Saturday, 27 August 2016

The Last Frontier by Alistair MacLean - Book review

Publisher's write-up:

'Doctor Jennings, a noted scientist in possession of a precious secret, has gone over to Soviet Union: it's Michael Reynolds' mission to get him back.

Jennings' visit to a scientific congress in Budapest, gives Reynolds a unique opportunity: a chance to contact Jennings and offer him a motive to return.

To penetrate behind the Iron Curtain and reach his quarry is difficult enough; but to bring out a man uncertain, elderly and too well known is impossible. Until Reynolds discovers, within that terrifying organisation there are men ready and able to help.

These dedicated Hungarian patriots - high minded, resourceful and, when necessary, as ruthless as their enemies could be the key to Jennings' success in this deadliest missions.'

The Last Frontier is a novel by the popular writer Alistair MacLean; with a story that takes place in the east of the Iron Curtain and not his usual World War II novel. In this Michael Reynolds, a British secret agent, is given the task of bringing a nuclear scientist, Dr. Jennings back to the UK. The task is not that simple, as Jennings is based in Soviet Union and is visiting Hungary for a conference and Reynolds, is to carry out the task in Hungary; beating all odds, including the brutal secret police of Hungary, the AVO. In this mission, he has the help of certain locals; mainly a former Soviet military general named Jansci and an insider within the AVO, known as The Count.

The novel follows the standard template MacLean uses; a near impossible mission, a romantic sub-plot, and an absolute hate rant against those whom the protagonist is against. For starters, the novel maintained a good pace and got straight to the point and in the very first chapter, Reynolds crosses the border into Hungary. I also appreciate the fact that the author chose Hungary as the place for setting the novel considering, there is a lot of literature available on oppression in Communist regimes, mainly by Soviet Union and I have even read one, in Romania (The Land of Green Plums) but there is very little available on Hungary. I loved the way the author built the character of The Count, in particular, shrouded in mystery with a lot of untold past and the author brought it out little by little as the story progressed. Jansci was yet another beautifully built character with many similar characteristics, such as a troubled past and his determination to bring freedom to the peoples under Communist regimes.

But then, while I praised the way the author built the sidekicks, my main problem was with the protagonist, Michael Reynolds. He is possibly the lousiest secret agent I have ever read about; walks into obvious traps, has no original ideas and ultimately, is completely dependent on The Count and Jansci. There wasn't a single instance where he accomplished something on his own and if ever he tried, he had to be bailed out either by The Count or Jansci. Moreover, the romantic sub-plot between Reynolds and Jansci's daughter was ... lifeless; could have rather not had it at all and last, the author told very little about Reynolds himself and as a reader, I was never able to connect with him as much as I was able to, with the other two characters. Moreover, Alistair MacLean was on his hate rant again, against all the Communists; though I commend him for the fact that he tried to defend them a little, through the Count or Jansci while the Japanese or the Germans in his earlier books did not have any such lawyers. It was all the more annoying with Reynolds snatching every opportunity to say the same naive thing; the fall of Communism would bring peace and is a solution to all problems. While I am not a Communist sympathiser myself, I still found his book too one sided and yes, to be honest, a lot of modern readers might not even be able to connect with the hate campaign considering, it is nearly three decades since the fall of Communism but then, I wouldn't exactly blame the author for the problems faced by readers in future.

My expectations on this book was rather high, considering this book was said to be among the best works of Alistair MacLean but then, it disappointed me, considering that it was a very ordinary thriller and yes, if it had an extraordinary protagonist like it did in The South by Java Head, I perhaps might have enjoyed it more but the biggest drawback of this book was Michael Reynolds. I would say that this book would perhaps appeal only to hardcore Alistair MacLean readers or those who are merely enthused by blind anti-Communist literature (PS: Once again, I am not a Communist sympathiser myself but MacLean went too far).

Coming to the question of rating the book, I would say that this book is a reasonable thriller, with a lot of flaws but then, a flaw in the protagonist is a very basic flaw and thus, I would not be able to deem the book as a good read with a rating of six and hence, my rating for this book would be a five.

Rating - 5/10

Have a nice day,

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The Kid Who Ran for President by Dan Gutman - Book Review

To be frank, I had not heard of this book till yesterday, notwithstanding the fact that it was released in 1996; thanks to an endorsement to the book from John Oliver during his show Last Week Tonight. The book is about a twelve year old kid from Wisconsin, Judson Moon, who decides to run for president following persuasion from his friend Lane. While Moon himself does not have any bright ideas nor is he aware of any of the issues faced by the country, Lane decides to be his spin doctor and manage his campaign, to make him attractive to the electorate; by selecting Moon's elderly neighbour, an African American woman as his running mate, selecting an attractive girl to be the First Lady (First Babe, as he had put it) and yes, push for the Constitutional Amendment removing age restrictions to become president.

