Sunday, December 29, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Book Thief”

Set in Nazi Germany, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is the story of Liesel Meminger’s life with her foster parents shortly after her father abandons the family, her mother gives her up, and her brother dies en route. Narrated by Death, this flawless story has been one of the greater reading experiences of my life; one that I dare not ever re-visit for the sheer horror and grief it evoked, yet one that is unlikely to get out of my memory any time soon.

One of the things that really set this story apart was its unique narration - by Death itself. Even more unusual is the occasional humour and the sheer poetry that envelops everything Death says and does. Before we even get into the story, we are surrounded by warm evocative colours: Europe is grey, kindness is soft silver melting … into this visually enigmatic world crashes the heart-wrenching tale of Liesel Meminger, of Rudy Steiner who only ever wanted to be Jesse Owens, of Hans Hubermann who ‘dared’ to give a Jew a piece of bread, of Max Vandenburg who lives a large part of his adult life crouching in a basement covered by old paint cans and dirty drop sheets, fantasizing about ring fights with Hitler or painting over books and writing his own stories, and of scores of other people, whose destinies were decided by the actions of one “strange, small man” who - in the words of Max - decided: “1. He would part his hair from the opposite side to everyone else. 2. He would make himself a small, strange mustache. 3. He would one day rule the world”.

Amid all the tragedy, Death does not let up for even a moment as it talks about people and situations and gives a glimpse into an uneasy future with such words of doom as, “For now though let’s let him enjoy it, we’ll give him seven months and then we will come for him”. While this style does not leave room for any twists or surprises, it certainly ensures a constant presence of fear that never lets up; we are not even afforded the luxury of a false sense of security.

Book-ended by The Grave Digger’s Handbook and The Word Shaker, 33 Himmel Street sits at the core of so much terror, so much sorrow, and yet so much resilience … I prayed for Max and I cheered for Hans and I cried for Rudy, and - like Death - I will be haunted by the book thief for a long time to come. A powerful story. And not just because the writing was so brilliant. But also because this is not fiction.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Love Among the Chickens”

What do you do when life’s tensions really start to get you down? You turn to P. G. Wodehouse of course.

Preposterous people with ridiculous names working on ludicrous schemes - all the trademarks of the inimitable Wodehouse come together once again to form yet another joyous reading experience.

Writer Jeremy Garnet recalls the time when his friend Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge decided to launch a chicken farm. As Garnet is bulldozed into moving in with Ukridge and his wife in the capacity of an adviser, his initial apprehensions are quickly realized as Ukridge reveals himself to know absolutely nothing about chickens. And as one disastrous incident after the other occurs on the farm, starting with the arrival of a huge consignment of assorted chickens and the overwhelming task of getting them organized into coops and fences, we find ourselves thick in the middle of yet another bizarre tale; this time with cats stuck in chimneys, sick chickens, drowning professors, croquet, tennis and golf games, and of course, a crowning glory of angry creditors. A tale that - as always - still manages to include a love story where all ends well!

Wodehouse is one of the classics I find myself returning to every so often - not just to relive happy memories, but to discover anew the power of wit and humour that can really brush the poisonous cobwebs of life’s stresses away.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared”

“Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann”

A birthday party is planned at the retirement home where Allan Karlsson has just turned 100. The grand event is also graced by the presence of the Mayor and the press.

In no more than his brown jacket, brown trousers and pee slippers, this is the moment that the centenarian decides to escape. You think that’s odd?

At the bus station Allan, entrusted with a suitcase while its owner takes a bathroom break, takes off with the suitcase upon the arrival of the next bus. You think that’s weird?

You have no idea what’s to come! Jonas Jonasson tells us the ludicrous, yet fascinating story of a man who has been present at the most key moments in the last 100 years of human history. Actually, most of these key moments occurred precisely because he was there. As Allan hobnobs with all the world leaders from the President of the United States to the Shah of Iran, from Stalin to General Franco, from Mao Tse Tung to Kim II Sung, an extraordinary series of world events unfolds as he fuels diplomatic alliances and world wars with equal disregard.

Explosives expert. Eternal optimist. Swears by vodka. And could not care about religion or politics. This is the man who, on his 100th birthday, takes off with a stolen suitcase. To meet petty thief Julius Jonsson, eternal student Benny Ljungberg, Gunilla The Beauty Bjorklund, elephant Sonya, dog Buster, Bosse, Chief Inspector Aronsson, gangster Per-Gunner Gerdin … And with each larger than life character, the story gets just a little more interesting.

There is violence; not just in Gustavsson’s being blown up by dynamite or in Bolt being crushed to death by an elephant, but mainly - as Allan puts it - in his teaching the West how to make a bomb, and then giving the same information to the East. But the sheer over-the-top quirkiness makes this story a brilliant satire of all the crime and corruption in the world. “My name is Dollars. One Hundred Thousand Dollars.”

I also really liked the narrative style: on one hand we follow the 100-year-old Allan’s adventures starting from 2005 Malmkoping; on the other - through flashbacks - we catch up with the story of his unbelievable life starting from the 1920s, till the two timelines meet up on the day the 100-year-old man climbed out the window.

A ludicrous story (the title should have been a hint of things to come) filled with a lot of fun, a lot of laughter, and an ending that was such a ‘feel good’ moment. Like it said in the misprinted Bible, “They all lived happily ever after”.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Sacré Bleu”

“What is the standard when you are doing something that’s never been done? What kind of muse inspires that? Exactly.”

Sacré Bleu! What an awesome story! Christopher Moore’s tale follows friends Lucien Lessard, a young baker-painter and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec on a quest to unravel the mystery behind the supposed “suicide” of Vincent van Gogh. The French ‘curse’ word for “sacred blue” (which refers to Christ’s mother, Mary - often depicted in art in a blue dress) their journey undercuts the whole concept of the immaculate conception (it is Moore!) while unravelling a mystery that leads them to one of the oldest stories in human history.

“… Madame’s mother, who, upon a sunny day, when the twin locomotives of her bosom toward her cumulous skirts through the market at Louveciennes, was followed by children and dogs seeking shade” … “He tried to assume the beatific look he’d seen on the Renaissance Virgin Marys in the Louvre, but he only succeeded in looking as if he were being touched inappropriately by the Holy Ghost.” Yes, Moore is still very funny, but - unlike ‘Lamb’ (the book I read prior to this) - this story was really an absorbing mystery; sometimes comical, sometimes irreverent, but always a fantastic mystery, steeped in intrigue and passion, set in the gorgeous art scene of 19th century Paris.

After shooting himself in a cornfield, van Gogh walked a mile to see Dr. Gachet before dying. Was this really a suicide as history reports? In attempting to answer that question, Moore brings to life all the greats such as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gaugin, Jean Renoir, Monet, Manet, Pisarro and Michelangelo (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was my absolute favourite character - and not just in this book) endowing rich details to their lives and mannerisms, and making the reader look at their paintings with a whole new perspective (is it The Bath or is it Luncheon on the Grass?)

A very visual experience, this mysterious story weaves in and out of the world’s most famous paintings and most renowned artists; the passion of Juliette and the beauty of Carmen; the timeless Virgin Mary and of course the ethereal Colorman. And it creates a fascinating tale, drenched in the colour blue.

(Oh, and that tiny reference to Oscar Wilde towards the end made me so very gleeful!)

Not counting sci-fi, which is by default all about unique subject matters, this was one of the most unique concepts I have ever read, told by one of the more engaging storytellers of our time. No pun intended, but this book really came out of the blue and grabbed me quite completely! The extraordinary story of Art and its Muse.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Death of an Expert Witness”

This mystery, featuring Scotland Yard’s Commander Adam Dalgliesh, was my first introduction to crime writer P. D. James, and it was such a great read that I am a little regretful at not having started sooner.

The body of a young girl is discovered in a field, and the forensic team from Hoggatt’s Laboratory East Anglia is called in to investigate. In a surprising twist, the central murder of this story moves from the murdered girl to one of the forensic scientists - shadowed in the macabre killing of a plasticine doll by Nell. I thought it was a brilliant idea to have the murder set amongst forensic experts - we are constantly pitted against a killer who has expert knowledge of the human body, and thereby knows all the ins and outs, what pitfalls to avoid, and how to throw someone off the trail, always avoiding the common mistakes an ordinary killer would be likely to commit.

When the story started off, a lot of people were introduced very quickly, and with all the relations and back-stories, it was actually a little confusing in the beginning. The characters, however, were interesting and distinct enough to become memorable very quickly, and things really started to fall in place. Also, precisely because there were so many characters with so many stories that when wrap up time comes, all those stories click so perfectly into place - making for a far richer experience.

