29 September 2012

Charming little extraterrestrials

Science Fiction | Robert L Forward | Dragon's Egg

Robert L Forward had multiple degrees, some of them at doctorate levels. In engineering. And several patents. So, you can guess he was really, really smart. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle used to visit his lab so that they could cadge cool new ideas for their latest books--there's a Forward mass detector in Niven's Hole Man, for example (that's actually real technology).

So, wouldn't it be so much better to read the man's science-fictionish ideas direct? I actually approached the concept with some trepidation--not everyone can write a great story, even with mind-bending physics as a supporting character. So, I started off small, with Indistinguishable from Magic, which is mainly a collection of essays, with the occasional short story. Hmm, I said to myself, the stories are relentlessly upbeat. How much of that can I take? Can I really read a whole book with no villains, no evil human impulses? How will the story progress without the spice?

Turns out, I can take a good solid chunk of it! Which brings me to Dragon's Egg.

Dr Forward (the books are sold without the 'Dr', which seems disrespectful of his achievements to me) has written a book about extraterrestrials. Indeed, they don't live on a rocky planet. Heck, they don't live on a planet, they live on a star. A teeeeny little star. Really teeny, only 20 km across, and with a ferocious gravity gradient. Not to mention the magnetic field.

OK, backing up a bit. An astronomer graduate assistant discovers a neutron star doing a close sweep past the solar system. Her son grows up completely irritated that Mom's discovery was credited to her advisor, and becomes not only an expert on neutron star physics, but also a science writer of renown. Therefore, when it is decided to send a manned scientific mission to the star, the young Niven (hee hee, you spotted that, too, did you?) is the natural choice to lead the mission.

In parallel, we witness the rise of a new species on the neutron star. Dr Forward gives a hat-tip to Hal Clement in the appendix where he describes the species, saying that in all other respects than specifically mentioned, the species' reactions are like those of Clement's ETs in A Mission of Gravity. Except that here, we meet the females of the species, too, it being a more egalitarian society than the one on Mesklin. Clement just wrote boys books for a long time before expanding scope to include girls, too. Forward, whose wife is described in the 'About the Author' page as 'contumacious', clearly did not believe a woman's place is in the kitchen, and had succeeded once in driving a less sensible editor crazy with stories featuring a woman asteroid hunter.

By the time the humans reach the star, the aliens have progressed to mathematics, religion (for a short while) and temple building. The building is awesome enough for the humans to spot it from orbit. So they contact the aliens.

Thing is, the aliens' lives are much much faster than ours, since their reactions are nuclear, not chemical. By the time you say hello and a bit of chit-chat, the alien you are talking to is ready to die of old age. The humans beam down an encyclopedia. The aliens start to learn at a ferocious rate...

Noooo, that's not the charm of this book. The charm is in the physics and engineering. Think about it. How do you get humans within 400 km of a neutron star? The answer features antimatter, but in a literally throw-away fashion. Keep thinking.

Dr Forward called this book a 'textbook on neutron star physics disguised as a novel'. The publisher's blurbs include praise from scientists, science fiction writers, and one reviewer in a regular science-fiction-reviewer mode.

The problem is, the rest of his novels are not available in India, not even in second hand shops. Wail.

If you like Hal Clement books, you will love Dr Forward books and stories. If you like stories where good, decent people enjoy challenges thrown at them by the universe instead of evil people, this is your one-stop shop. If you like happy endings, yay-time! OK, you get it: I loved the book, and recommend it unreservedly. However, parents, don't let the kids in your house who are aged over 14 read this book first. Dang, they may understand it better than us adults. :D

16 September 2012

Pastel visions

Fantasy | M John Harrison | The Pastel City; Viriconium Nights

This book was published so long ago that it didn't have blurbs on the back cover! (I must take a picture of the cover art and put it here, but, apologies, not today).

It does have a tagline below the book name: The greatest fantasy novel since Dune.

Two interesting personal observations about when I first read this book. One, I hadn't yet read Dune, which meant that that more-famous book now had to compete against The Pastel City as a benchmark. Two, it was a gift, which became embarrassing within 45 minutes of my getting it. The embarrassing part about the gift was that I read the book in about 70% of the time the gift-giver took to choose the book for me. In 45 minutes, I was challenged for reading the back of the book first, and reluctantly confessed to having almost finished the book. That was a lie. I'd already finished it within 35 minutes, and was on my first re-read.

