Book Reviews: May 2016

This month’s book reviews post is a week late, because I was half-way through my fourth book and wanted to finish it for the reviews. Overall, it was a good month of reading even though not all of the books are great.

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The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag (Flavia de Luce #2) by Alan Bradley:

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the first Flavia de Luce book (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie), but I like books set in the English countryside, and I like murder mysteries, so I decided to check out the second book in the series. Bad call. All the things that I disliked about the first book – the less-than-believable main character (an 11-year-old self-acclaimed poison expert and amateur sleuth), the sluggish pacing (the murder, that of a traveling puppeteer, doesn’t occur until quite late in the book, and everything before that doesn’t really build up to it), the thin plot (the case is solved fairly quickly and easily) – are present, and they’re even worse than in the first book. In the first book, at least Flavia’s own father was framed for murder so there is something at stake, whereas here I don’t care about the case at all. Plus Flavia’s relationship with her family is repetitive – the book stresses again and again how distant her father is and how her sisters torment her, but if Flavia is so smart and self-assured as her first-person narration makes her out to be, she would’ve learned to live with it. I think this is the author’s way to humanize Flavia, but it only makes her even less believable. 1.5/5

I guess if I like murder mysteries set in the English countryside, I’m going to stick with Miss Marple from now on.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer:

This was one of the first books I downloaded onto my Kindle, but I didn’t get around to reading it until now, because after The Hunger Games and Matched, I’m kind of sick of YA dystopian novels. Still, this one is a retelling of Cinderella, in which Cinderella is a cyborg, so it sounds interesting.

Unfortunately, that premise is the only good thing about this book. Sure, some of the details of the fairy tale are reworked quite cleverly (Cinderella’s slipper is the cyborg’s mechanical foot, her pumpkin coach is a rusted orange VW that she fixes up, etc.) but overall it’s very disappointing. The characters are boring and stereotypical (of course Cinder falls in love with the prince at first sight, of course she has a grease spot on her face when they first meet – oh em gee it’s so cute, right? – and of course the prince is prepared to throw away everything for her.) The world feels underdeveloped (Cinder lives in a place called “New Beijing”, in which the culture feels vaguely East Asian but none of it is explored; it doesn’t explain why cyborgs are considered second-grade citizens, or why, in a futuristic world, Earth still uses an outdated form of monarchy), and the story feels like a set-up for the other books in the series instead of something that can stand on its own. 1/5

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson:

After those two disappointing books, I needed a palate-cleanser, so I turned to my favorite non-fiction writer. This is his latest book, which details one extraordinary summer in the history of America: from May to September 1927, Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic Ocean, Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, the first talkie was released, the stage was set for the Stock Market crash two years later, work on Mount Rushmore began, and many, many other things happened. It’s a testimony to what a good writer Bill Bryson is that I was enthralled even though I couldn’t care less about aviation and have no knowledge whatsoever about baseball. I’m only interested in history in general, but everything in this book is just fascinating. 4.5/5

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline:

This is the book I was reading on my Kindle in the SIA post last Monday, and the one I finished for the reviews – it was a really quick read so I didn’t want to hold on to it until next month.

The story is set 30 years in the future, when Earth has been destroyed by wars and pollution, and most of its inhabitants have lost themselves in a virtual reality called OASIS, where one lives through an avatar, like in a video game. When the creator of OASIS passes away and leaves behind clues to an Easter egg that can unlock his massive wealth, a teenager joins the hunt for the egg, while evading a corporation who is also after the egg in an attempt to take over OASIS.

This is quite possibly the nerdiest book I’ve read, as it’s filled with references about 80’s video games, movies, TV shows, anime, basically everything about 80’s pop culture. That being said, you don’t have to be a gamer (I’m not) to enjoy this. I do find it a little slow in the beginning, and some of the references feel like mere name-check (like the author is saying “See how much obscure 80’s culture I know?”) instead of serving the plot, but after a while the story draws me in, and the flat writing doesn’t bother me too much. After all, it’s getting adapted by Steven Spielberg, so it has to be good, right? 4/5

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2 Comments on “Book Reviews: May 2016”

  1. Mike says:

    I am grateful that our reviews were a week late because I wasn’t finished with the book that I was reading and even stayed up past my bedtime, on more than one occasion, in order to finish it. But it was really good, so it was worth it.
    Anyway, here we go:

    The long awaited book review for the second book of “The Taj Mahal” trilogy is finally here! I admit that I’m somewhat embarrassed that it took me this long to read this book. While I wasn’t excessively busy (no more than normal), I often found myself trying to find time to really sit down and read, which is a challenge in and of itself.

    And to top it off, the book that I just finished reading, “The Feast of Roses”, is nothing short of a masterpiece. In fact, I’d say that it is even more in depth than the first book in the series, which I reviewed back in March. Filled with drama, action, romance and betrayal, “The Feast of Roses” will have you laughing, crying (and yes, I did tear up on certain parts that I read, especially towards the end), cheering and even cursing, as some of the characters will make you want to swear at them, to some extent, as the author brings them all to life in such a unique way.
    So with all that said, let’s get to the review!

