Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Oscars

It took me an hour, not counting the half-hour and more of the red carpet, to decide that I didn’t want to watch the rest of the four-hour long Oscars jamboree. Neil Patrick Harris, in spite of his good and honest intentions, and spotlessly clean undies, was flat and most of his jokes were lame, some to the point of embarrassing the viewer. He seemed awkward and looked as if he’d rather be somewhere else than inside the Dolby Theatre that night. I was assured that Harris usually acted like that on screen. In any case I was watching a rerun with four-minute long commercials every fifteen minutes, the Academy Awards were already history, and it was past my bedtime.

I watch the Oscars and the Golden Globe mainly to listen to the acceptance speeches which, in recent years, have been a disappointment. The speeches are seldom witty and clever. They’re mostly boring and drawn-out.

I remember the time when Michael Caine won a Golden Globe for Little Voice in 1999, and began his speech with this classic line—“Oh, what a shock. My career must be slipping. This is the first time I've been available to pick up an award.” He had the audience and viewers eating out of his Golden Globe. But you expected that sort of wit from Caine.

Years later, in 2007, his compatriot Hugh Laurie won a Golden Globe for House M.D. and proceeded to regale us with, “I am speechless. I'm literally without a speech. It seems odd to me that in the weeks leading up to this event, when people are falling over themselves to send you free shoes and free cufflinks and free colonic irrigations for two, nobody offers you a free acceptance speech. It just seems to me to be a gap in the market. I would love to be able to pull out a speech by Dolce & Gabbana.” You expected that kind of wit from Laurie, too.

Are the Brits naturally good at it?

In contrast, yesterday, Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, who won the award for best foreign language film, rambled on for so long that he was “booed” out by the orchestra, while best supporting actress Patricia Arquette did what I dislike most, a political statement on gender equality much to the delight of Meryl Streep who was on her feet and clapping.

It’s funny how Arquette looked like Streep’s twin.

A few points of view: why do award winners thank their spouses, their children, and their parents in predictable fashion? Why do the cast and crew of foreign film, documentary, and short film categories sit in the balconies like pariahs? What if the prompter mixes up the lines of the various presenters? What happens if the master of ceremonies has a panic attack? Are Clooney, Streep, and Travolta warned in advance they’d be the butt of jokes? Why is the Golden Globe better than the Academy Awards? Why can't the dozen-plus Bollywood film awards be as snazzy as their Hollywood counterparts? Why don't I read a good book, instead?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Death at the Excelsior and Other Stories by P.G. Wodehouse

My good friend Sergio is doing the FFB honours today, instead of Patti Abbot, over at his excellent blog Tipping My Fedora.

Flat on his back, with his hands tightly clenched and one leg twisted oddly under him and with his teeth gleaming through his grey beard in a horrible grin, Captain John Gunner stared up at the ceiling with eyes that saw nothing.

© www.barnesandnoble.com
Did you know that P.G. Wodehouse had written a locked room murder mystery? I, for one, did not.

There is plenty of adventure, spirit of enterprise, and even an element of mystery in his novels but I don’t remember ever reading about murder in his delightful stories. So I was pleasantly surprised to find a dead body in Death at the Excelsior (1914), the first in the namesake collection of seven stories that includes a couple of Jeeves yarns.

Mrs. Pickett, the matronly owner of the respectable Excelsior Boarding-House, finds Captain John Gunner dead in his room, in the manner described above. She summons Constable Grogan who is, we are told, “a genial giant, a terror to the riotous element of the waterfront, but obviously ill at ease in the presence of death.” I liked that description.

Grogan and the sailors on the waterfront are wary of the formidable Mrs. Pickett who is tormented by the incident, the first such calamity to strike her boarding house. She is not worried about the loss of money as much as the loss of reputation of the Excelsior. She hires Paul Snyder who runs a detective agency in New Oxford Street to investigate the murder. The private eye, in turn, deliberately hands over the case to Elliot Oakes, a newbie on his team looking to challenge his boss and revolutionise the agency’s methods.

© www.tower.com
Oakes solves the case in no time and announces that Captain Gunner was killed from the bite of a poisonous snake imported from India. His boss, Snyder, who set out to teach the upstart a lesson, doubts his theory but is impressed.

Has the pompous Oakes actually cracked the murder case? Not really. Reenter Mother Pickett, who teaches both of them a thing or two about sleuthing.