The Pastel City can fit either classification, science fiction or fantasy. Since I'm reasonably certain most people have not read this slim gem, I'm giving a slightly more elaborate summary here, with fewer worries about spoilers.

The Afternoon Cultures, having exhausted the earth and most of space, die out after an unspecified number of millenniums. The remnant fallen men of the south, ruled by the men of the north, rebel, and establish the city and empire called Viriconium. Their technology is salvaged from the Rust Deserts, as is their metal. Unfathomable technology is beaten into blunt use in barbaric fashion. King Methven of Viriconium gathered, before the action starts, a group around him who had special talents, like Lord tegeus-Cromis, who 'fancied himself a better poet than swordsman', Norvin Trinor the strategist, Benedict Paucemanly who took a crystal launch and perhaps attempted a moon-landing, and others. He also married his brother to the Queen of the northmen. His niece, the Moidart, grew up scheming for his empire, and when the book starts, is attacking Methvet Nian, 'known in her youth as Jane' and her followers in Viriconium. All this in the prologue itself.

tegeus-Cromis, the introverted Lord, joins other Methven coming belatedly to aid their Queen: Birkin Grif, Tomb the Dwarf (who studied with Paucemanly), and old and dirtily old Theomerys Glyn. Looking for Trinor, Cromis finds Norvin has abandoned his wife in penury. He gets authorisation from the Queen and rides north (on horses, ahem) to take over the army and hope to defeat the northmen. As he races to catch up to Grif and the others who have gone on ahead, he is accosted by a metal vulture which insists he needs to immediately abandon all and go to a mysterious Cellur, aka the Birdman. Cellur warns of dire tidings, worse than a mere battle or a mere empire: Fear, he says, the geteit chemosit.

Pushing through psychedelic marshes, Grif's group of smugglers and Methven is attacked by a tall being with three red eyes, untiring, and armed with a force blade. Cromis beats it off, at the cost of his own small force blade, his unnamed sword, and his peace of mind. The monster has stolen the brain of the sentry, and Cromis has lost his authorisation in the swamp.

The bureaucrat in charge of the army refuses to recognise the group, and also ignores all useful intelligence. When the Moidart's army attacks, they don't expect the attack. Also with the army is a long line of black automatons, which she 'has dug up somewhere'. They butcher Methvet's army. Cromis, fighting, meets her general. Trinor has turned coat, but Cromis cannot kill an old friend. Cromis and some of the survivors are rescued by Methvet herself, fleeing the fall of Viriconium.

Cromis seeks out Cellur, who explains that the automatons harvest brains, and once they run out of enemies of the Moidart, will turn on her army and the populace. His mechanical birds transmit scenes of just such chaos. He trains Tomb to turn the brain-harvestors off, and explains where to find the control room. Cellur himself is older than his own memories, which are ancient, and probably dies protecting their retreat when they are attacked by chemosit under the Moidart's men, armed with force cannons and crystal launches.

Looking for the correct location, they are overtaken by Trinor, himself desperate to turn the geteit chemosit off. More deaths occur. Introversion is shown to be problematic (this was the 70s, okay).

Right. The empire is saved, but I'll leave the rest of the details for those who can still find copies of this little 180 page gem of fantasy/sci-fi.

The setting evokes both old Britain, as well as the psychedelic 70s when we all expected to see the end of the world--any day now--and technology was getting to be as advanced as magic. The writing is spare and crisp. The characters are well delineated, and the story progression inexorable yet unexpected.

And then, a few years ago, I came across another book by M John Harrison, called Viriconium Nights, which I promptly wasted money on. Harrison explores in this fat tome, alternate worlds of Viriconium. Alas, while hip and post-modern lit and all that, all four versions are depressing and do not measure up to the original. tegeus-Cromis appears in all four alternates, in roles not that of a hero, but ranging from patsy to villain, and Queen Jane morphs into a monstrous creature called Mammy Vooley. I have never reread this book, and will probably never do so, so bear with me as these memories are more than a decade old. Transplanting tegeus-Cromis into 1970s Britain was at best an exercise in horribleness. It's like graffiti executed furtively at midnight in stinking subway tunnels, in a bitter and sad parody of a great oil painting. Or like the worst alley scenes in the movie The Matrix crossed with black and white and red all over Kill Bill part 2, watched at night while bombs and rockets rain plaster around you and the voltage flickers. Or like a bad Stephen King book (not a good one).

