29 May 2012

The zombie virus meme

Fantasy | ZA Recht

Some days, you just need a good zombie story to curl up with. The first zombie story I remember as being satisfying was Larry Niven's Night on Mispec Moor. I think that was the first zombie story which was based on a natural cause for zombies. Prior to that, mysterious spells and juices caused zombiehood. In Mispec Moor, it was a pathogen which walked the dead, yes yes, impossible I know, and... ok, no spoilers. I still love the very clear development of the story and don't want to spoil it for those who have not yet read this one.

So, coming to Plague of the Dead, we again have a pathogen, here, a virus, which causes people to become zombies. Biting healthy people to spread it, and needing a shot to the head to kill the zombies.

The zombie virus is called the Morningstar strain, and we first encounter it in ... emails from a US Army doctor. We next see it in action in Africa. Pretty soon, the entire continent is abandoned to the disease and quarantined off. Too bad for the people there. I assume market research does not show many readers of US zombie books on the continent, so they can all be fictionally knocked off conveniently.

Anyway, as you would expect, the virus escapes. But before that, you get army guys doing their thing, doctors and journos doing their thing, and the zombies doing their, ugh, thing. A complication ensues when the Army doc leaks the truth about there really being zombies to the press. She and the journo are arrested by a secret agency and tortured as traitors. In the meantime, the virus gets loose in the USA.

You've seen zombies in many movies and TV serials, most of them caused by viruses. This book builds on the very same memes. A fast read, but not conclusive. It's written as book one of a series, and it's clear this is not a completed story yet. Since I haven't read the next book, it's not really a spoiler to guess that it will turn out to have been a manufactured virus.

The only thing that all the virus-zombie stories ignore is that, once dead, the body cannot be reanimated that easily, though biting people to spread it would make perfect sense for the pathogen. Don't think it doesn't happen--pathogens do change the behaviour of the host to make it do stupidly fatal things to get itself to spread faster. But a zombie virus would have to run a brain to run the body, which is much too complex for a virus to run. Most humans cannot manage it despite all the right DNA and practice. Unless the virus is intelligent. Hah. I'm not going down that equally dopey slope unless I decide to write a zombie book myself.

Still, as I said, once in a while you want to read a zombie book, for which this is plenty good enough. 3 and a half stars. If the next book falls into my lap, I will certainly read it, but I'm not going to stand in lines to get it.


For an intelligent pathogen, try Harry Harrison's The Jupiter Plague. Surprise ending, there. There's also another book I remember reading about an engineered virus that cycled through different forms based on an algorithm (I bet both mathematicians and biologists who read it died laughing though it's good enough for us laypeople), but alas, I forget both the name of the book and the author.

Theseus on reality television

Young Adult | Fantasy | Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games is a fast-paced blend of the ancient story of Theseus and the minotaur and dysfunctional reality television.

Katniss and a friend are 'reaped' by the Capitol of the future dystopia of Panem as part of a vicious annual reminder that the Capitol controls the destinies of everyone in the twelve Districts that remain after the rebellious thirteenth District has been destroyed. They are part of a set of 24 teens who are forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of the people of the Capitol. Shades of the story of Theseus here; the Cretans, too, demanded annual tributes in children from the Greeks. But this one combines the worst of reality television as well, in the contrived arena, and the forced fights. The stylists and sponsors are definitely from a more modern sensibility.

This is a very fast-paced book, and is responsible for lost sleep; I realised when my eyes drooped that it was almost one in the night, and had to slam the book shut and peel it from my hands to get any sleep at all.

Enough already. I am off to go find the next book in the series, in the hope that the thoroughly and unthinkingly evil Capitol gets its just desserts.

A note from the resident teenager: the book had 'a creepy premise' and the movie only has the name in common with the book. Fortunately for me, I haven't seen the movie. :)

[If you are interested in a modern retelling of the Theseus legend, you could do worse than take a look at Mary Renault's books, of which I've read the second, The Bull from the Sea and not the first, The King must Die. I liked the book despite its grim ending, and one of these days will get around to the first book, too.]

The Maruti Story and the RC Bhargava story

Business | RC Bhargava and Seetha

Well, The Maruti Story is not the autobiography, ghost-written or otherwise, of Mr RC Bhargava. Unlike many CEOs, Mr Bhargava does not write about himself. The entire book is bare of Bhargava anecdotes. About all you will get to know about him from the book is that he can mentally calculate faster than most people can manage even with calculators.
The Maruti Story
Hmm, not exactly all. You do get to know that he gives credit where due. Like having Seetha on the cover, and not relegated to the anonymous helping hack that most CEOs do. Like acknowledging a whole bunch of people who helped him find old documents to put the story together.

Oh, the book is great. It tells you about what Maruti does well, and a bit about what it didn't do so well. From my personal experience, I can say that you will get a pretty good insider (from the top) view of the company. It's written in a totally objective style, with very little personal viewpoint, but it bears his stamp, which is (you guessed it) a totally objective style. :)

So, I will write a couple of paragraphs on the still-unwritten The Bhargava Story instead.

Mr Bhargava is always considerate of junior people. He asked a young executive if she could stay beyond closing time to complete a piece of work, when he himself rarely left before 7.30. No other manager or director in Maruti used to do so; it was considered normal to spend an extra hour or two at work, and not to mutter and complain about it. Not that he'd usually ask anyone to stay back, anyway. He also made it a point to ask how she'd get back home, now that she'd missed her bus.

He put up a junior person who had worked on a project to explain Maruti's achievements to the public (journalists). The young man was featured in newspaper write-ups. However, the moment the journos started asking questions which moved the junior exec beyond his preparations, Mr Bhargava stepped forward to take the questions and shield him from stumbling. (Another MD of Maruti in similar circumstances once left the poor guy to face the wolves alone).

He never suffers fools, gladly or otherwise. He has patience, and uses it. But when he starts asking questions or making explanations v-e-r-y slowly, watch out. If he starts speaking simple Hindi, run for the hills.

He is awfully sharp, which you may guess from the fact that he was the IAS topper in the year he joined the service. He once spotted in 5 minutes the single error in a 60 page document, which two teams and three General Manager level people had checked, all no slouches in the brains department themselves.

