Monday, December 29, 2014

Happy New Year!

© DC Comics
The 3Cs wishes all its readers and visitors a Happy, Peaceful and Prosperous New Year! To all my blog friends, a very special thanks for your unstinted support and encouragement this year. Your visits and comments have enriched this blog in more ways than one. See you in 2015 with books, more books, and still more books.

© DC Comics

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Musings on the last Sunday of the year

I had no intention of buying any more books between Christmas and New Year but the devil tempted me with a sale organised by Strand Book Stall, a popular bookstore. It was held in the foyer of the 144-year old David Sassoon Library and Reading Room in the south of the city.

I bought Deadly Justice (1993) by William Bernhardt, an American author of thriller and mystery fiction known for his Ben Kincaid series. The writer is new to me but I think he specialises in legal thrillers. “Justice” is a recurring word in his titles.

The family bought two books, To Be the Best (1988) by Barbara Taylor Bradford, the continuing saga of a family dynasty, and Sons of Fortune (2003) by Jeffrey Archer, which has shades of his famous novel Kane and Abel.

We also bought a spiritual book called Mantram Handbook by the late Eknath Easwaran, a renowned Indian spiritual teacher who, in 1960, established the Blue Mountain Centre of Meditation in Berkeley, California. The book tells us how we can release new energy, recast our old ways of thinking, and become more sensitive to the needs of others, by using the mantram, a short, powerful spiritual formula, to call up “what is best and deepest in ourselves.”

I have been reading and rereading Easwaran’s writing for the past two decades. His books are an infallible antidote to worry, fear, and depression. Spiritual books are like tonic. They keep you going through all the vicissitudes of life. I keep one handy.

Comics go extinct
It saddens me to learn that the thin A4-size comic books we read as kids have disappeared. DC and Marvel and the others stopped publishing them a long time ago. They have been replaced by glossy volumes and graphic novels whose computer generated illustrations are as unappealing as their price. This year, I received inquiries from people looking for some of these old-fashioned comics. I’m tempted to sell my lot to the highest bidder. But I know I won’t.

Drinking, driving, killing
With New Year’s Eve round the corner, the traffic police department is already cracking down on drunk driving. The number of fatalities due to drinking and driving has been increasing every year and a lot of innocent people are getting killed. It gets worse on the night of December 31. At the various check posts across the city, traffic police stop bikers and motorists, stick their heads very close, and ask them for their names. If they suspect alcohol, they use a breathalyzer to confirm it.

On New Year’s Eve, last year, I was stopped thrice on the highway and asked to state my name. I don’t drink but I felt silly repeating my name until the cop was satisfied he couldn’t smell liquor on my breath. My wife had a good laugh.

This breathe-in-my-face method can’t be hygienic for the cops.

To read or not to read
As I type this I’m looking at two formidable trilogies from my daughter’s collection—The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson. Rather, Tolkien and Larsson are giving me inquiring looks—“Are you going to read either or both of us in 2015?” I don’t think so. “You’re both part of my post-retirement reading plan,” I tell them. They seem offended.

Christmas movies
This weekend, I watched two of the five Christmas films I wrote about last weekChristmas in Connecticut and It’s a Wonderful Life. The first was a mild romantic drama, enjoyable but passable actually; the second was an intense family drama that was more depressing than elating in spite of its happy ending. I liked both, though. It put me in the mood for more golden age cinema.

That is all for now. I hope you found these musings amusing.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Hot Goods by Ray Cummings, 1933

I think our good friend Todd Mason is compiling the links for Friday’s Forgotten Books, today, as Patti Abbott is on a well-deserved holiday.

It was crook against crook when Pete Leroy met Basker — with the devil after both of them.

Hot Goods is one of many short stories written by American sf author Ray Cummings (1887-1957) except this one isn't a tale of science fiction. It’s a straightforward crime story involving, as the above line tells you, two crooks who try to swindle one another and fall prey to a cop who promptly hauls them to the police station.

Much of the action takes place inside a train compartment where Basker is pleading with Pete to buy his diamond ring for $450. He desperately needs the money to bail out his kid brother. Basker had seen Pete with a wad of cash and decides to relieve him of it. Pete, supposedly younger and smarter of the two, sizes up Basker as a sham and decides to turn the tables on him. He ropes in his partner George Snell in his little caper.

But something goes wrong. The old woman from whom Basker stole the diamond ring and $650 raises an alarm and soon cops are pounding on the door of their compartment. The armed trio escapes through the window of the stationery train. They run across the tracks and bundle into the front seat of a parked sedan whose backseat occupant turns out to be an off-duty cop taking a nap—and off he marches them to the police station. They had stolen a police car!

I like the sheer atmosphere in such stories and there is a good deal of it in Hot Goods, which appeared in Argosy Weekly, September 9, 1933. The three characters are drawn well in spite of little or no description. I especially liked the opening line—“Pete Leroy had the theory that crooks were the easiest suckers of all to swindle. And it gave him a thrill when this fellow Basker tackled him”—which suggested humour. An easy and entertaining tale you can clearly picture in your mind.

