Friday, October 31, 2014

The Day Time Stopped Moving by Bradner Buckner, 1940

Another sf entry for Friday's Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott's blog Pattinase which is being hosted by Todd Mason at Sweet Freedom today.

All Dave Miller wanted to do was commit suicide in peace. He tried, but the things that happened after he'd pulled the trigger were all wrong. Like everyone standing around like statues. No St. Peter, no pearly gate, no pitchforks or halos. He might just as well have saved the bullet!

Dave Miller pushed with all 
his strength, but the girl was an 
unmovable as Gibraltar.
Imagine a scenario where everyone and everything has come to a standstill, where nothing is moving, where there is no trace of motion or emotion.

Imagine a place where people are in suspended animation, where fires burn without smoke, where doors don’t open, where liquids have turned solid, where pebbles can’t be kicked, where a blade of grass supports your weight.

Imagine a world where all life, animate and inanimate, is frozen like a statue.

Now imagine yourself in just such a place where you are the only living soul and yet you know you are not alone.

It is in this surreal and terrifying world that drugstore owner Dave Miller finds himself after he “commits” suicide to teach his wife, Helen, a lesson. 

October 1940
This short story by sf writer Bradner Buckner reminded me of a silly game we used to play as kids, where you pointed to a friend and blurted out, “Statue!,” and the friend would freeze where he was until you said “pass” and allowed him to get on with his life. After a while it got on everyone’s nerve.

Dave can’t say “pass” and bring the human statues back to life. Instead, his only hope is fellow survivor John Erickson, an elderly, half-bald, eccentric scientist whose experiment with a time machine has gone horribly wrong, and a friendly police dog called Major.

Like Greylorn by Keith Laumer, which I read and reviewed last week, this story was an easy read although Buckner offers a scientific explanation for the immobilised world as well as the working of the time machine known as impulsor. It all went over my head.

Erickson pursed his lips. We are somewhere partway across the space between present and past. We are living in an instant that can move neither forward nor back. You and I, Dave, and Major—and the Lord knows how many others the world over—have been thrust by my time impulsor onto a timeless beach of eternity. We have been caught in time's backwash. Castaways, you might say.”

The 1956 issue
The premise of the story, where time stands still, has been done before, in books, films, and television including, I believe, The Twilight Zone series.

The Day Time Stopped Moving can be described as science fiction, horror, and supernatural rolled into one. It’s a nice little story although I have no idea who Bradner Buckner is. I didn’t find anything on him online. The name could be a pseudonym for a famous sf writer. I leave it to you to enlighten me. The story appeared in Amazing Stories but there is some confusion over the year of publication, 1940 or 1956, so I have reproduced both the covers.

Illustration source: Project Gutenberg

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Reading Habits #15: The bitter taste of my tablet

I didn’t see any movies over the long Diwali weekend, and regrettably, will have to skip today’s Overlooked Films at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. But I’ll be heading over there to read other contributions.

© Wikimedia Commons
Meanwhile, my mind is troubled by something else—the grim possibility that I may have to use my tablet sparingly or not use it at all for some time. It all depends on how my fingers and hands behave, on the pain and the stiffness caused by holding the tablet in my left hand and using my right forefinger to flip apps and pages.

The tablet is sleek and it weighs a bit, which I realised only after my fingers started aching. The pain and stiffness goes away if I don't use the tablet for a while. That seldom happens. The lure of the tablet is too strong.

Doctors have a term for pain induced by prolonged use of gadgets and electronic devices like tablets, smartphones, and laptops—RSI or repetitive strain injury. They label everything, don’t they? Like jam bottles. They warn me that if I don’t take preventive action now, then I'm heading for chronic pain—in my hands and fingers due to my tablet and in my neck and back due to my laptop and desktop computer.

Apparently, placing your tablet, iPad or laptop on your lap is no solution for you are still holding the gadgets by your hand, using your fingers, and stretching your neck and back like an ostrich.

The last thing I want to do is carp about my carpal and replace my Samsung tablet with my doctor’s tablet.

So here’s what I plan to do: I’ll go back to reading my yellowed and dog-eared secondhand books. The current ratio is one physical book for four ebooks, which explains my stiff neck and fingers. I’ll try and reverse the order. That way I can keep the orthopaedic away and put off arthritis by a few more years.

But do I hear the ophthalmologist already knocking?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Smokers Corner: the old sentimental bookshop

This afternoon, I was to meet my wife for lunch near her office in South Bombay, not far from my own. Since I reached early I thought I’d visit an old book haunt nearby called Smokers Corner. I hadn’t been there in over two years. I was saddened by the state of one of the city’s oldest secondhand bookshops, located in the foyer of a five-storey building.

Suleiman Botawala, who founded Smokers Corner in 1959 and who also owned the building, passed away a few years ago. He was an old pro when it came to fiction. He knew his books and their authors as well as he knew his own date of birth, maybe even better. Journalists and artists frequented his shop. He was proud of the books he offered. A large part of my nineties collection came from Smokers Corner. He could spot a serious book reader from the book requests he got. The last time I met Suleiman, he lamented that the present generation did not read books. He was always busy tidying his shelves and replacing books. It was a reassuring sight. 

Now his family is running Smokers Corner but it’s no longer the same. The ‘bookish’ atmosphere is missing. There is no pattern to the books on display. Worse still, there is no one to talk books with. The place is managed by hired hands. I think a part of the books died with Suleiman Botawala.

The sight of empty bookshelves must be the reason why I didn’t feel like buying a first-edition illustrated hardback of The Ladies of Missalonghi (1987) by Australian writer Colleen McCullough, famously known for The Thorn Birds (1977). The book was in mint condition and cost Rs.50 (almost a dollar). On my way out I spotted a few good books, both paperbacks and hardbacks, and I might go back there someday, especially since I confirmed that the bookshop wasn't closing down.

