Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Spike by Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss

In my last post I reviewed Tom Rachman’s impressive debut novel The Imperfectionists which is about journalists working for an international newspaper based in Rome.

The novel got me thinking about other books written by well-known journalists, such as Without Fear or Favor: The New York Times and Its Times (1980) by Harrison Salisbury, which I have read, and All the President’s Men (1974) by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, which I have been planning to read.

Thanks to Ron Scheer of Buddies in the Saddle for reminding me about Bernstein’s and Woodward’s investigative reporting on the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post. In 1976, it was made into a film by Alan J. Pakula (Presumed Innocent, Sophie's Choice, The Pelican Brief) and had Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in the two lead roles. I haven’t seen the movie either.

When I entered journalism by a quirk of fate, in the mid-eighties, the first book that was thrust into my hands was The Spike (1980), a trailblazing spy thriller written by two other American journalists, Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss. It is built on the experiences of both the authors. 

“This is the book every budding reporter should read. It will inspire you,” I was told. The Spike did inspire me but it didn’t take me as far as it takes young Bob Hockney in his journalistic career.

As far as I remember, Hockney is opportunistic and learns the ropes quickly as he graduates from a plain cub reporter to a globetrotting investigative reporter who gets hold of a scoop of a lifetime—involving a KGB plot, western media, sex, and blackmail. There is just one hitch: Hockney’s exclusive despatches are spiked by his editor.

In journalistic parlance, “spike” literally means to kill a story.

In my very first job as a reporter, I remember the copy desk had a wooden block with three iron spikes sticking out of it. It was used to actually spike copies filed by reporters and received from wire services; stories that would not make it into next morning’s newspaper. The devils on the copy desk loved using it; sometimes, I suspect, to show a reporter who was boss. Reporters filed stories in earnest, copy editors killed them in right earnest. It was discouraging.

The Spike was my first exposure to a fictional account of the world of newspapers. It was racy and gripping. Read the book if you haven’t. You won’t regret it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, 2010

It is said that Indian journalists often dream of writing the Great Indian Novel, which must hold true for journalists across the world—graduating from mundane news reporting to writing a cracking novel, and earning fame and some money. Few journalists in India have realised that dream; most others, like me, keep dreaming in the hope that one day they will wake up to their own dazzling debut—written, published, sold, read, and reviewed by the dozens.

Tom Rachman, the British-born journalist and author, realised his dream with panache when, in 2010, at the young age of 36, he wrote his first book, The Imperfectionists, which has resulted in a tide of favourable reviews. Four years later, Tom published The Rise & Fall of Great Powers which I'm waiting to read. Clearly, there is no stopping Tom. I’m glad he is a fellow journalist. More fiction to his pen.

The Indian journalist and newsroom, I’d assume, is different from its counterparts in, say, New York or London, owing to culture, tradition, environment, and even language. Yet, if you happen to be a journalist and if you read Tom’s debut novel about a nameless newspaper set in Rome and elsewhere, you’ll see they are not dissimilar.

The journalists and the assorted staff on the rolls of the international newspaper in Rome are a lot like those in any Indian morninger, even if they work for different mastheads and eccentric newspaper barons. I found the similarities nowhere more conspicuous than in the personal prejudices and beat experiences of the staff, both seasoned and untested, and how it affects their lives, usually for the worse, as well as in the gossipy and politicised atmosphere of the newsroom.

In The Imperfectionists, Tom introduces us to a host of animated characters from top to bottom—from founder-publisher Cyrus Ott lording over his empire from Atlanta; to editor-in-chief Kathleen Solson who puts up a brave front at the newspaper and in her crumbling marriage; to head of finance Abbey Pinnola cryptically known as Accounts Payable; to corrections editor Herman Cohen waiting to pounce on grammatical errors; to copy editor Ruby Zaga, insecure and never happy at work; to poor Winston Cheung who desperately wants the stringer position in Cairo.

This is the story of all of these and other characters, including one peculiar reader, whose personal lives are linked to the fate and fortune of their newspaper. It is both happy and sad, funny and sober, and all quite intriguing. Much as I dislike using the word in the context of a review, Tom Rachman’s writing style is beautiful, and refreshing. If you have been a journalist, The Imperfectionists will resonate with you at once. In that it is my kind of a debut novel.

