March 30, 2012

Book: Bethelehem Road by Anne Perry

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:31 am

This book is a rather disappointing offering from Anne Perry

Yes, the Victorian details are there, the Anne Perry imprimateur is also present, in describing the involvement of Thomas Pitt, his compassion, Charlotte and Aunt Vespasia’s detective work to help unravel the personal details of the people connected with murder. (Emily, Charlotte’s sister, is away in Paris and elsewhere on her honeymoon). And yet, the result is unsatisfactory.

Thomas is called in to investigate the murder of an MP in a brazen manner. His throat was slashed as he walked home from a late sitting of the Parliament, and that too on a bridge – a public place – and he was propped up tied to a lamp post with his own scarf! He is Sir Lockwood Hamilton and there was a wife and an adopted son, whose animosity with each other was interesting. Before Pitt could make headway, there is another MP killed in exactly the same way, Sir
Vivyan Etheridge, and the case takes a bizarre turn. Is it now a political crime? (The two had identical views – against giving women the right to vote – but so had most MPs). Anarchists were also suspected. (Which is by the way, historically correct. Anarchists were the feared terrorists of the turn of the last century and before, equivalent, though less able to cause so much mayhem, to the religious terrorists we find everywhere today).

Etheridge had caused deep offense by helping take away Florence Ivory’s daughter based on the accusations of her husband of Florence being an incompetent mother. Also, the son in law of Etheridge, James Carfax, was waiting for his death so that the considerable money he possessed could pass into the hands of the pliant and adoring wife of his, Helen Carfax. Could it be a personal vandetta after all, the first murder being a mistake, or worse, an attempt to hide this one in
the manner of ABC murders (Agatha Christie’s brilliant novel)?

Before they can unravel it, yet another MP is murdered in the same manner and the case looks hopeless…

Of course in the end they unravel it, but the disappointment is in the fact that there are no clues upfront as to who could be the culprit, and it is almost on the lines of  ‘Oh, by the way, the Butler did it!’. It is unsatisfactory, especially from an author who has made whodunits her genre.

For this reason alone, if nothing else,  it deserves only a 3/10

— Krishna


Book: A Suitable Boy By Vikram Seth

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:26 am

This is a major saga, on the lines of A Fine Balance (reviewed earlier in this forum). Both books track the lives of a few friends/ relatives in the backdrop of major political events in India. There, however, the similarity ends. This is a very different book from Rohinton Mistry’s and the style is also different. This book is set in India in 1950’s, when the newly independent India was trying to find its feet.

This book tracks the life of four families. The family of Mahesh Kapoor, a politician and a minister in the government of (the invented state of) Purva Pradesh is one of them. He is an irascible but honest and straightforward minister who would not like to use his considerable influence even to help his family members in trouble. He has two sons, Pran, a quiet, literate, university professor and a wayward, vagabond, mercurial Maan, who is infatuated with Saeeda Bhai,
who is a courtesan with a divine voice.

Pran is married to Savita, who is the from the family of Mehras. The delightfully sentimental worry wart Mrs Rupa Mehra, widowed, is the mother. Savita’s sister Lata is unmarried and the book tries to find a suitable boy among the three suitors who vie for her attention. Her brother Arun is the domineering, Anglophile who loves the way of the newly departed British. Her other brother Varun is timid, under the thumb of Arun, detesting him but unable to assert his independence.

Arun has married into a sophisticated clan of Chatterjees, whose head of the family is a Judge. One daughter Meenakshi is married to Arun but the other one, Kakoli, is an irrepressible bundle of energy and poetry, courting Hans, the German engineer. The poet and writer Amit and the ascetic Dipankar complete the family.

The story is confusing at first with all these characters moving in and out of the story (I have not even mentioned the family of Nawab of Baitar, his daughter Abida and sons Imriaz and Firoz!) I had to refer to the family tree given in the beginning of each book.

Once you get to know the characters, the story flows and is very interesting for the most part. It is long (1350+ pages!) so be patient. It is also told in a very Dickensian way and there is a wealth of information on verious topics, told almost in passing, but impressive nevertheless – The poems made by characters, the ways of the Nawabs, the belief systems of the different religionists in India, the festivals, the invented Pul Mela, which is a proxy for a real mega festival of India – the Kumbh Mela, etc.

The story also has its grand moments – both happy (the Ram Lila festivals, the Moharram festivals) and the sad (several riots, the stampede in Pul Mela akin to the ones that happen in the real festival). The scale is grand, the style easy and flowing and your interest is easily kept.