Back in office I read about The Ladies of Missalonghi on the internet and instantly regretted not buying it. The novel, set in the small town of Byron in the Blue Mountains of Australia just before World War I, tells the story of Missy Wright and the Hurlingford family. It is said to resemble The Blue Castle (1926) by L.M. Montgomery. Since I have read neither, I can’t say anything. The cover art and the black-and-white illustrations inside are by artist Peter Chapman.

Next time I visit an old bookshop, I leave my sentiments behind.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Greylorn by Keith Laumer, 1968

A very readable and enjoyable sf novella for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

“Giving me your opinions is one thing, Kramer,” I said. “Mutiny is another.”

My search for a variety of ebooks in the public domain often throws up delightful surprises. Greylorn (1968), an sf novella by prolific science fiction author Keith Laumer, is one of them. It is also the best sf tale I have read so far this year.

The title of the story refers to Lieutenant Commander Frederick Greylorn, a courageous and enterprising military officer in the World Government on earth.

The planet is crawling with a plague, called the Red Tide, which has devoured most of the landmass except North America and a strip of Western Europe, and all of the sea. The alien organism has developed resistance to chemical and biological weapons and is evolving rapidly and is increasingly making earth a toxic dump.

As humans face extinction, Greylorn convinces the governing council to allow him to set out on a space expedition to seek help from a distant colony known as Omega World. With no assistance coming from the other established colonies, contacting Omega is the only option left. There is just one problem: it has never been explored before.

Into this alien and uncharted space, Captain Greylorn commands his mighty armed spaceship, Galahad.

Greylorn knows the voyage is fraught with high risk. What he does not know is the impending mutiny on board, which tests all his skills and resources to the limit and reveals the strength of his character in the face of adversity.

The rest of the story tells us how the brave officer overcomes the mutiny almost single handedly, successfully deals with a hostile alien vessel, and returns to earth with his mission accomplished.

I liked Greylorn because it was easy to follow. There is very little technical jargon though the author shows his superior knowledge in that area, probably the result of his tenure in the USAF. The all-male story is packed with action as Greylorn and the mutineers move rapidly from one time zone to another, one scene of action to another. The narrative is taut and the writing is clear. 

Keith Laumer (1925-1993)
© Wikimedia Commons
ManyBooks, from where I downloaded this ebook, says, “In this story (Keith Laumer) displays the finesse, artistry and imagination of an old pro. Here is one of the tightest, tautest stories of interplanetary adventure in a long while.” I agree with this assessment.

American author Keith Laumer has been described as “one of the best hardcore science fiction writers of all time, the master of time travel and alternate worlds” on the website dedicated to his memory. He is known for his Bolo and Retief series as well as time and space travel and alternate-world adventures like The Other Side of Time, A Trace of Memory, The Time Bender, The Long Twilight, Time Trap, Dinosaur Beach, and The Infinite Cage.

You can read more about the author here.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Morgan Freeman

If there is an actor whose mere on-screen persona is enough to make him likeable as an actor, it is Morgan Freeman. He puts you at ease instantly with his calm exterior, steady gaze, reassuring smile, deadpan humour, unfazed attitude, and deep voice. You can change the order of his filmic qualities if you like but that won’t alter his dignified demeanour. His contemporaries, Anthony Hopkins and Gene Hackman, have a similar bearing but they also have their own distinct qualities.

While I’m no authority on the 6' 2" actor from Memphis, Tennessee, I have enjoyed every film of his that I have watched. Many remain to be seen considering that he has been around since the mid-sixties, a very long time for one who first noticed him in Glory (1989), that too a few years after it was released. 

Last evening, I was watching Along Came a Spider (2001) by Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day) and what struck me about his role was that he wasn't playing equal or second fiddle to anyone. He was actually playing the sole lead as Dr. Alex Cross, homicide detective and profiler of criminals, a role he previously essayed in Kiss the Girls (1997). Both the films are based on novels by James Patterson.

I admit that I haven’t seen him in too many lead roles, not even as Nelson Mandela in Invictus (2009), so you’ll have to fill the gaps there.

Freeman is really on top of his game in Along Came a Spider where he is unintentionally dragged into a case involving the kidnapping of a US senator’s young daughter. As a detective who has just lost his partner, Freeman’s character is clever and cunning and almost always one step ahead of the kidnapper, providing vital clues and breakthroughs to both the FBI and the Secret Service who are eating out of his hands. In the end Freeman, dressed up in a long coat, a tie, and a fedora, shoots the mastermind with a shotgun. I thought he’d make a very good old-world gangster.

In most of his films that I have seen, however, Freeman is standing shoulder to shoulder, or a tad behind, his equally famous contemporaries, be it Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington in Glory (1989), Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven (1992), Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Anthony Hopkins in Amistad (1997), Gene Hackman in Under Suspicion (2000), Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty (2003), Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby (2004), Michael Caine in Batman Begins (2005), Jack Nicholson in The Bucket List (2007) or Michael Caine and Mark Ruffalo in Now You See Me (2013).

I think he has no issues, ego issues really, being in the shadow of other actors. He has been quoted as saying, “Once you've gotten the job, there's nothing to it. If you're an actor, you're an actor. Doing it is not the hard part. The hard part is getting to do it.” If he likes a particular role, he accepts it and acts it out, and I believe he doesn’t ask too many questions.

Morgan Freeman’s cinematic success, aside from his popularity with his female co-stars like Jessica Tandy, Ashley Judd, and Hilary Swank, lies in his capacity to do any role he thinks is right for him, and he does it with conviction. I have a theory that Freeman knows he doesn’t have to play sole lead every time because he is so good at what he does even in multi-star cast films that people frequently mention his part before that of his co-actors. I think that's a fine tribute to a terrific actor.

What do you like about Morgan Freeman and which of  his films do you like the most?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Diwali: the triumph of good over evil

Diwali or Deepavali—the festival of lights—is a very popular Hindu festival. It is celebrated in the autumnal months of October and November. The dates of the festival are decided by the Hindu Lunisolar calendar, or the new moon night known as Kartika, named after Kartikeya, the Hindu god of war and the supreme commander of the army of the devas, or the pantheon of Hindu gods. Sometimes I wonder if all the gods from the Hindu, Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, among others, aren't really one and the same with only different names and nationalities.

