Shades Of Words


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The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

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Le Carre’s brooding spy thriller is slow in execution but big in substance. At a couple of hundred pages it’s a quick read with a plot engaging in its simplicity. Alec Leamas is an aging British intelligence officer who has recently been heading the Berlin division during the height of the cold war. His network has slowly collapsed over time due to one person – Mundt, an East German who heads their intelligence operations. The novel opens with the death of Karl Reimeck, a German double agent who was the last source of credible information for the Circus (the popular name for the British Secret Service). Anticipating a desk job, Leamas returns to Britain where Control presents him with an opportunity to take out Mundt. This starts an elaborate operation where the subterfuge is so well done that as a reader you are often confused as to what is going on. Leamas succeeds in infiltrating the East German network as a defector and comes in contact with Fielder, Mundt’s second-in-command. Fielder uses Leamas to serve his own agenda as he tries to grab power away from Mundt. Leamas soon finds himself a prisoner of the German Democratic Republic.

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Le Carre’s novel is most impressive because of its deep knowledge of how espionage functioned during the Cold War. What truly surprised me was the reach of both British and Russian intelligence in the day when electronic surveillance was nowhere compared to our age of cyber warfare. Their ability to find out extreme personal details verges on the point of incredulity. The art of spying was also reliant on extremely talented artists, for what else can you call them – multi-lingual, sharp-witted, live performers. I wonder what it is like now when spying is done by hackers and satellites. Is there any glamor in the game reeking of smoke-filled rooms in seedy clubs? Are the days of the trench coat spies exchanging messages in cigarette wrappers gone forever?

Le Carre keeps his cards close to his chest making this a page turner. For someone like Leamas, there is only one logical ending but this is fiction and you hope for the best. Until the very end, you follow Leamas’ fate like your own.  At the end of this tragedy, I felt strangely disheartened.  Not because there are no heroes in the book but because of the realization that there are no heroes in real life. In a game that Leamas played most of his adult life, he couldn’t even tell when he was the pawn. The world of power brokers is not a world of heroes and righteous, it’s of people who can cheat, lie and kill to hold on to power.

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

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“The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.” – Shakespeare

So. Many. Thoughts. Where do I begin? Perhaps at the very beginning – when a little magical baby survived a deadly attack from a very cruel wizard setting in motion events that culminated in the Battle of Hogwarts in which the evil wizard was finally defeated. But what if the magical baby did not survive? Or what if that cruel wizard did not kill him? What would have happened then and what would the world of Harry Potter look like today?

The Cursed Child may be a story in the future but its feet are planted in the past. At the heart of it is the misunderstood Albus Potter and his troubled relationship with his father, Harry. Albus is Harry’s middle child, mediocre in his magical prowess, forever in his dad’s shadow and a Slytherin. Can you imagine being a Potter and a Slytherin? Though 22 years have passed, the prejudice dividing the houses remains unchanged. He is further alienated from his friends and family because of his close friendship with Scorpius, Draco Malfoy’s son. Scorpius is rumored son of Voldemort which makes him very unpopular in school. Scorpius maybe Draco’s son but to me he seemed to be Ron & Hermoine’s progeny. He is funny yet nerdy and by far the most lovable new character in the series.

All through the story, Harry and Albus have a difficult relationship. Albus resents that his father’s celebrity status and is determined to find his flaws. Harry does not know how to deal with this moody, rebellious kid. Their failing relationship drives impetus to Albus’s mission to undo the wrongs of his father. A chance encounter with the Diggorys, Amos and Delphini, set Albus and Scorpius on a quest to reverse the past and save Cedric Diggory’s life. Time-Turners come into play and famous landmarks are revisited. We skirt the forbidden forest, swim through the pipes in the 1st floor girls’ bathroom at Hogwarts, take a dive into the Hogwart’s lake and find ourselves inside the Whomping Willow. Every time Albus goes into the past, he changes the future. The Cursed Child is a chance for JK Rowling to legitimize all the alternate endings which would have swirled in her head when she wrote Harry Potter the first time. There is a lot of fan service as we go back to some of the most pivotal events of the series. The most poignant is when we along with Harry witnesses the death of Potter’s parents – the gravity of letting fate take its place for the greater good.