The only problem I have with the book is that it is all a bit of an anticlimax: Tom develops each story, each character, really well and just when you brace yourself for something to happen, he snatches it away from you. It leaves you kind of disappointed but, I guess, it works for the imperfectionists. I anticipated how the novel would end because I have been there before. Highly recommended.

Note: Moira and Patti reviewed The Imperfectionists on their blogs Clothes In Books and Pattinase, respectively.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Concrete Angel by Patricia Abbott

Anton Chekhov is believed to have written 201 short stories and one novel, The Shooting Party, in 1884. In our time award-winning writer, reviewer, and blogger Patricia Abbott has authored more than 100 short stories in print, online, and in various anthologies, and is a few months away from releasing her debut novel Concrete Angel. I'm sure there’ll be others.

Independent book publisher Polis Books describes Concrete Angel thus:

An atmospheric and eagerly-awaited debut novel from acclaimed crime writer Patricia Abbott, set in Philadelphia in the 1970's about a family torn apart by a mother straight out of ‘Mommy Dearest’, and her children who are at first victims but soon learn they must fight back to survive.

“Eve Moran has always wanted ‘things’ and has proven both inventive and tenacious in getting and keeping them. Eve lies, steals, cheats, swindles, and finally commits murder, paying little heed to the cost of her actions on those who love her. Her daughter, Christine, compelled by love, dependency, and circumstance, is caught up in her mother’s deceptions, unwilling to accept the viciousness that runs in her mother's blood. Eve’s powers of seduction are hard to resist for those who come in contact with her toxic allure. It’s only when Christine’s three-year old brother, Ryan begins to prove useful to her mother, and she sees a pattern repeating itself, that Christine finds the courage and means to bring an end to Eve’s tyranny.

“An unflinching novel about love, lust and greed that runs deep within our bones, Patricia Abbott cements herself as one of our very best writers of domestic suspense.

The 320-page novel will be published in June 2015.

You can read more about Patti and her book at Polis Books and pre-order a copy at Amazon. You can also read Patti’s short stories on her blog Pattinase.

Book Club Editions: The next best thing to first editions

Ever since I purchased a book club edition of The Valhalla Exchange by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins) at the Books by Weight exhibition currently on in Mumbai, I have been scouting for more of these books whose dust jackets and print layouts make them look just like first editions.

However, there is conflict over their worth. One opinion is that a BCE is not worth the paper it is printed on while another opinion dispels the myth that it has no value. Both views are backed by sound analysis and are convincing. I don’t know whom to believe. I happily settle for book club editions because I rarely ever come across 
first editions.

© Prashant C. Trikannad

My purchase of the Jack Higgins hardback—my very first acquisition of a book by Harry Patterson as opposed to Jack Higgins—prompted me to look up the other book club editions in my possession. I found two: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Mapmaker by Frank G. Slaughter.

All three hardbacks are identical to their first editions—cover design, summary on the inside of the front flap, original year of publication, author profile on the inside of the back flap, and a black-and-white picture of the author on the back cover. 

© Prashant C. Trikannad

Apart from the Book Club Edition mentioned inside, a keen eye can tell the not so obvious differences between a BCE and a first edition.

If you are only a book collector, you’ll be happy with your BCE; if you think you can make a nice little bundle, you’ll be tearing your hair.

Still, don’t get rid of your book club editions. I also read that some of these books do have value. For instance, a limited number of book club editions of the Harper Lee classic were apparently published at the same time as the first editions and are actually worth something today. 

Replica of my edition. ©

My book club edition of To Kill A Mockingbird is a replica of the first edition published by J.B Lippincott Company. The credit page merely says ‘Copyright © 1960 by Harper Lee. Printed in the United States of America’ and Truman Capote has been credited for Lee’s famous portrait on the back cover. Do I smell gold?

Incidentally, Truman Capote became best friends with Harper Lee after the latter, who was a bit of a tomboy, defended the timid Capote from bullies. They were both very young and lived next door to each other. I believe he was grateful to her for the rest of his life. Lee didn’t like her pictures taken but she allowed Capote to click the one that became famous.

