Saturday, June 26, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Carrie Diaries (2010)

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, June 26, 2010

Published under the Title: A Tale of Two Carries

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

As a 30 something single ‘girl’ living in New York City, Carrie Bradshaw has arrived.

A strong, independent female who goes through several suitors, stands by her (3) loyal friends, pursues and gets pursued by one very elusive Mr. Big, Carrie cheerfully models Versace, Chanel & relationships and turns her (universally unacknowledged) insights into a successful news column.

That Carrie, we know well. She is a fictional character living the dream.

As a 17 year old high school student from Castlebury High still fantasizing about making it big!, she ruefully admits to having nothing figured out and secretly entertains hopes of writing a book that would change the world. The Carrie from the diaries is not yet fluent in ‘Manolo Blahnik’, though the fashionista in her can be seen trying to break free. ‘If it’s deliberate, its fashion’ she declares at one point as she rescues a treasured possession from certain death by painting it pink. She is also not the most surefooted person in the room when it comes to relationships. Neither Carrie has been lucky in this department.

It is the pre-NY Carrie who finds herself in the limelight this time.

This version comes with sisters - who don’t think being a Bradshaw is all that great and has yet to discover her ‘soul-mates’ aka Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha (the three best friends from the City). That she has actual roots comes as a surprise given how friends not family have been the centre of the wildly popular HBO series based on Candace Bushnell’s book of the same name.

This Carrie is an enigma.

She has great expectations - ‘I’m masquerading as a regular girl but inside me there’s a star waiting for someone to give me a chance’. Despite having a strong sense of direction, she is still a long way away from her dramatic makeover; this one is more of a Carrie-lite.

But she is not working alone. Carrie-lite can be seen wandering the corridors of high school with Maggie, the Mouse and Lali in tow. The prequel is set in the early 80’s. The exact year remains a mystery though readers come close to discovering it at least twice. Castlebury High is a place to relive or live 80’s hair, makeup and music with Carrie & Co. and watch them make rookie mistakes. Bradley, as she is called also puts a high premium on friendships. Their sisterhood will be tested on a more basic level as they set off relationship minefields.

Carrie-lite does not have all the answers. She does have flashes of insight. She knows, for instance that romantics get burned and worries about being one, shows good judgement but makes bad calls. There is a chapter titled ‘The Big Love’ but it is not about The Mr. Big, Carrie’s on again off again beau from the future. There is, however a ‘perfectly formed human with the amazing hair’ who catches her fancy and stands in for Big.

“…sometimes I think all the trouble in the world is caused by men. If there were no men, women would always be happy." Bradley is not bullet proof either. She has yet to break the guy code, and learns life lessons in between calculus and swim team. “These are supposed to be the best days of our lives,” she despairs. This high school may not have instant messaging but instant heartbreak has never gone out of style.


This is a character study – albeit, a tame one; strictly PG-13 considering the latter day adventures of Ms. Bradshaw. While older Carries on-screen escapades are more entertaining, younger Carrie as a fallible teen is more approachable. She does not have any special advantage over her peers. If she is exceptional it is because she has a mind of her own, is fiercely loyal and determined to chisel out a new identity from the traditional mould. She is still expected at NY by the end of the book but before that Carrie-lite must shed some of the insecurities and let go of a few illusions.

Sheer loyalty might bring discerning adults to the (Young Adult) YA section. Curiosity will make them stay. That Carrie is due for stardom soon is part of the appeal. Knowing the character makes it easier to stick with the story but the experience can be underwhelming. The final line is the only big payoff. Mature readers endure high school but long to get back on familiar turf. Fortunately for them, Candace Bushnell has signed a two book deal and they can bid farewell to Connecticut and get ready to welcome NY in the sequel.

Some things are inevitable with The Carrie Diaries - reading the entire book in Sarah Jessica Parker’s voice is one (SJP, of course plays Carrie Bradshaw on the show); contrasting the two Carries and trying desperately to locate the crisp banter is another.

Next up is Carrie Diaries 2 detailing Carrie Bradshaw’s first summer in New York. The Carrie Diaries is in stores now.