I found the book to be surprisingly consistent to most characters. It’s not strange that Harry is not the greatest dad, he had after all very little experience with his own parents. It’s also not unusual that he is a bit self-absorbed by his past. He has been a celebrity since he was 11 years old and no one lets him forget it. He of course suffers from PTSD. Hermione has become the Minister of Magic and continues to be bright and resourceful. Ron has been reduced to a bumbling idiot – which was his point wasn’t it? Hermione’s daughter would of-course be named Granger-Weasely. All three of them would of course be celebrities – their lives well documented and well known.

This books is full of self-references and tongue in cheek humour. The irony of Albus, Scorpius & Delphi polyjuicing into the Ministry of Magic as Ron, Harry and Hermione isn’t lost on us. Inside jokes abound – lax security of Hogwarts, how you ‘must’ find life-long friendship on you first time in Hogwarts Express and so on.
There has been criticism on the quality of writing and stupidity of the story arches of The Cursed Child. I wholeheartedly agree. The writing is sloppy and simplistic at times. Scenes are wrought with high emotions. In one scene Dumbledore & Harry are crying and declaring their love for each other (not what it sounds like!) which seems quite out of character. Two young kids hoodwinking enchantments set by Hermione in the library scene seems far-fetched. Hermione repeatedly fooled experts when she was 17 – there is no way her enchantments would be this lame. What really saddens me is that somehow with age Harry & Hermione have become more of the politicians and less of the righteous wizard that we knew.

JK Rowling’s strength has always been in the storytelling – intricate plotlines that form pieces of a larger puzzle that keep coming together. She loves exploring relationships – with a lot of focus on friendships and familial bonds. You see patterns in our first seven books. Harry’s abusive childhood would lead him to form strong attachments with Hogwarts and the people he met there. With Albus, the story is inverted. Hogwarts is place he hates. But both share an unhappy childhood and both feel isolated. Both carry resentment for the life they were given are quick to anger and reckless. Both rely on friends over family. Both share a love for foolish adventure.

As The Cursed Child is a script, readers have complained that it doesn’t do a great job in creating a visual spectacle of magic that prose format does. I don’t necessarily agree. Magical is secondary in this story. The assumption is that the people reading are inherently familiar with the world of Harry Potter. Magic just happens and does not need to be explained. The story is really about love and friendship and loss. It’s about good versus evil. That’s what Harry Potter has always been about.


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Good Evening, Mrs. Craven

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I often find that great stories are not just about the writing, the plot or the characters, but what they tell us of the human condition.  That is what really pulls me into the pages and makes me think about what I have read long after I finished the book.  Stories about ordinary women in extraordinary situations are my personal favorite, which is why I am in love with Good Evening, Mrs. Craven.

The author, Mollie Panter-Downes was a columnist for The New Yorker during the Second World War. Over the years she contributed war reports in the form of Letters from London and several short stories. Good Evening, Mrs. Craven is the compilation of these stories. The focus on these stories is not on the battlefields, the soldiers or the war machine itself, but the effect of war on the home front in England.  These are the stories of women who may not be sitting in trenches in the line of fire, but are still acutely aware of the danger the war brings – both emotional and physical.

The collection is a mix of the comical and the tragic, of the optimistic and the hopeless. These short, sharp stories give us a window into what would have been the condition of hundreds of civilians as the years of the war swept by. The stories are arranged in a chronological order, with each story being darker than the ones before.  And all the stories are very, very English. There is not a touch of histrionic to be found anywhere; an entire nation is facing Armageddon but the stiff upper lip only just quivers.

With the declaration of war so many people in small villages across England found themselves playing hosts to families, friends and strangers escaping the air-raids of London. Outwardly a sense of righteousness prevails with the noble act of providing help to those who need. In the hearts there is the natural apprehension of strangers as portrayed in In Clover where a lower class poor mother and her children find refuge at the fancy Manor House in the village. All attempts at gentrification fail and the gentle folk are confused when the ‘lucky’ family gives up on the better life and decides to go back. All the good intentions cannot make up for the loss of privacy and the annoyance of guests as in Mrs. Ramsay’s War who finds her cottage and life taken over by kin of her friends. Mrs. Dudley, In Danger cannot believe her state of happiness when her evacuees leave.

