Monday, November 28, 2016

Book Review: UGLIES

Title: Uglies (Uglies #1)
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Pages: 406

The very first sentence read, The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit. Even though it tried to express beauty in comparison with an unpleasant bodily function, I was not left with feelings of disgust or distaste. 

Perhaps it is true when they say that beauty is relative.

So apt in a novel which packs a punch around the issue of beauty.

Tally Youngblood has lost her best friend, Peris. He has moved to New Pretty Town, after having turned pretty. In this world, turning 16 entitles you to undergo a series of surgeries that will make you beautiful. Being Ugly is of no worth in this world, and that is why on hitting puberty, every boy and girl dreams of turning pretty.

There was something magic in their large and perfect eyes, something that made you want to pay attention to whatever they said, to protect them from any danger, to make them happy. They were so…pretty.

Like our real world, there are all kinds of advantages in being pretty, including being able to sleep as late as one wants to, and enjoying a life of non-stop partying and luxury.

Tally, who lives in Uglyville, sneaks into New Pretty Town to meet Peris. She finds that the friendship is no longer important to him. Tally can’t wait to turn 16 and be a part of that world. On her way back, she meets Shay, another Ugly girl, who shares the same birthday. 

Shay quickly fills in the void left by Peris. The two girls begin a friendship that brings comfort to both as they await their 16th birthdays and their chance to turn pretty. Tally looks forward to undergoing the surgery along with Shay and spending their lives having fun.

But Shay, it appears, does not want to turn pretty. She does not buy into that culture, and even tries to talk Tally into staying Ugly. She tells her of a place called Smoke, where a guy called David has organized a group of people who have chosen not to turn pretty, yet lead happy, unprogrammed lives.

A week before her birthday, Shay decides to run away to the Smoke. Tally refuses to go with her.

And yet Tally’s birthday brings disappointment. Special Circumstances, a group that controls the city, threatens her with a lifetime of ugliness unless she leads them to the Smoke. Tally has promised Shay that she won’t betray her but she has also promised Peris that she will turn pretty soon. Choosing to keep her promise to Peris, Tally, armed with cryptic directions given to her by Shay and a pendant that will lead Special Circumstances to the Smoke, sets out. Now she is a spy for Special Circumstances.

Reaching the Smoke, Tally renews her friendship with Shay and befriends David and the others, looking for the opportunity to activate the pendant and get pretty. Until David and his parents reveal to her the truth about being pretty.

In the Smoke, Tally learns how the Uglies there trade their belongings for food and clothing. Everything has value and history, and here we are rejecting everything for something else, trading the intangible for the intangible.

David’s description of newspapers, like books, but you threw them away, and got a new one everyday, gives us an idea of just how wasteful we are. 

No wonder Tally’s world thinks of us as an idiotic, dangerous and sometimes comic force of history. But as David reminds her, Every civilization has its weakness. There’s always one thing we depend on. And if someone takes it away, all that’s left is some story in a history class.

Pretties have a lot of luck. They are seen as healthy and loved, and preferred as potential spouses. The novel invokes evolutionary biology and how humankind came to equate the beautiful with health and strength, seeing beauty as desirable.

This is truly an interesting world, a world where plastic recycles itself. Tally chews a toothbrush pill and wears an interface ring which lets her interact with inanimate objects.

The story is written from the third person point of view of Tally. In Tally, we have a heroine who opts to do something patently unheroic as breaking a promise and spying on her own friend. She deludes herself into thinking that Shay is misguided and that she must bring her back home.

Set in the distant future, when people like us, who are called Rusties, are long dead. In their History classes in school, young Uglies learn that the past included a time when people killed one another over skin colour, and taller and more good-looking folk got better jobs, spouses, and the best of everything. Sounds familiar?

In this world, the Rusties lived a lifestyle, much like ours, more than 300 years before Tally’s time. It is a lifestyle that demanded constant pillaging of the earth’s resources. The criticism of the Rusties also makes a point about our vacuous entertainment options.

Much of the story felt harsh, like a critique, or worse, like an indictment of our way of living, which has threatened and destroyed our world.

In reading about what Tally thought of the Rusties, I was reminded that, as a people, we are truly Ugly, not for our physical imperfections but for the ugliness that we spread around and leave behind. The Rusties were totally savage, like we are today.

