Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Bird Box, 2018

Whatever you do, don't open your eyes.

Danish film director and Academy Award winner Susanne Bier’s Bird Box is a post-apocalyptic thriller and more. It also has shades of science fiction, horror, fantasy and the supernatural. Take your pick. The absence of visible monsters and hideous creatures is more than made up by the unseen, ghostly whispers and hallucinations.   

The Netflix movie—based on the 2014 namesake book by Josh Malerman, the lead singer of the American band The High Strung—begins with Malorie Hayes (Sandra Bullock) and two young children, named Boy and Girl, making a perilous two-day journey to safety. They must grope their way through a forest and paddle down a fast-flowing river—blindfolded.

If they open their eyes, they risk coming under the spell of an invisible apparition (or entities) that causes psychotic behaviour among people, brings out their worst fears and forces them to commit suicide in horrible ways.

Malorie Hayes (Sandra Bullock) to the children: "Listen to me. I’m only gonna say this once. We’re going on a trip now. It’s going to be rough... Understand? Under no circumstances are you allowed to take off your blindfold. If I find that you have, I will hurt you. Do you understand? If you hear something in the woods, you tell me. if you hear something in the water, you tell me. But you never, ever, take off your blindfold. If you look, you will die. Do you understand?”

Cut back to five years earlier.

Malorie, single and pregnant, and her elder sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson) are returning from the doctor’s when the entities they heard about on television invade their town and nearly wipe out its population. The sight of the unseen causes Jessica to crash their car and kill herself. Malorie barely survives and finds shelter with a group of survivors who include Douglas (John Malkovich), a self-centered man with a gun, a helpful gentleman called Tom (Trevante Rhodes), and another pregnant woman named Olympia (Danielle Macdonald). The motley crew hide in a house, the doors locked and the windows covered up.

Director Bier does a clever job of taking the viewer back and forth throughout the 124-minute film, between Malorie’s impossible journey on the river (in the present) and the chaos and death she and the others confront in their hideout (in the past). The frequent flash-forwards and flashbacks, though a trifle annoying, do not lessen interest in the film.

Cut to five years later.

The entities are still omnipresent in the world. Malorie and Tom are now lovers and possibly the sole survivors in the town. The boy is Malorie’s, the girl is Olympia’s. Both are five years old. She loves the girl as her own. One day, infected survivors charge their house, forcing Tom to sacrifice his life and allowing Malorie to escape with the kids—down the river in a boat.

Bird Box, in Stephen King’s words, is riveting. I was, therefore, surprised at the scores of negative reviews of the film. I agree with the Master of Horror when he says, “Don't believe the lukewarm reviews, which may in part have been caused by reviewers’ ambivalence to the streaming platform, as opposed to theatrical releases. One might say movie reviewers suffer from the dread NP syndrome: Netflix Prejudice.” I’m glad I don’t suffer from it.

Susanne Bier packs several elements in this intensely atmospheric film—the chilling spectre of the unseen, the assorted characters who couldn’t be more dissimilar, the unpredictability of human nature, and the thought of what it’d be like to live (or die) at the mercy of a sinister presence. Just what the hell is that thing out there? It’s a question you keep asking even as Bier distracts you with one unfolding piece of action after another. And there's plenty of it.

From start to finish, Bird Box is Sandra Bullock's film. She carries it very well. If you’ve watched her other movies, you’ll see why she is suited for this one. She is spontaneous and, predictably, hyper-realistic; her character responding to the fearful circumstances with a mix of emotions, often loud and unsettling. It’s understandable in her situation.

I had two reservations about the film. One, the versatile Malkovich being pigeonholed as a bit of a looney, and two, Bullock and the children escaping blindfolded through miles of cold and hostile territory. Neither stopped me from enjoying the film on Christmas Day.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Partners: Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham

“I’m not sure I want to get involved in this one,” Sebastian mumbled.

© Doubleday
Partners: Rogue Lawyer (2016) is a 60-page prequel to John Grisham’s full novel Rogue Lawyer published a year before. It is also the bestselling author’s first digital short story, or novella. And it’s written in Grisham’s trademark style; the prose sharp and precise, where every line impels the reader to move on to the next line and the one after, and read through until the end.

