Sunday, December 21, 2014
When settlers came to America, over the ages they brought their gods with them in their minds. They brought Odin and Loki and Thor and Kali ... but as generations died or people forgot, these gods passed into myth. Now, weakened, these gods are not just left to get by as best as they can, they are also faced with a battle with the new gods: gods of internet, neon and plastic. This is the story of “American Gods” by one of the greatest story tellers of our time, Neil Gaiman.
As I type this, I realize, it is immature and terribly limiting of me to try to present this epic drama in those few words. Yes, that is the basic framework of the story, but there is so, so much more to this journey than just that; one that goes from myth to reality, from humans to gods, from life to afterlife.
Recently released from prison, Shadow is enlisted by the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, presumably to assist in collecting gods who will stand together when the war begins. From that point on we visit so many places, we meet so many people and we are told so many tales of magic and mortality. We visit an old fair with out-of-tune mechanical instruments and spend time in an old European house filled with cooking smells of a different world. We meet Anansi at a fair, Ibis and Jacquel at a funeral home, Easter at San Fransisco and Salim who meets a jinn. We go back to 15,000 BC and see waves of immigration, including the heartbreaking Coming to America of black people. And we stay at the pretty town of Lakeside with its mysteriously disappearing children.
But these are all just elements of the story - not the story itself. The story is something that has to be experienced personally. I would highly recommend reading this book (and, in fact, everything by this author) ... Meanwhile, I am checking to see if Gaiman is planning on touring Toronto any time soon.
Sunday, December 07, 2014
I often say (with utter conviction, no less) that all the ideas in the world have already been taken; now all that remains is the expression and execution. And then I read something by Philip K. Dick. And once again I am blown away by a story that is great not just for its storytelling, but for being built around an idea that is original and brilliant.
“Flow My Tears...” is the story of Jason Taverner, rich and famous TV personality, who suddenly finds himself in a seedy motel room one day. Where that initial shock turns into a terrifying nightmare is when he realizes that no one in the whole world recognizes him any more. Not his thirty thousand weekly viewers, not the doting press, not his manager, not his close friends ... no one has any memory of ever having heard his name.
Shooed by his closest friend as a stalker, and on the run from the Pols (US Police) and Nats (National Guard) out to catch an unregistered person, this is the weird and fantastic story that PKD spins around a character rising high on a wave of popularity one day, and miserably questioning the meaning of life the next. As Taverner explores every possible avenue to regain his lost identity, the tale weaves through dolls that tell the future and kids who make their living creating fake IDs. When at last it reaches the one person who holds the key to this entire inexplicable drama, the story reaches a whole new level of awesome!
A surreal world built on ever soaring heights of imagination ... with man’s isolation deep at its core; I think PKD should be mandatory reading on every book lover's list.
Sunday, November 23, 2014
They're back! Pocket of Dog Snogging along with his sidekick Drool and pet monkey Jeff ... and of course a ghost (hey, "there's always a bloody ghost"). The works of William Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice and Othello) and Edgar Allan Poe (The Cask of Amontillado) get the Christopher Moore treatment in this continuation of Pocket's adventures from when we last met him in "Fool".
Out on a political mission at the behest of his wife, Queen Cordelia, Pocket walks right into a trap set by Antonio, Montressor Brabantio and Iago. From that torturous captivity unravels a story of great scheming and greater plotting amongst kings and princesses, soldiers and merchants.
There weren't too many laugh-out-loud moments - something I think I have come to associate Moore with. I do have to mention the Chorus: like Shakespearean plays, we see the chorus comment on scenes and characters ... unlike anything I have read ever before, the characters then comment back on what the Chorus says to them, sometimes even threatening them to change what was just said. That was really funny!
Overall however, I did not enjoy this book as much as all the other Moore stories I have read (even "Fool" was much funnier). I can't help feeling though, that Moore wasn't going for just funny this time. The Serpent of Venice is crafted out of tales that are polar opposites in genre, and brings together a vast repertoire of characters you could not imagine in the same world, much less the same room - and that is commendable.
Sunday, November 09, 2014
You may now make your first move.
Hospitalized for a lengthy period of time after an incident that left behind a permanent physical and emotional scar, Sean Phillips creates 'Trace Italian', the game of strategy and survival (interestingly, played solely via snail mail) wherein players send in their preferred move as they navigate their way around a world set in a ravaged, future America.
The beauty of this story by John Darnielle lies, not in that amazing twist where the imaginary and the real worlds merge, but rather in the narration of this story. As players Lance and Carrie take their turns into the real world with tragic results, and Sean is called in to testify, the story which had been moving forward starts to regress into Sean's history right back to where it all started. His letter to Carrie's parents which was read out during the trial, held so much sorrow and hope all at once, it gave a very poignant foundation to all the events that came after it.
From an imaginary to the real world, from excited replies to hate mail, this was the undulating, shifting story of a disfigured boy trying to create a 'safe place' in a horribly cruel world.
If there is one complaint I have about this book, it is that it did not go in as deeply as a subject this important warrants. It ended far too soon, and the tortured theme deserved a longer, harder look.
Sunday, October 26, 2014
“If we could have everything we wanted in an instant without fear of consequence? No worry of jail or societal reproof of any kind? No having to look our victims in the eyes because the victims have conveniently vanished? If we could have that? Stalin’s crimes would pale in comparison to what we’d do in the name of love. In the name of the heart wanting what the heart wants.”
That sentiment is at the heart of this collection of short stories by Dennis Lehane. My absolute favourite was “Running Out of Dog”. Set in Eden, South Carolina, this is the story of a small town that wanted to put itself on the map by building a world-class amusement park. A decision to eliminate the countless stray dogs that mar the landscape brings forth a sadly morbid reality where life is a “6 year old boy sitting by the ditch, waiting to die” … just like that kid in the war who got shot in the head, but kept running with half a head for 8 to 10 steps before realizing that he was already dead.
I also liked “Until Gwen”, the story of a con man and his son, both battling over a missing diamond. It was as much a picture of broken relations as it was a clever skirmish over lost treasure. (I did not much like the play version of this story; it seemed dragged out for no reason).
While “ICU” had quite an interesting idea at its core - a man who sits outside the ICU unit of different hospitals, pretending he has family within - the overall purpose of the events was not very clear.
I did not much care for the other 2 stories, “Gone Down to Corpus” and “Mushrooms” - both revolved around petty criminals whose actions were neither very interesting nor driven by some great motivation, and I just could not get into it.
Sunday, October 12, 2014
A post-apocalyptic world where houses and malls have been ransacked and the streets are deserted ... save for the fearsome image of people wandering about, a danger to themselves and all others around them.
Kenneth Calhoun takes us to a world where prolonged insomnia has ravaged the minds of people affected by a phenomenon - the cause of which remains unexplained, the remedy to which, a distant hope.
Starting from a slight flutter of a black shadow at the corner of their eye, to a breakdown in language, to that final descent to madness which sees a horrific clash between the sleepless and the sleepers; the best part about this story was the fact that nothing is fully explained; we are neither told where and how it all started - nor are we given all encompassing answers in one grand finale.
Through different points in the tale, we follow several key characters as they deal with this nightmare ... we see Biggs desperately try to find a cure for his wife Carolyn ... we see Lila's parents with just enough sanity left to chain themselves to a table and send their daughter away for her own safety ... we see Adam and Jorie, married couple, and that horrific incident involving their new born baby ... we follow Chase and Jordan, high school friends on a road trip, and we see Chase slowly succumb to the madness (that final lap with a truck full of sheep and the axe-wielding maniac that he becomes, was truly terrifying) ... and we see the scientist Kitov become the first to test a possible cure to the disease ... Much like the hallucinatory experience of the insomniacs, I too got sucked into this eerie dystopian world where terror and despair rule.
Sunday, September 28, 2014
From that incredible story teller Neil Gaiman comes yet another amazing story filled with fantastic characters in an unbelievable world. Based on the West African folklore of Anansi the trickster, who is considered to be the god of all stories, and often takes the shape of a spider, this is the story of siblings "Fat Charlie" and "Spider", sons of a god, who discover each other after the death of their father.
That landmark moment becomes the changing point - certainly in the life of Fat Charlie, who goes from being an average person in a dead-end job, to a god who can wield magic and control other life forms - but also in the book, which shifts to that magical realm for which I keep returning to Gaiman.