By Candace Bushnell
Balzer & Bray; Pp 400; Rs 750

Images Courtesy of: http://www.seasonpremiere.net/The-Carrie-Diaries-S01E01

http://sharetv.org/images/the_carrie_diaries-show.jpg

Sunday, June 20, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner: An Eclipse

Novella By Stephenie Meyer

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, June 19, 2010
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

The last time Bree Tanner was seen, she was being escorted out of the pages of Eclipse. Stephenie Meyers resurrects Ms Tanner in an Eclipse novella, sends her back to the beginning and hands over the reins of the story. This means that Bree is officially promoted to chief narrator, which is an interesting departure from tradition. The Twilight Saga is almost entirely told from Isabella Swan’s perspective and little is known about Bree before her arrival at the end of Eclipse.

Bree’s perspective is less rosy. With good reason. Her adventures begin in Seattle — the source of all the trouble and Bree is at the centre of the storm. These events have been mentioned in the early days of Eclipse and are central to the storyline.

Eclipse, of course, is the third installment of the highly successful Twilight series. And Twilight is Stephenie Meyers’s masterpiece. While Breaking Dawn — the last book in the Twilight Saga — came out a few years ago, an accompanying piece to the third part featuring Bree Tanner was released in June 2010. This little book is a flash sideways, a detour that eventually rejoins Eclipse in the end.

Bree only enters in the final act of Eclipse and exits soon after. As an extra, her sole purpose then was to provide a little insight into Seattle — the action central. That insight was appreciated but the back-story of a bit player did not concern readers at the time.

She was an insignificant little pawn in a high stakes game. Too trivial to be noticed. A nobody. Turns out, she had plenty to say and fate just did not let her finish.

But now that Meyers has given the bit player a second chance, Bree finds herself in the midst of action vaguely hinted at in Eclipse. It is an advantageous position that allows readers greater room to manoeuvre and an opportunity to explore the lifestyle referenced in Twilight. Also, Bree finally has a chance to complete her story.

Meeting Bree again is surreal. She gets to show off her side of the ‘family’ in Seattle, who are nothing like their well-behaved counterparts in Forks, Washington. Her character goes through several transitions. At first, she is a forlorn figure standing at the periphery — floundering in the dark, indistinguishable from other members of her clan. Then she is a pawn caught in a web of deceit, unable to flee. And, finally, she is an important witness in possession of valuable information. By the time she arrives to take her place at the Clearing, Bree has grown in stature and cannot be dismissed lightly.

Other characters are also shoved into the limelight. The shift in perspective allows readers to immerse themselves into the nightmarish reality of Seattle to observe this motley crew first hand. They are no longer unpleasant statistics. Just unpleasant, albeit with a few notable exceptions. Meyer gives some a shot at redemption. The Short Second Life may be predicable but it does manage to pack in a few surprises. Readers are introduced to new characters they did not know existed. Also, there are a couple of twists they would not have seen coming.

Those already hooked would be unable to resist the urge to pay their favourites another visit. They might be a little disappointed. Getting acclimatised to Bree Tanner’s universe takes time even after having experienced Twilight. There are occasional bursts of sunlight but it stays dark and dreary. There is no silver lining in Bree’s dark cloud. Details from Bree Tanner’s past end up in the soon to be released Eclipse — the movie. Learning about her life is essential to understanding Eclipse, the movie and Eclipse, the book.

The parallel world of Seattle may be a valuable addition to the series but it is nowhere as compelling as the one in Forks. The whodunit part is already over. The reader is 10 steps ahead of the character, most of the time. And it still ends in the Clearing.

The first four books are pure joy; even the prematurely leaked, unfinished draft of Midnight Sun put up on Ms Meyer’s website, which tells the same story from Edward Cullen’s perspective. The companion edition somehow cannot compete with its predecessors and is greeted with forced merriment.

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner was originally destined to be a part of The Twilight Saga: The Official Guide, but ended up as a standalone edition. The book can be read online for free till July 2010 and hard copies are in stores now. For books purchased in the US (first printing only), a dollar of the proceeds goes to the American Red Cross. The curtain falls on Bree in Eclipse but the short and (bitter) sweet Second Life gives her real closure. The story of Bella and Edward has already ended. Breaking Dawn concluded the series. And Midnight Sun will supposedly end the frenzy.

Little Brown;
Pp 190;
Rs 895

Images Courtesy of: http://images5.fanpop.com/image/photos/31400000/The-Short-Second-Life-of-Bree-Tanner-short-second-life-of-bree-tanner-31468748-432-324.jpg

Saturday, June 12, 2010

VIEW: The Dawn of Twilight (Introducing the world of Stephanie Meyer)

By: Afrah Jamal
Published in The Post Dec 2008?

