Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (J K Rowling)

From last few days the major news that shook the world of literature is the discovery that J K Rowling who is the bestselling author of Harry Potter series has written a detective mystery under a male pseudonym. Robert Galbraith's debut novel The Cuckoo's Calling received good reviews from critics and sold a few thousand copies. Then the news came that Galbraith was none other than J K Rowling. May be the reason for writing under a pseudonym was that her previous novel The Casual Vacancy was unfairly compared to Harry Potter books and suffered a bit from critics and fans. I would say this move is a master stroke from her which proved her versatility as a writer without the pressure of expectation from fans and also ensured good publicity for the novel.

The Cuckoo's Calling introduces a new Private Investigator, Cormoran Strike into the already overcrowded universe of detectives. Cormoran Strike used to be a military intelligence man, who served in Afghanistan and had lost a leg in an explosion. Now he has set up an investigation agency without any success, is neck deep in debt and is homeless after getting himself kicked out of his girl friend's house. His fortune changes the day Robin, a temporary secretary assigned to him by a staffing agency enters his life. He bags the high profile case to investigate the death of a super model, Lula Landry, which the police has tagged as a sure incident of suicide. Beautiful Robin proves to be the resourceful sidekick indispensable in every detective story. What begins as a disparate attempt to generate the much needed cash flow for his firm, turns into an encounter with a maniac and ruthless killer.

J K Rowling weaves a plot that is rich with clues that are thrown at the reader which joins together at the climax like a solved jigsaw puzzle. Conventionally, the detectives are shown detached emotionally from the case they are investigating. Most of the times they don't even react to the social environment of the novel. But here the author successfully integrate the investigator with the society in which the crime occurs. In some parts of the novel we can deduce strong social commentary embedded to the plot were the writer satirize the class division that exist between rich and poor and even between different professions. The characters , even minor ones are given sufficient time and space to develop into three dimensional entities.

The narrative slows down a bit towards the middle and there are many repetitive descriptions about the murdered girl and other characters, as though the writer want to help readers who have attention deficiency syndrome, by stating obvious conclusions again and again. But once that phase is over, the novel picks up pace and terminates wonderfully. The novel never defies conventions of the genre, but the rich plotting, brisk narrative and wonderful characters makes The Cuckoo's Calling a fantastic

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Three Laugh Out Loud Books

A good book of humor is the best medicine for any stress related issues. After a day's hard work, reading a good joke book can be refreshing and relaxing. I recently read three books that are most suitable for the situation. All three are genuinely funny, easy reads with lot of LOL moments.

 Any teacher out there will agree that checking exam sheets is a monotonous work. But the gem of answers they sometimes come across makes the whole effort worth while. I remember an article that collected such comic answers that was published more than one and a half decade back in a Malayalam newspaper that was so widely read that even now people quote them. These days there are lot of forwarded mails and pictures with similar content that are circulated through social media and email. F in Exams: The Very Best of Totally Wrong Test Answers is a such a compilation by Richard Benson. The collection of the most craziest answers categorized into different disciplines- Maths, History, Geography, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, is one laugh riot from start to end. It is printed in the style of real exam sheet with printed questions and handwritten answers. Even the evaluator's remarks and marks can be seen in some. At first I felt they are authentic, but close observation reveals the handwriting of all answers very much identical. I would recommend this book heavily.

 There are two kinds of people in the world- book readers and others. When the others venture inside a book stall crazy things occur. Weird Things Customers Say in Book Shops, by Jen Campbell recounts many real enquiries- wierd, perplexing and out right crazy that bookshop salespersons had to face. We can observe that these questions arise due to different reasons- idiocy, lack of knowledge or plain mischief. Someone asks about the books written by Jane Eyre while some other want to know if Charles Dickens has written anything fun. Read it and have a good time.