As Spider becomes an obnoxious sibling who takes over his brother's home, his job, and even his fiancée, Fat Charlie sets off on a mission to get rid of this interruption in his life (an interruption he himself invited by asking a spider to relay a message to his brother, asking him to stop by for a visit). Arranged by the mysterious foursome led by Mrs. Callyanne Higgler, his mission takes him to the caves of the Tiger, the Hyena, the Monkey ... and the deadly Bird Woman. And just like that, we enter a magical world where humans become beasts and animals take over humans.
“You're no help," he told the lime. This was unfair. It was only a lime; there was nothing special about it at all. It was doing the best it could.” In keeping with the character of a trickster god of all stories, this tale was filled with so many light and funny moments - and I absolutely loved that. Starting from Charlie's cringe worthy experiences because of an excessively embarrassing father, there are so many laugh-out-loud moments in this book! ... “Daisy looked up at him with the kind of expression that Jesus might have given someone who had just explained that he was probably allergic to bread and fishes, so could He possibly do him a quick chicken salad...”
The story had a very grand finale at Saint Andrews, where each and every strand of this web of stories came together, complete with warring siblings, fighting couples, crazy bosses and yes, even a ghost with some unfinished business.
(Oh, and this book is dedicated to me. That's right).
Sunday, September 21, 2014
I have rather mixed feelings about this short story collection by Steven Heighton.
"Those who would be more", was the story of an English teacher in Japan. Through his meetings with the principal and his classes, we get to see a reflection of the life and times: not just with such words in the list of translations as corpse, rifle, shooting and bombing, but also in the reasoning behind his dismissal - based on the fact that making children work through Saturday and not following it up with homework, was just too lenient.
I liked "Fireman's Carry", the story of an incident involving saving snakes from a burning building. Within the span of one short evening, we get an intense look into the thoughts and ways of a cross section of people, both local and foreign, victim and saviour.
"Shared Room on Union" was a unique story, in that it was a very unique treatment of quite a mundane event. Couple Janna and Justin get mugged while parked in front of Union station in downtown Toronto. While tied and thrown into the trunk of their own car, they hear and even interact with passers-by. The incident in itself - plus the way they deal with it later in life - was quite interesting.
I also liked "Swallow", the story about paid volunteers in a drug-testing program. It was a dark, dirty and scary world which was at all times deeply tragic.
Barring the above, I can't say I liked this collection too much. Most of the other stories are now a blur in my mind. I also find it difficult to enjoy stories that are too much "a slice of real life". I read to get away from the drearier side of real life (which is why, perhaps, I like sci-fi and fantasy above all). For real life to appeal to me through the pages of a book, the storyteller has to be of a calibre no less than the likes of Dickens or Tagore.
Sunday, September 14, 2014
Some time in the future, humanity encounters an alien race known as "buggers" and faces two disastrous wars. In preparation for an anticipated third attack, mankind decides to pick the very best of its youngest, and train them to become perfectly unbeatable militia. Orson Scott Card tells us the story of such a time period and its inhabitants - and of one boy genius in particular - Ender Wiggin - who rose the ranks, out-maneuvering computer games and zero gravity battle simulations.
Quite possibly the best part about this story was the plausibility of the main protagonist. A hero is not presented to us to accept without question. We see a weak boy stand up to a sadistic older brother and a class bully. We see a small boy fight a mean classmate and a cruel commander. We see a strategic boy use everything from a common enemy to an appeal for help to make friends in a strange world. And at every step of the way, we are allowed to follow his most private thoughts and reasoning for his behaviour, as every breath becomes a small fight for survival till the next breath comes along.
I was captivated by how this story constantly shifted tones and presented the characters, sometimes as helpless 6-year olds plucked out of their homes, and sometimes as brilliant individuals that all of mankind is right to pin its final hopes on. Every boy goes through a heartbreaking moment of homesickness like Bean. Every boy goes through a glorious moment of victory like Alai.
I also really liked the sub plot of Peter and Valentine as Locke and Demosthenes; a political story, that runs its arc and meets its counterpart military story of Ender in the end.
The final days on the mysterious planet Eros bring together, in a grand conclusion, the epic tale of Mazer Rackham, the much dreaded Third Invasion, and a secret message at The End of the World. From ages 6 to about 11, this is the story of Andrew "Ender" Wiggin; the greatest battle commander; the "Speaker for the Dead".
Sunday, September 07, 2014
This debut novel by Lee Child (Jim Grant) is the first book to feature Jack Reacher. It is the story of an ex-military forensic cop, who got off at the small town of Margrave on a whim, and got arrested for a murder. This is the story of his investigation into a brutal murder in this sleepy town, which goes on to unearth an international crime ring.
"Hit early. Hit hard. Kill with the first blow ... The gentlemen who behaved decently ... were already dead".
I really liked the character of Jack Reacher a lot. Part Rambo, part B.A.U. (Criminal Minds!) he was the driving force behind busting wide open the dirty little secret that a perfect little town was nursing. That’s why it was a little disappointing to go through a large chunk in the middle of the book when he didn't really do much. He had such a perfect beginning and powerful ending ... what happened in between?
(I also thought his relationship with Roscoe was utterly unbelievable; a character who, if I may also add, was so forgettable, even after I had finished the novel, I had formed no mental image of her).
Another character who fell by the wayside somewhere in the middle of all the action was Detective Finlay. When Reacher is first brought in and we meet the black person who had to fight against all odds in a small Southern state, I was truly impressed by him. Again, he too got lost somewhere along the line.
That said, I still liked the story a lot. It was a good read, with good action and a plausible mystery: the final reveal was really interesting. Oh, and I also really liked Child's introduction, where he talks about how the book - and especially the character of Jack Reacher - came to be.
Sunday, August 31, 2014
Translated by John Nathan, "Atarashii hito yo mezameyo" is a semi-autobiographical novel by Kenzaburo Oe, about life with his mentally handicapped son, Hikari (referred to as "Eeyore" throughout). On one hand the narrative follows the story of a father's struggle to deal - and build a relationship - with his handicapped son. On the other, it shows us the author's own interpretation of events in light of the poetry of Blake.
This was my first Oe novel, and I think this may not have been a good choice for a starting point. Being semi-autobiographical, there were so many moments where I felt I was intruding into the privacy of someone whom I had only just met.
That said, the sections dealing with Eeyore really touched me. Oe embarks on this journey by deciding to create a 'hand book' about life which would assist his son. As events play out however, Eeyore, through his many actions and reactions to life situations, ends up helping his father learn and grow. From helplessly asking Eeyore if he is in pain or nauseous ... to living through such simple realities as a childhood doctor retiring ... to dealing with a society that considers such children a blemish on their flawless neighbourhood, this is a poignant story of weakness and strength, culminating in that absolutely brilliant episode that showcases Eeyore's transformation to Hikari.
I think this book deserves a second read, and I will come back to it after reading some fiction by Oe.
Sunday, August 24, 2014
Okay, I hereby officially declare Neil Gaiman one of my favourite writers of all time! What imagination. And what beautiful storytelling.
As 'the man Jack' murders all the members of a family, a toddler - the sole survivor - manages to escape to a nearby graveyard where the resident ghosts, persuaded in part by the Lady on the Grey, decide to raise the baby. It is named Nobody Owens, as "He looks like nobody except himself".
Granted the 'Freedom of the Graveyard', and helped by such key characters as Mr. and Mrs. Owens, the first ones to discover the baby and become its official parents; caretaker Silas, part living, part dead; Miss Lupescu, one of the Hounds of God; Elizabeth Hempstock, an unjustly-executed witch, this is the story of the first 15 years of Bod's life. What really took the story to a whole new level of awesome was its storytelling. Each chapter is a new adventure through the experience of which, we see the passage of time as Bod learns and grows into a unique person with qualities of both the living and the dead. Yes, he can stand up to the class bully, and yes, he can also Fade, Haunt and Dream Walk!
A visual treat, the story moves so fluently in and out of the corners and crevices of the graveyard. Up a hill where sits a great vampire, a member of the Honour Guard. Down a secret chamber, where the creature Sleer has been waiting for thousands of years for his "Master" to come and reclaim him. Around an abandoned patch of land where a denounced witch gets a belated headstone ... And of course that gorgeous Danse Macabre, the one day in the year the dead enter the living world.
What is traditionally a morbid topic, Gaiman turns into a fantastic adventure that is cheerily light at times and intensely dark at others.
