15 November 2014

Magic that works

Fantasy | Shadow Bound | Rachel Vincent

Again with the entry into a series in book two. Fortunately, this book doesn't require you to know anything about the previous book, since it is from a different main character's viewpoint. Smart going, Rachel Vincent!

You have people with magical talents, along with a whole lot of non-magical people. Now, unfortunately, by the time people realise they have talents, the criminal magical syndicates are after them. Their choices are to hide, or to join up.

Kori Daniels is a shadow walker, able to teleport between shadows, as well as a combat specialist. She is bodyguard to  Jake Tower, who has put her to torture for not preventing an attack on his family. Thing is, while she is bound to him, by her sister's magic, her sister, a hugely powerful binder, is not capable of defending herself. Kori will do anything to keep her sister safe, including, in the first place, agreeing to bind herself to Tower in return for keeping her sister safe. Said sister having got herself bound to Tower by mistake a long time ago. In her childhood, she had also bound Kori to schoolmates, one of whom was able to use that to get her kid away from Tower (presumably in the first book).

Now, Ian Holt, a powerful dark maker, is being recruited by Tower. Kori needs to do that, to save her sister from torture. Ian wants to kill Kenley (the sister), to save his brother from the withdrawl symptoms of trying to disobey a binding. Except that said brother has no clue when Kenley did it (and neither do we, till close to the end of the book).

It's a romance, so Kori and Ian are falling in love, trying to prevent each other from being killed, while also trying to fulfill their oaths.

A well-built world, and you can cheerfully suspend your disbelief. Types of dark (infra-red lights prevent 'true shadow'), and ways to beat oaths, and how the criminal syndicates run the magical world—all well fleshed out and believable.

A good read, and I'm planning to seek out book one of the series.

Shenanigans in the Arctic

Detective | Breakup | Dana Stabenow

I picked this up because it is a book about detecting in the Far North, in Alaska to be precise. Kate Shugak has featured in six previous books, and fans probably know all the characters and react to them entirely differently from someone who dips into the series at such a late point.

Kate has inherited her grandmother's position in the tribe, something she is reluctant to own, as she feels she cannot fill her grandmother's shoes.

In the meantime, the weather is warming, and the ice is breaking up, hence the title. Breakup is also the word, used as a curse, by most of the characters in the book.

It starts with Kate getting excited about the warm weather (warm? When the ice is just starting to melt? But it seems it truly is warm for the denizens, and they will probably shift to t-shirts at 4 degrees. Well, I did pick a book about Alaska), and forgetting her rifle, whereupon she is attacked by a mother bear.

Safe at home (oh, come on, the book would have been really thin if she was killed by the bear), her meat store is attacked by another bear. After driving it off, she is almost hit by, of all things, a jet engine, which has fallen off a plane. It totals her truck, so she has no transport. She also has no money, and taxes are due. So, at least, there is plenty of mad action throughout.

The investigators descend on her house, and the bear comes by again. Followed by three off-roaders driven by drunk tourists. Then, an old dead body is discovered near her land. Her friend, who has abandoned a rich background to live off the land, comes up in a tizzy. Her parents have descended on her (again) and don't approve of her boyfriend, so she wants Kate to tour-guide them to any distance. In return, she gives Kate her truck, forever.

Whereupon, the three of them (Kate and the parents) are attacked by yet another bear. This bear, though, has killed and eaten a woman. The woman's husband is a woman-magnet, but also an object of suspicion by the cops. So, was it a murder? And how was it done? What about that original dead body? Was it an accident, or murder?

In the meantime, there are planes doing groundloops, old family feuds resulting in bars being shot up, an angry wife chasing her husband with a gun (and finally tying him up and threatening to kill him), and other assorted incidents which the tribe wants Kate to fix.

It's an old-fashioned detective story, in the sense that you get all the clues, and should be able to work it out for yourself.

It's also more about the shenanigans of Kate and her friends, so if all you want is a detective story, go elsewhere.

There's humour, but of the Patricia Cornwell variety, not of the PG Wodehouse variety.

A fair read, but one of this series is enough for me.

20 October 2014

YA SF short stories, some brand new, some aged

YA SF | Other Worlds | Edited by Jon Scieszka

While most YA books are extremely satisfactory to not-so-young adults, is it the same for YA SF short stories? I'll take you story-by-story through this collection.

Percy Jackson and the Singer of Apollo by Rick Riordan is a short story in which Percy gets up to his usual shenanigans. Bamboozled by Apollo into recovering his missing Singer, Percy and Grover race to save New York from certain doom at the Singer's ... vocal cords. Like a short episode from any of the Percy Jackson books.

Bouncing the Grinning Goat by Shannon Hale is about a teen girl who joins the Grinning Goat inn as a bouncer under false pretences, but makes it all work in the end. One of the best stories in the book.

The Scout by DJ McHale is about a young Scout who's not too interested in following the scripted desert trek prescribed by the Scout Leader. He is attacked by an alien device. Is it the precursor to an invasion of the world? A completely unexpected ending. I liked this story quite a bit.

Rise of the RoboShoes TM by Tom Engleberger is an illustrated story. The illustrations are like someone who just learned to use MS Paint would do. The story is not much better. This may go down okay with the 10-12 year-old crowd, but maybe not. Not the best story in the book.

