Sunday, December 20, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “The Night Eternal” (Book 3: The Strain Trilogy)

by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan.

This final book of The Strain trilogy is set in a world where the Master has successfully created a nuclear winter, and most humans - what little is left of them - live as slaves to the vampires.

While Fet and Gus continue to be the heroes of this story, this book also prominently features the fascinating life of Mr. Quinlan. Through interludes describing his fascinating history dating back to 40 AD, and narratives revealing his true purpose in life, it is now that we really get to know him. Eph - who I really wasn't that impressed by, even though he is clearly positioned as the main protagonist of this tale - does finally redeem himself in the final moments of this fight. Nora goes from somewhat useless to excessively annoying. And why Zach is the "chosen one" is never explained ... there is a weak 1-sentence attempt at an explanation, but that may have made it worse than just leaving it as an illogical plot point. Oh, and whatever happened to the Space Station that we very, very briefly visited some time back? Like the character of Phade, that was a good idea that went nowhere.

Generally speaking, while the first book was really good, and the second more of a placeholder, overall, I have mixed feelings about this final book. I liked the fast-paced action and the broad scope of the story that takes us to so many different areas where different people are seen to cope with this calamity in different ways. What I really did not like at all, was the concluding narrative where the authors walk us through the Bible and talk about God, and Sodom and Gomorrah, and what happened to Ozryel, and how Gabriel and Michael eventually return him to Heaven... The Strain had started on a scientific premise, basing vampirism on a hitherto undiscovered virus. How that became a story about god and the angels and heaven and hell, defies all explanation and good storytelling.

Still, overall, an interesting read - with some of the more interesting characters I have read about. For ultimately this is a story driven mainly by characters. The heroism of Abraham Setrakian, the villainy of Eldritch Palmer, the bravery of Augustin Elizalde, the loyalty of Vasiliy Fet, the unique story of Gabriel Bolivar, the fascinating saga of Mr. Quinlan ... it is their acts of bravery and their moments of cowardice, that ultimately creates this world of The Strain.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “The Fall” (Book 2: The Strain Trilogy)

by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan.

Things slow down considerably in this second novel in The Strain Trilogy. Where discovery of a new threat and its gradual takeover of the world is a natural foundation of storytelling, repetition of the same events and situations in a second book just makes it boring.

Regardless, the characters that had been established as the key players in this war against deadly vampires, continue to shine in this book. Setrakian's quest for the Occido Lumen, an ancient book that contains the secret for defeating the vampires and Fet, whose common sense, street smarts and bravery make him a perfect ally for any mission, were my two favourites in this book too. Gus, recruited as the vampire's "day hunter" forms a team comprising such memorable characters as Silver Angel. The luchador whose glory days are far behind him, has one of the more heroic and memorable moments in this tale. Even Eph appears to be set to take on a more active role in the coming days.

While the majority of this book was rather slow, the final scenes - including the ride in the Amtrak train and the confrontation between Setrakian and the Master in the nuclear power plant - were brilliant. Fast-paced and exciting, they changed events around quite a bit, and paved the way for an exciting final installment.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “The Strain”

by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan.

Starting with the legend of Jusef Sardu, the Polish nobleman who suffered from gigantism and met with some mysterious fate in Romania, this first installment in The Strain Trilogy tells the story of the horror that crosses continents in its terrifying mission to rule the world.

From the moment the dead airplane arrives at JFK International Airport right after an occultation, and all but 4 passengers are found inexplicably dead, the tension in the creepy atmosphere grips you and never lets go. Truly there are moments when the very air stops, yet the darkness keeps moving.

Led by Dr. Ephraim "Eph" Goodweather, a Director at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and with the discovery of a mysterious box in cargo, the theory of a deadly virus is considered. And as the Strigoi slowly takes over, we see the beginnings of the slow eradication of humankind, as handfuls and then large groups of people fall victim to a yet unheard of "disease".

As far as characters are concerned, of course the hero of this tale is Holocaust survivor Abraham Setrakian. Working at a nondescript pawnshop, we are slowly introduced to his life, his history and his ultimate mission. It is through him that we learn about the 7 Ancients, and the one rebel among them - the Master. And it is his decades of knowledge that puts together a plan that has any hopes of victory, and a group that has any hope of carrying his crusade through to its end.

Greatest in this group is exterminator Vasily Fet. Called in to inspect a rat attack in an upscale home, it is Fet who carries out his own inspection, and it is Fet who tracks down Eph and proves to be a fantastic asset as he transforms his knowledge of vermin living in the dark to this fight against the vampires.

Surprisingly, even though the author clearly positions Eph as the protagonist - we do follow him around right from the beginning - he was really not a very impressive person. An ordinary human at best, and a cliched divorcé at worst, his story was too insipid for him to be the hero of a vampire novel.