This is the reason I read. For the wonder of a new world and the excitement of new discoveries.
Sunday, August 17, 2014
Any time I blog about a creation of Ray Bradbury, I'm not really “reviewing” the book; I'm really just thinking about the beauty and the poetry in his writings, encompassing everything from a nearby neighbour to a faraway planet, and soaking in that joy that can only come from reading.
As always, this collection of short stories has left me in a state of awe. The paranoia of being taken over by unidentifiable microbes in "Fever Dream"; the ever-present hint of the fear of being murderer and murdered alike in "The Town Where No One Got Off"; the unique story of Smith in "Chrysalis"; and that brilliantly undetectable takeover plan in "Zero Hour" ... superb!
"Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed" is a fantastic story about the Bittering family, who - along with many other humans from Earth - escape to Mars to get away from the atomic war. I loved the unexpected and complete integration into the Martian way of life.
I was really touched by the pathos in "The Time of Going Away". It is the story of 75 year-old William, who - after a lifetime of exotic trips fueled by his fascination with the "National Geographic" magazines - decides it is time to die, and prepares for his final journey. The juxtaposition of the mundane necessities of life and the eventual reality called death made for such a beautiful read.
Another favourite was the "Pillar of Fire". William Lantry emerges from his grave some 300 years after he was buried and walks into a utopian society where lawlessness of any kind - from lying to murder - no longer exists. Rising from a sense of great loss (writings such as that of Poe have been deemed unsuitable by this pure society), this is the thrilling story of Lantry's vendetta, who is on a violent mission of bringing the dead back to this world.
"The Trolley" was just such a simple, beautiful story with such depth of emotion ... As a small town's historic mode of transportation starts on it’s final trip before being closed down for good, we are taken on a small trip down memory lane itself. From the unadulterated joys of childhood to the final irrevocable change that is life itself, this is classic Bradbury; a small slice of life that remains in our hearts forever.
Sunday, August 10, 2014
Once upon a time Zeus decided to have a Government made up of Gods and Humans. One of the humans who was hired for this body, as member of the Olympic Bureau of Investigation, was Plato Jones. After a fallout, Jones decided to work on his own as Private Investigator, but was hired by Zeus himself to unearth an impossible act - the murder of a god.
Robert B. Warren's premise made for a very interesting read, refreshingly different in its portrayal of a world where missing gorgons and disappearing scientists co-exist, and demigods, humans, satyrs and minotaurs work together.
What was slightly disappointing was the fact that, despite the title setting certain expectations, Warren really did not write a murder mystery. The narrative fell into a cycle of Jones going to one person, asking questions, getting no answers, getting one name (which, in the overall absence of in-depth characterizations, was no more than blatant name-dropping), going over to that person, asking ... and so on (punctuated by random rounds of beatings by hired goons). There really was not even a semblance of intelligent detective work.
What I found even more annoying however, was the slightly juvenile writing that broke through every now and then: the secretary doing her nails sitting at reception, the gorgeous woman discovering her husband was cheating on her and crying on, and kissing, the detective, the “playful smack on the rear” of women who then proceed to “squeal and hurry along” ... Argh!
Overall, however, I liked the setting of this world; the interaction of gods and humans, and the brief glimpse into the mansions and the lives of the gods made for a light, fun read.
Sunday, August 03, 2014
I am so glad I discovered Christopher Moore. In a world where I have finally reconciled myself to the fact that the greatest writers of all time belong to an era only to be found in the past, it is so heartening to have stumbled upon someone like Moore who takes his thorough knowledge and understanding of a topic and re-invents and re-creates with shocking freshness.
Although deriving characters and plot points from several plays, “Fool” is primarily based on Shakespeare's play King Lear. Narrated from the perspective of the character of the Fool, Pocket, this is the story of how the king's fool sets up the bastard Edmund of Gloucester to plot against his brother Edgar, who goes on to render the king powerless, who searches out the three mysterious witches and gets a love potion from them, and who, in the grand finale, starts off a civil war ... mm, all to basically prevent Lear from marrying off his daughter Cordelia, whom Pocket is in love with! Oh, and adding a crucial voice to all these proceedings is that of The Ghost (yes, "there's always a bloody ghost")!
I loved that this story was not just about the jokes or about being funny; it was such an amazing story that spanned decades and was about so many people and their past and their future. In a series of flashbacks, we get to see so many stories played out - as prophetic incidents involving children, and as final outcomes of adults. This story was an interesting wave that started out as sheer comedy and led to so much politics and plotting, drama and death.
What also fascinated me was the author's note in the end (reading "Lamb" taught me that this is one author, whose final say you do not want to miss) - and once again, I saw how much research Moore does and how knowledgeable he is. He hasn't just taken off on a generic view of a famous story and spoofed it. His story - bawdy wit and all - stems from great knowledge of the subject, to which of course, he adds his special magic.
Just for the sheer joy of reading - not with any great agenda or deep purpose in mind - but for a great, enjoyable read, I keep going back to Chris Moore.
Sunday, July 27, 2014
Jules Verne tells us the story of five Americans - engineer Cyrus Harding, his servant Neb, journalist Gideon Spilett, sailor Pencroft, and his friend Herbert Brown, and Cyrus' dog Top - who escape the American Civil War by hijacking a balloon. Caught in terribly stormy weather, the balloon finally crash lands on an unknown island. This is the story of their fight for survival in an island that is remote and bountiful all at once, where near-death experiences and surprising windfalls cross their paths with equal force.
Although I hate to say this about the author whose "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" is one of my best books of all time, while this book certainly captured my interest, it did not quite hold it for long. As the tale weaves through the castaways' struggles to stay alive, and walks us through their discoveries made and lessons learnt, after a point it started to read like a very intense survival guide.
While it was certainly fascinating to grow along with the five as they started from creating fire and building safe dwellings and moved to making clothing, transportation and even made iron ore and an electric telegraph ... I felt, as a layman reader, there was no need to get into pages and chapters of how, for instance, to make nitro-glycerine.
That said, at every step of the way, I always had a very strong sense of "being there"; the writing was always powerful enough to make this a very real experience. And finally, the secret of the island revealed at the very end absolutely blew me away! The events that unfolded in the grand finale almost made me forget the arduous journey immediately preceding it.
Sunday, July 20, 2014
It's so difficult to coherently express my thoughts when I am in two minds about a book. Don DeLillo starts with an innocent picture of contemporary family life, with snippets of incidents at school, at home, amongst parents, teachers and friends; continues through an unnerving event involving a chemical spill and a black noxious cloud; and ends with the story of modern society's obsession with death as much as chemical cures. So. Did I like this post-modern snapshot of a degrading society or did I not? Hm. Ok, here goes...
I liked the basic concept of a society that is slowly breaking down into all-pervading white noise. However, this would probably have been more appreciated in the 80's when the book was published and social media was not as "obvious" a presence as it is today. I think every age of mankind has had its demons and its dependencies, and the current age is not a special case that calls for an especially negative depiction of it.
Added to that, the fact that (to match the theme of breakdown in society, I suppose) the narrative style was a random, broken down one - it drew my attention away from the story, to its telling, where I was tripping over the style, which was just that - stylistic, and nothing more.
That said, there were some concepts that did make me pause and think for a moment. Greatest amongst these was the section on the German nuns who talk about how they do not believe in god or heaven or angels, but feel the need to keep up the pretense for the sake of the non believers. Their contention that that's how non believers feel safe - that as long as someone was keeping up the faith, as a human race we are okay - that was such a brilliant concept.
I also really liked the character of Heinrich. His constant questioning and his stubborn refusal to accept such common truths as whether it was raining or not, opened up such a refreshing line of thought. At one point he asks, of what use is all our knowledge / how are we any better than cave man, when we can't even make fire or even recognize lint if we saw it; that when it comes down to it, all our knowledge just passes from computer to computer … Heinrich really made me think!
Overall though, all this talk of Hitler Studies, people marrying multiple times, people getting lost in mundane things such as the sights and sounds of the TV, chemical spills, modern society's dependence on drugs ... all this incessant pounding into the reader's head, of the message of a breakdown of society ... no, I just couldn't get into it.
Sunday, July 13, 2014
I was introduced to the fantastic world of Arthur C. Clarke very early on in life (with "2001: A Space Odyssey"), and till date I find myself going back to him whenever I feel the need to escape the dreariness and closed-mindedness of the world around me ... This collection of short stories took me on yet another memorable journey across space and time.
