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.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a comics fan!

© Miika Laaksonen/Unsplash

Bill Maher, political commentator and television host, was accused of mocking comic-book fans for mourning the death, November 12, of Marvel legend Stan Lee. He wrote on his blog, “The guy who created Spider-Man and the Hulk has died, and America is in mourning. Deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess,” and added, somewhat self-righteously, “Personally, I’m grateful I lived in a world that included oxygen and trees, but to each his own.”

As a comic-book fan, reading and collecting comics for over four decades, I wasn’t offended by the American comedian’s ill-conceived remarks. Maybe he was trying to be funny, except no one felt like laughing. Comics are a serious business, an alternate religion, even for the lighthearted among diehard fans.

Here’s what happened next. Like dirty linen, Lee fans took Maher to the cleaners, to be washed, rinsed, spun and dried on social media. His attempts to clarify that he meant no disrespect to Stan Lee failed to cut ice with his legion of followers.


Stan Lee and Peter Parker in Spider-Man 3. © Sony/Marvel

The outrage against Maher can perhaps be explained in the words of Hollywood actor Chris Evans who, in an unrelated context, said, “The comic book world is so dangerous. You know what I mean? You say one thing and people—they’re ravenous—they are very opinionated fans. But they're great fans.” Who better to tell us than the man who plays Captain America and the Human Torch in Marvel’s Avengers and Fantastic Four?

What Maher probably didn't realise is that, comics, in spite of spawning a global cultural phenomena for nearly a century, is a personal thing. We may share and enjoy comic-books collectively, swear lifelong allegiance to the sequential panels of vivid characters, images and balloons, but we read them as individuals, in the seclusion of our mental cocoons where no outsiders are allowed and trespassers like Maher are prosecuted.

Most of us, and certainly those who grew up in the second half of the 2oth century, have fond memories of spending many a summer holiday borrowing and reading comics, and then exchanging those for new ones from the circulating library. Mine are no different.

Here, I'm going to digress.


I recall the first time I stepped inside the world of comics. I was around eight years old when an uncle from San Diego, California, sent my dad 40 DC and Marvel comics by post. The crisp and glossy Silver Age (1956-1970) and Bronze Age (1970-1985) comics, neatly packed in a carton, travelled nearly 7,000 miles and inspired him to start collecting comics and rope me in as his young co-conspirator.

It was the beginning of a delightful adventure with an eclectic roster of valiant heroes and superheroes—the Pandavas and the Maurya Kings, Justice League and the Avengers, and so many others—dedicated to fighting evil and making the world a better place.


© Amar Chitra Katha
One evening, my dad picked up Gopal and the Cowherd, a popular Bengali folktale from Amar Chitra Katha (Immortal Picture Stories)—India’s largest-selling comic-book imprint—and read it out to me.

In the comic-book, Gopal, a poor young lad who lives with his devout mother in a tiny village, must walk alone through a dark forest to get to school on the other side. Naturally, he is afraid to make the journey alone. His mother calmly tells her son, “Whenever you’re scared, call out to your brother. He is a cowherd and his name is also Gopal. He will come and protect you.” Relieved, the boy happily sets off for school. As he is passing through the forest, Gopal calls out to his “brother” who materialises out of nowhere—wearing peacock feathers in his golden crown and playing a flute—and escorts the boy to school and back. When his mother hears about the mysterious brother and the herd of cows with tinkling bells, she realises that her son’s saviour was none other than Lord Krishna. She prays with silent gratitude, “You took care of my son, my Lord. I called and you came.”

It was one of the most beautiful and poignant stories I had heard and read at the time. It was also one of my earliest inspirational lessons in values and virtues. And that’s what comic-books are all about; often, a better teacher than pedantic textbooks.

Over the years, since then, I frequently turned to comic-books, to such brave and self-sacrificing heroes as Arjuna, the maverick archer in the great Indian epic Mahabharata and Captain America, the patriotic super-soldier, for both inspiration and entertainment. I found the richly illustrated panels and speech balloons riveting. In difficult times, comics were a form of escapism, a secret place where you overcame fear and despair, replaced negative emotions with hope, wonder and positive choices, and steered through life’s inevitable challenges with a new strength and optimism.

In that sense, comic-books, notwithstanding their digital avatars and billion-dollar movie franchises, are a liberating medium primarily because of their emotional appeal and visual influence and because, as Peter Parker’s Aunt May tells us so eloquently in Spider-Man 2, “There’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.”

May Parker’s eulogy, in many ways, is a tribute to comic-book fans who yearn to be like the mortal, supernatural and other-world heroes they admire and venerate so much. Actually, the rest of the world isn’t very different. Everyone, at some point, imagines living vicariously through the lives of those they look up to. Even Bill Maher.

Friday, 9 November 2018

The Sheriff of Kalbadevi

I have been a big fan of Western Fiction or Frontier Fiction from the time a paternal uncle introduced me to English writer Oliver Strange's Sudden series. I was in my teens and I was hooked. His ten novels and an additional five by Frederick H. Christian (British writer and editor Frederick Nolan) have been featured on this blog a few times. The exploits of James Green, alias Sudden, the Texas outlaw, led to my heightened interest in other western authors, notably Louis L'Amour, J.T. Edson, Zane Grey, Max Brand, George G. Gilman, Wayne D. Overholser, Jonas Ward, Giles A. Lutz and others. I continue to read westerns.