The sinister tone that was set up in that tiny kitchen where a grandmother told her grandson the story of the monster that goes pic.. pic.. pic... never lets up. Six foot stingers that zap out of the mouth and drain human blood while white parasitic worms take over the corpse and turn it into a vampire that will continue the cycle... This is not a story about your average pretty boy vampire from Twilight. Harking back to the concept of the vampire as created by Bram Stoker, this is true terror.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “Dying of the Light”

by George R. R. Martin.

Set on the rogue planet of Worlorn, this is a tale of a planet moving in Space towards its inevitable death, of planetary cultures that came together for a brief time, only to then drift towards their eventual annihilation.

As awesome as the setting of this story was, unfortunately far too much time was spent on the personal relationships of a few characters - which immediately loses me as a reader who really has limited patience for love stories in science fiction!

Here lies endless Space. Here spins the brilliant Wheel of Fire. Here is a planet that is being pulled closer towards a cold and dark region of space where no life can ever again survive. Here is a world built with the express purpose of celebrating the cultures of 14 different planetary systems. Here lie stones with the power to retain memories and relay messages. Here are cities where everything from taxi service to acquiring citizenship is fully automated ...

Yet, here we are, for the most part, pondering over the break-up of (the very weak) Dirk t'Larien and (the very annoying) Gwen Delvano. Actually I found the "secondary" characters way more interesting than the main protagonists - they had a richer story to tell, with their unique culture and code of behaviour.

Still, for a first novel, Martin certainly created an undoubtedly fascinating world.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “The Confession”

by John Grisham.

1998. An abduction of a high school cheerleader. A black boy who happens to be in the same school. Oh, and this is a small town in Texas.

After spending nine years in prison, wrongly convicted for a crime he had nothing to do with, Donté Drumm is just days away from his execution, when serial rapist Travis Boyette comes forward and confesses to the crime. Set against the backdrop of a rotting legal and judicial system, this story is a mad race against time as a few good people, led by advocate Robbie Flak, frantically attempt to set matters right.

The story - desperately heartbreaking at times, wonderfully victorious at others - was beautiful. A fast-paced narrative added that element of swift page-turning that a story like this demanded. Adding to this were some truly memorable characters; the dramatic Reeva Pike, whose greatest desire appears to turn her tragedy into popular reality television; Keith Schroeder, the Lutheran pastor, whose desire to be good and do good is put to the ultimate test the day a criminal shows up on his doorstep confessing to a rape and murder that someone else is on death row for; and of course lawyer Robbie Flak who faces perhaps the greatest trial of his life as he fights for justice in a town steeped in bias and injustice.

A great story that left me alternately happy, angry, and very sad.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “Neverwhere”

by Neil Gaiman.

Away from his home and family in Scotland, Richard Mayhew is trying to make a life for himself in London. Other than a dull job and an overbearing girlfriend, London has not granted him any of the fantastic dreams he had hoped to realize. Enter Door. In saving a severely injured young girl who appears out of nowhere, Richard is sent on a mission to find the Marquis de Carabas, the only man who can help Door. And just like that, along with him, we fall through the cracks of this world and enter the unbelievable world of London Below.

With “Neverwhere”, Neil Gaiman sets us off on a magical quest for life in an underground land of death, disease, murder, mayhem, and all things truly, truly fantastical. We deal with Rat-Speakers. We make our way through the terrifying Night's Bridge. We meet the legendary Hunter. We appear at the bizarre Earl's Court. We take vampires for guides. We test our mettle at ordeals set by Black Friars. We visit the unique Floating Market. We are visited by an Angel ... And in all this, we are constantly running away from the horrific duo of paid assassins, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar.

An overwhelmed Richard wants to get back to his ordinary boring life; Door is on a mission to find out why her family was murdered; Hunter wants to kill the Great Beast of London. Gaiman adds to his usual world of fantasy, a touch of the mysterious, as the tale weaves in and out of the labyrinthine underbelly of London, through several twists and turns and surprise revelations, as varied characters with vastly different goals join forces in that weird underground world.

“He had gone beyond the world of metaphor and simile, into the place of things that are...” Richard Mayhew's speechless reaction upon first discovering London Below is precisely my reaction - each and every time - to the wonderful world of Neil Gaiman.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “Gone Girl”

by Gillian Flynn.

Narrated alternately by Nick and Amy - either by means of relating present accounts, or by means of recounting the past - this is the story of a married couple and the mysterious disappearance of one of them.

Let me sum up my thoughts on this book in 4 short sentences:

1. Amy Elliott Dunne is one of the most irritating characters of all time. Reading those diary entries was sheer torture, and after a point I was skimming through most of it.

