The Queen’s Last Salute

Writing historical fictions about characters from Indian history is never an easy feat. It is like treading on thin ice. While the liberty to creatively bridge the gap between the known and the unknown rests with the author, chances are that they are bound to offend someone with their interpretation of these historical occurrences. Moupia Basu’s The Queen’s Last Salute is one such novel that takes you through the inner workings of the Bundlekhand region of India during the nineteenth century. One of the most interesting dynamics at play in this book is how it highlights the power equations between the Indians, Mughals and Britishers during that time.

While the title suggests that it focuses on the life and times of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, it actually tells us the story of some individuals who were monumental to her time on the throne. For the same reason, I was a little disappointed because I had been hoping to read a lot more about the Queen of Jhansi than we actually get to read. Nevertheless, the author has managed to neatly tie all of the characters’ stories together to form one fast paced, intriguing novel.

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Chandraki, who is Rani Lakshmibai’s companion, comes across as the protagonist of the novel. We follow her journey into enemy territory as she sets out to the kingdom of Orchha to look for a loved one. I found her to be an unreliable main character as her actions and thoughts would keep oscillating between two extremes. Even her dalliance with Jaywant lost steam soon after it began. Towards the end of this book, another character steps into the role of her love interest – that felt really unnecessary and lacked conviction.

As far as historical fictions go, what I did appreciate about this book is the simple language it has been written in, which makes it easy to get swept up in this world that Moupia Basu describes. There’s no use of needless descriptions and flowery words. The manner of storytelling was very captivating. The chapters are short, which is something I like. In the beginning, I kept wondering why we are reading so much about Riyaz Khan, Chandraki and the Queen of Orchha, but it all makes sense post-climax. The turning point in the novel is something I had suspected, but that didn’t deter me from enjoying reading the book.

Amidst all the dramatics and political clashes, you get a glimpse of a society that has still not come to terms with the fact that women can wield swords and ride horses. So their treatment of such deviance from norms helped acquaint us with the regressive mindsets. On the whole, it was worth reading cause it had this quality of being unputdownable, but looking at it critically, there were just some aspects of the novel that could have been worked on, like certain character developments and plot points.

★ ★ ★

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

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The Peshwa: War of the Deceivers

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Tell me that a 400+ paged novel about politics, war and strategy will have me rooted to the spot for over 6 hours and I’d probably have laughed in your face. Well, I’d have done exactly that before having read The Peshwa: War of the Deceivers by Ram Sivasankaran. Set against the backdrop of the Mughal Empire and the increasing agitation of the Marathas against the Mughals, this second installment in the Peshwa series begins with a sense of alarm as someone from the royal family meets an unfortunate end. It then picks up the pace, touching upon the conquests of Peshwa Bajirao Bhat as he tries to weed out the Mughals from his homeland. However, a secret group of assassins, known as the Scorpions, continue to pose a serious threat, ravaging villagers and disrupting Rao’s attempts to bring the Emperor to his knees. It falls on him to capture these elusive hitmen before they get to his family and lay waste to the Maratha Empire.

Ram Sivasankaran’s writing equips you with the tools for imagining exactly what he is trying to convey. I was glad to see that it didn’t focus too much on nature imageries, rather chose to spend all its powers of persuasion in delivering crisp scenes, with an equal amount of dialogue and description of the happenings. The cruelty with which the assassins and tyrants dealt a blow to the Marathas and Sikhs is absolutely horrendous. But the author had the good sense to depict it in a subtle manner and not get into the gory details that would’ve been entirely too harsh on young, impressionable minds.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are several words in Hindi, Marathi and Sanskrit – all of which have been explained in the glossary. Something that aided in making this book extremely gripping is the fact that each of the chapters (sometimes the subsections too) followed different storylines. So you could be reading about Bajirao or Emperor Muhammad Shah or Kashibai or Nizam Ul Mulk or any of the several other characters that are featured in this adventurous, action-packed story. While the illustrations that intervene the writing are simple, they reinforce what is being told and so were a welcome distraction.

