a blank slate

a blank slate

Tag: book review

How do you rate books?

While reviewing books, I have always had a problem with coming up with a good rating system, that I can follow irrespective of the genre, type, size and author of the book. I mostly just follow the Goodreads system.

It goes like this:
1 star: Didn’t like it
2 stars: It was okay
3 stars: Liked it
4 stars: Really liked it
5 stars: It’s amazing
I don’t find it sufficient though. For one, it is very relative. I may give a 5-star rating to 11.22.63 by Stephen King as well as The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde; not that the books are in any way comparable or equal. I thought they were both amazing in their own ways; what I don’t get is how to convey this “in its own way” through a rating!
Consider the example of a review copy; where I know it’s the author’s first attempt at getting published. I have certain expectations from the book and when the book fulfills those expectations almost entirely, I give it a 4-star rating; because I do really like it. That doesn’t mean it is even close to being as good as Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, which I also really liked (and hence gave a 4-star rating!)
Secondly, I think five stars are too few to judge a book by. So I either use half-ratings i.e. 2 1/2, 3 1/2 etc. Or I use ten stars. Either way, the first problem persists.
I have seen people rate individual elements of a books separately. For instance, theme, plot and characters, each with its own separate rating. This is, I think, the most justifiable method; but I don’t know how it exactly works. Which different elements would you rate separately and how do you decide the whole rating of the book?
I don’t tend to put much weight in the rating a book holds. Until now I haven’t come across a widely applicable rating system. Unless you have one. What do you base your ratings on?

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett

The title of the novel The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett made me want to read it. When I started reading the novel, I hadn’t read any reviews or synopses and had no idea what to expect.

It is the story of a notorious book thief and a clever rare-book dealer who tracks him down. It provides a glimpse into the quite magical world of rare book collectors.

There is not much to say about the writing style. I found it a bit pompous, too literary; but it’s one of the things you learn to overlook when only the plot/ideas get you so involved in the book.
The author’s opinion about the fact that many collectors don’t actually read the books they collect was first surprising, then convincing. It is the love for the physical beauty of books that drives people to collect them. The yellowed pages, the delicate spine and that old smell, I’d be lying if I said never I loved books for all of that.
“Much of the fondness avid readers, and certainly collectors, have for their books is related to the books’ physical bodies. As much as they are vessels for stories (and poetry, reference information, etc.), books are historical artifacts and repositories for memories—we like to recall who gave books to us, where we were when we read them, how old we were, and so on.”
Don’t you completely agree? There are so many books that I do judge by their covers. So many books I don’t like but can’t manage to give away, because they have that special meaning, beauty attached to them. I have fond memories to associate with every book I owned as a kid; serious discussions along with bookish games and crazy fan-girl obsessions.
I still remember reading the first few pages of The Diary of a Young Girl in my school library. It was the first hardcover novel I read, and that edition carried pictures of the girl and her family and a map of the place she lived in; along with a few copies of the original diary entries scribbled in her own handwriting. The fact that I didn’t like the book as much as I thought, doesn’t remove the memory. The excitement it caused me to think that the book was actually someone’s life, gave me sort of a new perspective on reading. Like the author says, even physical artifacts (like books or paintings) carry memory and meaning.
I’d recommend this book to anyone who loves reading or loves to hold a book in their hands or loves, much like the author, to spend time in libraries, surrounded by books. It is one of the best books about books.
“Sitting in any library, surrounded by high shelves of books, I sense the profoundly rich history of scholarship as something real, and it’s both humbling and inspiring. This manifestation of reality is true of other artifacts as well. We can read about the Holocaust or where Emily Dickinson wrote her “letter to the world” or where Jim Morrison is buried. We can view online photos of all these places. Still, each year, thousands of people visit Auschwitz, The Homestead, and Père Lachaise. I suppose our desire to be near books rises from a similar impulse; they root us in something larger than ourselves, something real.”