Author Ray Cummings has been described as one of the “founding fathers of the science fiction pulp genre” and I'm looking forward to reading some of his sf including his major work The Girl in the Golden Atom published in 1922. Among his other occupations, Cummings worked with Thomas Edison and wrote stories for Timely Comics, which we now know as Marvel Comics. His own quote, “Time…is what keeps everything from happening at once,” has been immortalised by both science and science fiction.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Miracles: A true story

Occasionally, I post stuff at B+ve, my other blog on all things positive. Last month, I wrote a piece called Miracles based on a true story. I want to share it with you in this wonderful season. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! 

A mall in northwest Mumbai wears a festive look.
© Prashant C. Trikannad
Jon believed in miracles because his father did. His father believed in them because they happened in his life and he told his son about them. As Jon grew up he saw miracles occur in his family, usually when his mom and dad thought they were down on their luck. Miracles came to their rescue at the most unexpected times and in the bleakest moments of their lives, or so it seemed. His father wasn't surprised for he knew miracles were always round the corner, waiting to step in, take hold of their lives, and set things right.

"That's what miracles do. They set things right," Jon's father told him. "you won't even know when they do."

Jon learnt about the power of miracles very early on in his life even though sometimes he saw them and sometimes he didn't. For instance, the new clothes his sister and he wore on occasions like birthdays were bought on shop credit. How his father managed to pay back each time, out of his meagre income, was a miracle. The children were never deprived of anything.

"Do you know why miracles happen?" Jon's father asked him one day. "They happen because of faith. There is divine hand behind every miracle. If you don't have faith, you won't believe in miracles and neither will you see them."

When he was very young, Jon's father told him a story about himself.

© Parizad Trikannad
When Jon was a tiny tot, his father went out of the city on an assignment which took him to a small town. It was night and the streets were dimly lit. The 34-year old man entered a restaurant and ordered food and while he waited at his table, he asked for directions to the toilet. A waiter pointed to the back door. Jon's father stepped out into pitch darkness and assuming that the toilet was some distance away, as was common in those days, he began to walk, feeling the ground beneath his feet.

After what seemed like a long time, he halted and looked over his shoulder and saw the lights of the restaurant in the distance. He was a little afraid. Instinct told him not to venture further. He stood there, unzipped, and started to pee, when he suddenly heard the waiter's frantic voice somewhere behind him.

"What the hell do you think you are doing, sir?" he demanded of Jon's father. "You are peeing in our well!"

The waiter stood beside him and flashed a torch on the ground except there was no ground, only a yawning black hole. Jon's father was standing on the very edge of the well, level with the ground. He staggered behind. One step, just one more step, and that would have been the end of him.

Jon never got bored of hearing the story and his father never tired of telling it. They were on the same miracle wavelength.

He told Jon, "Miracles are God's way of telling us that he is watching over us and that we have nothing to fear. They are like blessings. Count them every time they occur in your life and never forget to send up a silent thank you."

Thanks to the valuable lesson his father taught him, Jon is mindful of miracles in his life, and they happen every day, or at least as often as he sees them.

Copyright: B+ve

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Five popular Christmas films I have never seen

These memorable Christmassy films have been overlooked by me and thus make it to Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason's blog Sweet Freedom this Tuesday.

It’s a coincidence that the five Christmas or Christmas-related films I chose this wonderful season were all made in the forties, a decade of intense strife and insensate destruction. Perhaps, that’s why the makers of these films, variously described as “charming” and “delightful,” decided to make them—to spread a little joy and happiness around.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
This sounds like the original version of You've Got Mail (1998). Two sales people, Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), work together in a store in Budapest, Hungary, but can’t stand each other. Little do they realise that they're falling in love by writing to one another, as anonymous pen pals.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) is a famous food writer who lies about her life in her food columns. One day, she is forced to play host to a war hero at a traditional family Christmas. Will her lies—marriage, kids, and working on a farm—be exposed and will it ruin her career?

It's a wonderful life (1946)
A guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) comes to the aid of a compassionate but frustrated and suicidal businessman, George Bailey (James Stewart), by showing what life would have been like, for his town, his family, and his friends, if he were never born. George doesn't know that he is already living out his dream.
The Bishop's Wife (1947)
Cary Grant plays Dudley, a guardian angel, who wants to help Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) realise his dream of building a new cathedral, but the priest, unlike everyone else who likes the angel, is suspicious of Dudley's motives—is Dudley out to replace him both inside his church and in his wife Julia's (Loretta Young) life?
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Do you believe in Santa? Whether you do or not, this is the film to watch. Edmund Gwenn plays old man Kris Kringle who not only behaves like Santa Claus but actually claims to be one, which gets him into trouble. I saw the 1994 version where Richard Attenborough reprises Kringle’s role. As an aside, I didn’t know Kris Kringle and Father Christmas were the American and British names of Santa Claus.