And yet, people are surprised to find that he has no airs. When the GoI freed corporate salaries from the ceiling applicable till then (this was in the early 1990s), Mr Bhargava opined (I love that word!) that "Nobody is worth five lakh * rupees a year". The HR division had to gently but insistently explain to him that unless his salary as MD was increased, the rest of the Directors couldn't be paid more, either.

Mr Bhargava cannot stand liars and cheats. One person lost his job for exploiting the vague wording in some rules on indirect taxes. One lost it for lying about a project he had actually been going slow on, but claimed the papers were never with him. And yet, the CBI prosecuted Mr Bhargava for 'corrupt practices' till a sensible judge, albeit after fourteen long years, threw them out on their ears.

Anyway, I hope someday someone will write the Bhargava story, too. There is a lot we can learn from his life and times.

21 May 2012

How to type madly and avert nuclear war

Thriller | Karna Small Bodman

I always like to read how India is seen by 'other' eyes. Karna Small Bodman's Checkmate benefits from her insider view of the White House, which part of the book is very fascinating. Villainous militants of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba are the villains here. They steal three ballistic missiles from a Pakistani base, with the help of conniving armymen sympathetic to their vision of a weird brand of Islam. They use/plan to use these to get India and Pakistan to have a war, whereupon they can take over Pakistan and it's nuclear arsenal, and then go sow the whirlwind. A computer scientist in the USA is developing a missile defense system which attempts to take over command of missiles in flight and direct them back to their sources. She becomes the center of the attempts by the villains. And then proceeds to rescue the world. Applause. Curtain.

It's interesting to me that despite getting advice from 'Robin Singh' about the cultures of Pakistan and India, and getting much of that fairly close to right, and avoiding naming either country as villains, she still manages to make a few bloopers. I guess the subcontinent's names are confusing enough to us insiders, that I should not be surprised that 'others' get these all wrong. I suppose you could name any American by taking two known American names of at random and swapping the two halves of each. Also, people there do tend to be named after Presidents. But 'Fakhruddin Venkatnaman', while not completely impossible, is so wrong on at least two levels. One, Venkatnaman is not a name, as far as I know. It's Venkatraman. And nobody is going to name their kid after both a Muslim Prez and a Hindu one. Especially not FA Ahmad. He's not exactly the best Prez we had, you know. Then, we move to Pakistani names. Nope, it is unlikely in the extreme that the Pakistani Ambassador to the USA is likely to be named Bhattia. Most most unlikely. Find out yourself why not.

Then the geeky objections. You cannot type madly and take over a missile. No, not even if the screen shows a graphic slowly crossing from one side to the other, and giving off tones and messages like a video game. No. Not happening. Not. Really. Trust me. I don't think you can even take over control of a radio-controlled model plane that way. Now, a more powerful transmitter on the same frequency, that would work. But not by madly typing away...

Ok, enough ranting. Nitpicks aside, well researched enough for popular fiction. Fast, easy read. Happy ending. 3 stars. But wait, did she get the White House insider stuff right? How would I know, right?

Next up: The Maruti Story by RC Bhargava, followed by science fiction and another thriller.

[Edit, 30 June 2012: Apparently, you can, indeed, take over a drone aircraft, as a bunch of students and $1000 worth of parts proved this week. But not by typing madly. By spoofing its GPS receiver. Ta da!]

The democratic nature of kings in fantasy

Fantasy and SF | Jim Butcher, Megan Whelan Turner and (Isaac Asimov, Martin Greenberg, Joseph Olander)-editors

I am extremely embarrassed to say that I do, after all, read not more than 3 books in 10 days. But, in my defense, they were mainly fat ones. Very fat.

First Lord's Fury by Jim Butcher is the sixth in the series. In the interests of avoiding spoilers, I will give no details. The 6th in a series is not necessarily the best point to dip into it, but this was a fast, fun read.

I do wonder at times about historical accuracy, even in fantasies. If you have hereditary rulers, I imagine that the discussion on the right thing to do would read very differently in a society in which that makes sense than it does in a democracy. Yet, the heroes in these stories have very democratic and enlightened approaches. It only makes internal sense if the 'internal' includes market forces in the real world. :)

That brings me to A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whelan Turner. The fourth in the series beginning with The Thief, and moving on through the equally enthralling The Queen of Attolia, and the breathlessly awaited The King of Attolia, has had less than rave reviews, some readers muttering darkly about it being disappointing. Considering that MW Turner is one of the two authors whose books I chase down and pester the booksellers about (this particular book was hand-carried for me from the USA, since it is not available in India), that sounded ominous but unbelievable. Halfway through the book, I dismissed such reviews as mere cavilling. However, on the last page, I had to admit that the word 'disappointing' was accurate. I expected more from Gen, damp it! It's tough for a writer to continue to maintain fantastic quality on plot, dialogue and characterisation in book after book, and I guess they get tired eventually. Or they get famous and the editors don't push as hard. Whatever. My offspring agrees that the end was surprisingly phuss, too. Still, a good enough book. Especially it's take on the rights and duties of the Barons. It shows you that when there are kings, the only people who have rights are the kings. In a democracy, we are all kings. Wouldn't change a democracy for other alternatives, no, no!

Don't read it unless you've read the first three books. Or maybe the other way round. Only 3 stars.

I also reread Isaac Asimov, Martin Greenberg and Joseph Olander's Science Fiction Treasury published in 1980. Many of the stories included are from as far back as the 1950s. Some of them are fairly dated, some even make you squirm. But some stay classic, like Who Goes There?, one of my all-time favourites despite some three or four cringy paragraphs, and Flowers for Algernon. I'm not doing a story-by-story here. It's good enough to read. Mostly. Though it's really, really fat.

11 May 2012

Game of blackmail

Legal thrillers | John Grisham

The Associate, is stated by the blurb to be 'reminiscent of The Firm,' which it is, somewhat. You have a young new lawyer, forced into doing things he wouldn't of his own volition, and using his cunning to get out of it. TL;DR summary: The Firm is better. 

Google this

Autobiography | Douglas Edwards

Sigh, it turns out that all I read in the last 11 days was three books. Either I'm slowing down, or the books are a lot fatter. (Hint: the latter).