In "Second Dawn", I loved the perspective of a race so far advanced mentally, they have forgotten what to do with their hands. "If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth" has a touch of such sorrow and hope in a world where Armageddon has come and even gone long ago. "History Lesson" combines so beautifully a snapshot of the end of the world, a desperate attempt at recreating a civilization long gone - and the unforeseen comedy that can arise from the meeting of cultures too far apart. "Loophole" was a unique story about realistic events of politics and power play in an imagined future and "Inheritance" actually gave me goose bumps with its surreal tale twisting in and out of time.
The two stories that really stayed in my head for a very long time were: "Exile of the Eons" and "Expedition to Earth". The former is the fantastic story of The Master, the defeated military leader who escapes the end of the world; and Trevindor, the Philosopher, who is exiled for daring to challenge accepted norms - and their shocking meeting at the end of time. Expedition to Earth forms the basis of the opening sections of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is the story of a very superior race meeting a very, very young one and leaving behind that small seed of civilization which would go to someday form the incredible culture of Babylon.
I will end this blog with a special tip of the hat to "The Sentinel". I know I have talked about this one before, as it was part of another collection I read. But this story is so brilliant, it calls for numerous reads and endless discussions! This tale perfectly combines the excitement and the fear of unknown life forms and brings forth such strong passions of awe and terror all at once.
Clarke remains, in my opinion, truly the untouched master of science fiction.
Sunday, July 06, 2014
As it turned out however, this collection of replies from Santa Claus to letters received from children across the world, is really nothing more than the kind of "jokes" you and I would make when we rant about our stupid jobs, or the stupid people around us, or those stupid politicians, or...
Sure, some parts were funny - from putting annoying, selfish, bratty kids firmly in place to taking (quite a few!) pot shots at America (everything from science becoming increasingly irrelevant in that country, to the fact that some people believe any stupid thing like the Iraq war not being about oil or petty revenge). Overall however, this was a one-joke book and that one joke got tiresome pretty quickly.
Sunday, June 29, 2014
Nurse Thornton walks in to her regular job at the hospital and checks in on her regular comatose patients; and as she passes by one of the regulars, Charles Manx grabs her violently and tells her her son would be much happier in Christmasland. And right there we know that nothing is what it seems!
N0S4A2 (Nosferatu) is the second Joe Hill novel that I have picked up, and it has been a really enjoyable read. Travelling back and forth between the 1980s and the 2000s, and told mainly through the perspectives of Charles Talent Manx and Victoria "Vic" McQueen, this is a story that bridges together the real and the imagined, the physical world and an "inscape" in a very interesting manner. A manner, I must add, heightened by the unique narrative style whereby most chapters end mid-sentence, with the remainder of the sentence continuing as the title of the following chapter.
A 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith journeys to "Christmasland". A Raleigh Tuff Burner bikes across the "Shorter Way Bridge" to reach faraway places within moments ... and all the while Margaret (Maggie) Leigh, the librarian, uses her Scrabble tiles to race alongside and interpret events as they occur, in a desperate attempt to finally solve the multiple disappearing and murders that have been going on for years.
Given the events that occur, this could have easily settled comfortably into a generic horror story, but I liked how it was primarily crime / mystery. That said, there are certainly some horrific parts, mainly, the inhabitants of Charlie Manx' Sleigh House, the events at Bing Partridge's House of Sleep, and of course the final showdown at Christmasland (dead children can be so creepy, isn't it?!)
While every character in the story was truly memorable, I especially liked Louis "Lou" Carmody a lot. Till the very end he was "the kid on the motorcycle again, hauling skinny Vic McQueen up on to the seat behind him." He combines the likeability of a regular guy with that fierce loyalty and bravery that makes him an awesome person to know.
In one of the final scenes Maggie, explaining to Vic how Manx has remade children into his idea of perfect innocence, says, "Innocence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be ... Innocent little kids rip the wings off flies, because they don't know any better. That's innocence". It really made me think.
Sunday, June 22, 2014
I quite liked this collection of short stories by Kazuo Ishiguro, all based on the theme of music and musicians. I especially liked the way how - within the confines of one evening or one weekend - an entire slice of life with all its hopes and regrets is presented. A fading singer serenades his wife in a gondola ... to mark a dying marriage. A young guitarist runs away from life ... and meets an old couple wistfully reminiscing the passing of youth, of life, and the slow onset of the end.
My absolute favourite of this collection was the title story, “Nocturnes”. It is the story of a saxophonist who cannot get famous, not for any lack of talent, but because - as both his manager and his wife tell him constantly - he is too ugly. Tired of being called a 'loser' by both, he finally gives in to the pressure and accepts a donation by his wife's rich lover.
I was expecting this story to run the usual course of social pressures, and become yet another generic moral lesson on outer versus inner beauty. But, as the artist recuperates in a room next to a very rich and famous socialite out on a routine face lift, what Ishiguro presents in this story is a very unique relationship between two people who have absolutely nothing in common other than - ironically - faces hidden under bandages the entire time they are together. With each passing moment, a little bit more of a hitherto buried characteristic reveals itself in this off-key note of music, that lasts but for a short while.
Sunday, June 15, 2014
Set in and around the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris of 1482, this 1830 novel by Victor Hugo (history within history indeed!) is a beautiful picture of the life and times of 15th Century France. The most beautiful part about this book (I read the translation by Isabel F. Hapgood) was the way the scenery shifts, changes and reveals, as we follow the characters around. We begin our journey on Epiphany, the day of the Feast of Fools in Paris, where Quasimodo is crowned the Pope of Fools. We follow the poet Gringoire to the Cour des Miracles which reveals the dark underworld of fake beggars and lepers, the blind and the lame. We dance along with Esmeralda and get a glimpse into the world of the rich and the royal. (While I did think that there were some sections dedicated to the architectural history of Paris, that I could have had a little less of) there is no denying the grand mural that Hugo paints in this book.
As fascinating as the Parisian landscape is the varied presentation of characters in this story; from Clopin Trouillefou ("Charity Please") the King of Truands, to Jehan Frollo an over-indulged younger sibling and a troublemaker, to the less than moral and rather weak Phoebus de Chateaupers, Captain of the King's Archers, to the beautiful young gypsy street dancer Esmeralda, to Quasimodo, the bell-ringer of Notre Dame, the novel's protagonist and Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame, the novel's antagonist. (What an absolutely insane character, by the way)! I do have to make a very special mention of the poet Pierre Gringoire. Whether pleading not to be hung in front of the "king" of the court of miracles or in front of King Louis XI, this failed starving poet still has an immensely positive outlook and still talks about having a thousand reasons to live... the sky, the air, the mountains of Paris.
Through the inclusion of small incidents Hugo also shines a very deep light into the heart of this society: the court cases of Quasimodo in front of an equally deaf Master Florian Barbedienne; that of Esmeralda accused of killing Captain Phoebus; and even that of Gringoire at the Court of Miracles, all reflect a deep-seated bias for pretty facades no matter how shameful the secrets behind them.
Adding tragic dimension to this tale is of course the story of Quasimodo and Esmeralda; a story of a relation that never could have been, but also, sadly and paradoxically, the only one that was - a story that was always fated to doom, riding as it was, on that other doomed relationship - that of Claude Frollo and Quasimodo, parent and child, Magician and Demon.
One observation in conclusion; I am not sure why the title has been translated - and the book come to be known - as "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame"; while Quasimodo is certainly one of the main characters of this story, to say that this is his story alone, would be to demean the rich and wide, almost epic, scope of the novel.
Sunday, June 01, 2014
"Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair. The doctor told him there were no bugs in his hair."
I started 2014 with a collection of short stories by Philip K. Dick and had mentioned in my blog that this could be the year I declare him to be among my top favourite writers of all time. Yes, with this semi-autobiographical story by PKD I have reached that point.
A Scanner Darkly is the story of Robert Arctor, an undercover narcotics agent assigned to spy on Arctor's household. Living in his scramble suit as "Fred", out to catch high-level dealers of Substance D, this is the story of the slow and surreal breakdown of a human into the two co-existing yet conflicting hemispheres of the brain. Under the influence of the very drug he set out to catch users and dealers of, he undergoes increasing confusion about reality. His progressive meltdown and the final stages of identity shift made for absolutely fascinating reading. When the surveillance cameras are set up and we see Bob/Fred's degeneration as his consciousness weaves in reality and out films - those sections were absolutely brilliant.
