Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Three books

"Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe"
Bill Bryson is one of my favourite authors and with this book I crossed another of his humorous travelogues off my reading list. This time Bryson is criss-crossing Europe, detailing his experiences in countries such as Belgium, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Austria. Being a Bryson book, there are several laugh-out-loud moments -- whether cheating death by crossing a road in Paris traffic, being robbed by a gypsy girl in Florence, or trying to order something edible from a German menu. Highly recommended even if you are not planning a Europe trip.

"Third Girl"
Chanced upon this Hercule Poirot mystery that I don’t remember reading over the past two decades. It’s also an uncommon one since the murder is not actually committed in the first half, while Poirot is left to wonder whether the weird girl who confessed to a murder in the first few pages is insane. I have read most of Agatha Christie's 66 detective novels, and while I was happy to discover one that I hadn’t, “Third Girl” (1966) was a let-down in terms of plot, motive and characters. And there are far too many coincidences. Not among Christie’s best.

"The Devotion of Suspect X"

This crime thriller by Japanese author Keigo Higashino was a pleasant surprise. In the first few pages, we know who the murderer is, why the victim is dead and who is responsible. What we don’t know is how the murder was hidden, and the reader looks on as police detectives piece together clues to catch the killer. Will they get him (or her) in the end? A truly 'different' thriller. Highly recommended. A Bollywood version to be directed by Sujoy Ghosh is in the works.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Movie review: "Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania"

It's tough to think of a Karan Johar production that doesn't have memorable music. But "Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania" is no "Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani". Indeed, there were moments in the movie hall when I wished I owned a universal remote to fast-forward through all the excruciating songs.

It's a good thing that Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt are there to save the day and put "Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania" on 2014's list of unmissable movies.

It's been two years since Varun and Alia made their Bollywood debut as a pair of high-school brats in "Student of the Year". By the time "Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania" came along, baby-faced Alia had two other commendable releases ("Highway" and "2 States"), while Varun's second movie outing ("Main Tera Hero") didn't quite drive him into the big league. Which is why "Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania" had a lot riding on it:

a) Prove that Varun wasn't a one-film wonder.
b) Give Bollywood's reigning queen Deepika Padukone the heebie-jeebies thinking about Alia's back-to-back successes.
c) Pay homage to "Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge" -- the "Titanic" of Indian cinema -- and expect adherents to forgive and forget.
d) Woo audiences with a protagonist (nick)named after a nursery rhyme character, namely an anthropomorphic egg that falls from a wall.

Director Shashank Khaitan, yet another first-timer from producer Karan Johar's hit-churning movie factory, succeeds on all counts. And before I start gushing about "Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania", here's a look at the film's storyline (with no spoilers, of course).

Humpty Sharma (Varun) is a happy-go-lucky Punjabi munda at a Delhi college who spends a lot of time with loyal sidekicks Poplu and Shonty. Enter Kavya Pratap Singh (Alia), who travels from Ambala to Delhi in her quest for the perfect designer lehenga that would embellish her upcoming wedding to a rich NRI doctor.

Sparks fly, Cupid strikes, and before long Humpty turns up in Ambala to convince Kavya's dad (Ashutosh Rana) to bless the duo. Unfortunately, Dad is one of those I-hate-love-marriages guys who has his heart set on getting Mr. Perfect Angad as his son-in-law. What could poor Humpty possibly do?

If you can't see the similarities with DDLJ, do not worry. Director Khaitan thrusts it in your face with situations, characters and dialogue, not to mention that scene at the beginning where Humpty is in tears watching the star-crossed lovers of the 1995 blockbuster.

Well, if the plot of "Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania" doesn't sound too epic -- and believe me, it isn't -- everything else makes up for it. Endearing characters, witty lines, laugh-out-loud situations and crackling chemistry between the lead pair. Both Varun and Alia are funny and adorable, although they face some serious competition from Sahil Vaid, who plays the goofy Poplu, perhaps the film's most memorable character. Watch him and you'll know what I mean.

"Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania" may not be an Oscar-winner but it's guaranteed to entertain you. Just find something to do when the songs come on.

Rating: ****

Monday, July 07, 2014

Two books

I've just finished reading two books. Both were a delight and are highly recommended. The first - Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch" - is a monster tome at nearly 800 pages but Tartt is brilliant and this modern-day David Copperfield had me hooked.

Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother and leaves him with a priceless work of art called 'The Goldfinch', which is to be the bane of his life. This Pulitzer prize-winning novel is a journey through life, love and art. I wish I’d a better understanding of art; I could have connected with this novel even better. But it’s still worth it.

From New York to across the Atlantic in 1950s England. Alan Bradley's "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie" is set in the Buckshaw mansion, where 11-year-old Flavia de Luce gets embroiled in a murder mystery. Flavia is no saint; she knows her poisons; and she could flummox Hercule Poirot.