I'm Feeling Lucky, subtitled The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59, is a biographical look at the internet giant everyone loves to love. Douglas Edwards, who is almost sure he was Employee Number 59, or some number like that, joined Google when it was still a startup operating from a few rooms without proper interior decoration, and left it in 2007. In the meantime, he was the director in charge of customer communications, and wrote much of the text that is the public face of Google, including the help pages, and a few of the April Fools jokes. He interacted closely with several of the better-known people in Google, including the founders, Larry Page “When did we ever make a mistake?” and Sergey Brin, who would ask interviewees to explain to him something complicated that he didn't already know, the CEO Eric Schmidt who put his stamp on the company despite having to juggle these two, assorted engineering geniuses from Urs Holzle down, Jonathan Rosenberg, who tried to manage 80 odd people directly with some success, and Marissa Mayer with whom Edwards skirmished till the very last day (some of the sheer bitterness of the fight still seeps out despite the damning with faint praise), and survived the madhouse that is Google.

Does it describe Google with accuracy? Yup. Better than that other famous books about Google, like The Google Story and Search? Yup. Should every aspiring candidate applying to join Google with stars in their eyes read it? If they want.

See, the thing with Google is that it changes. All the time. Some brave souls are trying to implement six-sigma processes there even as I type. Haven't a snowball's chance; don't tell them though, they might just prove me wrong. Six-sigma needs stable processes. Har-de-har. Six-sigma needs a lot of data for the stats to work. Har-de-har. Google has more data than the tools and techniques of the statistics underlying six-sigma can handle. And Google interviewers keep trying to hire people smarter than themselves. Ever come across a smartie who could leave well alone? Especially an engineer? HAR-DE-HAR-HAR.

Well written, a personal story, accessible to most of the population who aren't Google-level engineers, this is Google as seen from the inside by a graduate in English, who learnt* marketing the traditional way, and relearned it the Google way. And lived to tell the tale.

Google is a big company now. It's no longer a startup, despite the entire management and most of the employees doing their best to retain the small-company attitude. Failed already. It's a huge company, and grows faster not only by hiring more, but by buying out companies with cool new tech. Things have changed since Edwards was there, even in just a few short years. You can still trust the company—mostly. You can still trust the founders—their intentions are good, even if the method to their madness is often not clear. But Google is no longer the teddy bear we knew and loved. Or at least, the teddy bear is big as a polar bear now. Does Google trim costs like it used to? Naah. The interiors of the offices are a geek's dream. As an employee there is fond of saying every time someone shakes their head at yet another over-the-top spend, “What's the name of the company? Huh?” The rest, depending on their mood, growl or crow: “Google!”

It's not the Google of old. With Facebook's IPO rising from the depths into the light of shallow water, a lot of people are looking to Facebook to be the new Google? Is Facebook the new Google? Nope. Google happens once a lifetime. If you're lucky, you get to touch it with your own very hands. And if you're Douglas Edwards, you live to tell the tale. I forgive him everything for the punny titles to the sections in the chapters.

Rating: 4 stars.

Perhaps I should induce employee number 36270 to write a book, too. Naah, outdated already.

* PS: Oh, yes, Google's employees will always spell that 'learned' instead.

By the pricking of my thumbs

Legal thrillers | Mark Gimenez (with an aside on Michael Crichton)

Well, it's clear enough that I read a lot faster than I write! Sorry for the delay [not that you care :)].

First off is The Common Lawyer, in which a biker-lawyer (a lawyer who rides a bike, no, not a motorbike, why does everyone assume a bike must be motorised?) whose 'speciality' is traffic tickets, suddenly finds a billionaire at his doorstep, wanting to retain his services. First, he wants to build low-income housing and needs Andy's help in getting locals to agree to the land use change. Then he gets floods of conscience about his ex-girlfriends, all 17 of them, because of his son, who is dying of a super-rare cancer. He wants to locate them and pay them millions, secretly, to assuage this suddenly dominant conscience. And Andy agrees to all this, because he is an unambitious laid-back guy for whom all this money is a flood that floats all his boats. Up until his life is in danger, and he starts getting smitten by conscience. OK, by now we're more than halfway into the book, and at the risk of spoilers.

Sample paragraph three, chapter 1:
True. But then, a certain degree of insanity was part of the job description for a hammerhead. Point of fact, you had to be freaking nuts to ride a mountain bike at these speeds over a single-track hacked out of the wilderness and teeter on the esge of a steep ravine with nothing but a foam-padded plastic crash helpmet standing between you and organ donor status. Nobody in his right mind would do such a thing.

Rating: Eminently readable, well-done suspense.

So why do I now have qualms about Mark Gimenez's books, having praised them well enough already? I'm getting deja vu here—the last writer who gave me these subliminal something-is-wrong-heres was Michael Crichton, who wrote these mainstream sf books that brought him fame and adulation. Crichton turned out to be a misogynist. Don't believe me? Check out the female characters in his books. All of them are flawed. It's like Crichton is visibly trying to write sympathetically about women, but he's finding it tough, like trying to write sympathetically about rabid skunks or baby-eating crocs. The only non-2D women in his books are baaaaad. Way bad, unreliable, evil out of confusion, and confused they must be, trying to do a man's job in a man's world. Like his editor told him that he need sympathetic women characters because the last person who wrote a bestseller without a single woman in it was Alistair Maclean in the early 1970s. Or like his marketing person told him women won't read books without women in it. Or like the token black or something. But he didn't really believe it.

Gimenez's women characters are sympathetic enough, mostly, or are they? The heroine in The Common Lawyer is a strong character, and very easy to like. The girls, in The Colour of Law and The Abduction are smart, savvy, intelligent, tough and very very cool. Note, the girls. Not the women. And his descriptions of the women in Dallas or Austin are positive when describing their physical charms (no other word fits), and negative when talking of their psychology. Baaad women. Sit. Stay. My subliminal analyst is screaming and jumping up and down.