© Wikimedia Commons
The last Christmas movie I saw, all over again, was The Polar Express (2004), an animated film in which a young boy doubts the existence of Santa Claus, rides in a magical train all the way to the North Pole and to Santa’s home, and discovers more than the legendary friend of children. Don’t miss the film and don't miss Tom Hanks in it.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Rebecca Bradley launches Shallow Waters

© Rebecca Bradley
My blog friend, Rebecca Bradley, has launched her debut novel Shallow Waters, the first in her DI Hannah Robbins series. 

Rebecca’s crime novel is about teenage murders and a killer on the loose. She whets your appetite some more with this blurb.

When the naked, battered body of an unidentified teenager is found dumped in an alleyway, post-mortem finds evidence of a harrowing series of events. 

Another teenage death with the same MO pushes DI Hannah Robbins and her team on the Nottingham City division Major Crimes Unit, to their limits, and across county borders. In a race against the clock they attempt to unpick a thick web of lies and deceit to uncover the truth behind the deaths. 

But it doesn't stop there. When catching a killer isn't enough, just how far are the team willing to push themselves to save the next girl?

DI Hannah Robbins will return in 2015, says Rebecca.

Rebecca Bradley lives in Nottinghamshire, United Kingdom, with her family and her one-year old Cockerpoo, Alfie, who keeps her company while she writes. She says she needs to drink copious amounts of tea to function throughout the day and if she could, she would survive on a diet of tea and cake while committing murder on a regular basis, in her writing, of course.

Once a month Rebecca hosts a crime book club on Google+ hangouts where you can live chat about a crime book everyone has read and has members in the UK, the US, France, and Australia. She blogs regularly at

Shallow Waters is currently available on Amazon and Kobo in all countries.

The 3Cs wishes Rebecca and her novel, a police procedural, the best of readership and sales.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Stone in the Crick by Granville Wyche Burgess, 2014

I received a review copy of Stone in the Crick by email recently. It is authored by Emmy-nominated writer Granville Wyche Burgess of Greenwich, Connecticut. 

Stone in the Crick, is a tale of mystery, romance, intrigue, and danger set against the backdrop of a traditional Amish community. According to the email, Burgess was inspired by his own marriage to an Amish-Mennonite wife. 

I have not read the novel but I loved the cover. It’s refreshing to look at. This is what the blurb says.

Rebecca Zook feels as stuck as a stone in her family farm’s crick. On the surface, the twenty-two-year-old Amish woman seems happy enough. A talented quilt-maker, Rebecca is engaged to Jacob, an honest, God-fearing man with a successful farm of his own. Jacob would make most young women proud to be his fiancĂ©e, but Rebecca remains restless and unsure. Whether she’s performing her chores or working at Mrs. Ansbacher’s quilt shop, Rebecca finds herself resisting the Amish way of life despite her love for her family and her culture. Even her quilting seems at odds with her heritage. Rebecca yearns to be an artist and knows self-expression is vital for true art, but the Amish feel any act that draws attention to the individual can lead to the sin of pride, so artistic expression is viewed with suspicion. 

Then good-looking Englisher Gregory Pinckney comes to the county, searching for the birth mother he never knew. Despite their differences, Rebecca and Gregory find a common bond in their love of horses, especially Gregory’s horse, Bojangles. As their friendship grows, Rebecca’s heart is torn in yet another direction.

Rebecca has competition though, when Wanda, the beautiful daughter of dissolute horse-farm owner Ivan Heminger, sets her sights on Gregory. Then Rebecca’s old boyfriend reappears, and her heart is torn in many directions. When an insurance scam almost kills Bojangles, events are set in motion that will test Rebecca’s faith and her family’s future. Is Gregory’s life in danger? Must the farm be sold? And does Rebecca dare follow her heart, or is she destined to remain a Stone in the Crick?

Of the novel, Elizabeth Oberbeck, author of The Dressmaker, has said: “Burgess weaves a page-turner tale of intrigue and romance. A skillful, colorful, witty novel, full of humor and intelligence, with memorable, well-rounded characters who feel life-like enough to hug. Burgess has treated us to a rare glimpse inside the rich and complex community life of the Pennsylvania Dutch Amish.”

The author
Granville Wyche Burgess is a playwright, lyricist, novelist, director, actor, producer, and teacher, and also co-founder and chief executive officer of Quill Entertainment Company, a nonprofit dedicated to creating and producing original history musicals. He is the author of two screenplays, a novel about Shoeless Joe Jackson, and a children’s book. He has produced, directed, or acted in over fifty musicals and plays.

The 262-page novel is published by Honey Brook Publishers. You can learn more about the author at his website and buy the book at Amazon.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Bullet Proof by Frank Kane, 1951

For Friday's Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott's blog Pattinase.

If you think being a walking shooting-gallery is my idea of a good clean night’s fun, you’re mistaken,” Liddell retorted hotly. “I don’t like cluttering up the sidewalks with corpses any better than you do. Especially when one of them is liable to be mine.”