Since I hadn’t read the novel, it seemed appropriate to read the short story first and learn how rogue lawyer Sebastian Rudd meets up with Thomas Cardell (alias Tee Ray) who, by the end, offers to become his man Friday, his partner, bodyguard, law clerk and driver rolled into one.

Basically, Grisham wrote Rogue Lawyer introducing Rudd and Cardell to readers, and then decided to write a prequel about how the two met.

Rudd, somewhere in his early thirties, is a street lawyer who operates from a cheap bar-turned-law office in a drug-infested neighbourhood. He defends people other lawyers won’t go near. He knows they’re criminals and probably guilty even before they step inside a courtroom. Rudd has built a reputation as a skilled defence lawyer and has had more jury trials than others his age. He is also the most unpopular lawyer in town.

The rogue lawyer’s unpopularity shoots up when he reluctantly agrees to defend Tee Ray, a Black drug carrier arrested for killing a White cop in self defence. The dead cop, an honour student and a decorated Marine, has the town, the media and the entire police force behind him; Rudd has the backing of his client’s employers, a territorial drug organisation, and threats to his life.

Rudd is aware, without evidence and witnesses, the drug dealer would be sentenced to death for the
murder of the police officer. So he digs and discovers, with help from his point man in the organisation, that Tee Ray is actually telling the truth; that he was forced to shoot the cop only after the former fired at him several times. The cop wanted a scapegoat, to achieve his month’s target, and Tee Ray seemed like easy pickings. He was clean when he was set upon. A swift trial follows.

Partners is a fast-paced and well-crafted story about not just a street crime or a crime against a police officer, but also about racial violence against Blacks, and is reminiscent of America in the 60s and perhaps even today. Grisham, as is his tradition, handles the subject with skill and sensitivity. What I liked about this story is he not only makes the good guys look good, he doesn’t make the bad ones look very bad. His characters, irrespective of which side of the law they belong to, are only human, with their share of foibles and weaknesses. Another endearing quality about Grisham’s stories is his empathy for the underdog—like Tee Ray
and his dream of providing a good life for his teenage son—and the manner in which he gives them a voice that touches the reader. He makes one think, there is justice in this world, after all.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut and other books

“I was the baby of the family. Now I don’t have anybody to show off for anymore.” 
Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut

I bought no more than a dozen secondhand books this year. I’m pretty sure of that. Let me see—a few westerns, thrillers and spy fiction, Lee Child, P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Enid Blyton, Kurt Vonnegut. Yes, that’s about it, though I haven’t read any of the books yet. I seldom buy new fiction.

© Prashant C. Trikannad
I also ordered nonfiction from Amazon, as part of the annual office book allowance I’m entitled to. They’re all there in the picture on the left. I haven’t read any of those either, though I have been leafing through the books on writing. I usually don’t read guide books from cover to cover.

Separately, I also picked up Khushwant Singh’s autobiography Truth, Love & A Little Malice (2002). Singh was a well-known and an outspoken diplomat, journalist, parliamentarian, columnist, and author of scores of books. He was one of India’s most engaging storytellers, and also its most controversial. He had an easy and lucid style. The publication of the politically-sensitive book was held up for five years due to a court case.

© Viking, New Delhi
I also added a handful of comic-books to my collection. These included two graphic adaptations from the popular Warrior Cats multi-series by Erin Hunter, a combined pseudonym of a group of children’s book writers. Besides, I downloaded comics from Amazon under its ‘free comic book day’ attraction. I mostly read these on my tab during office commute.

From among fiction, I intend to read Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake first. It’s not exactly a novel; rather it’s a semi-autobiographical work marketed as a novel. The author, himself, has described the book as a “stew” and his “last novel”.

The following blurbs will tell you more about the book.

“There's been a timequake. And everyone—even you—must live the decade between February 17, 1991, and February 17, 2001, over again. The trick is that we all have to do exactly the same things as we did the first time—minute by minute, hour by hour, year by year, betting on the wrong horse again, marrying the wrong person again. Why? You'll have to ask the old science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout. This was all his idea.” 