‘But happiness was beginning to steal over her. She gave up trying to do anything, and went out into the hall and started drifting aimlessly from room to room, luxuriously listening to their emptiness. She couldn’t remember when she had last felt so happy”

For some the war is a much needed respite from the dullness of their existence. The war has opened up opportunity to be useful, to be wanted. Meeting at the Pringles focuses on the petty politics of the village committees set up to help with war efforts. Issues of leadership and organization are discussed with firm politeness and only the English genteelness kept the rivalries and jealousies at bay.

Even as other’s find purpose, there is still a lot of loneliness to go around.  The Waste of it All finds Frances desperately holding on to the memories of her husband before the war – a man she was briefly married to and now only knows through long letters. She has learned to live her life without him and replaces with a borrowed family. Only when the illusion breaks, does the revelation of wasted years bite her. My personal favorite is Goodbye, My love in which Ruth prepares for her husband’s imminent departure for military service.  Nothing and no one can comfort her or prepare for the moment of farewell. It takes all of her strength to put on a brave face.

Not all stories are about women. For men war is time for serving the country, fighting for freedom, for glory and even getting shot is better than being left behind. In It’s a real thing this time a retired Major Marriot keeps hoping for being called in for duty. He keeps hoping that the war gets worse and it gets ‘real’ and his country needs him. In the last pages of the story, his neighbor finds him keeping vigil at the night sky waiting for enemy paratroopers.

‘He shifted the gun from one arm to the other and looked  up again at the sky. Mrs. Trent could see in the half-light that he was smiling sweetly ….The Major looked up for the falling body of a German soldier like a lover watching for a sign from a stubbornly closed window”.

In Year of Decision, Mark Goring who has spent most of the war at a desk job,  can’t help feeling happy at the chance of going to an overseas appointment  and seeing some action.

The beauty of the stories is in the subtlety, in the thoughts between the lines and the haunting presence of war. The only way to understand is to read them.


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Midnight Riot: London’s Wizarding Cops

10327417Ben Aaronovitch’s Midnight Riot ( Rivers of London UK Edition) suffers a bit from an identity crisis. It tries to be a fantasy-fiction story, a police procedural, a London guide, a commentary on race and a murder novel all wrapped in one and it fails. There is so much going on in every single page, that I would often not remember how I arrived a particular point in the story and whether it was significant.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Peter Grant, our hero, the wizard in making (don’t get your hopes high people, this is NOT anything like Harry Potter) is a newly graduated Police Constable in the Met (the police force, not the NY museum). His main function includes standing in the cold London air guarding scenes of crime. The story starts at the death of a William Skirmish who is bludgeoned to death by a wealthy British producer for no apparent reason. On the scene of crime, Peter Grant is accosted by a ghost (yup, you read that right) who gives him a tip on the crime. This tip brings Grant firmly into the center of the magical world of London, with Chief Inspector Nightingale (The Wizard) as his guide. This murder embroils them in similar crimes and a hunt begins for the entity causing them all.
While trying to stay on top of the case, our wizarding coppers are also dragged in a property dispute between Mother and Father Thames.The Gods of the rivers of London are mythical creatures personified in people who drowned in them. Magic exists but is a more ambiguous concept and it’s hard to know how much power anyone really possesses. A lot of time is spent referencing the history of London rivers, old magic articles and theories, but instead of being entertaining, these snippets of information appear like wiki entries. I learned more about the underground rivers of London than I  would ever want to know.
The plot is generally all over the place. Nightingale and Grant are called on to investigate several other crimes and these diversions take away from the central storyline. All characters are very two-dimensional and because there is so much happening on the page that it’s hard to spend time with anyone character long enough.
Lot of emphasis is laid on explaining magic through science – you see the fallacy, right? If magic could be explained through science, it wouldn’t be magic anymore – it would just be ‘how things work’. The intention is great and they do ride the ‘energy in the universe is constant’ wave for some time before hitting a roadblock and hitting unexplainable phenomena. Why do rivers have spirits? Why some people can feel vestigia and others can’t? When Peter asks those questions, Nightingale (his mentor and teacher) basically shrugs his shoulders and says “dunno”. As a reader, that is extremely disappointing.
Also, there is much ado about everything – Nightingales’ age , impact of magic on technology, the magical effect of vampires – there is a lot of build up to all these questions but the reveal is extremely underwhelming.
There is only one thing going for this book – humour. The dialogs are sharp, the wit dry – very similar to watching a sitcom. The humour is literally what endured me through the 250 odd pages. But I doubt I will pick the second book in the series.