The book is very relevant today considering Donald Trump's campaign that has been going on. The author had very beautifully brought out how one could appealing to the electorate just by telling things they wish to hear, regardless of whether it is practical or not (I shall share some of the quotes from the book below). Moreover, I feel this book is a very good read for children across the world considering, kids love to see one of them outsmart the grown-ups (the theme of most Japanese anime) and particularly a good read for young Americans as it does broadly explain how the complex US electoral system works. An excellent thing the author has done is that he revised the book in 2012, to make it more relevant for today (removing references to archaic technology, for instance); I wondered at first as to how there were references to Barack Obama and also the 2000 election where George Bush became president despite Al Gore securing more votes but then, it was a good move to update the book with these incidents (especially, the 2000 election is an excellent example for explaining the electoral college system).

'It's more important for you to look as if you know what you're talking about than it is for you to know what you're talking about.' - Page 27

'To win this election I became everything I always hated. I turned into a liar, a fake, a fraud. The saddest part is, it worked.' - Judson Moon

'Your candidacy is a joke! Your running mate is a grown-up, you hypocrite! You don't know anything about anything. You're going to make all kids look bad!' A group of boys jumped on Krantz and started punching him. - This is exactly what happens at a Trump rally when you criticise him or in social media; where any constructive criticism is met with abuse by pro-Trump people. Those who backed the leave campaign in the EU membership referendum in UK behaved pretty much the same way.

Anyway, I would get back to the book rather than digressing (for my recent piece on Trump on Astute: Thoughts, click here). The biggest problem I had with the book was the character of Lane. While every other kid in the book actually behaved like a kid, Lane had the maturity to understand voters' psychology and in fact, would have made a proper spin doctor for a serious politician. It could have been much better if this character had been an adult, after all, this book wasn't devoid of adults, the running-mate was an adult, this character could've been an acquaintance too, like his father's friend or so. While I understand the whole story is satirical, I can't help but ignore, what kind of a school principal allows a student to make anti-homework statements in school and be proud of the student?

Considering today's context, with Trump's joke of a campaign as background, this book has been thoroughly enjoyable, although I am unsure as to whether this book would be as enjoyable once this charade by Trump is over.

Coming to rating the book, it was a light read (took me just ninety minutes to read) with a decent story livened up by the 2016 US election. I would award the book a rating of seven on ten. Thank you, John Oliver, for the suggestion.

Rating - 7/10

Have a nice day,

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Chalk Dust Stories by Pedro Freire Costa – Book review

Note: I received a complementary e-book from the author in exchange for an honest review. I thank the author for presenting me with the opportunity.

Written originally in Portuguese, Chalk Dust Stories is a collection of short stories which includes the short story Chalk Dust. The author being Portuguese, the stories are set in Portugal, across various timelines. Most of the short stories were social stories with a macabre setting and sometimes, a melancholic ending. The stories were fairly diverse; one involving an 84 year old spinster woman about whom her sisters who have lived with her all along know very little; a bull always loyal to his master that it never unleashes its true nature, even in the bull fighting arena; the life of a boy who lost his father when he was fourteen and how he comes up in life; and also a humorous story where a man bets his dead mother in law, loses the bet and the counterparties try to dig up her coffin (these are snippets only of a few stories, not all). 

The stories were very well narrated; be it the characters built or the setting; I thoroughly enjoyed visualising the setting. The characters were built very well and despite being short stories, their nature was brought out very well that there were stages where you were able to predict how a character would react to a future situation. Of all the stories, my personal favourite was Chalk Dust where a boy, orphaned at fourteen, finds a guardian angel in his father’s lover and it went across timelines; bringing out aspects of Portugal both during Salazar’s regime and after and as a history enthusiast, I loved the way in which the author brought out a glimpse on life during the dictatorial regime. Other aspects of 20th Century history touched upon in the book included the war’s Portugal fought in Africa on Salazar’s whim to retain all the colonies. Apart from the touch of history, what I genuinely liked about the stories were short but still, was able to communicate a lot to the reader.

The only downside I found in the book was the fact that some of the stories ended quite abruptly, the book totally came to 80 pages but I would have preferred it if the author had elaborated a little more, even if it meant taking the book to around 120 pages (especially in stories such as Marilia’s Christmas or Starry Night).