© Berkley Books, New York
“Using his science-fictional alter ego Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut talks about a recalcitrant book of Trout's whose premise would have been that ‘a sudden glitch in the space-time continuum’' occurs, creating a 10-year hitch in time in which everyone is forced to live that period of their lives over again, every word and action exactly repeated, from 1991 until 2001, at which point their lives move forward once more. It is a nice conceit, and Vonnegut and Trout have some fun with it, all interwoven with anecdotes about the Vonnegut family, how it feels to be an aging author and suchlike.” 
Publishers Weekly

“Family is obviously an important anchor for Vonnegut. Through Timequake, he keeps track of a wide variety of siblings, uncles, children, wives and ex-wives, etc. It says a great deal about Vonnegut's view of family that he is close to his family and is also a successful writer while his alter ego, Kilgore Trout, is an unsuccessful author and has no family. When Trout does gain some success in Timequake after the rerun has concluded, he has also gained a family of sorts.” 
— Review on SF Site

The late Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favourite writers mainly because I enjoy his writing to the extent that I'm tempted to imitate his style. He kept it short, almost staccato, and simple. He managed to say a lot without saying much, a tribute to his ability to write with brevity and minimum fuss. He also had a wry sense of humour.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a comics fan!

© Miika Laaksonen/Unsplash

Bill Maher, political commentator and television host, was accused of mocking comic-book fans for mourning the death, November 12, of Marvel legend Stan Lee. He wrote on his blog, “The guy who created Spider-Man and the Hulk has died, and America is in mourning. Deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess,” and added, somewhat self-righteously, “Personally, I’m grateful I lived in a world that included oxygen and trees, but to each his own.”

As a comic-book fan, reading and collecting comics for over four decades, I wasn’t offended by the American comedian’s ill-conceived remarks. Maybe he was trying to be funny, except no one felt like laughing. Comics are a serious business, an alternate religion, even for the lighthearted among diehard fans.

Here’s what happened next. Like dirty linen, Lee fans took Maher to the cleaners, to be washed, rinsed, spun and dried on social media. His attempts to clarify that he meant no disrespect to Stan Lee failed to cut ice with his legion of followers.

Stan Lee and Peter Parker in Spider-Man 3. © Sony/Marvel

The outrage against Maher can perhaps be explained in the words of Hollywood actor Chris Evans who, in an unrelated context, said, “The comic book world is so dangerous. You know what I mean? You say one thing and people—they’re ravenous—they are very opinionated fans. But they're great fans.” Who better to tell us than the man who plays Captain America and the Human Torch in Marvel’s Avengers and Fantastic Four?

What Maher probably didn't realise is that, comics, in spite of spawning a global cultural phenomena for nearly a century, is a personal thing. We may share and enjoy comic-books collectively, swear lifelong allegiance to the sequential panels of vivid characters, images and balloons, but we read them as individuals, in the seclusion of our mental cocoons where no outsiders are allowed and trespassers like Maher are prosecuted.

Most of us, and certainly those who grew up in the second half of the 2oth century, have fond memories of spending many a summer holiday borrowing and reading comics, and then exchanging those for new ones from the circulating library. Mine are no different.

Here, I'm going to digress.

I recall the first time I stepped inside the world of comics. I was around eight years old when an uncle from San Diego, California, sent my dad 40 DC and Marvel comics by post. The crisp and glossy Silver Age (1956-1970) and Bronze Age (1970-1985) comics, neatly packed in a carton, travelled nearly 7,000 miles and inspired him to start collecting comics and rope me in as his young co-conspirator.

It was the beginning of a delightful adventure with an eclectic roster of valiant heroes and superheroes—the Pandavas and the Maurya Kings, Justice League and the Avengers, and so many others—dedicated to fighting evil and making the world a better place.

© Amar Chitra Katha
One evening, my dad picked up Gopal and the Cowherd, a popular Bengali folktale from Amar Chitra Katha (Immortal Picture Stories)—India’s largest-selling comic-book imprint—and read it out to me.