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The Marcus Didius Falco Series

Marcus Didius Falco is a private informer and the protagonist of Lindsey Davis’s mystery series set in Ancient Rome. Emperor Vespasian has come into power and good imperial agents are required to hide royal crimes, curb corruption and sniff out political scandals. I first came across Falco and his exploits in ‘The Silver Pigs‘ where he accidentally falls upon an imperial minting fraud. The investigation kick starts with the death of a Senator’s young and impressionable niece . The story is not a murder mystery but more of a government backed investigation. Falco’s inquiry  takes him into the desperate neighborhoods of Ancient Rome and across the channel to the edges of Roman empire in cold and dry Britannia. Nefarious plots to overthrow the Emperor are discovered and the investigation gets more bloody. Along the way we are introduced to a cast of characters that will continue to be central to Falco’s investigative efforts. There is Petronius Longus, an employee of Roman police force who is often the reluctant inside source for information for Falco. Helena Justina is the sharp and witty daughter of the Senator who predictably forms Falco’s love interest. She also brings some diversity into a vastly male cast of characters. Falco’s garrulous family makes several excursions only to add to the length of book and its feeble attempts at humor.

While there is a lot of fodder for a great novel ‘The Silver Pigs’ fails to deliver. The flaws are plenty, the biggest being the first person narrative. I believe Davis was inspired by the film noir detectives who presented their sordid lives to the viewers in their ironical, dry style. Falco tries but is never convincing. He tries too hard to push his intelligence, charm and wit down our throats. The first rule of writing is to show and not tell. Unfortunately with Falco, the story appears to be a really long monologue. All your impressions of people and places are made through his lens of humor and satire none of it which is funny. This becomes painful in fight sequences where Falco explains every motion of his body as he punches around thugs.

The other flaw is the meandering plot. It digresses so often that you read chapters and chapters without making any headway in the solving of the mystery. Fast paced these novels are not. Davis has clearly put in a lot of hours researching the minutiae of life in Rome. The writing is eager in describing every little detail of Roman architecture, culture and life. Only in some cases does it organically fit in with the story while in most cases it feels text bookish. One of my favorite descriptions of Rome are when Falco and his client, Helena, are on the run and escape into the by lanes of Rome at night.

The third flaw which I find the hardest to overcome is the writing itself. I know there is problem with the quality when I mentally start scratching off words and rewriting sentences as I read along. Dialogues are often accompanied with tone descriptions of ‘gasped’, half-grinned’, ‘said satirically’, ‘snapped’, ‘snapped back’ that it gets exhausting after a while to keep up with the emotions with each statement. It’s hard to point but there is something off about the writing in general. It’s too elaborate yet casual as if Davis is not able to find the right form representing the period. It reminded me of  Amish Triphati’s ‘Shiva Trilogy’ and his struggle to keep the language relevant to the period of the novels set in ancient India .

I don’t know why but I still went ahead and bought a couple of books in the series from a bookstore near my house just to see if there was any progression in characters or writing. ‘Scandal Takes a Holiday‘ is a much later novel and the most useful thing I learnt from it was about piracy during Ancient Rome. More overly complicated and meandering plots and more inane writing.’Alexandria‘ is the only one that I enjoyed. It is actually a more traditional closed door murder mystery with a definite list of suspects and motives. The writing is more taut. The location is of course Alexandria, beautifully described but not overtly so. I would still make it 100 pages shorter!