As highly as I recommend The Pastel City, is exactly as lowly as I warn you off Viriconium Nights. It's almost as if they were written by two different people: the first by an optimistic and brilliant talent, and the second by a cynical and jaded also-ran academic with literary pretensions, bloated with fading fame and oodles of disrespect, attempting something clever based on something diamond-bright, but burying it in dirt instead. Sigh. How art the mighty fallen.

(I don't write like this normally. I'm infected with lyrical writing.)

11 September 2012

Monkeying about

Thriller / Science fiction | Michael Crichton | Congo

About a month ago, I found that rarest of objects: a book lying in my house, which I hadn't yet read. I'd bought this in a sale, along with a bunch of others, and then rearranged my bookshelf, and other assorted chaos, which meant it went unread.

And then I thought to myself, why on earth did I buy a book by Michael Crichton? Frankly, I think the first book he wrote was the best. And if you've read The Andromeda Strain and know how clunky the writing was, you'll wonder if I'm nuts.

Naah, I shall explain by the by. Anyway, I read the Introduction carefully, and with a sense of unease. Was M Crichton writing about an actual expedition? But when we reached the bit about the chatty ape, I drew a sigh of relief. Fiction, after all. Thank goodness for three decades of science between then and now.

This book was published in 1980, and is putatively about an expedition into the jungles of the Congo, to discover blue (boron-doped) diamonds, natural semiconductors. For unreal reasons, the government there has decided to award all the mineral exploration rights to the first conglomerate that finds the minerals. In today's day, that would be called a Crony Capitalism Scam, and I find it only barely plausible that people in the 80s were stupider than we are now in these matters. Of course, Africans were assumed by Americans then to be fairly stupid and/or corrupt, very Dark Continent and all, despite new democracies, which were there only to be subverted, right. The Japanese were the competitive villains by then, having edged out the Russians, and not yet been replaced by the Chinese. Ahem, less of the 20-20 hindsight, right?

I'll pull out a sample of M Crichton's predictions soon enough--it's eerie to see what he got right and what he got wrong, but you have to admit his research was cutting-edge, even if he picked and chose.

Anyhow, the first expedition in gets killed. A second expedition goes in, while pretending to be the first, so enters sneakily. With a gorilla in tow, who has the world's biggest sign language vocabulary (for an ape), and who is expected to interpret for the humans with grey gorilla-like animals who've been spotted on the last video transmission from expedition 1. This was normal to expect in the early 80s, ok, don't laugh. Any day then, we had expected to talk to dolphins.

Anyhow, the company, ERTS, does work for clients, and is looking for a natural source of boron-doped diamond to make optical computers with. The expedition had found a ruined city near the diamonds, which the researchers in the USA feel could be the Lost City of Zinj, famed for its diamonds. Amy the ape, in the meantime, has been having dreams, duly reported via crayon drawings, which, with cries of discovery, are found to be exactly the same as old stories of the city. [Gaah moment]. And the city is discovered easily since it has new forest near it instead of old old growth, which shows an albedo difference of 0.03 on a scan of satellite data. So simple.

Karen Ross, in her twenties, and a mathematical prodigy, heads expedition 2. She has the help of Peter Elliot, who is the trainer of the gorilla Amy, and Capt Munro, who specialises in backdoor entries into African countries where the opposite party has bribed the government into preventing the ERTS guys from entering, and ERTS hasn't managed the counter-bribery with quite the same finesse.

To the tech predictions:
In 1977, IBM announced it was designing an ultra-high-speed computer the size of a grapefruit, chilled with liquid nitrogen. The superconducting computer required a radical new technology, and a new range of low temperature conducting materials. ... Experts anticipated that by 1990 there would actually be one billion computers--most of them linked by communication networks to other computers. Such networks didn't exist, and might even be theoretically impossible (A 1975 study by the Hanover Institute concluded there was insufficient metal in the earth's crust to construct the necessary computer transmission lines.) ... The 1980s would be characterised by a critical shortage of computer data transmission systems... Within ten years, electricity itself would become obsolete.
By the way, all the italics above are Crichton's. (I suspect we'd have had optical computers by now if only that expedition had succeeded. Curses.)