Reading Heinrich Böll

During the German Literature Month – November 2011, I received two books by the Nobel Prize in Literature winning author, Heinrich Böll as part of a giveaway (big thanks to Caroline @ Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy @ Lizzy’s Literary Life) – his first ever novel, The Train Was on Time and another renowned one, The Clown. A week before I wouldn’t have been able to name my favourite German writer. Now, these two hauntingly beautiful novels seem to have changed that.
  • The Train Was on Time by Heinrich Böll
About the book: Published in 1949, The Train Was on Time (original: Der Zug war puenktlich) is Heinrich Böll’s first novel.
“That’s something no one would ever be able to understand, why I don’t take the next train back to her… why don’t I? No one would ever be able to understand that. But I’m scared of that innocence… and I love her very much, and I’m going to die, and all she’ll ever get from me now will be an official letter saying: Fallen for Greater Germany…”
Summary: The novel is the story of a soldier, Andreas, who is stationed on the Eastern Front. Hitler has already lost the war; and as the troop train leaves Germany and slowly enters Poland, Andreas is sure of his eventual death. The story is about Andreas’s last train journey, the fellow soldiers and their experiences.
My thoughts: I found this to be a beautiful novel, like I said, hauntingly beautiful. The emotions portrayed in this novel are painful but real. A blurb on the back cover says that “Böll has feelingly symbolized a guilty Germany doing penance for its sins through suffering and death.” I couldn’t have said it better.
_______________________________________________________________
  • The Clown by Heinrich Böll
About the book: Published in 1963, The Clown (original: Ansichten eines Clowns i.e. Opinions of a Clown) is an acclaimed work (an instant bestseller of its time) and a German classic by Heinrich Böll.
“I don’t trust Catholics,” I said, “because they take advantage of you.”
“And Protestants?” he asked with a laugh.
“I loathe the way they fumble around with their consciences.”
“And atheists?” He was still laughing.
“They bore me because all they ever talk about is God.”
Summary: Hans Schnier is a famous clown; a clown whose ‘wife’ seems to have left him because he won’t marry her within the Catholic church. This searing loss has affected the man and the clown in him, and now alone at home, Schnier launches into a long, mordant monologue – that is this book.
(when Schnier’s sister, Henrietta, dies at war.)
For the first time I sensed how terrible are the objects left behind when someone goes away or dies. Mother actually made an effort to eat, no doubt it was supposed to mean: Life goes on or something of that sort, but I knew very well: that wasn’t so, it isn’t life that goes on but death.
My thoughts: The Clown is one of the most amazing books I’ve read, and definitely my favourite this year. The novel is written in a style that along with being deeply painful, is strikingly intelligent and humorous. The inability of the young man to fit in with his own society, an outcast and the helplessness of a nonbeliever in love with a devout, of a child who has lost his sister to the war, are the themes dealt with in the novel. About post-war Germany, it seems that the author has a lot to say – country struggling to find a new identity, Nazi-guilt, religion and post-War German consciousness.
(about the seeming lack of guilt in the society, the pretentiouness that Schnier hates.)
What upset me was the innocence of the returned emigrants. They were so moved by all the remorse and loud protestations of democracy that they were forever embracing and radiating good fellow-ship. They failed to grasp that the secret of the terror lay in the little things. To regret the big things is child’s play: political errors, adultery, murder, anti-Semitism – but who forgives, who understands, the little things? The way Herbert Kalick grabbed Götz Buchel by the collar, stood him in front of the class, although the teacher protested mildly, and said: “Look at him – if that isn’t a Jew!”
I remember too many moments, too many details, tiny little things.
I have heard people mention that the scope of the book is too narrow, the intended audience and the people who can relate to it. But doesn’t everyone have something they are/should be guilty about, every person and every country? Someone they have lost and the whole question of religion. I think, when put in to the right context, the book can be about any society, about any of us. It’s a must read and kind of a collector’s piece! I see myself re-reading this book many times!

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald


“Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of 80 and gradually approach 18.” (Mark Twain)

About the story: Youth is wasted on the young; isn’t that what they say? Inspired by Mark Twain’s quote, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s amusing and imaginative short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button proves just that. The story was first published in 1922 in Collier’s Magazine. Along with ten other stories, it is also a part of Fitzgerald’s short story collection titled Tales of the Jazz Age.

Summary: When Mr. Button rushes to the hospital to see his new born baby, he is greeted by an angry doctor, who wishes never to see the Buttons again. Just like the doctor, the nurses inside the hospital seemed to be spooked by Roger Button’s child. When Mr. Button insists on seeing his baby, a flustered nurse leads him inside a room. Instead of a baby, however, there appears to be an old man squeezed into the crib.

“Where in God’s name did you come from? Who are you?” burst out Mr. Button frantically.

“I can’t tell you exactly who I am,” replied the querulous whine, “because I’ve only been born a few hours – but my last name is certainly Button.”

“You lie! You’re an impostor!”

The old man turned wearily to the nurse. “Nice way to welcome a new-born child,” he complained in a weak voice. “Tell him he’s wrong, why don’t you?”