Settings and the atmosphere are very big factors for me, and this narrative had a truly memorable setting in rural England - making a small English village come alive and literally surround me. What was an added stroke of genius (and I don’t come across this very often) was the way the writer described the distinct smells inside each house; it made the reading experience very, very real.

I also really liked the small diversions that the story takes, when conversations turn to some deeper questions about life in general; be it Freeborn’s comment to Dalgliesh on “Management. The new science”, which he sees as pointless and in no way any more useful than general administration; or Copley’s conversation with Middlemass regarding the fallibility, yet, necessity of the jury system; or Massingham’s view of the purpose - or lack thereof - of Life; or Nell’s startlingly deep thoughts on murder and retribution; or (and this one really touched a nerve) the simple yet brutal comment on loneliness - as seen through the eyes of a prostitute … In the flurry of the madness caused by an unnatural death, these brief moments really made me stop and consider.

I’m in two minds as to how I feel about the final reveal. While the identity of the killer was definitely unexpected, I’m not sure I am entirely convinced by the killer’s motive … then again, as they say, the most terrifying weapon is love, not hate, and the ending was certainly bittersweet.

This was a very good story, told superbly, and I will be reading another one of her books very soon.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Coraline”

As I read more books by Neil Gaiman, I realize I really do like him a lot! My latest read, Coraline, is the horror/fantasy story of Coraline Jones and the events that transpire when her family moves into an old house that has been divided into individual apartments.

An ordinary brick wall that separates their apartment and the one adjacent to theirs miraculously disappears the day Coraline opens the door unaccompanied by anyone else. That mysterious doorway then becomes the entry point to a parallel universe - with a twisted version of the exact same people in her life: retired stage actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, Mr. Bobo and his circus mice, and her Other Mother and Other Father.

Where the terror of buttons sewn into eyes drives her back to her own world, the “Help Us” scrawled on the glass takes her back on a heroic journey through the creepy “Other World”, armed with but a lucky stone that has a hole in the centre.

Bravery isn’t the absence of fear - quite contrarily, it is being very afraid, and yet doing the right thing anyway. That is the heart-warming message that comes through as we follow Coraline’s terrifying rescue involving dead children, ghosts, dog bats, humans melted together in a cocoon … and of course, the evil Other Mother.

Another fantastic work by Gaiman, filled with that unapologetic surrender to unfettered fantasy that is, in my opinion, his trademark.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Happy 50th Birthday, Doctor Who!

I know this blog is dedicated to book reviews, but I just could not let this historic day go by without acknowledging the greatest creation that I have been fortunate enough to experience.

I have had many likes and many passions, but not to this life-altering degree, and so I say to all those brilliant hearts and minds that have come together to create this wonderful world: Happy Birthday! Thank you so much for taking me on this incredible journey through time and space and opening my mind to limitless possibilities.

One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.”

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Alchemyst”

The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel is the first novel in the six book fantasy fiction series ‘The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel’ by Michael Scott.

Before humans ever came into being, there existed the race of Elders. History calls them gods. From their time come the elements we all know - fire, earth, water, air - and a fifth element which is “the greatest of all the magics” … it is the battle for the stolen codex that brings together two ancient warring powers, Nicholas Flamel and John Dee, and forms the basis of this tale - a story that takes us from an ordinary street in San Francisco to the heart of Yggdrasill in a fantastic shadowrealm, weaving its way through the worlds of the Great Queen Morrigan and The Mistress of Air, the Witch of Endor.

Overall, I thought the concept of the story was brilliant - it was a really good fantasy story, with some truly memorable characters and moments. From the undead stone Golems that come marching in to the small bookshop where Josh Newman works, to Hekate’s house in the parallel universe of the shadowrealm where Sophie and Josh, Nicholas and Scathach take refuge, this was a fantastic world.

I also liked how the ancient myth in the story is constantly linked to actual history and legend that we are all aware of, thereby heightening the sense of credibility. To take an example, the earliest gods such as Anubis are said to have animal shapes because of the Toc clans that lived along with humans hundreds of years ago.

“The two that are one, the one that is all” … I thought that the prophecy in this story was awesome. In fact, it was a little disappointing that the second part of this prophecy, where there is confusion about the interpretation pertaining to saving or destroying the world, was not explored a little more. Josh’s introduction to necromancy serving as a nemesis to Sophie’s Awakening was barely touched upon before being abandoned hurriedly. Then again, this was the first book of a series; the subject may be broached later.

For me, where the book fell short of being truly memorable was in its telling. With the rich ideas that form its core, I feel a lot more could have been done with the narrative. The pace seemed to lag at times, making the reading quite boring. And when all was said and done, not a lot really happened - it really came down to a fight, a run to another place, another big fight, another escape, the end. A good story somehow missed the mark in its story telling.

Still, this was a good read, and I will definitely be checking out the next in the series!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Sentinel”

Arthur C. Clarke - who continues to be one of my top four favourite authors, and whom I consider the best science fiction writer of all time - once called science fiction “the only genuine consciousness expanding drug”. Every now and then, I revisit his work, and it truly enriches my mind and gives me a fresh shot of wonder and hope all over again!

From the advancement and resilience of humans in “Rescue Party” to the crime and drama of “Breaking Strain”, from the discovery of new life in “Jupiter V” to a startling discovery by a cyborg in “A Meeting with Medusa”, from a stowaway prince in “Refugee” to a race for survival with drastic results in “The Songs of Distant Earth”, the stories in this anthology wove through the farthest reaches of infinity to the deepest points in my mind.

My top three stories in this anthology were:

3. The Wind from the Sun
Imagine a spaceship - no, I really mean ‘ship’ - as in, a ship that sails on the sea - complete with sails and all. Now imagine a whole fleet of these - but in space! This story is about sun-yacht racing that starts in the Earth’s orbit, and continues in Space, pushed simply by the pressure of sunlight. The idea was fascinating enough on its own - what drew this story especially close to my heart was the final act by Merton - the kind of heroism that goes beyond the self in the name of science.

2. Guardian Angel
What happens when a much superior intelligence decides to colonize Earth? This story deals with the repercussions of such an alien invasion, including of course all the drama that comes with public opinion being invariably split between the followers and the rebels. For me, what added a final brilliant stroke to the story was the very brief glimpse of Karellen’s true form at the very end; it took the story from a world of futuristic science fiction to a distant past of myth and racial memories - a concept that is of course dealt with in more detail, in Childhood’s End.

1. The Sentinel
Although this is generally referred to as the story out of which 2001: A Space Odyssey emerged, I can see exactly why Clarke never liked that comparison. This story is about the discovery of an artefact on Earth’s Moon left behind eons ago by ancient aliens - and the alarm that that discovery triggers off. The feel of infinity in this story is matched only by the fearful brilliance of the reasoning behind the set up of the alarm.

Science fiction has always been my preferred genre, be it for reading books or watching movies; where Arthur C. Clarke touches my mind more than anyone else is in the sheer endlessness of his imagination, his unparalleled capability of taking you along with him on a journey to a far, far place you never would have imagined even existed, let alone experienced!

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Heart-Shaped Box”

“The dead will drag the living down.”

This horror novel by Joe Hill is the story of aging rock star Judas Coyne and how his love of collecting weird, morbid and supernatural things leads him to buy a dead man’s suit … when the ghost attached to the funeral suit refuses to leave, it unleashes a reign of terror and unearths a series of horrific incidents.

As a child raised on a farm under the aegis of a very strict father, Justin Cowzynski’s adult life as a rocker is surrounded by everything from acid and suicide to heartbreak and murder. The unnatural death of one of his exes - Florida - becomes the basis of this tale of suspense and horror.

Like the ghost that cannot be rid of, the strongest feature of this story was the relentless sense of terror that never once lets up. Bound together by the eyes with the black marker scribbles - a fantastic imagery that runs throughout the story - no matter where Judas and Georgia run, the spirit constantly finds them out: in a song that suddenly comes on, in radio ads, in an inexplicable email, in a weird incident in the car in the garage, in a spooky call from Danny Wooten, in the diner with the electrolarynx…

What I also really liked about the story was that it was not just about horror for the sake of horror. This is a story of a dark past and a terrifying present; one that moves from a very creepy world to a very sordid one, climaxing with high drama at end, with an absolutely surreal ending that commences with the drive down the ‘night road’.

I also loved the characters of this story: each and every one of them - the sinister Craddock McDermott, the weird Judas Coyne, the tragic Florida, the sick Jessica, and, other main character, Georgia - who shows remarkable growth in her staunch and loyal support of the haunted Judas.