And yet, not everything that the Rusties did was a waste. The railroads have their uses, but Tally still can’t understand their tendency to blast through mountains to fix tracks in straight lines. One particular sentence hit home: Whole rain forests had been consumed, reduced from millions of interlocking species to a bunch of cows eating grass, a vast web of life traded for cheap hamburgers.

Because the locale is so harsh in this dystopian world, the writing feels urgent and true.

The new world is divided into new pretty, middle pretty, late pretty and dead pretty, and keeping watch over them are a group of people known as Special Circumstances.  

This is a world of survivalist tendencies. Dystopian on account of its perceived utopianness.

The book ends on the cusp of a sequel, with Tally receiving a chance to redeem herself and save the others.

I look forward to reading, Pretties, the second in the series.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Book Review: FIRST LIGHT

Title: First Light
Author: Bill Rancic
Publisher: GP Putnam's Son
Pages: 320

Kerry, her husband and her ten-year-old son, Jackson, embark on a 5-day road trip to Canada. Their purpose is to attend a memorial service for those who died in Denali Airlines Flight 806, over a decade ago. 

The couple sees the road trip as a good occasion to let Jackson know about that aspect of the past that they have always kept hidden from him.

The first chapter is in the first person point of view of Kerry’s husband. At that point, we do not even know his name. it is only in Chapter 2, that the author moves behind for a wider look, giving us the entire story through the medium of the parents telling young Jackson about what happened before his birth.

We learn the story of Daniel Albrecht and his fiancée, Kerry Egan, both employees of Petrol Inc, the world’s biggest oil company, who are in Alaska in the wake of a huge disaster. At this point the story reads almost newsy.

Their boss, Bob Packer, is making unreasonable demands of them, insisting that they fix the leak and resolve the crisis, so they can all go home.

The other employees include Judy, Kerry’s best friend, and HR head Phil Velez who lost his wife Emily to cancer, while he worked at his previous company. He has joined Petrol, in an attempt to get away from the memories and sorrow and the pity of his former colleagues. At Petrol, Phil feels attracted to Kerry. However, he struggles to control his attraction and ends up behaving in an unfriendly manner with her.

Working against odds, Daniel and his men manage to plug the leak in Alaska. Soon they are all on a plane from Anchorage to Chicago. Aboard the plane, Daniel and Kerry make plans for their wedding, and Kerry reveals the news about her pregnancy.

Shortly thereafter, the plane’s engines fail and the plane crashes, killing many and plunging the remaining in a desperate quest for survival.

The description of the plane crash and its immediate aftermath feels real and heart rending.

Phil is hurt and suffers from internal injuries. Kerry suffers from concussion. A survivor, Beverley, who is a nurse, tends to the injured.

Daniel tells Phil to ensure that Kerry does not drop off to sleep, fearing that she might slip into a coma. Leaving them together, he sets out to look for Judy who has disappeared along with the entire tail end of the plane, which has broken off, and to look for his satellite phone. 

While in the tail section, he finds that Judy is dying. The description of Judy’s injury and the possibility of her slow but imminent death made for difficult reading.

The storm and raging snow make it difficult for rescue teams to seek them out. In this scenario, Bob and Daniel set out to seek help.

Outside in the snow, as they trudge weary miles for two days, suffering frostbite and other dangers, Bob turns out to be more a liability than an asset to Daniel.

While Mother Nature plays out her drama, the humans play theirs. The author highlights the physical, mental and emotional distress of the survivors as they struggle to keep themselves alive while waiting for the rescue teams to find them. 

Nerves clash as the need for survival brings out the worst instincts in some people. This gives Phil’s character a chance to redeem himself, to fight off the guilt that has been his since the death of his wife.

I felt conflicted about the character of Daniel. I admired the way he rose to every occasion, looking for food that he could salvage, and helping people. The fact that he is a crisis management professional made his actions believable. But he also got irritating. 

Sure, he was trained to manage crises, but his ability to take charge in all situations jarred. Misfortune could have brought out leadership skills in one of the others too.

On the other, the change that came over Phil was handled well. It was nice to see him, confessing to his worst secret, admitting that he left his sick wife alone for three hours, unable to cope with her mood swings and the almost cruel way in which she lashed out at him. 

