Sunday, September 28, 2014

Rashmi bookmarks “Anansi Boys”

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

Rashmi bookmarks “The Dead Are More Visible”

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

Rashmi bookmarks “Ender's Game”

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

Rashmi bookmarks “Killing Floor”

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.