From the comedy of trying to figure out where all the 10 gears on a 10-speed bike are, to the tragedy of the addict whose mother kept injecting him with heroin as a baby so he wouldn't cry and she could sleep ... from the horror of the teenage girl whose brother introduced drugs into her system so he could rape her, to the sadness of Fred thinking of Hendrix and Joplin and how they ended up, while ‘All is Loneliness’ plays in the background ... the final recognition of everyone as "a lump of flesh grinding along, eating, drinking, sleeping, working, crapping", makes this is a heartbreaking fantasy film that keeps rolling not just in the characters' but also the readers' heads. From Bob to Fred to Bruce, this is the story of - as PKD mentions in his Author's Note - "some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did." And one is left wondering if Fred hoped in vain that - unlike himself who could see only darkness when he looked into himself - the scanners at least would see clearly and not darkly, or all would be lost with no knowledge gained.
Sunday, May 25, 2014
Well. This was new. This novel by Arthur C. Clarke is about one of the popular tourist attractions on the Moon: a cruise across Sea of Thirst, a lunar sea filled with an extremely fine dust, which almost flows like water. A Fall of Moondust follows the ill-fated Selene, which becomes victim to a moonquake and is trapped underneath the moon's surface.
I found this book very different from the normal Clarke fare in its concentration on the element of human drama as the 22 passengers aboard the cruise ship struggle to stay alive. As they engage in a variety of activities from poker sessions to book readings to mock court cases, the story progressively brings out such a rich display of characters. From Mr. Harding's innocent questions that strike a deep nerve of anger and regret in Myra Schuster, to Radley's final "confession"; from the rescue operations of the brilliant Chief Engineer Lawrence, to Father Vincent Ferraro, who believes in man and god, to astronomer Dr. Thomas Lawson who believes in neither, this was a very well crafted portrait of human nature.
Of course this angle also had its negative side. Every time the melodrama of Captain Pat Harris and his chief stewardess Sue Wilkins (are they together or are they not?) reared its boring head, I tended to skip a few lines.
What was also really interesting about this story was its detailed attention to actual facts; Wikipedia tells me it is called "hard science fiction" (as opposed to soft sci fi). While there was no limit to the imagination as far as the setting was concerned, the storytelling did not cross the limit of scientific possibility. That peculiar feature of the sand which results in Selene's sinking without a trace, in blocking all attempts at communication with the outside world, as well as in creating a blanket that generates life draining heat … a rescue mission plan that includes drilling a hole into the ship and has drastic results including dangerous cave-ins, fires and CO2 poisoning … the situation was fantastic, the solutions were real.
This was a very interesting read; although to be very honest, I can get good drama from other sources, but the kind of untouched sci fi genius that Clarke has, I can't - and I missed that in this book.
Sunday, May 18, 2014
Once upon a time, the mother of this family had to go out of town on a business meeting. She left some ‘to do’ notes and lots of food in the fridge. Oh and they were out of milk, so she asked the father to get some. Come next morning, and as the children sat down to their breakfast, they realized that their best option might be to have cereal with orange juice. Dad dashes off to the store and comes back with the milk … much, much, much … later.
Well, it couldn’t be helped. You see, between the store and the home, he got swept away on an incredible adventure that had everything from an alien abduction, to a meeting with the Queen of Pirates, to a ride on a hot air balloon (I mean, a “Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier”) operated by a stegosaurus, and a Time-defying meeting with an ancient people following the prophecy of the eye of Splod. (I have to say, the time travel forward to the distant future was awesome; the time travel to a few minutes in the past to announce the ‘prophecy’ that they were to fulfill in the near future, was hilarious!)
Adding a dash of magic to the already extraordinary world of Neil Gaiman are illustrations by Skottie Young, who really manages to capture the wonder of storytelling so perfectly.
As always, a thoroughly enjoyable read. Gaiman continues to fascinate me :)
Sunday, May 11, 2014
Stephen M. Irwin tells the story of one Wednesday, September 10, when the Earth’s polarity switched, causing planes to drop out of the sky, communication satellites to go bust and the world’s economy to crash and burn. ‘Grey Wednesday’ also marked the day every human being got a personal and constant companion - a ghost.
What a unique concept.
And what a way to waste a good concept.
Not that I disliked the book - there were some really good parts throughout - what was really disappointing was how a good idea slid into a mediocre story, because the writer did not take any arc to its natural conclusion and presented a story that belonged to no genre at all, with no payoff whatsoever.
Detective Oscar Mariani and Neve de Rossa represent the Personal Sightings Act or Nine-Ten Act (named so after September 10), a newly created department to manage all criminal activity borne of the claim, “the ghost made me do it”. As they get called in to investigate murders, each new crime forms a new link in an old chain of murder and mystery.
The greatest issue with the storytelling was its pace - fast and exciting at times, but lagging so dreadfully at others, that interest often waned.
The other problem I had with this story was the fact that the author seemed undecided about what kind of story he wanted to write. Irwin starts off with science fiction and creates a post apocalyptic world, full of filth and litter and the smell of sex everywhere, with junkies and panhandlers and children younger than eight years old hooking. Abruptly he shifts gears and goes into full blown horror mode, replete with gory murders including cigarette burns and images carved on bodies to intimate parts brutally carved out and victims thrown into industrial motor fans. Then he decides to go into the crime and mystery genre - and actually does create an interesting angle, especially in the slow reveal of links that existed between seemingly random people such as Penelope Roth and Megan McAuliffe. Then, quite out of the blue, the story enters fantasy mode with some giant bird chasing the detective (a section that was probably the sketchiest of the lot).
About two-thirds into the book there is a mention of Grey Wednesday and for a moment I was trying to recollect where I had heard that term before … I had actually forgotten all about it. At the end, I was left feeling like this was an average story with great potential, nothing more, nothing less.
Sunday, May 04, 2014
One billion years in the future. Earth so old that it only has desert land and one city, Diaspar. Run by the Central Computer, this enclosed city is made up of people put together in the Hall of Creation. And a replica of the entire city is saved in the Council Hall, so that changes can be made and the city modified as needed.
A rewrite of his first novella, Against the Fall of Night, The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke is the story of a time when humanity, just like a couch or a house or a city, is created - its memories deleted or saved in the Memory Banks for all of eternity. Into this world, where everyone is a recycled creation, Alvin is born. This is the story of the quest of the first child to be born on earth for at least 10 million years.
As always, Clarke presents ideas that have never been explored before. What also emerges in this tale about history’s greatest scientific achievement: the creation of an incorporeal intellect is the question of Religion. What happened to the Galactic Empire at the end of the Dawn Ages? What really happened at Shalmirane? … As Alvin and his companion Hilvar journey together beyond the stars and start to uncover bits of history, the true story of the Religion of the Great Ones, led by the Master, unravels and subsequently uncovers the disastrous results of imposing limitations on something as limitless as the human mind.
I have to say I was a little disappointed by Alvin’s final decision, especially given the fantastic story that Vanamonde revealed, incomplete though it may have been. Still, here is yet another foray into that limitless Space that surrounds us all; a foray that only Arthur C. Clarke can effortlessly and convincingly make.
Sunday, April 27, 2014
This roman noir novella by James M. Cain has been one of the more fast-paced, slick and beautifully choreographed stories I have had the breathless pleasure of reading.
“I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the woman.”
Insurance agent Walter Huff has been in this dubious business for so long, he admits to have stopped caring. That sad truth is the partial reason behind the gruesome events that follow. Of course, charming femme fatale Phyllis Nirdlinger, who consults him about accident insurance for her husband, is the other.
I will not talk too much about this story - that would completely undercut the tone set by the book: fast, with no room for slow musings; surprising, with no patience for needless melodrama; and cool, with no need for benign mercy.
From the misplaced devotion of Huff, through the devious wile of Phyllis, to the inadequate attempts of Lola, and finally to the brilliant mind of Keyes, the tension in this story was created as much by the exceptional writing as it was by the murder itself.
Sunday, April 20, 2014
I dedicate my 100th blog to some of the greatest creators of all time; writers whose works have affected me deeply - not just in opening my heart to the deepest emotions, but also opening my mind to the greatest sense of wonder.
Enid Blyton, thank you. You are where it all started! My entire childhood lives in the world you have created; from flying off in a Wishing Chair to exciting adventures in an Enchanted Wood; from the best of fun in Toyland with Noddy and Big Ears to the best of friends at St. Clare’s and Malory Towers; to of course the greatest of mystery and adventure with everyone from Barney and the Secret Seven to the Famous Five and the Five Find-Outers.
