Wednesday, June 01, 2022

5 things you can do to beat writer's block

© Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz

The India-based Reputation Today, a widely-read print magazine and website on the public relations and communications sector, has published my article titled Five things you can do to beat writer’s block.

This is my second piece for Reputation Today which caters to PR and communications professionals. The first one The bull's eye of PR writing appeared in September 2021.

Here is an excerpt from my latest offering:

Writing is a bit like wearing clothes. Just as you have an awful dress day, you can have a bad writing day. It takes away your confidence and nearly ruins your day.
Imagine this scenario.

You wear clothes to work that don’t make you feel good about yourself. They’re either ill-fitting or you don’t like the combination. You can’t wait to go home and change. Sound familiar?

What’s worse, it happens on a day when things are going your way in the office — a promising lead, a great presentation, an appreciative client, boss on leave, an easy day at work, a party in the evening… And yet, something’s off. Oh yes, these clothes!

Now the writing equivalent.  

~ End of excerpt ~

If you liked it so far, I hope you'll click to read the rest.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

When it's time to turn the page on book-buying

Photographs by Prashant C. Trikannad

About a month ago, I found myself among books (not my own) for the first time since March 2020. I visited a Books by Weight exhibition hosted by Butterfly Books of Mumbai, and in a rare instance of self-restraint, left empty-handed. It's not that I didn't find good books. It's just that I didn't feel like buying any. I wonder if working from home for two years (and even now in a hybrid setting) might have had something to do with it. Barring evening walks, an occasional social visit and grocery shopping in the neighbourhood, I'd hardly been out until that day.

I was also aware at the time that there was no point in adding to my collection of books, many still to be read. Only last November my wife and I gave away over a hundred paperbacks and I'd no intention of replacing those with a new lot that would probably remain unread for months and years.

As I grow older, though not necessarily wiser, I'm more convinced that it's time to own fewer things and actually use those things. And that goes for books too—read and give away. As my wife said to me one evening, "What are you finally going to do with all your books? It's time to move on." She'd a point: it wasn't as if I'd a treasure chest of rare and valuable books, not counting a few out-of-print western paperbacks and some others with swell covers. I think what she also meant was that I needed to grow out of this irresistible urge to buy and hoard books. There was a time for it and that time had passed.  

We both still have many books, I more than she. I'm also still holding on to my comic-books, some of which are quite old. I don't know what I'm going to do with them once I retire a few years from now. Paper has a shelf life too. So these days I mostly read ebooks on my Kindle and an 11-inch Motorola tab. Both the devices are reader friendly, convenient and a space saver where paper books are concerned. No doubt, books have a charm that ebooks can never replicate, but I have to be practical and draw the line between the two, maybe 70% ebooks and 30% paper books.

I'll still buy the odd paperback from secondhand bookshops and book exhibitions, but that would depend on what I find and then again only after I ask myself, "Is it really worth buying the book? Wouldn't a Kindle edition do just as well?" The answer to those questions will henceforth shape my book-buying habits. Having fewer books doesn't mean reading less.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Reading the good stuff for mental well-being

Photo: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash

I say this from experience.

Reading is one of the most effective home-based therapies for mental well-being.

While serious mental health issues may require medical intervention and counselling, other concerns like stress, burnout, worry and anxiety that we often experience in our day-to-day lives can be managed—and even overcome—by reading books, and especially inspirational books, stories and essays.  

Personally, I find spiritual literature extremely uplifting—it does these four things, often within minutes after I start reading.

It elevates my mood
Soothes the mind
Makes me emotionally resilient, and
Fills me with a sense of calm.

Reading the good stuff makes me feel good about myself, my environment and my ability to make it through the passing storms of life, even though more often than not those storms are little more than blips on the radar or minor interruptions.  

This is not to say I don't read other books, like the mysteries, thrillers and westerns I'm fond of. It's only that, whenever I feel a bit down in the dumps, I know I can dive into books that fill me with a positive energy and make me happy. They're always on standby.

Does reading help improve your state of mind?

What kind of books do you read for inspiration and mental wellness?