In the comic-book, Gopal, a poor young lad who lives with his devout mother in a tiny village, must walk alone through a dark forest to get to school on the other side. Naturally, he is afraid to make the journey alone. His mother calmly tells her son, “Whenever you’re scared, call out to your brother. He is a cowherd and his name is also Gopal. He will come and protect you.” Relieved, the boy happily sets off for school. As he is passing through the forest, Gopal calls out to his “brother” who materialises out of nowhere—wearing peacock feathers in his golden crown and playing a flute—and escorts the boy to school and back. When his mother hears about the mysterious brother and the herd of cows with tinkling bells, she realises that her son’s saviour was none other than Lord Krishna. She prays with silent gratitude, “You took care of my son, my Lord. I called and you came.”

It was one of the most beautiful and poignant stories I had heard and read at the time. It was also one of my earliest inspirational lessons in values and virtues. And that’s what comic-books are all about; often, a better teacher than pedantic textbooks.

Over the years, since then, I frequently turned to comic-books, to such brave and self-sacrificing heroes as Arjuna, the maverick archer in the great Indian epic Mahabharata and Captain America, the patriotic super-soldier, for both inspiration and entertainment. I found the richly illustrated panels and speech balloons riveting. In difficult times, comics were a form of escapism, a secret place where you overcame fear and despair, replaced negative emotions with hope, wonder and positive choices, and steered through life’s inevitable challenges with a new strength and optimism.

In that sense, comic-books, notwithstanding their digital avatars and billion-dollar movie franchises, are a liberating medium primarily because of their emotional appeal and visual influence and because, as Peter Parker’s Aunt May tells us so eloquently in Spider-Man 2, “There’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.”

May Parker’s eulogy, in many ways, is a tribute to comic-book fans who yearn to be like the mortal, supernatural and other-world heroes they admire and venerate so much. Actually, the rest of the world isn’t very different. Everyone, at some point, imagines living vicariously through the lives of those they look up to. Even Bill Maher.

Friday, November 09, 2018

The Sheriff of Kalbadevi

I have been a big fan of Western Fiction or Frontier Fiction from the time a paternal uncle introduced me to English writer Oliver Strange's Sudden series. I was in my teens and I was hooked. His ten novels and an additional five by Frederick H. Christian (British writer and editor Frederick Nolan) have been featured on this blog a few times. The exploits of James Green, alias Sudden, the Texas outlaw, led to my heightened interest in other western authors, notably Louis L'Amour, J.T. Edson, Zane Grey, Max Brand, George G. Gilman, Wayne D. Overholser, Jonas Ward, Giles A. Lutz and others. I continue to read westerns.

Since then, however, I have always dreamed of writing a western novel. There were even a few halfhearted attempts. In August 2015, I began work on a Wild West-comes-to-India novel in earnest. At least, that was the plan. I typed out a few thousand words and was pleased with the way the story was shaping up. It was about a Western-styled Indian sheriff set in an old part of Mumbai in the 21st century. So it had cowboys and gunfights as well as four-wheeler taxis and pizza delivery.

But Procrastination and Distraction, the two nemesis of my writing life, bushwhacked me along the way and that was the end of what I thought would one day be my debut novel called The Sheriff of Kalbadevi.

Then, last month, I read about a short story contest at Juggernaut Books, a popular Indian writing platform where I had previously published an atmospheric tale set around a murder mystery, titled A Little Murder at Dinner. I retrieved my western story from the recesses of D drive on my computer, scaled it down to a little over 2,000 words, got the family to proofread the story, and uploaded it on the Juggernaut website. As of writing this post, the results were yet to be announced.

The story begins in Kalbadevi, an old neighbourhood of Mumbai named after the Hindu goddess Kalbadevi. The area has an old-world charm and is known for its wholesale markets, usually bustling with activity six days a week. I worked along its periphery for many years.

This is how The Sheriff of Kalbadevi begins.