My 1968 Dell copy
© Prashant C. Trikannad
Bullet Proof is the fourth book in the Johnny Liddell Mystery Series by Frank Kane (1912-1968), an American writer of short stories and novels and radio shows and television series. He wrote some four hundred short stories and thirty novels, most of them based on adventures of his popular New York detective Johnny Liddell, as well as screenplays for the Mike Hammer, Special Agent 7, and The Investigators television series. 

He also wrote the script for one of his novels, Key Witness (1960). It was directed by Phil Karlson, who specialised in gritty and violent crime films, and starring a young Dennis Hopper.

More than anything, Frank Kane was known for his pulp stories revolving around his private eye. These stories appeared in leading detective magazines of his era, like Manhunt, The Saint Detective Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, Private Eye, and Pursuit. It was a matter of time before Kane successfully novelised the adventures of his hero. Frank Boyd was his only pen name.

Bullet Proof is my first trip into the hardboiled fiction of Frank Kane and into the crime-infested world of Johnny Liddell.

Liddell is fearless as hardboiled PIs are known to be; the kind of man who likes to take the fight right into enemy camp. When a bunch of hoods repeatedly use him for target practice, he turns the tables and instead uses them to prove just how deadly he can be with a .45. He takes out two gunmen right in the beginning and then goes after Frankie Cappola, the fat mobster who set him up. Cappola’s boss, Pete Velie, is cooling his heels in prison from where he's giving orders to his henchmen.

Liddell finds himself on the wrong side of the mob and the law the moment he accepts a $500 retainer from a beautiful socialite called Jean Merritt who hires him to find out the real truth behind her father Matt Merritt’s death. Jean, who mysteriously vanishes before their first meeting, is convinced that her father didn’t commit suicide and was, in fact, murdered. Liddell believes her and suspects that she has been kidnapped by the gangsters who probably killed her father and now want to silence him. They don’t want him to go sniffing around Merritt’s corpse and dig it out.

Described as tall, broad shouldered, and ruggedly handsome, Johnny Liddell’s character reminded me of Mike Hammer who lets his trigger finger do the talking instead of his tongue, always in self-defence. The story and the style are a mixture of a Mickey Spillane yarn and a James Hadley Chase novel, while some of the characters, like District Attorney William Deats and Inspector Herlehy, sound like less civilised versions of Hamilton Burger and Lieutenant Tragg in the Perry Mason novels. Even Liddell’s redhead secretary, Pinky, is not unlike Mason’s Della Street although the detective has an occasional girlfriend called Muggsy Kiely, a lovely and know-it-all reporter who dreams of being an actress.

As the private eye piles up the corpses, Deats and Herlehy become more sceptical about his self-defence theory. The reason is they are after the mob and they know Liddell is on to something and they want in.

The fat man squinted at him, scowled, “Who are you and what’s the idea?”
“My name’s Liddell. Mean anything to you?”
“Not a thing.”
Liddell grinned tightly. “It must have the other night. You tried to part my hair with a tommy gun. I kept Scoda as a souvenir. Remember?”

Bullet Proof is an old-fashioned detective story written in a style reminiscent of mid-20th century pulp fiction: clean-cut and without fuss. The 191-page novel has a lot of gunplay, stakeouts at sordid bars and seedy joints, black suits and fedoras, guns and tommy guns, gangster’s molls and naked hookers, corpses and morgues, and beggars as informants. Kane knew how to tell an entertaining story. I was amused by his repeated use of words like “shamus,” referring to the private eye; and “torpedo,” a hired gun—both, a first for me, I should think.

Recommended, if you like crime thrillers with nonstop action.

Further reading
Maura Fox, the granddaughter of Frank Kane, has written a nice profile of the writer at Thrilling Detective where she quotes fellow crime writer and our blog friend Bill Crider as saying, if it's a Frank Kane book, chances are “it'll be a competent, straightforward P.I. story.” Bullet Proof is exactly that. In May 2012, author James Reasoner reviewed Frank Kane’s Stacked Deck at his blog, Rough Edges. It's a collection of novelettes and short stories starring Johnny Liddell and, I'd think, a good place to start reading about the adventures of the private eye from the Big Apple.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Reading Habits #16: Reading out of peanut paper

A Reading Habits post is long overdue. The last one, The bitter taste of my tablet, appeared on October 28. I still read, of course; I just haven’t been writing about how I read, or in this case where and what I read.

It’d surprise non-Indian readers to know that, in India, you can actually read a story or an essay out of peanut paper. By that I don’t mean reading the literature on a packet of peanuts or something written on peanut paper; not that there is such a thing as peanut paper, although we do have something called butter paper (parchment paper) used in craft.

