Sunday, 16 October 2011

Kim's Review: The House of Night Series

Guilty Confession: Ever since "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" aired on Indian TV screens over a decade ago, I have been a sucker for vampire stories (pun intended). In those days, we even had debates as to who was a better female ass kicker and Xena won over Buffy, but Spike & Angel were my 2 main reasons to keep watching the series. Since then there's been a flood of teen fiction involving vampires ever since Stephanie Meyer burst on the screen with the Twilight Series followed by True Blood & the Vampire Diaries. And I guiltily pick up the e-books.

My sister told me about The House of Night series, so I downloaded the whole series (8 books, the 9th one will be out on 25th October) and with the husband traveling on work, I read them all back to back in 2 days :) So I really can't review them seperately and will have to do it in one post.

The premise that the series is based upon is that Vampires are born because of a junk DNA presence. They live life as normal human beings until somewhere in the middle of teenage, a tracker (vampire who identifies humans who have the vampire DNA) finds them and touches their forehead creating the outline of  a blue crescent tattoo.

Once they (fledglings) have been so "marked", they have to head to the nearest "House of Night" kinda like a vampire finishing school where they spend the next 4 years learning a more relevant curriculum like vampire sociology, horseriding, fencing, acting music. If the fledgling is lucky, they will make the change to a full vampire by the end of 4 years, if they aren't and the body rejects the change, they die.

Vampires and humans know of each others existence and co-exist. These vampires belie most stereotypes, They are sensitive to light, but don't fear it. Sucking human blood is pleasurable for both the vampire and the human and its never with the intent to drain or kill. Vampires have a moral compass & know the difference between good & evil & darkness & light.

The series starts with the main protagonist Zoey Redbird being marked. Zoey has Cherokee blood in her and when she is marked - Nyx the Goddess of vampires - appears to her and tells her that she has been chosen to help the Goddess on Earth. Nyx gifts her followers, but never takes any of the gifts back and completely believes in "free choice" and giving fledglings and vampires the freedom to choose their own paths.

The first 6 books are in the voice of Zoey, the series actually becomes more interesting after that when other perspectives are introduced.

The first book - "Marked" is quite simplistic and doesn't really reel you in (more of a 90210/gossip girl with vampires), unless you are a devourer of vampire fiction. The books and the story line do improve after that.

The language is very simple. Although the characters complain that Damien (one half of a vampire gay couple) uses very complicated language, even that is very simple and isn't difficult to comprehend. This makes me wonder at the target age group for the series. The language is simple enough for a 10-12 year old child, but the subject matter - blood, gore, sex should be at least PG 13?

The series doesn't really leave you with a sense of closure at the end of each book like the Harry Potter series did. It leaves you on a bit of a cliffhanger like the vampire diaries tv episodes. Each novel literally spans around one month or so and there are a lot of story lines that are left hanging at the end of each book. I wonder how long they plan to stretch out this series?

PC Cast has been writing novels for quite awhile. What is unique in this series is that she felt that the voice of the teen vampires wasn't really modern enough and so she roped in the help of her daughter Kristin Cast to help with the dialogues. The partnership seems to have worked quite well. However when I came to book 8, I did wonder how it felt for a daughter to edit the sex scenes written by her mother. Wouldn't it feel a bit weird?
"Destined" - the 9th book of the series is due for release on the 25th of this month. Until then I think I will go ahead and read the 3 other associated books with this series - the fledling handbook - a first year sociology & history textbook at the House of Night, Nyx in the house of night - a look at the mythology and stories behind the stories and Dragons Oath - a novella about the fencing professor at the Tulsa House of Night. Lenobia's vow a novella about the equestrian professor at the Tulsa House of Night is also due to be released on the 31st of January next year.

Rating : 2.5/5

Friday, 7 October 2011

Kim's Review: The Heretic Queen

I was browsing through flipkart last week and saw a link to Michelle Moran's- Heretic Queen which was supposedly based on the life of Nefertari. Having just finished Christian Jacq's 5 part series on Ramses which had a large part of it dedicated to his realtionship with Nefertari, I thought it would be interesting to read another historical fiction authors take on the same.

