Chokher Bali or A Grain of Sand by Rabindranath Tagore

Title: Chokher Bali
Author: Rabindranath Tagore
Translated from Bengali by Sreejata Guha
Paperback: 287 pages
Set in: Kolkata (India)
Publisher: Penguin Books (January 1, 2003)
Rating: 4 out of 5

My Thoughts:

Chokher Bali is a Bengali novel written by Rabindranath Tagore. He needs no introduction to Indian’s but those who haven’t heard about him, he was a celebrated Indian writer who won the Nobel price in literature in 1913 for Gitanjali. He has also written the national anthem of 2 countries-India and Bangladesh. So I felt bad that I hadn’t read anything by him even after having his translated works around. When I saw this book in the bookstore, I couldn’t resist buying it.

Choker Bali or A Grain of Sand is a story of an extra marital affair. This is just putting it in a nutshell. But not really, calling it an extra marital affair story would be grave injustice. This is a story of love and what people can do for it. Mahendra gets married to Asha, a shy and timid girl who is an orphan and unaware of how the world works. She is just happy to be someones wife and is happy to finally have a home to call her own. She is extremely devoted to her husband. Mahendra is spoilt by his mother and is used to have everything placed before him at his command.

Mahendra and Asha are enjoying their life and are totally consumed by each other as newly weds usually are. Into this bliss enters Binodini, a young orphan woman who was widowed just one year after her marriage. Asha takes to her completely and treats her like her sister. Binodini is envious of Mahendra’s and Asha’s love and yearns to have a home and a man who is as devoted to her as Mahendra is to Asha. Driven by this jealousy and her own desire to be loved, she sets upon seducing Mahendra. Into this cast of characters is Mahendra’s mother Rajalaxmi who is responsible for spoiling Mahendra and Behari, Mahendra’s best friend, an overall awesome guy who is content to stay in Mahendra’s shadow.

Chokher Bali is not all black and white though. In spite of Binodini being the enchantress, she was someone I really understood. I’m not saying what she did was correct but considering she was an orphan and a widow, her need for love and affection was something that endeared her to me. In those days, widows had a lot of restrictions. They had to wear colorless garments and they could not enjoy the worldly pleasures like other woman could. Asha was a naive woman, a girl child who didn’t know disaster until it was right in front of her.

The only person I did not like was Mahendra. He was spoilt right from his childhood. He had a beautiful, devoted wife whom he loved. But he wanted everything. He could not understand why he couldn’t have Asha and Binodini both at his side. Believable and compelling characters is probably what the major plus point of this book is and someone who can create woman like Binodini and Asha is worth applauding. The book was very easy to read, I’m not sure if it’s meant that way or because it is translated from Bengali. Nonetheless, A Grain of Sand is a book I heartily recommend.

This one’s for The South Asian authors Challenge.

Chokher Bali-the Movie:

It’s a Bengali movie, so I watched it with subtitles. It is directed by one of the most celebrated directors of Bengali cinema: Rituparno Ghosh. I was surprised by how different the movie is from the book. While the book concentrates on all the characters and the relationship between them, the movie concentrates on Binodini. The movie is more of a Passion play as the tag line suggests. The movie shows Binodini to be cunning  whereas in the book she is simply a widow who is looking for affection. Suffice to say I didn’t like the movie as much and I wonder if I would have liked it more if I had seen the movie before reading the book.

This one’s for The South Asian Authors Challenge

The Ruins by Scott Smith: Audiobook

Title: The Ruins
Author: Scott Smith
Narrator: Patrick Wilson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio; Unabridged edition (July 18, 2006)
Source: Library
Genre: Mystery/ Horror Fiction
Listening time: 14 hours approx
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

My Thoughts:
I borrowed this book from the library after reading a review by Amy. Since I wanted to try out audio books for a long time and since this was a huge book, I thought audio book was the best way to approach it.

The Ruins is a story of a group of friends, Jeff, Eric, Stacy and Amy, who are on a holiday in Mexico. They become friends with the German’s and decide to follow Mathias in search of his brother who has gone off into the jungle with an archeologist. His brother left a map of the archeological dig and they think it would be an adventure to look for him. What they didn’t anticipate was the trouble they would be and the hell hole they would be stuck in.