I have always wanted to make my reading more diverse as I believe reading books is an easy way to know about the world around you and this book presented me an excellent opportunity; the first book I read with stories entirely set in Portugal and to say the least, I am looking forward to more. To conclude my review, I award the book a seven on ten.

Rating – 7/10

Have a nice day,

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling - Book Review

Publisher's write-up:

'It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn't much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband, and father of three school-age children.

While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.'

The Cursed Child is a supplement to the well known Harry Potter series and one thing different about this book is that the same is written as a play and not prose. The previous time I read a play was Hamlet and it wasn't a very pleasing experience to read a play and moreover, I was never one of those Potterheads to be satisfied with the mere appearance of Harry Potter (even though I am familiar with the story as per the book, not just movies) in a book and hence, I started reading the book with absolute neutrality. If you aren't familiar with the Harry Potter series and planning to read / watch it in the near future, I suggest you don't proceed with this review considering even though the play can qualify as a standalone, there might be some spoilers / references to earlier books.

This book picks up exactly where The Deathly Hallows left off; nineteen years after the Battle of Hogwarts. Harry is now with the Ministry of Magic; head of Law Enforcement, Hermione is the Minister of Magic and Ron is running the joke shop inherited from his twin brother. Harry's second son, Albus' fear turns real when he is sorted into Slytherin house; and he is unable to keep up with the expectations of being Harry's son and he finds a friend in Scorpius, the son of Draco Malfoy, Harry's nemesis during his school years. Albus is desperate to create an identity of his own and on the other hand, Scorpius has his own battles considering how people believe him to be Voldemort's son.

To start with, I felt this was a very well narrated play, bringing out the background, mood and emotions of the characters involved before the dialogue, helping the reader visualise what is going on. Very often, a play ends up as a dump of dialogues and it is very difficult to comprehend what is going on unless you watch it as a play. My favourite aspect of this book was the role of the two members of the Malfoy family, Draco was an extremely mature adult and in fact, he was the one who brought a desperate who was acting on impulse back to normal. Scorpius Malfoy, on the other hand, was an extremely loyal friend, was a way too pragmatic for his age which was shown through the way in which he handled people's inherent distrust in him owing to the suspicions. Usually, a revival never lives up to its expectations but I believe this book had a decent plot and at no point in time I was bored, even though, the time travel is not a concept which is new to most readers and that happened to be the crux of this book. Another excellent aspect is that it was an extremely light read,  despite the book being deceptively bulky (around 330 pages), I managed to complete the book in three hours, considering it was a play and you can read through it fairly quickly.

With that said, this book followed the same pattern that was followed in the first five books of the series, that is, Harry's scar hurts, Voldemort is going to come. I genuinely felt that the series could have been revived with something different rather than it being a case of an old wine kept in a new bottle. I read one of Rowling's interviews recently and I am glad that she isn't going to write any other book in this series, considering, I am tired of this predictable sequence of events.  Moreover, I felt that Ron wasn't adequately used in the book, and was a mere comic relief even though he had a very significant role in the first seven books but then, Draco taking that role wasn't a very bad idea either. Time travel forms the crux of the novel but then, in many cases, it ended up becoming an excuse for repeating old events mentioned in earlier books. The book also repeatedly talked about Harry being overworked at the Ministry though it was merely said and was never demonstrated; except for one instance where Harry's office is full of papers because he is not interested in paperwork; that only indicates lack of interest and not an overworked staff. There were also certain logical inconsistencies on a closer look but I wouldn't disclose it here since it would inevitably contain spoilers; however, I am open for a private discussion on the same.

This book is excellent for light reading, with a decent but predictable and ordinary storyline which would be loved by Potterheads and enough to satisfy the moderates (like myself). I would award the book a rating of six.

Rating - 6/10

Have a nice day,

Friday, 29 July 2016

Pigs have Wings by PG Wodehouse - Book Review

Publisher's write-up:

'Can the Empress of Blandings win the Fat Pigs class at the Shropshire Show for the third year running? Galahad Threepwood, Beach the butler and others have put their shirts on this, and for Lord Emsworth, it will be paradise on Earth. But a substantial obstacle lurks in the way: Queen of Matchingham, the new sow of Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe, Bart. Galahad knows this pretender to the crown must be pignapped. But can the Empress in turn avoid a similar fate?'

Pigs have Wings is the eighth book in PG Wodehouse's Blandings Castle series. I have never read Wodehouse in the past and I used to cold shoulder all suggestions saying humour doesn't humour me. However, I thought it was about time that I try something and then judge the genre and I finally heeded to a suggestion and chose Pigs have Wings considering how, similar to Lord Emsworth in the book, I have a liking towards pigs too and I chose it purely for the title.