The Buttons pretend to be oblivious to the fact that their baby is a disgraceful old man. They decide instead, to raise him as a normal little boy called Benjamin Button, send him to school and make him play with the other little boys. Not wanting to disappoint his father, Benjamin Button obliges. As he grows up, he seems to become younger. In his fifties, Benjamin falls in love and marries a certain Hildegarde Moncrief. It is the fact that he is the only such person on the earth, creates problems for the guy. As everyone around him ages, Benjamin goes from a responsible father, to a moody little teenager, to a child who remembers very little of his life.

My thoughts: I saw the movie version (very loosely based on the book) of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett about two years ago when it was released, over-discussed and awarded three Academy Awards. I thought that movie was ridiculous! They took the idea and turned it into a sad, romantic love story. What I actually loved about the book was the humour.

The glaring difference in the book and the movie is that, in the book, an entire fully grown old man is born; over the years, he grows in reverse, that is, he becomes younger physically and mentally. In the movie, what is born is a baby-sized baby with the appearance and features of an old man; he grows in size but becomes physically younger and mentally older… OR something like that. Now, why would you want to complicate such a perfectly good story!?

A young man trying to pass off as an older guy and an old man going to kindergarten gives the book its dark-ish comedy. When made to play with little children, the old man pretends to break neighbours’ windows. Later, when Hildegarde believes she is falling in love with a mature man in his fifties, Benjamin has been alive for hardly more than fifteen years.

The story shows the relationships between different generations of men (which may be one reason why there are startlingly few women in the plot; the other being the time when this was written.) The main premise, of course, is how great it would be to age in reverse. After experiencing the drawbacks of old age, Benjamin is able to appreciate his youth that much more. Beyond that, it’s a touching story; sad, because, Benjamin is the only one who experiences this strange order of things. The story deals with many themes, of which the most significant are the passage of time and all that is inevitable.

“Roscoe’s son moved up into the first grade after a year, but Benjamin stayed on in the kindergarten. He was very happy. Sometimes when other tots talked about what they would do when they grew up a shadow would cross his little face as if in a dim, childish way he realised that those were things in which he was never to share.”


The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

About the book: So, I only managed to read three of the six Booker Prize shortlisted books. The other day they announced the winner – The Sense of an Ending by English author Julian Barnes. I’d read that one. It’s no Life of Pi, but it’s certainly the best out of the three that I read.

Summary and theme: The narrator, a man in his early sixties, talks about his life. He has had a good career, a marriage followed by an amicable divorce; some achievements and some disappointments, and of course, some mystery. The main theme of the book is memories. It’s about what you think when you grow old and look back at the life you’ve lived; what you do when you realize the truth of what you have done; when you see your actions in a different, grown-up light and realize your mistakes; what you do when you can’t take those actions back.


‘I don’t know, sir.’

‘What don’t you know?’
‘Well, in one sense, I can’t know what it is that I don’t know. That’s philosophically self-evident.’ He left one of those slight pauses in which we again wondered if he was engaged in subtle mockery or a high seriousness beyond the rest of us.

My thoughts: I think what held the book so wonderfully together was the dry humour; especially as the narrator recounts his story, you see that he finds it immature, funny even, and you tend to agree with him! 


The characters are very engaging and each one unique. The relationships and the bonds the narrator forms over the years (with his four childhood friends, with his divorced wife) are all too realistic not to be true. The book being a narration, the author has a lot of chances to indulge in long monologues about life and such, and he uses these opportunities to the fullest.

The one problem I had was that there is very little focus on the plot. It all seems very loosely tied together. There is no direction, no focus… and the twist ending came more as a shock than a good surprise to me! It is very unpredictable and very irrelevant and kind of ludicrous.  Retrospectively, though, isn’t that how life is, anyway? (Maybe I like my fiction to stray from the reality and stay fiction-like. It’s not an autobiography, after all.)

Overall it is great one-time read. Not close to perfect. And it was bound to win the 2011 Man Booker Prize, whether I liked it or not. 

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller

Book Beginnings on Friday is a weekly bookish meme hosted at A Few More Pages. To participate, share the first line (or two) of the book you are reading, along with the author and title. Also share your first impression based on that first line!

This is the beginning of one of hell of a book, which I recently read (in one sitting) – If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino :

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice – they won’t hear you otherwise – “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.”

About the book: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a 1979 novel by Italian author Italo Calvino. It is translated into English by William Weaver in 1981.

Summary: You (yes, you) go to a bookshop and buy a copy of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. You start reading it, but you realize there is an error. You find the first chapter very exciting, but the book ends there. The book is incomplete, and you exchange it for what you assume to be a complete copy of the same book. Soon, when you read it, though, you realize it’s a completely different book. This goes on for quite a while (every even chapter is a different book and every odd chapter is you reading it) and you never finish reading any of the books. Except for If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, which does eventually end, and you do finish reading it!

