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.

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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

Book Review — Sula by Toni Morrison

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Sula by Toni Morrison is a reflection of the cultural sensibilities of an African American community residing in Medallion during the 20th century. While the book is predominantly based off the lives of Nel and Sula, two childhood bestfriends, we are privy to how the society plays an important role in shaping them. This book chronicles the journeys that different people embark on in a white folks dominated world. Filled with irony, backstabbing and peculiar instances; Sula makes for an interesting read.

Honestly, what made me buy this book was the fact that I heard it had something to do with witches. But what I found was something so disparate and yet mesmerizing. It had such good content and diverse perspectives which all fell into place towards the end. Firstly, the fact that the African American’s were forced to live on a hilltop that was called “Bottom” was so horribly wrong. While the Whites enjoyed the comforts of the valley, they wanted to ensure that African Americans understood their place. Moreover, it was a difficult time in Medallion where work was seldom found. Sula’s family barely got by. As children, Sula and Nel were inseparable and so close. But then as they grow up, Sula’s way of life and opinions begin to diverge. When she comes back to town, after ten years, their friendship is not the same. This was my first Toni Morrison book and many a times, I found myself enthralled by her descriptions. The way she captures emotions, particularly Nel’s forlornness and Sula’s brazen thoughts, is different. The book is split into chapters that cover a year each. So that was a nice touch to the book. I did not love the book because at times I found myself a little lost with what was going on and so I would have to read the section again. Moreover, some of the characters were rather passive. But it should definitely be read atleast once.

Ratings – 3 stars on 5.

Meera

Book Review — Titu Mir by Mahasweta Devi

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Titu Mir, son of a farmer Nisar Ali is a righteous and willful lad. Since childhood, he has been running wild, helping others with no regard for the danger it might put him in. His family’s expectations of him carrying forward his father’s legacy are crushed when he chooses another life path. Titu goes on to become the voice of the poor folk in Bengal during the time of the British Raj. His valiance exudes the motivation needed to urge the farmers and vendors to take a stand. Soon his sons, brothers, nephew and friends joins him in this patriotic cause. He gathers courageous men from different communities and trains an army to revolt against the corrupt landlords and British authorities. Many planters, landowners and goons stand in his way, underestimating the strength of a lathi-wielding vigilante. They learn their mistakes the hard way. Mahasweta Devi captivates us with this historical tale about Bengal, the riots, the peasant community and the diktats of the British.

The setting of the plot is mostly rural Bengal and focuses on those subjugated by the Britishers. I found it a little difficult to keep track of the multiple villages and towns that were featured in the book. Nevertheless, the story is easy enough to understand. The unfair settlement laws held in place are upturned when Titu Mir takes matters into his own hands. Titu Mir has a family of his own, whom he leaves quite often to train individuals, meet allies, procure necessities etc. It is understandable that a soldier of the nation makes tons of compromises, so expecting him to devote time to his family would be a little unreasonable. The first few chapters involves major time leaps. We read about Titu as a kid and soon after as a teenager and then as an adult. There were many people who were instrumental to his achievements. Something I found to be enlightening about this book is that it clears certain misconceived perceptions about Muslims which gets added to, by the enemies, to portray the Muslims as being aggressive and against other religions. Which is far from true. This book offers a lot of detailed information but not so much so that it becomes a history textbook. It addresses social concerns like oppression, vandalism, theft, arson. The story pulls you in and instills in you a sense of nationalism. I loved the book so much. It is a fulfilling account of the Wahabi Movement and how our countrymen dealt with the British. MUST MUST READ!

Ratings – 5 stars on 5.

Meera

Book Review — The Trespass by Barbara Ewing

“Forgive us our trespasses As we forgive them That trespass against us.” – Barbara Ewing, The Trespass

A historical tale of bravery and righteousness during the cholera epidemic in London is captured in this novel by Barbara Ewing. Harriet Cooper and her elder sister Mary Cooper have always had a guarded relationship with their father, the MP, Sir Charles Cooper; who after the death of his wife became a hard-hearted, authoritarian figure in the house. Unable to think of the cholera affecting his beloved Harriet, he sends her away to Rusholme where she stays with her cousins. Separated from the one person (her sister) who understood her, Harriet spends her time teaching little Asobel Cooper what she learnt from her sister; thereby passing on knowledge, not considered important for a proper Lady to know.

It is in Rusholme that she finds reprieve, away from the scrutiny of her father. There she learns of Edward Cooper’s plans to emigrate to New Zealand to build a life for himself. Mary and Harriet, unlike the rest of the family, are in awe of his determination and wish they too could get away from London to fly as free birds. But soon after Alice Cooper’s wedding, her father decides to bring her back to London. Certain unthinkable events and incidents aspire a fight for freedom deep within Harriet’s heart. Gathering all courage, she attempts to run away and begin anew. She plans every step, with particular care for the details, in such a manner as to not leave any traces. And so starts a game of hide & seek wherein there’s more than one person aiming to unearth the secrets of Harriet’s disappearance and forcefully bring her back to London if it must be.

In The Trespass, we are familiarized to the mannerisms and difference of opinions shared within a society that grew increasingly conflicted about morals and social status. Even though Harriet, Mary, Edward, Alice and Richard were cousins belonging to the same Cooper family line – each of them had an opposing view about the fast spreading cholera. From the very beginning of the book, the author’s immense creativity and knowledge was reflected through phrases and references about great works of literature and artists. I usually don’t like paras and paras of description because I feel that its sensory overload but this book splurged on pages and pages of detail for a particular scene and I didn’t mind it one bit. Its unfortunate to read of the deaths and disease that ensued in London and how people regardless of class were dropping like flies. Victimized as they were not only by the cholera but also by the overbearing egotisms of the upper class, it was only the sacrifices of people like Mary Cooper who put aside their inhibitions to help out those in need that stood out like a beacon of hope. The book was a constant reminder of how little importance one’s position and power has in life and if God so wishes, there is no evading death. Isolated and deeply disturbed as Harriet was, her courage and self respect set a firm example of how a woman should care for herself and not let others take control.

This book has a vast multitude of characters – all of whom essentially fitted into the bigger picture. They are so well crafted; the storyline so beautiful and wondrous, I’m surprised I haven’t heard anything about the author or the book before. I think it is extremely underrated and should be a lot more popular than is. London and New Zealand are two places used as setting for the book and it has made me want to visit both places so eagerly. There is definitely many romance angles added to the plot which adds a sweet touch to the book. And unlike what I thought, the ending was perfect. Kudos to Barbara Ewing for this treat. I loved it so much!

Ratings – 5 stars on 5.

Meera