Thursday, 18 July 2019

Memory Man by David Baldacci, 2015

Amos Decker is Memory Man.

The bearded and massively-built protagonist—a former homicide detective-turned-private investigator-turned-police consultant—has a rare gift: he remembers everything and forgets nothing. Events, experiences, people, faces, names, objects, shapes, numbers, dates, time, hour, minutes, seconds…the result of a violent collision on the football field when he was twenty-two years old.


The accident ruins Decker's professional football career but leaves him with a super autobiographical memory, the ability to recall just about everything that has happened in his life. 

If you are a student and about to take a Math or History test, you would want what Decker has.

Decker puts his extraordinary perceptive faculties and deductive reasoning to good use: he joins the Burlington Police Department where he and his partner and friend, Detective Mary Lancaster, make a formidable team in crime investigation.

One evening, Decker returns home from work to find his wife, little girl and brother-in-law murdered; his wife and daughter genitally mutilated. The shocking tragedy sends his life into a tailspin. He leaves home, gives up his job, and lives off the streets, basically not caring what happens to him. Eventually, Decker establishes a semblance of life by working as a reclusive private investigator, taking up inconsequential cases, probably just to stay alive. Meanwhile, the case remains unsolved.

More than a year later, the sudden appearance of a strange man, Sebastian Leopold, who walks up to the police and confesses to the murders, in spite of a watertight alibi, and a calculated mass shooting at the local high school around the same time jolts Decker back to reality. His former boss, Captain Miller, persuades him to be a part of the investigation into the shootout. Decker agrees in the hope that he can also find out who killed his family.

Decker joins his former partner, Lancaster, in the school library—the war room—with the FBI for company. But he works largely alone, much to the annoyance of Lancaster and special FBI agent Sam Bogart, bringing them in only after he has successfully pursued a lead.

What he uncovers over the next few days leaves him stunned—the person (or persons) who wiped out his family was also responsible for killing the targeted students and staff at the school. His remarkable mental abilities initially fail to throw up faces or names of people he might have wronged in the past and who might want to get back at him through his family.

As more people, including a female FBI agent, turn up dead, Decker makes another chilling discovery—he is going to be the final victim.

Amos Decker is one of the most unusual characters I have read in crime fiction. The tragedy has left him bereft of emotion but not without empathy. His brilliant mind makes him unique in a way that it makes everyone around him—his partner Mary Lancaster, special agent Bogart, with whom he has a strained relationship in the beginning, and opportunistic reporter-turned-amateur sleuth Alexandra Jamison—almost redundant. He finds most of the clues and assembles the missing pieces. It comes to a point, later on in the book, where the three wait for a cue from Decker and do exactly as he deduces.

As a reader, I couldn't help question their purpose in the narrative. I also felt it was one of two weak spots in what was otherwise a novel filled with suspense and speculation, though not enough to keep me on tenterhooks. The other was the motive behind all the murders, which wasn't as convincing as I'd have liked it to be.

Still, Memory Man is a well-crafted thriller with an interesting storyline and an intriguing hero. The novel's strength lies in its singular focus on the Goliath-like character who sweeps the crime novel from start to end, both as a grieving family man and as a razor-sharp homicide detective. I imagine author David Baldacci meant to introduce Amos Decker to readers and retain their interest in both the investigator and the five-book series, of which Memory Man is the first. If so, he has achieved his goal.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Dangerous Lady by Martina Cole, 1992

The Ryans, Benjamin and Sarah, and their nine children including eight sons and a daughter, live in squalor and deprivation in a seedy district of London. Michael, the eldest, loves his mother and dotes on his little sister Maura, the joy and pride of the Ryans. He is indifferent to his father, a good-for-nothing boozer who introduces him and his brothers to small crimes at a young age. Soon, cops, or "Bills" as they are referred to in the novel, come a-calling. Michael loathes the uniforms so much that, when he grows up to be a ruthless mobster, his antipathy to the police nearly destroys the family he is protective of and fiercely loyal to.

In many ways, Michael Ryan, born into an Irish-English family and ruling the West End of the London underworld, is like Michael Corleone, born into a Sicilian-American mafia family and running the New York gangland. But the similarity ends there.

In spite of Michael Ryan's intimidating presence through most of the 416-page novel, Dangerous Lady is not so much about him as his beautiful sister Maura. Following a secret love affair with a cop, fear of Michael and a painful abortion at the age of 17, she joins her brother and together they build a criminal empire that would’ve made the Sicilian Mafia proud. She proves her worth not just to Michael and her other brothers, but even to the traditionally male-dominated crime syndicates of London. And yet, tough as she comes, Maura has a soft side to her, the result of unfulfilled love that eventually comes back to haunt her and possibly gives her a shot at redemption.