Here’s how it works. A fistful of roasted peanuts is one of the cheapest and healthiest street foods you get in Bombay (Mumbai) and elsewhere. In my city it costs Rs.3 to 5 ($0.05 to 0.08), the minimum price these days. Roadside hawkers use a small measure and serve it to you in a cylindrical cone made out of paper. The cone has a wide open mouth at the top and a closed pointed tip at the bottom. Imagine a miniature tornado.

This is the “peanut paper” I'm referring to. The paper could be anything, like a piece of newspaper or magazine, a page out of a school or college textbook or notebook, a cutout from an annual report or a red herring prospectus, or a leaf out of an old diary.

After eating your peanuts, you unroll the wrapper and read what’s on it. You’d be surprised the things you get to read, even if it’s incomplete. I have variously read a poem such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, an algebraic formula, a director’s report, an essay by G.B. Shaw, a company balance sheet, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Moby Dick, to give you an idea. Sometimes the peanut paper is in other Indian languages like Hindi or Marathi.

Reading your “peanut paper” is a very old habit and I have yet to see one who throws it away without as much as a glance at it. Sometimes if you’re eating in a group then you compare your wrappers and find that you've all been eating out of the same book. And sometimes, you exclaim, “Hey, we studied this in school!” and then you crush the paper into a ball and toss it over your shoulder.

Unlike other street snacks, “peanut paper” remains clean after you polish off the peanuts. It’s mainly an after office hours snack though you can have it at any time of the day. They taste best in the rains. What it does is it educates and entertains you, however briefly, and kills your appetite till you reach home and have your dinner.

A slightly bigger paper cone is also used to serve sing (peanuts) and chana (chickpea) mixed with kurmura (puffed rice), small onion and tomato cubes, a shot of lime, a pinch of salt, and seasoned with a little powdered spice. It’s called chaat or bhel, a very popular snack that roughly means hotchpotch. Instead of eating with a spoon, you scoop up the concoction with a round puri (hard unleavened bread made from wheat flour) or a square piece of card paper, depending on how well-heeled the singwalla or bhelwalla is.

The sing-chana vendors are a common sight along the seafront, on beaches, and other tourist spots. They carry their stuff in a large circular wicker basket or metal container slung round their necks. Others sit along street corners, in narrow bylanes or outside railway stations, their sing-chana either heaped on a flat wood surface or stored in neat open compartments. They do brisk business.

The way I see it, you can eat and read out of your hand.

P.S.: I don’t have a picture of a sing-chana vendor but you can type “peanut seller” or “chanawala” in Google images and you’ll see what I'm talking about.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Gray Mountain by John Grisham, 2014

Coal was in the news in India, for all the wrong reasons, when I read Gray Mountain by John Grisham. In spite of its critical role in energy and economic growth, no news about coal is ever good news. 

Recently, India’s Supreme Court reversed a key government decision granting over two hundred coal blocks to power, cement, and steel companies because they were allocated in an “ad-hoc and casual” manner and “without application of mind.” Then, last week, environmentalists warned that India’s proposed coal expansion would prove catastrophic for the rural poor because of high levels of air pollution and coal dust, absence of emission standards, and lack of safety measures. In fact, one report predicted that India’s overdependence on coal-fired power stations and the increase in emissions would result in hundreds of thousands of premature deaths by 2030. And we’re not even talking about coal mine accidents.

If this review is beginning to sound like a news report, it’s because Grisham’s new legal novel—it’s not really a legal thriller—reads like a “docudrama,” as one reviewer on Amazon put it. I thought I’d add a little perspective on the fossil fuel which is big business for coal companies throughout the world and at the same time a harmful and terrifying reality for poor people who work with it. Coal comes with a very high human cost, as evident from Grisham's latest book.

In Gray Mountain, the author gives us one such reality—strip mining in Appalachia, the coal country, and its disastrous impact on inhabitants of the region. To be honest, I didn’t know this sort of thing happened in America. Whatever happened to human right? To checks and balances?

Grisham narrates his rather heartbreaking, albeit well-documented, tale of Appalachian coal and its consequences through his principal character, Samantha Kofer, and a few lawyers who have made fighting crooked and powerful coal companies their life’s mission, often at grave risk to their lives.

Samantha, young and attractive, is the daughter of separated and seasoned lawyers. Her mother works in the Justice Department and her father is an aggressive lawyer who once sued airlines after crashes. She loses her comfortable but high-stress job in Manhattan in the financial crisis of 2008. She is furloughed with several others when her global law firm downsized. As a consolation she is allowed to keep her health benefits provided she interns with a nonprofit organisation for a year, but she’ll draw no salary. If all goes well after a year, her law firm will take her back with no break in seniority.

The city-bred girl chooses the free Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in the small town of Brady, Virginia, the heart of coal country, and is soon caught up in the murky and deceitful world of coal mining.

