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.

Legal Thrillers for Kids

Legal Thriller | Theodore Boone: The Abduction | John Grisham

Into every hotshot best selling writer's life, some kids or grandkids will appear. Suddenly, the writer will realise that there's nothing really good out there for these super-awesome wonders of the universe. Thus did Terry Pratchett and John Grisham turn their keyboards towards the eager eyes of the tweens of the world.

The Abduction is the second Theodore Boone book. Theo is an eighth class student, and a lawyer at heart. The son of two famous lawyers of a small town in the USA, he is in and out of the courtroom, and possibly knows more about the law than many smart adults. Having liked the first book, we eagerly reach for this, the second.

And we are not disappointed. Grisham made his name as a pacy writer of complex legal twists and turns. He maintains much of that in the new child-friendly format, and the constraints of handling a story for the adults of tomorrow are handled deftly. These are not detective stories, despite the claim of one of the publisher's blurbs that link it to Nancy Drew (come to that, Nancy Drew was more about makeup than detection, meh); no, they bring you to the law.

Theo's good friend April Finnemore, has disappeared from her house in the night. Theo knows her mother is lying about the sequence of events, and tells his parents so. In the meantime, while police hunt all over the town, and the local TV channel keeps up a high-pitched repetition of meagre facts, April's father has vanished on a band-tour, and a convict cousin-cum-penpal of hers has been found in the vicinity, having busted out of jail. While the police try to convince the convict to confess and release the girl instead of angling for 'deals', Theo's ex-lawyer uncle gets tips from the local underworld, and the two of them pick up on clues to track April down.

There are side stories about dive-bombing parrots, and other everyday trivia. Still, you end up carrying away lessons about your rights, city ordinances, abuse of power and position, and other righteous stuff in a very slickly packaged story for kids of all ages.

Does that mean I will tell you about Theodore Boone and Theodore Boone: The Accused​? Heh heh. Hang around. I read those some months ago, and may get around to telling you about them some day. Or you can just go read them for yourself.

Slow reading, fast books

Fantasy | Secrets of Goth Mountain | Gary J. Davies

As I mentioned last time, I'm slow at reading e-books, mainly because they aren't waterproof, and partly because the devices I'm using nowadays all need new batteries, and work only when connected to the mains. (Alas, technology).

So, I've just finished Secrets of Goth Mountain, and very entertaining it was, too. Like a Disney movie, almost, but with better special effects.

Johnny Goth abandons his job in a box-making company to finally find out what makes him have super-powers and why he remembers unicorns and shape-shifting friends from his childhood, while his mother insists he forget all that. Reaching Goth Mountain, he finds his Indian (native American, actually, not from India) friends are fighting a rearguard action against a logger who is salivating over all those old-growth forests that the Reservation and The Goth have been protecting. Johnny meets Elizabeth Winters, a teacher on the reservation, and a much nicer person than his cheating fiancée Angela (oh, right, I already told you about this). Mr Dark, an almost-elemental, is an evil being who loves death and destruction, and has naturally teamed up with the logger. Many shenanigans later, Gary J Davies delivers the happy ending (yess! An author who swears to create only happy endings!)

The writing is breezy and whizzes along. The backdrops are gorgeous. The spellings sometimes trip you up (proof-editor! Drink more coffee, please, and don't rely on autocorrect), but not often enough to be jarring. There are a lot of old-friend tropes, but trees hitting villains with broken-off branches is surely brand-new!
This book can be read by anyone above 12, for a good time. Nothing heavy at all, and you can anticipate some of the outcomes (like who's the hidden villain), but the action runs along smoothly, and there are no forced scenes. 

The thing I like better than an author who promises happy endings is an author who makes all his books self-contained, even if the same characters turn up elsewhere. With a multiverse to play in, that's reassuring. You know how much I hate falling into a series and wondering if I should press on. Okay, I'm off to read one of his other books (oh yeah, they were free on Smashwords in July 2014).