British crime writer Martina Cole’s debut novel is more than a high-octane crime story; it’s the violent saga of a crime family whose exploits stretch from post-war London in the 1950s to the mid-1980s. As the years roll, the Ryans lose more than they gain, both within the family and on the streets of West End.

Though Dangerous Lady is a crime drama with plenty of action and gory scenes, I had a few issues with the novel. One, it was rather long, the narrative seeming to drag on in places and frequently moving back and forth. I'm not much for flashbacks. Two, I thought the writing was ordinary, as was the dialogue. I read somewhere that Martina Cole wrote the novel in her early 20s and published it years later. She has since written over two dozen books to wide acclaim and rave reviews. Three, I felt somewhat cheated that in the end I couldn't empathise with or relate to any of the characters, neither Michael or Maura, nor their strong-willed mother, Sarah, or any of their seven brothers who work for Michael and Maura. It’s not how I expected to come away from a crime thriller of this scale.

In spite of my reservations, Dangerous Lady is both entertaining and readable. It's a dramatic canvas of organised crime and an all-too-real portrayal of an unlikely female gangster with a heart. I plan to read more in the Maura Ryan series as well as other books by the author.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

A windfall of books

I bought more books in the first three months of this year than I did in all of 2018. Restraint and resolution went out the window as I scoured book exhibitions and secondhand bookstalls for some of my preferred books and comic-books. A few books, such as Yuval Noah Harari's 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, I bought online (I already have his Sapiens and Homo Deus). I also used my annual office book allowance to acquire a few guides to better writing, two of which are featured here. I ordered Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology for my son, which I intend to read in future.

My catch of the season? Three rare Sudden novels by British author Oliver Strange, including two different Corgi editions of The Range Robbers. The title is the first of the 10 adventures of the Texas outlaw James Green, alias Sudden, so known for his quick draw. English writer Frederick H. Christian (Frederick Nolan in real life) wrote another five based on Strange's eponymous hero. I have 12 of these 15 classic westerns, my favourite in the genre.

Here are the exact covers of some of the books I bought over the past three months.



 




 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 






Saturday, 23 February 2019

Wild by Cheryl Strayed, 2012

©Alfred A. Knopf
Synopsis

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

My thoughts

In order to find yourself, sometimes you have to lose something. Or in the case of Cheryl Strayed, someone. Someone very dear to her, her own mother, who she loses to cancer. The personal tragedy leaves her distraught with grief and sets off a chain of unfortunate events in her life—estrangement from her stepfather and her two younger siblings; extramarital affairs and experiments with drugs; the heartbreaking decision to put down her horse; and divorce from the man she loved and who truly cared for her.

Cheryl is lost in the wilderness of her life. And it is the wilderness she seeks to find herself again or, as she says, “to save myself.”

Four years after her mother’s death, Cheryl embarks on an epic and a fascinating pilgrimage of self-discovery—all by herself—hiking the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail that starts from the Mexican border and ends on the Canadian border. Cheryl, though, begins her redemptive journey from the Mojave Desert, hiking through California and Oregon, and finally making it to the Bridge of the Gods, a cantilever bridge, and to Washington state.

It takes Cheryl over three months to complete the hike, through imposing mountain ranges, forests and plateaus, record snowfall and extreme temperatures, and past deadly creatures such as bears and rattlesnakes. Her remarkable and seemingly impossible expedition, often assailed by fear and self-doubt, is as intimidating as it is beguiling, the rocky terrain as hostile as it is hospitable. In the end, Cheryl emerges triumphant, grateful to the PCT—“the long walk”—for making her whole again. 

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is an engaging and entertaining memoir etched with vivid details of Cheryl’s journey starting with her lack of preparedness, first with her humongous backpack she affectionately calls ‘Monster’ and then with her ill-fitting boots that cause her to lose the nails of her feet; the books she carries (including the oft-repeated The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California), reads and burns on the PCT; the many kind and helpful people, mostly fellow-hikers, she meets on the way and exchanges notes with; and the nights she spends alone in her tent, eating granola bars, listening to the voices in her head and the strange sounds outside. 

Throughout her journey, Cheryl recalls, with a tinge of pain and sadness, the life she left behind—her childhood, the abusive father who abandoned them, the stepfather who admirably filled his shoes, remorse over her failed marriage, and finally, the one person who meant the world to her—her mother, and the illness that snatched her away. The frequent flashbacks, however, do not take away the joy of reading about her hike, though, at 338 pages, I thought it was a bit long. But considering it’s a deeply personal and emotionally-charged account of her early life, the writer would be justified in telling it any how she likes. Cheryl tells hers in first person, in a candid, engaging and almost conversational style.