The Dirt on Our Shoes by Neal Shusterman is about a generation ship which is soon due to make planetfall. Some of the kids on the ship are better students, less questioning, more privileged. Some are barely surviving, and struggle to eat enough, let alone be able to afford luxuries like bathing water. Which of them is going to be the ones needed on the new colony? Slightly predictable for non-young-adult readers.

Plan Bby Rebecca Stead had me scratching my head to get to understand what was going on, but the denouement was quite a surprise.

A Day in the Life by Shaun Tan is a graphic story aka comic. Reasonably well drawn, but not such a great plot. Again, not the best story in the book.

The Klack Bros Museum by Kenneth Oppel is a new take on ghost stories. Very nicely done atmosphere and tension. And a surprising end. Very satisfying.

The Warlords of Recess by Eric Nylund is a light story about cunning empire-builders who take over planets based on Rules which they follow rigorously, and to the detriment of the taken-over. They meet their match in a high school playground during recess. Fair, but slightly writing-down-to-kids type stuff. Say, of the style of the Spy Kids movies.

Frost and Fire by Ray Bradbury rounds off the book. It's about a planet where the days are super short, and the weather is super dangerous. Humans there have evolved to match the planet. People live only for a week. The hero and heroine of the piece try to save the people by attempting to reach the old lander, where things would presumably be better. A really old style Bradbury story. People would classify this as pure fantasy today, but back then when it was written, it was viable SF. A fairly good read, if not a fully satisfactory end. Why did they leave most of the people in the bad situation, I keep wondering.

All in all, a fair sampling of mostly good stories in SF and fantasy for young readers.

18 October 2014

Life after Artemis Fowl

YA SF | WARP The Reluctant Assassin | Eoin Colfer

So, last review I said I'd tell you about a coincidence. The last book had a protagonist named Rylee, and this one has a protagonist named Riley. How's that for coincidence between two YA thrillers? Oh, so the title says YA SF? Big deal. Can't an SF book be a thriller? Usually, they all are. Thrilling, I mean.

Let's get on with it. Riley is an orphan from Victorian London. Chevie aka Chevron, is a teen FBI agent (it's an experiment by the FBI, being abandoned). How do they meet, you wonder. Not so tough. The FBI has a top secret program called WARP, in which witness protection is done by hiding the witnesses in the past. Chevie, in some kind of disgrace for saving some people she was watching over (yeah, yeah, you know how it goes), is sent to London to mind the WARP machine, but not told by Agent Orange what it's all about. (Please groan along with me if you get the Agent Orange reference, since we soon enough find that's not his real name).

Just to get some things sorted out for you, Agent Orange's dad invented WARP, and is sulking in the past, along with the timekey. Which means nobody else can go to the past, and the people there are stuck.

Now, someone wants to assassinate the dad, and pays our friend, the evil villain Albert Garrick, to do so. Albert in turn wants Riley to do so. Somewhere in the process, Riley tumbles out in our century. Garrick, an erstwhile stage magician and enthusiastic assassin, realises that something is afoot and he can gain power, maybe even rule the world (muwahahahahaha!) Somewhere in the transfer when Garrick hits our century, he gets super powers as well as a lot of information about the present. (Not telling you how; that would be a spoiler).

So, you have a story with a supervillain, and ordinary teenaged heroes, each with his or her own weaknesses and strengths.

Eoin Colfer never promises a smooth ride, or even a happy ending. The process of beating the villain is complex, nail-biting, and never to be taken for granted. You may even find that the villain is not fully beaten, but only a temporary truce has been formed. Other villains pop up and help or hinder, depending on their own needs and outlooks.

If you liked the Artemis Fowl books and The Airman, the chances are good you'll like WARP. There's more historical reference and less fantasy in WARP than in Artemis Fowl, and more fantasy and less historical reference than in The Airman. Just so you know.


Reading YA books over the objections of the Resident Teen

Thriller | RUN | Greg Olsen

The resident teen wanted to know why I read YA books instead of 'normal adult' books. Are they better? You bet they are!

RUN features a protagonist named Rylee. I'll come to this in the next review, under the heading 'coincidences'.

Rylee has been on the run from since she can remember. Every now and then, her paranoid mother (not really, in case someone is really out to get you, are you still paranoid?) will uproot the whole family, stepfather, stepbrother and all, and they will change their names and city. Rylee has reached the grand old age of 16 or so, and wants to have a normal life and normal friends, like schoolmate Caleb.

Who's after them? Why can't normal law enforcement keep the villain at bay? Rylee doesn't know, and nobody's telling.

Till one day she reaches home to find her brother calling for her in terror. Someone has killed her stepfather, and her mother is missing. Rylee goes on the run, to save seven-year-old Hayden, and possibly her mother, too. There are clues her mother has left for her, and there are clues she finds out for herself. All the while avoiding being caught for a murder she did not do. There are so many lies she has to go through, and so many layers of lies, the book begins to look fairly onion-shaped. There are evil villains, convoluted reasons why people do the things they do, idols with feet of clay, unexpected help, serial killers, crooked cops, even facebook. What more could a young adult want?