Replica of my edition
The only hardback first edition I have is Reading Like A Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (2006) by Francine Prose, distinguished critic, essayist, and author of several books of fiction and nonfiction.

In Reading Like A Writer, which should be on every reader’s bookshelf, “Prose invites you to sit by her side and take a guided tour of the tools and tricks of the masters. She reads the work of the very best writers…and discovers why their work has endured.”

Among praise for this book, I liked what Publishers Weekly had to say: “The trick to writing, Prose writes, is reading—carefully, deliberately, and slowly. While this might seem like a no-brainer, Prose masterfully meditates on how quality reading informs great writing, which will warm the cold, jaded hearts of even the most frustrated, underappreciated, and unpublished writers…”

Prose has dedicated Reading Like A Writer to three of her teachers and begins by asking the "reasonable" question—“Can creative writing be taught?” If you see the book, buy it. It will get your creative juices flowing.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Flash Fiction Challenge: The confession

On August 14, my friend and fellow-blogger Yvette Banek posted a Flash Fiction Challenge on her blog In so many words… daring the rest of us to come up with short stories based on three curious illustrations she produced. I chose the one below. I don't get letters in my mailbox anymore, just bills and menu cards. So I thought I'd read Nala's letter, instead. 

The deadline is September 14 but I think it’s better to be the early bird than fly in late. Thank you, Yvette. It was good fun.

© Robert George Harris

Nala looked at the scented letter in her hand with growing distaste. It was written in beautiful longhand but the hand that wrote the letter had blood on it, her husband’s blood. She didn’t mind the blood—she wanted him dead—so much as the sentiment that oozed out of the letter, like sweat through the pores. It was starting to annoy her. As she began to read it for the third time, there was a wicked gleam in her eyes, a sudden flash of evil, a germ of a terrible idea, and suddenly she was no longer the lovely woman god had made her.
My darling Nala,
At last, you are mine, all mine. No living soul can come between us now. How I have longed for this day, when you and I can be together forever, in our own little heaven filled with love and beauty and passion. Isn't life wonderful more than it has ever been till now? We are free, my beautiful Nala, truly free, to love and be in love as we were meant to be. Can you imagine what this means? I love you and I can’t live without you. You know that, don’t you, Nala? Do you feel the same way about me? Please tell me you do. My god, Nala, I have never been so happy in my life!
Nala folded the letter and sat there, the letter in her hands, her hands in her lap. She looked out of the window and saw the Merchants across the street holding hands and preparing for their evening walk, in the fifty-fourth year of their marriage. She wondered if they were still happy. They must be if they were going out. She looked at the letter, opened it, and continued to read, loathing every word and line and feeling stifled every minute.
I didn’t want it to end this way. I wanted you but I didn’t want to take an innocent man’s life to get you. Not Lin’s. He was such a good man, such a caring husband, and my best friend, and I killed him for you, for us, and for our future. I will have to live with that for the rest of my life, Nala, but I don't mind because you are mine now...
Nala stopped reading. She rose and went to the almirah and took out a bulky envelope. She reached inside and drew out her husband’s will that proclaimed her as the sole heir to his vast fortune. She read the will and was soon lost in the little details, wealth, shares, properties, business, a fleet of cars, yacht, private planes, stud farms, and two Great Danes. “It’s mine now, all mine, every bit of it,” she clutched the will to her heart and smiled at herself in the mirror. This was my dream and it's finally coming true, she thought.

And then her gaze fell on the letter. She felt instantly disgusted. Hirsh never meant anything to her, even if he thought he did. He was just a toy and she was done playing with him. It was time to play the big game.

Ten minutes later, Nala emerged from her sea facing bungalow and got into the waiting limo. “Cotton Green Police Station,” she instructed the driver. Outside the police station, she was met by her lawyer, the finest legal brain this side of the equator. They went inside.

“I know who murdered my husband,” she said softly, almost inaudibly, and handed over Hirsh’s lovelorn letter to Inspector Rosario of the crime branch.