Till September 2008 it was easy to be oblivious to the Twilight phenomena. That was before a determined salesperson went around citing bestseller status to foist all four books on the credulous; before its movies’ theatrical trailer hit the internet in HD and definitely before the (magnificent) soundtrack made its unofficial debut. Since then the time has come to set aside any prejudice against young adult novels and enter the world of Stephanie Meyers, bestselling author of the Twilight Saga.


Given Twilights’ alleged crossover appeal (it was initially submitted under both A - Adult and YA - Young Adult) and the fact that all four books along with a Complete Illustrated Movie Companion are perched atop Amazons best seller list, this should not require major compromise. Even so the series is brought home more for the (ignoble) purposes of forensic examination in a (cynical) bid to determine its professed entertainment value if any, than actual interest in yet another presentation of monster piece theatre. Before long however, cynicism is tossed out the window as wonder sets in with the revelation of Meyer’s true genius for turning a vivid dream that inspired Twilight Book-I into a heartfelt tale spanning four more, on a subject powerful enough to resonate with any age.

Set in contemporary times, this emotionally charged drama takes place in Forks Washington and has a delightfully interactive feel from the outset for it is told from 17 year old Isabella Swans perspective. Forks, with its small town status would ordinarily be seen as a social death sentence for any teen. Instead, it ends up as the pivotal point of Bella’s life, beginning after an encounter with that very enigmatic Cullen boy. From here onwards, Meyer builds the story around Bella and her new found obsession with just enough intensity to keep the tension alive all through the 450 or so pages of Book I.


Casting implausible relationships in a familiar mould makes Meyers characters and their tragic dilemmas surprisingly easy to empathize with. Stephanie’s take on some monsters is also a definite improvement. They are neither sinister nor vile and come with devastating good looks and traditional values - which means that where instant gratification is the norm, they at least know the meaning of good old fashioned restraint. Perhaps the story’s appeal is as embedded in the touching bonds forged in defiance of nature as it is in Meyer’s ironic depiction of a model relationship with the one who serves as the embodiment of an ideal human being and lives on the fringes of what is considered human. In the end, this character ends up being every bit as compelling (for some of us) as the heroes created by literary giants of yesteryears.

Bella’s story does not end with Twilight and the compulsion to read ‘New Moon’, ‘Eclipse’ and finally ‘Breaking Down’ gets even stronger after the initial instalment. Stephanie Meyers special gift to spin a supernatural fantasy into a beautiful, if macabre love story can be fully appreciated only after going through the entire Twilight Saga.

Granted, not everything in Meyer’s world can be embraced as readily; in fact, not everything will be. For some the existence of monsters may be more believable and less misleading than Meyers (flawless) representation of ‘true love’ (however desirable that may seem), while others will be blindsided by Bella’s troubling decision in Book 4. Nevertheless, the series would be considered tame by modern standards, except for the final ‘Breaking Dawn’ which has its share of dark and disturbing parts and the darkness barely works even in the context of that world. But somehow even this is unlikely to weaken the hold these beloved characters have upon readers and the absorption with their fate continues long after the series has ended.

Since Stephanie Meyer has decided to tell the story from Edward Cullen’s perspective in ‘Midnight Sun’, fans will get another chance to re-live the events of Forks. For now the fixation with Bella, Edward and Jacob has reached fever pitch with the casting of Kirsten Stewart (played Jodie Fosters daughter in Panic room), Robert Pattinson (Cedric in Harry Potter 4) and Taylor Lautner (Shark boy….in, er.. Shark boy!) in the movie adaptation of Book I that also features a brilliant soundtrack thus paying tribute to the musical influences on Stephanie’s writing.

All four books are available in bookstores now and come November, the much anticipated movie version will be finally released. Many think that now would be the perfect time to capitalize on the immense popularity of these books and let fans ‘experience’ Twilight – the movie in Pakistan in its intended cinemascope format instead of some wretched bootlegged edition.

The End

Twilight was never released in Pakistan. Folks ended up watching the bootlegged edition after all.