 How to tell if your cat is plotting to kill you?... This is the name of third book. Written and sketched by The Oatmeal (of, it is the collection of humorous comics from his site. This book, as the name indicates, is a commentary on feline behaviour which is funny on most of the parts. It is a small book, which can be read with in half an hour. To tell the truth I was not much impressed by it, though it is an amusing read. May be because I am not a cat person or it may be my fondness to Garfield, who makes a more interesting cat than any other.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Micro and Andromeda Strain: The First and Last of Micheal Crichton

The one popular writer about whom I had heard a lot but had never read any works of was Michael Crichton. The first time I read his name was in a newspaper article at the time when Jurassic Park movie released and eventually after watching the movie I was mighty impressed. After that periodically movies released which were based on his novels- Rising Sun, Congo etc. Every book stores, secondhand book shops, libraries that I visited had at least a rack dedicated to his books. Still I never chanced on any one of his works. These were my thoughts when a couple of weeks back, I stood at the library browsing for my next read. I was standing near a stack of books authored by Crichton and finally decided on Micro, his last endeavor.

Only after grabbing the book and getting out of the library did I saw the writing credits shared by Richard Preston. A quick check in internet confirmed my worst fears. The novel was started by Michael Crichton but after his death completed by the other writer. I always had bad experiences with such books. The first two Robert Ludlum novels that I read were Deception Point and Ambler Warning. Both were trash and I was wondering how this guy achieved such success. Then I came to know they were incomplete manuscripts, published after his death using ghost writers. Chancellor Manuscript and Bourne Identity confirmed my theory, never to expect much from novels completed by someone else. After reading, I found that Micro is no exception. Micro is a novel written according to a formula. We have seen many times such concepts in books and movies. A bunch of youngsters get trapped in a foreign environment, and get killed one by one. The only way to get the best of this concept is to make the characters believable and interesting and make us cheer at them fighting against odds. In worst cases I had wished the lot of them get killed sooner and faster and end the misery- the reader's (viewer's in case of a movie) misery, I mean.

In Micro a bunch of researchers get shrunk to the size of millimeters and then get trapped in a rain forest, were they are killed one by one by insects and ants and such things. The group is assembled in such a way that every stereotype usually found in such stories are represented. And each one is equipped with a skill set that can help the group survive the horror, which invariably helps them at one point or other. But characters are so silly and situations so predictable, we never feel for any one and sometimes feel good that some of them gets dropped dead on the way. But the novel scores high on the description part. The scenery of the forest is described wonderfully throughout the novel, making us to experience the alien scenes, sounds and even smells of the insect world. I feel the novel was definitely written with a high profile movie in mind- an adult Honey I Shrunk The Kids.

Just to feel how an actual Michael Crichton novel feels, the next time I decided to read Andromeda Strain, which was the first hit novel of Crichton. Andromeda Strain is about a satellite that falls back to earth with a highly toxic and dangerous alien virus in it, which wipes out a whole town. A bunch of scientists, specially prepared for such an eventuality, assembles in an underground layer and tries to find out ways to contain the pathogen. Now this novel is a fine example of how with minimum setting and strong base of science a great techno thriller can be made. Of course the thrills are a bit dated when we read it now, still the characterization and thick plotting makes it a delightful read.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Book Review: Compass Box Killer

There is class fiction, there is mass (pop) fiction and there is pulp fiction. Though never acknowledged in main stream, cultural impact of pulp fiction on society is well studied by academics. Indian pulp fiction works are mostly written in regional languages, in a shoddy way and marketed chiefly for people in lower strata of society, emphasizing more on sleaze and gore than good story telling. This makes it difficult for urban youth to access and enjoy it. Piyush Jha is attempting to follow the conventions of the genre, but at the same time make it enjoyable for every class of readers through his second book Compass Box Killer. The book is published by Rupa.

Compass Box Killer is the story of a serial killer who leaves back a message in the area of crime about the identity of his next victim in (no points for guessing) an old, rusted compass box. The killings are planned so ingeniously that it is evident the killer is a man who is having in depth knowledge and technical expertise. To further add his difficulty, Inspector Virkar has to dodge intrusive media assaults, an unsupportive boss and some one powerful trying to sabotage his investigation. But when he goes deep into the investigation he find out the real motives behind the murders which points to an unsolved death of a young expatriate that happened years before. Read Compass Box Killer to find out if Virkar can solve the mystery of compass box messages and prevent more ruthless murders from happening.