© Wikimedia Commons
This year Diwali will be celebrated across the country from November October 23 to 26 when most government and private offices, including mine, are closed. Schools and colleges have Diwali holidays for up to three weeks.

The festival is an auspicious period and is a harbinger of good tidings. Spiritually, Diwali signifies four triumphs—light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair. It is also a period of joy, gaiety, and laughter.

“Diwa” or “Deep” means light. Thus, Diwali or Deepavali is traditionally marked by the lighting of earthen lamps, lit with cotton wicks dipped in oil, and putting up colourful lanterns and strings of small twinkling lights. The earthen lamps are usually placed outside the house, on either side of the main door, as well as in balconies and porches, and on window sills. These are lit after sundown. Some people draw beautiful rangoli on the floor of their living room or courtyard. Rangoli is an ancient folk art that is created by using coloured rice and sand or flower petals. 

Rangoli on the floor.
Days and weeks before Diwali, people clean up their homes and many renovate them with a fresh coat of paint and a new set of curtains. Families go shopping, for new clothes and jewellery, which is worn on the first day of the festival. Diwali starts with the worship of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity. At twilight, the main door is kept ajar so that the goddess enters the home and blesses its residents with an abundance of health and happiness. The shrine and doorways are decked with garlands of marigold, yellow and orange. Traders and businessmen worship their books of account. Diwali is also about feasting, particularly on traditional sweets like mithai and ladoos, exchanging gifts, firing crackers, and visiting relatives and friends.

My family rings in Diwali with prayers, lights, and sweets every year. I also have fond childhood memories of the festival. My grandparents used to wake us up just before sunrise and we used to apply loban on our hands and faces before bathing, wear new clothes, say our prayers, light earthen lamps, greet each other, and gorge on homemade sweets. Loban is a fragrant paste made from the gum benjamin tree, or styrax benzoin, as it is scientifically known. I can still smell the incense.

Diwali is a beautiful and colourful festival but over past several years its beauty and colour has degenerated into noise and pollution, thanks to the indiscriminate firing of crackers by insensitive people who couldn’t care less about pets and the elderly. Although awareness about green and noise-free Diwali is growing every year, Indians are still far away from understanding its true essence—that it is primarily a festival of lights and colour, and spreading joy.

For the next seven days, my pet dog, a cross between a stray and a Doberman, will be so terrified of the firecrackers that she will refuse to eat or come out from her secure place under the bed. I can imagine the plight of stray dogs on the streets. For this reason alone I no longer look forward to Diwali.

But that won’t stop me from wishing all my blog friends and visitors to this blog, a very Happy Diwali and Prosperous New Year!

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Claim, 2000

A brief overview of an as-yet unseen film adaptation of a Thomas Hardy classic for Tuesday's Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

I read and studied abstracts of novels by Charles Dickens (Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, and A Tale of Two Cities) and Thomas Hardy (The Mayor of Casterbridge) in school. The Victorian authors introduced me to their celebrated genre, the classics. In later years, I was more inclined to read Dickens because he was easier to read than Hardy, whose dystopian tales weren’t exactly my cup of tea. Then, a few years ago, I reread The Mayor of Casterbridge and rediscovered Hardy and understood the novel much better than when I read it in my youth. I both like and dislike the powerful and pathetic character of Michael Henchard, who, in a drunken fit, sells his wife and little girl to a passing sailor. It remains my favourite novel by Thomas Hardy.

I mention this particular novel because the story, which is set in the fictional town of Casterbridge, Wessex, is imprinted in my memory. Not many novels stay with me. I was, therefore, surprised when I read that The Claim (2000), a loose adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge, is set in distant California and not in Wessex, the setting for many of Hardy’s novels. I have not seen the movie yet.

Not only does director Michael Winterbottom take Thomas Hardy’s story out of Wessex, he also substitutes the original storyline and characters.

In the film Michael Henchard doesn’t get drunk and auction his wife and daughter. Instead, Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan) is an Irish immigrant who sells his wife Elena Burn (Nastassja Kinski) and month-old baby Hope Burn (Sarah Polley) to a prospector for the rights to a goldmine in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.

For the next twenty years or so, Dillon amasses a great deal of wealth and owns nearly every business in the old west town of Kingdom Come. Then, one day, Elena and Hope accompany Donald Dalglish (Wes Bentley) to the town and give Dillon the shock of his life. His dark secret is about to be exposed. Dalglish is a surveyor with the Central Pacific Railroad which wants to build a railroad through Kingdom Come.

On the face of it, The Claim sounds very interesting because it is set just after the California Gold Rush of 1849 and it has all the elements of one of my favourite genres, western, such as romance, gold mining, railroad, and the symbolic frontier town of Kingdom Come that will decide the fate of Michael Henchard’s alter ego in the film.

I plan to see the film and compare it with Hardy’s classic, though, I think, both deserve their own place. Have you seen The Claim?

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Wreck of the Golden Mary by Charles Dickens, 1856

A review of a poignant story by the famous storyteller for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

In 1898, American writer Morgan Robertson wrote Futility or The Wreck of the Titan which bore a close and uncanny resemblance to the sinking of the RMS Titanic fourteen years later, in 1912. 

Both the fictional steamship Titan
’ and the real-life passenger liner ‘Titanic set sail from England and were cruising toward New York when they collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean and sank.

When Robertson wrote his novella, scarcely would he have imagined that the fate of his ‘Titan’ would prove to be a premonition for the ‘RMS Titanic.’

What Robertson, the son of a ship captain, may or may not have known is that a very famous novelist of the Victorian era had written a somewhat similar story nearly fifty years before he did.

The basic plot of The Wreck of the Golden Mary by Charles Dickens is the same as The Wreck of the Titan.

The Golden Mary, a majestic ship with a barque of three hundred tons and carrying more than forty passengers and crew, hits an iceberg and sinks off the coast of Latin America in the South Atlantic Ocean. The ship, commanded by the middle-aged Captain William George Ravender—the best and the bravest of seafarers—had left the shores of England and was on its way to California to trade cargo for gold nuggets. 