The difference was like chalk and cheese, except for perhaps the character of Ramses who just has varying degrees of rashness. If Jacq's Tuya was an intelligent, delicate Queen who helped Seti rule Egypt according to the rule of Ma'at, Moran's Tuya is an overindulged, overweight indolent queen only interested in her iwiw (pet dog)

If Jacq's Seti was a Pharoah with deep insight and who could see into each man's soul and beyond, Moran's Seti is easily led astray by his sisters. Jacq's Isis is a woman of noble birth, completely in love with Ramses who quietly acknowledges her position as secondary wife to Nefertari. Moran's Iset is granddaughter of a harem child whose father is unknown, who is easily led astray and whose only interest in marrying Ramses is to be queen, even though she is in love with another man. Jacq's Uri-Teshup is a violent Hittite forced to seek refuge in Egypt but who continues to plot against Ramses while being his guest. Moran's Urhi is a gentle 17 year old Prince.

Moran's book feels less like a book of historical fiction, and more like a book of fiction with names of historical characters. From whatever I have read on Pharaonic Egypt, Moran's depiction of the court and courtiers is more akin to the English and French courts, than the Pharaonic Egyptian court.

She herself confesses that since so little is known of the actual history, she has played around a lot with the accepted facts. So in her version, Nefertari is the daughter of Queen Mutnodjmet who was the sister of Queen Neferatri. After the death of the heretic king Akhenaten and his Queen Nefertari, their daughter Ankhesenamun who married her half brother and Akhenatens son Tutankhamun came to the throne before his early death. Next it is Neferatri's father Ay, who was Vizier who became Pharoah. General Horemheb, kills them all, sparing only Mutnodjmet who is pregnant with a child from her first husband General Nakhtmin. He keeps her alive and forcibly marries her to claim a right to the throne of Egypt. Queen Mutnodjmet dies giving birth to Nefertari.

After Horemheb's death, his general Ramses I - an old man is named Pharoah. His son Seti is Pharaoh after him and his daughters Henuttawy and Woserit are High Priestesses of Isis and Hathor respectively. Nefertari as a Royal Princess is brought up with Seti's children Ramses II (3 years older to her) and Princess  Pili who is the same age as her. Unfortunately Princess Pili dies at the age of 6, but Ramses and Nefertari grow up as brother and sister. But as a niece of Nefertari who resembles her in looks, she is always under the cloud and suspicion of being a heretic.

At the age of 17 Ramses is crowned co-regent and with the machinations of Henuttawy, he is married to Iset. Woserit takes Nefertari under her wing. The book then deals with the power struggles between Iset and Nefertari, Henuttawy and Woserit, the struggle for freedom of the Habiru (Hebrews) under Ahmose (Moses), the struggle of the Egyptians to survive after 4 years of failed flooding of the Nile.

The book is a page turner. It was very difficult for me to put down, but at the same time I was also questioning what I was reading. "Could it really have happened like that?"

Given the lack of finer details of Pharaonic Egypt, there will always be 100's of theories about the details, the trick for any writer, writing fiction about this age is to come up with a new angle and keep it interesting. Moran  has definitely succeeded in doing that. But saying that, it also veers more towards the chicklit and Romance novel genres than historical fiction. I think what I'm trying to say, is that Heretic Queen is a good story with a good plot but lacking in the depth of content that would truly make it a work of historical fiction.

I already have a copy of her Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution, and I'm quite looking forward to reading it. After that I will decide whether I want to buy the rest of the books in her Egypt series.

Rating: 3.2/5

Also check out my detailed reviews of Christian Jacq's series:
Ramses - The Son of the Light
Ramses - The Temple of a Million Years
Ramses - The Battle of Kadesh
Ramses - The Lady of Abu Simbel
Ramses - Under the Western Acacia

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Brajesh's Review: Brutal Simplicity of Thought

Brutal Simplicity Of Thought, How it Changed The World. Powerful & "Simple" book, cataloguing over 100 ideas which changed the world. In our ever complicating world, the need to simplify can never be over-emphasized ...

Great application around all walks of life. This book resonated a little more with me, as I was wondering how to foster "Simplicity" within my organisation when this book jumped at me from the shelf.

Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Brajesh's Review: Adrift - A Junket Junkie in Europe

Interesting read, but a heavy one due to choice of words :)

Would only reccommend it to heavy duty travel-bugs. Lovely start to chapter one inspired me to make my own travel manifesto

She gives a reasonably ok insight into various European cities. Post reading this book, my list has expanded to Paris, Vienna and of course the evergreen London. Sad that she didn't cover any of Italy.