P. G. Wodehouse, thank you. Your wit and humour remain untouched; your command of the English language remains unsurpassed till date. On my worst day, I can still pick up a PGW and be laughing in moments. From the mad capers of Tales of St. Austin’s (which is, I think, my first PGW) through the wildly improbable situations of the dapper Bertie Wooster and his highly ingenious valet Jeeves, to the comically ridiculous world of Blandings Castle and Lord Emsworth … you continue to dispel the darkness in this world.
Agatha Christie, thank you. You invited me in to a perfect world, steeped in old English charm, took me through old mansions and quaint villages … and then, you revealed a murder so mysterious, I couldn’t even begin to choose from the countless suspects! Starting and ending at Styles, from the Mysterious Affair to Curtain, Hercule Poirot remains one of my favourite detectives of all time.
Arthur C. Clarke, thank you. You are the highest that a human mind has reached in the world of science fiction. You have taken me to worlds beyond the realm of imaginable possibilities and made my head spin with the wonders that may or may not be Out There. 2001: A Space Odyssey is the first science fiction I ever read, and my world has never been the same since then, as I have travelled stars and galaxies through Space and Time.
Ray Bradbury, thank you. The extent of your imagination, the creation of far and distant worlds, and through it all, the sheer poetry in the rich and varied stories that are, at heart, about all of us - your writing has held me enthralled as it has moved from the apocalyptic Martian Chronicles through the beautiful Dandelion Wine to the horrifically fantastical Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Charles Dickens, thank you. Words cannot express how much in awe I am of your writing. The Pickwick Papers has made me laugh, A Christmas Carol has made me feel so good and A Tale of Two Cities has made me cry; with always just the perfect word you have crafted memorable people with unforgettable life stories.
Rabindranath Tagore, thank you. Music, painting, theatre, writing - you have created brilliant gems of works in all. Your writing has ranged from poetry to novels to short stories to memoirs. The beauty of Gitanjali, the pathos of The Postmaster, the tragic beauty of Thakurda … your poetic genius lifts simple, everyday events into a realm of literary brilliance, and I am constantly amazed by the creative heart that places the strength of human dignity above all the petty joys and sorrows of this world.
Thank you, also, to some Japanese writers I have discovered more recently … Yukio Mishima, Haruki Murakami, Yasunari Kawabata, Murasaki Shikibu, Natsume Soseki, Kobo Abe … I thank you for introducing me to a beautiful world that actually exists, and of which I sadly had very little knowledge; a world that is at once very old and very new, where the drama of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion co-exists with the existentialism of Woman in the Dunes; where the simplicity of The Old Capital offsets the fantasy of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World; and where the tale of one man in Kokoro carries as much power as the epic saga of The Tale of Genji.
(There are many other writers whose magic has influenced me; the haunting poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, the tragic beauty of Oscar Wilde, the surreal creativity of Philip K. Dick, the far reaching worlds of Jules Verne, the quirky fiction of Douglas Adams … all the names cannot be recounted in one sitting!) - But these are the writers I have grown up with, and whose words continue to create the world I live in. These are the writers who have made me what I am today. And for that, I say to them, thank you.
Sunday, April 13, 2014
This is the first time I have heard of Stuart McLean and his CBC Radio program The Vinyl Cafe (tsk! tsk!, I know), but what a great experience this first step into his collection featuring his popular fictional characters Dave and Morley has been.
McLean chooses to use letters addressed to him (the authenticity of those preposterous letters I leave to your judgement) as segue to recounting those tales that form the stories in this collection.
Usually when I read a short story collection, my blog has a countdown of my top three or top five stories … this collection cannot be presented as such, for the simple reason that it is a continuous narration of life itself, with each story yet another slice of life.
I laughed at Dave’s predicament when stuck with Mary’s fancy dessert in a fancy elevator, late for a fancy event in ‘The Birthday Cake’, and I cried as 87-year old Bruce Towler gave life one last shot in the arm in ‘The Cruise’. I saw the peace in letting things go once in a while as Dave and Morley’s wrong turn led to the right cabin in ‘Petit Lac Noir’ and I actually laughed out (very) loud when Dave locked himself in the trunk of his car with a rat in ‘Rat-a-tat-tat’. ‘Wally’ reminded me of the wonderful world of children in all its innocent glory as Sam and Murphy launched a mission to rescue the redundant (oh, horror) Wally; and when Tommy’s grandfather’s death revealed the old man’s most cherished possession - an unscratched lottery ticket, ‘The lottery ticket’ revealed a world of unbridled hope that has the power to surpass time and life itself.
I’d also like to add that while these stories are told by a Canadian and set in Canada, that really should not give anyone the feeling that the stories are exclusive in any way. Emotions of happiness and heartbreak are universal, and each story contains very deep elements of both - while at all times maintaining a very light look at life and a fresh burst of joy. It’s one of those books you can pick up and re-read any time.
Sunday, April 06, 2014
Loosely based on real life events, Shogun by James Clavell is the epic narrative of the rise of the daimyo Toranaga and the events leading to the Battle of Sekigahara. Set in feudal Japan in 1600, this is - chronologically - the first novel of the author’s Asian Saga, and gives us a fascinating slice of history, as pilot John Blackthorne, the first English pilot to reach Japan, becomes more than just a casual observer of events.
The overwhelming genius of this epic was, for me, its ability to transport me to a whole new world, and then leave a deep enough impact as to make me one with that world - not just in familiarity with its houses with their shoji screens and tatami mats surrounded by neat gardens with streams and waterfalls and pebbles; or its exotic Cha-no-yu ceremonies, or its small bowls of artistically arranged rice and fish and soup; or even its dainty geisha in gorgeous kimono and its heroic samurai and their bushido … While I have for quite some time held a great fascination for the country and its culture, this book introduced to me, the very soul of Japan, the essence of Karma, of Kami, of Shinto itself.
Built on the foundation of a great political drama, this story has some of the more unforgettable characters I have ever read about. From the powerful lord Yoshinaga Toranaga to the shrewd daimyo Kasigi Yabu; from the dubiously loyal samurai Kasigi Omi to the formidable Ishido, from the wily Rodrigues to the staunch Jesuit Father Martin Alvito; and of course John Blackthorne, who grows from being an English pilot to becoming Anjin-san … every character was such a rich and in-depth showcase of human nature. Without question, however, the greatest character of this story was Lady Toda Mariko. Be it the pride in talking about her ancient civilization to a Western listener, or her grace in dealing with racial attacks from a Portuguese sailor, or her final confrontation with Ishido and the Council of Regents at Osaka Castle, her poise, bravery and intelligence held me in absolute awe throughout.
Standing at the crossroads of time and culture, this clash between Buddhism and Christianity, between the way of the samurai and the onset of guns wove a memorable story around the race toward a game changing Shogunate.
Arigato gozaimasu. Sayonara.
Sunday, March 30, 2014
The Human Comedy by Honore de Balzac is a collection of works depicting French society in the early to mid 19th century (I read selected short stories translated by Linda Asher, Carol Cosman & Jordan Stump). My one lasting impression of this very interesting read, was that this was a presentation of human nature - in equal parts comic and tragic, in its eager running after that which is transient and the inherent short-lived nature of such things.
That concept was brilliantly portrayed in “Facino Cane”, the story of a blind musician, whose love of gold dominated his entire life. An all-consuming desire to go back to a hoard of buried gold in Venice remained his one driving purpose in life, till at least he … died of a cold.
“The Red Inn”, another one of my favourites, takes us back to the war in France, during a German attack, where two young assistant surgeons get involved in a murder. The beauty of this story was that it wasn’t about the mystery or solution of the crime at all. In a unique turn of events, years later, one of them falls in love with the daughter of the other man, who he believes to be the murderer. And that’s where the drama of this story begins - with the conflict of a heart that loves and a mind that is convinced about the identity of an unnamed criminal.
Sitting by the window looking out to the gardens; on the right, mountains, trees, some snow, and the gently descending dark quiet of a late evening. To the left, Comte de Lanty’s party guests; chandeliers and candles illuminating the women with their perfumes, flowers, and silks, blazing with diamonds … The one story in this collection that had me quite gripped in its throes was “Sarrasine”. It tells the story of a sculptor’s love for opera singer La Zambinella. Through twists and turns of passionate love, shocking deception and brutal murder, this story was for me, the epitome of the story of human nature: the tragic forever dominating the comic, the comic forever leaving indelible marks in the tragic.