The California Gold Rush is incidental to the story. However, it was interesting to see Dickens weave a story around a momentous period in America’s history that saw diggers and emigrants from across the world, especially Europe, rush to the US west coast for a share of the yellow metal.

Dickens focuses on the sad fate of the shipwrecked passengers and crew of the ‘Golden Mary,’ particularly Captain Ravender, a great believer in duty before self; John Steadiman, his chief mate and trusted friend; Mrs. Atherton, a bright-eyed young woman sailing to join her husband in California, along with their little daughter, Lucy; Miss Coleshaw, a sedate young woman in black; and Mr. Rarx, an old and unpleasant gentleman obsessed with the gold discovery.

The captain and his passengers and crew spend nearly a month in their lifeboats—a long boat and a surf boat—wet, cold, and hungry, and drifting aimlessly somewhere in the South Atlantic, often at the mercy of stormy seas and hostile weather conditions. Through it all, Dickens brings out the innate strengths of his characters, particularly Captain Ravender and John Steadiman, who forget their own mental and physical distress to keep alive the hopes and spirits of those under their charge.

More than anything else, The Wreck of the Golden Mary is a metaphor for the tragic fate of Golden Lucy, the three-year old girl with golden curls who endears herself to everyone first aboard the ill-fated ship and then on the lifeboats. Both Mary and Lucy are buried at sea.

There are many affecting scenes in this beautiful story which Charles Dickens narrates through the gentle voice of the captain and his chief mate.

I liked several passages in this novella including the one I reproduce below.

As the child had a quantity of shining fair hair, clustering in curls all about her face, and as her name was Lucy, Steadiman gave her the name of the Golden Lucy. So, we had the Golden Lucy and the Golden Mary; and John kept up the idea to that extent as he and the child went playing about the decks, that I believe she used to think the ship was alive somehow—a sister or companion, going to the same place as herself. She liked to be by the wheel, and in fine weather, I have often stood by the man whose trick it was at the wheel, only to hear her, sitting near my feet, talking to the ship. Never had a child such a doll before, I suppose; but she made a doll of the Golden Mary, and used to dress her up by tying ribbons and little bits of finery to the belaying-pins; and nobody ever moved them, unless it was to save them from being blown away.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Inspirational books I read in my youth

On October 2, I wrote about the popular fiction I read and enjoyed in my teens and twenties. Today, I'm going to briefly discuss some of the nonfiction books that influenced me and my outlook on life early in my youth. This is going to be relatively easy because, back then, I didn’t read many of those.

To start with, I read a lot of spiritual literature by some of the great mystics of India, which included some thirty-odd books written by my own spiritual preceptor. I still read them. They infuse me with a sense of calm and peace, even if for a brief while, and enable me to recharge my batteries, exhausted in dealing with life’s mundane affairs. Spiritual reading also serves as a necessary counterbalance to my daily dose of stimulating literature.

Among the other mind healing and soul cleansing books I read early on, five books in particular are etched in lasting memory.

1. As a Man Thinketh by James Allen (1902), the British philosopher-writer

2. Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970) by Richard Bach, American writer

3. Gandhi: An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth (first serialised during 1925-28) by Mahatma Gandhi

4. The Power of Positive Thinking, 1952, by Norman Vincent Peale, minister and author

5. The Discovery of India, 1946, by Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister

As I grew up I discovered many more spiritual, inspirational, and motivational thinkers and writers such as Bertrand Russell, Eknath Easwaran, Thich Nhat Hanh, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Peace Pilgrim (Mildred Lisette Norman), Paul Brunton, Eckhart Tolle, Paulo Coelho, and Joseph Murphy, among others. I'm not mentioning specific titles as an internet search will provide you with some of their best-known books. Every one of them is a veritable treasure.

There are days when I read and reread only these books and each time I do, I discover something new and enlightening, something that I find beneficial in more ways than even I realise.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Musings on an election Wednesday

I haven’t done a Musings post since July this year, so here goes…

© Prashant C. Trikannad
See the purplish ink mark on my left forefinger? It is proof I voted in today’s election in the West Indian state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai (Bombay) is the capital. It is one of four states where elections are being held to elect a new party-government that will rule, or mis-rule, my state for the next five years.

Elections to India’s twenty-eight states and half-a-dozen union territories are held every five years depending on when their terms end. Thus, we see electoral jamboree in one or two or more states every year.

We already have a new central (federal) government run by a new prime minister in New Delhi, where the rejuvenated Hindu Nationalist Party, the BJP, toppled the Congress after ten years.

The BJP and the Congress are India’s two major political parties and are the ideological equivalent of America’s Republican and Democratic parties. They are in power in a majority of the twenty-eight states, which are governed by chief ministers who are equivalent of US governors.

Today’s state assembly election in Maharashtra (Great State) saw a keen contest between disparate, and desperate, candidates belonging to the BJP and the Congress, a slew of regional parties, and some well-meaning independents. The BJP is confident of wresting power from the Congress in the state, too. That, however, remains to be seen. A hung verdict is expected which means no absolute majority for any party.

Illustrative picture of an EVM
Over the years, I have become a political cynic. I have faith in the Indian political system, not in Indian politicians. The ‘protest vote’ or ‘none of the above,’ or NOTA as it is popularly known, was conceived for disgruntled voters like me. It ranks at the bottom of the list of aspiring candidates on the electronic voting machine. If I'd my way I would have placed it right at the top and called it 'None of the Below.' Either way I have had no hesitation in using this potent electoral weapon and leaving the polling booth with a triumphant look on my face.

People tell me I’m wasting my vote and that I ought to cast it in favour of a party, at least for the sake of a majority government and political stability. I don’t see it that way. My vote is too precious to be wasted on politicians I no longer trust to govern justly and fairly. Come to my city and you’ll know what I mean.

Let’s talk about something pleasant—books! 