The Abduction has rave reviews, and deserves them. It's a taut, well-paced story of, no prizes for guessing, the kidnapping of a girl. Her geeky and inept father is about to become an internet billionaire (it's not a 'program' or 'software' or, Tron forbid, a 'game' that makes his fortune; in these days it's 'an app'; maaaan, get a grip, an app??), and her mother is a basilisk of a lawyer who frightens to death all she glances at. But the guy who's going to find the kid despite all odds is her drunk of a grandfather, despised by all, a Vietnam war hero. With a mysterious connection to the girl. Assorted things which make me mutter and grind my teeth include a psychic and this aforesaid mysterious connection (I can say aforesaid in a review of a legal thriller, don't cavil at me), and a priest who gets someone in Confession after 30 years, and 'now said words he did not understand: “Because there is a bond you and Gracie share, a bond with evil that must be broken.” “Yes, there is. Father, how do I break this bond?” “You don't. Someone must die for the bond to be broken.”' Aaargh. Deus ex machina alert! But hey, these things apart, it was a fun read.

Rating: Grit your teeth at the Mysterious Connection and read the book. It's a fast read with lol moments, and very low on the gruesome meter. Mark Gimenez has a way of making words dance to a fast and peppy beat.

Now let me get back to I'm feeling lucky, and check if it describes 'Google from the inside' with accuracy or not.

The sequel to the ... movie??

Alistair Maclean

What, you think I only read two books in ten days in April? Naah, I'm faster than that.

Alistair Maclean's 1970 book Force 10 from Navarone is the original of which his Partisans in 1982 was the poor copy. Strangely, while a sequel to his earlier bestseller The Guns of Navarone, it is based not on the book, but the movie. That was disturbing to me, a reader more than a movie buff, when I first read it in the 80s. Now, I don't quite have the same feeling of being let down; time does heal many wounds.

Like Partisans, it has an enigmatic hero, a huge sidekick who mysteriously defers to the hero despite being way above him in rank/ability, another sidekick who gets things done, a beautiful enemy agent with her sidekick, evil German and Yugoslav villains, and a complex plot on the part of the Allied command in the second World War to bring the Germans in Yugoslavia to their knees. Plus other supporting characters.

If you have to choose between these two books, drop Partisans and pick this one. It's one of Maclean's better books, but not a patch on The Guns of Navarone. Still, five stars, with a couple of the points on the last star knocked off.

I'll come back later in the day with comments on two books by Mark Gimenez (what, you think I read only three books in ten days? Muwahahaha!).

Next up to read are: I'm Feeling Lucky by Douglas Edwards, which I have to read for work related reasons (ha! everyone should get so lucky), The Maruti Story by RC Bhargava and Seetha (he's more honest about acknowledging the help he got on an auto-biography than most), and The Associate by John Grisham.

A Vintage from the 70s

Thrillers Alistair Maclean

I've recently read a bunch of Alistair Macleans. I picked up six in a bookshop a few weeks ago and have read four of them, two of them for the first time. That last is strange, considering how popular AM was in the 1970s. Anyway, I'm still waiting for them to reissue The Golden Rendezvous, still one of my faves, and see if it stands up to my memories.

Onward! Partisans is the weakest of the bunch. You have Maclean's trademark cryptic hero, with his faithful sidekicks, mysterious (and almost always innocent) women who somehow always manage to be less competent than they are pretty (exception: The Satan Bug) but it never goes anywhere. Too predictable to be fun. Read The Guns of Navarone instead.

Circus manages surprises till the very last page, even the very last line (damn, I think that might be a spoiler). I smiled to read that the hero was to infiltrate the Iron Curtain to bring back the 'formula' for antimatter, but in the year it was written, that was cutting edge stuff. I still feel there is something wrong with the antimatter to energy conversion ratios in the book, but haven't sat down with my calculator. This one was more fun, if a bit slower than many thrillers of today, and even than of AM himself. And I'd completely forgotten the end, so it was good to re-read and get surprised all over again.

San Andreas is another one I hadn't read before. A bit over the top, but enjoyable nonetheless, despite severe reservations about whether a German Luftwaffe pilot would really do what it said in the book (not a spoiler).  I learned something interesting about submarines and ships. Archie the hero triumphs over all. Interesting twists, but not too many of them. Flannelfoot is a good name for a villain, though!

The Lonely Sea was the other re-read. It's a collection of AM's short stories, including the prizewinning story that set him on his writing career, becoming an international bestseller, only overtaken I think by Terry Pratchett and JK Rowling. These are all excellent stories, some of them based on facts, and some purely fiction. My favourite in these is probably St George and the Dragon. It's interesting to note that AM wrote such stories decades before Jeffery Archer did.

Here's a quote from an essay on writing, which will resonate with many writers:

The main benefits of being a full-time writer are that they confer on one a remarkable degree of independence and freedom, but that freedom must never be misinterpreted as irresponsibility.
I don't have to start work and 9 a.m., and I don't: I usually start between six and seven in the morning.

:) Read and enjoy.

The Heirs of Perry Mason

Legal thrillers | John Grisham, Mark Gimenez

Strange how all legal thrillers have covers with a man in a suit hurrying in silhouette against an almost monochrome background. Or maybe that's the sampling effect: I've just finished John Grisham's The Appeal and Mark Gimenez' The Colour of Law. The Appeal has a shadow on a red background, Grisham's name in large letters; The Colour of Law is green with the mandatory silhouetted man, the book name bigger than the author name. Mark Gimenez is billed in blurbs as “the next Grisham”. So. Face-off time.

The Appeal is about the appeal against a jury verdict that finds a chemical company guilty of having poisoned the water of a town with toxic wastes. The owner wants to ensure that the Supreme Court (of the State; this terminology is confusing to Indians like me, who have only one Supreme Court) rules in his favour. For some reason, some states in the USA elect their Supreme Court judges. So, he tries to buy his man into the slot. The tale gets murkier and murkier, and I despaired of the rabbit being pulled out of the hat, braced myself for not getting my mandatory happy ending.

The Colour of Law is a more personal story. A hotshot corporate lawyer makes an election speech which a judge takes seriously enough to appoint him as the defending lawyer for a black prostitute accused of murdering the son of a Presidential candidate. Does he manage to wiggle out of it, or does he lose everything? No spoilers here; the back cover warns you he loses his wife, his house, his cars, his fat salary...

Honestly, I preferred The Colour of Law. It's more optimistic. The Appeal is relentless in showing you how easily the justice process can be subverted with enough money. And there lies the loss of appeal. Grisham wants to tell you something. Gimenez wants to show you something. Betrayal vs. redemption. Which is likely to be the more attractive story?