Wild struck a chord because I’d read of similar journeys of self-discovery, undertaken for different reasons. Notably, Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words, where Peace Pilgrim (Mildred Lisette Norman) walked over 25,000 miles on a personal pilgrimage for peace; the classic Walden, a life in the woods of Massachusetts, by Henry David Thoreau; and my personal favourite, In Quest of God and In The Vision of God by Swami Ramdas, the Hindu monk who walked the length and breadth of undivided India in search of spiritual salvation.

Nearly every one of us must someday get on the trail, not necessarily a physical trail, and find ourselves.

I plan to watch the 2014 screen adaptation of Wild where Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed. I learnt of the film only after I read the book.



Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Book Extract: Justice Gone by N. Lombardi Jr

The 3Cs is delighted to reproduce an exclusive extract from Chapter 1 of Justice Gone by writer N. Lombardi Jr. The book, the first in a series of psychological thrillers involving Dr Tessa Thorpe, publishes February 22, 2019.

About the Book
 

© Roundfire Books
When a homeless war veteran is beaten to death by the police, stormy protests ensue, engulfing a small New Jersey town. Soon after, three cops are gunned down. A multi-state manhunt is underway for a cop killer on the loose. And Dr. Tessa Thorpe, a veteran's counselor, is caught up in the chase.

Donald Darfield, an African-American Iraqi war vet, war-time buddy of the beaten man, and one of Tessa's patients, is holed up in a mountain cabin. Tessa, acting on instinct, sets off to find him, but the swarm of law enforcement officers gets there first, leading to Darfield's dramatic capture.


Now, the only people separating him from the lethal needle of state justice are Tessa and ageing blind lawyer, Nathaniel Bodine. Can they untangle the web tightening around Darfield in time, when the press and the justice system are baying for revenge?”

The Extract

Bruntfield, New Jersey, just another banal town in a part of the country that nobody thinks about, was about to become famous; or rather, more aptly put, infamous. People sauntered past lackluster shops unaware that in a few days, the lackadaisical streets would bear the rabid frustrations that divided the nation; a pus-like bitterness that was held in check by the demands of everyday survival and the distractions offered by obsessive consumerism and brazen media would inevitably blame the cascade of events on the weather, since the origins could be found on a hot summer day in 2006. Sure, just about all summer days are hot, but this one was close to the record, and humid to boot. By the end of July, the Northeast coast was suffering under a sweltering heat wave. Despite the humidity, no one could remember the last time it had rained. A hundred-year drought was predicted, they'd said.

Bruntfield, among the many places under this curse, had its water supply so severely depressed that the city authorities were forced to impose water rationing. As if that wasn't enough, the excessive load on air conditioners led to incessant brownouts. With the weather nothing less than insufferable, suffocating, oppressive, even provoking, tempers flared along with the temperature. But the local situation, as bad as it was, was about to get worse.

In the heart of this small town, just a block up from the bus depot, sat Sliders, a rather successful drinking establishment catering to young adults, and noted for its ecstasy-fueled rave parties. At four in the afternoon, the owner, Joe Poppet, a burly man with a thick red beard and a well-developed beer belly, was staring out the large glass facade of his bar.

"Screw this heat, man."

Joe was sweating because he didn't want to turn on the air-conditioning; as a rule, he didn't put it on until a half hour before opening. He possessed a rather cynical personality, considering himself continually persecuted by life's little aggravations. Now it was the heat ramping up his electricity bill; soon it would be the freezing temperatures inflating his heating bill…always something. His worries constantly exceeded his hopes. He was sort of a "glass-half-empty" man.

Rudy Glum, the shaven-headed bartender, was an easygoing optimist, a "glass-half-full" kind of guy. He was whistling as he washed the glasses in the sink behind the bar. "Tell me about it," he chuckled. "I hear ya, buddy."

But Rudy's sanguinity did not rub off on Joe. "There's that guy again."

"What guy?"

"That fucking guy we saw yesterday."

"Oh, yeah, he's probably from the bus depot. Lotta homeless hang out there."

Joe continued to stare out the glass facade, feeling helpless.  "For Chrissakes, why can't the city do something and get rid of those bastards. They're a fucking eyesore…it's bad for business. Probably got diseases too."

Rudy finished drying the glass in his hand and hung it up on the beer mug rack. "Yeah, it's a goddamn shame," he said noncommittally, trying to get these glasses done before the evening crowd surged in.