Just who is that stranger who died in the cucumber patch after eating a piece of custard pie? Flavia will find out and this precocious detective makes it a perfect debut for her 70-something Canadian creator -- mystery writer Alan Bradley. Make no mistake; this is not a children's book. Flavia just happens to be the pre-teen protagonist of a book for murder-mystery-loving adults. There are more books in the Flavia de Luce series and I intend to read them all.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"In Evil Hour" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I can't say I have read everything Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote, but "In Evil Hour" (La Mala Hora) doesn't seem to be his best work. First published in 1962 (in a bowdlerized version that Marquez disowned), it is now considered a forerunner to "One Hundred Years of Solitude", his masterpiece.

In a Colombian town, lampoons appear on walls and doors, targeting its residents. Everyone is worried that they may become the subject of the malicious rumours. And a murder later, things get really serious.

As usual the novel is populated with some great characters, but my problem with "In Evil Hour" is I didn't care enough for them. Some of the minor ones seemed to just drop off the pages, never to be seen or heard again. And the mystery of the lampoons is never solved.

"It's the whole town and it's nobody," says a fortune-teller from a travelling circus and that enigmatic reply is supposed to satisfy the reader.

Marquez fans would never forgive me but this novel seemed more like a collection of good character sketches of people going about their daily lives. (Some weird ones there, btw)

Maybe I am supposed to see the larger picture. Perhaps I should wait till my Spanish is good enough to read the original. Or maybe I should stick to his later, and more famous, works.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

"India After Gandhi" by Ramachandra Guha

The good thing about reading Ramachandra Guha's "India After Gandhi" (2007) is that it's not a dull history book. It is history, but with a pacy narrative that would rival the craft of Dan Brown.

Most of us know - or think we know - a lot about India’s history in the 20th century. Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Emergency and the Kashmir issue. What Guha does admirably well in his narrative is move away from the sanitised schoolbook version of Congress party rule in the first few decades of independence.

And he also brings to life several names that have been forgotten over the years - take for example V.K.Menon, who helped Vallabhbhai Patel convince 554 princely states to join the Indian republic. Or Sukumar Sen, under whose able leadership the country’s first general election was held, defying predictions of anarchy.

What I didn't like about the last third of Guha's tome is how it glosses over the 1990s. I wish there had been more of the anecdotes that enrich the book's first half. But perhaps there is just enough material missing for a detailed sequel called "India After Rajiv".

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Movie review | X-Men: Days of Future Past

More than a decade ago, Hugh Jackman travelled through time in "Kate & Leopold", playing a 19th-century duke who finds love in modern-day New York.

Jackman (as Wolverine) does it again in "X-Men: Days of Future Past", this time in reverse, going back to 1973 to prevent the invention of robot Sentinels that decimate the X-Men in the future.

No spoilers here but it's the perfect opportunity to showcase both the younger and older selves of Professor X and Magneto -- and introduce a few interesting mutants -- in the battle against the humans.

As the latest in the movie franchise, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" had its task cut out. Sequels have a hard time matching expectations anyway and this one even more so -- a large cast, an elaborate plot, concurrent storylines -- but director Bryan Singer does a really good job.

A particularly fine Matrix-like sequence takes part somewhere in the Pentagon, when Wolverine, the Professor and a speedy teenager take on the guards while trying to spring the young Magneto from a high-security prison (he's accused of assassinating JFK).

The teenage mutant (Evan Peters) gets all the brownie points, performing with panache in a time-freeze that's the highlight of the movie. Watch him eat a burger in this ad and you’ll get some idea.

Also impressive is Jennifer Lawrence as the shape-shifting Mystique. She's no prop here as she takes on the villain (Peter Dinklage from Game of Thrones), the guy who’s building the Sentinels.

As sequels go, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" has no yawn-inducing moments. Dazzling visual effects, more than a few laughs, and some crackling chemistry. The lead cast definitely had fun making it (if you go by the Blurred Lines reference).

I go with four out of five stars for a sequel that's still as entertaining as the first "X-Men". Waiting for "Apocalypse", the next film in the series.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

"Of Love and Other Demons" (1994) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

On her 12th birthday, the daughter of the Marquis of a Colombian seaport is one of four people bitten by a rabid dog. She's the only survivor.

In a town racked by superstition, people begin to suspect she's a demon and a young priest is brought in to exorcize her.

"Of Love and Other Demons" - translated by Edith Grossman - is the story of Sierva Maria in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez world where fact and fable are inextricably yoked together.

This 1994 novel is not as famous as his other works but is a masterpiece nevertheless. Now to watch the movie adaptation.

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