I loved the book, and would want to read more about Rylee (whose 'real' name we do find out at some stage) and her further adventures. Here is one ninja you'd want on your side: fearless, dedicated, intelligent, compassionate and a chameleon! Every girl's hero fantasy, written in a pacy, no-nonsense first-person style that is so very believable and true to the character.

Strongly recommended!

26 September 2014

Pax Americana

Thriller | The Shark Mutiny | Patrick Robinson

This was the slowest of the six books I read this past month. Though really, should not have been. It's a war story, with SEALs.

It's a book about the US Navy. Dan Headley and Rick Hunter are childhood friends who join the Navy. Cut to the present day. Admiral Arnold Morgan is the cynical NSA to a President he holds in contempt. (There seems to have been another book before this one, but it's fairly standalone, though it seems the Chinese were villains in that one as well). A young lieutenant finds satellite and other intelligence to indicate that the Chinese are up to no good, along with the Iranians.

Sure enough, they have mined the Strait of Hormuz, and blow up a set of tankers. This sends the world oil markets into a tizzy. While nobody claims responsibility, Admiral Morgan is bent on teaching the pesky Chinamen a lesson. This the SEAL team does. The Chinese in the meantime do more cunning things and need to be taught more lessons. It's very much a world in which the USA calls all the shots and diplomacy and other countries are not relevant. It's a world with war, so that's not surprising. It's also written by an American, for American readers.

Morgan is almost a caricature, with quirky speech and mannerisms. One would expect less use of such literary crutches, and in the other characters, they are not used. Dan Headley, the XO of the nuclear submarine Shark is to insert the SEAL team for the retributive attacks. His Captain is a strange guy, on his last tour. Rick Hunter leads the second SEAL team. The first tour has issues which show that the Captain is not exactly operating with a full deck.

Hence, the mutiny. Actually, it happens in the last 100 pages of the book, almost as an anti-climax. Except that the point is to show how a modern navy would handle a mutiny, even a 'justified' one like we have. That raises the book from the level of mere thriller.

Not the best writing, but a solid story, and a tremendous love for the navy which shines through every episode.

A hero vs a not-purely-terrorising terrorist

Thriller | Strike Back | Chris Ryan

So, the blurb on the back of the book says:

What would you normally make of this? That Sir Peregrine is definitely a bad guy of some sort, and John Porter is going to get a life back?

Dynamite! How clever of you!

John Porter's first live mission in Beirut ended with the hostage rescued, but his three buddies dead. All because he didn't kill a young Arab with a cleft palate. Now, the self-same Arab has kidnapped a media star. John is the only one who can get her, because the Arabs acknowledge debts.

A nice adventure story for insular Englishmen. Not quite so much for, say, an Arab, even though the villains and heroes are all mostly English. It's that objectification thingie.

Nice enough yarn if you suspend disbelief. Fast paced and frothy.

A cure for meekness

Suspense | Mice | Gordon Reece

The book starts off by describing meek 16-yo Shelley and her meeker mother shifting into an isolated cottage after Shelly has been bullied to within an inch of her life in school, and her mother has been divorced by a husband looking for a trophy wife.

They are struggling on. The book covers a lot of ordinary, everyday scenes, which establish for us how much the mother and daughter love each other, and how very very meek they are.

And then a burglar breaks into their house one night. High on drugs, he ties them up and starts picking and smashing. As the blurb on the cover says, “If she and her mother are not mice after all, then what are they?”

There is a murder. Will the police solve it or will it remain one of those perennial mysteries? It's up for grabs right till the very end.

I'm not going to give any spoilers, so you have to content yourself with this much.

Do I recommend you read it? Yes. Will it be made into a movie? I doubt it, but I'd go watch if it is. Age group for readers? Fifteen plus.

What if Mars really had canals and Martians?

Science fiction | Old Mars | Edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois

As George RR Martin says in the introduction, this is the 'old' Mars, the one in the imaginations of Percival Lowell, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury. The Mars with ancient canals so wide they are visible from Earth. Not the real Mars of barren lands and atmospheres thinner than ghosts. Short stories to evoke that utterly fictional Mars.

Let me go story by story. But to start with, I was greatly disappointed. The first stories are very much close to the tenor of earlier stories: all-male. As the book proceeded, though, I revised my early impressions. Which is good for you. I think.

Martian Blood by Allen M Steele is about an Earth researcher going into the tourist-ridden cities on Mars, looking for some Martian blood to prove or disprove his hypothesis that Martians and Earthers are ultimately descended from the same genetic pool. The Martian natives (no other word quite fits, sorry) are reclusive and hostile, likely to be violent. The researcher's hired guide is left to make world-changing decisions. Is it deliberate that the Martian aborigines' word for themselves is shatan?

The Ugly Duckling by Matthew Hughes could have been written by Bradbury. Fred Mather, an archaeologist, smuggles himself to Mars, marsquerading (I can't help myself) as a miner. Miners on Mars have quotas to fill. Martian cities are made of bone, and pulverising them and shipping them is hugely profitable. Nobody to record the cities, or the Martian culture. Fred offers to scout and lay the laser finders for the big machines. This way, he gets to see the city before it is demolished. He finds an amphitheatre, and the Martian script suddenly and telepathically makes sense to him, as he finds himself immersed in a Martian entertainment/history. The boss miner finds him lost to the Martian madness, in which he thinks himself a Martian, and has to save himself from Fred's attack. For some reason, ancient Martian 'masks' have value. Go figure.