Somewhere outside, she heard someone playing The World Is My Oyster. She swayed on her feet imperceptibly and began to hum the song in her own way—
The world is my little oyster and no one can take it away from me.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

When ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ figured in a sitcom

A little diversion for Tuesday's much-awaited Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

Debra admires her Harper Lee gift.
If you are a fan of Everybody Loves Raymond as my family is, and as I am, then you'll probably remember the episode where Ray Barone (Ray Romano) gifts his wife Debra (Patricia Heaton) a first edition—yes, a first edition—of Harper Lee's unforgettable To Kill A Mockingbird as a Christmas present. Actually, he buys it to mollify Debra who is seething because he was very thoughtful when he bought a birthday gift for her rival and his mother Marie Barone (Doris Roberts). Her grouse is that he never puts a thought into the presents he buys her.

Now, Ray is a sports writer and reads only sports literature, probably just Sports Illustrated, and watches football on television. He doesn't know a damn thing about fiction leave alone about the Harper Lee classic. 

© Manhattan Rare Book Company
So when he asks his brother Robert (Brad Garrett) for the perfect gift for Debra, he tells Ray to get her a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird because she did her thesis on it and because she loves the book. He even narrates the story. Robert, who is jealous of his brother's success in life—a happy marriage, lovely wife and kids, a great job, a famous byline, his mother's pet, and money in the bank—thinks he knows Debra better than Ray and that she is too good for his brother.

Debra is thrilled when she opens the gift and holds a first edition of the book in her hands, to the delight of Ray who thinks he has earned a bucket of brownie points with her and the possibility of sex that night, and to the disdain of Robert who is so infuriated because Ray doesn’t give him credit for the idea that he blurts out the truth.

As usual, Ray finds himself in trouble again.

The episode is called The Thought That Counts (E157, S11).

I was wondering: if someone were to gift me a first edition of a book for my birthday or Diwali or Christmas, which book would I want? To Kill a Mockingbird wouldn’t be a bad idea but it is Robert’s idea and I don’t want to steal it from him, not when he is already in a foul mood.

Frankly, I can’t think of any. But, if you were to exert pressure 
gently by twisting my ear and insist that I say something, I’d sheepishly ask for a bunch of first-edition comic-books from the Golden Age. Those would be worth a few million dollars and since it's my gift, I might as well make a killing out of it.

Which first-edition book would you like as a gift?

Friday, September 05, 2014

The Dark Side of the Island by Jack Higgins, 1963

Yet another review of a novel by my favourite author, for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott's blog Pattinase.

My 1987 Coronet Books edition
The Dark Side of the Island is one of the earliest and lesser-known novels of Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson). It ranks amongst the best of his early output out of a total of some eighty novels, starting with Sad Wind from the Sea in 1959 and culminating with The Eagle Has Landed in 1975, which built his formidable reputation as a thriller and espionage writer.

Since then, Higgins has produced over forty novels, and from the ones I have read, none are nearly as good as his early fiction.

At just a little over 150 pages, The Dark Side of the Island is set towards the close of World War II and many years after. It has some of the hallmarks of a Jack Higgins novel—a tough and battle hardened hero with a conscience, an idyllic setting torn apart by war, an anti-German resistance movement, a beautiful woman with trust in her heart and courage in her soul and, of course, betrayal which is what the story is about.

Captain Hugh Lomax returns to Kyros seventeen years after he came to the picturesque Greek Island to destroy a Nazi stronghold—a strategic radar station—in a secret British Intelligence operation. The reason for his sudden return eludes him but he knows something terrible happened after the successful operation and although he was caught by the Germans, he managed to escape and spend the peacetime years in England and later in California where he worked as a scriptwriter and a novelist of sorts. Now he is back to find out what happened on the island that night more than a decade ago.

The novel is built into three sections, present, past, and present—‘The Long Return,’ when Lomax comes back after the war and is shocked to find that the locals, including old friends from the Resistance, have turned so hostile as to want him dead; ‘The Nightcomer,’ a flashback, where we get a glimpse of the secret operation and what happened after; and ‘A Sound of Hunting,’ which aptly begins with the chapter ‘One Should Never Return to Anything,’ and where Lomax finally discovers the horrible truth—a friend who betrayed the locals to the Germans and condemned them to hell, and who ensured Lomax took the blame for it.