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Book-buying in the time of the pandemic

If I have missed one thing during the pandemic-induced lockdown and work from home, it's my frequent visits to secondhand bookshops, pavement booksellers and book exhibitions. Since working remotely, March 19 onward, I have bought just two books off Amazon India—a used but rare Corgi edition of Sudden and a new Fantastic Four: The Coming of Galactus comic-book digest, both featured here. The Sudden paperback with the eye-catching cover art was like winning a lottery. I was both surprised and delighted to find it on Amazon India for only Rs.295 ($4). My favourite western is not easily available at used book sales in Mumbai.

But I did buy books in the weeks and months leading up to the virus outbreak. Here are a few with their synopsis, actual covers and original year of publication.

The New Collected Short Stories by Jeffrey Archer, 2011

"This brand new edition brings together three of Jeffrey Archer's classic collections of short stories—To Cut a Long Story Short, Cat O' Nine Tales and And Thereby Hangs a Tale—showcasing the master storyteller's skill like never before. Every reader will have their own favourites: the choices run from love at first sight across the train tracks to the cleverest of confidence tricks, from the quirks of the legal profession, and those who are able to manipulate both sides of the Bar, to the creative financial talents of a member of Her Majesty's diplomatic service—but for a good cause. In `Caste-Off', Jamwal and Nisha fall in love while waiting for a traffic light to turn green in Delhi, and in `Don't Drink The Water', a company chairman tries to poison his wife while on a trip to St Petersburg, with unexpected consequences... The stories held in these pages are irresistible: ingeniously plotted, with richly drawn characters and deliciously unexpected conclusions. Some will make you laugh. Others will bring you to tears. And, as always, every one of them will keep you spellbound."

The Twisted Thing by Mickey Spillane, 1966

"This was some household.

"The kid was a genius, the father a scientist of international repute. Money was problem. Not shortage of money but the opposite: too much. The sort of money that brings the envious and the scheming clustering like flies round a pile of ripe offal: nieces, nephews, cousins - a family of mean minds and gross appetites.

"The hired help had its peculiarities too: the chauffeur, an ex-con; the governess, formerly a featured act in strip clubs from New York and Miami; a secretary with a well developed taste in other women.

"Quite a household. And not one to welcome the arrival of Mike Hammer
not when the kid had been kidnapped and everyone else was a suspect."

Snobs by Julian Fellowes, 2004

"The English, of all classes as it happens, are addicted to exclusivity. Leave three Englishmen in a room and they will invent a rule that prevents a fourth joining them."

"The best comedies of manners are often deceptively simple, seamlessly blending social critique with character and story. In his superbly observed first novel, Julian Fellowes, creator of the Masterpiece sensation Downton Abbey and winner of an Academy Award for his original screenplay of Gosford Park, brings us an insider's look at a contemporary England that is still not as classless as is popularly supposed.

"Edith Lavery, an English blonde with large eyes and nice manners, is the daughter of a moderately successful accountant and his social-climbing wife. While visiting his parents' stately home as a paying guest, Edith meets Charles, the Earl Broughton, and heir to the Marquess of Uckfield, who runs the family estates in East Sussex and Norfolk. To the gossip columns he is one of the most eligible young aristocrats around.

"When he proposes. Edith accepts. But is she really in love with Charles? Or with his title, his position, and all that goes with it?"

Sudden: Law O' The Lariat by Oliver Strange, 1931

"The word had filtered out that Sudden was dead—and there was no one around to contradict it. Men who had cringed before, swaggered now; others boasted of their encounters with Sudden, the coward.

"Only one man stayed quiet: a tall, saturnine fellow wearing two guns tied low. When he heard the rumours, he gave a thin smile; and when someone asked him who he was, he said shortly: James Green. James Green — alias Sudden!"

Maigret and the Headless Corpse by Georges Simenon, 1968

"Two brothers find a grisly package clinging to the propeller of their barge in the Canal de Saint Martins, and by the time Maigret arrives most of a mysterious corpse has been assembled, except for the head. The search shifts from finding the missing piece to finding a motive, as the Inspector's keen mind assembles clues from the dismembered torse which lead to a trio of suspects. A flash of intuition linking the principal suspect's sordid life to the whereabouts of her victim on his last day alive closes the case but opens Maigret's mind to the reason for the crime."

I have yet to read Julian Fellowes and Georges Simenon.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Case of the Wandering Redhead by Leigh Brackett, 1951

I’d never read Leigh Brackett until now and I’m glad I finally did. I found her short story The Case of the Wandering Redhead in the pages of New Detective Magazine, February 1951, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

This is the introduction to the story.