It’s difficult to tell you much without giving the plot away but it suffices to say that I was disappointed with the “horror” element and the overall plot, if there was any. The Ruins is more of how different characters behave in the time of crisis than having a concrete story. The first 2 hours of the book I was hooked, I was scared and couldn’t wait to find out what lied at the base of the horror. Needless to say it was not what I expected. If any book could be described as ‘excruciatingly detailed’, it would be this. I mean really. We know what all the characters were thinking at all times, about their present, their future and their past as well. At times, they also went tangent and remembered things form their childhood as if all the thinking that was already going on wasn’t enough. As Amy said it’s a survival drama but I wished there were at least a few twists and turns to keep me interested.

The Ruins was scary and fun at the beginning but then it started getting boring, monotonous and repetitive. There is only so much repetition you can take without a story to take it forward. The human drama was worth reading but then again only up-to a certain point.

I wish I had loved this more, but I guess this book just wasn’t for me.

The Narrator: Patrick Wilson: Oh he was good. I loved his voice, I found it soothing and even. The only time I didn’t like it was when he read the female dialogues, he read them in an exaggerated female tone which was quite funny. Other than that I don’t have any complains.

Would physical book change my opinion? Probably. I might have abandoned the book halfway through or just skimmed it. But since it was an audio book which I listened to while doing housework or traveling it didn’t really cut into my reading time. So in this case, the audio book actually worked for me.

Beat by Stephen Jay Schwartz

Title: Beat
Author: Stephen Jay Schwartz
Set in: San Francisco (United States)
Genre: Thriller
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Forge Books; First Edition edition (September 28, 2010)
Source: Review Copy
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

My thoughts:
Beat has the makings of a typical detective novel in many ways. It has the usual ingredients, the detective of course, a complicated case and a chase with some action thrown in. What is probably different from most detective novels is the protagonist Hayden Glass.

Hayden Glass is a LAPD detective who is currently on a leave or a forced medical leave and is undergoing therapy for sex addiction. One day, after he has been clean for around 2 months he enters a video chat room after surfing a sex site for days. He enters the chat and sees a prostitute called Cora whom he instantly becomes obsessed with. After a few months of relentlessly “meeting” her online, she disappears. He follows her to San Francisco where she told him she lived and tracks her down in a hotel room.

2 heavy-set Russian guys enter the room, beat him up, rape Cora and take her with them. What follows is Hayden’s chase to find Cora. In the process he gets involved with the San Francisco Police department, the FBI and the Russian mafia with their underground sex trade.

I found the premise different and interesting with the writing flowing smoothly as well. There was a little too much Detective Jargon which I found a little difficult to follow as first but got used to later. Besides it just shows how much research and preparation the author has done. The sense of place is also very strong in Beat. I could picture the alleys and the night life of San Fransisco within the pages.

I found Hayden Glass most interesting. He revealed various shades as the novel progressed, becoming a sex addict to a detective, to a man who would risk anything for a girl, to an almost nice person at the end. He was not a black and white caricature detectives are usually portrayed as.

I wish I had read the first book Boulevard though. Beat could be called a stand alone novel but reading the first one would have given me a little more glimpse into Hayden’s life and character since most of the issues he carried with him came from the first book. Beat is not very heavy on action. It’s more of Hayden chasing the girl Cora and then uncovering various things on the way. It was a bit slow for my taste but the end more or less made up for it.

Note: A lot of violence.

Read Veens Review here

Swallow by Tonya Plank

Title: Swallow
Author: Tonya Plank
Paperback: 402 pages
Publisher: Dark Swan Press (December 11, 2009)
Genre: Fiction
Source: Author
Set in: New York
Rating: 4 out of 5

My thoughts:
When I read the book synopsis, I thought this would be a serious book since it deals with a psychological disorder called Globus Sensate where Sophie feels like something in stuck in the throat as a result of which he/she may find trouble eating or in extreme cases- breathing.

So when I opened the first page I was prepared for a sad saga. But Swallow is far from sad. It’s a look into the life of a New York lawyer (intern) who seems to be awkward, lacks confidence and generally looks down upon herself. Sophie Hegel is working as an intern in a New York firm acting as a criminal appeals attorney. I obviously had no idea that there are attorney’s just for appealing cases. But I did get a lot of information about it from this book.