2. There is no payoff to this unnecessarily long book; things happen, and then they stop happening.

3. This does not fall in the crime / mystery genre - it is a psychological study of two people; and while neither of them is typical of the sex they represent, neither is unique or interesting enough to warrant such a detailed study.

4. There are stories which are based on a great idea but are expressed poorly. There are stories with generic ideas at the core, but are narrated so beautifully that one feels compelled to keep reading anyway. And then there are books which are simple both in content and execution. This was one of them.

There's not really much else I can add to this review. I didn't abandon it, so I suppose there was some level of interest that the author kept alive, to see me through to the end. Perhaps if someone could have edited out about 200 or so pages - preferably from the first half, it might have made for an interesting read.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “The Cuckoo’s Calling”

by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling).

The first novel in the Cormoran Strike series of detective novels, this investigation of a model's death takes us to the flashy world of multimillionaire movie producers, socialites and rock-stars.

In following up on the suicide of famous supermodel Lula Landry, we are introduced to an extremely wide range of characters from a homeless woman to a famous rapper to an eccentric designer. And for me, this was the highlight of the narrative. First we get a description of the clothes. Then come the mannerisms. Then they start speaking ... and slowly the characters come to life. The driver. The security guard. The make up girl. The store assistant. The poor birth mother. The rich adoptive mother. The actor. The model. I really felt like I was watching these characters move and speak.

I also really liked Cormoran Strike and his "temporary" secretary Robin - both individually, as well as their relationship. Robin's fast-paced, clever means of follow up formed such a perfect foil to Strike's slow but tenacious unearthing of clues.

The plot itself was generic. Very early on, I had correctly predicted who the perpetrator was, and I attribute that to a very standard mystery.

Still, it was an enjoyable read. Despite the simple plot not once did I feel the reading to be a drag.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “Death Note”

Written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata.

There are murder mysteries where no one knows the killer and both the investigator and the public slowly follow the clues and in the end figure out what is going on. Then there are murder mysteries where the reader knows who the killer is and in a cleverly written way, events - and the reasoning behind them - unfold. And then there is "Death Note" where both the investigator and the killer know each other and are working together to catch the killer, while the reader waits to see who will win.

Welcome to the fantastic world of Light (Raito) Yagami, whose accidental discovery of the "Death Note" - a notebook that kills anyone whose name is written in it - starts an unprecedented rush of events, most fascinating amongst which are the appearance of a shinigami (god of death) called Ryuk, and a brilliant battle of wits with "L", a world-famous detective.

Light's journey starts with a truly well-meaning desire to rid the world of its criminals. But right and wrong start to blur, when he appoints himself as "the god of the new world" with the creation of that utopia. Enter "L". And this is what I found the most fascinating aspect of this series: I loved how equally brilliant the two characters were - I loved that each person was immediately able to figure out the other's thinking almost to the point of being able to predict the other's moves. And I loved how - unlike average crime / mystery tales - this narrative did not hide the denouement till the final point of the grand finale. All tricks and plans are played and counter-played throughout this saga, and that made for a very exciting read.

Although, without a question Light and L are two of the stronger characters I have ever come across, I found it fascinating that this was not a story only about the one good guy and the one bad guy. The stories of many characters, with multiple layers, were woven in and out of the narrative. Their relationships added yet another dimension to the story. Light and his shinigami Ryuk; Misa and her shinigami Rem; TV host Kiyomi Takada and devout "Kira" follower Teru Mikami; heirs Near and Mello... With the possible exception of Misa Amane, who tended to get a little annoying at times, each and every character in this story was strong, fascinating and so unique.

Showcased through the actions - and their far-reaching results - of the two main protagonists, Death Note is also a great comment on society, its beliefs, its stand on right and wrong, good and evil. One of the marks of great writing is, in my opinion, its ability to present characters and/or a point of view, in such shades of grey as to have the reader constantly oscillate between admiring and loathing a character, constantly arguing for or against the stand, and never being able to put an easy, permanent label on any one. And that is exactly what this series does.

Also, for a narrative that spreads across 12 volumes, the action was quite fast paced throughout. Told through cleverly inserted flashbacks, there were some truly brilliant "reveal" moments. If there was one time where I felt the story to be lagging a bit, it had to do with events at Yotsuba Group. While the events at that organisation were an integral part of the story, I felt that at times the story lingered around the building and its people, and lost some of its power. A lag, however, that was more than picked up by the concluding events at Sakura TV and the follow-up events, leading to the conclusion at Yellow Box Warehouse; which were some more exciting concluding action scenes I have ever read.

I do have to say that I was a little disappointed with the conclusion insofar as it had just a touch of the didactic - which was more of an anti climax when you consider the brilliant storytelling that had preceded it. Still, overall, a fantastic read.

Oh, and this was my first Manga, so I have no frame of reference, but I thought the art was awesome. In some cases, the illustrations carried the story forward even in a complete absence of words, and that was pretty cool.