"He doesn't have a shirt on."

"Yeah, well it's hot, ain't it? Wish I could take mine off."

"And we're opening in an hour. Ladies Night tonight."

Rudy said nothing while reaching for another glass from the sink behind the bar.

"Call the cops."

The bartender froze with the glass still in his hand. "And tell them what?"

"I don't know, tell 'em there's someone suspicious hanging out on the corner…trying to break into cars or something. That way they'll come fast."

Reluctantly, Rudy put down his dishrag, picked up the phone, and dialed 911, not feeling good about it at all.


Patrolman Rafael Puente might well be considered an unattractive man. A pencil-thin mustache above diminutive lips made insignificant by his large inflated face, gave his head the appearance of a balloon with a cartoon countenance. His acnescarred skin oozed sweat as he studied the thin disheveled man, shirtless with unkempt hair and a scraggly beard, standing three feet in front of him. "You were trying door handles on cars, eh?"

The man's body wavered, but his gaze was focused hard on Puente's eyes. Then his own eyes darted left and right, revealing his vacillation on how to handle this situation. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Puente began playing with his baton, twirling it down, and then back up smack into his palm. Rotating it down, rotating it up, like a long yo-yo…like the tail of an agitated cat ready to pounce. "Give me a language…tell me a language you speak in."

"Like what?"

Puente's tone rose in hostility. "Tell me a language you speak in."

"I don't know. What do you want to know?"

The humidity was so dense it felt like a sponge rubbing against their skins; so thick you could almost take a bite out of it and chew it.

"I want to know what kinda language you speak."

"I don't know."

"Yeah, well, what do you know?"

"I don't know."

"My partner, he speaks ten languages. Right, Foxy?"

Patrolman John Fox, a clean shaven, waspish-looking man standing to his right, smiled a mouthful of nice bright teeth.

"Yeah, that's right. I can speak Mongolian, Cambodian…" Fox came closer, boxing in the man they were questioning.

"He don't speak English," Puente told his partner.

"You don't?" Fox asked the homeless man.

The figure in front of them became fidgety. "What do you think I speak?"

Fox put his hands on his hips. "I don't know, you tell us. You're speaking English right now, aren't ya?"

Puente interrupted. "You know, it seems I see you all the time, and all the time I gotta say something to you. Do you enjoy that?"

"Oh yeah, I love bumping into you all the time."

"Really?"

The bearded man looked to his left and right, looking for an escape route while at the same time desperately trying to tell himself that these guys were just American cops and not the enemy in Iraq. He was trembling with the effort. "So, what do you guys wanna know?"

Puente's baton was still twirling with a pent-up belligerence. "I asked you already."

"I don't know what…"

"You trying to open car doors?"

"Well, I don't know what you're talking about."

"What does that mean, is that a yes or a no?"

"I don't know, don't know what you're hassling me for, man."

"You got any ID on you?"

"No. I don't need any."

"You don't need any?" Fox voiced with a rising tone of contempt.

"No, I don't drive, I don't vote, no credit card, and I don't use my passport anymore."

"So what's your name?" Puente asked.

"Felson. Jay Felson."

"What's your first name?"

"I just fucking told you, man. Jay."

"'J' is an initial. Tell me your full name."

"Jay, J-A-Y, Felson."

Puente, his question answered, went off on a new tack. "You know, I can take you to jail right now…loitering, suspicion of burglary."

"You don't have anything better to do?"

"What's in your knapsack?" Fox interjected.

"Why? You wanna search it?

"If you don't mind."

The bearded man swung his bag off his shoulders and handed it over. "Knock yourself out."

"Sit down," Puente abruptly ordered.

"Sit down where?"

"On the ground."

This was getting hard. Just cops, he reminded himself, but he suspected something worse.

"I said sit down."

"Where man?"

"Where you're standing, on the ground."

Felson plopped down on the concrete pavement.

"Put your legs out in front of you. Stretch them out."

Just do it. He did so, his arms at his sides supporting him.

"Put your hands on your knees."

No, this is a mind fuck, man. He ignored the command.

"I said put your hands on your knees."

Realizing he didn't have much choice, Jay drew his legs up first, then put his hands on his knees.

"Stretch your legs out."

He removed his hands from his knees and stretched out his legs.

"Put your fucking hands on your knees."

"What the fuck you want me to do. I can't do both."

"Give it a try, lean forward and put your hands on your knees."

Fox was going through the items found in the knapsack. "Got some letters here. They ain't addressed to Jay Felson…let's see, Casey Hull, Donald Darfield… You stealing other people's letters, boy."