It is interesting to check out how faithfully the writer follows the Pulp novel genre, how much he deviate and how effective it makes the novel. Sleaze and gore are two major and recurring elements of any pulp fiction. Here Piyush Jha scores a jackpot- there is sex related murder in the prologue itself. First chapter feature another murder and body count is taken to two. As the novel progress thanks to the serial killer plot many bodies fall. And also there is some intimacy shared between Virkar and the femme fatale Raashi Hunerwal. But the author makes sure that the detailing of these aspects in his novel never cross the border of vulgarity, unlike the regular ones of the genre. Another positive aspect that the writer has adopted is the relentless pace with lot of twists in the story. For pulp fictions this is a necessity because as they are produced cheap and are intended for quick consumption, a lot happen over a few pages. Compass Box Killer is also a compact novel with one thing or other happening in each of its pages but the story is woven with much rigidity compared to its counterparts. While pulp novels use the moral ambiguity of its protagonists for inserting more sex and blood into the story, in Compass Box Killer Piyush Jha uses it for creating complex characters.

My only complaint about the story is its lack of suspense. The motives and the identity of the killer could have been revealed towards the end of the novel. Otherwise Compass Box Killer is a taut thriller, with a good plot and decent characterization. It is an easy read. If you are in for some escapism find it here.

The book was received as part of Reviewers Programme on The Tales Pensieve.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Authorised Biography of James Bond: Humanizing a Secret Agent

After writing the much successful biography of Ian Fleming, his long time secretary John Pearson stumbled on an old photograph and found out James Bond is a real secret agent, presumably in retirement due to work related trauma. Pearson was recruited by MI6 when they found out their well kept secret is out. They authorised him to write a biography of James Bond and send him to Bermuda were Bond was living. Pearson met Bond, who is fifty and quite healthy but a bit worn out due to pressure. Bond recounted his troubled childhood, tragic death of his parents, his education, days in military service and his eventual transformation to the ruthless, cool secret agent whom we are all familiar with. When the Russian secret organisation Smersh wanted to eliminate him and became almost successful , his mentor Ian Fleming, with the consent of his boss M., plans to write fictional novels about his adventures and confuse the Russians. The plan is more successful than they ever thought it would be, making James Bond an icon for generations. Based on his numerous interviews with Bond over several lunches, dinners and gallons of Bourbon, Pearson wrote James Bond: An Authorised Biography in 1973.

This is the basic plot of the novel James Bond: An Authorised Biography by John Pearson. I had watched most of the Bond movies, but read only very few Bond novels- From Russia With Love and Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming and For Special Services by John Gardener. I found them a bit shallow for my liking and anyway after reading John le Carre there was no point in reading James Bond any more. But biography of Bond had a different appeal. Because he was always so impersonal while on his missions and as all his novels and movies invariably happens during his missions, I felt it will be a great opportunity to get a peek into his mind.

The book is quite interesting in many levels. The prose, narration and characterization is far superior than Ian Fleming's novels. Even if you have not read any James Bond novels before this novel can be read and enjoyed. The back stories of other characters is convincing, but the master stroke is the entry of Ian Fleming as a major character. The book mentions most of the plots of Fleming. Some of the more improbable novels like Moonraker are told to be a trick by Fleming to further confuse Russians and make them believe Bond a man of fiction. To add to the credit of author, the humanizing of Bond in no way takes away the aura from him. It makes him more endearing to readers.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Around India In 80 Trains With Monisha Rajesh

Years back I had a wish to just get in the local compartment of a long route train and travel around without any plan. To take a break for a month from everything and live with just a backpack. Unfortunately at that time, like so many other fabulous wishes, this one too bit the dust. When I picked up Monisha Rajesh's book Around India in 80 Trains, I probably wanted to see my long back abandoned wish realized by someone else.