In The Wreck of The Mars Adventure, Captain Kidd is rescued by the King of England days before he is due to be hanged, under condition that he leads an expedition to Mars. On a sailing ship equipped with hot air balloons. And accompanied by the eccentric scientist who has designed the equipment. Off they sail, through doldrums and storms between the planets. (Yeah, exactly!). Finally, they crashland on Mars, where their trade goods help them for a short while, to trade with suspicious Martian princes. The scene in which the Martians solemnly eat a Bible and the horror of the scientist at this blasphemy was quite funny! David D Levine certainly gets a good flavour of 100-year-old science fiction, Victorian without being steampunk, and utterly unscientific.

The Swords of Zar-tu-kan feature the first woman in the book, and high time. SM Stirling has populated both Venus and Mars with aliens, and this story is placed in that world. A biologist arrives on Mars, and is taken under the wing of a resident Terranan. Unfortunately, he is promptly kidnapped. Like many a Larry Niven character, the Martians have great respect for contracts. Also for debts. Sally Yamashita ropes in an old comrade, the Professional Practitioner of Coercive Violence, Teyudza-Zhalt. The duo find the missing biologist—but of course—with very satisfactory shenanigans on the way. A nice mix of Japanese culture and Mister Spock's alien logic, not to mention a talking 'optimal canid' named Satemcan. There is also a very good reason for the kidnapping. This story is one of my favourites in this book.

So I continued reading the book.

Shoals by Mary Rosenblum also explores the miners vs. dreamers trope. Maartin's mother was killed in a blow-out of a dome when miners after shoals of Martian 'pearls' undercut it. The miners are greedy for the vast riches that attend the finding of a shoal. People see wonderful visions with these 'pearls'. Except, Maartin sees them all the time, direct access to ancient Martians stored virtually. The virtual Martians still have a few tricks up their dusty sleeves, though, to save themselves and the farming city that Maartin's family is a part of.

In the Tombs of the Martian Kings by Mike Resnick features an Earthman named The Scorpion, who has a lion-sized Venusian 'dog' as a companion. Two pages in, we find the Venusian is telepathic. A Martian hires them to help him find the mythical lost Tombs of the really really ancient Martian Kings, who may well have been superpowered aliens (aliens to Mars, that is), worshipped as gods by primitive Martians. Our gun for hire helps the Martian, named Quedipai and called Cutiepie. Very Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lots of fancy traps and monsters to protect the Kings. A book with an invocation to awaken the last King... ok, you can guess how it goes.

Out of Scarlight by Liz Williams could well be placed on Earth in any fantasy world. Zuneida Peace pretends to be a man named Thane. She saves the adventurer Nightwall Dair from a sorcerer on her way to the Tribes, to get clues on finding a Martian slave girl stolen by a sorcerer from a lord of Cadrada, and whom he wants back. Scarlight is the name of the last town before the Cold Deserts. Zuneida/Thane finds the priestess, gets the clues, evades the attentions of Dair, gets caught by the sorcerer, rescued, and does some rescuing. All very confusing. Who is after what. But tied up neatly in a bow at the end.

Howard Waldrop has a 'modern' Earthman follow the old trek of an ancient Martian, writing a diary detailing the old diary. A short and whimsical story, The Dead Sea-Bottom Scrolls.

James SA Corey describes another story based on sea pirates. In A Man Without Honor, we have an American-spelling story about a subject of the King of England, explaining the circumstances under which he killed the King's Governor. The pirates attempt to loot a derelict, find it still under attack, and rescue the damsel with the treasure. But she's a Captain herself, of a spacecraft. She's getting some chemicals from Earth to help her Martian race (very human-like) to save themselves from tentacled Martian tyrants of another species. Bravely, the pirates and the heroic humanoid Martians ally, as do the greedy Governor and the Martian monsters. Will the good guys of Mars be saved?

Written in Dust by Melinda M Snodgrass, too, has the ancient Martians accessible through stored memories, and under risk of demolished cities. In this one, a teenager reaching college age on Mars finds her two fathers' marriage being torn apart by her control-freak Martian grandfather (all humans here). There is family adventure. And of course the access to Martian dead—perhaps human dead, too?

Michael Moorcock, you either love or hate, and I tend to sit on the latter side, but this was a cool story. The Lost Canal has future humans on Mars being contacted by close-to-today humans via a time machine. 'Your mission, should you choose to accept it' offered to the fugitive Mac Stone is nothing less than to save the planet. Mac has been making money and the rich people don't like it. There are killer robots, ancient bombs, a lost canal with a tremendous waterfall (that possibly goes to the centre of the planet), and only seven hours to save the world. The time machine gives him useful information and gadgets for super strength and anti-gravity. On the other hand, apart from killer robots, he's being hunted by a top assassin as well.

Phyllis Eisenstein's The Sunstone is set in the heroic savage mould. David Miller returns to Mars after being educated on Earth, to find his archaeologist father missing. He has gone to find one more wonderful city, to make tourist money off. David teams up with his father's Martian friend Rekari to go find the body. Rekari tells him his father was adopted by the last of a dying tribe, so that their memories could live on, and gives him a traditional sunstone to wear. The traditional Martians don't like that. Is David a true Martian or will he be unable to enter—or exit—the Martian repository of tradition they find beneath his father's body?