I found only two things that are distasteful – an incest thrown in almost as an afterthought that had nothing else to do with the story at large, and the very abrupt, unsatisfactory, ending.

I would still say that it is a great read and would give it a 7/10

— Krishna

Book: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:02 am

Well, this one is a classic, and dare I call it ‘Average’?  If this is to be an honest review of books, then I must.

This is a story about four brothers, Peter, Susan, Edmond and Lucy. They are moved to their uncle’s castle in the countryside during the War, to escape bombings in London. The uncle is strange and lives in a stranger castle. While playing hide and seek, Lucy, the youngest, gets into an old antique looking Wardrobe and stumbles into an amazing place called Narnia, which is full of snow and magical creatures. There is Tumnus, the Faun (a creature with the head and body of a man but legs of a goat, including hooves, as well as a horn on his head and tail). There is the Queen who is really the Witch, who is not human at all but pretends to be one, and many other animals who can all speak. The kids have a series of adventures in the place, with the help of Aslan, the Lion, who is the Lord and Master of the place and the countervailing force of Good  against the Evil of the Queen.

Edmond goes over to the dark side, tempted by the irresistible Turkish Delights  fed by the Queen and is captured by the Queen. He realizes too late that he has done a terrible mistake and it extracts a terrible price before he could be rescued…

The story is nice and this one is in fact the second in the series of books about Narnia. (Now that the movie has come out a few years ago, the story and the book must be familiar to a whole lot of new audience)

It reads like a children’s book – which it is –  and the plot is also very simple, compared to, say, the modern day’s J.K Rowling (See the reviews of Harry Potter books elsewhere in this group) or even the older books of JRR Tolkien (See the reviews of his books elsewhere in this group). It makes a good children’s book, one step above the old favourite of kids, Enid Blyton’s books.

It is fascinating how English the characters are. They need tea whenever it is tea time, no matter where they are! (Reminds one of the 1920s fictional boy William in the William series.) They may be having the adventure of a lifetime and be amazed at the wonders of the magical world, but they need their tea at the proper time!

It is a nice read, and many of you may have read it in school itself as a part of your curriculum, but there is nothing really special about this book.

The religious allegories with the Lion’s self sacrifice reminding people of the Sacrifice of Christ Himself has made it the darling of the Religious Right in the US. But it does read as a regular children’s story in itself, without resorting to finding any other allegories, religious or otherwise.

I would go with a neutral 5/10

— Krishna

March 29, 2012

Book: The Deceiver by Frederick Forsythe

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:18 am

There are a lot of people who claim that Frederick’s first novel, ‘The Day of the Jackal‘ is still his best and all other books of his are anti-climactic compared to the first. This book does nothing to disprove that impression.

Frederick Forsyth sets the scene for weaving four short stories together in the form of one narrative by setting the scene as a review of the work done by Sam McCready, the experienced, but maverick spy from British Secret Services. The powers that be want to send him home with a honourable discharge and Sam requests a review. His lawyer presents three different cases where Sam has distinguished himself as an argument for why he should be retained, and we get four short stories ‘for the price of’ one book.

The first incident concerns Bruno Morentz, who as an undercover agent, is persuaded by Sam to infiltrate East Germany from the West, in a flamboyant way (West German businessman in a gleaming Mercedes) and collect a top secret document from a visiting Russian Mole who is very highly placed in the Russian army. He manages to get into a personal issue which ends in his committing murder before he crosses over, thus attracting attention of the West German police even before he starts, collects it, and then gets into an accident deep inside East Germany. When approached by the police, he panics, shoots one of them and simply vanishes in a strange country – an impossible feat that has every police and spy agency behind the Iron Curtain scratching their heads in wonder. It falls on Sam McCready to rescue the situation. How he does is revealed in brilliant, sparkling detail.

The second story is about a high level defector from Russia, one Major Kuchenko. He surrenders to US authorities and proves to be a goldmine of information, wreaking havoc with long established spy rings from Russia. As one after the other crumbles, US is thrilled with the ‘find’. When Sam McCready alleges that all is not what it seems, it is brushed off, even resented. But Sam has an inner source that reveals the diabolical plan to shake the CIA to the very core by an ingenious ploy… The story is well told, but the suspense is not from the twist in the story, which is revealed way before the ending, but in the ongoing tension.

The other two stories are less complicated but only mildly interesting.

Frederick’s love of detail is not evident in these. He writes like any other spy author, and the book has nothing that lifts it from the level of a good spy story to a masterpiece of writing. (His Negotiator was the one that came close to being above the level of his other stories).