Gimenez really does write like the early Grisham: fast-paced, witty and pithy. I cringed at some of the descriptions (do people really think like that?) but they remain at all times in character. There is some lyrical writing there, and strong characters, like Boo. (Oh, yes, this is Gimenez' tribute to To Kill a Mockingbird).

People in the USA should read The Appeal and do something to improve the situation. People everywhere can have a great time with The Colour of Law. I'm going down to look for more books by M Gimenez.


The Appeal:
The clerk tapped lightly on the judge's door, then took a step inside and proudly announced, 'We have a verdict,' as if she had personally labored through the negotiations and now was pesenting the result as a gift.
The judge closed his eyes and let loose a deep, satisfying [sic] sigh. He smiled a happy, nervous smile of enormous relief, almost disbelief, and finally said, 'Round up the lawyers.'

The Colour of Law:
Run-down strip centers offered pawn shops and liquor stores. Ramshackle frame houses slanted at twenty-degree angles, their paint peeling like skin from a badly sunburned body. Sofas sat on droopy porches, old cars were jacked up on cement blocks in the yards, garbage was backed up at the streets, and black burglar bars guarded every door and window of every house and storefront as if each structure were its owner's personal prison.

The Paving on the Way to Hell

Fantasy/sci fi/YA | Patrick Ness
Warning: minor spoilers

Last month, I finally read the second and third books in the Chaos Walking trilogy, The Ask and The Answer and Monsters of Men. Considering that these books are not available in India, and I had to get someone to handcarry them for me from the USA, you can be sure the first book, The Knife of Never Letting Go, must have had something going for it. The first book introduces us to Todd, the last boy in Prentisstown, a town on another planet, with very American settlers. But you are on another planet, you realise. Everyone can hear everyone else's thoughts here, and there are no women. The Mayor wants something from Todd. His parents (both men) want him to escape. Todd runs. Meets Viola, the sole survivor of the crash-landing of a scout spacecraft from the second wave of settlers. But the Mayor is after him. Todd and Viola run for Haven. The Mayor follows, with death in his wake. At the end of the book one, we are faced with the truth of Haven.

Book two, The Ask and The Answer, has Haven resisting the Mayor. But the Mayor has mind-control. And the only cure for the incessant leakage of men's thoughts. Yet Todd wins. Or does he? This book humanises Davy, a great achievement.

Book three, Monsters of Men, refers to 'war makes monsters of men'. What does the Mayor want? War. And he gets it. War with the aliens who live on the planet. (Aha, shades of American settlers again). And what does everyone else want? Peace. So what do we get? War. Is this book as grimly relentless as book one? Hmm, given that book two held out more hope than book one, you can safely guess: no.

A great series. Good for all young and not-so-young adults to read and enjoy. And, despite having one of the most villainous villains ever, as well as a social construct that is all too evilly possible, this book is less grim than the series by Peter V Brett.


Making sense of gods

Fantasy | Lois McMaster Bujold

Just reread The Curse of Chalion, and immediately rushed into rereading the next book in the series, The Paladin of Souls. This is one of LM Bujold's finest series. God(s) finally make sense. Beautiful writing, strong characters, complex plot which makes perfect sense in its setting. What more do you want?

Amnesiac adventure

Fantasy/sci fi | Julie E Czernada

Last month, I reread A Thousand Words for Stranger. This is biologist JE Czernada's debut novel, coming out of her musings as to what biological gains would justify heavy investment in reproduction, up to and including the life of the individual.

It's an amnesia story. The protagonist has lost her memory—everything is gone except a batch of compulsions. Slowly, things become clearer, and the villains are unmasked one by surprising one. A sweet story, getting slightly predictable towards the end—just before new surprising twists. Very enjoyable, but somehow, I never did go out madly hunting the next in the series. If it drops into my lap, I will buy it and enjoy it (the whole series), but I won't go chasing.

I stared at the hand pressed near my cheek. It had five fingers, tipped with small, blunt nails, one broken. There were smudges of dirt on the parm and back; the clean skin was paler, except where a spiderweb of red marked the edges of a cut. It was mine, I decided, confused by the delay in recognition.


A Cereal Entrepreneur

Autobiography | Capt Gopinath

Simply Fly is a book I got early last year, and finally got around to reading recently. That makes me feel stupid in retrospect. Capt Gopinath is an ex-army officer, who left the army to become a farmer. He dabbled in running a motorcycle repair franchise, an Udupi hotel, and finally became famous for setting up a helicopter company. Actually, not. He never did become very famous, but his subsequent venture into the airline business, Air Deccan, did. It was India's first low-cost airline, and was so successful that all the other airlines started similar arms and/or bought out other low-cost airlines.

Anyway, to the book. Capt Gopinath either has excellent narrative skills, or a terrrific editor, or both. The book is a page-turner. I kid you not. It's smooth and crisp, and to the point. You get to know a lot about Capt Gopinath, and you want to know even more.

Ahhh, why waste more time on reading this review? Go read the book instead. It's what autobiographies should be, and rarely are.

It's published by Collins Business, and the hardcover costs a mere ₹ 499.

A Cultured Inversion

Science Fiction | Iain M Banks

I re-read Inversions last month. This is the book in the Culture series which is closest to convincing you that it is not, and is a fantasy instead. I read the book twice the first time to get the Culture-y parts right. It keeps the secrets/suspense till the last page. I loved it. Still do.

Miles to go

Science Fiction | Lois McMaster Bujold

I reread the Young Miles omnibus, which has The Warrior's Apprentice, The Mountains of Mourning,and The Vor Game by one of my favourite authors (top 3, to be precise), Lois McMaster Bujold. And then I read the latest novel, Cryoburn, which I'd got someone to buy and hand-carry for me. Whee!

The Miles Vorkosigan series is great fun, space adventures with satisfyingly complex plots, villainous but human villains, heroic but human heroes, and pithy observations on what constitutes integrity, among other things. I frequently mutter that it's a shame these are not nominated for the Nobel prize. At least people would enjoy reading Nobel winning material when it wins.

Anyway, on to the books.