I am quite the newbie when it comes to reading horror, so it may well be that I know no better, but I have to say I really liked this story a lot - interspersed by scenes of violent horror as much as softened by allusions to sad pasts, the story not only carried a constant sense of fear, but was also filled with unbelievable plot turns, and these surprise twists made Heart-Shaped Box a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Postscript: A few minutes (literally) before posting this blog, I had a fantastic moment of startling revelation of my own - Joe Hill is apparently the son of Stephen King. HUH! … Especially shocking for me, as readers of my blog (all two of you) know exactly how I feel about Mr. King.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal”

“By the way, his name was Joshua. Jesus is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Yeshua, which is Joshua. Christ is not a last name. It’s the Greek for messiah, a Hebrew word meaning anointed. I have no idea what the ‘H’ in Jesus H. Christ stood for. It’s one of the things I should have asked him. Me? I am Levi who is called Biff. No middle initial. Joshua was my best friend.”

Angel Stephan tells Angel Raziel to go down to Earth (or “dirt-side” as they call it) and resurrect Biff - who has been dead and buried for about 2000 years - so that he could complete the missing parts of the Bible. I thoroughly enjoyed this creative, irreverent, warm and funny story by Christopher Moore about the ‘lost’ years of Jesus Christ.

Under the watchful eye of Raziel (who is really only interested in soap operas and Spider-man, and who doesn’t get the difference between television and real life) Biff completes “The Gospel According to Biff” - the true story of Joshua’s childhood and youth, and how he came to finally become the Messiah he is known as today.

Borne of an utter helplessness as to how to fulfill the prophecy, Joshua decides to travel eastward to seek out the Three Wise Men who attended his birth, in hopes of getting some tips on how to be a Messiah. Leaving behind their childhood home, with all its memories - their lessons, their crush on Mary of Magdala, the bully Jakan, the village idiot Bartholomew, the sin of Onan (look it up!) … the two best friends go on a long journey, where - between inventing sarcasm and discovering coffee - they gather precious bits of knowledge in preparation for their final destiny.

From Balthasar, an African magician living in Kabul, Afghanistan, they learn everything from Taoism and alchemy to life with eight concubines and a dragon. The Buddhist monk Gasper, who runs a monastery in the mountains of China, teaches them meditation, the martial art of judo (well, ‘jew-do’, originally) and the ultimate secret of the Yeti. In India, the yogi named Melchior teaches them about the Divine Spark (which later forms the basis of the idea of the Holy Spirit) and how to multiply rice and fish. India is also where Biff learns all about the Kama Sutra.

These are the experiences that form the basis of the future of Joshua and his devoted band of 15 disciples who help him with everything from writing the speech for the Sermon on the Mount to being active members in the unfolding of the final drama.

The two main characters, Joshua and Biff, were brilliant. Biff is as funny as he is smart, and remains a staunchly loyal friend to Josh till the very end. Angel Raziel may call him an a**hole; but that’s probably because Biff refuses to let his aura blind him to the fact that the angel is extremely dim witted, at one point even asking him if he’s sure the glow around him isn’t his stupidity leaking out of him. Joshua has also been portrayed as a really cool person - sure, he heals people and talks about the love of God - but when the situation calls for it, he also drops the ‘F’ bomb, and teaches a small girl to show the middle finger to a corrupt Roman soldier.

And that’s really at the core of that added ‘feel good’ air about this story. It doesn’t portray a histrionic god or an extremist religion. If at any point the story tries to ‘teach’ anything, it’s really just a gentle reminder of a back-to-basics view of religion, of being kind, of doing good. And of not taking anything too seriously - “remember bacon”.

Although it didn’t need to be said, the author’s epilogue - an absolute must-read for those who harbour unease - summed up his intentions perfectly. When all is said and done, as Moore says, “This story is not and never was meant to challenge anyone’s faith; however, if one’s faith can be shaken by stories in a humorous novel, one may have a bit more praying to do.”

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”

I actually had to wait nearly two months to check this book out of the library … and I see what the hype is all about. I count The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman, among one of the better, more intense reading experiences of my life.

When the book starts off - with the narrator taking a quick side trip from the funeral he has come to attend at his childhood hometown - the one overwhelming sense I had was that of nostalgia. What was ‘eerie’ about that was the fact that even though the narrator was not describing the kind of place I have ever lived in, or the kind of people I have grown up with, the power of his descriptive journey was so strong, I was getting emotional about the literal and metaphorical trip down memory lane.

The story however does not remain in that earthly mode for very long. As the narrator remembers his childhood years - mainly his interaction with the family of Lettie Hempstock who had said that the pond behind her house was an ocean - weird bits and pieces of memories come to his mind. Starting with the dream that ended with a shilling in his throat, and the walk in the forest that ended with a worm in his foot, the story takes on that fantastical and supernatural hue that is always at the heart of Gaiman’s creativity.

This work was slightly reminiscent of Poe, in that the story wove together elements of horror and poetry so very beautifully. The saga of Ursula Monkton’s attack and elimination by “varmints” in the forest, and the subsequent ripping of the very threads of the fabric of the universe was one of the high points of this story. Another one was, undoubtedly, the sequence of events following the narrator’s dip into the mysterious bucket of ocean water:

“Lettie Hempstock’s ocean flowed inside me, and it filled the entire universe from Egg to Rose. I knew that. I knew what Egg was - where the universe began, to the sound of uncreated voices singing in the void - and I knew where Rose was - that peculiar crinkling of space into dimensions that fold like origami and blossom like strange orchids, and which would mark the last good time before the eventual end of everything and the next big bang, which would be now, I knew now, nothing of the kind.”

This was a brilliant story that entered a beautiful and nostalgic real world - and then used that as a lift-off point for a world of endlessly imaginative fantasy, and I loved it. At the end of it all, there was an overwhelming sense of, “I just had the weirdest dream ever”.

… Or was it all just a dream?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Unnatural Creatures”

When you read stories selected by a good writer you can be confident that most, if not all, of the stories will be good. In this collection of short stories selected by Neil Gaiman, we see Gaiman’s childhood desire to visit a “Museum of Unnatural History”. For, as he says, such a museum exists - werewolves and dragons, manticorns and unicorns do exist - in the pages of books, and in stories like these! My top 5 favourites in this book were:

5. Gabriel Ernest by Saki (H. H. Munro)
I loved this very creepy story about a strange young boy encountered in the woods. The continuing sense of whether or not he is a werewolf, makes for a very interesting read.

4. (----) by Gahan Wilson
This is the story about the day Reginald Archer’s house was invaded by a (----) and, along with him and his butler Faulks, we live through the growing fear as (----) transforms from an annoying spot to something quite horrific as Sir Harry Mandifer comes to discover. Ps: Anyone else reminded of the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who?

3. Sunbird by Neil Gaiman
This story about ultimate foodies brings together myth, fantasy and mystery in a brilliant manner. Sunbird is the story of the Epicurean Club, the members of which have eaten all kinds of strange and exotic creatures … except the mythical Sunbird. The journey to the feast, as well as enchanted memories of days long gone, adds so much to the grand finale.

2. The Sage of Theare by Diana Wynne Jones
Part of the series of tales featuring Chrestomanci, the powerful sorcerer, this story sees the future Sage of Dissolution sent to Chrestomanci’s world by the order-obsessed gods of Theare, who are trying to subvert a major crisis regarding the prophesied chaos accompanying the Sage. Just for being set in the world of science fiction and fantasy, the story was awesome. What really added an interesting spin was Chrestomanci’s taking the abandoned and confused young Sage under his wing, and showing him the invaluable need for asking questions - a concept very alien to his home planet.

1. Come Lady Death by Peter S. Beagle
Tired of always throwing the perfect parties, a highborn London socialite finally decides to top her last best effort - and invites the one famous guest no one else has: Death. What will the guest of honour do when the dancing stops and the party is over? An excellent narration of a brilliant idea.

As with all anthologies, this is a mixed bag of stories, some really good, some less so. What pervades all, however, is the unabashed abandonment to a world of fairy tale and fantasy, with no hidden ‘meaningful’ allusions to the ‘real’ world. The Cockatoucan or Great-Aunt Willoughby by E. Nesbit, The flight of the Horse by Larry Niven, Prismatica by Samuel R. Delany or The Griffin and the Minor Canon by Frank R. Stockton are just some examples of this great flight of fantasy.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “A Maze of Death”

Think of a world with its people and their politics, their fears and prayers, their religions and their faiths … now imagine this world with 14 people. Who don’t know how they got here. Or what they are meant to do. And, in the end, how they are supposed to get out.

In yet another fantastic work by Philip K. Dick, we follow the life-changing events of the colonists of Delmak-O, and travel from concepts of god (whom you can actually communicate with, through a network of prayer amplifiers and transmitters!) to questions of reality (what does ‘Persus 9’ mean?)

