murder Mystery. The plot revolves around two rivaling kingdoms – Chaturanga and Sarprakt. The ill fate and reckless decision making of the respective kings lead to the death of many, 4000 years later. In the present time, police officers Surya and Pratham are bewildered by a serial killer who seems to be mimicking the actions of a historical figure. But when someone from the past comes knocking on their door, the officers don’t know if the lines between the past and the present are blurred or if someone from the present has been meticulous with their research.

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The plot to this novel was absolutely fantastic. I love historical fiction and so I lapped this up from the start. Without a doubt, the sections about Chaturanga and Sarprakt were my favourites. What’s different in the structure of this novel is that even within chapters, 2-3 paragraphs at a time are divided to showcase different periods or the POV of different characters. One of the things that I didn’t like much about the book was the characterization. While the characters from the historical portion were all fine, Surya and Priya’s relationship felt a little forced. Moreover, some of the other characters were entirely too gullible, especially for the position they occupy. Another bothersome detail was the fact that there were way too many grammatical (editing) errors. I wish it had been polished better. The fact that chess had been incorporated into the plot was interesting, something I hadn’t read before. The story isn’t all that predictable which I found to be great. As with murder mysteries, it can become a little easy to pin point the criminal. The pace of the novel was great too. It was gripping and at no point did I think it was boring. I wanted to give it a better rating but there were a few things here and there that could have been changed for the better.  Overall, I really liked this novel. I would definitely recommend it to all those who enjoy a good thriller or historical fiction.

Ratings – 3 stars on 5

Meera