(Yes I realize this is an extra long review, but, like I just said, it was my first ever Manga and I did not feel like editing my reactions!)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “The Monuments Men”

by Robert M. Edsel.

In a special meeting held at the Met in 1941, the Fogg Art Museum's associate director Paul Sachs addressed the war and its impact on the arts community: "If, in time of peace, our museums and art galleries are important to the community, in time of war they are doubly valuable. For then, when the petty and the trivial fall way and we are face to face with final and lasting values, we...must summon to our defense all our intellectual and spiritual resources ... Art is the imperishable and dynamic expression of these aims. It is, and always has been, the visible evidence of the activity of free minds."

Along with every other physical and emotional plunder, Adolf Hitler had set about stealing the finest art treasures in Europe, a process wherein he and his armies took it upon themselves to judge what art deserved to be preserved, and what could be ruthlessly destroyed. Set in 1944-1945, “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” is the account of a mission to save some of the world's greatest art from the Nazis.

Without a question this is a fascinating slice of history, and there were so many things here that I was not aware of. (For one, I did not think it possible to hate the Nazis any more, but after reading this book, I do). More importantly however, this recount sheds light on the extremely adverse conditions that the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives) men and women worked under. With little or no official / political support, or access to arms and ammunition, a small band of American and British art historians, museum curators and academicians risked their very lives to save cultural treasures. James Rorimer. Lincoln Kirstein. Walker Hancock. George Stout. Rose Valland. Harry Ettlinger. It is a pity that these names are not more well-known as war heroes.

Overall, however, while this is definitely an important part of history - and something that is unfortunately not as common knowledge as it should be - just as a reading experience, the narrative left much to be desired. Perhaps an introduction to the mission and its background could have been followed by a report of a handful of missions and/or highlights. Detailing each and every mission became very repetitive, and I reached a point where I had to force myself to finish the book.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “Counter-Clock World”

by Philip K. Dick.

From starting a conversation with "Goodbye" and ending it with a "Hello", to blowing smoke back into cigarettes and making them grow back to normal size, this is the world where time has started going backwards. The most significant change in this universe - in what is known as The Hobart Phase - is that the dead have started coming back to life and living out their lives, quite literally from the grave to the womb, when the zygote finally separates into an egg and a sperm.

The story revolves around the anticipated rise of religious leader Anarch Peak, whose revival is followed with a lot of interest by various groups including the Vitarium (an organization that revives and prepares the dead for their new life), the Library (an organization that eradicates books - which, by the way, was a brilliant idea) and of course, opposing religious groups.

While the central concept of this story is phenomenal, I felt that not enough was done with that unique concept. Once the fact of the reverse world was established, the story gradually moved away from that aspect into a more mundane world, complete with its political, commercial and religious realities, and I found my attention wavering at times. My final impression was one of somewhat less than the complete awe I usually have for PKD.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “Of Mice and Men”

by John Steinbeck

“The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry.”

Set in the world of the Great Depression, this classic novella presents a powerful story of happiness, love and dignity fighting to survive in an overwhelmingly bleak and prejudiced world.

Following a crucial section in the lives of Lennie Small and George Milton, and told entirely though conversations held between all the characters, this is the story of a mentally disabled man who only ever wanted to own a farm and tend to rabbits, an aging ranch handyman whose sole friend is an old and smelly dog, a woman who is, symbolically and most poignantly, not even granted a name in this tale, and a stable-hand who is relegated to a demeaning corner of the world based on the colour of his skin.

Steinbeck's brutally honest narrative style, which has no patience for either prettified reality or glorified language, made this a powerful write and a memorable read. With each interaction, a new hope is expressed, with each conversation an old dream is crushed. There is a darkness to be submerged in here, there are layers to be uncovered here ... This is a Classic for a reason.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “World War Z”

by Max Brooks.

Presented as a series of interviews with survivors of The Great Panic, “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War” is a record of an apocalyptic war with the undead that almost completely wiped out civilization on Earth.

As a United Nations Postwar Commission agent speaks with survivors of the zombie plague, we get to see such a wide range of viewpoints from across the world - and that, to me, was the most fascinating feature of this book - more than the terror of zombies, more than the horror of the plague, more, even, than the unique concept of interviews ... the fact that we get to hear the stories of everyone from a former White House chief of staff to a woman who has the mind of a four-year old. Different ages, occupations, and nationalities come together to create an immensely rich story filled with widely differing perspectives.

Of course, the overall point that cannot be missed is that this is a profound comment on how this world would react to a large-scale calamity. Yes, there would be the medical field hurriedly cashing in on the tragedy with a randomly generated placebo. Yes, there would be the political arena using the threat to further its media positioning; the media, in turn, making the most of the opportunity to sell news. And yes, there would be the nameless fellow-hideout co-inhabitant, who would risk her own life so that a complete stranger may live.