“Here is the most ruthless man you’ve ever met—a filler whom death could not soften nor bullets stop—yet whose relentless fists battered to their last futile gesture that softest thing a man ever finds—the heart of a woman in love. It is with a definite sense of accomplishment that we welcome Miss Brackett to these pages—which many of you will find unforgettable!”

The “ruthless man” is Marty James, a territorial gangster who lives by guns and fists, and the narrator of the story. He is wildly in love with Sheila Burke, a stunning redhead he wants to marry even if she detests the very thought of it. She refuses him point blank, just the way he’d shoot his adversaries. Sheila has good reason for not wanting to have anything to do with him.

“Can I get it through your head? I hate you, Marty. I hate everything you stand for. All I want out of life is decency and peace and maybe a little happiness. You can’t give me any of them.”

But Marty has no plans to leave her alone. In fact, he is trying to force her to marry him, when his sidekick calls him away on urgent business only to betray him to a rival gangster eyeing his turf. Marty fights and shoots his way out of captivity and returns to Sheila, with a rib wound and two bullet holes in his thigh.

Six flights, with thin snow beginning to fall, thinking of Sheila’s voice saying, There’s blood on you, Marty. You’re not in my world.

I thought, All right. That’s the way it is, Sheila. That’s the way we’ll play it. I was colder than the snow, and numb.

The Case of the Wandering Redhead is a cracker of a story. The two main characters, Marty and Sheila, are drawn well. In the words of the gangster, human enough to go crazy over a girl. Brackett’s narrative style is clean, almost poetic and visually striking, as if the story is playing out on screen. Consider this passage.

I looked at her. She was beautiful. She was like something the wind might cut out of a snowbank, with the red fire of her hair on top. Her eyes met mine, and there was an awful coldness in them, like I’d killed the spark inside her.

The short story is a fine example of the hard-boiled crime fiction of the Golden Age, although I have plenty left to read from the genre.


Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Stone: M.I.A. Hunter by Stephen Mertz, 1985

Stone: M.I.A. Hunter by American thriller writer Stephen Mertz is book one in the adrenaline-soaked Mark Stone: MIA Hunter series comprising seventeen novels. The series was created and plotted by Mertz, who wrote the novels in collaboration with Joe R. Lansdale, Michael Newton and Bill Crider. Mertz and Newton have also written several of the action-packed Mack Bolan: The Executioner books created by Don Pendleton.

My Kindle edition is a reprint of the first M.I.A. Hunter with an additional title Leave No Man Behind and September 2017 as the publication date. As the series name suggests, M.I.A. Hunter refers to Mark Stone, a tough-as-they-come former Green Beret whose post-Vietnam War mission is to find American POWs forgotten by the government and declared either as MIA or KIA, and bring them home. He knows he can’t get them all out, but he’s determined to save as many as he can.

Stone does his MIA hunting in the jungles of Vietnam and Laos, and elsewhere, with his two trusted and battle-hardened friends, the six-foot-four Texan Hog Wiley and former British commando Terrance Loughlin. They rarely question Stone and his actions, even if it means going into hell and fighting their way out of it. They’re in it together. While Stone works for the CIA, in an unofficial capacity, he often operates on his own under Stone Investigative Consultants, a private-eye outfit in Los Angeles.

M.I.A. Hunter begins in the steaming Laotian jungle. Stone and his men, backed by Laotian anti-communist guerrillas, rescue a US navy pilot and other POWs held captive by the Viet Cong since the war ended. When they finally make it through over a hundred miles of enemy territory, their pickup chopper throws up a surprise: CIA man Alan Coleman with a twisted agenda. He detests Stone and places him and his friends under arrest for violating US law; in other words, for making the spooks look bad.

Back in L.A., Stone quickly overcomes his legal hurdle with the help of Carol Jenner, his lady-friend who works for the Defence Department in Washington, and a smart lawyer. Out on bail, Stone helps the widow of a close friend who served with him in Vietnam rescue her teenage son from a Mexican-run drug cartel and set him on the right path. And just when he’s looking for some MIA action, a badly wounded stranger turns up in his garage and gives him a shocking news before he dies–Rosalyn James, an army nurse and the love of his life who was believed dead in a medevac operation in Vietnam, is still alive. For nearly fourteen years, she has been the prisoner and mistress of a brutal and torture-loving drug lord, known only as General, in his mountain fortress on the Laos-China border.