Rating: 2.5/5

Also Read Kim's Review of this book

Monday, 3 October 2011

Kim's Review: The Food Trail of Punjab

Rushina, had been very enthusiastic some time last year about the release of  "The Food Trail of Punjab". She had met Mr Yashbir Sharma and was quite impressed with his love for food that drove him to self-publish. This is his second book after "The Dhabhas of Amritsar" She even helped him launch the book in Bombay. Unfortunately I was in Delhi at that time and missed the Bombay launch, but that did not stop me from buying a copy of my own.

I'd flipped through "The Food Trail of Punjab" when I was in Delhi, but it wasn't a very serious effort. Punjabi food was easily available within 15 minutes of dialling a number, so I didn't bother cooking anything Punjabi while I was in Delhi.

Now that I'm in Guwahati and my favourite Punjabi restaurant here: Khalsa Parivaar has been closed for 3 months with no signs of reopening in the immediate future, I needed to take a closer look at my Punjabi cookbooks. Why Punjabi? No I'm not craving the ghee :) Punjabi food while rich with milk products is also very simple to put together. Ingredients needed are minimal and easy to find in any kitchen pantry or even Guwahati's food stores.

Given my paucity of food ingredients here, I've been thinking that Punjabi food will be much easier for me to cook here, than pasta or stir fries.

So I sat down to flip through "The Food Trail of Punjab" again. And this time I was hooked. The wealth of information is amazing. If a foodie were to try and visit all the eateries mentioned in the book, they wouldn't be able to cover more than one page in a day.

Food Trail starts with a brief travelogue of Amritsar and Wagah, before proceeding to Jalandhar, Ludhiana & Patiala. Then Mr Sharma gets down to buisness, he starts listing out all the eateries he has eaten at and what their specialities are with a bit of background to the history of some of the eateries and some recipes that he managed to get these long term khansamas to share (which is a heroic feat in itself).

As I had expected, the recipes are simple and when I cook them at home, I can lower the ghee and malai (cream) content in most of the savoury dishes. (Never compromise on ghee, cream and butter in sweet recipes, the results will be disastrous)

The pictures aren't what you would see in a glossy Hermes House or Good Housekeeping cookbook, but the recipes are very authentic. If you buy cookbooks for the pretty pictures, then this one isn't for you. But if you buy the Penguin "The Essential" cookbook series because there are some great recipes in there, then you will be happy just to have pictures in this book.

A beginner cook or someone who isn't familiar with the names of these dishes, may have some trouble with some recipes in this book, because steps aren't as clear as could be. But anyone who is comfortable improvising while cooking, will be able to figure out the instructions very easily.

For eg to make motichoor laddoos:
Step 1 Mix besan and meetha soda together and sieve.
Step 2 Mix desi ghee, milk and a little water to make a thick batter.
If you understood that the ingredients of step 2 have to be added to those in step 1 to get the batter, you will be able to cook from this book.

The only other problem with this book is the editing. This could just be my editing experience speaking, but I really wish I could have got my hands on the manuscript before it was published. The content is vast and information tremendous. It would just have been so much pleasanter to read if the grammatical errors and misused turn of phrases had been caught before publishing. Mr Sharma if you plan to publish another food book or need to reprint this one, I volunteer my services for the editing.

Contentwise the book as I mentioned before, is marvellous. You can plan a 2-3 week holiday in Amritsar just for sampling the fare from the eateries montioned in this book. The recipes are simple, ingredients required are very basic. Other than paneer, brains, curry patta and baby corn I should be able to procure them quite easily here. And ingredients like garam masala, chaat masala and black salt, you will be able to source quite easily from Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi stores elsewhere in the world.

Some ingredients like yellow chilli powder, I have not yet come across and some like magaz had me rushing to google. But there is a glossary on the last page for a handy translation for most ingredients.

Some recipes like the chicken chaat are so simple, a child could assemble it whereas the motichoor laddus will take more experience if you plan to make the boondi/motis too at home. I've already bookmarked some recipes to try in the near future. Let's see how it goes.

Rating : 3.5 / 5

Added on 15 Oct 11: 
Just tried out Chawla's Cream Chicken from the book

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Kim's Review: The Twentieth Wife

Everyone who has heard of the Taj Mahal is familiar with the name of Mumtaz Mahal, but what do we know about the women from the Mughal era. Especially those women who played an important part in the Mughal Empire and its politics? Virtually nothing! Unlike the Royal women of the Tudor court or the French Revolution, nothing is known of the Royal women in Indian history save a few like Jhansi ki Rani, Kittoora Chenamma or Mirabai.

It is this gap that Indu Sundaresan's books seek to fill and do an admirable job of it.