Monisha Rajesh, a British journalist of Indian origin, had lived in India in her childhood for a very short period with parents. They weren't comfortable with the living conditions and had returned back. After years she decides in favor of returning to take up a journey across India in 80 trains- clearly inspired by the classic adventure novel Around the World in 80 Days. She even calls her photographer travelling companion Passpertout! Just like the Passpertout in the novel there is a phase in the journey were he abandons Monisha 'Phileas Fogg' Rajesh, only to rejoin her later and finish the task on hand.

To her credit, Monisha has travelled extensively and in most of the variety of trains running in the sub-continent. From toy trains to locals to luxury coaches she has covered it all. But more than just travelling in them, she has inter-acted with passengers belonging to varied social strata, gender and professions and she then goes on to write about them in a funny yet touching way. What makes the book reach a higher level than many similar travelogues is the writer's background. Her bad experiences with living in India during her childhood has caused a cynicism to the general attitudes of Indian living. Her constant efforts to come in terms with this adds depth to the book. This is a book written with lot of honesty and good amount of wit.

On the flip side, some parts of the book seemed to be written in a rush. She doesn't write much about most of places that she visited. Of course whatever is there- temples of Karnataka, Golden Temple, Simla- are great to read. The book is more of an account of people she saw on the course of the journey. There are a few parts where her cynicism irritated me a bit. She knew what to expect when she took up this journey, then why to crib so much about insensitive beaurocracy, intrusive public, unclean surroundings...?

I would recommend Around India in 80 Trains to all who like travelling. It is a well written travelogue, honest and witty.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Malayalam Movie Shutter: Movie With Moral

As I told in my last post about Amen, Malayalam movie industry is in a rediscovery mode, churning out products that are out of the box. Major players who brought these changes are youngsters who are reluctant to abide all tried and trusted formulae and are willing to experiment with themes, plots and treatment. A similar phase occurred in mid 80s when many youngsters made such brave attempts to redefine movie making. Suddenly portraying the grey spots that inhibited the fringes of society like prostitution, extra/ pre marital affairs, slums and poverty became no more taboo. One such movie was Amma Ariyan, directed by legendary John Abraham (not to be confused with the Bollywood hero) which is among the 10 best Indian films selected by British Film Institute. Joy Matthew, the protagonist of that movie, who went on to become a veteran theatre personality of Kerala has made his debut movie as a director with this social thriller named Shutter. It was interesting to watch it and find what is brought on the table of New Generation Cinema by someone who has a first hand experience of the movies of 80s.

Shutter is a movie that is satirical of the present social system existing in Kerala. It narrate the story of a man trapped inside an unused shop with a prostitute for a night and a day. The movie portray his angst and his anxiety about the impending humiliation when his family find out about the embarrassing situation. But his adventure inside the shutter broaden his narrow mind and eventually help come from unexpected quarter changing him for good. The story mentions several social evils existing in present day Malayali society like alcoholism, moral decay, betrayal, underage marriage, corruption, indiscipline and distrust. To the credit of the director, he does not go overboard and present a bird's eye view of everything. The package is neat and slick, suspense is gripping and the absence of sleaze and foul language even with the subject matter movie is trying to deal with, is commendable. The major difference between Shutter and other New Generation Malayalam movies lies in its emphasize on a strong moral base. It delivers a strong message on morality very subtly.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Malayalam Movie Amen: A Visual Fable

Movies are basically a visual form of art like a painting or a sculpture. What makes movies different from paintings is the scope to add to it other artistic expressions like a piece of music or literature for enhancing the effect of the viewing experience. But practically what we find is that while making movies, more importance is given to a structured story (it may be even an absurd one were a hero can fight singlehandedly with scores of men simultaneously dodging countless bullets and in the next scene romance the heroine on the top of Alps) and movie making is reduced to a level of simple story telling following the route of a live drama (in fact most of the plays that I watched recently, tries and transcends the limitations of stage gloriously, making them much better than any average movie). We, the viewers are so much conditioned to the story-centrist approach of movies that any variation in it will cause us to reject the movie labelling it as self centered, indulgent or arthouse making it commercially not viable to make movies that fully utilise the potential of movie making.