In Death at the Excelsior, Wodehouse has shown us that he could write in other genres too, like detective fiction, and he does so without giving us an investigation and only a locked room and the power of logical thinking to crack open the case. There is humour in the story but not the wit and hilarity that you'd find in, say, a Blandings or a Jeeves story. Even the writing, while clear and unique, is different from the Wodehousian style you might be used to.

Had the story come to me without the name of the author, I’d have never guessed P.G. Wodehouse had written it. Nonetheless, fans of the English humourist will love the story. You can read it at Gutenberg.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

They Met at Shiloh and The Friday Edition

Nowadays I receive more than just bills in my personal email. I also get polite requests for book reviews and tempting offers on new books. I rarely commit myself to the former and seldom give in to the latter. I can’t make a promise that I can’t keep. Books take time to read and review, especially those you have committed yourself to. Under the circumstances, spotlighting them is the best thing I can do.

Last week, I found two new ebooks in my inbox: They Met at Shiloh, a historical novel about the Civil War by American researcher and ex-army man Phillip M. Bryant, and The Friday Edition, a mystery novel by American journalist Betta Ferrendelli

© Phillip Bryant
They Met at Shiloh, the first novel in the Shiloh Series, is about the great battle of the American Civil War, fought April 1862, also known as the Battle of Pittsburgh Landing. 

This is the description.

Pittsburg Landing was a place at peace—one that never expected to be the site for one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Peace is shattered as Confederate and Federal troops meet on the fields and farms surrounding a tiny Methodist church. In the midst of death and destruction, friendships form as four soldiers struggle to survive the battle. 

Forced to leave his position as minister, Phillip Pearson knows his life is in danger, but not just from the Confederates. The Harper family, incensed at Pearson's refusal to bury a philandering son, has a vendetta against him that is played out on the battlefield. Demoted from his command by a West Point graduate, Capt. Michael Greirson is forced to choose between ambition and duty. 

Phillip Bryant
When a bumbling youth becomes his shadow, Private Robert Mitchell gains an unlikely friend—something that has been missing from his life. Afraid to trust, he is forced to confront those fears and depend on others in the heat of battle. War is an adventure to Private Stephen Murdoch and his best friend, William Banks. For months they dream of the glory of war before volunteering together. On the eve of battle, they sense something momentous is about to happen. Their idealistic views fade in the blood of their fallen comrades.

Of the 40,000 Confederates and 30,000 Federals about to come face to face along the banks of the Tennessee River, these four soldiers will experience fear and questions of faith for what lies beyond. Two days of horrific fighting turn boys into men and sever the sacred bonds of comradeship in the bloodiest days of the war.

© www.amazon.com
In The Friday Edition, the first in the Samantha Church Mystery Series, Betta Ferrendelli has set her suspense novel in Denver, Colorado. 

This is what it is about.

A beautiful, young district attorney tumbles from her balcony to her death. Police suspect suicide, but the DA’s sister, newspaper reporter Samantha Church, isn't buying it. 

Samantha discovers evidence linking her sister to a drug smuggling case and quickly learns she has stumbled onto a major news story. She must summon the courage to not only face a cartel of criminals, but her own fears and shortcomings when she is confronted by the inescapable specter of a far greater enemy—her addiction to alcohol. Samantha’s dependency has not only cost her job at a major metropolitan daily, but, worse, custody of her daughter, April. 

Betta Ferrendelli
Samantha pursues her sister’s killers, maneuvering through a minefield of intrigue deliberately set out to divert her from the truth. Despite being betrayed, physically beaten and facing the possibility of sharing her sister’s fate, Samantha refuses to stop her investigation. However, when the killers threaten to harm April, Samantha realizes that, for her daughter’s sake, she can no longer continue the investigation on her own. She knows she must swallow her pride and turn to her ex-husband and police detective, Jonathan Church, for help. Can Samantha ultimately prevail—find her sister’s killer, write the story of her career, confront her drinking problem, and finally begin to change her life, or will she and April become the killer’s next victims?

Both Bryant and Ferrendelli have banked on their areas of expertise to write their respective novels. The two books have great covers and, inside, thrilling stories await the reader, I'm sure.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Air Force One is Down by John Denis, 1981

First, a clarification: John Denis is not Alistair MacLean as I wrongly assumed and mentioned in earlier posts, since corrected.

According to Wikipedia, John Denis is the collective pseudonym for John Edwards, former editor of BBC’s That's Life programme, and Denis Frost, his collaborator on the show. Together, they authored the initial two UNACO books, Hostage Tower (1980) and Air Force One is Down (1981).