The client wants an edge for the next 5 years -- "in an industry where competitive edges were measured in months".


Which is why the head of the company, Travis, chooses her to lead. Because he's the ruthless corporate type too. Capt Munro, the callous mercenary, is the teddy bear in contrast, Peter Elliott the innocent, and Amy is the mystical solution to their ills, the one with oracular dreams. [Gaah.]

Crichton's novels would have you believe that corporations and scientists have no conscience, and no common sense either. The tech is high, indistinguishable-from-magic high--some of it I have yet to see in real life, or even in movies. Company drones hop to execute, and never think for themselves. Change happens only when someone is killed, usually by intent. Is that what American companies are like? Occupy Wall Street by all means, then!

The tech, oh, the lovely tech: A portable camp has this: a low-throbbing electrified fence, the sentries armed with LATRAPs aka "laser-tracking projectiles, multiple LGSDs attached to sequential RFSDs." In English? The sentries had lasers to home onto the target, and tripod-mounted "marlan-baffle silencer" equipped automatic guns would do the rest, panning and homing and blasting with elan.

(Oh, yeah, against vicious grey gorillas that kill everything in sight? Mwahahaha. You know no Crichton novel can let tech, be it ever so high, win against Nature, don't you?)

Not to mention swallowed tracking devices that don't get (ahem) eliminated, mylar tents from NASA tech that fold down into hand-sized packages, teeny satellite receivers, lasers that can pinpoint the city over long kilometers, and many other wonders. Still, they have to walk in. Nature for you.

A lot of Lara Croft the tomb raider may have come from this book. There is the hidden lost city, with weird architecture, its history carved into rock glyphs (a trope that was rapidly old after HP Lovecraft), mysterious dream visions, high-tech decoding (radar reads below the moss and gets processed and sent back via satellite), evil opposing parties (not that with Karen Ross you have an empathetic character), high tech gadgetry, data hacking, honey trap computers, the lot. You even have a guy who can write a program to distinguish gorillas from other apes with 3 seconds of tape. And he does this practically overnight, and as a bonus, decodes the sounds and pronounces them to be language. But he needs a few more samples to translate. Shame on Google, then, their machine translation is still so bloody clunky in 2012. What are all their PhDs doing anyway, if they can't even handle human-to-human languages, eh? All programmers will be allowed a few minutes at this point to go bang their heads. Hee hee hee. Enough with 20-20 hindsight, I'd say, except that Hollywood movies still 'code' this way. Usually with cool graphics, too.

I haven't changed my mind about the misogynistic undercurrents in Crichton's books. Karen Ross destroys much, and then seems strangely bewildered by it all, for a genius. I suppose you couldn't write a book without token women in it in the late 70s, but the main target was still the Male Reader. Balance is therefore provided by the good guys and Amy, the feminine and nurturing ... gorilla. See, this is what an ape can do, modern women should learn a thing or two. Gaah. Don't believe me? Check out all his books and show me an empathetic woman character in the lot. They are either wicked and evil, stupid and evil, ambitious and evil, or misled and evil, or some combination of that. OK, there was one female and not-evil in one book, but that was the book which was anti-environmentalist, so she's misled by the author at least. The one saving grace is that Crichton novel women are not delicate darlings and can trek in jungles as well as the next person. I shall next read a Michael Crichton book only when I'm feeling a lot more masochistic and anti-woman.

Though hey, a fast-paced book, more credible than the Hollywood scientists' "the alien's blood is composed of molecular acid" withal. Read it for the thrills, but beware the science or social commentary.

10 September 2012

The angst of an adopted forensic pathologist

Thriller | Tess Gerritsen | Body Double

Tess Gerritsen says in the introduction to one of her novels that she started writing romances with some mystery, and then moved to mysteries with a bit of romance. This is one of the transition books, heavier on the mystery.

Body Double starts with Dr Maura Isles returning from a trip to a forensic conference in Paris to find the police camped at her doorstep. Everyone acts as if they are seeing a ghost. She finds there is a dead woman in a car near her house, who looks just like her. Eeeee. OK, no eeee, you knew that from the back cover.