    The main focus of the story this time is on Mehrunnisa, our bold and daring protagonist from “The Twentieth Wife”. I didn’t reveal this fact in my last review, as to sort of give you a bit of a cliffhanger, if you will, but Mehrunnisa ended up marrying Emperor Jahangir, making her his twentieth wife, hence the name of the first book. And upon reaching this marital status, Mehrunnisa gains the title of “Nur Jahan”, which means “Light of the World”. And while she is overjoyed at finally being married to the man that she has always longed to be with, her “rival”, Jagat Gosini, Jahangir’s second wife, still competes for his affection, and does so by trying to show Mehrunnisa up. This is probably most effectively seen when all three of them go out on a hunt. Jagat Gosini shoots a lion (that was drugged by servants prior to their arrival on the hunting grounds to make it easier to hunt) that was approaching them with ease, while Mehrunnisa barely had time to react. This of course impressed Jahangir that Jagat Gosini was such a good shot, leaving Mehrunnisa feeling defeated and humiliated.
    But Mehrunnisa doesn’t give up after just one let down. She decides to try and win Jahangir’s heart and affection in other ways. One very bold thing that she does later is ask Jahangir if she can attend the daily “Jharoka” with him, which is a type of showing or glimpse that the people get to see of their emperor on the balcony of his palace. This is quite unusual as in these times, women of royalty were not to be seen by common people and when they do appear to them, they are veiled.

    But Jahangir agrees to this, much to the confusion of nearly everyone that has eyes to see.
    And it is here that we begin to see a big change in Mehrunnisa. While she was seen as a strong and intelligent woman in the first story, both her intellect and power show even more in this story. Jahangir may be the emperor of the empire, but many said and felt, that Mehrunnisa was really running the show, as she could often get Jahangir to do whatever she wanted. It got to the point where many people were either afraid of her or hated her, or both because of this. This animosity was especially seen in Mahabat Khan, Jahangir’s childhood friend, as his position of minister was severely lowered when Mehrunnisa stepped into the scene. They end up having a pretty huge power struggle, as it were, near the end of the story, after Jagat Gosini steps out of the scene (read the book to find out what happens to her). But while Mehrunnisa shows herself as someone not to be messed with (even her mentor and friend, Ruqayya Sultan Begam pointed out how arrogant she was becoming and needed to remind her that she was part of the reason for her becoming empress to Jahangir [again, read the first book to find out how that took place]), she is seen to be a very motherly and loving figure to her daughter, Ladli. Ladli is sort of seen as the most innocent of all of the characters in the story for being so young. This is especially seen in the beginning of the story in which she tries to get Jahangir’s son, Prince Khurram, to notice her older cousin, Arjumand, the daughter of Mehrunnisa’s brother, Abul. Even as she gets older, Ladli is seen as being very child-like and innocent, even going so far as to question some of her mother’s decisions, feeling perhaps that everything that she does is not moral. Rarely do the two have a cross word for each other and in my opinion, are probably the closest to each other as far as relationships go, besides the love between Mehrunnisa and Jahangir.

    Truthfully, I could probably go on and on about all the details of what happened in the story, because like its predecessor, there are many sub plots and happenings and it’s just too much to try and remember every little thing that happened, which is why you should read the book for yourselves (hint, hint). But let me cut to what I think the main theme of the story is. This book mostly focuses on Mehrunnisa as her reign as empress of Mughal India in the 17th century. She relies on the guidance of her father, Ghias Beg, her brother, Abul, Jahangir of course, and his son, Khurram. The last few chapters of the story show a huge power struggle of who is to get the crown of emperor (mostly between the emperor’s sons) when Jahangir passes away. And much like the first book, acts of betrayal and deceit occur among family members and former alliances. I almost felt like I had to make a scoreboard in order to keep up with who was doing what, as so many times it felt like a certain character was going to get it, only to have it snatched away by someone else. Seriously, you couldn’t find more drama and action in the modern action movies and TV shows that we watch today; there is just so much going on.

    What makes this such a powerful story, and at times, sad, is that for all of her efforts to carry on her bloodline and for being known as “the empress of no nonsense” (my personal superlative for Mehrunnisa), she ends up living the life as a sort of pauper in the latter years of her life. When Jahangir passes away (very, very sad scene to read), the new emperor basically exiles Mehrunnisa from the empire so that she will no longer be a threat to him, and she ends up dying (also a very, very sad scene) peacefully in her daughter’s presence. But her legacy in her 50 years of life or so, lives on and is, in part, the reason for the building of the Taj Mahal. We all know that it was originally built as a symbol of love and devotion that Prince Khurram had for his wife, Arjumand, later called “Mumtaz Mahal”, when she died. But it is often hinted that it was because of Mehrunnisa’s influence in that matter that allowed those events to take place. The author had Mehrunnisa speculate towards the end of her life that if she had had more women in her circle of influence instead of men (asking Arjumand about trying to get Khurram to marry Ladli instead of going to him directly about it is one example of this), things may have turned out differently and there may never have been a Taj Mahal. But however it happened, and for whatever reasons that led to it, Mehrunnisa, “Nur Jahan”, was indeed a powerful and strong woman. She plays an important role in history and like I said for the last book, I am glad that I got to read about her and those around her. A great story all the way around!

    There were parts of the book that I thought were slow and at some point, I sort of just skimmed over, mostly the parts about the war between England and Portugal and the ambassadors that went to India to try and establish a sort of trade with them. So that, and the fact that there were so many characters involved, sort of weakened the overall focus of the story I feel. But still, it is a well crafted novel and I enjoyed it very much.

    I give this one a 4.5 out of 5.

    And while Mehrunnisa’s story might have come to an end, Indu Sundaresan has a third book titled, “Shadow Princess”, which I plan to read next. And I’ll be reviewing that one at the next book discussion (hopefully!). Hope to see you all there!

  2. Kezzie says:

    That was a nice surprise seeing a comment from you on my blog!!! What a shame about those two first books. I hate it when things have promise and end up being awful. I’d be intrigued by the Cinderella one as I love Cinderella retellings but judging from your reaction, maybe not!


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