I got carried away by my own recent post about popular fiction by bestselling authors and decided to read one of them—The Way to Dusty Death (1973) by Scottish writer Alistair MacLean. I’m almost halfway through the novel and I can say with conviction that it’s not his best work. I have read better MacLean.

The story is about Johnny Harlow, a legendary Formula 1 racer who crashes his car in the French Grand Prix leading to the death of one of his fellow drivers and seriously injuring his girlfriend. This is the latest in a series of mishaps on the GP circuit. Harlow is no longer a hero. He loses his nerve and sense of balance and takes to alcohol, or it would seem he has. Actually, Harlow is secretly investigating the cause of the accidents including the one that killed his younger brother. I’m racing to the finish line to see how it ends.

While I’m on the popular fiction wagon, I recently purchased a secondhand copy of The Tangent Objective (1976) by Lawrence Sanders. It is the first of two books in the Peter Tangent series that I haven’t read.

The back of the book aroused my interest: “As the corrupt and strife-torn African nation of Asante teeters on the brink of savage revolt, the lives of two men—one white, one black—are caught up in an explosive maelstrom of money, politics, intrigue and violent action.”

The white man is Peter Tangent, a sophisticated and unscrupulous executive of an American oil company who wages war in Asante—and wins.

One of the things I like about bestselling fiction is the opening line. It is usually banal but effective, like this one from the Sanders novel—“Brindleys was a private club. Small enough so that one knew everyone. Large enough so that one didn’t have to speak to them.”

As I conclude this post, a piffling 45 per cent of the electorate in Maharashtra has cast its vote. Looks like I’m not the only political cynic around.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Q3 review: books I read in the monsoon months

I’m beginning to hate these quarterly reviews of books and short stories I read and occasionally review because they tell me, and you, just how little I’m reading these days. 

© Candied Crime
As I noted at the end of the first quarter and second quarter, I hope to catch up in the next quarter, which is October-December, and reach a respectable figure of fifty books and short stories each for the whole of 2014. More than fifty would be a bonus for now and an incentive for the future.

But I have doubts as I plan to renew my interest in drawing and painting, my second favourite hobby after reading and writing. Both run on either side of the family and every creative gene must be explored. I also intend to devote some time to philately which I have neglected since graduation. Sitting with one’s stamps collection is time well spent—you learn about places and events.

© The Book Place
I’ll let you know how all of that goes in the first week of January 2015, perhaps, with a scan or two of my intended paintings.

Although I’m not happy with the number of books and short fiction I read in the third quarter, July through September, I’m satisfied with the quality of fiction.

I read some very good stories by three of my blog friends, all very seasoned writers—The Man in the Moon, a crime mystery by James Reasoner; Green Acres and Ding Dong Bell The Kitten in the Well, two cosy mysteries by Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen; and The Education of a Pulp Writer & Other Stories, noir at its best by David Cranmer. The three covers tell their own story. While there is nothing common in any of them, every one of the stories is a standout. Check them out. 

© Beat to a Pulp
Among the other modern books I read in Q3, I strongly recommend Defending Jacob by William Landay, reviewed, and The Button Man by Mark Pryor, to be reviewed soon.

This is the full list of books and short stories I read, July-September, in no particular order.

Novels and Novellas

The Dark Side of the Island by Jack Higgins, 1963

Defending Jacob by William Landay, 2012

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, 1960 — reread

The Man in the Moon by James Reasoner, 1980

The Dunwich Horror by H.P. Lovecraft, 1928

Buck Hawk, Detective by Edward L. Wheeler, 1888

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe, 1959

The Button Man by Mark Pryor, 2014

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, 1900

The Power of Your Subconscious Mind by Joseph Murphy, 1963 — nonfiction

Short Stories

Comrades by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, 1911

A Woman on a Roof by Doris Lessing, 1963

The Education of a Pulp Writer & Other Stories by David Cranmer, 2008-2014

The White Fruit of Banaldar by John D. MacDonald, 1951

Green Acres, 2012, and Ding Dong Bell The Kitten in the Well, 2014, by Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen

The Adventure of the Dying Detective by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1913

Who Murdered the Vets? by Ernest Hemingway, 1935, and The Suppressed Poems of Ernest Hemingway, 1922-1929

You’ll see that I have reviewed more shorts than novels—they are quicker and less time consuming. And besides, I genuinely enjoy reading short stories and short fiction.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Songs I grew up listening to in the seventies

I don’t understand music. I merely derive pleasure from listening to it. I listen to any form of music as long as it sounds like music to me. When I listen to songs, for instance, I don’t know if they are title tracks or sound tracks, who wrote or composed them, which albums they come from and when they were released, or how many people have sung the same song. I don’t bother with all that. It’s like this: if I can simply read a book written by an author, I can quietly listen to a song sung by a singer.

Yet, music touches me like it does most people. It lifts my mood and makes me feel good about myself and about others, and sometimes it allows me to take to the stage and lose myself. In that sense music is a non-intrusive and non-invasive remedy for a cheerful disposition. If meditation is a splendid tonic for the soul, music is a mighty stimulant for the senses. Both have curative powers.

My first brush with music came in the mid-seventies, when we used to listen to English pop songs on Binaca Hit Parade on Radio Ceylon and Saturday Date on All India Radio. Both shows were immensely popular in India.

I believe, in the fifties and sixties, Binaca Hit Parade was presented by the “happy-go-lucky” Greg Roskowski, one of the few “overseas announcers” on the station that was blaring in every household in South Asia. I don’t remember Roskowski.

Later, my father bought us a white-coloured Polish tape recorder for the princely sum of Rs.600 ($10 by today’s rate). The recorder looked a lot like its more famous Japanese cousin National Panasonic. 
It came with a small microphone. There was much excitement at home. We huddled around the recorder and taped nearly every song on Binaca Hit Parade and Saturday Date, and played them over and over again through the week. 

Recording was a tricky business owing to the absence of a cable link between the radio and the tape recorder. All external sounds got recorded as well. At times a song sounded like so much noise, because my father sneezed loudly, a car honked outside or my mother dropped a steel utensil in the kitchen, that we had to overwrite the song. Shushing had little effect.