"I'm gonna mail them."

"They already got stamps on them," Fox noted. "How come you haven't mailed them yet? You know, just slip them into a mailbox. There's one right over there on the corner."

Puente was still toying with his baton. "Let's take him in on a 4-96." Four-ninety-six was police code for handling stolen property.

Jay Felson, feeling an ache in his lower back, removed his hands from his knees, once again placing his arms in back of him to support himself.

"Hey, what the fuck I tell ya! Hands on knees!"

This time Felson was not eager to comply. He remained motionless in silent defiance.

Puente then reached into his back pocket and slowly, deliberately, put on a pair of latex gloves. He thrust one glove-laden fist in front of Felson's face. "See these fists?'

"Yeah, what about 'em?"

"They're getting ready to fuck you up."

"That just sucks."

"Put your legs out, put your hands on your knees"

"Hey, I'm sick of playing games, which one is it!"

Puente slapped him in the head.

"Hey, wouldya just fucking…"

"Put your hands on your knees!" he yelled, giving Felson another slap.

"Wouldya just fucking…"

Fox got on his handheld radio. "Code three, four-fifteen, bus depot corner Fifth and Clemston." (Code three, urgent, proceed with lights and siren; four-fifteen, disturbance.)

Puente slapped Felson's head a third time. Felson stood up, tired of being hit while on the ground.

Puente raised his baton.

Felson put his hands in front of him to display supplication.

"Hey, hey all right!"

"Get on the ground, get on the ground now!" Fox screamed. Both officers began to hit Felson on his legs and side with their batons, and he did what came instinctively-he ran.

"Take him down, take him down!" Puente yelled.

They grabbed him, got him down on the pavement, pressing his face against the concrete, and the real beating began.

"Okay, okay, I'm sorry, sorry, man."

"Put your hands behind your back," the two cops shouted, twisting his arms.

"Okay, I'm sorry…I can't breathe…"

The two cops were on top, Puente with a knee in Felson's back and Fox kicking him. "Stop resisting," they both yelled in turns.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"

A second patrol car pulled up with sirens blaring and flashers blazing. Two more officers sprang from the car and piled on. One of the new guys, Victor Fratollini, tasered Felson, zzzzt, and Fox began walloping him over the head with his stun gun. Another unit pulled up. Two more cops, two more assailants, and seeing Fratollini smashing the homeless man's cheekbones with his elbow, joined in the fracas.

Zzzzt, zzzzt, zzzzt they tasered him again and again.

"Dad, Dad, help me!"

More tasering, six times now.

"Help me, Dad! I can't breathe, I can't…Dad…"

Someone pounded Felson's head into the pavement.

"Dad help me!"

A pool of blood formed beneath him. The six police officers relentlessly pummeled him, the scene resembling a feeding frenzy of enraged carnivores…until Felson was no longer able to call for his father.


© Reproduced with the written permission of N. Lombardi Jr and John Hunt Publishing (Roundfire Books)


N. Lombardi Jr (Photo supplied by the author)
About the Author

N. Lombardi Jr (N for Nicholas) has spent over half his life in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, working as a groundwater geologist.

In 1997, while visiting Lao People's Democratic Republic, he witnessed the remnants of a secret war that had been waged for nine years, among which were children wounded from leftover cluster bombs. Driven by what he saw, he worked on The Plain of Jars for the next eight years. Nick maintains a website with content that spans most aspects of the novel: The Secret War, Laotian culture, Buddhism etc.

His second novel, Journey Towards a Falling Sun, is set in the wild frontier of northern Kenya.

His latest novel Justice Gone was inspired by the fatal beating of a homeless man by police.

Nick lives in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. You can read more about him and his work at Goodreads.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

‘So many books, so little time'

When it comes to reading, I don't make New Year's resolutions though I mentally resolve to buy fewer books so I can read the ones I already have and give them away or sell them at the old scrap and paper mart. Actually, the scrap dealer, or raddiwala as we call him, comes home with a ball of twine and a pair of scales and buys all our old newspapers, journals and books, and whatever else we intend to dispose of. He helps us to declutter. I have to get rid of my books this way because I can't think of anyone who'll want them, let alone read them, and besides we don't have any libraries in the suburb where I live.

Last year, I kept half my promise. I bought just about a dozen secondhand books and read so very few books there was no point in writing about it.

This year, surprisingly, it has been the other way around.

Less than two weeks into 2019, I added four "new" books to my TBR-stretched bookcases and, happily, also read an equal number. My plan is to read at least seven books and novellas every month, plus as many short stories and poetry as I can. With time not so much on my side, I will be reviewing only a few select books every month.