To talk too much about this story - in terms of the plot or its telling - would quite ruin the fantastic reading experience. From Ben Tallchief’s very tangible transfer, to Seth Morley’s very inexplicable one; from Maggie Walsh’s undying faith in ‘The Book’, to Milton Babble’s declaration of “there are no miracles … a miracle would be a sign of god’s weakness … If there was a god”; from the enormous gelatinous ‘Tench’ that gives out advice, to the ‘Building’ that raises more questions … this is the story of “rats in a maze of death” in the kind of surreal world that only PKD can create.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Tenth of December”

‘Tenth of December’ is a collection of short stories by George Saunders. This is the first time I have read (and, honestly, heard of) this author, and quite liked the stories. While not all stories were equally memorable (ironically, I cannot remember the theme of the title story), some really stood out.

One of them was ‘Sticks’, the story recounted by a child of his father’s bizarre habit of decorating a pole in the front yard. In a very short and tight story, we see the entire arc of a man’s life from normal, happy times to a descent to oddity and eventually, madness.

Another really good story was ‘Exhortation’. Describing a lengthy memo from Todd, the boss of a group of employees of Room 6, this story will find resonance with anyone who works at a set job, in a set office environment, doing work that is questionable at best and detestable at worst, reporting in to one who is the epitome of all the fake clichés that make up the typical less than ideal, low-level manager.

‘Escape from Spiderhead’ was another remarkable story. It is the story of Jeff, who has been sent to an experimental prison where inhabitants are used to test new pharmaceuticals. Through an experiment to determine the strength of love, a very touching tale of humans and their humanity unfolds. From complete apathy to an all consuming love to an ultimate self sacrifice - under varying degrees of influence of very potent drugs - the tragic satire of this story was a sharp eye-opener.

The story that really drove home a point rooted in current social and moral decadence was ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’, my absolute favourite in this collection. Brilliantly narrated through diary entries, this is the story of a 40-year old middle class man, and his twisted efforts to do the best for his family … I say ‘twisted’ because this is a brutally frank picture of, and a scathing comment on society at its materialistic worst.

Spurred by a sudden lottery win, the man decides to emulate the ‘Joneses’ and upgrade his family’s lifestyle. In the series of events that follows, every act is seen to have a deeper aspect lurking in the shadows. “I, Gropius”, the reality TV show is as funny as it is at a ridiculous nadir of social decadence. Of course the most brutal example of this is the lawn ornament where girls - immigrants / foreign workers - are exhibited on front yards, literally joined at the heads by a surgically inserted microline that runs through their brain. This is a society where such a brutal practice is considered the height of wealth and class. This is the society that rises in righteous indignation against “foreigners taking away our jobs”. And when the girls escape, this is the society that actually wonders at the shortsightedness of women who thus squander the chance at a good life.

The story raises a lot of very contemporary concerns, and this short blog cannot hope to justifiably address them all.

A very good read.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Night Circus”

The circus arrives without warning.

I almost don’t feel like telling you anything about this story other than “please read it” for fear that I will ruin that magical experience I’ve had reading every line and every chapter of this fantastical fairy tale by first time author Erin Morgenstern.

It is difficult to describe - or, quite honestly, ‘rate and review’ - a book that caters purely to the senses. This was a powerful tale of pure magic presented in a rich physical and metaphorical creation. Right from the prologue, “Anticipation”, the tone was set, and I knew I had stumbled on to something unique. The Night Circus is the story of Le Cirque des Rêves (the Circus of Dreams) the circus that is open only from sunset to sunrise. At the core of this circus is a deadly contest between two rivals (who, interestingly enough, do not even know of each other’s identities till much later in the game) - their real magic being showcased as the tricks and illusions that create this impossible circus.

The inception and birth of the circus, the fantastic clock where each hour creates a whole new drama in and around the clock, the magical cauldron of fire lit on opening night by 12 archers, the labyrinth in the sky, the bedtime stories in jars, the pool of tears … every chapter brought countless magical moments and surprising events.

Creating this circus, where (barring one mysterious exception) no one is born, no one ages and no one dies, are such memorable characters as Chandresh Christophe Lefevre, Herr Friedrick Thiessen, the Murray twins Poppet and Widget, and - the greatest fan of all - Bailey.

Amid all the enchanting mists we are never allowed to forget the main plot: the challenge - what is it? who is it between? who will decide the winner? based on what points? … The underlying mystery, started by the man who “has no shadow” is something that we, along with the chosen contestants, must slowly discover with time. For when that realization dawns, and the Circus begins to disintegrate, we truly see the powerful darkness that abounds all around.

Of course the crowning glory of this magical experience is the narrative structure of The Night Circus: it is not written in a linear timeline, rather the tale is woven through flashbacks to the beginnings of the circus, current experiences, and - almost a ‘flash-forward’ - as we follow the adventures of Bailey.

“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.”

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Long Goodbye”

I know that ‘The Big Sleep’ is more famous amongst his works, however since I have seen the movie, for my first Raymond Chandler book I decided to make a fresh start. Centred on his famous detective Philip Marlowe, ‘The Long Goodbye’ is the story of the brutal murder of socialite Sylvia, daughter of millionaire Harlan Potter, and the mysterious suicide of her husband and chief suspect Terry Lennox, a random drunk that Marlowe met outside a club one night.

I absolutely loved the character of Philip Marlowe. He was such an epitome of the cool detective of the 1950s era. I loved the way he conducted himself, the beliefs he held, his sense of loyalty, his sense of right and wrong. And it wasn’t that he didn’t get his share of pounding - at the hands of cops and goons alike - in standing up for his beliefs. I mean, it is easy to act cool when you know the whole world loves or fears you, and there is no danger of any opposition to anything you might say or do; to stand up for your ways, however big or small, even when it is dangerous to do so - now that’s really cool.

The writing was very well paced and made for easy reading. The plot constantly moved forward and I always got the feeling that I was ‘listening’ to someone tell a gripping story in the most interesting manner. There were times when the story did slow down a little, but just as I was reaching the point of wondering where it was all going, suddenly something would happen to swoop it all back up. Generally speaking, the twists in the story were not of the earth-shattering heart-stopping variety, but gentle turns and curves that kept the flow going. That said; there were some things that I did not see coming at all - such as the events that occurred after Marlowe’s meeting with Grenz!

I also really liked the insertion of social comments; every now and then the story features a short paragraph where Chandler goes a little deeper. While this story is more commonly known for its comment on the decadent society of the rich American, one of my personal favourites was the section on life inside a prison cell. It wasn’t anything heavily didactic or dramatically deep … it was just a short paragraph that made me stop for a moment and think. Also brilliant was the final verbal face-off between district attorney Springer and Henry Sherman, managing editor of The Journal - Sherman’s remarks were such a great slap on the face of the influential yet uncultured man that sits in Power.

I liked the ending a lot too - besides the factor of a surprise ending (always a must for a murder mystery) Marlowe’s final decision gave me a very ‘nice’ feeling too. Eileen Wade’s comment to Philip Marlowe, that “The tragedy of life, […], is not that beautiful things die young but that they grow old and mean” - added great significance to the final denouement of this story.

(One comment in conclusion: I was quite irritated by the constant use of the horribly distorted terms, “must of” and “could of”. Since I only read e-books, this could be the fault of the ‘proofreaders’ involved in the digitizing process and not the author’s lack of knowledge of basic English. Either way, it was a very annoying experience).

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Gods Themselves”

A science fiction novel by Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves is the story of a matter-exchanging project started by aliens in a parallel universe, with a view to creating an alternate source of energy.

Based on Friedrich Schiller’s famous quote, “Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain”, the story is divided into three parts: Against Stupidity - which takes place on Earth and traces the discovery of plutonium 186 and the creation of the Electron Pump; The Gods Themselves - which takes us to the world of the aliens in the parallel universe; and Contend In Vain? - which takes place on the Moon and looks at a whole new population.

Without question, the first part was brilliant. An element that does not exist, aliens who are trying to establish contact, a parallel universe that is dying … this was science fiction in its purest form. From imagining a road that is downhill both ways to the concept of water running uphill, this was the section that destroyed the very basic understanding of the laws of the universe. Lamont’s questioning of Frederick Hallam’s Pump and raising the possibility of the sun becoming a supernova takes that undermining to a whole new level, climaxing of course with the incoming message “FEER”.

Unfortunately, the story really did not continue in that high vein in its second and third parts. The second part was all about the aliens, chiefly told through the story of the Triad of Odeen, Dua and Tritt. While it was certainly interesting reading about a life form where all creatures are either ‘hard ones’ or ‘soft ones’, with the latter having fixed roles of (left) Rationals, (mid) Emotionals and (right) Parentals, I felt that there was just too much discussion on the social and sexual lives of the aliens, with the core business of the story forgotten for the most part. (Without giving anything away, I will say that the one incident concerning Estwald, which occurs at the very end of this section, was absolutely brilliant!)