Now, if you want to enjoy a spy story with some twists and turns, by all means take this book and read. If you expect an exhilerating experience like you found in his first book, you will NOT find it here.

I will say, a 5/10 overall.

— Krishna

Book: The Rainmaker by John Grisham

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:11 am

Not to be confused with the Rain Man movie, of course.

The story revolves around Rudy Baylor, a young law student who is about to write his final year law exam, and is worried about whether he will get through his final exam and about where he will find a job.

When he undertakes a community service activity as a part of the law course, he ‘advises’, under the watchful eyes of his professor, some clients who are too poor to hire a lawyer of their own. One of them turns out to be a Mrs Bird, who confides in him that she is worth twelve million dollars!

Another of the clients is Donny Ray, who is dying of cancer. He needs a bone marrow transplant, and the insurance company, Great Benefit, does not grant, as it is not “covered by the policy”.

When Rudy Baylor finds that he has no job and that the only job he briefly managed to get was so that Mrs Bird’s case could be snatched away from him, he joins a shady underworld type lawyer who happened to dispense legal advise to the owner of the bar which he worked for part time.

When the pair also disappears, fleeing from the law, Rudy is once again on the streets, with the two cases he garnered from the charity work, and with an assistant who cannot pass the bar exam no matter how many times he has tried!

Now, this story is told in a humorous style, with a self deprecating undertone that very well describes the anxieties of a law student, the uncertainty about the future, and the disillusion that sets in when the ideals of the law as taught by his university clash with the realities of the lawyer’s life.

It is a great fun to read, and the major courtroom battle he embarks on is a lot of fun to read.

I did not like the ending, as I thought that it was a ‘cop out’ and did not fit the rest of the book, which was wonderful. A romantic interest seems to have been thrown in as an afterthought.

All in all, a nice read. I would recommend it as a first book to those of you who want to try out Grisham. (No Grisham fan would have missed this book, I bet).

So, I would give it a 7/10

— Krishna

Book: Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:05 am

We already discussed how Anne Perry’s characters are always set in Victorian England and how, in addition to the mystery, we also get to know the life of the characters a bit more in review of her Bluegate Fields, earlier.

What is interesting is that you learn the progression of the life of  the characters in each story. You see them meet, court, fall in love, marry, have children. The fact that each story stands alone despite this is a good idea, which means that you can read the books at random and/ or independently, and still they make complete sense. But the books give you a sense of the order in which they were written, if you read many of them, by dint of where in their relationships the detectives are.

In that sense, this story is a prequel to Ashworth Hall (reviewed earlier) which in itself is a prequel to Bluegate Fields mentioned above. In this one, Charlotte’s sister Emily is still courting Jack Radley…

Thomas Pitt is called in to investigate what looks like a murder robbery in the house of Yorks at Hanover Close. Robert York has been killed, a window is broken, and some valuables were missing. Though the murder happened three years ago and is unsolved, Veronica York, Robert’s widow, is about to marry Julian Danver in the Foreign Office and that office calls on Ballarat, Pitt’s boss, to check up on things once again.

Thomas quickly establishes that this is no ordinary murder. First, no valuables have been ‘fenced’ since. Second, the window break does not look like a break in. When he questions a maid, she mentions a mysterious figure in Red, a woman who was seen in the vicinity just before the murder once or twice, but not since. The maid Dulcie, soon is found dead, ‘falling out of the window’. Pitt’s suspicions intensify.

When he finally tracks down the woman in Red (Cerise), he finds that she is dead (recently killed) and he himself was the only person to have gone there that day and so he is arrested and thrown in jail. Emily, determined to help them, disguises as a maid and takes the place of the killed maid, notwithstanding the danger she would face.

When Charlotte realizes that the police will let Pitt’s rot in jail rather than uncover uncomfortable truths about possible leaks in the Foreign Office, is desperate to save him and embarks on an audacious gamble in one reckless gamble that can risk all…

The ending is really nice, as Anne’s books normally are. The story holds one’s interest, and as ever, the sense of Victorian England is all pervasive.

A good read, and therefore, a 7/10

— Krishna

March 28, 2012

Book: The Scorpio Illusion by Robert Ludlum

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:13 am

This is a typical Ludlum story and of course, you have to be in the “Ludlum frame of mind” to read that kind of a story, ready for unexpected twists and turns and with a lot of trust in the storyline (ie no questions asked).

Ludlum can deliver really fast paced action thrillers and his best books surely include The Bourne series, The Osterman Weekend and The Gemini Contenders.