© Penguin
Of the four books I purchased at the Books by Weight exhibition, I'm eager to read my Penguin edition of The White Nile (1960) by Alan Moorehead, the Australian-born war correspondent and author of popular history books. 

I have been curious about this historically relevant book, which is about "the daring exploration of the Nile River in the second half of the nineteenth century, which was at that time the most mysterious and impenetrable region on earth" and is considered "a seminal work in tales of discovery and escapade, filled with incredible historical detail and compelling stories of heroism and drama."

The other books included two Black Horse Westerns—Madigan's Sidekick by Hank J. Kirby and The Dying Tree by Edward Thomson—and a Mickey Spillane, whose title eludes me as I write this from my office. Edward Thomson was one of many pseudonyms of the late Edwin Charles Tubb, a popular British writer of science fiction, fantasy and western novels.

© Prashant C. Trikannad
Separately, my wife bought three books—Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (as a replacement), Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton and The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit. I hope to read the last two.

I also bought a few ebooks but that's a guilt-trip for another day.


In the picture, our pet Stubs is keeping an eye (or shut-eye) on my newly-acquired western hardbacks.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

On the Run with Fotikchand by Satyajit Ray, 1976

© The Estate of Satyajit Ray
“...And who is this young assistant you have got here?”

The question came so unexpectedly that Fotik’s heart nearly jumped into his mouth.

The two men were standing nearby. They had just emerged out of the dark. On Fotik’s right stood Shyamlal, his bow legs covered by long trousers. Out of the corner of his eye, Fotik saw the blade of a knife flash, go past his ear and stop somewhere between him and Harun.


On the Run with Fotikchand by Satyajit Ray—the renowned Indian filmmaker and cultural icon—is the delightful adventure of an 11-year old boy, Bablu, kidnapped by four goons and left for dead when their stolen car meets with an accident. While two of the abductors die on the spot, two others, including the beefy Shyamlal, escape. The injured boy regains consciousness but loses his memory.

Bablu, whose real name is Nikhil Sanyal, the son of a rich barrister, assumes the name of Fotikchand and wanders the streets of Calcutta. The penniless boy soon meets a poor but a kind and sympathetic juggler named Harun, who offers him food and shelter as well as a job in a friend’s tea shop. In the evenings, Bablu accompanies Harun to the local fair and assists him in his colourful shows, thrilled to learn the tricks of the trade and with his new way of life. But it’s not long before the two surviving goons discover the boy is alive, and come after him and Harun, their criminal minds once again picturing a hefty ransom. On the run with the juggler, Fotik suddenly regains his memory.

© The Estate of Satyajit Ray
Meanwhile, back home, his influential father badgers the local police to find his son and issues an advertisement in the newspapers with the promise of a princely reward of Rs.5,000.

On the Run with Fotikchand is not so much a tale of kidnapping as an endearing story of friendship between Fotik and Harun. The juggler’s hand-to-mouth existence does not come in the way of his kinship with, and generosity towards, the boy, the son of a rather selfish and calculated man. A not-so-subtle contrast between the arrogance of the privileged and the humility of the underclass.

The 94-page novella is mildly suspenseful and moves at a brisk pace. The simple and engaging narrative is a tribute to its translation, from the Bengali original, by Gopa Majumdar. She has translated several literary works of Satyajit Ray and others from Bengali to English. The book was made into a film, Phatik Chand, in 1983. I have not seen it. My Puffin Books edition (below) has black-and-white illustrations by Ray himself.


© Puffin Books
A word about the author.

Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) requires no introduction. Nonetheless, here's a bit about him. 


Ray was one of 20th century’s greatest filmmakers. He was also a screenwriter, author, graphic artist and music composer. Born in Calcutta, the capital of the east Indian state of West Bengal, Ray wrote film essays, long fiction, short novels and short stories that were published as collections. His two most popular fictional characters in Bengali literature were Feluda, a detective series, and Professor Shonku, a scientist. The Feluda stories, which I haven’t read yet, are narrated by the detective’s cousin, a loose version of Dr Watson. In 1992, he was honoured with the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian award, and an Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. In 2004, Ray was ranked No.13 in BBC's poll of the Greatest Bengali of all time.

You can read more about Satyajit Ray and his literary works here and here.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Bird Box, 2018


Whatever you do, don't open your eyes.

Danish film director and Academy Award winner Susanne Bier’s Bird Box is a post-apocalyptic thriller and more. It also has shades of science fiction, horror, fantasy and the supernatural. Take your pick. The absence of visible monsters and hideous creatures is more than made up by the unseen, ghostly whispers and hallucinations.   