Friday night descended on Kalbadevi like any other summer night, the weather still unforgiving. Long after the Indian sun ducked into the Arabian Sea, the old neighbourhood of Mumbai was enveloped in a haze of April heat and dust. Red earth rose and swirled in the air, settled down, and rose again.  
Kalinga sat hunched on his horse under a yellow streetlight. He blew smoke from a cigarette and looked around him with a sense of boredom. There was little movement on the intersection of Princess Street and JSS Road. Two young cowboys on horseback were riding out, back to their ranch or maybe to the seafront on the other side of town, to meet their girlfriends. A woman hurried across the street with her young son and disappeared round the corner of a dilapidated building. Shopkeepers and roadside hawkers were closing business for the day. A group of weary traders vanished behind a tobacco-stained curtain into a country liquor bar. When they staggered out, they would be men no more. He eyed them with distaste.

And here is a significant passage appearing towards the end.

The four gunmen stared in disbelief as two six-guns appeared magically in the sheriff's hands and spit fire simultaneously. They didn't stand a chance. His first bullet caught Balki plumb between the eyes. He died instantly and slid to the ground head first. His horse bolted. Two of his sidekicks got a bullet each in the chest and were thrown off their horses. His fourth bullet sliced through the throat of the last man who slumped in his saddle. It was all over in less than a minute.
Instantly, a new legend was born and it'd travel miles and miles, just like all of his fabled gunfights of the past.

If you're tempted to read the full story, then please click here. I hope you like it. I had fun writing it, partly because it was an original idea.

And if you're still around, you may also like to read A Little Murder at Dinner and the related Editor's Pick of the Week interview Juggernaut Books did with me in June this year.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Rain on the Dead by Jack Higgins, 2014

I will give you my verdict right away. Rain on the Dead (2014) is probably the most disappointing Jack Higgins novel I have read till date.

The British writer's 76th action-thriller has a fine cast of characters, all old anti-terrorism hands — legendary ex-IRA gunman Sean Dillon (his 21st appearance), his boss General Charles Ferguson (head of a secret intelligence unit reporting to 10 Downing Street), Captain Sara Gideon (a decorated Afghan war hero), Major Giles Roper (a wheelchair-bound tech whiz), and the Salters, Billy (a gangster turned MI5 agent) and his uncle Harry (who runs a dockside pub and is handy with a gun).

While those are good reasons to read the book, a weak storyline and an even weaker plot are reasons to avoid it. Unless, like me, you're a big Higgins fan and will read anything by the man who gave us such gripping fare as The Last Place God Made (1971), A Prayer for the Dying (1973) and The Eagle Has landed (1975).

Rain on the Dead begins with a failed assassination attempt on the charismatic former US President, Jake Cazalet, at his estate on Nantucket, an island off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Unfortunately for the two Al Qaeda-backed Chechen gunmen, Ferguson and his team happen to visit Cazalet just at the time and foil the bid masterminded by a cold and calculated faceless entity called the Master. Not very original, as you can see, and not very scary either.

From there, the action moves to Drumgoole in Ireland, Paris and finally London, as team Ferguson thwarts repeated attempts to kill Cazalet. In frustration, the Master, who reports to some kind of a grand council, hires desperate men, including special ops gone rogue, to bump off Dillon, Gideon and the others, but all in vain.

Here are two more reasons why I did not enjoy the novel as I thought I would.

Apart from the weak plot, the logic or the lack of it, and the occasional typo (yes, those too), I found the writing style, peppered with dialogue, almost amateurish. Preposterous as it may sound, it seemed to me that the book was ghostwritten. The narrative lacked depth and the conversations between the various players were at times school-grade. This was not the Jack Higgins I grew up reading.

The third reason is Sean Dillon, whose role during The Troubles in Northern Ireland haunts him in many of his novels including this one; just as they do Higgins' other ex-IRA heroes. We get a sense that Dillon, though still respected by his peers and feared by his enemies, is growing old and past his prime. In Rain on the Dead, he plays a largely supportive role, always on hand with a Colt .25 but not doing much. The brave and likeable Captain Sara Gideon and the young and reckless Billy Salter take the honours, as they run down the shadowy Master before he can get anywhere near Jake Cazalet (who first appears in Dillon #6 The President's Daughter, 1997). 

