A Man Called Ove: Fredrik Backman

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At first one friend read it, and praised it. Then another read it, and raved about it. Then another and another, until it seemed like everyone I knew had read this book and loved it. Of course I had to read it.

Ove is an irascible old man. He dislikes his neighbors, makes daily inspections of the neighborhood to ensure that nobody is exceeding car parking slot timings or parking bicycles where they should not be parked. He’s just been ‘retired’ from his job, and has an over-friendly ‘foreign’ neighbor move in next door.

Now everything had to be computerized, as if one couldn’t build a house until some consultant in a too-small shirt figured out how to open a laptop. As if that was how they built the Colosseum and the pyramids of Giza. Christ, they’d managed to build the Eiffel Tower in 1889, but nowadays one couldn’t come up with the bloody drawings for a one-story house without taking a break for someone to run off and recharge their cell phone.

We all know someone like Ove – a cranky old man who dislikes everything in the world because of the faults he finds with it. But every Ove has a Sonja, one person he likes despite all the things he cannot fathom about her, one person that keeps him going, one person he doesn’t know life without. Ove and Sonja’s story is the warm heart of the book, that brings a smile to your face, while Ove’s story is the comic heart, which makes you laugh out loud. Ove and his idiosyncrasies were delightfully written, and I had a grin throughout my reading of the book, which incidentally I read in one sitting. Possibly one of the best books I have read this year.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: Jenny Han

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I enjoyed the Netflix movie (in large part due to the dreamy Noah Centineo), and when I was looking for a light book to read on a flight, I thought of this. Generally, I have found that the books that my favorite chick flick movies are based on are quite crappy, but this was a pleasant surprise.

Lara Jean Song Covey is a high schooler adjusting to change after her older sister Margot leaves for university – she is responsible for her younger sister Kitty, her feelings for Josh, Margot’s ex-boyfriend resurface, and she still isn’t comfortable driving. So when the hatbox containing her secret love letters vanishes, it makes her life topsy-turvy. Josh finds out, as does Peter Kavinsky, a boy she kissed in seventh grade and currently the ex of the high school queen. After she kisses Peter to escape from Josh, Peter suggests that they continue the lie that they are dating for a while, as it benefits both of them.

What I found surprising was how much the movie stayed true to the book. Generally, for YA chick flicks based on books, they take the kernel of the book and improvise on it, which makes the original book a bit disappointing. This book has its share of eye-rolling moments (Lara Jean’s activities to pass her time are too grade-schoolish), but the esssence of the story remains the same, and it gives more depth to the characters. Also, having a non-white protagonist was nice – I’ve barely seen that in high school YA novels. I wouldn’t recommend the book if you’ve watched the movie, but if you’re looking for a breezy high school romance, you wouldn’t do too bad with this.

The Broken Kingdoms: N K Jemisin

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Having enjoyed the first book in Jemisin’s debut trilogy, I was eager to pick up the next book, to learn more about the world, and see what happened to the characters.

Oree Shoth, a blind artist in the city of Shadows, has the gift of ‘seeing’ magic, a gift she hides to avoid undue attention. She takes in a stranger she finds in her trash, a man who doesn’t speak but has the gift of glowing in the morning sun. One day, Oree discovers a murdered godling in the city streets, and finds herself pursued by everyone – gods, godmen.

With her second novel, Jemisin moves into mature territory, both with her protagonist and the story, and I must say, I liked this novel better than A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. By bringing the plot from the sky to the ground, the characters become more relatable and likeable, and the story moves strongly from one beat to the next, revealing more about the world without becoming confusing. The romance also moves out of the teen drama category into something more mature. The book stands well on its own as well as a part of the trilogy, and I breezed through it in a couple of sittings. If I have a quibble, it’s that the book didn’t provide any motivation to pick up the third book in the series – its standalone self-contained nature might work against it.

A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: N K Jemisin

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Ever since I began working a corporate job, the number of single-sitting books I’ve read can be counted on one hand; maybe my attention span has reduced or I just don’t have the time (yeah yeah, I know it’s a poor excuse). But when I do, I have seen that two times out of three, it’s a fantasy book. There’s just something about well-written fantasy that captures my attention, more than any other category of book.

Yeine is mourning her mother’s death as she is appointed leader of Darre, a minor kingdom in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, ruled by the magical Arameri. So when she is invited by her estranged Grandfather to the floating city of Sky, the Arameri palace and named one of his heirs, she thinks it’s a chance to uncover the truth, but she soon realizes she is in over her head. She has to contend with powerful gods struggling under human subjugation, scheming heirs wanting to kill her off, the mystery of her mother’s death and the truth of who she really is.

This is a classic outsider-thrown-into-turbulent-times story, but Jemisin breathes fresh life into it, through the characters and the world-building. Yeine is the type of fantasy heroine I like best – smart, spunky, one who keeps the story going. There are secrets and political and personal intrigue, but not so much that you are lost, and the book coasts along at a brisk pace from scene to scene. The relationship between Yeine and Naharoth (one of the subjugated gods) had me rolling my eyes though, with all traits of an M&B romance, and the ending was not particularly surprising, but then I might have read a lot of fantasy. But, having struggled with finishing a lot of books in recent times, I’m always happy when a single-sitting book comes along and captures my interest like this one did.