Fortunately, like today’s cable television, the songs were repeated on radio back then. If we missed George Baker’s Una Paloma Blanca one Saturday night, we were sure to hear it the following weekend.

Those were simple and hassle-free days. We were contented with the little things we had, like Murphy Radio and the pop songs it belted out.

So then, which were some of the popular songs I grew up listening to in the seventies, right through most of school? Let me see…

Almost everything by Abba and Boney M. In my opinion, Abba has some of the best music and lyrics in the pop business. Boney M was preachy although I like their NASA-inspired Night Flight to Venus.

Carpenters: Top of the World, 1972, and Please Mr. Postman, 1975 (remake of The Marvelettes classic)

Tina Charles: Dance Little Lady Dance, 1976

Cliff Richard: Bachelor Boy, 1962

Perry Como: Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba, 1948

Bee Gees: Stayin' Alive and How Deep is Your Love, 1977

Elvis Presley: You Were Always on My Mind, 1972

George Baker: Una Paloma Blanca, 1976

Connie Francis: Stupid Cupid, 1958, and (He's My) Dreamboat, 1961

Mary Hopkin: Those Were the Days, 1972

Neil Diamond: I Am...I Said, 1971

Peter Frampton: Show Me the Way, 1975

Carl Douglas: Kung Fu Fighting, 1974

Neil Sedaka: Oh! Carol, 1958

Jim Reeves: But You Love Me, Daddy, 1959

John Denver: Annie's Song, 1974

Lee Hazlewood-Nancy Sinatra: Summer Wine, 1967

Louis Armstrong: What a Wonderful World, 1967

Lulu: To Sir with Love, 1967

The Mamas & the Papas: California Dreamin', 1965

Pat Boone: April Love, 1957

Simon and Garfunkel: Sound of Silence, 1966

Quantum Jump: The Lone Ranger, 1976

Brothers Four: 500 Miles

Tom Jones: Delilah, 1968

Trini Lopez: If I Had a Hammer, 1963

Village People: Y.M.C.A., 1978

Yvonne Elliman: If I Can't Have You, 1977

The Four Aces: Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, 1955

Gershon Kingsley: Popcorn, 1969

While these are by no means the only picnic songs I listened to as a kid, they are the ones that have stayed with me for more than three decades. I still listen to most of them, particularly Abba, whose popularity soared after the Swedish quartet came together for the film production of Mamma Mia! a few years ago. Every one of these songs hold up.

I'll round up by recommending two whacky numbers, the very funny Kung Fu Fighting by Carl Douglas and the tongue-twisting The Lone Ranger by Quantum Jump, as well as Popcorn, an unusual instrumental by Gershon Kingsley.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Vienna Assignment by Olen Steinhauer, 2005

Last evening, I waited in an autorickshaw queue for about half an hour and while I was still twenty heads away from the starting point, I stepped out of the line and caught a bus home. In-between, I ventured out to my regular bookstore and bought myself a secondhand book and an unhealthy snack. In Bombay, you do crazy things like that. 

© HarperCollins
In the bus, all the seats were occupied, including those reserved for women and senior citizens, so I stood behind the driver and skimmed through my new book—my sixth purchase in the past six months.

The Vienna Assignment, the UK title of 36 Yalta Boulevard by American espionage writer Olen Steinhauer, pulls you right in with the tagline, “To be wrongly accused of murder once is a misfortune. Twice — and it’s a conspiracy.”

The blurb on Book Three of the Yalta Boulevard Sequence convinced me that I’d made a good choice, for it says — “It is the height of the Cold War. When a defector mysteriously returns to the Eastern European village of his birth, it's a chance for disgraced detective Brano Sev to redeem himself. Being framed for a murder should just be part of his cover story. Or is it? Exiled suddenly to Vienna, treacherous city of spies, Sev finds himself caught up in a cat-and-mouse game where survival is the only prize. But in a world where no good deed goes unpunished, loyalty can be the biggest crime of all…”

© HarperCollins
Just my kind of book.

Steinhauer, 44, has also written the bestseller The Tourist, the Milo Weaver Trilogy, and the standalone novel The Cairo Affair. His next release, due 2015, is All the Old Knives which is about terrorism and revenge and is set in California and Vienna.

Rob Kitchin, professor and author, has reviewed the novel on his blog The View from the Blue House.

Col, my good blog friend, reviewed Steinhauer's On the Lisbon Disaster and The Cairo Affair over at his blog Col's Criminal Library. Our mutual blog friend, Tracy, who reviews mystery and espionage books among other fiction at Bitter Tea and Mystery, also reviewed The Cairo Affair and The Tourist

Have you read anything by Olen Steinhauer?

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Quick and the Dead, 1995

A passable western for Tuesday's Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

I don’t like to see a woman gunslinger any more than I like to see a woman smoker. I’m not being sexist. Of course, a woman has a right to carry a gun, as Ellen (Sharon Stone) does in The Quick and the Dead, and she has a right to smoke or roll a cigarette if she wants to. It’s her business. My point is neither looks good when a woman does it. Besides, I associate both violent means with men. Smoking, in my opinion, is violent too: it can kill or do serious harm to the smoker as well as to the one taking the smoke in the face.

This probably explains, in a skewed way, why I didn’t find Stone convincing as a blonde gunfighter in Sam Raimi’s 1995 western—not even when she draws fast, kills first, and kicks butt. I thought she looked lost in a cowgirl's outfit. At one point her character, Ellen, is so distraught and terrified of the gunfights that she saddles her horse and rides furiously out of town, with no intention of returning. It reveals her vulnerable side.

Ellen enters a dusty and depressing town with a secret motive—to avenge the man who “killed” her father, a US marshal, and destroyed her life when she was a little girl (the film is worth watching for the flashback scene). That man is John Herod (Gene Hackman) whose lawlessness is the new law in town. He pretty much owns and runs everything, like he does as Little Bill Daggett, the crooked sheriff, in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992).