(These are all rhetorical questions, okay, you're supposed to guess the right and obvious answer.)

Joe R Lansdale's King of the Cheap Romance is possibly my favourite in this book. It has spacecraft (ok, aircraft, but Martian air is too thin to live in), a young protagonist left to find a way to save herself and the next city all alone. Angela King's Dad is killed in a crash while they are carrying vaccine to the local town. The 'cheap romance' is what her father calls adventure stories. She loads up everything including the body, onto a solar sled with limited battery power. She is chased by a persistent and deadly Martian ice shark. Then a climbing berg climbs out of the ice. These are rises of solid ice coming up from old old Mars. Full of living organisms that need air once in a while. This one has an ancient Martian ship embedded in it. Angela evades the ice shark and goes inside the berg, where she sees ancient Martian wonders. With the last of her consciousness, she does reach the city. With or without the vaccine? With or without the fever herself?

Mariner has an Earthman stranded on Mars. He gets there while attempting to sail around the Earth. A type of Martian captures him, and fortunately he is able to convince them he is air-breathing. Other Martian species all war with each other. The only commonality is that they all need respirators in air (to keep their gills moist). Jason becomes a pirate, then a pirate captain. What happens when he rescues a ship full of to-be-slaves, when he is already below quota on plunder? Chris Robertson writes a straightforward tale.

Ian McDonald doesn't. The Queen of the Night's Aria is the closest to a horror story in this book. Maestro Jack Fitzgerald, the famous singer from Earth, is on a downward economic spiral and refuses to accept it. He and his sidekick are reduced to singing for the Earth troops on the frontline in Mars. Mars had attacked, Earth had counterattacked. Earth has now occupied most of Mars. There are all kinds of exotic aliens and alien cities. During his performance at the Front, the Martians counter-attack. The Queen of the Martians is a fan of the Count. Things go downhill from there. It's more poignant than horrific, come to that. I mean, we're not actually suffering reverses on Mars, are we?

TL;DR? A good read for sci fi fans.

24 August 2014

The 'national bird' of Punjab claims a victim

Detective | The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken | Tarquin Hall

Once in a while, one gets an Indian detective set in India, written by a non-Indian. Since getting Indian citizenship is one of the most difficult things to do, I suspect that Tarquin Hall, though married to an Indian and living in the NCR, is probably not an Indian yet, so I'm putting his book in this category.

The first Vish Puri book I read was The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. In that, a debunker of mystics was stricken dead on India Gate lawns by a 20-foot effigy of the Goddess Kali that appeared and then disappeared. All the other members of his Laughter Club (there are plenty all over India, it's not as much fiction as you'd think) were unable to move from their places till the apparition had disappeared. Vish Puri of Most Private Investigators takes over the case and tries to sort out myth and reality. What I liked particularly about that book was the solution, down to earth and not the least bit Eastern-Oriental Mystic. Although it wandered into places I've never even heard of, let alone experienced. But it's a big country.

So, coming to this Vish Puri book, which is the third in the series. Vish (short for Vishwas) Puri attends a pre-cricket match party, at which the father of a rising star Pakistani cricketer falls dead after eating his butter chicken. He's been poisoned with aconite. I really didn't know it was that easy to get hold of aconite in India, but I'm prepared to suspend disbelief. After all, it is astoundingly easy to get acid.

Vish Puri has a whole team of helpers with quirky nicknames (we never get to know their real names) like Handbrake the driver, Tubelight the operative (tubelight is slang for a slow-witted person in India, so why Puri calls his top operative Tubelight is a mystery), Facecream the slick woman operative, Flush the computer whiz with the James Bond gadgets, and the like.

Vish Puri's English is quirky, but his mother's is downright weird. Oh, okay, there may well be Punjabis who talk like that; I'm sure T Hall didn't invent these people out of whole cloth. Yet, the language is not so much familiar as dissonant. I guess I should stick around some Punjabi friends more, but most of them who speak English don't mangle the language as much.

Vish Puri is also a member of a group of moustache aficionados, some of whose moustaches are being stolen by a midnight thief. I facepalm and think, Only in India. At any rate, Puri is unaware that his mother is stealing a march on him, as she's not only worked out the motive for the murder, but the most likely suspects. He, in the meantime, goes off on all kinds of chases into the murky depths of illegal betting on cricket matches. He goes to Pakistan, all a-tremble at stepping into enemy territory, and back with a different view of the country.
Tarquin Hall's view of Delhi, India, Gurgaon and Pakistan is very different from the average Indian's. More observant, more disinterested about the politics, full of authentic detail and yet described in words strange to an Indian. The books are published in the UK, and reprinted here. The delighted reviews are probably from Angrez reviewers who recognise a wittily turned out Indian caricature.

I watch the books about India by non-Indians like a hawk, hyper-sensitive to incongruence. Because it always exists. Pickles are not aachar, they are achaar. A Punjabi, creating a diminutive for a name, will not convert Vishwas into Vish. Vishu, Vishi, yes, but not Vish. That's what a Brit would do, like Kipling saying a mother would call her son Ashok, “Ash”. But even Indian authors, proofread by Indians, get it wrong often enough (see Ashok Banker's Ramayana series for an example of how he mangles amavasya), so that's fair enough. My main crib about Vish Puri is that he is a caricature. Quite what of, I'm not sure. Probably as much of a caricature of a Gurgaon-based Punjabi as Hercule Poirot was of a Belgian.

