Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Competent Authority : Shovon Chowdhury

Am on a roll today, had this review in draft for an year now. So let me cross it out of the list.

Found this gem of a book at the airport on one of my visits to India. Something about the cover and the blurb said that this would be a good book. Well in this case i was lucky to have judged the book by its cover.

The Competent Authority is a laugh riot. It is set in some time in the not so distant future where large parts of  the country have been taken over by China and the country is run by a faceless bureaucrat called the The Competent Authority.

Don't remember much now but only that the book was very funny. Rating 3.5 /5.

Lamentation: CJ Sansom

Though it might not be apparent from the number of blog entries, reading has picked up significantly after my move to Dubai. Apart from a smaller commute and consequent time available, it has something to do with being a part of a good book club and also having a discovered a great library in 'The Old Library' at DUCTAC. Sreekaree is to be thanked for the latter.

Just wrapped up Lamentation by CJ Sansom. Ever since Prasad Menon introduced me to the author, I have been a huge fan of CJ Sansom, specifically the Shardlake series.  Having read all the previous books in the series I was eagerly anticipating this latest release, the book lives up to the expectations.

For the uninitiated, Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer in London during the reign of Henry VIII. This is period of great religious upheaval in England. Henry has broken away from the catholic church and is setting up  the parameters of his new 'Church of England'. He changes his mind with seasons on what is and is not acceptable in his new church, merrily beheading, burning and otherwise prosecuting those not in tune with his mood of the moment. In these turbulent times Shardlake is asked by the greats of the time for help with one investigation or the other, which forms the basis of each of the books starting with Dissolution.

Having previously served Cromwell and Archbishop Cranmer, over the last few books Shardlake has been serving Henry's sixth and last wife Catherine Parr. This book is set in 1546 and Henry, in his dying days, is oscillating between the catholic and reformist factions in his court. Catherine who is a reformer and has narrowly escaped plots against her by the Catholic faction has written an ill advised book which has the potential to enrage the King. The book is stolen and Shardlake is entrusted with finding the same amidst the usual plots and intrigues of the palace.

As I mentioned above I loved this book just as much as the other Shardlake adventures. The reason is not so much to do with the plot of the individual investigation but with the immense reading pleasure that Sansom provides. Not only does he bring to life these historical characters there is something quite enchanting about his description of the daily humdrum of 16th century England. I would strongly recommend this book and the author. Rating 4.5/5

PS: I am not sure if I will be able to overcome my laziness and write about those, but also strongly recommend the two books by CJ Sansom which are not in this series namely Winter in Madrid and Dominion.  

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Steve Jobs: Walter Isaacson

At the last count there are more than 7 billion people on this planet, that is 7 with 9 zeros. While most of us might not count for much there are, among the living, at least of hundreds of truly brilliant people working for top class innovative organizations in the Silicon Valley, Japan and elsewhere. So it is particularly spectacular that it is just one person who continuously defined and redefined the way we work, communicate, enjoy music and do everything online.

Steve’s story begins with his teenage mother who had to give up her first born to a working class couple, with a promise of giving the baby a university education. Steve jobs was a prodigy growing up, a fact not lost upon him and his adopted parents. They went out of their way to fulfill his every demand, including an exorbitant private university that he ended up abandoning. Apart from his early knack with electronics his major influences in life seem to be LSD and his Indian mysticism. Armed with these, his early successes consisted of commercializing the innovations of his close friends, and apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. The story of how they built the personal computer industry and Apple, his epic struggle with Bill Gates, his arrogant ways, his seduction of the Pepsi CEO (“Do you want to sell sweetened water all your life, or do you want to change the world?”) and his subsequent ouster from the organization that he built from scratch would have made one hell of a riveting story. A fact proven by the excellent movie “Pirates of the Silicon Valley” – a must see.

The legendry bit is that all of the above is just the story before the interval, the first and, as we now know, the dull half of Steve’s life. The second half is a breakneck paced thriller where he rises, forgive the cliché, from the ashes, changes the animation business with Pixar, regains control of Apple and takes our breath away with iMac, iTunes, iPod in his last years the iPad.

With material this rich, it is difficult to go wrong, but not impossible. Walter Isaccson has done justice to the legacy of Steve Jobs with a book that is well written and balanced. Steve Jobs that the author presents us is a thought leader and a great marketer, and like most great men an obnoxious difficult tyrant. The author has presented both these aspects in such a manner that gives us an individual appreciation of both these facets and how they combined to make the man that was.

An inspirational read that that I will rate 4/5.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

River of Smoke - Amitav Ghosh

“Amitav da smart accha, chop chop bookie writie”, is how a lascar in the Chinese sea port of Canton would have reviewed Amitav Ghosh’s ‘River of Smoke’, or at least that is our understanding of the pidgin described by the author in this book. This is part two of the Ibis trilogy which began with the ‘Sea of Poppies’.

The book, however, is less of a trilogy in the sense of  a set of familiar characters moving to another geography or period setting and having  a fresh set of experiences . Most protagonists of this book are newly introduced and the personalities of the one’s retained are so altered by circumstances that they might as well be completely different people. Having said that, the book can be considered a part of a continuum if we move away from the human characters and consider Opium and the East India Company as the protagonists of the Trilogy. The first book dealt with the production of Opium by the East India Company along the sleepy planes of Ganga while this one takes us to the hustle and bustle of Canton, then, one of the busiest trading ports of the world.

The book is set in the period just before the Opium wars which, believe it or not, was a war undertaken by the British Empire to free the Chinese people from the tyranny of their Qing Emperor who, horror of horrors, was not allowing the British to freely sell opium in China.

The story is largely narrated from the perspective of Behram Mody a Parsi trader from Mumbai. Behram, or Barry Moddie to friends, is your run of the mill anglicized Parsi who peacefully co-exists with the British and becomes one of the biggest Opium traders of Mumbai. He does not actively share the British doctrine of ‘Opium as a path of liberation for the Chinese’ but, like any self respecting business person, chooses not to think about the ethics and morals of the business. Also, like any other self respecting trader of the time, he has a Chinese mistress who also serves as an important part of his attachment to Canton. Another narrator is Robin, a flamboyant Bengali boy with an eye for other pretty boys. His narration is in the form of letters written to Paulette, a character carried over from the earlier book.

The book describes in vivid details the lives of the foreign traders, not allowed access to interiors of China, who had to conduct their business from Canton. The author describes the social and personal lives led in the 13 Hongs or factories, one approximately for each nationality, that formed the Fanqui Town or foreigner’s enclave in Canton. The build up to the Opium wars is described with a large number of characters including the villainous gora merchants, the canny Parsi, the tradition bound Chinese traders, servants and lascars, strict mandarins, kind Armenians and even Napoleon Bonaparte.

A historian by training, Amitav Ghosh does good job of transporting the reader to the Canton of the early 19th century. The language is colorful, sometimes to excess, with large doses of Hindi, Bhojpuri and Bengali thrown in. The book is nicely paced to keep the reader engrossed.

The book, however, might not rate very high as a literary offering. Not that I am very proficient in that kind of a critique, but to my mind the book lacks a fluidity and depth encountered in a more literary work. This book is more of a pulp offering, designed to appeal to a broader audience, like a bridge between the Chetan Bhagat end to Rushdie & Seth end of the Indian writing in English. That, in a way, could be the reason behind its commercial success.

All in all a nice read that I am rating 3.5/5.