The Warrior's Apprentice, as you would guess from the title, is a riff on the famous tale of the sorceror's apprentice--the more he tries to extricate himself from the messes he gets himself in, the more Miles gets himself in deeper. The situations are a bit facile, particularly in the beginning. I seriously doubt anyone could take over a whole fleet that easily, but hey, it's Miles. There are dark bits, light bits, funny bits, and wrenching bits. The main supporting character in this book is Sergeant Bothari, a complex character I had less sympathy for till this book was over. This would have been Miles' coming-of-age book, but then you have The Mountains of Mourning.

This is a novella, in which the new officer Miles gets faced with backward Barrayar, the planet that, as his Betan mother says, "eats its young". Miles comes face to face with the fact that, if his head is in the stars, and his heart is in the stars, his feet are still in the Count-his-father's district's muddy lanes. This is a short and poignant tale, that stands at the core of the character development of Miles Naismith Vorkosigan. If you have read this, the following stories become easier to understand. You know that, mad as he may seem, he's going to come through for those who need him to.

The Vor Game has Gregor, the Emperor of Barrayar, as the supporting character. Miles, having created enough problems in Kyril island (where they send the hopeless cases, Miles' hopelessness being chronic insubordination), is stuffed into ImpSec (Imperial Security), where Simon Illyan can keep his eye on him personally. Miles gets misplaced, and finds <spoiler deleted>. OK, he finds the most villainous person in the whole series, and she's... read it for yourself. Very satisfying. But the gravitic imploder on the Prince Serg should not have been so superior to the enemy's, I mutter and cavil. (Now I cackle at the pun, which you have to read the book to understand).

So, on to Cryoburn, eagerly awaited. This is the only book in the series which I think cannot be read independently. Some characters, like Lord Mark or Kareen Koudelka, have such cameo appearances that if you haven't met them in previous novels, you won't quite know who they are or why and how they pop up as they do. Ditto Cordelia and Ivan in the last section of the book. Some of Miles' problems in Cryoburn get solved by walking, instead of the twisty stuff we have come to expect. I hate to say that LM Bujold has lost her touch, but the Sharing Knife series as well as this book, are slow in comparison with the rest of the Miles series. This is a book for Miles' fans, no more. Being a Bujold book, it's better than much of the rest of the books out there, but don't read it first. That said, it has a tremendous ending.

(Hey, don't take my word for it, you can read this review by a reader new to the series).

And, final mutter: Why do writers need Emperors and Counts and Lords in a future with spaceships? Surely, we won't go forwards with technology and backwards with sociology?

TL;DR summary: The whole series is strongly recommended!

Race to save the accused?

Thriller | John Lescroat 

A Certain Justice by John Lescroat is a fast-paced story. (You can read the first chapter here, and get a good flavour of the speed of the book: www.johnlescroart.com/books/a-certain-justice/a-certain-justice/),

A black criminal murders a white man and is let off for lack of evidence. The white man's friends then lynch a black lawyer who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Kevin Shea tries to save the lawyer, but fails. When he wakes up the next morning, a photograph taken of the riot shows him clearly, and he finds to his horror that he is the prime suspect. The DA, the mayor, the Senator, other politicians, everyone is against Kevin. Abe Glitsky, the detective, just wants the truth. With enough twists and turns, and some solid characters you can care about, this is one suspense/thriller/detective story that is very satisfying. And works as a reminder that what seems open and closed, particularly in the days of instant television, can often be far from reality. There is revenge, mistrust, trust, schadenfreude, redemption, and love, unrequited and requited. Nicely packaged, and has a happy ending*.

Recommended reading.

The picture is similar to the cover of the 1996 paperback I read.

* l insist on happy endings. :)

Civilians as infra dig

Science Fiction | Robert Heinlein

Coincidentally, just about when I decided to go online and review the book Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, +Carlos Angelo posted this review onto G+, so you can always read the linked review instead of mine. :)

Robert A Heinlein is an icon in science fiction, and no wonder. His writing can best be described as charismatic. You come away fully convinced of the correctness and cogency of what he writes about. There are beautiful lines, like the one about the difference between a soldier and a civilian. (The soldier puts his body at risk to protect his country).

And yet. Things have changed from the late 1950s. Today, no sane person would advocate for public whippings as punishments for everything from traffic violations to mutiny. Heinlein's premise is that the faint-hearted liberals are/were all wrong, and the only substantial psychological theory is that nobody learns anything unless their survival (or a reasonable facsimile) is at stake. Newly promoted sergeants need to beat up their erstwhile unpromoted comrades to gain their acceptance and trust. The mobile infantry is sent in to enforce... something. The enemy is technologically vastly inferior. A few dozen MI soldiers proceed to devastate the main city. Women in this society have fixed roles--for example, in the army, they are pilots--since they are more empathetic. Yeah, huh moment.

While a smooth read--even the political and philosophical positions are lightly presented without too much exposition--and Heinlein's imagination was first with personal armour as a concept, I am still left with a sense of wrongness. I read Stranger in a Strange Land a couple of decades ago, but even then, some things just did not go down smoothly. Till today, I cannot fathom how or why a woman would be comfortable as the object of 'male gaze', let alone delight in it, or feel that there are some things a woman just should not do, and leave it to the men. Let me not get started on a legal system where a person can own an entire planet, or how on Earth (sorry, how on Mars) a set of aliens can 'bring up' a kid to adulthood.

Perhaps it all made better sense in the 1950s. It doesn't, today.

Asok the Intern in Dilbert is Not All in Life in the Indian Institute of Technology

Pop fiction | Chetan Bhagat, Parul Mittal

I finally got around to reading Chetan Bhagat's iconic first novel, Five Point Someone. I'd read his book One Night @ the Call Center, and couldn't understand all the fuss. One Night... is literally a Deus ex machina book (yes, this is a spoiler). Light, frothy, with negligible substance, and needing God to pull the characters through to the end. Bleah. (Edit: And, what's worse, he spells it Center, not Centre, like any real Indian should). Then I saw the movie Three Idiots, about which there was quite a brouhaha, with C Bhagat insisting that he didn't get enough credit for the story, and the producer-director saying it was 'only based on' the book, and not a film version of the book.

So, I finally sat down with Five Point Someone. Bhagat is that over-exalted Indian bird, an IIT graduate. His book is a story of the life of IIT students. Neither before nor after. There is very little backstory and no forward story. Four years in the life of three IIT students and friends. Subtitled What Not to do at IIT, which should give further clues.