Let's leave it at that. Hall has just put too much turmeric in the curry. But it's nice and tasty despite that. Go easy on the cloves, too, sahib ji.

Sorry about the tininess of the image.

What if you woke up and found that you were dead and everyone else had disappeared?

Science fiction/YA | More than this | Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness is the author of the best-selling Chaos Walking trilogy, about which the resident teen says (in tones of stricken awe): “It totally ruined my childhood!” I have the nasty feeling that I have not reviewed all the books in that trilogy, but never mind. I'll sum up and say that it introduced true and mundane evil to readers through the adventures of two young teens on a different planet. There, men's and animals' (including alien animals) every thought is broadcast to all, while only women's thoughts are not. One man decides to eliminate women and rule the world. It's about responsibility, about integrity, about the reactions of people to repression and how easily populations can be subjugated and subdued, and where true resistance and courage come from, and about ends and means.

Before I come to this book, let me just point out a few coincidences. I've just told you about a book by Seth Partick. Well, this book is by Patrick (Ness) about Seth (the main character). Howzzat?

As the blurb says, a boy dies. Drowns. All the way dead. And then he wakes up in his childhood home. Except that there is nobody else in the world. All the houses are empty and abandoned. There is old, stale food in cans, most puffed up and dangerous, and some water. There are hardly any animals. Plants have run riot. Abandoned cars and trains, and whole acres of burned-out city greet the weak and terrified Seth.

A typical teen nightmare (I've yet to write my own version of the story of waking up in a dead and abandoned world, so I presume all teens have this scary vision). 

Slowly, we find why Seth drowned through flashbacks of his life every time he goes to sleep.

Yet, it's increasingly confusing where exactly he is now. There is stuff in his house that he knows for sure is in his new house half a world away.

And then he is accosted by two more people. One a teen a bit older than him, and one a foreign kid. All of them are being chased by a futuristic black van with The Driver in it, who seems to be interested only in tracking them down and attacking them with something like a lightning bolt generator, but worse. Not human at all. And why do the youngsters have lights under their necks?

The secret lies, it seems, in the prison behind the house. A place the Driver seems to be protecting. And all that the kids have on their side are theories and raw courage.

Have you ever felt that your life is not what you want? And there should be More Than This?

Read it. It's good. Though the resident teen is reluctant to further ruin the end of childhood, and refuses to touch the book with any bargepole. I hereby declare 'stupid teen' a tautology.

Dead men tell all

Sci-fi | Reviver | Seth Patrick

Sci-fi, after a long time. (Yay). Seth Patrick thought: what if you could revive the dead? And then, in true sci-fi style, proceeds to follow the paths that arise.

In the near future, one person begins to revive the dead. Merely for minutes, and mostly to be able to say goodbye to their loved ones. Others, too, turn out to have this talent.

One of the most capable ones of them all, Jonah, is part of the Forensic Revival Unit. These help detectives to find out who killed murdered people. Of course! That's an almost inevitable thing if such revival is possible, right? In Victorian times, detectives used to photograph the eyes of dead people, thanks to the belief that they retained the last image of what they had seen. Then, we have all these mediums that speak to the dead. (None of whom have anything useful to report other than platitudes). So, good idea, and from a rich heritage. The thing with new SF is, then, basically, what does the author do with it?

And then it all goes Christian horror movie on us. One of the dead says 'He is coming' in some terror. It's the Devil, or something very close to it.

Troubled Jason approaches researchers who had been disbanded, but are continuing their work in more limited fashion. He gets his revival-enabling drug dosage changed, and in his spare time, starts to investigate.
The discoverer and populariser of Revival, who is now a recluse, is then found dead. His best-selling books enable his daughter (what's with daughters of dead people teaming up with the hero as a trope??) to get Jason to help out in chasing down his killers. But she's wary of involvement.

Now, the other thread you should expect is anti-revival people, right? For whatever reason, most religious. They are willing to do absolutely anything to stop it, partly because they are fanatics that bomb places, and partly because, they, too, have found out the rumours about the Devil coming back. Yes, we always wonder, in the wee hours, what if the fanatics are right, after all?

But there is a rich man who sponsors the research to get this great power into the world, and hides it from the world (trope warning! Beep! Beep!) and is convinced that his work is good and for the benefit of mankind. Again, predictable, right? James Bond makes a living taking such guys down. 

Yes, you can surely tell it's not benign, can't you? You've seen the movies. And more than one character has shown signs of knowing the Devil is around. So that's another hint.

Only the hero can save mankind! Despite the misguided scientists, the military/FBI, and private guards. Isn't it strange how movies and books have these tough guys who phlegmatically follow orders despite apocalyptic scenes all around and every sign of the end of the world. I particularly wonder why the Umbrella Corporation retains security guards who are little more than gun-toting robots, and even more, why there are still promotions being worried about in the zombie endtimes. How experiments continue, and a profit-making culture is slavishly adhered to, in a total collapse of the world economy. And all the while Alice wears skimpy dresses and even skimpier expressions. It only makes sense in a video game, yet there is a thriving movie series.