Update: The Second Short Life of Bree Tanner is out now. 05 June 2010

Images Courtesy of: http://accessreel.com/sites/default/files/styles/article_full_content_image/public/field/image/twilight_breaking_dawn_two_split_a_l.jpg

http://mediastorage.bauermedia.co.uk/8f/b73b5/40ea4/10977/f22d0/87581/8b409/Twilight%20Complete%20Saga%20Quad_608x376.jpg?1353427243

BOOK REVIEW: Inspirations: Selections from Classic Literature by Afrah Jamal

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / 12 June 2010

Paulo Coelho — the best selling author from Brazil — brings forth his latest offering, an anthology that can be likened to a piece of art. But it is art with a difference that uses beloved masters as its centrepiece, held up by the ancients’ philosophy to accentuate the contrasts and their unique interpretation of elements to justify the contours. Still, the proportions seem all wrong and the colours clash. Coelho’s creation is hard to understand and impossible to appreciate, or would be without the voice over.

On the surface, it is a simple, albeit bizarre little collection where carefully chosen passages from well-thumbed editions have been bound in one volume. Coelho scoured the globe looking for stories that once served as his inspirations. Then he agonised over which segments to include while trying to decide upon the best placement.

Once inside, readers encounter fact and fiction, fairy tales and scripture, historical fact, legend, superstition and horror. On one side, Mandela (Black Man in a White Man’s Court) walks besides Mary Shelly (Frankenstein) while Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann and the Holocaust resides next to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.

It gets ‘curiouser’! Not only will the unsuspecting reader’s spiritual quest (an entire section is devoted to scripture) be rudely interrupted by the Arabian Nights, they will also stumble across excerpts from a book that was once put on trial in several countries and banned in several more.

The arrangement feels random at first glance. Well, it is not. As one discovers from the preface, this haphazardness is part of the plan. The pieces chosen to be on display in his grand design appear unconventional. Where else would a fairy tale be tucked in among excerpts from adult literature, religious scriptures, military strategy and famous classics? Which is why Coelho’s Inspirations needs to be properly rated and should not end up on a child’s bookshelf just because Hans Christen Anderson’s unfortunate Ugly Duckling happens to be running around among the grown ups.

His logic may not be readily apparent. Fortunately, the author walks readers through the programme at the beginning of each section — Air, Water, Earth and Fire. He takes his cues from the ancients who believed that the “visible and invisible were composed of four substances — uncreated and imperishable and that these elements figured symbolically, corresponding to a specific spiritual, mental, physical dimension”. The fact that these elements were “not just considered in material form but understood symbolically” gives the author just enough leeway to try something radical. Coelho manages to find this elusive connection in each of his stories and uses the ancient notion of elements to his advantage.

He has put a lot of thought into the composition, opting to stay away from traditional layouts, settling upon the novel technique of ikebana — “sacred bouquets arranged according to three main lines symbolising heaven, earth and humankind”. He explains that Chinese Buddhist monks offered these bouquets in temples and their offerings were meant to stir the soul and lift the spirits.

He proceeds to arrange his favourites, ikebana style, opening a portal to forgotten lands and magical moments. Most of these tales need no introduction. They are but glimpses into worlds already visited, a reminder of the heavenly wonders and earthly delights that end in a joyful reunion with the characters.

Coelho begins with ‘Water’, a subtle realm, “infinitely deep, of the primordial ocean where everything is possible, horrid monsters and fascinating creatures residing in its depths”, and the ensuing fear used as a tool enacted by Niccolo Machiavelli’s Prince while Sun Tzu’s Art of War, “calls forth the ground or earth while water lies as a reminder of the origins of mind, the very basis of will”. A tortured Oscar Wilde in De Profundis finds a home in ‘Earth’ with its “decay, stagnation and despair”; the darkness of the soul is captured in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. With ‘Air’ and its “unsteady, fearsome and uncontrollable” qualities comes The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and fear is channelled in George Orwell’s ‘Two Minute Hate’ from Nineteen Eighty Four. ‘Fire’, in all its manifestations and divine representations, is the final act bringing religious scriptures together with the sayings of early Christian monks where “visions of the Desert fathers move the frontier between madness and sanity”.

His analogy is simpler. This anthology is “not just a collection of texts and poems but a gift, something one arranges according to ones sensitivities to give to others”. After the (exquisite) descriptions, one can take a second look at his creation and then see the wild beauty in the lines. Though the earlier objection still stands; controversial books and inspirational texts are a volatile mix. Paulo Coelho’s gift to the world allows readers to embark on a new journey to look for inspirations or go down memory lane just to be reunited with the masters.