The Netflix movie—based on the 2014 namesake book by Josh Malerman, the lead singer of the American band The High Strung—begins with Malorie Hayes (Sandra Bullock) and two young children, named Boy and Girl, making a perilous two-day journey to safety. They must grope their way through a forest and paddle down a fast-flowing river—blindfolded.


If they open their eyes, they risk coming under the spell of an invisible apparition (or entities) that causes psychotic behaviour among people, brings out their worst fears and forces them to commit suicide in horrible ways.

Malorie Hayes (Sandra Bullock) to the children: "Listen to me. I’m only gonna say this once. We’re going on a trip now. It’s going to be rough... Understand? Under no circumstances are you allowed to take off your blindfold. If I find that you have, I will hurt you. Do you understand? If you hear something in the woods, you tell me. if you hear something in the water, you tell me. But you never, ever, take off your blindfold. If you look, you will die. Do you understand?”

Cut back to five years earlier.

Malorie, single and pregnant, and her elder sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson) are returning from the doctor’s when the entities they heard about on television invade their town and nearly wipe out its population. The sight of the unseen causes Jessica to crash their car and kill herself. Malorie barely survives and finds shelter with a group of survivors who include Douglas (John Malkovich), a self-centered man with a gun, a helpful gentleman called Tom (Trevante Rhodes), and another pregnant woman named Olympia (Danielle Macdonald). The motley crew hide in a house, the doors locked and the windows covered up.


Director Bier does a clever job of taking the viewer back and forth throughout the 124-minute film, between Malorie’s impossible journey on the river (in the present) and the chaos and death she and the others confront in their hideout (in the past). The frequent flash-forwards and flashbacks, though a trifle annoying, do not lessen interest in the film.

Cut to five years later.

The entities are still omnipresent in the world. Malorie and Tom are now lovers and possibly the sole survivors in the town. The boy is Malorie’s, the girl is Olympia’s. Both are five years old. She loves the girl as her own. One day, infected survivors charge their house, forcing Tom to sacrifice his life and allowing Malorie to escape with the kids—down the river in a boat.


Bird Box, in Stephen King’s words, is riveting. I was, therefore, surprised at the scores of negative reviews of the film. I agree with the Master of Horror when he says, “Don't believe the lukewarm reviews, which may in part have been caused by reviewers’ ambivalence to the streaming platform, as opposed to theatrical releases. One might say movie reviewers suffer from the dread NP syndrome: Netflix Prejudice.” I’m glad I don’t suffer from it.

Susanne Bier packs several elements in this intensely atmospheric film—the chilling spectre of the unseen, the assorted characters who couldn’t be more dissimilar, the unpredictability of human nature, and the thought of what it’d be like to live (or die) at the mercy of a sinister presence. Just what the hell is that thing out there? It’s a question you keep asking even as Bier distracts you with one unfolding piece of action after another. And there's plenty of it.

From start to finish, Bird Box is Sandra Bullock's film. She carries it very well. If you’ve watched her other movies, you’ll see why she is suited for this one. She is spontaneous and, predictably, hyper-realistic; her character responding to the fearful circumstances with a mix of emotions, often loud and unsettling. It’s understandable in her situation.

I had two reservations about the film. One, the versatile Malkovich being pigeonholed as a bit of a looney, and two, Bullock and the children escaping blindfolded through miles of cold and hostile territory. Neither stopped me from enjoying the film on Christmas Day.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Partners: Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham

“I’m not sure I want to get involved in this one,” Sebastian mumbled.

© Doubleday
Partners: Rogue Lawyer (2016) is a 60-page prequel to John Grisham’s full novel Rogue Lawyer published a year before. It is also the bestselling author’s first digital short story, or novella. And it’s written in Grisham’s trademark style; the prose sharp and precise, where every line impels the reader to move on to the next line and the one after, and read through until the end.

Since I hadn’t read the novel, it seemed appropriate to read the short story first and learn how rogue lawyer Sebastian Rudd meets up with Thomas Cardell (alias Tee Ray) who, by the end, offers to become his man Friday, his partner, bodyguard, law clerk and driver rolled into one.

Basically, Grisham wrote Rogue Lawyer introducing Rudd and Cardell to readers, and then decided to write a prequel about how the two met.

Rudd, somewhere in his early thirties, is a street lawyer who operates from a cheap bar-turned-law office in a drug-infested neighbourhood. He defends people other lawyers won’t go near. He knows they’re criminals and probably guilty even before they step inside a courtroom. Rudd has built a reputation as a skilled defence lawyer and has had more jury trials than others his age. He is also the most unpopular lawyer in town.