The book is about a duel between the Empress of Blandings and the Queen of Matchingham and notwithstanding the fancy titles, these are two oversized pigs. The former, belonging to Lord Emsworth has won the Fat Pigs contest twice, in the past and Emsworth's brother, Galahad and his butler Beach, place their bets on the Empress winning it for the third time in a row. However, Sir Gregory Parsloe, brings in a pig from Kent and Galahad feels threatened and thus, plans devious plots to ensure that the Empress wins it yet again. Added to that, there are also certain romantic sub-plots involving people at the Blandings Castle and Matchingham House.

The premise of the plot certainly did seem interesting and a lot of scope for humour was available but then, I felt that the author ended up writing a book where the majority of the book was the romantic sub-plots and tries to create something in the name of comedy weaving a tangled web around them, attempting a romantic blunder. For starters, I felt that there were a way too many characters introduced within the first twenty pages that I found it difficult to follow and took me a while to realise that it was Galahad and not Clarence (Lord Emsworth), who was the lead character.

I felt that while the story could have been narrated well, considering the publisher's write up does provide a reasonable scope for a good story but then, the author has it completely messed up with the absolutely below average narration and no noteworthy writing. I have read certain books which, despite not having a great plot, I end up enjoying for the sheer way in which it was presented by the author but this book neither had the story nor did it have the panache in terms of narration. Moreover, I found that the characters in this book were a way too simple with absolutely no depth and the only reasonably built character was Galahad but frankly, with all his tirade against Parsloe, he himself didn't behave in a very honourable way for the reader to actually get behind Galahad.

I understand that usually, it is considered sacrilege to not like Wodehouse, let alone criticise, perhaps I had the wrong expectations expecting a meaningful plot (not even deep, merely meaningful) with some content or some excellent writing but then, I can't bend my expectations for the sake of giving positive reviews for the sake of the author who wrote it; for a book that I would have otherwise not liked.

All that aside, I feel happy that I decided to read a Wodehouse book, it does increase the diversity of genres that I have read (not necessarily liked) and yes, in case I wish to criticise Wodehouse in the future, it gives my criticism some amount of credibility considering how I genuinely tried a book with an open mind and didn't like it.

I give this book a rating of three on ten.

Rating - 3/10

Have a nice day,

Monday, 20 June 2016

The Five People you Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom - Book Review

The Five People you Meet in Heaven is a novella roughly around 120 pages and I have no clue as to what genre to put it under. Anyway, for starters, I would say that I picked this book as a light read during a short travel that I undertook and yes, I have never completed a book in its digital form and I thought this would be a decent start. While I am not a subscriber to the concept of life after death and in fact, I don't agree with a lot of things the author has talked about, in this book but then, I would not let my personal opinions influence the review of the book.

The story is about a maintenance worker at an amusement park, named Eddie, who is not too satisfied with his life and felt he was stuck doing mundane things and never lived to his potential. At the start of the book, he was living his last moments and dies to protect a young girl from an accident in the amusement park. He then goes to heaven, meets five people, each of whom, have had some impact in his life, directly or indirectly and the book is about his journey in heaven.

I liked the first meeting in heaven, where the author brings out how there might be people whom you come across, who seem so insignificant, but you've had a huge impact in their life and you aren't even aware of it. The central theme of the book was the fact that every event in life has a purpose and every person in the world has a person and no life is ever wasted and the author brought it out well through the five people.

Anyway, with that said, I felt after a good start, some of the other four meetings was not as impressive, predictable or totally random. Sometimes, the simplicity of the language could be a strength but I felt the narrative here was a way too simple and I sometimes felt that was a turn off to an already short book. Moreover, I felt the story need not have gone back and forth between his birthdays during his days alive and life after death and in fact, I didn't even find a point in why those birthday bits had to come in, perhaps an attempt to take the book beyond hundred pages.

I found a lot of negative reviews on this book, but then, I guess it is a problem with expectation more than the book; I merely wanted a light read for a short journey and this book delivered what I wanted and my suggestion is, don't read this book looking for some great underlying story or philosophy, just a light read with some interesting bits. In fact, I feel this book is very similar to that famous book by Richard Bach; Jonathan Livingston Seagull - owing to the popularity of the book, I had huge expectations on that book but then, I found it a way too horrible that I gave it a very bad review, three years ago. While this book is similar to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I find this to be a much improved version of the same and while in Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I had perhaps set the wrong expectations; here, I got what I wanted, as I already said, earlier.

So, on the whole, purely considering my own experience with the book, I give the book a six, provided you, the potential reader also have an expectation similar to that of mine.

Rating - 6/10

Have a nice day,

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