Narrated as a story within a story, this was an interesting travel into the depths of the human heart and mind.
Sunday, March 23, 2014
Behind this unassuming title lies Robin Sloan’s fantastic story that brings together mystery and adventure, and past and present, as a team comes together to solve a centuries’ old puzzle.
A victim of the widespread Silicon Valley lay-offs, tech worker Clay accepts the first available job - that of a clerk in an old bookstore with just a handful of customers. As the new applicant stands and looks up at the “absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall” rows of bookshelves that seem to go on forever, finally fading into a dark nothingness at the top, we too stand with him at the edge of an “old Transylvanian forest full of wolves and witches”.
While the front shelves with its “regular” books, form the bookshop portion of the store, it is the “waybacklist” at the back that’s the Library. That’s what holds life stories, a few centuries old. That’s where members of the Unbroken Spine go. That’s where the secret of the Codex Vitae of Aldus Manutius starts. And that’s where this quest of the rogue, the warrior and the wizard begins!
The story brings together two very opposite worlds, the very ancient world of the Founder’s Puzzle and the very current world of iPhones and MacBooks and android roommates. (Through Kat, an employee of Google, I actually learnt some very interesting things; example, Lisp, Erlang and Ruby are different computer languages; how much digital fonts cost and why “Gerritszoon Display” is so expensive; Google keeps everything in a Big Box - the box marked WWW is the entire web, YT holds all videos on YouTube, MX, all emails; and what Hadoop is!)
I also really liked all the characters very much; Neel, the narrator’s friend from the 6th grade, now very rich, but still loyal and large hearted; Kat the super smart Google employee, who truly believes the human mind could be preserved forever; Mr. Penumbra, who stands at the crossroads of a changing world; and Clay, the protagonist, who takes us all on a ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ adventure!
As far as the ending and the final solution goes - while part of it fell so brilliantly into place, I could not get myself to agree with the other, probably just because of my personal experiences … that said, the genuine enthusiasm of the denouement carried me seamlessly through to a wonderfully “feel good” moment.
Sunday, March 16, 2014
William Gibson’s debut novel about Case, an ex-computer hacker, searching for a cure for his damaged nervous system in the streets of Chiba City, Japan, has won the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award. I was reading on ‘Wikipedia’ that it has also been adapted into a graphic novel, a radio play, a video game, and is also in consideration for film and opera.
It is therefore, with considerable embarrassment, that I have to confess that I did not get it. And I don’t mean that figuratively speaking - I literally mean that I did not understand what was going on.
While I cannot pin point the root cause of this, I feel that a lot of my disengagement had to do with the fact that - once the basic premise of a computer hacker and the existence of a ‘matrix’ had been established (to effectively categorize this book as sci-fi) the rest of the story was a generic tale of a fired, disgruntled employee, given to drug addiction, roaming the streets, fleeing from gangsters that he owes money to.
I was also thrown off-track by the constant use of jargon - not scientific or medical jargon - but the characters’ internal ‘street talk’. In all fairness, I suppose that is a realistic touch, but it ended up confusing me even more.
I will say that the ending was a good twist; who’s to say, however, that had I understood what was going on, I would not have figured it all out!
Sunday, March 09, 2014
You know how people have a ‘traditional Christmas movie’ they watch every year on the 25th? I think this novella by Charles Dickens might just become my ‘Christmas book’. I’m serious.
I don’t suppose there is anyone on this planet who doesn’t know the story of the transformation of bitter old miser Ebenezer Scrooge after a visit by the ghost of his long dead business partner Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come. As we travel back in time, Christmas Past evokes such strong nostalgia and sorrow in equal measure as we miss a lot of what was, and still shudder from a lot of what should never have been. Christmas Present was one of the more bright and beautiful renditions of this occasion that I have ever read anywhere. The cheer and the sparkle of the sights sounds and smells came out of the pages and surrounded me in a warm glow of unbridled happiness. Christmas Yet to Come was such a grim reminder of how easily we could lose touch of the beauty of life, if we focussed on things that are really so insignificant when all is said and done.
This book was first published on 19 December 1843. From over 200 years ago comes this heart-warming tale of unshakeable hope and unstoppable joy. And regardless of whether or not you want to associate this day with any religious overtones (I don’t), you cannot ignore that unbreakable spirit of basic human goodness that this story shines a light on.
Sunday, March 02, 2014
Daniel H. Wilson tells us the story of a time long, long in the future, when robots rise in an effort to take over humanity, and the subsequent resistance that rises with equal heart and soul from around the world. In building “Archos” - an artificial intelligence program - with a view to testing the limits of evolvement, Professor Nicholas Wasserman unwittingly unleashes a power beyond all imagination. This is the story of how a mere handful came together and led a devastated world into a new age - preserved for all eternity in a black cube discovered by Cormac Wallace, leader of the Brightboy Squad.
There were so many things that made this an exceptional read for me. First of all, I loved the basic premise of the story: Archos wanted to learn from and about life; it said it could learn more from a worm than a billion lifeless planets. The robots’ need for universal control ironically came from a place of preserving Life itself.
I really liked the fact that the final victory is to no one person’s credit. Takeo Nomura, a factory repairman in Tokyo, Japan; Lurker, a 17 year old prankster in London, UK; Mathilda Perez, the 10 year old girl with the toy ‘Baby-Comes-Alive’ and Specialist Paul Blanton of the Osage Nation in USA … the whole world comes together, and through some key people and their key decisions, the resistance is brought to its final stages.
I really liked the narrative, which not only weaved in and out of different parts of the world, but also back and forth in time. More importantly, the scope of the story was so epic: it didn’t just go from Point A, a mysterious rogue robot to Point Z, the end with a horrific bloodbath or generic human triumph. The storytelling digs so much deeper, to answer where it all began and question where it will all end. Mikiko’s song “Awakening”, and its final denouement in that momentous coming together of the Brightboy Squad and the Freeborn Squad as they marched to the Ragnorak Intelligence fields in Alaska to meet Archos, was such a glorious climax to a grand story.
I’ll conclude with this point - and although this has been touched upon in countless books and films before - for the very first time I was forced to give serious thought to the whole question of the difference between human and robot. Given that both think and feel, is the meat on our bones really all we have to our credit to call ourselves Human?
Told in a sci-fi setting (the best of all genres), this story had everything, from horror to drama, from despair to hope. An excellent read that had me thoroughly spellbound and constantly clamouring for more.
Sunday, February 23, 2014
Set at Styles Court, an Essex country manor, this is Agatha Christie’s first published novel, and introduces the one and only Hercule Poirot. (Interestingly enough, the saga of Poirot comes full circle, as Styles is also the setting of “Curtain”, Poirot’s last case).
My entire childhood consisted primarily of reading, and while I am terribly fond of many writers and their works, growing up, I went through three phases in particular - Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse; I mean I read (and re-read) everything that these authors ever wrote.
In this first ever creation by Christie, I recently re-visited that brilliant unfolding of mystery/crime writing that very few people can even attempt to imitate. Wealthy widow Emily Cavendish marries a much younger man, Alfred Inglethorp, whom everybody in the family immediately dismisses as a fortune hunter; a suspicion which appears to be justly based, when she is killed by strychnine poisoning. Enter Poirot, who meticulously (of course!) goes through all visible clues and invisible events to recreate the fateful day.
As far as the characters go, I have to say, I really liked how everyone is so believable, so tangible. It not only adds a lot to the reading experience when you empathize with a person so completely, the final denouement also comes as a greater shock when someone you were with all along, is revealed to be a killer.
The best part of this story - as with all of Christie’s storytelling - was that we are privy to all the clues all along, just like everyone in the story. Nothing is ever a secret, closely-guarded till the grand reveal - no, we are always given equal opportunity along with the characters themselves, to work it all out. And that is truly brilliant - to show all your cards right from the start, and still pull the rug from under the reader’s feet.
The final revelation came as quite a shock … I did suspect the person at one point; then again, other than Poirot and Hastings, at regular intervals I suspected everyone, so I guess that’s really not saying much.
Sunday, February 16, 2014
You know those books you read, where, when you are going to sleep at night, you cannot wait to wake up, so that you can continue reading again? Peter Robinson’s Before the Poison, the story of Grace Fox, who was hanged for poisoning her husband Dr. Ernest Fox, was one of those books for me!