Final word
The Dark Side of the Island is a well-written mystery of sorts that begins during the war and ends years later. The trust and betrayal aspects are done well as the very people Lomax befriended and worked with during the war are now out to kill him. His bewilderment at the hateful reception he gets upon his return is convincing. Like many of Higgins’ protagonists, Lomax has two faces: he is mild, caring, and conscientious on one hand and bitter, tough, and ruthless on the other, depending on who he is dealing with. The story moves at a quick pace and there is good suspense and action towards the end. Any Jack Higgins fan will enjoy this novel.

On another note, it was interesting to see two chapters in the third part of the book, ‘A Sound of Hunting,’ were titles of books he wrote later, namely A Fine Night for Dying (1969) and Confessional (1985). 

Also, the young German commanding officer in charge of Kyros island is one Colonel Steiner who, I'd like to think, is the same Steiner who plays a more critical role in the plot to kidnap Churchill in The Eagle Has Landed (1975). Michael Caine played the role in the 1976 film version directed by John Sturges. I must hasten to add, however, that Steiner has a nominal part in The Dark Side of the Island and dies in the end, or so we are told.   

Note: Ben Boulden, who reviews a variety of books including thrillers, mysteries, and sf, wrote a fine review of this novel over at his blog Gravetapping, April 8, 2014. 

Thursday, September 04, 2014

A Hardy Boys a Day

Twelve and restless, I started reading,
Hardy Boys and little else.

Seven lads younger than Frank ’an Joe,
Taking turns reading blue and yellow.

Two hours is what we had,
To retreat, read, and pass on.

We fought, cursed, and split hairs,
To be with Bayport's sleuthing pair.

Seven mothers cooked,
For seven sons ‘booked.’

All we had were the Hardy Boys,
For breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

© Prashant C. Trikannad

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The horrors of horror movies

Moments before the gory scene in Damien: Omen II.

When I think of horror movies I think of the immediate side effects—cold sweat, dry mouth, palpitation, tingling, loss of appetite, insomnia, tremors, and irrational behaviour. No, I didn't have an anxiety attack but it'd be the sum total of how I felt when I watched scary movies in my youth, and I saw quite a few of them including such absurd films like Evil Dead. I no longer have the stomach or the enthusiasm for horror flicks. That's not entirely true. I might have seen a couple of them over the past fourteen years, in broad daylight and in my living room, surrounded by family and friends, and a plate of chocolate cake and a glass of cold lemon iced tea.

Now, as I grow older, I'm afraid I'll scare to death easily.

I see enough horror in real life, as it were. One morning, a couple of years ago, I was taking the suburban train to work when I saw four porters running along a parallel track, carrying a dirty stretcher between them. I knew what was coming. Instead of turning my face away I looked out of the window just in time to see the porters haul a pair of bloody legs by the ankles and dump it on the aluminium stretcher. Crows circled above. The limbs were sliced at the waist and the innards were spilling out. The legs wore blue jeans. The rest of the dismembered body, which belonged to a young migrant from north of the country, was found half a mile away to where it was dragged by the express train. I read that in the papers the next day. 

In Bombay, fatalities due to track-crossing are routine. They run into thousands every year. I don't blame Indian Railways. I blame commuters who cross the tracks as a shortcut. The only shortcut they take is to death's door. 

If horror movies don’t kill me, morbid curiosity will.

The Exorcist was the scariest horror film I saw. As a westerner might say, it scared the crap outta me. Young Indians use that a lot now. The Entity and The Omen trilogy didn’t have a hideous face on a rotating head but I still found them disturbing. Perhaps, it was the music that freaked me out. Every time it played you knew something was coming, from somewhere behind you. Remember Jaws?

Which brings me to the purpose of this hellish post: which scene in a horror flick do you remember well?

I can recall many but one that comes to mind, for no apparent reason other than that Satan put it there, is the raven scene in Damien: Omen II. There is this woman in red who is wise to young Damien Thorn’s terrifying identity. After meeting the handsome boy on a football field and seeing the devil in his eyes, she hurriedly gets into her car and drives away. But then, her car breaks down on a long and deserted stretch of the road. She gets out of the car and looks right into the shining black eyes of a raven perched on the roof. The bird attacks her, scratches up her face and claws her eyes out, and in her blind moment of pain and panic, she stumbles onto the road and right into the path of a speeding truck that blows her away. Hazy memory but that is how I remember it.