But back to the book. Withal, well written, and Seth Patrick travels far enough into the thickets of thought experiments to show you how simple things can cha
nge the world, and inevitably get militarised along the line. Yes, somewhat predictable to the sci-fi crowd, but remarkably good for a first-time author. I can smell a serial from the end of the book, but it's complete in itself. The challenge for the author will be to keep the second book self-contained, rather than something only for the fans of the first book. I predict many more sales in his future, though.

I apologise for the camera flash in the picture, but the picture without the flash is even worse.

What would you do if you knew one drug could doom the world?

Thriller | The Side Effect | Bob Reiss

The head of security for a pharma company finds his Chairman dead, presumably suicide. In the meantime, the President of the USA resigns, and is replaced by a hardliner. Other resignations happen. What's the connection, if any?

Investigating, along with his faithful team of security guy and computer hacker, our man teams up with the daughter of the Chairman and his personal assistant, both ravishing beauties to whom he is deeply attracted, though wary of involvement almost as a principle. For a change, they are not described as large-breasted. Still, their breasts are very much described. Bleargh. Don't male authors think women read, or do they not care how shallow they seem?

In the meantime, powerful people, including the new Chairman and the company's lobbyist, both friends of the dead man, want the case closed. Our hero is threatened with death, which only makes him more determined. The daughter of the Chairman says he was awfully manipulative and elitist, while our man thinks of him as just and honest. The Chairman was wary of an army Major, and the Major takes an immediate dislike to the protagonist, too. A dangerous enemy is made.

It emerges that the Chairman had been approached by a freelance researcher who had found a 'side effect' in a drug being tested (uselessly) for arthritis.

The rest of the book is about this side effect. Since it is revealed in its full glory only halfway through the book, it would be a spoiler to tell you what it is. Suffice to say it sits on the edge between science fiction and fantasy, and is well worth all the efforts to gain exclusive control over it. All in the national interest, of course.

Fortunately, the entire government is not compromised, and the evil doers are not (yet) all powerful. The new drug is being mass produced, but only in one location. Our team attacks the location, and the finale is achieved. Credit roll.

There are formulaic elements in the book. Which of the two women, equally in love with the protagonist, will eventually live with him? (As per formula, the other one has to move conveniently aside, either through sacrifice or death). Children exist, but they are neither seen nor heard. The sidekick is utterly loyal, competent, but follows the leader unquestioningly. At a critical moment, he is injured, and the boss has to do all the rest of the 'action'.  The evil doers claim to be doing good. The really nasty killers get their just desserts. Fanatics suffer.

A fair lazy Sunday read.

Thrillers by Indians, for Indians and of Indians

Thriller | The Terrorist | Juggi Bhasin

There are a lot of thrillers being written in English in India these days. This is good news. We can read about outlandish capers set in our own localities instead of in places we are unlikely to see in our lifetimes.
The Terrorist is set mostly in Delhi, though frankly, I barely recognise the places. I really didn't know that Karnataka Bhawan was a den of iniquity. I always thought of it as the place to go to eat delicious thali food at ludicrously low prices.

Anyhow, there is a young engineer who falls in love and then gets kicked out of his job and loses the love of his life, just because he happens to be Muslim. His evil employer gets him framed in a terrorist case, and the radicals around him further embroil him in terrorism. Finally, being brutalised by the police during 'interrogation' turns him into a hard-core terrorist, yet, withal, one who only kills police and army people.

In the meantime, there is a young Army officer who is trained in counter-terrorism in a remote place in the North East. His rich mother has driven his Army father to suicide, and he has cut off all ties with her in revenge. His soul's shell is breached by his best friend, an Army buddy who is just as good a soldier as him, but has a heart. He falls in love with a woman his mother 'arranges' for him to meet, but because of his mother, the two are sundered and he also falls out with his best friend.

He gets posted to J&K where he is seconded to the local police. There, he slowly wins over the police team assigned to him. One day, his teammate's niece is gang-raped by powerful politicians and the police. Her sister records the evidence, and his teammate is now trying to save her and her family.

The book opens with the battle of our hero to rescue the girl and her family. He is court-martialled for it, and emerges vindicated. The Prime Minister (thinly disguised Manmohan Singh), in the meantime, imports an Indian-origin American to run an anti-terrorist cell.

Now, the main action takes place, with the terrorist, known as Ghaznavi, taking on the anti-terrorist Prithvi (named for the nuke, not the planet), and vice versa. Ghaznavi is teamed with a lethal young woman, whose mother was brutalised in one of the communal riots that are the cauldrons for creating radicals in India. She disappeared when her mother was killed and their terrorist cell destroyed (and Ghaznavi was radicalised), but clearly, she went over to Pakistan and turned against her country.

The two work with a set of other cells to attack a leader of the main opposition party, one who is gaining traction by having overseen a communal riot in Gujarat (no prizes for guessing who this person is thinly disguised as). Police and the anti-terrorist cell race to uncover them and foil their evil plans. Two plans are foiled, two are not.

Finally, we have the much-awaited face-off between Ghaznavi and Prithvi, and a finale with enough explosions to satisfy any die-hard thriller buff.