Taking a break from his hectic Hollywood life, Chris Lowndes returns to his native Yorkshire to his newly purchased Kilnsgate House. What his enthusiastic real estate agent omitted to tell him about this ancient house with a history, becomes an obsession with Chris, and takes him on a journey to uncover the truth of what happened nearly 60 years before.
The narrative, which interspersed the events of 1953 and the subsequent “Famous Trials” series by Sir Charles Hamilton Morley with the current events set in late 2010-early 2011, made for a very interesting read.
Of course I have to comment on the setting - always a huge factor for me. I absolutely loved the fact that we travelled back and forth such locales as beautiful rural English countryside and fascinating French cafes!
As far as characters go, with the exception of Heather (who got on my nerves from quite early on in the story) I liked everyone. As Chris Lowndes delves deeper into a decades-old story and - through his interviews with such people as Wilf Pelham, the neighbour, Sam Porter, the lover and Louise King, the granddaughter - brings Grace Fox back to life, I grew to like, admire, and really feel for the absent heroine of this story. The rebellious child who got thrown into adult life - not just a life with its mundane obligations of family life, but as a Queen Alexandra’s nurse, as revealed in her wartime journals of Dunkirk, Singapore and Normandy - had so much to live for, yet so much to live through.
More than a mystery, this story was a crime / drama. As I later realized, this was not so much about the actual murder, rather it was the story of what happened before the poison. Matron’s final address before the Sisters went back to civilian life was so poignant, and such a pointed precursor of things to come.
Sunday, February 09, 2014
“When she knelt on her Gothic prie-Dieu, she addressed to the Lord the same suave words that she had murmured formerly to her lover in the outpourings of adultery”. For me, this sentence quite summed up the heroine of Gustave Flaubert’s story of Emma Bovary, the woman who tried to live out all facets of her life based on a romance novel. It speaks volumes that upon her return from riding with Rodolphe Boulanger, with whom she goes on to have her first extra-marital affair, the first thing she does is “recall the heroines of the books she had read”.
As far as the character of Madame Bovary goes, I have to say, I was neither very interested nor very impressed. To be very honest, I think at some point I felt that had this been an adulterous woman who wielded some power or sway over her various conquests, it would have made for a better story. Because Madame Bovary is so given to weeping and wilting over relations that do not even have the remotest justification to begin with, I was getting a bit tired of her dramatics. While I could certainly see the effect of a clash between romance novels and harsh reality on a young and sheltered mind, I could not get behind the very desperate and servile affectations she brought into every relationship.
That said I still could not stop reading this book for the sheer power of its rich narrative. Through the romanticized eyes of a disillusioned woman, we travel back to beginning-mid 19th century France, and experience rural French life, with all its regular people and their mundane jobs and their harmless gossiping and harmful plotting … and that, for me, is what makes ‘Madame Bovary’ (I read the translation by Eleanor Marx-Aveling) such an unforgettable reading experience.
Sunday, February 02, 2014
This is this author’s 3rd book I am reading in as many months … Christopher Moore must be doing something right! “Beta-male” Charlie Asher is a second-hand store owner by day, and a death merchant by night. How he quite accidentally came upon that second job, and how he subsequently managed to live through the extreme dangers that come with such a job, form the unique story of A Dirty Job.
The best part about this story is its capacity of being a strange tale, primarily morbid or even grotesque in its theme, yet remaining funny in its telling at all times. Death merchants, soul collection, sewer harpies, squirrels in ball gowns, and even hell hounds come together in this tale that still manages to make me laugh.
As far as characters go, I really liked every one of them. Minty Fresh, the first death merchant that Charlie meets, and who sticks by him - sometimes against his wishes! - to the very end; Jane Asher, Charlie’s gay sister, who is honest to the point of rudeness, yet will do anything to keep her family safe; Lily, the goth teenager, one of Charlie’s employees and the only one who knows Charlie’s secret; and of course, Mrs. Ling and Mrs. Korjev, the women who alternately take care of Sophie, and from whom the little girl comes to learn that either “the White Man is a Devil” or “our hearts are full of sorrow”.
If there was one thing that I did not like as much, it was the silliness surrounding The Morrigan. Babd, Macha and Nemain are denizens of the underworld, and built as a formidable enemy; their evil powers constantly held as a threat to all of humanity, should souls not be protected as scheduled. Yet, most of the time we see them quarrelling over petty matters, or - worse - indulging in cheap sexual fantasies. Moore could have left this one section free of all comedy.
Barring that one small issue, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and look forward to my next.
Sunday, January 19, 2014
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is the story of Walter Hartright, his accidental meeting with a mysterious woman dressed in white, and the series of events following his brief stint as drawing master for Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe at Limmeridge House.
The most impressive feature of this story was its storytelling; I really liked the idea of the story being narrated by different characters as they came in and out of the story, mirroring the presentation of a court case by several witnesses personally touched by the events. This also gave each narrative a unique touch, as a lawyer does not tell the story - or even have the same perspective - as, say, a painter.
I also thought that the story consisted of some very rich and varied characters - in some cases, beautifully described in one effective sentence - example, when Hartright says of Mrs. Vesey: “Some of us rush through life, and some of us saunter through life. Mrs. Vesey SAT through life.” I can’t say that I liked Laura Fairlie very much - I’m not a big fan of the delicate, pretty, sad heroines of yore, which is an inextricable part of novels of a certain time period (this book was written in 1859!) - however, considering the year, it is even more impressive to meet someone like Marian Halcombe - as decisive as she was intelligent. Also, just for the sheer humour value, I enjoyed reading all the parts involving Frederick Fairlie; while he may have been utterly useless to the other characters within the story, I thought his permanent ‘health issues’ and his dramatic reactions to the slightest puff of movement or tiniest whiff of sound, were just so funny!
While I did think that there were large sections of the book where the story really slowed down (some of Marian’s narratives did not advance the story much), from the time we get to Walter’s interview with Mrs. Clements and his subsequent meeting with Mrs. Catherick, to the final dénouement at the church in Knowlesbury, the story was really exciting. And while I had harboured some suspicions from early on, the final reveal involving Lady Glyde and Anne Catherick and the “Secret” involving Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco, was something I did not see coming at all.
Sunday, January 12, 2014
Ok, so I finished reading this collection of 21 short stories by PKD, and after a huge internal strife (which to pick and which to drop: always such an intense debate when one is dealing with such genius) here are my top five favourites from the second half of the book:
5. A Little Something for Us Tempunauts
In a world beyond just astronauts and space travel, three tempunauts are sent into the future, and return to the news of their death during re-entry. Chrononaut Addison Doug realizes that they have been caught in a time loop. Does this realization give them ‘fore’ knowledge to avoid their own death? Or is that just the kind of time paradox one can never get out of?
4. The Electric Ant
Hospitalized after a car crash, Garson Poole wakes up to the shocking discovery that he is an ‘electric ant’ - an organic robot. Poole’s experimenting with the micro-punched tape in his chest cavity challenged Reality in such a brilliant way. The ending left me in as much fear as awe.
3. The Minority Report
John Anderton, creator of Precrime - a system created to foresee crime and punish people before they commit it - gets a report from his three ‘precogs’ that names him as a murderer in the near future. What follows is a great crime/mystery, made more complicated by the existence of multiple timelines in the future.
2. Rautavaara’s Case
I love stories that present an existing fact and question the concept to its very core, and this short story about three earth people stranded in space really shed new light on a centuries-old belief system. A rescue team from Proxima Centauri, comprising of a race of plasma beings that exist only in the form of intellectual consciousness, brings Agneta Rautavaara back to “life”. While monitoring her thoughts - which involve questions of the afterlife - the beings decide to alter her vision of Christ, and introduce their version of God … Would you be horrified by a Christ that eats a human, flesh and blood and all? Or does this ritual sound familiar? And if one is acceptable, can the other not be honourable?
1. Precious Artifact
Such sorrow. Such hopelessness. I was really moved by this story of the complete destruction of Earth in the aftermath of a war between Terrans and Proxmen. Milt Biskle is one of the many terraforming engineers who have been tasked with the job of making Mars habitable for humans. Suspicious about the outcome of the war, he decides to go to Earth. Facade after facade breaks down, and the great illusion is revealed for what it is… Even the one final act of kindness is not all that it seems.