The rogue lawyer’s unpopularity shoots up when he reluctantly agrees to defend Tee Ray, a Black drug carrier arrested for killing a White cop in self defence. The dead cop, an honour student and a decorated Marine, has the town, the media and the entire police force behind him; Rudd has the backing of his client’s employers, a territorial drug organisation, and threats to his life.

Rudd is aware, without evidence and witnesses, the drug dealer would be sentenced to death for the
murder of the police officer. So he digs and discovers, with help from his point man in the organisation, that Tee Ray is actually telling the truth; that he was forced to shoot the cop only after the former fired at him several times. The cop wanted a scapegoat, to achieve his month’s target, and Tee Ray seemed like easy pickings. He was clean when he was set upon. A swift trial follows.

Partners is a fast-paced and well-crafted story about not just a street crime or a crime against a police officer, but also about racial violence against Blacks, and is reminiscent of America in the 60s and perhaps even today. Grisham, as is his tradition, handles the subject with skill and sensitivity. What I liked about this story is he not only makes the good guys look good, he doesn’t make the bad ones look very bad. His characters, irrespective of which side of the law they belong to, are only human, with their share of foibles and weaknesses. Another endearing quality about Grisham’s stories is his empathy for the underdog—like Tee Ray
and his dream of providing a good life for his teenage son—and the manner in which he gives them a voice that touches the reader. He makes one think, there is justice in this world, after all.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut and other books

“I was the baby of the family. Now I don’t have anybody to show off for anymore.” 
Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut

I bought no more than a dozen secondhand books this year. I’m pretty sure of that. Let me see—a few westerns, thrillers and spy fiction, Lee Child, P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Enid Blyton, Kurt Vonnegut. Yes, that’s about it, though I haven’t read any of the books yet. I seldom buy new fiction.


© Prashant C. Trikannad
I also ordered nonfiction from Amazon, as part of the annual office book allowance I’m entitled to. They’re all there in the picture on the left. I haven’t read any of those either, though I have been leafing through the books on writing. I usually don’t read guide books from cover to cover.

Separately, I also picked up Khushwant Singh’s autobiography Truth, Love & A Little Malice (2002). Singh was a well-known and an outspoken diplomat, journalist, parliamentarian, columnist, and author of scores of books. He was one of India’s most engaging storytellers, and also its most controversial. He had an easy and lucid style. The publication of the politically-sensitive book was held up for five years due to a court case.


© Viking, New Delhi
I also added a handful of comic-books to my collection. These included two graphic adaptations from the popular Warrior Cats multi-series by Erin Hunter, a combined pseudonym of a group of children’s book writers. Besides, I downloaded comics from Amazon under its ‘free comic book day’ attraction. I mostly read these on my tab during office commute.

From among fiction, I intend to read Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake first. It’s not exactly a novel; rather it’s a semi-autobiographical work marketed as a novel. The author, himself, has described the book as a “stew” and his “last novel”.

The following blurbs will tell you more about the book.


“There's been a timequake. And everyone—even you—must live the decade between February 17, 1991, and February 17, 2001, over again. The trick is that we all have to do exactly the same things as we did the first time—minute by minute, hour by hour, year by year, betting on the wrong horse again, marrying the wrong person again. Why? You'll have to ask the old science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout. This was all his idea.” 
Amazon

© Berkley Books, New York
“Using his science-fictional alter ego Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut talks about a recalcitrant book of Trout's whose premise would have been that ‘a sudden glitch in the space-time continuum’' occurs, creating a 10-year hitch in time in which everyone is forced to live that period of their lives over again, every word and action exactly repeated, from 1991 until 2001, at which point their lives move forward once more. It is a nice conceit, and Vonnegut and Trout have some fun with it, all interwoven with anecdotes about the Vonnegut family, how it feels to be an aging author and suchlike.” 
Publishers Weekly

“Family is obviously an important anchor for Vonnegut. Through Timequake, he keeps track of a wide variety of siblings, uncles, children, wives and ex-wives, etc. It says a great deal about Vonnegut's view of family that he is close to his family and is also a successful writer while his alter ego, Kilgore Trout, is an unsuccessful author and has no family. When Trout does gain some success in Timequake after the rerun has concluded, he has also gained a family of sorts.” 
— Review on SF Site

The late Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favourite writers mainly because I enjoy his writing to the extent that I'm tempted to imitate his style. He kept it short, almost staccato, and simple. He managed to say a lot without saying much, a tribute to his ability to write with brevity and minimum fuss. He also had a wry sense of humour.