The Twentieth Wife is the story of Mehrunnisa later titled Nur Jahan. Starting with her father Ghias Beg's fall from grace in the Persian Court, his impoverished flight to seek refuge in Emperor Akbar's court and the ignominious birth of their 4th child - Mehrunnisa at Qandahar along the route.

A chance encounter with Mirza Masud - a trader soon to become benefactor, enabled Ghias Beg to complete his journey with his family and gain audience with Emperor Akbar. After a few initial meetings, pleased with his intellect and learning, the Emperor appointed him as a courtier and his fortunes again began to rise.

When Mehrunnisa is 8, the whole of the Mughal court at Lahore gathered to celebrate the wedding of
Prince Salim to Princess Man Bai of Amber and at the celebrations, she comes to the attention of Padshah Begum - Ruqayya Sultan Begum who demands her regular presence at the harem for conversation. In love with Prince Salim and in the eternal hope of glimpsing him, she is only too happy to comply with the Empress wishes.

This routine continues through Prince Salims next 2 marriages, until her father is appointed Diwan of Kabul for the next 4 years before being recalled to Lahore.

But in the meanwhile Price Salim now 22, is goaded by courtiers into thinking he deserves to be Emperor and his father who has ruled for 35 years should step down. Unlike in Europe and similar to Pharaonic Egypt, primogeniture does not entitle succession and all 3 sons have an equal claim to the throne. Impatient to rule, Prince Salim bribes Akbar's physician to poison him enough to incapacitate but not kill him. Akbar who hitherto did not even send his Sheiku Baba, away on military/political missions because he could not bear to be away from him, is shattered when he realises that the same Salim has poisoned him and their relationship deteriorates from this point. However Khurram, Salim's son with Jagat Gosini is a firm favourite with the Royal couple and is brought up by Ruqayya Begum as her own son.

On her return from Kabul, Mehrunnisa returns to her companion duties with the Empress and takes responsibility for Khurram when his nurse is away on personal business. All the time, she keeps watching and learning and waiting for an opportunity to capture Prince Salim's attention.

However fate intervenes, in an attempt to keep Ali Quli Khan Istajlu, a brave Persian soldier anchored to the Mughal court, Emperor Akbar commands that he be married to Mehrunnisa. Ruqayya who hopes that Mehrunnisa will be left with her when Ali QAuli goes on campaign, is only too ready to endorse the decision.

Her life with Ali Quli is not an easy one. And with Emperor Akbar's failing health, Prince Salim has to contend with his eldest son Khusrau's desire to rule. However on Akbar's death it is Salim who is crowned Nuruddin Muhammad Jahangir Padshah Ghazi.

For his alliance with Prince Khusrau in his rebellion, Ali Quli is exiled to Bengal where Mehrunnisa after many years of childlessness and 2 miscarriages, finally gives birth to a daughter - Ladli Begum. And while she is in exile, Jahangir betrothes his son Khurram to Mehrunnisa's brothers daughter - Arjumand Banu.

Mehrunnisa travels with Ladli to Lahore for the engagement and the Emperor who spots her, is so enamoured with her all over again, that he invokes the tura-i-chingezi - asking Ali Quli to divorce her, so he can marry her himself. Ali Quli refuses and starts another plot of dissent, but is killed in the madness that follows.

She is forced into hiding with her daughter and inspite of commanding her return to Agra, Jehangir does not even attempt to meet her for over 4 years. But instead of returning to her parents house, she takes up a position as the dowager Empress Ruqayya's lady-in-waiting.

In the meanwhile the Portuguese Jesuits come to Mughal India to convert and then merchants from England come to trade.

Mehrunnisa again comes to Jahangirs attention and this time he isn't willing to let her go as easily. She holds on, until he promises marriage and thus she becomes the twentieth and last wife of Jahangir. The only one of the Emperors wives whom he marries for love and not as a political alliance.

It was very interesting for me to notice the commonalities and differences between the harems in the Mughal court as evidenced in this book and the Chinese court as seen in Empress Orchid and The Last Empress.  Hoshiyar Khan (Emperor Jahangirs eunuch) and those in the Chinese Court have so much in common.

Indu is an engrossing writer and seems to have done a lot of reaerch into culture, customs, costume and food habits of those times. While many facts are historically know, there is a lot of fiction thrown in and that is what makes this book so enjoyable.

I can't wait to read The Feast of Roses, but I don't have that book yet, so I will have to skip a generation and read Shadow Princess instead.