From trying to deal with 'quislings', the people who act enough like zombies that you can no longer tell the difference, to fighting an enemy that needs neither food nor rest; from living in a country that is so confident in its superiority that it hides the truth till the very end, to living in a country that would gas its citizens just to see who would re-animate, the terror of the plague is fully realized precisely because of the multi-layered background of the speakers. Their stories terrify, inspire, sadden and give hope - but they always, always intrigue.

A fantastic read ... that most poignantly ends on a note of finality, when survivors are left to live out the rest of their lives after having been "... afraid for so long, fighting and killing, and waiting to die..."

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “The Bedlam Detective”

by Stephen Gallagher

It is Sebastian Becker's job to investigate wealthy patrons and report to the Bethlehem Hospital his professional opinion of their capability to continue to manage their affairs. One of his patients, rich landowner Sir Owain Lancaster, becomes the focus of this book, as events cover a scientific trip down the Amazon gone horribly wrong, mysterious murders of children, and an elusive monster that is affecting brilliant minds and sending them to mental asylums.

Despite the fantastic premise, I can't say I enjoyed this book much. Once the main plot had been introduced, not much happened; in fact a lot of time was spent going over similar conversations with the same conclusions. And the final reveal - coming, as it did, after such extraordinary elements - left me quite under whelmed.

What kept me going was the relationships between some of the characters and some really interesting conversations: the way Sebastian's son, Robert, deconstructs the events at Amazon and decrees where reality ends and fantasy begins ... Sir Owain's attempts at questioning his own mind and his little experiment on Sebastian ... conversations with Doctor Somerville - who was part of the original Amazon expedition - in an attempt to reconstruct the murder of his sister ... moments like these kept my interest in the story alive, more than the main narrative.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “Coldbrook”

Located deep in Appalachian Mountains, scientists at the Coldbrook laboratory discover a portal to another dimension. The universe that exists a few steps away holds a horrifying secret - and when the first living being bypasses The Eradicator and comes through the breach, all of Earth is changed forever.

Tim Lebbon creates a story that has elements of science fantasy, horror and drama. A world is overrun by zombies and all of humanity's future depends on finding the one person who appears to be immune to a zombie attack. Beyond the obvious fact that the basic premise of the story is really cool, I really liked the unique characters that form this story: from the omnipresent Inquisitor that can show visions of multiverses, to the sole hope for a cure in the form of a woman crippled by a debilitating muscle disease, to Furies that have quantum capabilities. I also really liked the fact that we get to see both worlds: once the zombies come through, we not only see the effects of their attack on this world, but we also follow Holly Wright into the next universe and see events unfold there.

The one thing that did not work for me in this story was the inclusion of personal relationship problems, which I considered slightly annoying; at a time when zombies have infected and changed the whole world as we know it, I could not care less about Vic Pearson and his eternal dilemma between his wife and his mistress.

I also felt that the character of the Inquisitor could have been taken a bit further. It was a brilliant concept, and in fact was introduced to the story at just the right pace and with just the right amount of mystery. Thereafter, however, it seemed to fade into the background, only to be re-visited in brief repetitive spurts.

Overall though, this was an enjoyable read with a great final denouement.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “Stardust”

Gather around everyone, Neil Gaiman has a story for us! From one of the greatest storytellers of our time comes this tale of the adventures of Tristran Thorn of Wall, whose search for love takes him beyond the borders of his village into the magical land of Faerie.

Following a fallen star, Tristran travels into unknown lands and enters a realm of kings and queens, witches and ghosts, deadly trees, unicorns and cursed silver chains. An 81st Lord trying to choose an heir to the throne; the ancient witches collectively called the Lillim attempting to regain their youth; a young woman named Yvaine who is really the star that fell from the skies ... For me, the truly fascinating part about this story was the way all their stories had a common thread - with events starting long before Tristran's birth - and how everyone and every element finally came brilliantly together.

This was a beautiful love story and a fantastic adventure - and I enjoyed it immensely. Here's to Gaiman's magical imagination ... and to hoping that places like Faerie exist. Somewhere.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “The Dead Path”

Darkness and insects: two things that absolutely terrify me. So, this story by Stephen M. Irwin was spot on for the fear factor! "At the end of Bymar Street was Carmichael Road, and beyond it, the heavy darkness of the woods." It is here that as a child, Nicholas Close had seen his best friend Tristram killed. And, years later, the little bird with its legs snipped off and its head replaced with a sphere of woven twigs continues to spread a mysterious Evil.