The third and final section on the moon - although it still meandered through a guided trip of the moon and all its extra curricular activities - did bring some of the story back on track and gave it some sort of a denouement. Assisted by Lunarian Selene Lindstrom, Denison revisits the potential catastrophe posed by the Electron Pump as he taps into a second parallel universe that exists in a pre-big bang state as a cosmic egg.

When in future I think of this story, I think I will remember that one-third of it was awesome, and I will find that I have faint or no memory of the remaining two-thirds!

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “At the Mountains of Madness”

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ by H. P. Lovecraft is the narrative of Professor William Dyer, based on his discovery of a horrific secret on an expedition to Antarctica.

Let me start today’s blog with my last thought on this story: a brilliant idea that was quite ruined by a repeated insistence of labelling as ‘horror’ something I can only term ‘fascinating’.

I have always been fascinated by thoughts of where and how it all started, what was going on before the Big Bang, what is beyond the edge of Space, if in fact it does ever end … It was awesome reading about the discovery of ancient life forms - creatures that had features of plants and animals, man and fish - yet at an advanced stage of development impossible for the ancient era to which they belonged. From those curious fossils, the expedition goes on to discover the abandoned stone city, and finally uncovers the secret of the history of the ‘Elder Things’. Elders and Shoggoths, Cthulhu and Mi-go, and blind six-foot-tall penguins. And finally, Danforth’s unexplained insanity.

This was a fascinating tale that was pure science fiction. Yet at every step of the way, sometimes with exasperating persistence, the author felt compelled to ominously proclaim things like, “I could not help feeling that they were evil things - mountains of madness whose farther slopes looked out over some accursed ultimate abyss. That seething, half-luminous cloud background held ineffable suggestions of a vague, ethereal beyondness far more than terrestrially spatial, and gave appalling reminders of the utter remoteness, separateness, desolation, and aeon-long death of this untrodden and unfathomed austral world”.

It wasn’t like anything ‘horrific’ happened - it was just the fact that aliens existed, that came to be called the “monstrous chapter of pre-human life”. (Could it perhaps be a reflection of the times that this was considered horror - ?) Topped off by a very long and dull history lesson towards the end, this story turned out to be quite a disappointment.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the short story by Washington Irving about Ichabod Crane and his ghostly encounter under the lightning-stricken tulip tree, was both a good and bad experience.

Set in the quiet countryside of the remote Tarry Town, the secluded glen of Sleepy Hollow is renowned for its ghosts, most famous of which is the Headless Horseman, said to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper who had his head shot away in a war. The scene was certainly set beautifully. All the characters and their gossip, the place and its reputation and its very atmosphere certainly created a haunting experience. From describing the haunted town to illustrating the rich farmhouse of Van Tassel, the imageries in this story were really alive and created a fascinating backdrop indeed.

The character sketches were also done very well. A short story does not give limitless space to build characters, but Irving does it beautifully. “Balt Van Tassel … loved his daughter better even than his pipe, and, like a reasonable man and an excellent father, let her have her way in everything. His notable little wife … sagely observed, ducks and geese are foolish things, and must be looked after, but girls can take care of themselves” - right there we have an entire picture of two parents and what the end product - their daughter - very likely is.

Unfortunately, for such a famous work, this story was a bit of a disappointment - or perhaps because of the fact that this is such a famous work, I had some very high expectations of it and did feel a bit let down. I was under the impression that “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was a horror story. While it certainly started off as one, and while all the signs seemed to point towards it being one, in the final analysis it was not so. Yes, the ending was open to interpretation, but Brom Bones’ “exceedingly knowing” look quite ruined that effect.

That said, while the story in its entirety failed to impress me, I certainly felt that it was a very good idea, set in a very convincing world.

Postscript: I just read on wikipedia that “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was first published in 1820 … now there’s a true time-tested classic for you!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Wild Cards”

Till I discovered this book, I had associated George R.R. Martin only with “A Song of Ice and Fire”; what a lovely surprise this has been! This science fiction / modern day superhero series has been edited by Martin, who is also one of the writers of this anthology. Wild Cards, the first of the series which is still being published currently, contains 12 short stories which establish the Wild Cards universe and introduce the main characters and on-going themes.

I was fascinated by this story from beginning to end because it is like nothing else that I have read before. In an alternate Earth, on September 15, 1946 an alien virus, xenovirus takis-A, from the planet Takis is unleashed in the skies over New York. The virus, which has the power to rewrite the human DNA’s genetic code, immediately kills the majority of the population. With far more deadly and everlasting effects, is its ability to mutate the survivors into horrifying beings with little or no resemblance to their original forms. This is the weird world of tragic superheroes and twisted super villains, which forms the backdrop of Wild Cards - the term borne out of the unpredictable effects of the virus.

Aces and Jokers. Superpowers from flying to shape shifting, and deformities from a transparent skin to a trunk-like nose tipped with fingers. The characters of Wild Cards were really fascinating. It wasn’t just the fact that they were so imaginative - it was that their creation came of so much helplessness, their existence was coloured by so much pain, and their stories were so very, very memorable.

This will have to be one of those rare occasions where I cannot name just a few favourite characters … I loved ‘The Four Aces’ - the team of superheroes comprising of The Envoy, who can make others agree to his thoughts and actions; The Black Eagle, who helped capture Nazi war criminals and saved Gandhi from an assassin’s attack; Brain Trust, who has the power to absorb another’s mind and gain their knowledge; and Golden Boy, whose force field grants him immunity from every kind of attack. I loved Dr. Tachyon, the alien from Takis, who originally helped create the Wild Card virus, but, realizing the catastrophe, uses his telepathy to help people. I was fascinated by the Great and Powerful Turtle - especially his back-story and how a bullied child came to become the superhero in an invincible shell. I actually looked up to Yeoman, a victim of dirty politics, who later uses his superior martial arts skills and Zen archery to fight against evil and wrongdoing. I was in awe and fear of Puppetman, whose secret identity and mysterious powers created so much havoc. And I loved the ongoing reference to Jetboy, the real live superhero version of the heroic Robert Tomlin.

I also really liked the narrative style. This book is a collection of short stories - by different writers. However, at no point did I feel any kind of break going from one story to the next. This has to be to the credit of the editor, that each story was an integral and unbroken part of the book. What was truly fascinating was the manner in which each story seemed to start off with no relation to its predecessor, only to suddenly establish a link - small at first, and then growing to create an even bigger and better tale. Just to take one example, we read about a homeless, drunk man in a park. A bit of newspaper flies over to where he is sitting. News about the death of Blythe Stanhope Van Renssaeler happens to be face up. The following section ignores this incident completely and takes us to a story about Dr. Tachyon and his attempts to help victims of the virus. We read about his meeting with the abused woman who comes to be known as Brain Trust. We read of their doomed love for each other, ending with her forceful admittance in a mental asylum. Finally we are brought back to the scene in the park and see the grieving ‘homeless’ man.

What was really interesting about Wild Cards is that it is a universe where there are superheroes, sure, but superheroes stuck in the real world of dirty politics and questionable Government polices and day-to-day mundane questions of choosing between the use of powers for petty theft or living morally and dying of starvation.

And in this universe a very bright light is thrown on human nature in general which treats with derision and suspicion anyone that is remotely ‘different’, and move from fear to loathing to brutally attacking all those ‘freaks’. A society where a policeman can say that the rape of a Joker woman is a lapse of taste, and not so much a crime, shows just where human nature can drop. It is small wonder that such a society creates people like Judas Ace. The highlight of that base human nature was, for me, the horrific tragedy of Jokertown’s Parade. “We are not a race, we are not a disease, we are not contagious”, and yet the bigotry continues.

The story was told through some fantastic dramatic and action scenes, such as the spectacular rescue of Angel Face by Dr. Tachyon and the Great and Powerful Turtle. It was a story rich with intense imagery, from the horror of the funhouse in Jokertown to the sensuality in Lenore’s apartment. Above all, it was a story filled with amazing experiences, from Fortunato leaving his body and going out in astral form to unearth the murder of Erika to - one of the highlights of this book - the series of events in the subway from the attack to the grand clue in the coach marked “CC”.

The fact that events in this story move through the decades - and we get to see the whole backdrop of the aftermath of the war of the 40s, through the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll of the 60s, to the crime and the mafia of the 70s, to the widespread post-apocalyptic paranoia of the 80s - gives Wild Cards such an epic feel.