UNACO, which stands for United Nations Anti-Crime Organisation, was invented by Alistair MacLean as part of a series for an American movie company that was to produce the action films. While MacLean wrote the story outlines, the novels were completed by other writers beginning with John Denis. Interestingly, in 2013, Cilla Ware directed a two-part mini television series titled Air Force One is Down credited to Alistair MacLean. I'm assuming it’s based on the John Denis novel.

Below are the eleven UNACO books.

1980: Hostage Tower - John Denis
1981: Air Force One is Down - John Denis
1989: Death Train - Alastair MacNeill
1989: Night Watch - Alastair MacNeill
1990: Red Alert - Alastair MacNeill
1991: Time of the Assassins - Alastair MacNeill
1992: Dead Halt - Alastair MacNeill
1993: Code Breaker - Alastair MacNeill
1995: Rendezvous - Alastair MacNeill
1997: Prime Target - Hugh Miller
1998: Borrowed Time - Hugh Miller

Alastair MacNeill is a Scottish writer and not to be confused with fellow Scottish author Alistair MacLean. I'm not sure who Hugh Miller is.

UNACO does not exist in reality. The closest I can think of is the United Nations Security Council which has the mandate to launch wars and end conflicts.

Alistair MacLean’s UNACO is not a council of member-states; it’s an influential security agency within the United Nations led by its charismatic director, General Malcolm G. Philpott, and ably assisted by his beautiful girlfriend Sonya Kolchinsky. Philpott has managed to keep UNACO independent of other intelligence agencies like CIA, KGB, MI6, and Mossad, although it cooperates with them in global espionage and peacekeeping.

In Air Force One is Down, Philpott and his anti-crime organisation are tested to the limit as the US President’s aircraft is hijacked from Bahrain by international criminal Mister Smith and taken to distant Yugoslavia, which, in spite of its proximity to Soviet Russia, is a law-abiding member of UNACO. Fortunately, the President is in Washington D.C. He has lent his aircraft to ferry OPEC ministers from the Middle East to America to sign a crucial oil treaty. They are held captive for a fat ransom.

However, there is more to the hijacking of the President’s aircraft, the kidnapping of the oil ministers, and the subsequent destruction of a fake Air Force One, to make it seem like the real one.

The real story is about the kidnapping of Joe McCafferty, a US Secret Service agent on loan to UNACO and head of security aboard Air Force One, and his replacement by a lookalike, the ruthless Cody Jagger, who would fool the real Joe’s mother. Jagger goes under the scalpel to look like McCafferty's identical twin, take over the plane, and "betray" his friends on board.

The Cold War plot of Air Force One is Down is as farfetched as that of Irving Wallace’s The Second Lady (1980) where a KGB impostor takes the First Lady’s place in the White House and even sleeps with the President without arousing his suspicion. However, Denis’ action story is no patch on Wallace’s political thriller.

Equally implausible is the situation where UNACO’s commander Philpott succeeds in keeping the western intelligence community at bay, in the hijack drama, although a general within the Pentagon provides assistance from his office. The Secret Service is nowhere in the picture. Neither is CIA. The KGB is in on the plot for its own sinister motive and doesn’t hesitate to backstab hijack mastermind Mister Smith.

There is plenty of action in Air Force One is Down and while the story, 
even if unconvincing, is well-written and entertaining, it lacks the narrative stamp of an Alistair MacLean thriller.

Saturday, February 14, 2015


I have been slack in blogging this past week because of family issues, niggling but not insurmountable, like grappling with spondylitis (my wife) and a frozen shoulder (me), visits to orthopedic doctors and x-ray clinic, physiotherapy at home, B12 shots, meeting office deadlines, and computer problems. All is well, though, and I hope to return to active blogging next week.

A word of advice: if you’re reaching out for something, never stretch your hand beyond its capacity. Climb on a stool or go round and pick it up. It's worth the effort.

The doctor gave me three options: physiotherapy for a minimum of three months (though, he said, it could take up to six months for the shoulder to heal) with heat and ice packs, steroid injections or straightening the joint under local anaesthesia. I have ruled out the last two—they scare me. 

Monday, February 09, 2015

Hotel California by Eagles

Hotel California by Eagles completed thirty-nine years last December. The song is the lead track from the namesake album and was released in 1976. It is considered one of the best songs of the rock era. But then, Eagles are regarded as one of the world’s best music groups ever. 

If I knew how to play the guitar, I’d have played Hotel California more than any other song. I like the way it sounds. It puts you in a kind of a trance. The fusion of electric guitar and drums are in unison with the vocals sung by Don Henley, who along with Don Felder and Glenn Frey are believed to have written the lyrics and composed the music.