Stone goes back with Hog Wiley and Terrance Loughlin, in what could well be the most important MIA rescue mission of his life.

Stone: M.I.A. Hunter is filled with edge-of-the-seat action that never ceases from start to finish. Mark Stone and his men use an array of weapons and hand-to-hand combat skills to kill their enemies with deadly precision and little more than a scratch. They’re almost invincible, even in the face of overwhelming odds, but that is only to be expected of such vigilante-type of novels where the good guys seldom get hurt and are the silent heroes long after the battle is won. They’re men of honour, integrity and sacrifice. I suspect many readers like it that way, as do I, because it appeals to our sense of justice. Someone's got to uphold it, even if it's in fiction and films.

Stephen Mertz does not disappoint in telling the story of the audacious MIA hunter and the forgotten war heroes he brings back from the dead. I will be reading more books in the series.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Drink with the Devil by Jack Higgins, 1996

I read Drink with the Devil—the fifth appearance of Jack Higgins' trademark hero Sean Dillon—before the pandemic and decided to finally review it in my sixth month of work from home. Somehow, I always seem to pick up a Higgins to revive my blog every few months. Maybe because he is my favourite action-thriller writer and also my comfort read.

In Drink with the Devil (1996), Higgins offers a glimpse into Dillon's early life—first as a disillusioned IRA assassin, then as a skilled mercenary for the PLO and the Israelis, the KGB and the Red Brigades, and finally as an operative for a highly secret British intelligence unit answerable only to the prime minister.

The story begins in 1985, London.

The IRA sends Sean Dillon—as Martin Keogh—to team up with a legendary Irish militant (Protestant/Loyalist), Michael Ryan, and his young niece Kathleen, who hijack a truck laden with gold bullion worth £50 million. The IRA doesn't want Ryan to use the bullion to buy arms and start a civil war back home. Luckily for Dillion, things don't go according to plan. One late night, he and Ryan are transporting the bullion truck by a hired boat across the Irish Sea. But the scheming crew with plans of their own forces them to blow up the boat and send the bullion plunging to the bottom of the choppy sea.

Cut to the present, 1995, New York State.

Michael and Kathleen are dead to the world, including to the IRA and British intelligence; the priceless cargo never recovered. Michael is serving 25 years in a New York State prison for a failed bank robbery and shooting a policeman. His niece, who works as a nurse at a nearby hospital, meets him every day. They have assumed the names of Liam and Jean Kelly. 

But word of the lost bullion reaches the mafia family of Don Antonio Russo, who strikes a deal with Michael and Kathleen—a share of the gold, now worth £100 million, and their freedom. Word also reaches the US and British intelligence services, the president and the prime minister, and the IRA.

Enter Sean Dillon. The former IRA hitman is tasked with a single missionprevent the gold from disrupting the peace process between the Catholics and Protestants. He meets his "old friends" a decade later, and therein lies the proverbial twist in the tale.

While I haven't read many of the nearly two-dozen Sean Dillon novels, I can venture to say that Drink with the Devil is not his best. I thought the story, though evenly paced and with a fair amount of action and plenty of dialogue, was somewhat weak. It gave me the impression that even an amateur could have got away with stealing the gold. It also left me wondering how British Intel could not have traced the hijacked bullion or the whereabouts of Michael and Kathleen. They can't just have been lost at sea or disappeared into thin air.

In Higgins' defence, though, Dillion, his boss, Brigadier Charles Ferguson, who heads the secret unit known as the Prime Minister's Private Army, and Special Agent Hannah Bernstein, come into the picture much later; in 1995, when the story of the Irish Rose under the Irish Sea actually begins.

That aside, Drink with the Devil has all the hallmarks of Higgins' simple, to the point and conversational storytelling style. The characters, including the appearance of his other endearing hero, Liam Devlin, and the charming Lake District setting in northwest England, with its pubs and cafes affiliated either to the Republicans or the Loyalists, make the novel a fairly entertaining read. As with many of his IRA-linked novels, Higgins weaves the Northern Ireland conflict and its assorted players into his narrative, which, as a history buff, I find very interesting to read.

Whatever the pros and cons, it is a pleasure to read Jack Higgins.