Recently Malayalam movie industry is on a self discovery stage and several attempts are being made to take movie making out of its comfort zones and deliver results that defy conventions. So it was quite natural that a talented movie maker decided to make a movie that is not mere story telling. Amen is the third movie by Lijo Jose Pellissery. The movie does not have much of a plot or great characterization in the conventional sense. It is told in a very leisurely pace, ensuring that each shot is aesthetically good but never compromising on the overall coherent structure. It explores ways to make the movie watching a visual experience and everything else- acting, plot, dialogue and songs contributing to enhance it. The movie is a fine balance between commercial and artistic cinema. It performed well in theatres. Amen is a director's movie with a basic underdog plot and dominated by beautiful individual shots that unfolds like a dreamy fable.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Dongri to Dubai: Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia by S.Hussain Zaidi

The underworld of Mumbai and its modus operandi are familiar to people outside Mumbai through newspaper reports, crime features in media and many gangster flicks churned out regularly by Bollywood and other film industries of the subcontinent. Dongri to Dubai is an attempt by veteran crime reporter Hussain Zaidi to chronicle the birth and rise of the monster that is Mumbai mafia in the past six decades. As the key player of the game is Dawood Ibrahim, it is just natural that his story occupies the major portion of the book. Even the title mentions his rise from a small time law breaker in Dongri to the kingpin of an international enterprise indulging in several illegal activities with its pivot in Dubai and its tentacles spread world over.

The book starts with a telephone interview that the writer had with Dawood, which in itself is a rarity and a priceless scoop as the Don is rather reluctant to come out in public after the infamous blasts. Even any of his recent photographs are not available in the public domain. The story then go back to pre-independance years and describe the formation of several small gangs operated by immigrants from North India. After detailing the plight of many minor gangsters and their eventual fading into oblivion, caused by fighting among themselves or by the long hands of law, we read about the rise of one man who is responsible for the first criminal empire in Mumbai- Haji Mustan. Mustan, who used to be a coolie on the docks, took up smuggling for the extra monetary benefits. Soon he built links with Gulf countries and graduated to an established gold smuggler. The other two gangsters who joined hands with Mustan to form a troika of money, muscles and network were Varadarajan Mudaliar, the South Indian illegal hooch king and Karim Lala, the powerful leader of Pathan gang.

Ibrahim Kaskar was a police constable who maintained good relation with all major gangsters. His son Dawood clashed with Pathan gang and was aided by Bombay Police to form his own gang and quash the Pathan power. Police wanted to use Dawood for their own aid, but he had other plans and was using police support for his own benefit. Soon gang wars raged on the streets and Dawood emerged the lone survivor, sidelining even Mustan and Karim Lala. After the Bombay blasts, Dawood and his aides had to leave India. Still his clout was maintained and Mumbai mafia was remote controlled from Dubai. Fallout between Dawood and Chhota Rajan, how Dawood ended up in Karachi and the relationship of Bollywood and D company are the other major episodes in the drama.

Dongri to Dubai has an exhaustive subject scope with lot of details. The writer should be given full credit for exploring it with such passion and vigour. He covers a lot of ground and yet manages never to bore or confuse the reader throughout the narrative. The language of street with liberal sprinkling of expletives adds the authenticity. For those of us who are aware of many incidents and characters described in the book, it serve as kind of a solved fill in the blanks puzzle. The revelation of motives and hidden agendas behind incidents that are embedded in psyche through newspaper reports (like the attempt on Chotta Rajan's life or Chotta Shakeel's innings in Bollywood that ended in a debacle) were interesting to say the least.

One issue that I had with the book is its attempt to sensationalise the issues. The description sometimes descends to tabloid quality. Also the human angle is never presented, causing the narrative to never rise above the level of a nineties Bollywood revenge thriller. Also the writer describe the links between mafia and film industry in length, but surprisingly is quiet about its connection with cricket. Nowhere the name of a cricket player is mentioned. Inspite of these, Dongri to Dubai is a wonderful book. It serves as a compelling and necessary read for all, as terrorism and mafia is engulfing our ordinary lives in many different ways. For example it was shocking for me to realize that the profit from selling of pirated DVDs in the subcontinent is used for funding terrorism! No more grey market DVDs for me.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Number One Ladies Detective Agency: Flavor Botswana

The Number One Ladies Detective Agency: I am not sure why I picked up this book to read! From some time I had noticed the books of this series on the shelves of my friendly neighborhood library and many book stalls. I am always reluctant to choose a book that is part of a series. Still I chose The Number One Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. May be I needed a relaxing and easy read then, which the cover art of the book promised.