I love the start and end of this iconic song. It begins with a slow drum beat, at the hands of Henley who also belts out the song, and finishes with a superb “interplay” of electric guitar by Felder and fellow band member Joe Walsh. You don’t want it to end.

Hotel California sounds like a pulp or a horror story in lyrical form. A man, exhausted from a long and tiring journey, checks into a hotel that looks warm and inviting only to find that it’s actually a dreadful place—where “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”

Don Henley has described the song as the Eagles’ “interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles” and that “It's basically a song about the dark underbelly of the American dream and about excess in America, which is something we knew a lot about.”

Over the years Hotel California has been open to many interpretations. Anyone who listens to it will have his or her own take on it. I thought the lyrics were very original and refreshing, as was the music.

Believe it or not, I have heard only one other song by Eagles, Tequila Sunrise, for which I blame the overriding influence of Hotel California.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Facebook or Phasebook?

It’s been a week since I registered on Facebook and I'm still around. It took me nearly a decade to decide if I wanted to have a presence on the ubiquitous social networking site. Now that I'm on it, I have no opinion, at least for now. It all looks like fun, and a bit of a waste of time. I have connected with family and friends, some known for long, some unknown until now, and we bond by sharing this, that and the other and generally “liking” each other as well as liking the likes. Do two “likes” make an “unlike”?

© www.facebook.com
I hopped on to the Fb bandwagon out of sheer curiosity. I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. Turns out people aren't fussy on Facebook. They open up but without incriminating themselves. Much of it is banal and commonplace.

Am I already addicted to Fb? No. I visit the site twice or thrice a day as routinely as I’d, say, check my email, surf news sites or hop over to LinkedIn. If I'm addicted to anything, it’s my blog, which along with those published by my blog friends, is a must on my daily virtual itinerary.

Now that I've got unsolicited membership of Facebook and LinkedIn, one personal and the other professional, I’d like to optimise my presence in terms of serious activity; for instance, my writing, as and when it is fit for publishing and publicity. I have got plenty of tips on how to leverage the two sites from a business point of view. Of course, I’ll need a refresher by the time I actually get down to it.

For now, Facebook is like a new toy. I don't know how long it'll hold my interest. At least I'll have had the satisfaction of trying it out.

Is Facebook a part of your life? If yes, do you use it to further your interests as a reader or writer?

Monday, February 02, 2015

The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, 2010

© Amazon
This Diwali or Christmas I'm going to gift myself The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps (2010) by Otto Penzler, the noted editor of crime and mystery fiction and owner of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York. Both festivals are a long way off but I can’t get myself to buy it right away owing to my fairly large pile of unread books and ebooks. Besides, I have no more space on my bookshelves and in my cabinets, and my tablet is running out of memory. Until I read and dispose of a minimum of two dozen paper books at the earliest, I'm not going to buy any, unless I find something rare and out of print.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep the The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps: The Best Crime Stories from the Pulps During Their Golden Age—The 20s, 30s & 40s at the back of my mind. I might try and read some of the stories individually, if they’re available in public domain.

The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps is over a thousand pages long and contains nearly fifty short stories and two novels “by every major writer who ever appeared in celebrated pulps like Black Mask, Dime Detective, Detective Fiction Weekly, and more.”

The anthology has a foreword by Otto Penzler and is divided into three parts, ‘The Crimefighters,’ ‘The Villains,’ and ‘The Dames,’ and the short stories penned by some of the grittiest crime fiction writers include the following.

The Crimefighters

Introduction: Harlan Coben

‘One, Two, Three’ by Paul Cain

‘The Creeping Siamese’ by Dashiell Hammett

‘Honest Money’ by Erle Stanley Gardner

‘Frost Rides Alone’ by Horace McCoy

‘Stag Party’ by Charles G. Booth

‘Double Check’ by Thomas Walsh

‘The City of Hell!’ By Leslie T. White

‘Red Wind’ by Raymond Chandler

‘Wise Guy’ by Frederick Nebel

‘Murder Picture’ by George Harmon Coxe

‘The Price of a Dime’ by Norbert Davis

‘Chicago Confetti’ by William Rollins, Jr.