Mistborn- The Hero of Ages: Brandon Sanderson

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Ruin has escaped his prison. The end of the world is near. Ash covers the earth, plants are dying, giant earthquakes rock the landscape. Amidst near destruction, Vin, Elend and their band fight on, trying to decipher the Lord Ruler’s messages to help, trying to find a way to defeat Ruin.

What I enjoyed most in this final instalment is what I have enjoyed most in this trilogy- the explanation of the magical systems. Sanderson links the two threads- the development of the three types of Allomancy and the battle between the gods Preservation and Ruin- and provides quite a satisfying explanation for all the different elements of the world he has created. Each element has a part to play, and the twists and turns kept me interested, especially the concluding one.

Pacing is much better than the second, though I still had problems with some of the plot points (masquerade balls during a siege, really?). Character development has been, for me, a weak point of these books- despite Vin being the sort of spunky heroine I like, I’ve never really felt too much for her. This, to me, has always been a shortcoming of Sanderson’s work- plot development over character development- and while they make his books interesting and move quickly, they stay with you for a shorter time.

Mistborn- The Final Empire: Brandon Sanderson

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Vin is a street urchin, a thief, whose key life skills are trusting nobody and eluding those who would beat her. But when a noted thief Kelsier recruits her crew for a job, she discovers that she is Mistborn, one of a rare breed who have the power of Allomancy, the ability to gain abilities like super speed and strength by burning metals. She is drawn into Kelsier’s grand plan, to overthrow the Final Empire and the Lord Ruler, an immortal tyrannical god who has ruled the land for the last thousand years.

I enjoy the worlds Sanderson creates; there is some amount of scientific logic in them. Magic isn’t merely waving a wand and doing voodoo, there are methods and rules and limitations. His story progresses at a reasonably fast pace, and there are enough twists and turns to keep you hooked. These are the Sanderson characteristics- dialogue and action heavy, a major twist you won’t see coming, plucky heroines and a reasonably smart cast of characters.

However, as much as the plot keeps you hooked, the writing still seems slightly stilted, and character building is more of the ‘telling, not showing’ type. I did miss the descriptive world building a la GRRM or Rothfuss. Sanderson’s books occasionally seem like reading the novelisation of a TV show; they aren’t as richly developed as the former’s. I wonder if it is to do with the amount of time taken to write each book. Sanderson is known to be a quick writer, working on multiple projects and churning out a book every year or so, while we all know what the great GRRM does. Gaiman is the only person I’ve seen doing a good balancing act between speed and content, but I don’t think he’s done any epic fantasy, so I don’t know if he would do any better or worse on that aspect.

 

Curfewed Night: Basharat Peer

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Pandita’s Our Moon Has Blood Clots and Peer’s Curfewed Nights are two sides of the same story, and that is why I read them back to back.

Peer writes about his childhood growing up in Anantnag near Srinagar, just as the violence was beginning in the Valley. He talks of militants and then armymen visiting his school, how he almost joined the JKLF, the stories of people who actually did and what befell them. Growing up, he moves to Delhi to study but comes back, to write about the Kashmir he left behind, the Kashmir of half-widows and rapes and Army atrocities in camps like Papa-2.

It is certainly interesting to read this book just after Pandita’s, and you see the same event from two different eyes. The sloganeering of “Hum kya chahte? Azadi!” which terrified the young Pandita, the young Peer participated in. The India-Pak cricket match, where Javed Miandad’s last-ball sixer off Chetan Sharma’s delivery left Pandita in tears, was a moment of celebration for Peer and his village. But like Pandita says in his book, their stories diverged after 1990, and that is where Peer’s book becomes difficult to read.

“Srinagar is being in a coffee shop, in an office, outside a college, crossing a bridge and feeling, touching, breathing history, politics and war, in unmarked signs and landmarks. It is seeing a bridge, a clearing, a nondescript building and knowing that men fell here, that a boy was tortured there.”

It is indeed difficult for me as an Indian brought up to believe that what was done in Kashmir was right for the country, to read about how the Army actions affected the people in the state. Peer has collected stories across Kashmir, of those beatings and burnings and physical disfigurement in Army interrogation camps, of rapes like those of Mubeena Ghani, who was raped by paramilitary forces on her wedding night, of soldiers sending children into militant hideouts holding bombs. Some of the stories made me sick; I cannot imagine how it must have been for the ordinary people, to live with these stories around them, continually under the shadow of daily violence and death.

Peer’s book is also not without its problems. He never really explains the motivation behind the deep hatred Kashmiris nursed for India, even before the conflict began in the Valley. Traces of that antagonism seem to remain in Peer, and though he tries to present matters in a reporter’s voice, the book is much less critical of the militants than it is of the Indian Army. The violence in Kashmir was a two-way street, instigated by militants, and I cannot accept the view of them being freedom fighters as Peer would like us to believe. He does soften up at the end, sounding hopeful at the launch of the Srinagar-Muzzaffarabad bus service. I do believe, though, the book does an important task in shining light on the Army’s role in the 25-year old saga of violence, and giving a Kashmiri’s opinion on the events that occurred.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes, which I think summarizes the idea of the book.

“The Line of Control did not run through 576km of militarised mountains. It ran through our souls, our hearts, our minds. It ran through everything a Kashmiri, an Indian, and a Pakistani said, wrote and did.”