The confession, and his subsequent change of character, made him a more endearing character. I began to sympathise with him, see his innate goodness. I also liked the unnamed nurse who understood his situation and didn’t blame him.

The other characters too made their presence felt in a positive manner. Flight attendant Kecia, and passengers, Beverley, small boy Zach and his mother, they all came alive. Even Kerry, even though she spent the greater part of the book in an unconscious state.

The big man who tries to hog the fire, and little Zach, they are all real people. Even Bob has his moment when he apologises to Daniel.

While it is no surprise that they get rescued, given that the book begins with young Jackson learning the story from his parents, the twist is still there, and it took me by surprise.

This was a heartwarming story of courage amid difficulties, and love seeking to triumph over huge odds, that I enjoyed reading.

My prayers for all victims of plane crashes.

 (I got an ARC from First To Read.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


Title: Asylum - 13 Tales of Terror
Author: Matt Drabble
Publisher: Eden Publications
Pages: 292
My GoodReads Rating: 

Martin Parcell, an out-of-work journalist on account of an accident-induced disability, takes up a job as a janitor in a private mental care hospital. It is the only job to be found in bleak times. Blackwater Heights is a Gothic building on the outskirts of the city. The building is surprisingly modern and utilitarian on the inside.

James, the older janitor, who shows him around on his first day of work, tells him the dramatic story of Horace Whisker, the original owner of Blackwater Heights. Martin is consumed by his imagination.

Sensing that Martin is an aspiring novelist, James offers to tell him the bizarre but true histories of the thirteen inmates at the asylum, on condition that he write and publish a book on the stories and share the proceeds with him. Unwilling to live his entire life as a janitor, Martin sees this as his ticket to a better life and agrees. But he soon realizes that he is getting much more than be bargained for.

Each of the inmates has his/her own unique story. Some are criminals, some have just found themselves at the wrong place, at the wrong time.

The stories are all well written, each evoking the right amount of atmosphere, enabling a movie to play out in our imaginations. Most of the plot lines are interesting.

In Picking Up Strangers, where a guy who lives his life according to schedules, and finds his life rudely disrupted when he stops his car to pick up a woman in distress.

In The Voice, a guy is plagued by a devilish voice inside his head.

In Two Blind Mice, a doctor preys on the visually impaired.

Is Anybody Out There? sees a woman making good money by pretending to be able to talk to the dead.

In Lonely Hearts, a grieving detective inspector, who has allowed himself to sink into grief-induced alcohol addiction after the death of his wife, gets a chance to redeem himself by solving a cold case.

No Strings Attached sees a young friendless land make one friend who is not quite what he appears to be.

Stormy Seas includes a ghostly visitation,

Method Acting introduces us to an arrogant rom-com star who attempts to earn respect for his craft by acting in a serious film.

In The Devil’s Music, a teenage boy gets more than he bargained for when he tries to invoke the devil.

Primetime Special sees a TV star, past his prime, attempting to boost his career by shooting an episode in a haunted house where he has already rigged some special effects.

In Yellow Streak, a soldier’s cowardice prevents him from attempting to save his fellow soldiers, when he has the chance to.

In Dish of the Day, a food critic who has destroyed the dreams of numerous small restaurant owners, is consumed by desire for a particular food that he can never have.

Night Class saw a group of adult students on the first day of class being systematically killed in a slash fest. This was the only story that I didn’t enjoy reading.

Each story ends with an unexpected development and in spite of himself, Martin finds himself intrigued by the inmates.

The only story that wasn’t a surprise was what happened to Martin himself.

But don't let that stop you from reading the stories. If you enjoy getting your imagination in a twist, this one's for you.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


Title: Drone Threat (Troy Pearce #4)
Author: Mike Maden
Publisher: GP Putnam's Sons
Pages: 352

This was Book 4 of a series so I was prepared to be slightly lost. What I wasn’t prepared for was how far this book veered from the promise it began with.

The opening scene is set in the Kurdistan region in Northern Iraq where ISIS terrorists have taken over, laying waste the land and killing all those they denounce as kafirs. The ISIS are waging war not only against non-Muslims, but also on Shias and any Muslims not abiding by their regressive ideologies.

The writing wasn’t pretty. It tells it like it is, conjuring the heat and dust and the fatigue and horrors that cling to conflict ridden regions.