Things get creepier. The dead woman has been shot. She only has a six-month history, nobody can find a trace of her before that. And then her DNA turns out to match. Maura, being adopted, starts on a quest to find out more about who her twin was, why she died, and who her biological parents were.

Oh, spoilers? No, no, you can read all this off the back cover. It even says there that she finds her mother, a cruel and cunning woman. But the woman she finds in the book is actually feeble, old and schizophrenic. [Must. Resist. Spoilers.]

OK, diversion: she has a permanent love interest in a Catholic priest she fancies. (Why do Catholics have celibate priests, and why do Catholic women find them irresistible? It's a gaaah! moment, every time I run across it in any book.) Fortunately, the detective who was helping her sister is a possible romantic interest, having recently separated from his wife, except that his impossible teen daughter turns up at inopportune moments.

Maura's main help in resolving the clues, though, comes from Detective Jane Rizzoli, who, despite being 8-months-pregnant and incapable of kicking in doors anymore, unearths a bunch of true and ghastly crimes, all linked with the very first one which we get to know about way back in the prologue.

The story is as much about Maura wondering what her genetic heritage has made of her as the pair solving a set of very creepy crimes and tracking down the criminal(s).

We meet en route, an obsessive executive, a monster-seeking psychologist, and an upset forensic pathologist, a not-upset forensic ditto (with an Indian name, to boot).

This was a reasonably well-written thriller, except for the aforesaid gaaah! moment. I'll check out a couple more by T Gerritsen before coming to a less wishy-washy conclusion. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, this is ample for a lazy Sunday, and though it has awfully creepy crimes and motivations for the crimes, it's not an off-putting adrenaline creep-out. Fortunately, T Gerritsen is not as graphic as Patricia Cornwell or James Patterson. I might well be reading Gerritsens long after my Cornwells and Pattersons have mouldered due to lack of rereads since my middle-aged body can't stand the adrenaline jolts any more.

Oh, and why are female characters almost always referred to by their first names, and male ones by their last ones? Fortunately, while Dr Isles gets called Maura mostly, the detective gets called Rizzoli. Balance of sorts.

09 September 2012

Oh my gods!

Fantasy | Rick Riordan | The Lost Hero; The Son of Neptune

You know all about Percy Jackson, the demi-god son of a woman in New York and the Greek god Poseidon. Oh, you don't? Summary, then.

Rick Riordan wrote a whole set of six best-selling books about Percy Jackson, the dyslexic teen with ADHD who finds out one day that he's a demi-god and his best friend is a satyr who's been sent out into the world to protect him from monsters. These monsters have plagued Percy's life since his early teens, and made him shift from school to school as their depredations destroy buildings and worse. Now, Percy finds he has super-powers, and a Quest. Or six. He makes friends with other demi-gods in Camp Half-Blood where they grow up in relative safety, looked after by centaurs and a grumpy god, Mr D, the god of wine, who takes a dislike to our hero and insists on mangling his name at every opportunity. After saving assorted gods, their property, their kids, and even Olympus itself (which is these days parked over the Empire State Building, the Greek gods having moved to the USA without having to undergo immigration checks), Percy looks forward to the possibility of a relatively normal life with Annabeth, the daughter of [spoiler delete].

Anyway, this is a new series, and we are now introduced to Jason, the son of Jupiter, in a crackerjack scene with monsters and screaming kids at the Skywalk on the Grand Canyon. So, see, this is a series about demi-gods who are the kids of Roman gods. Except that all the demi-gods in Camp Half-Blood seem to think the Roman gods are just aspects of their own parents, and Jason becomes a bit of a misfit there. Particularly since he's lost his memory. And the memories that his new best friends have of him turn out to be fakes, to boot. He ends up with a Quest, too. Jason's quest is to free Juno from the clutches of a more ancient Power, who is waking, and must not wake. Oh, and the title comes from the fact that one of the great heroes of the camp is missing, a popular guy called Percy Jackson...

As in the previous books, the pace is relentless, the dialogues are teen American (as crackly good as the dialogues by James Patterson, dude), the super powers are awesome, and the number of secrets kept between the three main characters is bewildering. You can never predict what new monster, creature, creation, or thing is going to help or hinder them.