Oscillating between pride at the depicted valor of some heroic historical figures and exhilaration at the pace with which the plot of the novel advanced, I couldn’t believe how genius some of the plot points were. It truly takes a mastermind to weave such intricate designs into a tapestry borrowed from Indian history. Speaking of history, I’m not sure to what extent some aspects of this novel are true and where exactly the author’s imagination steps in to add some seasoning. But collectively, this was such an impactful and awe-inspiring account. I took a peek at the Goodreads page and was so disheartened to see that a third book in the series hasn’t been announced yet. But be sure that the moment it is out in the market, I’m going to bring home a copy. Meanwhile, you should pick up The Peshwa: War of the Deceivers for a gala time. Take my word for it, you won’t be disappointed!

Thank you Writers Melon and Westland Books for sending me a copy of this book in exchange of an honest review.

★ ★ ★ ★.5

Book Review — Fortune’s Soldier by Alex Rutherford

If I’ve learned one thing about Hindustanis, it’s their endurance, their patience. When I hear my fellow officers whining on in the mess, I think how much we could learn from these people if only we wanted to… if only we made an effort…

Nicholas Ballantyne was meant to enjoy his life in Glenmire, Scotland, but when an unprecedented move on his uncle’s part sends him across the world to Hindustan, he becomes deeply involved in the changing political scenario of the nation. As an employee of the Company, Nicholas ventures into the heart of its presidencies in Calcutta and Madras. It is there that he displays the true meaning of loyalty and humility, racing from one battlefield to the next, protecting those he loves and serving the Englishmen who’ve given him a chance to rebuild the name, Ballantyne.

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I enjoy reading historical fictions and this one features my homeland, so of-course I wasn’t going to pass it up. Moreover, it promised a great deal of adventure surrounding the operations of the East India Company in the 1700s. That is a subject I’m not very familiar with and so, I couldn’t wait to see how Alex Rutherford would combine this fictitious storyline with the recounting of events that actually happened in world history. What impressed me from the very beginning is the authors ability to characterize Nicholas in such a way that he becomes a full-fledged, realistic person, one who begins to surprise you with his strength of character. And I feel that it is this very quality about the writing style that prevented the entire tome from being dull. Even though we read about many battles and war council meetings, I wasn’t bored of it (barring the last couple of chapters) because I was fully invested in Nicholas’ as the lead.

The writing style is not over the top and neither is it too simple or plain. It doesn’t make allusions to any event or occurrence in a way that leaves you perplexed or unable to proceed reading the book without a quick dash to Google. That was another aspect that made me the like the novel. Apart from Nicholas, I enjoyed reading about Tuhin Singh. He is a respectful steward and friend to Nicholas, often shown to be just as (if not more) brave and has strong opinions about the Company’s operations in Hindustan. He is not easily fooled or subjugated. I felt that Meena’s and Lucia’s characters were not explored enough. They could have played a more significant role.

From the beginning, we know that Nicholas is going to be this heroic character, and so it is the stories of Robert Clive and George Braddock that introduce the themes of greed for power, communal rivalry, corruption, betrayal etc. This book also brings to light the opinions of several Mughal rulers towards Hindus. And so, religion is evidently a common symbol throughout. By the time I’d read past page number 350, I was getting worn out by the sheer quantity of battles that are spoken about in this book. That said, I appreciate the ease with which these stories are delivered to us. A majority of this book makes for a very immersive read which will surely have your rapt attention. Nicholas’ adventures were thrilling to read about! And so, I’d definitely urge you to give it a try, if you are interested in historical fictions.

Rating – 3.5 out of 5 stars

What do you get out of it? An insightful story about the East India Company’s interest in Hindustan and the resultant changing dynamics within the nation.