Shortly after his wife's death, a freak fall gives Nicholas the ability to see ghosts. What was fascinating was his ability to see dead people in the final moments leading up to their deaths. That constant replay of unnatural deaths added to the creepy atmosphere of this tale. From there, Nick is led on a terrifying journey replete with ghosts, evil symbols, gigantic spiders, ancient magic, and a distorted version of The Green Man.

I also loved the amazing imagery and sheer poetry in the storytelling - not something I would necessarily associate a horror story with.

Overall, I felt that the storytelling could have been sped up a bit, and although the final reveal was very interesting, it took far too long to get there.

Also, I felt that there was a huge missed opportunity in Suzette, a character who knows magic, yet does nothing more than use it to nurse her son back to health. As someone who professes to have been practicing magic since she was a child, and as the only potential opponent to the immense threat posed by the evil that lurks in the woods, I was expecting her to do a lot more.

Still, it was a good story - with a fantastic ending that I did not see coming!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “Genocide of One”

Kazuaki Takano's story is about a child who is the next step in human evolution, and whose superior intelligence could well pose a threat to all of humanity. This was an undoubtedly brilliant concept. Conducted some years before, the Heisman Report was about research into extinction of the human race. One of the five possible reasons it outlined was a gene modification that would develop a superior human, an intelligent being that would eradicate lower humans, as it saw animals as detrimental to the growth of humanity. With the news of the birth of the life form known as Akili, that prediction appears to have come true, and various key individuals have to react very quickly.

The narrative was also really interesting, as we follow multiple threads, all of them eventually leading to the birthplace of a new civilization (symbolically, in Africa). Acting under presidential orders, Jonathan Yeager leads an international team of hand-picked operatives into a Congolese jungle to destroy the being. In Japan, Kento receives an email from his father, curiously four days after his death - with very explicit instructions for a secret project with a tight schedule. Meanwhile, in Uganda, Sanyu gets an enormous sum of money to transport a van in a war zone in Congo. Nigel Pierce, who lives amongst pygmies in their natural habitat, appears to be the only one who knows what the truth really is. These parallel events make for very exciting reading.

I also liked the social commentary that certain characters and situations throw light on, chief among which was the true intent behind American-led wars - as Yeager, stationed at Baghdad, says at one point, the war was never about the ideology it claimed, it was always about oil. When the story went into the background of young children recruited into war via the cruellest means possible, it was a brutally scathing comment on war.

Unfortunately, at several points along the way, I lost interest mainly because the story was just too long and a lot of details could have been severely edited. I also did not like the fact that the author's voice kept getting manifested in various characters' lament about how greedy this world has become. After the initial few comments on how people have become more "war ready", the tone got too pedantic, and I felt like I was being preached to a lot. And that really broke my concentration.

Overall, however, this was an enjoyable read. Oh, and I thought the title was really awesome!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “Bird Box”

There is something terrifying out there. That much we know. What it is, we will never know - for to get a glimpse of whatever is out there, is to be driven to violent insanity. This also we know.

Josh Malerman tells us the story of Malorie and her two young children, who are among the handful of survivors in a world devastated by whatever it is that has driven everyone to brutal murder and suicide. The narrative follows two streams: one, in the present where Malorie embarks upon a journey - blindfolded, downriver, in a rowboat - in hopes of reaching a safe haven, the other, a flashback that starts when this terror first started taking over the world.

The greatest horror stories, for me, are the ones built on psychological suspense, and woven around an inexplicable atmosphere of an unknown fear. And on that score this book was terrifying all the way through! Imagine living your entire life blindfolded. Walking about in the middle of the day, knowing - Knowing - that there is a being (another human? a creature? an alien? a monster?) right in front of you, which has the power, with one brief glimpse to turn you so insane as to make you tear chunks out of yourself. That central concept and an overwhelming suspense moved the narrative along at a fantastic pace - and as it did, it also raised some very interesting concepts revolving around perceptions of sanity and immunity to fear.

I will say this; as I was nearing the ending, I actually thought of an awesome conclusion, which was much better than the way this story ended! That notwithstanding, this was a great read.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “Innocent Blood”

P. D. James' “Innocent Blood” is about the series of events that are let loose when Philippa Palfrey, on her 18th birthday, applies for the right to see her birth certificate and learn the identity of her birth parents. Her discovery that her mother - who she thought had died - was in fact in jail, convicted of murder, and her decision to form a new life with her, lie at the heart of this story.

I really liked the idea of placing two narratives side by side - concurrently we get to see Philippa search for her mother, and then the two of them search for a new apartment and a new life - as well as Norman Scase, the father of a murdered girl, as he searches for the killer.

But, other than that, I really struggled with this story. A smaller issue I had was with the pace of storytelling. It started off really well, diving into the heart of the narrative very early on. Soon thereafter, it slowed down more and more, till detailed trips to the real estate agents or the farmers' market made this a very tiresome read.