In Brady, she meets Mattie Wyatt, head of the aid clinic, and her nephew Donovan Gray, a noted trial lawyer. Mattie and Donovan, who share a tragic family history associated with coal, are feisty lawyers fighting for the poor and the oppressed. While Mattie’s aid clinic handles smaller and non-criminal cases, Donovan is vengeful and goes after big coal with big money, suing them for millions of dollars in benefits due to black lung disease and other serious issues. From them and their clients Samantha learns what it feels like to be at the receiving end of coal companies with friends in Washington D.C. and backed by law firms with muscle power, and what it takes to stand up and fight for your rights.

And then one day Donovan dies mysteriously in his own plane crash and his brother, Jeff, who idolises his older sibling, enters the scene. He is not a lawyer but behaves like one as he prepares the final ground for litigation against the coal companies that was set in motion by his brother. He is depending on Donovan’s lawyer-friends and Samantha Kofer to take up the gauntlet.

For Samantha, what was supposed to be a temporary phase in her legal career soon turns into the most decisive period of her life. She is caught between her dream life back in New York and an uninspiring existence in Brady. Her selfish interest pulls her in the first direction; her conscience drags her in the other.

Gray Mountain is more than just a legal tale. It’s a chronicle of the sordid side of coal mining in Appalachia complete with a detailed explanation of strip mining and its dangerous import, land grab and displacement of poor folks, prolonged suffering and painful death from black lung disease, and economic starvation of coal families.

While the story is “interesting,” as my blog friend Bill Selnes, a lawyer in Saskatchewan, Canada, rightly observed in his review at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan, it’s not as thrilling as many of John Grisham’s other novels. I found it inconclusive in some respects.

Recommended, if you are a Grisham fan.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Ruff Justice: Windwolf by Warren T. Longtree, 1983

When the wolves howled, the wind answered…

© Thayn Trikannad
Sometimes it’s interesting how you learn about the real identity of a pseudonymous writer.

I bought a western titled Windwolf, No.9 in the Ruff Justice series, by Warren T. Longtree. The author was unfamiliar to me. However, Longtree sounded more like a pen name than a real name.

After surfing the internet for a while, I came across a review of a book called Ute Revenge by Paul Ledd at Black Mask. The review was written by veteran author James Reasoner, no stranger to this blog, and reproduced from his blog, Rough Edges, where it originally appeared in June 2013. There I learnt that Paul Ledd was actually Paul Joseph Lederer, another prolific author of a series of westerns including Ruff Justice.

Later, I read a review of Ruff Justice No.2 Night of the Apache by Steve M. over at his blog Western Fiction Review and learnt some more about this rather elusive author.

If it weren't for the internet, I’d have taken most western and other paperbacks at face value and read them as such, and the real identities of writers would have remained unknown to me.

The Ruff Justice series reminded me of another western series of violence and passion, of crime and justice, of fear and respect, that I’m familiar with—Edge, a half-breed and a Civil War veteran, written by George G. Gilman (Terry Harknett in real life), arguably the most popular western pseudonym.

One of the differences I see between the two series is that Ruff Justice is probably more adult than Edge.

Writer David Whitehead has written a fine article about George G. Gilman and his Edge character at his website Ben Bridges, which incidentally is David’s pseudonym.

I’m looking forward to reading my first Ruff Justice novel where “Ruff follows an icy-cold trail and a hot-blooded Indian beauty to track a savage killer.”

My copy of Windwolf, displayed on the shelf above, is a first edition paperback by Signet, New American Library, and printed in May 1983. This title was the 28th and the last in the Ruff Justice series.

Have you read this western series with the nice play of words?

Friday, December 12, 2014

War Against the Mafia by Don Pendleton, 1969

I offer this review for my ‘First Novels’ reading challenge as well as for Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbot’s blog Pattinase.

Mack Bolan: The Executioner by Don Pendleton was the first action series I ever read, in my late teens. Since then, I have been hooked to the daring and often improbable adventures of the war veteran and one-man vigilante squad. His speciality is sniper fire and his calling card is a marksman’s medal.

Over the years I have collected over fifty original and reprinted The Executioner books as well as spinoffs like Phoenix Force and Able Team, and I read a few of those every year. In spite of the bloodshed and mayhem, I find the novels entertaining. Bolan may be a fictional character but he is like a superhero and as long as there are men like him around, there is justice on this planet and hope for humankind. You have to keep disbelief aside.

In War Against the Mafia, originally published in 1969, American author Don Pendleton introduces us to Mack Bolan and his adrenaline-pumping brand of justice and fair play, which could be described in three words—all guns blazing.

Bolan is forced to leave the jungles of a war-ravaged Vietnam and return home to bury his father, mother, and sister, and take care of his seriously-wounded kid brother. Sam Bolan, his father, has gunned down his family after loan sharks associated with the mafia make life impossible for him and his family, and force his daughter into prostitution to recover the debt. Bolan infiltrates the mafia to find out who is who and then takes revenge on the mobsters in their backyard. His only accomplices are his first sniper rifle, a Marlin, and a .44 Magnum Calibre revolver, besides a range of other arms and ammunition. 