Book Review — The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

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Madeline Miller has a way with words. Reading The Song of Achilles was like swaying with the waves, the ocean lapping at you and the peace making you one with the environment. It was soothing, inviting and towards the end, a surge of emotions. I hadn’t felt this connected to a book in the longest time and so, was more than eager to get swept up in Patroclus’ narration. Told from his point of view, the novel builds a timeline of events that have seen Patroclus and Achilles together, wrapped in a cocoon of love and support for one another. While we are introduced to Patroclus as a young boy of 9 years age, floundering under his father’s decision to present him as a suitor for Princess Helen, it is much later that he grows into an individual in his own right.

The author delivers the story of Patroclus and Achilles with such beauty, as to absorb us into the book, unable to set it down even for one moment. I was especially convinced of her genius when the scenes pertaining to war and politics, instead of diminishing my interest, furthered my desire to know more of what had transpired. In all its unabashed honesty, Miller depicts the foolishness of humans; the manner in which the pride and prejudice of kings have ushered in their downfall. Bound to the story with ropes of intrigue and awe, I kept wishing that Achilles had had more clarity of thought, allowing him to assess the situation better and take decisions that might have (sort of?) prevented a great deal of mishap. One thing you’re going to have to keep in mind is that this novel mentions a large number of mythological figures, which means atleast a hundred Greek names bouncing off your mind. They weren’t easy for me to remember, particularly the names of the secondary characters. But rest assured, the twenty or so important ones will remain in your memory.

It was a mesmerizing thing indeed to read about Patroclus and how he changes from an ordinary, under-confident lad to one who stands up for people, knows his worth in war and is incredibly courageous. Achilles’ character arc, on the other hand, takes a surprising dip. I like the inclusion of Briseis’ character. She plays a pivotal role in Achilles’ life and brings a new dynamic to Patroclus’ identity. The Song of Achilles is abundant with themes of love, politics, greed, slavery, monarchy to name a few. On the whole, it was such a pleasant experience reading about the eternal nature of Patroclus and Achilles’ relationship. I can’t believe that I put off reading it for so long. Now that I have, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that this has become one of my all time favourites. Highly recommend it to those who enjoy reading mythological fiction. PICK. IT. UP. NOW.

Rating – 5 out of 5 stars (and more!)

What do you get out of this book? An epic story about two epic characters from Greek mythology, with a dash of romance, politics and friendship.

Book Review — Chanakya by Ashok K. Banker

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STORY: Ashok K. Banker in the first installment of his historical fiction series, the Chanakya trilogy, introduces us to the legendary figure as a young boy of 7 years age, also called Vishnu Gupta. Far from his home, in the city of Pataliputra, there’s a minister (Maha-Amatya Kartikeya) who rules by brute force and evokes great terror in the minds of the citizens. When Vishnu and his family head to Pataliputra for a congregation, his life gets bound in the chains of wanting to protect his family and doing the right thing.

 

REVIEW: I’ve always been intrigued by Indian historical fictions related to characters from the epics. And this one was such a wonderful read! I finished reading it in one day. The plot presents certain broad themes of battle between good and evil, importance of knowledge, tradition, monarchy etc. But the narrative that fills in the blanks is so refreshing because it draws a profile of an individual we’ve come to see as a  master-thinker, a guide to Bindusara and Chandragupta Maurya. So to read about Chanakya as a 7 year old was so fulfilling.

He has been portrayed as a boy who was extremely intellectual and had great powers of logic, understanding, far superior than the gurus and adults of that time. At times the maturity he displays can stupefy you; after all how often do you find children or even teenagers nowadays with such clarity of thought. The pace of the novel is fast and gripping. There are a few Sanskrit terms used here and there, but they enrich your reading experience all the more. The language used in this novel is quite suitable for intermediate readers. If you are not very well versed in English, you might want to keep a dictionary at hand. That said, you must read Chanakya by Ashok K. Banker. It is a splendid read, one that I highly recommend! I simply CANNOT wait for the second book in this trilogy.

RATING: 4.25 out of 5 stars

WHAT DO YOU GET OUT OF IT: An engaging tale of how Chanakya’s intelligence held him in high stead and brought him face to face with corrupt leaders.

Thank you Writers Melon and Westland Books for sending me a copy of this book in exchange of an honest review.

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. 

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