Books like this are the reason why I read so much - this complete transportation to a whole new world of wonder and discovery!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Cat’s Pajamas”

Ray Bradbury is one of my favourite writers of all time, and this collection of short stories once again showcases a brilliant sense of imagination brought to life with the sheer passion of creation. As always, the stories are set anywhere from down the street to some distant planet in some distant future. And as always, each story gave me something new to think about, something new to wonder at. Here are my favourites:

“Chrysalis” starts with an innocent enough question that may have crossed many minds: does a black person get sunburned? From there the story goes on to explore - over the course of a summer break - racism. This was a brilliant story that laid bare a culture that was brutally racist, and featured a friendship that was refreshingly colour-blind.

“Sometime Before Dawn” - stories like this are part of the reason I am in awe of Bradbury. A boarding house somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Two travelers whose mannerisms and words are just a little unsettling … This really is an experience you should discover on your own, so I will say no more.

“We’ll Just Act Natural” - and stories like this are the other part of my ever-increasing respect for Bradbury. He has this amazing ability to dip into one ordinary little event, and draw an entire mural of the human nature from it. This is the story of a black woman who is waiting for a visit from a white man, whom she had raised as a child. Very touching.

“The Mafioso Cement-Mixing Machine” is about a man who decides to go back in time to save Scott Fitzgerald so that he can finish writing ‘The Last Tycoon’. This was such a fantastic idea, and its execution was also so brilliant: the way the man creates his ‘time machine’, added to the fact that there was no “cop-out” and we do get to see the end result, made this a very interesting read.

“A Matter of Taste” - this was absolutely fantastic! It was about a group of astronauts that lands on a planet inhabited by a race of intelligent spiders. Set in a sci-fi setting, this was such a scathing comment on human beings’ repetitive tendency to fear and then murder anyone or anything that does not fall with their limited walls of acceptance.

“I Get the Blues When it Rains (A Remembrance)” - although this story was really all about Ray Bradbury describing a very special night, when he and a group of writers got together and sang songs, it touched me on a very personal level. It was a poignant reminder of the fact that even when life moves on to bigger and better things, there is always one cherished part that is forever left behind.

I can’t end this blog without mentioning the “Epilogue: The R.B., G.K.C., and G.B.S. Forever Orient Express” - this was a final tip of the hat to the great writers that were and probably never will be again. Bradbury often mentioned his deep respect for writers such as these and expressed his deep desire for his work to be put on the same bookshelves … I do hope he knew that his work is of the same greatness, and has opened up innumerable worlds of awe and wonder in countless hearts.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Shining”

For thousands, perhaps millions of readers out there, Stephen King has been, and will continue to be, a great writer. Not counting Richard Bachmann, this is this author’s third book I have read (after ‘Dreamcatcher’ and ‘The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon’, the latter being positively the worst book I have read in my life), and I have come to the conclusion that Stephen King is perhaps not for me.

In my experience, this is what Stephen King is all about - on the plus side, there is always an unquestionably good idea at the root of it all; on the minus side: firstly, it surprises me that he is considered the master of horror, as - beyond one or two short scenes here and there, there is absolutely no sense of terror in his works; secondly, I keep losing interest in the story because of his repetitive sentences and chapters that meander on and on; and finally, I am so put off by his terrible comedy that is always embarrassingly cheesy, consistently ill-timed, and jarringly out of character.

The central concept of the ‘shining’ - a psychic ability to see glimpses of the past, present and future - is really interesting. This is how that idea is dealt with: “The Shining” is the story of the Torrance family - Jack, whose life is all about alcoholism, a frightful temper, and failure as a teacher and a writer; his wife Wendy, an insipid woman who continues to stay with her husband despite the fact that his rage-induced beatings have included deliberately breaking their 3-year old son’s arm when he spilt beer on his papers; and their son Danny who despite his mother’s love and his father’s shockingly poor treatment of them, shows a clear preference for his father over his mother. It is the story of this family’s move to the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies, an isolated resort where the hotel’s mysterious past acts upon Jack’s own alcohol withdrawal symptoms and an inherently violent nature, leading him to go insane and brutally attack his family.

The narrative for the large part is very dull, owing to the fact that the author tends to either be repetitive or say things that are unnecessary. (Yes, we get it, Jack is the alcoholic son of an alcoholic father, and the deep social significance of him beating up his son is the fact that his father used to beat him up). There are pages and chapters where nothing happens. Don’t get me wrong - it is not that I demand high action or high drama from every sentence. The majority of the reading I have done in my life is from the classic era, when writers would take their time getting to the heart of the matter. But when Charles Dickens, just to take one example, talks at length on peripheral matters, his writing is of such high calibre, one reads on just for the sheer pleasure of reading. Stephen King of course can lay claim to no such excellence, and the mind often wanders.

The author also has a mild tendency to ‘talk down’ to the reader. Any time he makes a remotely clever comment, he immediately follows it up with a detailed explanation (in parenthesis, no less), making it quite clear that there was no way the reader would have understood the subtle nuance.

For a novel categorized as ‘horror’, there was a sad lack of the element of horror or even a mildly fearful tone in this story. That said, there were three interesting scenes: in the elevator, where scenes of the hotel’s opening midnight ball come to life, Danny’s experience in room 217, and the garden’s topiary animals coming to life. (This scene was unfortunately ruined by the fact that the exact same scene was narrated twice, with just Jack substituted for Danny, almost as if the author really had only the one good idea and then decided to make the most of it).

Also for a novel categorized as ‘horror’, there was an overload of comedy - not witty comic relief to break the tension and keep the flow going, but pathetic attempts at being funny. Here is one example: When student George Hatfield loses a debate he had worked long and hard for, it is a moment of great loss and embarrassment for him. His stammer comes out, increasing his sense of shame at - what he considers - a painful personal weakness. He looks to his teacher Jack Torrance for help - who makes fun of him in front of all the other students. It was an intense moment, filled with drama and pathos. And this was the moment S. King decided to insert a joke about how “you really couldn’t offer a tongue an extra fifty a week and a bonus at Christmas if it would agree to stop flapping like a record needle in a defective groove.” Here’s another example: when Wendy sees Danny with a swollen lip and Danny tries his best to be brave about it, Wendy (who, by the way, knows that it was most likely the result of another attack by her husband) says, “he is like a Timex, takes a licking and keeps on ticking”. (Ignoring for the moment the silliness of the comment) is that really something a worried mother would say at that precise moment? Or is that, once again, the voice of comedian Stephen King?

And finally a note about the characters. (None of the three main characters are worth mentioning); I really liked Dick Hallorann - through his conversation with Danny, he explains what the ‘shining’ is, and is the one who, after receiving a telepathic call for help from Danny, rushes to the Overlook and heroically saves mother and son from the possessed Jack. It’s a pity he only appears briefly in the beginning, and then again towards the end.

While I agree that three books are not enough to judge a writer’s life’s work (which is undeniably large), the three books do show the exact same style of writing, and it seems improbable that his basic writing style changes. It truly amazes me that the mind behind this work is the same mind behind Richard Bachmann’s fantastic “The Long Walk”.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra” (The Phantom of the Opera)

The story of the Opera Ghost, aka Angel of Music, by French writer Gaston Leroux has been adapted so many times in the world of Arts from stage to film, I knew there had to be a very solid book at the base of it all - I was still pleasantly surprised by just how fantastic this book is!

Set in the Paris Opera House, this is the story - narrated by the author - of Erik, and how he became the phantom of the opera. The story of the central protagonist is told to us through the experiences of the various members of the Opera, and I thought that was brilliant; we never actually him - he appears to us in bits and pieces through a glimpse here and a voice there, and that’s what truly makes him a phantom.

The book starts off as a mystery - from the strange ‘Box Five’ to the two brutal deaths, and finally the disappearance of Christine Daaé, the soprano. That’s where the story changes its tone, and the focus shifts to the “love story” of Christine and Erik. Here is where we get to know Erik, the ghost who alternately strikes terror and love in the hearts of all he meets.

As Raoul embarks on a search for the kidnapped Christine, he is joined by ‘The Persian’, and yet another layer is added to the story with the unfolding of Erik’s history. On one level, the narrative relays the story of a man who went from the glory of a brilliant architect and musical maestro to the grime of a man condemned to death and on the run; on another level, the love story moves from love for a genius to horror at “the face of a rotting corpse” to forgiveness and a final farewell.

From Persia to Paris, from the rosy hours of Mazenderan to the underground torture chamber of fire and water, from the terrible lunacy of a physically deformed phantom to the tragic brilliance of Don Juan Triumphant … from an exiled loner to a rejected lover, this was the very moving tale of a man who became a ghost, and I really enjoyed it a lot.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Torchwood: Exodus Code”

Co-authored by siblings John Barrowman and Carole E. Barrowman, Exodus Code is the latest Torchwood novel, based on the BBC science fiction television series Torchwood.