I've been told by others that it's his best book. It's certainly an easy read. The language has just enough Indianisms in it to be authentic, but not so many that a foreigner cannot understand it. The references to contemporary culture and products are just right. It's easy to see why this book became a runaway bestseller.

And also that the producer of Three Idiots had it right. The movie and the book have very little in common beyond three friends studing in an engineering college.

And if you read this, you should also read Parul Mittal's Heartbreaks & Dreams, the view from the minority—the girls at IIT. I actually liked P Mittal's book better, felt it was more realistic in many ways. But then, of course, I too was one of the 'girls at IIT'--that biases me. :) That said, C Bhagat's book is better edited and better marketed.

[Five Point Someone is for ₹ 91 on flipkart.com, and Heartbreaks & Dreams is only merely ₹ 65. Peanuts. Go buy it now.]

Oliver Stone and wrapping up the Camel Club

Thriller | David Baldacci
David Baldacci's Divine Justice is the third in the series featuring Oliver Stone and the Camel Club. Oliver Stone is an ex-government assassin (ha, only in America!) who, in the first two books, saves the USA with his friends in the Camel Club, an assorted group of people, including a wimpy librarian, an ex-army guy, a computer whiz and a serving Secret Service guy.

In this book, Stone is on the run, after having killed two villains. The Camel Club tries to help him, but does not succeed. He finds his way to the town of Divine, where rich widows rub shoulders with hopeless miners, and weird things start happening. Stone gets embroiled in the fights of new friends in Divine. Suddenly, the whole evil mess starts showing its true colours. Enemies become friends, friends become enemies.

Fast reading, enjoyable, but time to stop the Oliver Stone/Camel Club series--it's a bit of a comedown that the country was not saved in book three. Kidding; you can't be expected to save the world, or even the USA, every alternate Wednesday, can you?

Science fiction and the Sun in Jan 2012

Science fiction | Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter
This is an excellent illustration for my next two book reviews. [Some spoilers, but nothing that you won't read by mid-book yourself].

These books are Time's Eye and Sunstorm,books 1 and 2 in theTime Odyssey series by AC Clarke and Stephen Baxter. "Time Odyssey" seems to be a quick brand extension of the "Space Odyssey" that brought Sir Arthur so much fame. The other bit of history I will add is that these two were collaborators since they wrote Light of Other Days together.

Now, I like AC Clarke books, and I like Stephen Baxter stories, but the collaborations don't quite hit the same right note. That said, the books are good enough for fast reads.

Unfortunately, the older I get, the more nitpicky I get (the polite term people use around me is 'over-analytical'). The plots are fine, the technicals are all fine, but somehow, in these collaborations, the characters don't quite get to be people I care about.

Time's Eye is the better story of the two. Bisesa Dutt, a lieutenant (why do they spell it this way and pronounce it leftinant?) in the British Army in 2037, is seconded to the UN, and she is flown into a time-slip in a helicopter crash. Along with her and the chopper crew, arbitrarily selected people from all over the past are also time-slipped into a patchwork world, watched by the sinister Time's Eyes. The cast includes Rudyard Kipling, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan (not Chengez Khan?), and the more straightforwardly fictional Casey and Josh from the USA, Abdikadir the Pashtun, Kolya the Russian and Sable the abrasive black woman astronaut. Kolya the Russian cosmonaut knows all about English history, and looks down on London from space with nostalgia and fondness (but not Moscow). Bisesa, the third generation Indian-origin Brit, has a daughter named Myra. So why is she 'Bisesa' (which, if I guess the language right, means 'special')?

Gaah. Anyway, we meet some proto-humans, a war, and Bisesa using cobbled-together electronics from a crashed copter to 'sense' the purpose/sentience behind the Eyes. We get pop intros to string theory, and poor Pauli's exclusion principle once more gets pop treatment: 'mind' results in observations at the quantum level. Gaah.

Anyway, no spoilers for the end, but Bisesa shows up in the sequel, Sunstorm.The sequel starts with the last chapter of book 1. Bisesa reaches home, London. The world has a Prime Minister of Europe, another one in the UK, both female, a female Spanish President of the USA, and assorted other female politicians. The exception is the European President, who is the King of the UK, having been mysteriously elected unanimously. Gaah moment again. Anyhow, fortunately, the action is provided by a student of the Sun predicting a major solar storm correctly, and so getting taken seriously when he predicts the sun will explode in 5 years. Ha ha ha, laugh +Camilla Corona SDO and other academics. The whole world starts to work together to avoid mass extinction. A shield is created (ha, I guessed that is what they'd do, since, as the book says, this is no asteroid we can push aside, this is The Sun!) Here's the spoiler: the Firstborn (the sentience behind the Eyes) is behind the blow-up.

Oh well, I guess I'll go look for the sequel to see what happens when humans locate the Firstborn. But, hey, not with breathless enthusiasm.

In the meantime, enjoy these pix of solar plasma ejections from the Sun, via+Camilla Corona SDO , and be grateful that some people still find solar study exciting and sexy. Maybe we will get a real-life Eugene. If not crowds of women politicians, world-spanning AIs, ubiquitous softwalls for communication, and a manned Mars landing by 2042. And, yes, there will really be a solar eclipse then. :)

Fast and funny

Comic Thriller | Janet Evanovich
Currently reading Finger Lickin' Fifteen by Janet Evanovich. Just finished Fearless Fourteen by the same author. Thank goodness I picked them both up at the same time!

Janet Evanovich writes best-sellers in the romance line, not something I read much of. But this series (yes, I'm on book 15!) attracted me from page one of book one. The protagonist is a wacky woman who decides to take to bounty hunting to pay her bills. She is in the 'top 98 percentile' of her graduating batch. Yeah, it took me some time to figure out why she keeps getting into silly scrapes, but that description helped. There is a hot boyfriend, an even hotter other boyfriend, and assorted murders to solve while chasing bond-breaking minor criminals with slippery talents and dubious histories. Most of the bounty-hunting is a laugh riot. Stephanie Plum gets into crazy scrapes while losing handcuffs and getting painted with all sorts of substances from ketchup to blue dye, leading her mother to despair--worse than her grandmother. Ok, let me unravel that one: her grandmom is madder than she is. Other characters who traipse through all the books are her friends Lula and Connie in the bounty hunting office, her ex-hubby Dickie (well named) and her nemesis Joyce, besides assorted cops. A permanent fixture is the funeral parlor, the grandmom's evening entertainment location of choice. Don't ask. :D

The sitcom is relentless, the dialog, both ordinary and interior dialog in Stephanie's head, crisp and funny. Nay, side-splitting. I actually laugh out loud, and was once in tears, I laughed so much (that was one of the middle books in the series).