The story is set in Botswana. Mma Precious Ramotswe is the proprietor of the country's (probably even whole Africa's) first private detective agency run by a lady. After escaping an abusive marriage, she sets up her agency with the help of an inheritance. Initially no many clients approach her but soon business improves thanks to her sharp intellect and sincere approach. She solves many cases involving missing husbands, dishonest teenage kids, fraud imposters and so on. She finds a good friend in the neighboring motor mechanic and feelings start to develop. There is parallel track concerning a missing kid who is probably kidnapped for the purpose of witch craft.

The novel is an easy read. It captures the living conditions and culture of Botswana beautifully. The lead character is the main reason to read the novel. Mma Ramotswe is portrayed as a no nonsense African lady with huge respect for the culture and tradition she had grown up in. She has a very good sense of justice which she uses in her profession to help others. The social conditions of the continent- superstitions, gender bias, cultural differences between several ethnicities, traditions and traditional values are portrayed in a picturesque manner. But if you are looking for a conventional mystery, you are in for disappointment. The pace here is more relaxed and the plot is a bit disjointed. Unlike other detective fiction, this novel does not even have a central mystery for the detective to solve.

I liked the book and would recommend it if anybody wants a light read. But I am not sure if I will ever try the follow up books.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene: On Doubt and Belief

A Catholic priest named Quixote and a Communist mayor named Sancho goes on an adventurous trip on a battered car named Rocinante with a seemingly unlimited supply of wine. This is the one line plot of the short but poignant 1982 novel Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene. You would have identified the characters by now if you are familiar with Cervantice' classic Don Quixote. Monsignor Quixote is a retelling of the masterpiece in post-Franco (a ruthless dictator) Spain. The novel discuss several topics like religion, politics, love and dictatorship.

Father Quixote, a simple priest who claims to be a descendant of the legendary Don Quixote, serving in a small village is unexpectedly promoted as a Monsignor when he helps a stranded Italian Bishop. His Bishop finds it surprising as he suspects Father Quixote of aiding Communists. At the same time the Communist Mayor of the town, who shares his surname with Sancho Panza, Don Quixote's sidekick, loses his position. Priest and Communist, both on good talking terms with each other decides to use this opportunity for an unplanned trip across the country in Quixote's old, withering car whom he fondly calls Rocinante. The novel describes their adventures on the way which faintly resembles those on Don Quixote's journey, the conversations between them about each others beliefs while downing bottles of wine and finally culminate in the tragic but expected (if you have read Don Quixote) climax.

By making his protagonists believers in two extreme ideologies, Graham Greene very cleverly sets up stage for some thought provoking discussions. At the same time it never gets serious or monotonous but gives the feel of a light banter between thick friends. There are many adventures thrown in between conversations where these friends get entangled with and get themselves pursued by law enforcers. The innocence of the lead character is endearing. There is a situation were he gets in for watching a movie titled Maiden's Prayer inspired by the title and it turns out to be a semi- porno film.

I believe the conversations in the novel between the priest and the communist are actually two voices inside the writer himself. If viewed closely we can find a man torn between beliefs and ideals. There is a nightmare that Father Quixote sees. On the third day after getting crucified, all are convinced that Christ is the Son of God beyond any doubt. There is no resurrection and all Roman generals and Jews gather to make Him ascend the throne. Father Quixote feels that if there is no doubt to anyone that Christ is the Messiah, religion becomes obsolete. Faith and belief survive by hanging on the narrow thread of doubt.

Monsignor Quixote is a novel that is entertaining and enriching simultaneously. Its short and beautifully carved, with characters whom we can identify with and studded with hilarious situational comedy. A definite must read.