Sophie seemingly has everything. A hot-shot lawyer for a boyfriend-Stephen, a fabulous New York apartment which she lives in with her Stephen and a job as an intern which could possibly turn into a permanent one.
But as a reader you learn from the very first chapter that Sophie had self-worth issues. Coming from a small town in Arizona, Sophie never feels like she completely belongs and is not comfortable with people she thinks are more successful and more sophisticated than her.

Things start going wrong when Sophie discovers that she has problem swallowing even simple things, including drinks. After confirming that she has no physical problems she is hoping to find answers from her psychiatrist. This book is not about a disease. It’s about Sophie’s struggles, not only with her self-issues but also with her relationships- her mother, her sister who has 3 children out of wedlock and her father who makes pornographic movies.

As I said I expected this book to be dark and serious but it actually reads like a chick-lit or a light novel, which was a welcome change. In spite of this, the author never undermined Sophie’s problem or made light of it which I really liked. Sophie is a very likable character most of the time and although you get a good glimpse into Sophie’s character, I wish some of the other characters were explored in little more detail, like Stephen or her father, whom I really disliked and was intrigued by at the same time. At times I thought the book was not moving at all, especially in the middle. But it really picked up pace for the last 100 pages which was nice.

Would I recommend Swallow? Yes, definitely. I found it very entertaining. But if you expect to find more details about the psychological disorder, you’ll be disappointed. Go into it expected a light hearted novel and you’ll enjoy yourself. I would even go as far as calling it a Beach read.

Oh and by the way, do you know that the author Tonya Plank is a dancer? I find that really cool.

Awards:
Gold Medal, 2010 Living Now Book Awards * Gold Medal, 2010 Independent Publisher Awards * Finalist, ForeWord Book of the Year Awards * Finalist, National Indie Excellence Awards * Kindle Top 10 Best Seller, Legal Fiction / Anxiety Disorders

The Blue Notebook by James Levine

Title: The Blue Notebook
Author: James Levine
Genre: Fiction
Source: Personal library
Set in: Mumbai (India)
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (July 6, 2010)
Rating: 2 out of 5

My thoughts:
By now I guess everyone must have heard or read about this book. It’s a story of Batuk from rural India who was sold into sex slavery by her father when she was just 9 years old. The Blue Notebook chronicles her life as a prostitute in Mumbai.

I almost feel bad saying I did not like this book. I found it too dramatic at times. When writing about a topic like this dramatization is something that is least expected. Although it can be explained by saying that Batuk was very melodramatic and it reflects in her writing, there comes a point when it becomes too much. That could be because all the books I’ve read on this topic have been non-fiction and most of time very straightforward. I found it irritating that she referred to ‘sex’ as ‘sweet cake’ for about a million times in the book. Also the depth of her writing is a little too mature for a young girl.

I just felt that as a fictional character Batuk went through all those atrocities for nothing. What was the point of describing all those rape scenes in endless detail? As if the word ‘Rape’ in itself is less disgusting.

The problem about fictional books on harrowing topics like child prostitution is – where do you draw the line? When a fictional book is set in an actual city like Mumbai, there comes a time when you start questioning whether these things actually happen. I felt there were a few details added to make the book more sad, which it already was. Child prostitution is a very important issue where lives of thousands of children are ruined everyday. But I did question a couple of things in the book, like the descriptions of what happened in the Orphanages. I know that a few orphanages are used for prostitution but I find it hard to believe the things described here. When my thinking tilted towards towards ‘Not possible‘ instead of ‘Maybe‘, that’s when I started loosing interest in the book.

The writing was brilliant but at times I felt it was too lame, like the author was trying too hard. All I want to say is that if you want to read about things like child prostitution and be aware of what is happening in the world, it’s much better to read non-fiction books and there are non-fiction books that read like fiction. (case in point-The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam)

The Night of the Miraj by Zoe Ferraris

Title:The Night of the Miraj
Author: Zoe Ferraris
Source: Personal Library
Genre: Mystery
Set in: Jeddah (Saudi Arabia)
Rating: 4.25 out of 5

My thoughts:
I love reading anything set in the middle east, so when i saw the desert on the cover, I picked it up without realizing what the book is about. I was surprised when later I read the synopsis carefully and noted that it was a thriller. I don’t know many thrillers set in the desert. Imagine my surprise when I found out that ‘Night of the Mirage’ is the book ‘Finding Nouf‘ with a different name, a book which had been on my wish list for some time.