The first few chapters of the book bring out the modus operandi of the ISIS, the youth of their recruits, their murderous appeal.

I would have appreciated a glossary for the first few chapters. There were so many words that I could not understand. Words such as mahdi, ummah, jizya, taqiyya and dhimma.

But it was all for nothing. The first chapter talks about the ISIS, and I was prepared for a novel where the ISIS were the bad guys, but spoiler here, the focus shifted soon enough, and I felt a little cheated at that. There was no reason to tell me that Ahmed was born a Catholic but is now a Muslim and zealous in the interests of the caliphate. That he and others like him rape the women they capture, hanging the men and children, and leaving their bodies for insects to feast upon and as a grim warning to those who need it. 

A whole chapter is wasted on Ahmed, with a generous back story built in, and all for nothing. He is a mere foot soldier in the ISIS, which itself is a footnote in this book.

It is hard to tell the period in which this book is set, but it is a time when America has already has a former woman President, and bionic body parts are in use.

Troy Pearce, a former CIA man, leaves to start his own firm, Pearce Systems, to deploy drone technology to protect his people and to be able to choose his battles without politicians dictating terms.

Very soon is becomes clear that there are vested interests that are itching for a war in the Middle East, and Vicki Grafton, chief of staff, aided by Vice President Clay Chandler, are on their side.

While President David Lane has a no new boots on the ground policy, Chandler believes The world goes to hell without strong American leadership.

Lane hopes to put in place a Drone Command with Pearce at the helm. While discussions on the subject are still on, a drone arrives on the White House campus, with a folded ISIS flag and the chilling printed letter from Caliph Abu Waleed al-Madi, the head of ISIS, that the flag be flown by 12 noon the following day or else America will face serious consequences. For every day thereafter that the flag is not flown, America will be hit further until the nation is brought to its knees in five days.

When the flag is not flown the first day, ISIS hit a few airports without wreaking any casualties. To make things more complicated, the Saudis want to protect themselves from an ISIS invasion and the Russians want to help the Americans in a war and get the sanctions on them lifted. And both want to profit from war.

No wonder peace is so elusive.

Alexandr Tarkovsky, the Russian ambassador to the US, and Al Saud, the Saudi ambassador to the US, try their best to get the US to commit to war against ISIS. And they have the support of Chandler, who insists that war is the only way.

The book helps us to understand the lives of the people on the killing grounds, no matter which side of the conflict they may be on. The author tells it like it is. How nations pursue their own agendas leaving the world a mess.

In the beginning, the author builds up his story well. We see the endless deliberations between the President and his advisory team as they discuss the best solution to be had under the circumstances. Whether they should ally with Russia and Saudi Arabia or fight a war alone, Pearce hopes that war will be averted.

The author brings out well the simmering politics played by vested interests. How tyrants are cultivated to suit certain needs. As Tarkovsky says to Chandler, Over and over, you keep supporting religious terrorists as a weapon against your secular enemies, but you create worse enemies in the bargain.

Pearce sounds another note of warning when he says, After nearly twenty years of military intervention, do you seriously believe the Middle East is more stable and secure than before we went in? That we are more secure?

While the understanding of the politics behind war was sound and the research on drones and related technology was explained well, much about this book was slapdash. Al Saud and Vicki Grafton were two characters whose names were not even included in the cast of characters, even though they play an important role through the book. On the other hand, the leaders of ISIS are mentioned even though they don’t show up after the first two-odd chapters.

Much as Drone Threat began well, it didn’t end quite smoothly. There was no effective resolution, and I got a sense of undue haste as the author sought to bring events to a close.

(I read an ARC from First To Read.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2016


Title: The Potion Diaries
Author: Amy Alward
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Pages:  384

The Potion Diaries is a story of love, friendship, forgiveness, deception and betrayal that should appeal to people of all ages.

The book is written in two viewpoints: the third-person past tense viewpoint of Princess Evelyn, the only daughter of the King and Queen of Nova, and the first-person present tense viewpoint of Samantha Kemi, an ordinary girl with no magic who hails from a family of alchemists.

The Kemis were at one time the alchemists to the royal family, and one of the most prominent apothecaries in Kingstown, but have now fallen on hard times as most people prefer to buy remedial potions from the synthetic potion manufacturers rather than from the alchemists.