Riordan's imagination runs through new monsters and concepts like no other author I've come across except perhaps Larry Niven or Douglas Adams. Sure, many authors come up with cool stuff, and JK Rowling is no slouch either, in inventing crazy stuff that teens of all ages lap up eagerly. But the only ones to come up with so many new and crazy things in each book are Niven (the Emperor of new stuff), and Riordan.

Jason completes his quest--oh, you guessed that, did you?--and we get a teeny hint of where Percy might be.

But why hide the facts? You can read the salient points off the back cover of The Son of Neptune yourself. Percy, too, has lost his memory, and we find  him in the beginning of the second book at a camp for demi-gods, except, you guessed it, this camp is for the kids of Roman gods. The Romans picked up many gods from the Greeks, but their versions were usually different, sometimes just a bit, sometimes widely. Percy makes friends at the camp, and gets picked up by a couple of hitherto-loser kids to join them in--you're such a good guesser!--a Quest. The same dread Power that did the villainy in the previous book is still around. The magic stays right there till the very end.

This is another series that is going to be a best-selling series, because not only the resident teen, but the parent of the teen are going to be gulping these down by the volume.

Read, read. You will enjoy them. There's steam-punk stuff in The Lost Hero, too, in case you need more motivation.

03 September 2012

When you want to die, either laughing or in terror

Humour/Thriller, Horror | Anthony Horowitz | Three of Diamonds, Horowitz Horror 1

Anthony Horowitz writes funny thrillers, thrilling funny books and horror stories with equal facility. He does this for teens. For adults, he writes for TV. Personally, I think he enjoys the books for teens more. Or maybe I'm just projecting my own sentiments on the writing, since, to the best of my knowledge, I've never seen any of the TV series he writes for.

To start with, Three of Diamonds. This brings together three of the Diamond Brothers Defective (sic) Agency stories. Nick Diamond, a teen boy, has the most stupid elder brother ever. Tim Diamond fancies himself a detective, with groan-worthily hilarious results. The whole thing from one end to the other is a gag-fest, with a veneer of detectiving as well. It's beautifully done, so that you have a mystery, a logical progress to the solution, and the most insane dialogues and action sequences to take you from one end to the other.

Tim phones up the expiry date on a yoghurt carton. He wants to take pictures of fish in the Chunnel. Escaping from villains, they reach a bridge:
“The river!” I said.
Tim reached into his pocket and took out his camera.
“No!” I yelled. “I don't want you to photograph it! I want us to cross it!”
You have to tell Tim, preferably in short, simple words.

The French Confection  has the Diamond bros win a trip to Paris. Tim's boasting on the train brings a desperate man to them, asking for help. He's murdered. The villains want to know what he told them, and mayhem proceeds from there, via the bridge on the river, a boat on the river, prison, a hotel, kidnapping:
“You have put us to a great deal of trouble,” he went on. “We've searched you and this morning we searched your room. Are you going to tell us where it is?”
“It's on the top floor of the hotel!” Tim exclaimed.
“Not the room!” Bastille swore and choked on his cigarette.
Sorry, I keep laughing over the paragraphs, wherever the book opens. Anyhow, Nick manages to solve the mystery, and Tim remains convinced he (Tim) is the greatest of detectives.

The Blurred Man (yes, Horowitz loves his puns, even though most of the kids who read his books will never have read the originals of the punny titles) has an American who hires the Diamonds to find out what happened to his good friend Lenny Smile, who runs a charity called Dream Time, to which the American novelist has given two million dollars in donations. Just before he was to have met Smile and found out what wonderful work the charity has done, Smile is run over by a roadroller. Why? (Ahem).

I am not going to give you a sample of how Tim interrogates the roadroller driver. I don't like to mistype so many words because I'm laughing too hard.

Anyway, they solve that one, too. Finally, there is I Know What you did Last Wednesday, in which Tim is invited by his millionaire classmate to visit him on an island, along with a bunch of other classmates. Except that they all start getting murdered one by one. You've seen this in a movie, right? And read the Agatha Christie book of the same premise, right? But you cannot beat Tim Diamond at it. Fortunately, Nick insists on going with him, and Tim comes out alive in the end. Not before you find he topped his school in embroidery. Yes, amazing that Tim could actually do something well, isn't it?