A rich 16 year old Nouf goes missing taking with her a truck and a camel. Assuming she is either kidnapped or has ran off into the desert, her family takes help of a family friend Nayir who knows a lot about the desert. Nayir takes help of Katya, Nouf’s brother’s fiance, who works in the forensic department. As Nayir and Katya learn more about Nouf and her life, we as readers get to see inside the life of the rich of Jeddah and also get a glimpse of a society which likes to keep its women under wraps and their family honor intact under any circumstances.

Set in Jeddah, this book offers a unique setting which the author has bought to life. It feels like you are actually inside Jeddah and are looking at real people and real issues. The Night of the Miraj is not just a mystery but it also shows the changing face of the society when it comes to women and their position in it.

Recommended. I’m really looking forward to City of Veils, the follow up to The Night of the Miraj.

Once and Always by Judith McNaught

Title: Once and Always
Author: Judith McNaught
Mass Market Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Pocket (September 20, 1990)
Source: Personal Library
Genre: Historical Romance
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

My thoughts:
I had heard a lot about this author but I never really remembered reading anything by her. There was a time when I used to devour one romance novel a day, so it might be possible that I have read one of her books. Anyway, this one sounded good. I have to say the summary at the back is kind of misleading.

Victoria and her sister Dorothy are orphaned at he age of 18 and 17 respectively when their parents die in an accident (Horse carriage). Having no one else to look after them their doctor finds out that their mother was royalty, daughter of a countess. So he sends them from America to England to their cousins.

The cousins turn out to be Charles who is an elderly Duke and Jason who is a young and troubled Marquess. Charles wants Victoria and Jason to get married but they both hate each other at sight. Jason does not want another women in his life after his ex wife deceived him and Victoria does not want an arrogant and rude man as her husband, besides

she already has a man called Andrew back home. She is sure he will be coming to get her as soon as he returns home and discovers she is gone.

The story basically revolves around these two. I loved her writing style and I do believe I have found another favorite Romance writer. The book could have been reduced in length at least by 100 pages though. Victoria was a lovely, vivacious, lively character and although I loved her she was almost too good to be true. Jason was a very nicely fleshed out character and I could very well understand why he behaved the way he did.

I have 2 things I would like to mention here though.

Firstly I was very sad that the author decided to make use of the stereotypical and ignorant descriptions of the Indians. She describes them as ragged beggars. I mean come on. As one reviewer on Amazon puts it perfectly

Throughout generations and even now the dominant religion in India has been Hinduism. So why were the “poverty stricken dirty Indians” dragged into the sadistic torture of a white British(who by the way unjustly occupied India during that era and tortured the rightful citizen and looted the country) Christian boy?

She also mentions that India is always hot. This is something I have read in so many novels and I thought I should really mention something this time. The author is writing about Delhi and yes, India is a tropical country and it is hot. But it is not always hot, in fact Delhi has very severe winters. I wish the authors could check the facts first.

Also, there is a tone in the novel that suggest that Americans are better than the British and although one can argue the fact by saying that the hero and her Uncle are British, they seem to be the exception. Overall I found it a little offending even though I am not British. I don’t know if I’m being too sensitive here, but if you’ve read this book ad you’re not an American, you could let me know.

In spite of my complaints, Once and Always was entertaining. I’ll definitely be reading more of her books. Which one do you suggest?

The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton

Title: The Camel Bookmobile
Author: Masha Hamilton
Genre: Adult Fiction
Setting: Kenya
Source: Library
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

My thoughts: This book is inspired by the Camel Bookmobile Project in Kenya. The books are carried on Camels to remote areas in Africa where children have little or no source for books. Fi is a librarian from New York who volunteers for this project. She is looking for an escape, a life very different from her own.