My thoughts: A book about reading starring… me? I was glued to it. I have never really read a book in second person perspective and I certainly didn’t imagine it to be so much fun. It is the most annoyingly witty and interesting book I have ever read. The book had a lot of underlying themes, mostly writing, writers and readers; the book business, media and frauds; all dealt with in a subtle but hilarious manner. It is a wonderful read!

R.I.P. – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Another book I read as part of the R.I.P. Challenge.

“It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.” – Victor Frankenstein

Summary: It does seem pointless to give this book a summary. Anyway, the book opens with a couple of letters written by Captain Robert Walton to his dear sister Margaret. Their ship is trapped somewhere near the North Pole and there the voyagers come across a miserable, emaciated man. This man is Dr. Victor Frankenstein and he has a terrible story to tell.


As a scientist, Viktor Frankenstein is fascinated and inspired by ancient philosophers, the likes of Cornelius Agrippa. After years of crazed work, Frankenstein succeeds in manufacturing an actual living being. Terrified of the effects of his actions, he abandons the creature. Years later, the monster returns with a vengeance. The book is concluded by Robert Walton in his letters.

My thoughts: After a while, I have to admit, I got tired of the romanticism. I didn’t like that there is no focus whatsoever on the scientific realism of the book. I always thought Frankenstein’s monster would be, well, a monster. But the creature is a lot more human than I had imagined. His story of the way he learned his way around this world, the way he learned to speak and how he sought after his creator; it sounded somewhat far-fetched to me.

“Nature decayed around me, the sun became heatless; rain and snow poured around me; mighty rivers were frozen; the surface of the earth was hard and chill, and bare, and I found no shelter.” – Frankenstein’s Monster

I did like the theme; an outcast, born a romantic, turned into a monster by his surroundings. I loved the detail with which the book is written. The book is very character oriented. Of all the different perspectives in the book, the ones that I really enjoyed were Robert Walton’s letters and when Frankenstein’s Monster told his story; I loved the imagery. I was slightly disappointed with Dr. Frankenstein. I suppose he might have been intended to be the weak man that he was, but reading the entire book from his painfully dull perspective was frustrating.

Then again, Frankenstein is one of the earliest ‘science fiction’ novels and Mary Shelley wrote this book when she was nineteen. I won’t call it bad, because it’s not. I admit I found the book a bit annoying. But other than that, it is a good book, and a must read!

Children of the Street by Kwei Quartey

I received this book in exchange for an honest review through Netgalley.

“In the world of homelessness, poverty, and desperation, you fight for survival, and there are no polite limits to the fight.”

Children of the Street is a mystery novel by Kwei Quartey. It is the second book (after Wife of the Gods) in the Inspector Darko Dawson series.
Rating: 4/5

Summary: Darko Dawson works as an inspector in Accra, the capital of Ghana. He has seen a lot of things in this brutal place, laced with poverty and unemployment. Yet something about the latest series of murders makes them much worse. Street children are turning up dead, each body mutilated and thrown away in the exact same way. All the deaths seem to point to one killer. It is up to Inspector Dawson to figure out if it is some sort of a ritual killing or the job of another psychopathic serial killer. But the list of suspects isn’t short, as this murderer isn’t the only bad thing roaming the dark streets of Accra. Everyone’s got skeletons in their closet.

My thoughts: I loved the book right from the cover design. I haven’t read the first book in the series, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The book did have a rough start for me. What struck me as odd were the sudden and many gory details. The writing seemed repetitive and there were a few page-long descriptions that were almost entirely unnecessary! The story did catch pace, though, and it was a soon a smooth and enjoyable read.

Considering how little I know about Ghana or even Africa for that matter, I thought the author painted a very complete picture; with all elements, the good and the bad! What I loved the most was the story had no villain and hero, as such. Every had problems and secrets and regrets. The characters were strong, and dark in a way which (and this is a huge compliment coming from me) reminded me of Stephen King’s books. I felt the plot slack a couple of times, but the characters never became even remotely uninteresting. Their secrets and lives so intricately stringed together became for me, the highlights of the book. I can think of very few mysteries that aren’t almost completely focused on the plot.

I can’t wait to read more books by the author. Meanwhile, I definitely recommend this one to all mystery and crime fiction fans or anyone in search of a short, exciting read!

