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 — Rau by N.S Inamdar

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

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N.S Inamdar’s Rau wonderfully captures the life and times of the great Peshwa Bajirao. It allows us deeper insight into the events that propelled the prosperity of the Maratha Empire. Bajirao’s role is monumental as he relentlessly pursues Hindavi Swaraj, trying to rid India of the tyranny of all external forces. The novel introduces Mastani, an entertainer whose performances in the court begin to draw the Peshwa’s attention. Soon, a relationship blossoms between the two, much to the astonishment of others. As Bajirao finds himself falling in love with Mastani, he is forced to face a society that is highly intolerant of intercaste relationships. What is more, his loved ones too refuse to accept Mastani, thereby isolating Bajirao in his struggle. Rau mirrors the heartbreak and burden that follows suit with being titled the Peshwa.

This book that inspired the film is a lot more wholesome in its attempt to convey the highs and lows of Bajirao’s reign. Firstly, a larger chunk of the text concerns Bajirao’s conquests in comparison to the romance quotient. This helps us understand Bajirao’s mien sans Mastani. He is a willful, valiant and affectionate individual. Although he is quick tempered, he fights for what he believes in. It is rather sad that, for a Peshwa who gave his all to the society, he finds himself alone towards the end of his journey. Secondly,  Mastani is not the warrior princess as depicted in the movie. Rather, this novel highlights her demure and agreeable nature. She is selfless and always ready to forgive other’s transgressions. Thirdly, the novel presents to us the next generation and gives importance to the rest of the family. It was great to learn more about the family and how they were integral catalysts of events at that time.

Radhabai, Bajirao’s mother is an austere women, defined by the traditions and symbolic of the narrow minded society. I didn’t much like her. Kashibai is portrayed to be a responsible and loving wife who gets neglected because of Bajirao’s growing affection for Mastani. The novel is not split into chapters, rather it is divided into four parts. Albeit this division is uncommon, it does not hamper the reading pace. I found the first few pages to be a tad bit slow. But then Bajirao’s zeal captivates you and holds on till the end. His strength is infectious and urges one to be firm about their beliefs even if the entire world is against it. Originally written in Marathi, it is a moving tale about love, sacrifice and the irony of possessing power but losing out on the one thing that an individual cherishes the most. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and would definitely recommend it to all who love historical accounts or simply want to glean more about Peshwa Bajirao and the Maratha Empire.

Ratings – 4 stars on 5

Meera

Book Review — The Pearl by John Steinbeck

“It is not good to want a thing too much. It sometimes drives the luck away. You must want it just enough, and you must be very tactful with the Gods.” – John Steinbeck, The Pearl

Kino, a Mexican diver is the protagonist of the novel who being subjected to social injustice, comes to learn the repercussions of greed and foolhardy behavior. His aspirations are big but means are limited and so he is left to wonder what future beholds for his family. When his son Coyotito falls ill and the town doctor refuses to treat him, Kino and his wife Juana look to pearl mining to solve their problems. As chance would have it, Kino comes in possession of The Pearl of the World – a rather chunky pearl meant to shower riches upon the family. But at a time when wealth and power bred frauds of the worst kind, the family only encounters more fallaciousness every step of the way.  As readers, we witness an individual’s struggle not only against an apathetic society but a grapple with oneself to not let the inner demons reign.

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I was a little apprehensive picking up a John Steinbeck book. Would I be able to grasp it? Will the content be interesting and not puzzling? I always have these questions when reading literary texts. And much to my surprise, Steinbeck’s writing style is direct and easy to get into. No overuse of imageries or overwhelming content. He weaves a story, uplifting a character from the lower section of society and helps us to understand how greed and ambition can change the mien of a person. We get a sense of Kino and Juana’s simple lifestyle from their attire to their meager corn-cake meals to their bare minimum household. Their people are demeaned by the upper caste in society and despite having some money to provide for the services of the doctor, they are turned down simply for belonging to the lower caste. But when they find the pearl, everyone suddenly becomes so amiable and generous towards the family.

Kino’s character, though very fierce and protective of his family, is a bit proud and unthinking. He doesn’t understand Juana’s POV and takes rash measures at times. If only he hadn’t done certain things, maybe they wouldn’t have had to flee. Juana is a commendably strong character. Not only does she stick with her husband throughout, despite his brashness, but also displays a clarity of thought and action, astounding in association to the situation. Throughout the novel, we grow to empathize with Kino and Juana as they are undoubtedly pushed to extremes by the insolence of several beings. Steinbeck mixes the concept of music with feeling to establish the atmosphere. I found that idea to be splendid and the Song of the Family is something we all can hum to. This book is a quick, touching read that throws light on the plight of divers in 20th century Mexico. The ending was a bit disturbing but apart from that, I enjoyed it thoroughly. I recommend it to everyone who loves reading.

Ratings – 4 stars on 5.

Meera

Book Review — Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

“Now and then, in this workaday world, things do happen in the delightful storybook fashion, and what a comfort that is.” ― Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women follows the life of a family smiling their way through poverty and war in a materialistic society. Four March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – with their unique, and at times conflicting, personalities strive to make their mother and neighbors happy; be it charity or socializing with the quiet Laurie. They have their own bothers to deal with but that has never stopped the March family from looking for the silver lining. A truly captivating and motivational tale of life in the Victorian times.

This book has a halo around it. Period. It is so beautiful and heartwarming that your everyday obstacles seem trifling. The mature and sensible manner in which  the March family deals with their poor state is commendable. I loved how they would stage plays for each other and base their efforts around making the best of what they had. Since they couldn’t afford tickets to musicals and such. There’s a great deal you realize after reading this novel. You learn how not to blow things out of proportion. You learn how the bonds between family members cannot be ruptured by mere sibling rivalry/misunderstandings. There are certain temporary characters who try to discourage the sisters carefree nature. But their attempts are in vain. Mrs March’s upbringing has taught the girls to not feel inferior regardless of what anyone implies. It often reminded me of the care with which my parents brought me up. Romance is not an integral aspect in it and still the novel is rich in morals and good living.

Not only is the writing fascinating but I have always been fond of the Victorian setting. There isn’t much of the fanciful living like balls and jewelery that you associate with the time, but somehow it wasn’t needed to make it a whole. Since the very beginning I was rooting for Jo and Laurie to get together. Their relationship is what I’d call effortless and smooth. There’s no awkwardness because of Jo’s boyish nature or Laurie’s shy manner. He is a very helpful character who had the misfortune of making a slight err in judgment which leads to a rough patch, but he and the family get past it. Meg is the epitome of grace and pleasant conduct. Unlike Jo, she doesn’t speak her mind bluntly. There were some moments that took my breath away, and I’d wish with all my heart that things would get better. All in all, its a classic read; sweet and inspirational. You must read it atleast once.

Ratings – 4 stars on 5.

Meera