Mididima is one of the villages in Kenya where this bookmobile visits. These are the villagers who have their set ways for years. They worship nature, they think they are cursed if it doesn’t rain. They have ancient values and philosophies that have been carried down from generations. Obviously they are not too happy about the bookmobile. They think it will corrupt their children’s minds and show them a world which is above their reach, it will take away their traditions. But there are also children like Kanika and Scar Boy (who was attacked by a hyena when he was a toddler) who want to experience something different, who want to widen their horizons.

The author brings out the clash between the modern and the traditional world very well. We think the villagers would be thrilled to have an opportunity to read and learn, but we never think it will clash with their believes and culture.

This book has everything I love in a book, an African setting, lovely characters, beautiful writing, but there was something lacking in The Camel Bookmobile. I couldn’t really get into the book for whatever reasons. It does get really interesting midway but again it disappoints at the end. There were important threads that were left open. I am okay with open endings but here it felt really abrupt.

Nonetheless, it is a book I would recommend.

Author with the Camel Bookmobile

Zero Percentile by Neeraj Chhibba

Title: Zero Percentile
Author: Neeraj Chhibba
Genre: Adult Fiction
Source: Author
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

My thoughts:

Zero Percentile is the story of a guy called Pankaj from Delhi, India. The story begins in 1997 Russia where Pankaj is about to board a flight to India and waiting for one phone call that could change the course of his life. This is just a 2 page prologue after which the story shifts to Delhi and then for the first half of the book we are taken through Pankaj’s childhood.

Although I think the childhood part was quite stretched out with unnecessary details, I do think it was necessary. Even though the tagline of the book says ‘Missed IIT Kissed Rusia’, IIT is a very small part of this book. Just because he misses the IIT exam due to an incident, he lands up in Russia for an engineering degree. After that it’s about his experiences in Russia.

What I liked the most about the book was the information it provided. I haven’t read a lot of books set in Russia and that’s why the setting of this book was very refreshing. I got to know a LOT of things about Russia and the education system back in the 1990’s.  Along with that he’s also managed to insert quite a bit of  Russian history in the book.

This book reads like a Bollywood Movie, a potboiler from beginning to end. It’s a book for the masses and I would safely put it into the ‘Chetan Bhagat’ category. It’s a quick read and it also costs less. The writing does need work but overall it was entertaining.

Note: If you happen to get the book, please skip the summary at the back of the book, it gives away almost all the turning points of the book.

This is my first book for the South Asian Author’s Challenge.

Where the heart is by Billie Letts

Title: Where the Heart is
Author: Billie Letts
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing; Oprah’s Book Club edition (June 1, 1998
Genre: Adult Fiction
Source: My bookshelf
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

My thoughts:
I bought this book in a second hand bookstore. There is already a movie made on this so I’m sure I would never have picked it up for normal price. I would have preferred watching the movie instead.

Anyway, I’m so glad I picked it up because I ended up loving it. I read this before the wedding so my memory is not that sharp but I do remember all the lovely characters from the book, most of all Novalee, so I guess that’s a big plus.

The book begins with Novalee Nation and her boyfriend traveling on road to get to some place where the boyfriend could get some job. Novalee is a teenager and is pregnant. Somewhere mid-journey when they stop at Walmart, the boyfriend chickens out and leaves Novalle at Walmart and drives off.

So here she is, 17 and pregnant, with no one to turn to for help. So she hides in Walmart and manages to stay there until the baby is born. But along the way she meets some people, strangers, who take her in and shower her with love and give her a place she could call home.

At times I think everything turned out to be too easy for Novalle, like everything just fell into place. I’m not sure that really happens in real life. What is the future of a 17 year old pregnant girl with no job, who knows no body in the town and has absolutely nothing going for her? It’s a miracle alright, something we have stopped believing in long ago. May be it’s time we stop being so cynical and believe there are people who are as unselfish as the ones Novalle met in that small town.

So in spite of what I now call a minor problem in the book, I absolutely loved and enjoyed reading Where the Heart is. It’s a heart warming story with endearing characters. You will find yourself rooting for Novalee and falling in love with her adorable little girl.

It’s a book that’s perfect for Christmas. Besides, isn’t that a perfect title?