R.I.P. – Stephen King’s Carrie

Carrie is Stephen King’s first novel (published in 1974) and is one of the most frequently banned books in schools. I never did read Carrie, because I always thought I wouldn’t like it. Why? Because I already knew most of the story. With three movies and one horrible spin-off, it is hard not to know most of the story. That shouldn’t stop you from reading the book, though. Actually, you know “most of the story” within the first three pages of the book…

“Carrie glared at him with sudden smoking rage. The bike wobbled on its training wheels and suddenly fell over. Tommy screamed. The bike was on top of him. Carrie smiled and walked on. The sound of Tommy’s wails was sweet, jangling music in her ears.”

Summary: Carrie White lives in the small town of Chamberlain, Maine. Being a high school outcast, she has no friends and no life. She is victimized by her schoolmates and abused by her over religious mother. It all becomes too much one day when, after her gym class, in the showers, Carrie gets her first period. Since her mother never bothered to tell her what exactly a period is, Carrie assumes she is bleeding to death. The shock, coupled with a bunch of girls screaming at her, disgusted, telling her to “plug it up” triggers a power in her she never knew she had. This extreme outburst is enough for Carrie White to take control of her (till then only involuntary) telekinetic abilities. What follows is a chain of events leading up to one disastrous night, which is later popularized by the media as the Black Prom.

“What happens if there are others like her? What happens to the world?”


My thoughts: Like with most of Stephen King’s books, you feel yourself becoming a part of Carrie. It is a quick read and I loved the unique narration. The book is written in the form of newspaper clippings of the Chamberlain incident, science journal articles about telekinetic abilities, personal stories of the Black Prom survivors and book excerpts, all stringed together by the actual happenings in the form of a story. Starting with the first newspaper article, you know what happened in the town. What you don’t know, is how it got to that. Why did the odd teenage girl described in the articles do whatever she did and more importantly, how? You hear the story from so many different perspectives, scientific and personal, that it’s hard to figure out the truth. That’s part of the magic! You get to pick your own conclusion on the story.



Most of the characters are your regular high school stereotypes. Still, what I love about Stephen King’s books is the characters, and he hasn’t done anything short of a great job with these. From Carrie White to the (almost) real protagonist Sue Snell, the book has some wonderful, albeit slightly dramatic, characters. And if not anything else, King has nailed the horror element; the “makes-you-wish-you-hadn’t-read-it-at-night” horror element.


This was definitely a great way to kick-start the R.I.P challenge (though my planned kick-start book was Frankenstein, which I am not done reading.) Carrie is an amazing book and a must read for every Stephen King fan and anyone who enjoys getting completely freaked out!

Cujo by Stephen King

“They began to back up, and as they did, the dog began to walk slowly forward. It was a stiff walk; not really a walk at all, Ronnie thought. It was a stalk. That dog wasn’t fucking around. Its engine was running and it was ready to go. Its head remained low. That growl never changed pitch. It took a step forward for every step they took back.”



Cujo is a psychological horror novel by Stephen King. It is the story of a rabid St. Bernard. It is also the story of a little boy and his nightmares, a mother and a child, and an almost broken marriage.

Rating: 3.5/5

Summary: Cujo is a big, five year old St. Bernard, owned by the Cambers; a family in the town of Castle Rock, Maine. Cujo is a good, loyal dog; he loves his owners and they love him! That is, until he gets scratched by a bat and becomes infected with rabies. The dog soon loses touch with reality and turns into a crazy killing machine.

Four year old Tad Trenton lives in the same town with his parents, Donna and Vic. The little family has problems of their own – the scariest being the monster that seems to appear in little Tad’s closet at night. A frightening, wolfish animal that haunts Tad’s nightmares.

Fate brings the two together, when the only thing standing between the rabid dog and the mother and child is the broken down car they are trapped in.

My thoughts: Each book that I read by Stephen King, gives me one new reason to love him. This is not your typical thriller, and there are definitely some side-plots that seem unnecessary. The horror doesn’t start till halfway through the book and when it does start, not a lot happens. Still – I loved the book. For two reasons.

Firstly, as usual, Stephen King never disappoints you when it comes to the lives and the thoughts of the characters. Their stories are so intricately built – it is very fascinating. Even without the dangerous dog, there is a lot of evil in the town; just in the ways that people think, what they do. Each of the side-plots is a message on its own.

Secondly, what I love about King’s novels is that the monsters themselves are victims of circumstance. I pitied Jack Torrance (in The Shining) and I definitely felt horrible for ol’ Cuje when he got infected. I love that King has written parts from the point of view of the dog – the helpless creature, who hurts all over and doesn’t know who else to blame but the humans. The animal lover that I am, I really appreciated that King ended the book saying something positive about the poor dog. He wasn’t trying to be a monster, he was a good dog.