Okay, and then I picked up Horowitz Horror 1, which is not funny in the slightest. I checked. A bit of gallows humour once in a while. This is the guy who created an explosive bubble-gum for Alex Rider called Bubble-o seven? Yup. Horowitz writes terrific horror. Just in case you think horror for younger readers is less horrifying than that for adults, well, it's not. It's just as horrifying, if not more, considering that many of the protagonists are kids.

There's Bath Night, a story of a haunted bathtub. Killer Camera kills everything it's used to take a picture of. You don't want to know what the last picture in the story was of. Light Moves is about a kid who gets a haunted computer which can predict horse races, and the consequences of greed. The Night Bus is closer to the conventional kids' horror story, but creepy in its own way. Harriet's Horrible Dream is worthy of George RR Martin or Orson Scott Card, and so horrible I'm skipping onwards. Scared is about the city-kid bully in the country, and reminds me, strangely enough, of Ray Bradbury stories. In A Career in Computer Games, Horowitz tries to make the protagonist as unsympathetic as possible so that we don't mind what happens. Yet, in the end, I felt sorry for the wretch, for whom, let me say, I had no plans to have any sympathy whatsoever. The Man with the Yellow Face has supernatural horror in it, rather Victorian in ambience. The Monkey's Ear is the only story in which Horowitz's inner punster leaks out a bit, and it's a fair tribute to that original of horror stories, The Monkey's Paw.

TL;DR – read Horowitz's books, and don't worry about your chronological age. Horowitz is that worthy YA writer: he never condescends to his reader, and that's what makes his stories so enthralling.

02 September 2012

Forsyth's first sequel

Thriller | Frederick Forsyth | The Cobra

Frederick Forsyth has been writing bestsellers since around the time I learned to read. The first of these was the paradigmatic The Jackal. The Cobra is possibly the first time he has reused characters, so in a way, it's a sequel to The Avenger. For reasons that I cannot tell you for fear of spoilers, it is, let me say, unlikely that there will be another sequel in the series.

In The Avenger, Cal Dexter, a small-town lawyer, is actually a bounty hunter, who is out hunting an evil villain, whom Paul Devereux, a spook, is trying to protect, so that he (Paul) can use him (evil villain) to get at an even bigger villain.

In the sequel, Devereux is tasked by the President of the USA to finish the cocaine business once and for all. Surprisingly to everyone except himself, he decides to pull in Cal Dexter as his right hand man.

F Forsyth's books are nothing if not meticulously researched. As the story proceeds towards its breathtakingly unexpected end, you can't but help being drawn in, believing that, yes, in fact the cocaine trade can be stamped out like this, and the people in the story are doing just that. It's a bit of a shame to come to the end and realise that cocaine is coming along just fine after all.

There are writers like James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell who take you down to the grisly details of what the villains do. Forsyth is more sparing, and gives only enough to let you understand the characters, but stops just short of enough to send you running for the toilet. (It's going to be a long time before I read another J Patterson book for adults, or one by P Cornwell. I'm getting more squeamish the older I get).

Altogether, a fairly satisfying book and a vicarious look at what it could take to get the cocaine monkey off the addicts' backs. If only real life was as simple as a complex book plot.

Worth a read. Given that this was probably my third reread, you can believe I'm putting my eyeballs where my mouth is (uh, no, unfortunate metaphor, but you get the idea). And, yes, you should read The Avenger, too, preferably before you read this one.

Truth is stranger than fiction

Fiction | Jeffery Archer | And Thereby Hangs a Tale

Jeffery Archer is quite possibly one of the best short story writers in the world. Even better than the hoary old classic short story writers, O Henry and Saki. And at least the most famous writing in English.
This collection contains 15 stories, 10 of them 'based on true incidents'. All the stories have the trademark Archer twist. His clever writing hides the end from us, and leaves us delighted at the sudden new direction in the very last sentence. Well, not in all the stories, but most of them.

And if you didn't believe truth is stranger than fiction, the very last story is apparently based in New Delhi, and has an actual prince. One rich enough, despite 'the family wealth had been steadily eroding over the years', to fly down to San Francisco every weekend for a year. Hah, now that's tough to believe.

One of these days, I too must write the stories of some of my classmates, which are much stranger than fiction. But, hah, probably never as good as Jeffery Archer. Don't hold your breath. :)