I have only read only 3 of the dozen in the series and feel equipped to pronounce some sort of judgement. It may definitely cater to a certain type of reader and maybe even certain reading mood, but in a market inundated with murder mystery novels I think I am done with my experimentation with Falco and most definitely will not be reading another one.


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Georgette Heyer’s Frederica

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Reading “Frederica” was one of the best things that I did this month. It satisfied the literary snob in me with its language and character development, but it also engaged the over-worked, hassled mom in me who doesn’t have the time for complex plots.

The Heyer novels specialize in Regency Romances and while they give an insight to Georgian lifestyles and fashions ( quite deliberate on the fashion!) they don’t intend to do more than entertain. The plot line is fairly simple and predictable – in this case a rich and arrogant Marquis has to undertake the guardianship of a precocious set of distant cousins.The eldest of the four cousins is Frederica, who though not as pretty as her younger sister, is charming,witty, clever and unpretentious. Extremely different from any sort of gold-diggers that Marquis is used to. Of course they are going to fall in love, but it’s how that happens is extremely entertaining with several laugh out loud plot lines. What also sets this apart that the real focus of the story is not the actual love story, but the relationships of all the characters. The Marquis relationships with his older,interfering sisters, Frederica’s dynamic with her siblings, the parallel sub-plots of other couplings and most interestingly the Marquis’ transformation from a careless bachelor into a family man who becomes a father-like figure to Frederica’s underage brothers.

As a feminist, I do have several issues with the way women are represented here – the dumb-blonde-beauty stereotype, the not-pretty-but-clever stereotype, the end-goal-of-women’s-life-is-marriage stereotype, the arrogant-masculine-jerk hero stereotype – but I won’t because I think it would be assuming that these books have a larger significance.

For the few hours that I poured over this book, I was successfully transported into the glamorous life of aristocratic England and that was a good diversion 🙂


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Book Review : Santiago and the drinking party

This is an odd little book. It doesn’t have a plot, or a theme. Stuff happens. Why or to what end doesn’t seem to matter.

The story starts at an unusual place, deep in the Amazon, where Daniel, our narrator, is backpacking as a student. During a dangerous, almost fatal river crossing he meets Santiago. Santiago is the resident philosopher –who earns his living feeding off the superstition of the tribes. His daughter, Angelina makes quite an impression of Daniel. Then they have sex. And then Daniel runs for it. Well we don’t know why exactly, but Daniel decides that he has had enough of the Amazonian exoticness and must head back to US of A.

Years pass, presumably. We don’t know for sure. Daniel is back in the Amazon, riding a bus back into its depths, reaching the little town which he visited many years ago. Why is he going back? What is he looking for? What is he running away from? Again, we don’t know.

The story or whatever this is really starts from there. Daniel is welcomed into the dysfunctional social circle of Santiago’s thinking and drinking club. It is exactly what it sounds – Santiago and few men get together in the Cantina, drink beer and have existential discussions. Once in a while they make you think, but mostly they are just the ramblings of drunken men.

Angelina has now become the bonafide village hottie – who freelances as an actress, guide, scientist – anything that will get her out of this little shit -hole. She is of course desired by many men and is often the cause of petty fights.

Several characters are introduced but none are really etched out. Who are these people? What do they do all day? What do they live on? How do they earn their wages? We don’t know. References are made to tourist groups and expeditions but how central are they to the economy to the village is again not clear.

There is something almost mythical about the world that Clay Morgan creates. There are pink dolphins, blue butterflies, green dense undergrowth, clear waterfalls and naked dancing tourists. There is a man that appears in the middle of the river island, a flood that brings an epidemic of toads, a brain fever that makes people dizzy with happiness. And the endless disappearing of people.

The most macabre of all is the endless disappearing of people. Hector, the village con artist and sociopath keeps disappearing into the forest with tourists and no one knows what ever becomes of them

So should you read this book? Oh, I don’t know – it’s quirky, fun and interesting. The language is beautiful. Towards the end it’s just bizarre. Morgan tries to fill the last 100 pages with as much weirdness as possible. What is an already an aimless tale becomes even more derailed. At the end you are left with a sense of wasted time.