On her 18th birthday, Princess Evelyn mistakenly drinks a love potion that she had made for Zain Aster, the son of Zoro Aster and heir to ZolAster, the wealthiest synthetic potion manufacturers in the kingdom who now enjoy the favour of the royal family.

While drinking from the goblet, Evelyn sees her own reflection and falls head over heels in love with herself. The entranced-with-herself princess becomes a danger to herself and to the kingdom, and the King calls for a Wilde Hunt, a competition inviting the alchemists of the kingdom to find a cure for the princess’ condition. Samantha and her grandfather, Ostanes Kemi, are also summoned to participate in the Hunt.

When Ostanes refuses to participate against the Asters, Samantha yearns to follow her dreams and come into her own as an alchemist. She signs up and finds herself pitted against the Asters, including Zain, on whom she has a crush, and Emilia, the King’s sister who was exiled because she dabbled in the dark arts.

Against the wishes of her granddad, Samantha and Kirsty Donovan, the Kemi family’s Finder, enter into the Hunt, only to get thrown out when their search for merpearl, the only ingredient that the princess has written down, is thwarted by Zol and his cronies. Apologetic about his father’s behaviour, Zain offers to help Samantha to classify ingredients in her shop.

While cleaning the shop, Samatha learns that her grandfather hid the merpearl they had to prevent her from participating in the Hunt. Using a truth serum to ferret out his confession, she and Kirsty take off with the merpearl to Bharat, where all the Participants have gone in search of the remaining ingredients.

Initially, they team up with the Patel siblings, Samantha’s best friend Anita, and her brother Arjun, but when they are attacked by Emilia, Kirsty decides that it is safer to split from them and work separately.

Later, the King’s evil sister vandalises the Kemi family library in search of the recipe for the love potion.

Will Samantha be able to fight the dangers posed by Emilia and Zol? Will she ever regain Anita’s friendship again?

I found the premise to be refreshingly original.

The adventure is well written and I can see youngsters enjoying the ride.

Author Amy creates a wonderful fantasy world, where magic is as real as the commercialism that gets in its way. There is something fairy-tale-like about the setting. From Kingstown which was built on the remains of an extinct volcano.

This is a world of mythic creatures like mermaids and sentient plants like the eluvium ivy.

The language is beautiful. In one instance, Amy describes the forest as a sacred place – a natural cathedral, a living library, an organic lab.

The fact that screens at bus stops and on screens get transformed into customized video message boxes for individuals reminded me of Back to the Future 2. I also found the concept of Transport, a strange form of Teleporting involving touching through screens and maintaining eye contact, interesting.

I liked the references to other parts of the world. Often novels tend to be America-centric even when set on another planet. Here there are references to Bharat and Zambi, the India and Zambia of this world.

At first, I thought that Bharat was just a token reference. But the land known by India’s ancient name is without doubt, the India that I know of, albeit set on a planet where magic reigns supreme. The land of the Ayurveda, which is full of concoctions and mixtures and pastes, translating into the Potions of this world. References to Indian culture were clearly visible in Bharat.

While on the subject, I must mention that Hallah is a diminution of the name, Himalayas. And Mount Oberon is Mount Everest, while the abominable Yeti is known here as just the abominable.

I also appreciated the Indian characters, the Patel family. Daughter Anita is Samantha’s best friend, and her brother, Arjun, and her parents are good people, and Samantha is attached to all of them. When they were first mentioned, I hoped they were not just token characters, and it was satisfying to see that they were not.

I liked Samantha. She is a list person, and makes up lists for almost everything. List of things to ask Kirsty; list of things to repair etc.

I found Samantha to be a lot like me. Apart from her tendency to make lists for everything, she says of the Hunt, They’re not for people who would rather live their adventures through characters in books. I like staying home, thank-you-very-much, where I know I can always find a plug point for my laptop, I’m never ten steps from a kettle to boil for tea, and I can go to sleep wrapped up in the comfort of my own duvet.

Yet she gives in to her dream and agrees to participate in the Hunt, with Kirsty as her Finder, against the wishes of her grandfather.

It was good to see the team work and the mental affinity between Samantha and Kirsty.

The title, The Potion Diaries, refers to the diaries maintained by alchemists, in which they note down their recipes, notes and dreams.

A sweet adventure that youngsters particularly will enjoy.


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