Herod sets up a gun competition in the town ostensibly to find out who the fastest gun is; when, in fact, his sinister aim is to force his former accomplice, Cort (Russell Crowe), a gunman-turned-preacher, into the contest and put a gun back into his shackled hands. Herod admits Cort is one of the best guns.

The elimination rounds pit the townsmen against each other and turn them into gunmen overnight. The dead pile up which includes the Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young, swashbuckling cowboy killed by Herod, his father.

Herod ensures the penultimate gunfight is between Ellen and Cort. He has no doubt Cort will kill Ellen, thus, setting up the final duel between him and the preacher. But, Ellen and Cort have other plans for their nemesis who suddenly finds himself confronted by the blonde gunslinger consumed by hate and revenge. The look on Herod's face is worth freezing.

While I liked The Quick and the Dead because of Gene Hackman—who is in top five of my list of best actors
I didn’t care for the film itself. There is no story as such, only a bunch of gunmen, and gun-woman, who take turns shooting and killing each other in cold blood, and that's about all they really do.

Monday, October 06, 2014

The Man in the Moon by James Reasoner, 1980

"Are you sure you're not the man in the moon?" Cindy asked.

Children often look elsewhere for familial warmth when their own mom and dad start behaving like monsters. Jackie and his kid sister Cindy, abused by their warring parents, briefly find a father figure in Markham, a private detective from Southern California, who "rescues" them on a deserted state highway in Arizona one night.

The kids had escaped from their father, John Wheeler, who had whisked them away from their mother, Elaine, who has custody. They live in a trailer in Dunes.

Markham takes the children back to their mother in the trailer park where he meets Sheriff Cartwright. Before leaving, the detective gives the kids milk and puts them to bed, exchanges pleasantries with their mother, and a word with the county sheriff.

However, instead of heading back to LA, Markham decides to stay back and investigate. Something about the kids troubles him. Jackie has bruises on his arms, a burn mark on the back of his hand, and a black eye. He doesn't see any marks on Cindy. But he knows she is as traumatised as her brother, just under ten and rebellious. 

While Markham has dealt with conmen and blackmailers, and even unfaithful spouses, he has never handled battered kids. His investigation eventually leads him to a sordid trail littered with forgery, burglary, blackmail, adultery, hate, and murder, involving the kids' father John Wheeler and his father-in-law, Ralph Barrett, a powerful businessman who wants to deal with John on his terms.

If nothing prepared Markham for this case, nothing quite prepared me for the end.

In The Man in the Moon, veteran author James Reasoner handles the subject of abused kids with adroitness and sensitivity. While there is no graphic description, the 10,000-word novella does not lack in suspense and intensity. The story moves at a pace that is both leisurely and feverish. Reasoner doesn't waste his words as evident from the clear plot points and a simple and engaging style. He puts you at ease in spite of the gravity of his story.

What I liked most about The Man in the Moon is Markham staying back because he thinks he has a personal stake in the children's welfare. PIs are often like that when it comes to women and kids who are vulnerable and at the receiving end.

The novella first appeared in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine of April 1980 and is one of many stories about Markham that I hope to read. I don't know if the private eye has a first, or second, name. It was reprinted in 2013. I acquired my Kindle edition from Amazon.


Saturday, October 04, 2014

Comrades by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, 1911

Comrades, by American feminist author Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911), is a poignant short story of an ageing and ailing war veteran who agonises over the possibility that he might not be able to don his uniform and walk through the village square to decorate his son, Tommy, on Memorial Day. He has been decorating Tommy ever since the young man died in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The story is set twelve years after the war, in 1910, when veteran Reuben Oak, 81, talks about the impending day with his devoted wife, Patience, many years younger. He used to call her Impatience, sometimes just Imp, before settling for Peter, which came as a relief to her.

Reuben, a carpenter and tobacco planter, and Patience, drowning in her love for her husband, live in a village along the Connecticut valley. They have seen life in all its vicissitudes; the highs and the lows through fifty years of marriage bound by their vows, their ideals, their faith, and their love and respect for each other. Reuben and Patience are a sweet old couple.

Comrades is as much a story about Patience as it is about Reuben and the sacrifices she makes for her husband, including caring for Tommy, “the year-old baby of a year-dead first wife who had made Reuben artistically miserable.” She has a tender and maternal instinct for her husband.

Apart from Patience, the other comrades in the story are Reuben’s fellow veterans, Jabez Trent, in his sixties and the youngest; old Mr. Succor who can’t see; and David Swing on his crutches—the last survivors of the Charles Darlington Post, which, I suspect, was the company they belonged to during the war. Like most veterans, they are proud of the war they fought, and together they wait for Reuben, the oldest of them all, to lead the march on Memorial Day. Although, I'm not sure which war Phelps is referring to. I think it is the Civil War because they would have been too old to fight in the Spanish-American War. I also did not find references to the Charles Darlington Post on the internet, so I'm assuming it is a fictionalised company.

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
I liked Comrades for the overall story, the historical touch and the post-war memories, the gentle atmosphere, and Patience’s beautiful character that shines through the narrative. The writing is sublime as evident from just the author’s description of the woman who flows with the tide.

“Patience, in her blue shepherd-plaid gingham dress and white apron, was standing by the window—a handsome woman, a dozen years younger than her husband; her strong face was gentler than most strong faces are—in women; peace and pain, power and subjection, were fused upon her aspect like warring elements reconciled by a mystery. Her hair was not yet entirely white, and her lips were warm and rich. She had a round figure, not overgrown. There were times when she did not look over thirty.”

I look forward to reading Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ other stories and novels that number more than a dozen. I'm sure they are all as delightful.


Friday, October 03, 2014

The Torch Singer trilogy by Robert Westbrook

American writer Robert Westbrook, last month, published An Almost Perfect Ending (Swan’s Nest), the second book in his Torch Singer trilogy, a noir thriller focused on fifties Hollywood. Here is a preview of the book. 