(Allow me to indulge in a little hero-worshipping before I go on … John Barrowman is one of the most awesome people on this planet. I follow as much of his work online as I possibly can; actor, singer, dancer, writer, Barrowman is the kind of brilliant entertainer that comes around once in a very long while. What earns my greatest respect however is the fact that he is such a beacon of hope for the human race in general - this larger-than-life person, with his unbelievably positive and open nature is such a living F-U to the prejudice, hatred and negativity that continues to doom large parts of our world till date).

Ok, getting back to the book review! I loved the opening sequence of events as the story dives into a strange geological phenomenon occurring in 1930 Peru. Investigating some mysterious symbols with co-pilot Renso, Captain Jack Harkness crashes into the middle of the mountains, and into the midst of an ancient prophesy involving the Cuari tribe.

The story then moves forward to present-day Wales where, starting with Gwen Cooper, we see women falling prey to violent emotions, from frustration and anger to heightened sexuality and thoughts of murder. I did feel that the story slowed down during this section, as quite a large part seemed to concentrate on just setting up the premise. In fact as we follow Jack Harkness in his desperate run to save the earth and travel on the Ice Maiden, there were large sections which touched upon some sci-fi technicalities, but rather than delve deeper, quickly tapered off to discuss the characters’ sexual fantasies, which was quite disappointing. I especially remember thinking that the story surrounding Vlad and Eva read more like some cheesy romance novel.

The story did pick up after that - the last section, the last 6 hours 20 minutes of the countdown in Peru, was especially exciting! Events happened at a frantic pace where, along with the participants, I was quite taken by surprise at the unexpected twists. The central idea of this story, and how Captain Jack Harkness comes to be the one tied inextricably to the core of the earth and its survival, was brilliant. What he had to do to save the world made him a truly great superhero! (And yes, this was a Jack Harkness story all the way; even though Gwen Cooper, the only other survivor of Torchwood is featured in it, I did not see her play as pivotal a role as she is capable of).

One thing I do have to say in conclusion though - since this book follows the sequence of events of the T.V. show, we are unfortunately limited by what happened during Miracle Day. In my opinion, Miracle Day, while a good show, was just not Torchwood. Reading Exodus Code reminded me every now and then “we’re not in Cardiff anymore”.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Never Bet the Devil Your Head”

Edgar Allan Poe’s mastery of the gothic and the mysterious is undeniable and unchallenged. Although I have my favourites of course, any time I read Poe, I find it hard to pick just one to discuss. When I came across this short story recently, it was such a refreshing change - not just to archetypal Poe, but also within the story and the expectations it undermines - that I decided to pick this story for today’s blog.

Never Bet the Devil Your Head - narrated by the author himself - was a story written in response to literary critics saying that he had never written a moral tale. Poe obediently starts with the subtitle, “A Tale With a Moral”. Where do you think the story goes from there! Well, initially it seemed to be what it set out to be, as the narrator tells us the story of his friend Toby Dammit (the humour of his last name originating from his mother’s constant yelling at him to come here Toby dammit, do this Toby dammit and do that Toby dammit, was brilliant!) Dammit, the man of many vices is prone to making bets, his favourite one being “I’ll bet the devil my head.”

Matters reach a head the day they come to a turnstile and Dammit bets the devil his head he could jump over it, and a little old man appears from nowhere to see this challenge through. This is where the fun begins! I’ll let you discover what happens next; suffice to say, someone of Poe’s majestic calibre would rather present transcendentalists with “dog meat” than appease their obscure mysticism.

This story was such a precious discovery! It danced to amazing rhythms of classic comedy and scathing satire, but always with an underlying sense of the macabre that is trademark Poe.

I will end with this quote: it has nothing to do with this story, but was part of the collection, and something that I feel bears repeating - especially to disheartened writers across the world that wonder at the mass popularity of sub standard books and talent less authors. In a “Letter to B----” written in 1836, Poe says: “… That they have followers proves nothing. No Indian prince has to his palace more followers than a thief to the gallows”.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “A Series of Unfortunate Events” - Books 10-13

A journey that started with ‘The Bad Beginning’ has finally come to ‘The End’. I have quite enjoyed Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” - an experience that turned out to be much more than what I had anticipated. From an adventure story that was sometimes ridiculous, sometimes dangerous, this Series ended up being a slice of life, and one complete story arc rather than 13 separate adventures that 3 children go on.

The Slippery Slope starts the wrap up; it introduces the first of many returning characters from the Baudelaires’ past and also delves deeper into the search for the ubiquitous VFD. This book also reveals a great turning point in the character of the Baudelaires - an issue that will be addressed in detail later, and a matter that lay at the heart of the great Schism.

The Grim Grotto was for me, visually, the most interesting book! The search for an all-important sugar bowl takes us down into a submarine, and from there, into the heart of a grotto. Miles underwater, we are faced with many dangers from the poisonous Medusoid Mycelium, to Count Olaf, to The Great Unknown (one of the many unresolved issues).

The Penultimate Peril completes a circle, as Briny Beach becomes the starting point of the final lap of this adventure - led this time by Kit Snicket, further strengthening the link between the author and the main characters. I thought this and the last book of the series were very strong - all the characters and themes came together cohesively in a fantastic finale at Hotel Denouement. The curiously angled hotel with its mysterious reflection in the water became the scene of some of the greatest drama and action of this series.

The End, the thirteenth book of this series, was truly awesome. As we are washed up on a secluded island inhabited by strange people led by the dubious Ishmael, a lot of our questions do get answered - but equally, so many remain unanswered that we realize that there can never really be an End. Yes, we get a little more insight into VFD and the Baudelaires’ history and the great Schism, and even see the original Series of Unfortunate Events … but when all is said and done, nothing is neatly tied up with a pretty little bow. As Lemony Snicket notes, just as The Bad Beginning was not really a beginning, The End was not really an end, but more ‘in medias res’. Perhaps the greatest question raised, pertains to definitions of noble and evil. This book did not continue in the humorous, over-the-top melodramatic vein as its predecessors (which was a lot of fun while it lasted) but became a gentle comment on readily accepted demarcations of good and bad, as the perennially good Baudelaire children were shown to possess a villainous streak and the established villain Count Olaf was shown to have a beautiful, even tragic, side.

I really liked the way the story went through a range of emotions from depiction of a series of unfortunate events to unravelling a mystery in a very cohesive manner - woven, within the story by common characters and such running themes as Fire; and outside it, by wonderful storytelling elements from impressive illustrations to strategically placed literary and cultural references! Overall, this was a very enjoyable work by an author whose “hobbies in life include nervous apprehension, increasing dread, and wondering if his enemies were real after all”.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is the final novel by Charles Dickens and was unfinished at the time of his death. Set in Cloisterham, the story is primarily about Edwin Drood, his fiancé Rosa Bud, and his uncle John Jasper. It tells the story of the relationship between Edwin and Rosa, Edwin and John, and the dramatic turn of events that takes place with the coming of Neville Landless and his twin sister Helena.

I don’t think I can in all fairness judge the content or the pace of the story; the first half of the book seemed quite slow and I remember thinking that not much was happening. But the ‘first half’ was really probably the first quarter, which changes the overall picture completely.

As always, Dickens’ flawless rendition of character sketches shines through. One of my favourite characters was Mr. Crisparkle, and a highlight section was his meeting with the philanthropist Mr. Honeythunder (a section that I found myself reading twice over and mentally applauding towards the end!)

I was also very impressed by Rosa. When the story started, she was nothing more than a young, pretty, naive girl, bordering almost on the annoying. Circumstances involving Edwin Drood however, turned her into such a strong and mature woman, displaying such admirable qualities, that my irritation soon turned into respect.

Two other characters that also left quite an impression on me were Mr. Grewgious - with his fantastic sense of humour and his unending readiness to help people, and Mrs. Billickin - so outrageously outspoken, yet with such a kind heart!

From the ill-timed proposal to Rosa, to the mysterious warning about the name ‘Ned’, to an oft-repeated imaginary scene in the opium den …  it is my opinion that the villain of this story could only be one person; and if it is whom the clues point to, it makes the character - and all his words and actions - so very sinister.

Sometimes when I think about great novels and brilliant authors, I truly regret the passing of such genius writers as Charles Dickens, the likes of which the world will probably never see again. Reading this unfinished work was just such a brutal reminder of that fact.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “A Series of Unfortunate Events” - Books 6-9

Ok, I don’t know what the target age group of this series is, but I am thoroughly enjoying Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. (There, I said it!)