The greater problem I had with this story was that I either just barely tolerated, or immensely disliked, all of the main characters. My biggest issue was with the central character Philippa - I never got why she was so horrible to her adoptive parents ... more shockingly, I really didn’t get why she was so keen to re-connect with her biological mother - knowing full well that she was the woman who had killed a child that had just been raped by her husband. Also, a lot of things that were said by people got me quite angry. Mary Ducton (Philippa's mother) says that the rape of a child wasn’t as bad as one pictures it - and at one point even justifies the murder by saying, "I saved her a life of sadness that comes to a child of early sexual assault". Here’s another gem: Philippa at one point wishes her father had met someone else, for he would then still have been alive - she explains, "It was his bad luck to have met instead Julie Scase, that dangerous mixture of innocence and stupidity". His bad luck?? his Bad Luck?? … At one point when her stepfather tries to dissuade her from going back to her killer mother, she yells at him, saying he never bothered to find out the pressures under which she had had to kill the child. The book ended with a convenient suicide and Philippa's easy return to the home - and also the bed - of her stepfather.

This book was such a letdown; “Death of an Expert Witness” by this author had placed P. D. James in such high esteem in my mind.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “Red Dragon”

“Red Dragon” by Thomas Harris is the first book in the Hannibal Lecter series, and follows FBI instructor Will Graham whose unique capability of entering criminals' minds makes him the perfect choice to track down the elusive killer, the Tooth Fairy. (Yes, now I see where shows like “Criminal Minds” got their inspiration from!)

Perceptive to the point of being an empath, Will's thinking is what sets the tone for this story, and sets it apart from regular crime stories. Inspired by one of “The Great Red Dragon” paintings by William Blake, a delusional loner aspires to the great Becoming. Driven by ambition, yet snubbed for years to a point beyond humiliation, a sleazy tabloid reporter becomes a focal point in a massive manhunt. Bound and behind bars, a famous killer still manages to dramatically turn the ordinary course of an investigation.

This was more than a search for a killer. This was profiling a person's entire life from a sordid past to a brutal present. And that was what made this such a fantastic read - unique and credible all at once. Every character had shades of hero and villain in them, every incident was fraught with gruesome horror and tragic tones. And that is why I was truly fascinated by the story of the red dragon, as it travelled from mystery to terror to its final denouement.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “Horns”

“Horns”, a crime / fantasy novel by Joe Hill, is the story of Ignatius Perrish, who - after a drunken night in the forest at the spot where his girlfriend's body was found - wakes up one morning to find horns growing from his head. Frightening as the discovery is, Ig soon learns the power of his horns as he delves into the deepest secrets of everyone from family and close friends to random strangers, and is even able to manipulate people to do his silent bidding.

I really liked that the book jumps into the story with no unnecessary preamble. A drunken night of desecration, turning into an inhuman being, and learning to wield an evil power - all of this happens at the very beginning - and that drew me in very quickly. The story basically follows the lives of Ignatius Perrish, his girlfriend Merrin Williams, his brother Terry Perrish, and their common friend Lee Tourneau.  Tourneau was for me, the most powerful character - wrought out of endless twists and turns and a very disturbing past. Narrated through flashbacks dating back to their early childhood, we see how these friends met, forged relationships, and undertook a horrifying journey.

The book raised some very interesting points about Good and Evil (the title was not arbitrarily chosen!) - one scene that stands out in particular is when Ig gives a sermon to a cave full of snakes about god versus the devil. That whole discourse brought out so powerfully the raw pain and anger that Ig felt at - what he perceived to be - a less than omnipresent god. Not just for a glimpse into his heart, but also for the very interesting points it presented on the concept of God and Satan, this was a fascinating scene.

I was also greatly moved by the Treehouse of the Mind, a mystical tree house that magically appeared in the woods. While it is never fully explained what or where this structure was, it was the very beautiful, very private world of Ig and Merrin which transformed from a safe haven to an ominous foreshadowing of the future, as needed.

I'll end with this awesome quote from the book - “If you were going to live in hell on earth, there was something to be said for being one of the devils.”

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “The Devil All the Time”

Donald Ray Pollock has created a powerful tale of violence and hopelessness which weaves in and out of rural Ohio as it follows the lives of seemingly inconsequential people. A returning World War II veteran. The beautiful waitress he meets at a diner. A travelling preacher. The sheriff. His sister and brother-in-law. The pastor of the local church...

Behind the quiet anonymity of these regular people however, is a decaying world of small hushed towns, dark cornfields and run down motels, with its strong bigotry and its weird religious fervor, its violent rapes and its horrific murders.

Adding to the sense of getting hopelessly ensnared in a lawless world are the multiple narrative threads that run through this book - all constantly connected by person or place. With Arvin returning to Meade - where the story of the little boy forced into fanatical blood rituals began - the vicious cycle of this sordid tale comes full circle.