Just read them, ok? They're light reading, brainless fast-food entertainment for lazy days. And, yes, the book titles don't have any relation whatsoever to the plot. Ignore the names, except as a way to get the series chronologically ordered.

And, yes, the villains always lose. I like that. :)

(Note: most of the series was available for free on the Laputa app (free download, too) on the Android market).

Ah, grue where least expected.

Fantasy | Peter V Brett
The Desert Spear by Peter V Brett is the second in a trilogy, starting with The Painted Man and due to finish with The Daylight War.

The Painted Man was marked as an award-winning Young Adult fiction, and the teen who read it before me said it was great. I found it hardly 'young' adult, what with the first few chapters starting out with incest and child abuse, and later chapters moving to betrayal after other gruesome stuff like gang rape. Just because the protagonist is a teen to start with, is no reason.... Eww.

On the plus side, the story features one of the more logical approaches to fantastic future worlds that I've come across. You start with the usual makes-no-sense fantasy setting. Sunset brings demons coalescing out of mists that rise from the grounds. Anyone outside warded buildings or warded circles (and you must draw them very precisely) gets chomped by the demons. Demons left above ground after sunrise get killed by the light. 'Something' happened to let these things out from the Earth's Core in the future. Everyone promptly regresses to bucolic feudalism. (Bah!) A few hardy people, mainly Herb Gatherers, still attempt to scientifically study the demons and try to work preventions and cures; a rare saving grace in the genre.

Arlen Bales is the main character in the first part of the book, and Leesha Paper is there for the second part, supported by Rojer. Arlen, losing his mother to the demons, dedicates his life to finding better wards, going across the desert for this, and finding ancient lore and weapons in a lost city. But the Krasians ... ok, no spoilers. Leesha is a Herb Gatherer. Rojer can charm corelings with his music.

The book ends on an ominous note, with the desert dwelling Krasians (robes, spears, bloodthirsty, no status for women, uhhh...) getting ready to invade the North. Right.

The Desert Spear starts with Jardir, the leader of the Krasians. You find out all about how he got where he did, and why he has the Krasians invading the North. Not such a villain as you assumed in book one. Just from a weird culture. (Huh!) There is murder, war, rapine, and fairly explicit sex scenes for a Young Adult book, so I assume that's the reason this one is not listed as YA.

Leesha and Rojer reappear midway, and attempt to tackle the Krasian menace via a diplomatic mission of sorts, while Arlen is off doing his thing, retracing his steps homewards.

However, now we find there are corelings which are not mindless, but are, in fact, mind demons. Who are tracking the two contenders for the role of Deliverer, A-- ... ok, no spoilers. :)

The book ends with an excerpt from The Daylight War, in which you get glimpses of the life of the new villain of book two. Maybe not a villain, either? OK, the real enemy is the demons.

Or maybe not! Arr, my head is spinning. Peter Brett writes compellingly, and the characters are not two-dimensional. Stereotypical as they seem on starting out, there are unexpected flashes of complexity and they attracted my sympathy despite my attempt to see this fantasy as purely formulaic.

I guess I'll be looking forward to book three with the same kind of horrified fascination as the teen, who said of this one, with a shudder, "It was gruesome in places." And teens, as anyone who has crossed the twenties knows, are the most hardened and brave readers in the world.

I guess I will go looking for a paperback version of Paolini's The Inheritance instead. It is bound to be mild and soothing.

SF keeps December warm in the northern hemisphere

Science Fiction | Harry Harrison
Since I posted last, I reread Harry Harrison's The Jupiter Plague.

Harry Harrison has written an incredible number of books, ranging from silly easy reads to thought-provoking easy reads. He's written science fiction, comedy (the Revenge series, e.g. Queen Victoria's Revenge), and comic science fiction, and goodness knows what else besides, not only in English but in Esperanto. The Jupiter Plague is straight science fiction.
It features Dr Sam Bertolli, an ex-UN Army man who becomes a late student. As an intern on the ambulance detail, he gets to meet up with the long-missing and recently returned "Pericles", a ship that actually landed on Jupiter and returned. A member of the crew emerges, falls sick and dies despite the best efforts of Sam and Nita Mendel, a pathologist, dies. And he's locked the ship tight. Everyone worries about another plague (there was one when the first expedition returned from Venus), and a team is formed to analyse this new disease. Next you know, birds are dropping dead. Infected birds infect humans and birds, but humans don't infect humans. So, they try to cull all the birds. Ha, you say to yourself, like the bird flu thing a few years ago. Yeah, but this book was written in 1965 and revised in 1982.

Anyway, some people protect their birds, but others attack them. Then the whole area goes under quarantine, but a mob breaks out. And in the meantime, dogs start getting it from birds, and transmitting back to humans.

OK, so in the 1960s, humans were special, and a plague would naturally attempt to attack humans, right? Not fish or prokaryotes, right?

Never mind. At some stage, Sam realises that he needs to reexamine the ship before the panicked world leaders camped in Geneva drop an atom bomb on the city.

OK, OK, you don't want any more spoilers. :)

A thought-provoking book with a nice open ending.

Another of my favourite Harry Harrison fast-action-think-later books is Invasion Earth, where again the woman in the story has a totally different view of the situation, partly 'cause she's Russian--maybe. And it has two different, new aliens.

Other Harry Harrison books which are great fun are the Stainless Steel Rat series, the Deathworld trilogy, and One Step from Earth. His series on Bill the Galactic Hero is a comic army story based in the far future, but it's basically different episodes of the same concept, and the first in the series is the best. (And, yes, the artist who drew the cover can draw well; read the book if you don't believe how well).

If you haven't read Harry Harrison, start now.