I pendulumed between liking Juggi Bhasin's plot and writing and being appalled by it. Casual cynicism wars with some truly well-fleshed out passages. I had more sympathy with the antagonist than the protagonist, for most of the book. All in all, a fast but shallow read, and the characters could do with more fleshing out. As it is, it's written for Bollywood. You can expect to see a movie on it, if Bhasin's agent does a good job of the negotiation. I can just about imagine Neil Nitin Mukesh and Vivek Oberoi in the movie!

16 August 2014

Just what the doctor ordered, in terms of a thriller to read on a brisk Saturday morning

Thriller | The President's Assassin | Brian Haig

So, another series thriller. Fortunately, Brian Haig writes series books that stand alone, so it was quite enjoyable. Unlike the previous book (I, Sniper), the humour in this book is an integral part of the writing. The dialogue is full of people sharpening their wits on each other. Sample page one when Sean Drummond, army lawyer and presently seconded to the CIA, meets his FBI counterpart en route to the scene of the crime:

“That's a lovely pistol you're carrying.”
No reply.
“The accessorized holster is nice, too.”
“Well ... they're FBI issue.”
“No kidding. Ever shoot anybody with it?”
“Not yet.” She gave me a brief glance. “You might be my first.”

And just like that, we understand that Jennifer Margold is not to be trifled with, and why his bosses are sick of Sean Drummond, and why we're going to like this book already.

Someone has just killed the Chief of Staff of the US President, his family, and his Secret Service detail. And left a note that  more killings will follow, with the President as the finale, in just two days.

Margold and Drummond have to battle not only the villains, but internal politics. The FBI profiler's team doesn't like her recent promotion, her boss has a history with Drummond and hates him already, and doesn't mind hating her as well. The two are clearly supposed to take the fall in case the villains really do succeed. High stakes detective work combine with snappy dialogue, and twists and turns almost worthy of Jeffrey Deaver (the dialogue is better). When all the villains are taken down (oh, come on, you know that will happen, it's not a spoiler), we're brought back to reality to ponder who wants to convince everyone Drummond is one of them, too. Yeah, it's not over. There are still forty pages to go.

Move over, M, Phyllis Carney is here. I loved Drummond's boss. She's sharp, old, and runs a tight ship. George Meany is well named, as Margold's boss and Drummond's love's ex-boyfriend. I enjoyed loving to hate him. I liked the resolution. Satisfactory, and tying up all the loose ends. And of course, I loved Drummond's incisive observations, witty lines and ability to cut through the crap. Just what a thriller should be.

A peek into the novels that thrill the American right

Thriller | I, Sniper | Stephen Hunter

Okay, I confess that the main reason I picked up this book was the juxtaposition of 'Bob Lee Swagger' and 'FBI agent Nick Memphis' on the back cover. Yeah, a book I came to because I've seen a movie of an earlier book in what I rapidly realised is probably a long-running series. Who knew?

Bob Lee is an ex-marine sniper, arguably one of the best, a Vietnam War survivor on the American side, now getting old and creaky in the joints. His friend Nick Memphis gets hold of some great breaks in the latest political assassinations case, and zeroes in on the culprit in double-quick time. As the SWAT team goes in, Carl Hitchcock, also an ex-marine sniper, is found dead of self-inflicted gunshots. Memphis suspects something is wrong because no case can ever be so quick, so clean, and so wrapped up. He asks Swagger to take a look so that he doesn't end up with egg on his face some years down the line. Swagger finds nothing wrong in the case, except his conviction that Hitchcock was not guilty (yes, he has evidence of sorts for this).

And then, suddenly, the anomalies pop out of the camouflage, and the case becomes complex. Bob Lee, that typical American hero in the tradition of Westerns, the good guy with the guns, goes into bad guy land to prevent them getting away with perfect murders. (And yes, there is a shoot-out with sixguns in California.)

It's really weird to read a book from the conservative side of American politics. There are snide references about leftists, sneaky scenes against the media, even a comment by Swagger that he gets all his news from Fox! Yes, apparently, intelligent people, too, can watch Fox News (which is discredited even all the way round the world in India as an unreliable news source—that should tell you something). Combined with missing subject-verb agreements in his speech (his term for it), it's a bit of a peek into a different set of assumptions than most books from the USA. I guess the Right doesn't get as much space as the Left, so it has to work harder. But Hunter wears the mantle lightly, and never quite descends to rants. The poking fun is done with a light touch. Sample the first sentence in the book: “The time has long passed in American when one can say of a sixty-year-old woman that she is “still” beautiful, the snarky little modifier, all buzzy with irony, signifying some kind of miracl that one so elderly could be so attractive.” What's a bit more of a tripping point for me was the terrifying detail about all those guns, detail so matter-of-fact that it scared me at times. Surely the USA is weird in its worship of guns? I'm grateful that we don't have the equivalent of the NRA where I live!

So, is it very much in the macho style popularised by the Die Hard movies? I didn't quite get the same vibe in the movie Shooter. And the book makes Memphis and Swagger even more rounded characters. So, no. It's rooted with the conservatives, but these are not as much stock characters as the Die Hard or True Lies movies. Books win over movies, again.

Hmm, where can I find more Stephen Hunter books, particularly about Nick Memphis, whom I like more and more?

And, oh yeah, there's a pun in the book title.