Bolan is unrelenting as he seeks and destroys the mob, commando-style. He has the unofficial sympathy and support of the police force which realises the mafia needs its protection more than Bolan. Along the way he falls in love, waxes eloquent about good and evil, and justifies why he must fight the war closer home than in remote Vietnam. He stays back to deliver Bolan justice. 

Mack Bolan’s character is not well-developed and is somewhat unconvincing in War Against the Mafia but it gets better and even credible as you read the other novels in The Executioner series. Don Pendleton wrote thirty-eight Bolan novels ending with Satan’s Sabbath in 1980. Since then, there have been more than five hundred in the series, kept alive by a host of pseudonymous writers, many of whom write under the collective name of Gar Wilson.

Interestingly, Bradley Cooper is set to play Mack Bolan in a Warner Bros. film directed by Todd Phillips (Hangover series). Years ago, I thought Tom Berenger was the most suitable actor to portray Sergeant Bolan on screen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Hari’s story

A week has passed since I posted my review of Hostage for a Hood by Lionel White. During this period I read more than I usually do, including a couple of unfinished novels, and wrote more than 3,000 words of what I think is shaping up into more than a short story. The characters and the setting are Indian.

At this point it could be either a novelette (7,500 to 17,500 words) or a novella (17,500 to 40,000 words), as categorised by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. I'm writing about five hundred words a day though the word count is moving up in tandem with my confidence. I hope to have the story ready by Christmas.

I haven’t thought of a title yet or what to do with the story once it is written. I'm thinking of self-publishing through Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing. It’s a crime story of sorts, more atmospheric and less hardboiled. The main character is an investigator in the Mumbai Crime Branch. His name is Hari, a popular Indian and a Hindu name. In Sanskrit, the name stands for Lord Vishnu, the supreme god, and one of the Great Trinity. It also refers to the colour yellow and its hues. The Hari of my story is neither god nor chromatic although his devout parents, whoever they may be, could have named their son after the revered deity.

In case you’re wondering how the name is pronounced, this will give you an idea.

“Hari? What kind of a name is that?”
“It’s a proper name.”
“As in Harry Potter or hairy legs?”
“No, as in hurry up, please!”

In May this year, I wrote a post about my experiment with other forms of writing, a collection of short stories including one about an Indian avatar of an American cowboy, a short book on self-help, and a possible flash fiction.

About the flash fiction piece, I had observed, “I have no idea where this is going, if it is in fact going anywhere at all.” Since it wasn't going anywhere, I despatched it to the recycle bin. The short story collection and the self-help book are still in the works.

For now I'm enjoying writing Hari’s story. I type out a few lines every now and then, at work, and then again at home late evening. I’d love to spend all day writing it out. So far it has been the most realistic writing project I have taken up outside of my newspaper job.

Every morning I revise what I wrote the previous day, wherein lies the challenge. I read the rewritten words and sentences and find a dozen ways to rewrite them. Which word reads better? Which line sounds convincing? Where do I draw the creative line? Is there a line at all? How come I can't see the line!

Friday, December 05, 2014

Hostage for a Hood by Lionel White, 1957

A review of a gritty crime novel by Lionel White for Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

Every minute she had was borrowed, and every second ticked off the time for murder.

If ever I have read a hardboiled story about a lead character who happens to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and gets into serious trouble, it’s Hostage for a Hood, 1957, by Lionel White. Chronologically, it’s the American crime writer’s twelfth novel out of a total of nearly forty dark and noirish stories.

Joyce Sherwood, small, slender, beautiful, and in her early twenties, is returning from the bank with a cashier’s cheque for $2,600 when she crashes her seven-year old sedan into a Cadillac on a deserted stretch of Brookside. Two hoodlums, one of them carrying a Tommy gun, step out of the other car, assess the damage to their vehicle, and straightaway hijack Joyce, her French poodle, and her Chevy.

The hoods were on their way to ambush an armoured car ferrying a quarter of a million dollars and a pretty housewife had suddenly messed up their plan. Cribbins, the one with the Tommy gun and in charge of the caper, takes Joyce with him to a deserted mansion in Cameron Corners, an old farming town two hours away. However, before he does, Cribbins and his accomplices manage to ambush the armoured vehicle, kill the driver in cold blood, and make off with the loot.

Joyce’s dream—of buying a new car for her loving husband and ex-marine, Bart Sherwood, for their first wedding anniversary—soon turns into a horrible nightmare, as she is chained and locked up in a dark and dingy room inside the mansion.

Enter Detective Lieutenant Martin Parks, in charge of homicide of the Brookside force, and his assistant, Detective Horace Sims, who are understanding of Bart’s plight but can do little without leads and witnesses. Also enter the other hoodlums including a particularly evil junkie called Santino who is obsessed with sex and slaying, and a sexy moll called Paula who unwittingly sparks trouble between Cribbins and Santino.

Back home, Bart Sherwood is anguished by his wife’s sudden disappearance. He doesn’t lose faith in Joyce in spite of the possibility that she might have run out on him, with another man and all their savings. He and Joyce are crazy about each other.