‘Two Murders, One Crime’ by Cornell Woolrich

‘The Third Murderer’ by Carroll John Daly

The Villains

Introduction: Harlan Ellison

‘The Cat-Woman’ by Erle Stanley Gardner

‘The Dilemma of the Dead Lady’ by Cornell Woolrich

‘The House of Kaa’ by Richard B. Sale

‘The Invisible Millionaire’ by Leslie Charteris

‘Faith’ by Dashiell Hammett

‘Pastorale’ by James M. Cain

‘The Sad Serbian’ by Frank Gruber

‘You'll Always Remember Me’ by Steve Fisher

‘Finger Man’ by Raymond Chandler

‘You'll Die Laughing’ by Norbert Davis

‘About Kid Deth’ by Raoul Whitfield

‘The Sinister Sphere’ by Frederick C. Davis

‘Pigeon Blood’ by Paul Cain

‘The Perfect Crime’ by C.S. Montanye

‘The Monkey Murder’ by Erle Stanley Gardner

‘The Crimes of Richmond City’ — Raw Law, Dog Eat Dog, The Law Laughs Last, Law Without Law, and Graft by Frederick Nebel

The Dames

Introduction: Laura Lippman

‘Angel Face’ by Cornell Woolrich

‘Chosen to Die’ by Leslie T. White

‘A Pinch of Snuff’ by Eric Taylor

‘Killer in the Rain’ by Raymond Chandler

‘Sally the Sleuth’ by Adolphe Barreaux

‘A Shock for the Countess’ by C.S. Montanye

‘Snowbound’ by C.B. Yorke

‘The Girl Who Knew Too Much’ by Randolph Barr

‘The Corpse in the Crystal’ by D.B. McCandless

‘He Got What He Asked For’ by D.B. McCandless

‘Gangster's Brand’ by P.T. Luman

‘Dance Macabre’ by Robert Reeves

‘The Girl with the Silver Eyes’ by Dashiell Hammett

‘The Jane from Hell's Kitchen’ by Perry Paul

‘The Duchess Pulls a Fast One’ by Whitman Chambers

‘Mansion of Death’ by Roger Torrey

‘Concealed Weapon’ by Roger Torrey

‘The Devil's Bookkeeper’ by Carlos Martinez

‘Black Legion’ by Lars Anderson

‘Three Wise Men of Babylon’ by Richard Sale

‘The Adventure of the Voodoo Moon’ by Eugene Thomas

‘Brother Murder’ by T.T. Flynn

‘Kindly Omit Flowers’ by Stewart Sterling

I haven’t read many of these writers and some I haven’t even heard of. I'm way behind in my reading of crime fiction of the Golden Age. This anthology will right the imbalance. A copy of The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps can be bought at Amazon

Sunday, February 01, 2015

My reading in January

Instead of writing about the books and short fiction I read over a whole quarter, as I have been doing for the past couple of years, I thought I’d post about them for each month, preferably on the first of the following month. This way I’ll realise how little I’m reading which will hopefully encourage me to get more novels and short stories out of the way every month. Figures for a quarter can seem deceptively impressive.

Today is February 1 and here is what I read in the first month of the new year. Again, I have listed them by year of publication and not in the order I read them.

Novels & Novellas

1915 - The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka - Horror

1958 - The Accused by Harold R. Daniels - Hardboiled

1981 - Air Force One is Down by John Denis (Alistair MacLean) (John Edwards and Denis Frost in real life)  - Thriller

1998 - Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson, 1998 - Nonfiction

2007 - Me Tanner, You Jane by Lawrence Block - Espionage

Short Stories

1891 - The Sheriff and His Partner by Frank Harris - Western

1941 - The Secret Sense by Isaac Asimov - Science Fiction

1994 - Cages by Ed Gorman – Horror? Fantasy?

So far, I have only reviewed The Accused by Harold R. Daniels and the three short stories. I’ll be reviewing Air Force One is Down in a day or two. Later, I may review my first novel by Lawrence Block.

I’m going slow on my reviews because I’m devoting more time to my other writing, at this point a novella and a collection of short stories that are still in the works. However, I’ll continue to blog and visit other blogs too. 

Another reason why I’m reviewing fewer books is because I have been hooked to two television series between 9 pm and 11 pm—Monk and Downton Abbey. That’s the time I usually post on my blog. I like Adrian Monk for I see a little of myself in his obsessive-compulsive character. Among other things, I have this habit of straightening books, or putting them in their place, in a bookstore. I do it free of cost. It’s annoying to see non-serious readers take out books and not put them back. Even if they do, they put them back on the wrong shelf.

The theme song of Monk—It’s a Jungle Out There—by Randy Newman is pretty good too.

I like the idea of an obsessive-compulsive detective. Without OCD, I doubt fictional sleuths would have been as successful as they are. Look at Poirot.

What about you? Do you like Monk?