‘The Ersatz Elevator’ has left the deepest impression on me so far. I was so enamoured by its haunting atmosphere. True, where the other stories involve lakes, mountains and villages, this takes place entirely inside one apartment. But the 71-bedroom penthouse apartment at 667 Dark Avenue - home to the meek Jerome and the flamboyant Esme Gigi Geniveve Squalor - with its constant under current of the sinister was so fascinating. This book was also a favourite because this was the one where the story really moved forward and we took the first steps towards unravelling the mystery … what lay on the other end of the trap door of the elevator shaft was really exciting!

Following the two Quagmire triplets and VFD, the Baudelaire children next reached ‘The Vile Village’, whose inhabitants’ interpretation of “It takes a village to raise a child” is “Get three children to do all our chores.” With Mr. Poe’s exit, the children seem to be truly on their own from this point on, as they try to decipher secret messages from the triplets. Other than the exciting clues, and the very shocking appearance of one Jacques Snicket, I was also quite struck by the stark image of the endless stretch of flat land with a distant village, covered eternally by a thick cloud of crows. Oh, and I thought ‘Detective Dupin’ with his garish clothes and declamations of “not cool” was hilarious!

While I found ‘The Hostile Hospital’ to be the weakest one, I did enjoy its abnormally funny scenes. An infant who has just learnt to stand on her feet, and still speaks gibberish for the most part, wears a white gown and fools everyone into believing she is a nurse, about to perform a craniectomy! This story also took us to a very important twist with the discovery of the 13th page of the Snicket file in the Library of Records.

Disguises came to a head in ‘The Carnivorous Carnival’, which saw the children transformed to a two-headed human and a wolf baby in a world of such “freaks” as an ambidextrous man and a contortionist woman. This book was also the greatest comment on the base nature of humanity, which makes a one-armed man call a two-armed man a freak, and crowds enthuse about watching people being thrown to starving lions.

I also really like the way words or themes are used consistently. Example, the author’s repeated entreaties to not read such terrible books, Mr. Poe’s constant coughing, the explanatory “a word, which here means–”, the over-the-top anecdotes, the dedications to Beatrice, the letter to the editor with clues for the next story, the tie-in of the author to the plot, and of course, the all-pervading Eye: it’s these small things that bind all the stories together and give the reader a sense of being part of a complete adventure.

The story has come a long way from being just a series of unfortunate events. There is so much more than meets the eye (pun unintentional!) and I can’t wait to follow the clues in Madame Lulu’s documents to get to Mortmain Mountains. For now we leave the story of the Baudelaire children on a cliffhanger. Literally.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Psmith in the City”

P. G. Wodehouse continues to amuse and amaze me, this time, with a story about the life and times of cricketer Michael “Mike” Jackson and his friend Rupert Psmith at the New Asiatic Bank, as we follow our protagonists from the Postage Department to the Cash Department to the Fixed Deposits Department!

Part of the “Psmith” series of books, this story is unlike the Blandings Castle series or the Drones Club stories or the Jeeves books, in that it does not comprise solely of Lords and Earls and London’s idle rich. Yes, Psmith has the kind of wealth that lets one do a “job” as an amusing past time, but the world of this book was primarily one of routine bankers going about their mundane jobs. Into this stuffy, underground (literally) world, Psmith brings in such a fresh breath of air; it gives the bank - and the reader - a new lease on life.

Extremely wealthy, immaculately dressed, lazy and languid, permanently unruffled, and with an enormous heart, Psmith was clearly the best character of this book. Setting the stage with his whimsical spelling of an otherwise common name, Psmith challenges conventions wherever he goes.

The best part of this story was of course the revenge plan against the manager! On behalf of every one of us who has ever served a cruel and/or stupid manager, Psmith sees to fruition a carefully orchestrated plan against John Bickersdyke. From solidifying his position with manager Mr. Rossiter owing to a “common love” of Manchester United, to extending a firm “following” to socialist Mr. Waller, to an awkward encounter in a Turkish bath, Psmith’s grand plan culminates in a complete demolition of Bickersdyke, without offering him even the satisfaction of firing Mike and Psmith as they hand in their casual resignations and stroll out the doors.

Brilliant! And as always, that inimitable blend of sparkling wit and a superior command of the language.

The world is a better place because P.G. Wodehouse has lived in it.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “A Series of Unfortunate Events” - Books 2 to 5

This month is going to be all about some very unfortunate events. Told in 13 books with 13 chapters each, ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ by Lemony Snicket is the story of the three Baudelaire children - Violet, Klaus and Sunny, the well meaning but utterly useless banker Mr. Poe, and the evil Count Olaf who is after the orphans’ vast fortune. Last week I talked about the first book of this tridecalogy; today’s blog is about the next four books, the alliterative The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, The Miserable Mill and The Austere Academy. Books 2 through 5 see the children live amid snakes, on top of a hill, inside a mill, and in an ominous school with its sinister motto, ‘Memento Mori’.

For me the best part about the books is that even though the theme is essentially the same, the people are always so varied, the places are always so new, it is exciting to see who and what is coming up next! We meet an aunt who is as obsessed with correct grammar as she is afraid of everything from phones to ovens, from doorknobs to realtors. We meet a mill owner who pays in useless coupons and serves chewing gum for lunch. We meet a Vice-Principal who considers himself a violin maestro and performs for six hours daily and forces the entire school to attend … Of course there are the wildly, ahem, successful disguises of Count Olaf, from an assistant herpetologist to a turbaned Coach - that fool none of the children and all of the adults. Oh and the fifth book also adds two new characters, the ‘triplets’ Duncan and Isadora Quagmire, who play quite an important role. We also go through some very fascinating places, from Lousy Lane to Lake Lachrymose to Lucky Smells Lumbermill to Prufrock Preparatory School!

With each book, the situations get quite frantic. I remember being surprised by the actions of Olaf in the first book - but dangling a baby from a tower was about the worst thing he did there. Now he actually commits murder, which was quite a shock. Then again, there are those situations that are so ridiculously dangerous; it almost adds a touch of the comical. An infant who can barely crawl and speaks gibberish is hired as an administrative assistant, and at one point, has to create staple pins out of big metal blocks just so she can keep her job. Sure there is a threat; but how over-the-top!

As mentioned in my previous blog, Lemony Snicket continues to tell this story to us - as opposed to us reading a story. Some of his best comments in his storytelling are when he refers to universally accepted dos and don’ts and completely trashes them. He recounts the story of the boy who cried wolf - and tells us that the moral of the story is that we shouldn’t live anywhere near wolves, and certainly not that we shouldn’t tell lies, because sometimes it is imperative for our safety that we do tell some lies.

One of the funniest parts of the book continues to be the introductory dedication to Beatrice. “For Beatrice - My love for you shall live forever. You, however, did not.” “For Beatrice - You will always be in my heart, In my mind, And in your grave.” Priceless!

These books make for very easy reading (it’s taking me about two hours per book) and I look forward to seeing what happens next - egged on, by no small means, by each book’s final letter from Lemony Snicket to his publisher, with clues pointing to the next story!

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Bad Beginning” (A Series of Unfortunate Events)

The Bad Beginning is the first book of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” by ‘Lemony Snicket’ (Daniel Handler). It is the story of three Baudelaire children, Violet - who loves inventing, Klaus - who loves reading, and baby Sunny - who loves to bite! and their experiences living with a distant relative, the evil Count Olaf.

I have to say, going into the book - even after reading the introductory ‘warning note’ by the author - I had imagined this a much lighter book than it turned out to be! Yes, we are cautioned, “In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.” but I figured, it’s a book for and about children, how grave could incidents be? Very, as it turned out! Sure, it’s still a children’s book, and issues do get worse because some people just happen to be that blind to reality, and some solutions are in fact quite simplistic … however, I was really not expecting such a downpour of ill luck from a fatal fire, to homelessness, to life with a very evil caretaker whose actions ranged from making children do excessively hard household chores to hanging infants from tower tops just as ransom. The book’s very dedication sets up this dark tone, addressed as it is to Beatrice: “darling, dearest, dead”.

My favourite part of this story was its story telling! Lemony Snicket has not written a tale for us to read; he is sitting there with you and telling you a story that comes alive as you listen to him. He describes houses, he talks about habits, he asks you questions and he makes you think about things. It was a lovely experience!

I also really liked the two children, Violet and Klaus, a lot. Children in books or movies can so easily become so annoying, but these children never did. Good but not pious, smart but not wiseacres, they went through a lot, learning and growing as they did.

Oh, and I must mention a small but really interesting part - at one point in the story, Klaus was reading a book on law through the night and was getting sleepy - “The book was long, and difficult to read, and Klaus became more and more tired as the night wore on. Occasionally his eyes would close. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over.” Did that get you too?!

Overall, this was quite an enjoyable read! A good story, very well told! I am on the library’s waiting list for the remainder of the books and will, over the next few weeks, review this series of (very) unfortunate events!