Book Two opens with “eponymous smouldering anti-hero Sonya Saint-Amant at the height of her career—a glittering, triumphant appearance at Ciro’s, the club house for the stars in 1950s Hollywood where everyone wants to claim her as their friend. But in 1954 popular music was undergoing a revolution which saw all but the biggest stars cast aside. With her looks and popularity fading, Sonya begins to plot and scheme for her Hollywood life setting old suitors against each other to vie for her attentions. Jealousy and the settling of scores take hold to be first played out on a national stage, and then finally and fatally on a rain-soaked night at a house in Beverly Hills…”

We are introduced to Sonya Saint-Amant in Book One of the trilogy. An Overnight Sensation (Swan’s Nest), published August 2014, is “a sweeping historical saga that takes the reader from the horrors of Nazi occupied Poland to the glittery excesses of Hollywood in the 1940’s and 1950’s: the rise and fall of Sonya Saint-Amant, a B-singer who schemes her way to fame and brief glory, breaking all the rules.”

The third and final book in the Torch Singer series will be out in June next year, Conrad Murray, Editor-in-Chief at Swan's Nest, an imprint of, Toronto, Canada, told me in an email. He sent me both the books for review. Since it will be a while before I read them, I thought I’d give you a peak into the Torch Singer trilogy.

Frankly, I’d not heard of Robert Westbrook until Conrad wrote to me. According to his short bio, the author grew up in the world of which he writes. The child of Hollywood parents in the Golden Age he brings the period alive with insight, humor, and an insider's knowledge of show business. He is the author of two critically-acclaimed mystery series, including Ancient Enemy, nominated for a Shamus Award as the Best P.I. Novel of 2002, and Intimate Lies, a memoir detailing the relationship between his mother, Hollywood columnist Sheilah Graham, and the author F. Scott Fitzgerald which was published by HarperCollins in 1995. His first novel, The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart, was made into an MGM motion picture.

You can read more about Robert Westbrook, a resident of Taos, New Mexico, and his books at his website, at Bookmarq, and on his Amazon page.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Popular fiction by 20 bestselling authors

A trip down memory book lane for Friday's Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott's blog Pattinase.

As you may have noticed, I frequently refer to popular fiction by bestselling authors of the second-half of the 20th century, most of whom were lords of the bookshelves from the seventies through the nineties. 

Popular fiction is fiction I grew up reading. They were bestselling paperbacks. They were novels and not books. They were everywhere around me, even when I wasn't reading them—at home, at my neighbour’s, in school and college, in bookstores and libraries, on footpaths, and at the scrap dealer’s. They were immensely popular among readers of my generation. They were entertaining but only some were memorable. They were made into successful movies. The bestsellers were one of the reasons I started reading books.

Some of them, like Harold Robbins and Irving Wallace, wrote pulp. Others like Jack Higgins, Len Deighton, and Alistair MacLean, wrote war and espionage. Wilbur Smith and James A. Michener wrote epic journeys across spectacular lands. Mario Puzo and Lawrence Sanders wrote crime and mafia. Frederick Forsyth, Ken Follett, and Sidney Sheldon wrote thrillers. Henry Denker wrote family dramas and human emotions. Jeffrey Archer and Arthur Hailey wrote general fiction.

If you went to a private circulating library, the salesman (not librarian) would toss the latest Jeffrey Archer or Frederick Forsyth across the counter, as if those were the only books Indians read, and yet they most often did. If you read Archer’s Kane and Abel, you read The Prodigal Daughter right after it. Similarly, you read Lawrence Sanders’ Deadly Sin quartet in succession. Ditto with Robert Ludlum’s Bourne trilogy.

While I’m familiar with all twenty bestselling authors, I have not read all their novels. They have written far too many. You can spend a lifetime reading them. Back then, though, knowing them was reading them. 

What I have done is I have shortlisted, in no particular order, the twenty authors and what I think are some of their more popular novels, many of which I have read. I have not covered any popular women authors, the notable likes of Danielle Steele, Jackie Collins, Barbara Taylor Bradford, and Judith Michael, because I have never read their novels. So here goes...

Arthur Hailey: Hotel (1965), Airport (1968), and Wheels (1971)

Jeffrey Archer: Kane and Abel (1979), The Prodigal Daughter (1982), and Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less (1976)

Robin Cook: Coma (1977), Fever (1982), and Outbreak (1987)

Henry Denker: The Physicians (1975), The Scofield Diagnosis (1977), and A Gift of Life (1989)

Robert Ludlum: The Bourne Identity (1980), The Bourne Supremacy (1986), and The Bourne Ultimatum (1990)

Harold Robbins: A Stone for Danny Fisher (1952), 79 Park Avenue (1955), and The Carpetbaggers (1964)

Irving Wallace: The Prize (1962), The R Document (1976), and The Second Lady (1980)

Wilbur Smith: The Sunbird (1972), A Falcon Flies (1980), and Rage (1987)

Frederick Forsyth: The Day of the Jackal (1971), The Dogs of War (1974), and The Fourth Protocol (1984)

Alistair MacLean: The Guns of Navarone (1957), Ice Station Zebra (1963), and Where Eagles Dare (1967)

Jack Higgins: The Last Place God Made (1971), A Prayer for the Dying (1973), and The Eagle Has Landed (1975)

Desmond Bagley: The Snow Tiger (1975), Bahama Crisis (1980), Juggernaut (1985)

Len Deighton: The IPCRESS File (1962), Funeral in Berlin (1964), and XPD (1981),

Dick Francis: Nerve (1964), In the Frame (1976), and Bolt (1986)

Ken Follett: Eye of the Needle (1978), The Key to Rebecca (1980), and The Man from St. Petersburg (1982)

James A. Michener: Hawaii (1959), The Covenant (1980), and Texas (1985)

Sidney Sheldon: The Other Side of Midnight (1973), Bloodline (1977), and Rage of Angels (1980)

Lawrence Sanders: The Anderson Tapes (1970), and Deadly Sin and Commandment series

Mario Puzo: The Godfather (1969), Fools Die (1978), and The Sicilian (1984)

Leon Uris: Mila 18 (1961), Topaz (1967), and Mitla Pass (1988)

Do you identify with any of these authors and their paperbacks?