Rating: 4 / 5

Brajesh's Review : Christian Jacq's Ramses Series

Read this Christian Jacq Series on RAMSES II over last month. The fact that I finished all 5 in a row should be proof enough that this is an exciting series to invest time in.

You must read this if you have lived in Egypt, like Egypt, are interested in Egyptian History, fascinated by Pharaonic Culture, want to understand a legend or just plain and simple like a good read.

1st one "The son of the light" is mostly about the legend of Seti, father of Ramses and introduces us to some important characters and making of Ramses the king. (4.5/5)

2nd in series "The temple of million years" builds on early years of Ramses's rule and introduces us to his evil brother but really builds on his friend's quartet which includes the legendary Moses. (4.5/5)

3rd book "The battle of Kadesh" gives a unique take on this important historical event. By this time we are also introduced to wonderful characters in the Hittite Empire (3/5)

4th book "The lady of Abu simbel" handles all the complex webs and intricate workings of Ramses's empire as he grows older. The book ends with the opening of my favourite Egyptian monument of Abu Simbel (3.5/5)

5th book "Under the western acacia" winds down the story to Ramses's final years as a King. However since the attempt is to make each book independent by now the extent of repetitions start to get boring. (2.5/5)

Also check out Kim's detailed reviews of:
Ramses - The Son of the Light
Ramses - The Temple of a Million Years
Ramses - The Battle of Kadesh
Ramses - The Lady of Abu Simbel
Ramses - Under the Western Acacia


Saturday, 1 October 2011

Kim's Review : Ramses - Under the Western Acacia

Halfway through reading Ramses: The Son of the Light, I placed an order for the next 4 books in Christian Jacq's Ramses series. Ramses : Under the Western Acacia is the Fifth book in this series.

This book begins 33 years into Ramses reign. At 55, Ramses has lost a lot of his closest advisors. His mother Tuya, wife Nefertari, dog Wideawake, lion Invincible & his 2 horses who helped him win the battle of Kadesh. Moses one of his 4 closest friends has shepherded all the Hebrews and left Egypt.

After the period of Royal mourning for Nefertari, he raises Iset from the rank of Secondary wife to that of Great Royal wife. His son Kha 37, holds high religious offices. His daughter Meritamon 33, lives the life of a recluse at the temple of Gurnah in Thebes. His son Meneptah 27, is athletic like his father with a taste for command and  Ramses names him Comander in chief.

While Ramses wishes only for peace and for his nation to prosper, Emperor Hattusilis has other ideas. He threatens to break the peace treaty with Egypt unless Ramses marries his daughter Mat-Hor and makes her the Great Royal wife. But Ramses cannot tolerate such an insult against Iset and the law of Ma'at.

To save him from this situation, Iset commits suicide, leaving the position of Great Royal wife open for the Hittite princess. However the ritualists object to a foreigner being privy to all the secret mysteries and rituals that are the responsibility of the Great Royal wife. And here Christian Jacq comes up with a brilliant interpretation of the recorded fact that Ramses married his daughter Meritamon. Jacq explains it as Ramses solution to this dilemma. Pharoah requests is daughter Meritamon to play the symbolic role of an Egyptian Great Royal Wife for all the religious ceremonies.

Uri Teshup is released from house arrest and finds support in the spy Raia and Ofir's brother Malfi in his quest to destroy Ramses. He marries Lady Tanit, the richest widow in Pi-Ramses and hence now has access to money, black magic, Libyan mercenaries and a spy network at his disposal. Inspite of Serramanna's  best efforts, he does manage to cause some major problems for Ramses including the murder of Ahsha.

Clashes follow, Ramses remains supreme until his death.

Important facts and introduction to characters are all repeated, so you can read Under the Western Acacia, even if you havent yet read any of the others in the series. But this volume is difficult to appreciate as a standalone. It does tell a story, but its the end of the story. It would be like buying a mystery novel and reading just the last chapter.

A lot of this volume spends time describing ancient Egyptian costumes, medicines and rituals. While the book is interesting, it does not add as much to the story line as the previous 4 do. A lot of the material seems repetitive and reader fatigue does set in, in this book. Jacq may have been better off condensing the main story lines into an extra 2-3 chapters in the previous book.

Rating: 3/5

Also check out my review of:
Ramses - The Son of the Light
Ramses - The Temple of a Million Years
Ramses - The Battle of Kadesh
Ramses - The Lady of Abu Simbel


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