Since then, however, I have always dreamed of writing a western novel. There were even a few halfhearted attempts. In August 2015, I began work on a Wild West-comes-to-India novel in earnest. At least, that was the plan. I typed out a few thousand words and was pleased with the way the story was shaping up. It was about a Western-styled Indian sheriff set in an old part of Mumbai in the 21st century. So it had cowboys and gunfights as well as four-wheeler taxis and pizza delivery.


But Procrastination and Distraction, the two nemesis of my writing life, bushwhacked me along the way and that was the end of what I thought would one day be my debut novel called The Sheriff of Kalbadevi.

Then, last month, I read about a short story contest at Juggernaut Books, a popular Indian writing platform where I had previously published an atmospheric tale set around a murder mystery, titled A Little Murder at Dinner. I retrieved my western story from the recesses of D drive on my computer, scaled it down to a little over 2,000 words, got the family to proofread the story, and uploaded it on the Juggernaut website. As of writing this post, the results were yet to be announced.

The story begins in Kalbadevi, an old neighbourhood of Mumbai named after the Hindu goddess Kalbadevi. The area has an old-world charm and is known for its wholesale markets, usually bustling with activity six days a week. I worked along its periphery for many years.

This is how The Sheriff of Kalbadevi begins.


Friday night descended on Kalbadevi like any other summer night, the weather still unforgiving. Long after the Indian sun ducked into the Arabian Sea, the old neighbourhood of Mumbai was enveloped in a haze of April heat and dust. Red earth rose and swirled in the air, settled down, and rose again.  
Kalinga sat hunched on his horse under a yellow streetlight. He blew smoke from a cigarette and looked around him with a sense of boredom. There was little movement on the intersection of Princess Street and JSS Road. Two young cowboys on horseback were riding out, back to their ranch or maybe to the seafront on the other side of town, to meet their girlfriends. A woman hurried across the street with her young son and disappeared round the corner of a dilapidated building. Shopkeepers and roadside hawkers were closing business for the day. A group of weary traders vanished behind a tobacco-stained curtain into a country liquor bar. When they staggered out, they would be men no more. He eyed them with distaste.

And here is a significant passage appearing towards the end.

The four gunmen stared in disbelief as two six-guns appeared magically in the sheriff's hands and spit fire simultaneously. They didn't stand a chance. His first bullet caught Balki plumb between the eyes. He died instantly and slid to the ground head first. His horse bolted. Two of his sidekicks got a bullet each in the chest and were thrown off their horses. His fourth bullet sliced through the throat of the last man who slumped in his saddle. It was all over in less than a minute.
Instantly, a new legend was born and it'd travel miles and miles, just like all of his fabled gunfights of the past.

If you're tempted to read the full story, then please click here. I hope you like it. I had fun writing it, partly because it was an original idea.

And if you're still around, you may also like to read A Little Murder at Dinner and the related Editor's Pick of the Week interview Juggernaut Books did with me in June this year.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Rain on the Dead by Jack Higgins, 2014

I will give you my verdict right away. Rain on the Dead (2014) is probably the most disappointing Jack Higgins novel I have read till date.

The British writer's 76th action-thriller has a fine cast of characters, all old anti-terrorism hands — legendary ex-IRA gunman Sean Dillon (his 21st appearance), his boss General Charles Ferguson (head of a secret intelligence unit reporting to 10 Downing Street), Captain Sara Gideon (a decorated Afghan war hero), Major Giles Roper (a wheelchair-bound tech whiz), and the Salters, Billy (a gangster turned MI5 agent) and his uncle Harry (who runs a dockside pub and is handy with a gun).


While those are good reasons to read the book, a weak storyline and an even weaker plot are reasons to avoid it. Unless, like me, you're a big Higgins fan and will read anything by the man who gave us such gripping fare as The Last Place God Made (1971), A Prayer for the Dying (1973) and The Eagle Has landed (1975).

Rain on the Dead begins with a failed assassination attempt on the charismatic former US President, Jake Cazalet, at his estate on Nantucket, an island off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Unfortunately for the two Al Qaeda-backed Chechen gunmen, Ferguson and his team happen to visit Cazalet just at the time and foil the bid masterminded by a cold and calculated faceless entity called the Master. Not very original, as you can see, and not very scary either.


From there, the action moves to Drumgoole in Ireland, Paris and finally London, as team Ferguson thwarts repeated attempts to kill Cazalet. In frustration, the Master, who reports to some kind of a grand council, hires desperate men, including special ops gone rogue, to bump off Dillon, Gideon and the others, but all in vain.

Here are two more reasons why I did not enjoy the novel as I thought I would.

Apart from the weak plot, the logic or the lack of it, and the occasional typo (yes, those too), I found the writing style, peppered with dialogue, almost amateurish. Preposterous as it may sound, it seemed to me that the book was ghostwritten. The narrative lacked depth and the conversations between the various players were at times school-grade. This was not the Jack Higgins I grew up reading.

The third reason is Sean Dillon, whose role during The Troubles in Northern Ireland haunts him in many of his novels including this one; just as they do Higgins' other ex-IRA heroes. We get a sense that Dillon, though still respected by his peers and feared by his enemies, is growing old and past his prime. In Rain on the Dead, he plays a largely supportive role, always on hand with a Colt .25 but not doing much. The brave and likeable Captain Sara Gideon and the young and reckless Billy Salter take the honours, as they run down the shadowy Master before he can get anywhere near Jake Cazalet (who first appears in Dillon #6 The President's Daughter, 1997). 


So, would I stop reading Higgins? Never. I have many of his books to read and I'm sure I'll enjoy many of those.