The genius of this book lies in the fact that while I have neither met, nor relate to, any of the people in this tale, I see the overwhelming "humanity" borne of helplessness and frustration that lies at the core of it. The tragedy of the story of course comes from the fact that there are no good guys that will come blazing through in the end to stop the madness. Safely ensconced in remote lands and tiny minds, this terror will continue unchallenged.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “Pnin”

Vladimir Nabokov tells us the story of Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, a Russian-born professor living in the United States, and his experiences of living life in a very alien culture.

The great joy of reading this story was, for me, how small individual and isolated incidents came together to create this beautiful portrait of a man, humorous at times, nostalgic at others, but always so richly layered. From taking the wrong train to deliver a lecture, to organizing a party for friends and colleagues, hosted with sombre propriety, we see a man who struggled throughout to meet life with the greatest possible dignity. Pnin reminded me at times, of Tagore's protagonists - with that deep pride and honour that shines through the darkness of poverty or humiliation around them.

That picture of Pnin washing the dishes ... Somehow that image has seeped into my mind and refuses to let go.

It would be amiss of me not to mention Nabokov's richly poetic narrative, of course. "A copious spring shower kept lashing at the french windows, beyond which young greenery, all eyes, shivered and streamed."
Absolutely breathtaking.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “Confessions”

Kanae Minato presents a murder mystery in one of the most unique narratives I have ever read. (I read the translation by Stephen Snyder). There were so many things that made this book so amazing. First of all, this story is narrated in a very stark, even simplistic manner - yet, somehow the bare boned monologue is surprisingly intricate. The story starts with Yuko Moriguchi's final lecture to her class. The lecture starts with a comment on the new milk programme at school. Mundane enough. At some point it moves to an announcement of her upcoming retirement. Also ordinary. When the topic moves to details about a colleague's life after being afflicted with AIDS, it gets just a little uncomfortable. Weaving in and out of the tale with deep comments on life, the lecture suddenly crashes into the recent death of her four-year-old child, Manami. Before we know what happened, a revenge plot for the two murderers, Shuya and Naoki, is announced right there in the classroom.

That story told in that chapter becomes the framework of the rest of the book as each chapter becomes a confession by a different player in this gruesome drama. What made Shuya invent that electrically charged purse - and then want to try its effects on someone? Why did Naoki decide to support a murderous plan? How does something like this affect the people in their lives - the mother, the sister, the girlfriend? What is really fascinating about this narrative is that we see the exact same series of events from different points of view - and those dramatically different perspectives move the story forward.

I was also really moved by the different comments on life and society - comments that I would actually like to see someone address! Questions of troubled kids and juvenile laws, peer pressures and social stigmas intersperse an already dark tale.

One story. Different voices. Constant twists ... that led to a grand act of vengeance. This was not really horror or crime in the traditional sense of the genre - rather it was a layer by layer exposé of some very dark and disturbing sides of human nature.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “Aces High”

Edited by George R. R. Martin, “Aces High” is the second in the “Wild Cards” series. “Wild Cards”, the first book of this series, was all about the effects of a deadly alien virus on humans. From mysterious pennies from hell, to futuristic alien technology such as a reality shifter, to ancient Egyptian Masonic rituals, “Aces High” throws those superhuman Aces and badly mutated Jokers together as they face the two deadly threats of the Astronomer and the alien Mother Swarm.

An immortal "Astronomer" who gains energy through ritualistic killings. The undead "Demise" who can kill people by telepathically projecting the "memory" of his death experience into them. "Jube the Walrus", an undercover xenologist from the planet Glabber. "Modular Man", the sophisticated android, gifted with artificial intelligence as well as human emotions ... The new characters introduced in this book were fantastic. But because some of the old characters continued to be an important part of this word, I really felt like I was returning to a familiar place. The always interesting Croyd (Sleeper) Crenson, the Great and Powerful Turtle, Mark Meadows, who returns in very interesting ways, and of course Dr. Tachyon, Takisian prince / scientist / telepath  ... it was good to return to this alternate Earth.

What I also really liked about this book was that it delved a lot deeper into the characters this time. Aces aren't the perfect cape-wielding superheroes that we were led to believe. During the capture of a few Aces by a Takisian starship, we go behind the shell of the "Great and Powerful Turtle" and see the broken man behind the scenes; his fall and rise to greater heights was a high point in this story of Super Heroes.

The concept introduced in the first book was so unique, I was curious to see where the follow-up story would go - and I was not disappointed. This was a great read, with memorable characters coming together to build a very good story. What really impressed me - and this is kudos to the editor - is that even though this is a collection of short stories by different writers, at no point did the book feel anything less than one cohesive story.