By Paulo Coelho
Penguin classics; Pp 252; Rs 895

Saturday, June 5, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Seeds of Terror: The Taliban, The ISI and The New Opium Wars. Reviewed By Afrah Jamal

Published in Daily Times / June 5, 2010

With money at the root, opium at the core, smugglers at the back and the Taliban in the lead, an ancient form of commerce feeds a burgeoning terror industry. Gretchen Peters is convinced that hunting down the elusive top tier leadership must be in conjunction with targeting the source of their (fire)power.

The ‘House of Terror’ has branched out. But are the pious, holier than thou Taliban ‘doing drugs’? Seeds of Terror seems to think so. But it does not cast them as drug barons or junkies but as profiteers — patrons of a trade they have perfected to an art. Peters sees this as an economic miracle (of sorts) given that it originates from “one of the world’s most remote and backward regions, where the transport network and infrastructure is almost completely shattered”, but where the Taliban have nevertheless “managed to integrate an agricultural product — albeit illegally — into the global economy”. This crude yet effective form of commerce keeps the clunky, soulless machine going.

The Taliban movement failed the drug test. The book argues that for them drugs are simply a means to an end — the end being money and power — suggesting that it is not religion or the Almighty, it is business and the almighty dollar. With a clear conscious and solid alibi, these quick-change artists have proceeded to give opium a legitimate stake in the jihad business. How this little piece of the puzzle changes the big picture and how crucial was its integration in the first place is the central premise of the book. Adapting to the changed reality and fixing the oversight is the larger message. Bringing counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics strategies in alignment is the ultimate goal.

Sorting through the seemingly random bits of data to tie in the smuggling side with terrorism drives Peter’s narrative. The discovery of opium as the source of funding would make people wonder why cutting off the lifeline was not the primary objective of this war. How well these anti-terror policies stake up against an expertly managed narcotics system concerns the writer.

The book deals with the specifics of targeting the network, outlining a nine-pillar strategy that takes into account both the internal complexities and external factors at play. Peters argues against the obvious tactics (spraying) and favours a more holistic approach to disrupt the network.

Her research turns up some interesting facts about this frightening new world where “narco-traffickers, terrorist groups and international criminal underworld” form the new axis of evil and an ideology that retains its outward trappings of a holy war while profiting from decidedly unholy practices. She studies the regional transformation wrought by the drug trade to gauge the impact it has on the new age phenomena — terrorism without borders. She also shows that this is not the first appearance of opium on the scene. And the fact that a trade thrives with impunity in today’s environment is largely because it was tolerated by the world in yesterday’s Afghanistan. That it accounts for 30 percent of the GDP of an occupied land is hard to fathom.

To understand this world one requires context and Peters gives that context by going back to the 1980s to chart the course of Afghanistan after the fall of communism and the rise of the dreaded Taliban with a flourishing drug trade to the accompaniment of alarm bells that went unheeded by the West. She believes that the “lack of US oversight into drug smuggling by the mujahideen had set up preconditions for the complete integration of narcotics — and reliance on drug money — into the politics of the region.”

The merchants of death seized upon an old idea because opium had staved off the collapse of a post-communism state and kept their aging structure intact, even under the weight of sanctions. According to Peters, in the first Afghan resistance, drug trafficking had the stamp of approval of the Pakistani establishment. She digs deeper to find unsavoury connections made by Nawaz Sharif, Zia and PPP’s regime, uses Sharif’s own words to implicate the military and continues to suspect these factors of collusion even after anti-narcotic efforts had been launched in earnest in the 1990s. But that was yesterday.

Today, the tentacles go beyond Pakistan and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, some of her findings cast the recent heroin bust at Karachi, said to be the biggest in Pakistan’s history, in a more sinister light.

She also identifies the key players in the drug business — from the Quetta-based kingpins, “the centre of gravity for Taliban drug trade” to the small fry — an “evil mix of government officials, district commissioners and police chiefs”. The book tries to convict the entire terrorist family in this dysfunctional unit, but cannot find conclusive evidence against al Qaeda. Yet they are found guilty by association.

Seeds of Terror gives a fair idea of life under the shadow of the Taliban and the cloud of opium dust and the plight of its captive audience. Where it puts isolated events like the Karachi drug bust in perspective and gives an alternate plan of attack, it also finds another reason to aspire to a drug-free world, given the consequences of ignoring Afghanistan’s “drug problem”.

Author: Gretchen Peters
Thomas Dunne Books; Pp 316; Rs 995