“My wife and I are in love with each other. Joyce wouldn’t leave me. Even if she wanted to, which is preposterous, she couldn’t have done it this way.”

Joyce spends a week in abject fear and chained captivity during which she comes very close to being raped and killed and, in one particular scene, is a mute and tormented spectator to a midnight romp between Cribbins and Paula on her bed. There is no graphic description but White tells you what is happening through the shock, surprise, and humiliation felt by Joyce.

With little help from the police, it is left to Bart Sherwood to find his missing wife and he does so by following a series of coincidences, including the reappearance and disappearance of their poodle.

Frankly, I didn’t realise that Hostage for a Hood was a caper until my blog friend George Kelley brought it to my attention that Lionel White, in fact, specialised in capers. And, in so far as capers go, this is the best one I have read in many years. The characters are atypical but very well-drawn; the plot is solid from the start; and the narrative, while slow to begin with, gathers momentum and finishes with a chilling climax. Recommended.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Delhi is Not Far: The Best of Ruskin Bond, 1994

© Wikimedia Commons
Roald Dahl and Ruskin Bond have common ground in India. The British novelist, born in Wales to Norwegian parents, and the Indian author, born in Himachal Pradesh to British parents, are two very popular writers of children’s literature. Their books are prominently displayed in Indian bookstores and continue to sell in good numbers.

Bond, 80, is more Indian than many Indians and this reflects in his vast body of work consisting of many novels, short stories, essays, and songs and love poems. He writes about life in the hill stations close to the Himalayas in North India. The award-winning author has been singularly responsible for the growth of children’s literature. Bond was born in Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh, in 1934, and now lives with his adopted family in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, at the foothills of the mountain range. He has never left his adopted country.

© Prashant C. Trikannad
In many ways Ruskin Bond reminds me of that other celebrated Indian writer, the late R.K. Narayan, who wrote about the charming life in a small fictional town called Malgudi in South India. While Bond’s and Narayan’s stories essentially grew out of their experiences in the north and south, respectively, their writing styles run parallel in terms of simplicity and lucidity of prose.

As with Roald Dahl, both young and old read Ruskin Bond and R.K. Narayan. They are the ambassadors of Indian literature.

I don’t think I have written about Ruskin Bond earlier. An opportunity arose when I recently bought his collection, Delhi is Not Far: The Best of Ruskin Bond, 1994, from the annual charity sale at Home for the Aged run by Little Sisters of the Poor, founded by Jeanne Jugan in 1839, in France. The old-age home is located behind my house and I have picked up many good books from their yearly fair, as much for a charitable cause as for my own.

Delhi is Not Far is a 428-page anthology of four decades of Ruskin Bond’s writing, particularly the best of his prose and poetry and essays and short stories. India Today has described his writing thus: “Bond’s sentences are moist with dew and the mountain air, with charm, nostalgia and underplayed humour… (he is) our resident Wordsworth in prose.”

While I read his stories a long time ago, this is the first time I’d be reading them in an anthology and I’m looking forward to it, especially his five tales of the macabre. I didn’t know Ruskin Bond wrote those too. He begins his introduction with these lines: And here I am again, in my little room overlooking the winding road to Tehri, writing another introduction. No one has ever offered to write an Introduction for any of my books, and so, perforce, I must do my own.”

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Rendezvous by Nelson DeMille, 2012

“I saw her in my field glasses. It was a woman.” I added, “They make good snipers.”

Remember the alien that haunted and hunted a US special forces team in the jungles of Central America in Predator, where only the head of the commando unit survives in the end? Cut back to the Vietnam War and imagine a sniper eliminating an elite reconnaissance patrol, where again only the leader of the detachment lives to tell the tale. Except, in Nelson DeMille’s Rendezvous, the sniper is neither man nor alien. It’s a young woman who is as deadly with a long-range Russian-make Draganov rifle as she is sensuous bathing naked under a waterfall, in full view of the lieutenant whose men she is taking down one by one.

The female sniper, clad in black silk pajamas, plays mind games with the ten-man recon patrol which, in spite of being entrenched in the dark and treacherous jungles of Vietnam, has nowhere to run or hide. They are lost and confused and are sitting ducks for the “bitch,” and DeMille shows them no mercy in this crisply written story.

The sniper torments the nameless lieutenant by killing all his men and then mocks him by sparing his life, so that he can go back and tell everyone about her, and thus create the legend of the female sniper. Her trophies should not go in vain.

Rendezvous is entertaining with an element of unintended humour, and it moves at a brisk pace. I don’t know if there were female snipers in the Viet Cong that fought the carpet-bombing Americans, but there were highly-trained insurgents whose guerrilla tactics often won the battle against the enemy.

Rendezvous is the second of Nelson DeMille's Kindle Single; his first was The Book Case (2012), a delightful story about a murder in a bookstore, which I reviewed a couple of years ago. I recommend both the novellas.