So, would I stop reading Higgins? Never. I have many of his books to read and I'm sure I'll enjoy many of those.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Merrick by Ben Boulden, 2017

"Thief, gunman, killer. A hero you'll hate, but root for anyway."
Every time I watch a movie about a heist or read a story about a robbery at gunpoint, the first thought that comes to my mind is Something’s going to go wrong. In spite of meticulous planning, things don’t always go as intended. That’s exactly what Merrick—a tough outlaw with a conscience and the hero of this fast-paced Western short story by Ben Boulden—finds out when he teams up with an old partner to ambush an armoured wagon in Texas and make away with a $15,000 payroll.

Merrick, who is brought in as a last-minute replacement, is mindful of the risks involved in the venture. He knows by experience that a holdup is never easy, even if the dough is. Though he is reluctant to accept mastermind Clarence Tilley’s offer at first, the .44 Remington wielding outlaw cannot escape the allure of money and the prospect of moving to the California coast and living it up.

But the outlaw’s getaway plan is dashed to the ground when Spider Robison, a particularly vile, greedy and trigger-happy gang member, double-crosses his accomplices, wallops Merrick in the head and decamps with the loot. After regaining consciousness, Merrick sets out to hunt down Robison, not so much to seek revenge as to retrieve his rightful share of the heist and be on his way.

Merrick is not the quintessential Wild West outlaw. He is an outlaw alright but one with scruples, the kind who’d indulge in unlawful acts but probably won’t go beyond a limit. While he can be tough and dangerous, and shoot to defend himself, he also has a certain vulnerability, a sense of fair play and justice, perhaps even compassion, which sets him apart from others of his kind.

All of 25 pages, Merrick is a cracker of a Western story that fans of the genre will enjoy reading. The plot—a stage robbery gone wrong—reminded me of pocket-size black-and-white Western comics I was fond of reading in my youth. I could visualise each scene unfold in the form of a comics panel or frame. In that sense Merrick would make for a very entertaining comic-book.

I hope Ben Boulden—author of Blaze! Red Rock Rampage (15) and Blaze! Spanish Gold (18) in the Blaze! Adult Western Series—casts Merrick in more short stories, perhaps even a novel or two. I’d like to read more about the Utah outlaw’s exploits in the author's crisp narrative style. Recommended.

Available for Kindle, $0.99.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Books and ebooks of 2017

I bought less than a dozen books and ebooks in 2017, and intentionally so. It was in keeping with my decision to read as many books as I could from my collection of 100-odd paper books. The resolution did not work. Like a government project delayed by time overrun, I have decided to carry-forward the ambitious plan to 2018 and keep my fingers crossed.

There were a few notable acquisitions during the year, books I was glad I read.

Author Margot Kinberg, who blogs about crime fiction every single day at Confessions of a Mystery Writer, very kindly sent me a signed copy of Past Tense, the third book in her mystery series featuring ex-cop Joel Williams. The professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Tilton, a fictional university, is an affable and unassuming gentleman with a nose for sniffing out clues. Past Tense was an engaging campus mystery. You can click here to read the review.

Ben Boulden's debut novel Red Rock Rampage, #15 in the Blaze! Adult Western Series, features J.D. and Kate, a husband-and-wife team of gunfighters in what is an action-packed tale written in a racy style. I reviewed the book and interviewed Ben here. In coming weeks, I intend to read his second novel Blaze! Spanish Gold. But before that, I will be reviewing his 25-page Western short story Merrick (since reviewed). You can learn more about Ben and his work over at his blog Gravetapping.

During the year I was lucky to purchase three out-of-print Sudden paperbacks, my favourite Western series created by British author Oliver Strange. One of these is Sudden Strikes Back by English writer Frederick H. Christian who wrote five of the Sudden novels, following Strange's original ten books. I now have eleven of the Sudden novels that I have been reading and rereading since the eighties.

Finally, a friend and colleague gifted me a lovely hardback edition of Where the Sidewalk Ends, a delightful collection of children's poetry written and illustrated by American author and cartoonist Shel Silverstein. Wikipedia quotes Silverstein as saying that he never studied the poetry of others and developed his own "quirky style, laid back and conversational, occasionally employing profanity and slang." Where the Sidewalk Ends inspires you to pen your own verse.