This book does not live up to those levels but still manages to be interesting enough to carry you through. There are some surprise moments that make you pause and appreciate it but it does not pack the punch of Ludlum’s best, in my opinion.

The story is about Commander Tyrrell Hawthorne, ex US secret services, who has retired and is leading a quiet life in an island. He is recruited by the British intelligence to track and stop a dangerous criminal called Bajaratt. This woman has grown up under cruelty and seeing her loved one blown apart by Allied bombs during a raid for Bakaa Valley’s independence, vows revenge.

She recruits a handsome dock boy who is chased by Mafia, saves his life and transforms him into an Italian Count. She uses her mastery in disguise to transform herself as his aunt, considerably older and methodically proceeds to penetrate the highest circles in US. Her mission? To assassinate the US president. She gets unexpected help from the elusive Scorpio group whose influence reaches almost into all areas of the government.

Hawthorne manages to find and eliminate the padrone, a wealthy patron of Bajaratt’s, and is hot on the heels of her, with a team consisting of Major Kathy Nielson and Jackson Poole. The trio survives all odds to progress, when Kathy is severely wounded in a shot from Bajaratt…

The rest of the story has several surprises in the identity of the Scorpio members and Hawthorne’s almost superhuman ability to overcome all odds in saving the President.  (Yes, this is a Ludlum story and this ending is anticipated when you start the book!)

A good read if you want some fluff… Can rate it no more than 5/10, as this does not compare to the best from the late author.

— Krishna

Book: The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:06 am

There are several types of Science Fiction Writers. Most fantasy/science fiction has revolved around invented worlds like ‘Trius, with its two Suns and three Moons, could be spectacular at early dawn’ and populated with fantastic animals and interlligent beings. The most famous movies in this genre are, of course, the Star War series.

Some, like Frank Herbert’s Dune series revolve around a world that is really unusual and different, and yet falls neatly into the science genre.

Even the giants of this series like Asimov and Heinlein resort to the robot and the intergallectic strategms to portray varied and different

Now, Arthur C. Clark has done a lot of that too, but in this collection of short stories, he has covered a completely varied
grounds, with results that are mixed. What is impressive is that he has used everyday and uncommon scientific facts to weave stories that are so different from other ‘common’ science fiction effects as chalk to the proverbial cheese.

Take the story  Rescue Party, for instance.  In this story, an alien species comes to earth, almost too late to save people inhabiting a seemingly empty planet from certain destruction as the star of the galaxy is about to go Nova. One of the most amazing stories is ‘Technical Error‘ where power is given to an experimental reactor (several thousand volts, briefly) when a technician is in there, cleaning. It is switched off immediately, but the technician is found, after a baffling moment, when it looked like he had ‘disappeared’, where he was expeccted, apparently unharmed. Then strange things happen. He seems to confuse his right hand with left, the coins he had in his pockets seem to have the Queen looking the other way and more interestingly, he seems to have lost the ability to digest food and is in danger of starving to death in the middle of all the abundant food being given to him. Why? The explanation is ingenious and scientific!

Amazing stories like this are interspersed with silly and sometimes even incomprehensible stories.

All in all, even if you are not a Science Fiction Buff, it is worth a try. I would give it a 7/10 only because of the varied nature of the stories, some of which are long and boring.

— Krishna

Book: Long After Midnight by Iris Johansen

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:00 am

This is the story of Kate Danby, who is a scientist who has been divorced from her husband Michael, a policeman jealous of her more successful career.   She still  maintains a good friendship with him. Her life revolves around her son Joshua, her work and her family that includes Phyllis, her mother-in-law, who lives with her.

Her work involves the super secret RU2, which would revolutionize the world with the ability to cure any disease, but which she thinks must remain  a secret. Two major industrial magnates are interested in her for their own gains, Noah Smith, who wants her to help complete his own research in similar areas, to benefit his company being the first to bring out new medicines based on RU2 and Ogden Nash who wants to stop both her and Noah so that his traditional medical companies would not be threatened by it. Both of these employ thugs – Noah employs the dark and enigmatic Seth Darkin and Noah employs Blount and a particularly vicious and savage Ishmaru, of Native Indian origin.

How Kate Danby survives and triumphs the various nerve shattering attempts to kill and stop her is the story. In the midst of it, in one of the twists (early in the book, so I am giving nothing away) we learn that Noah is good, and she falls at one point for Noah and Seth simultaneously.

The good points of the story are the absorbing conversations about everyday life. The wisecracking of Phyllis, the interests of Joshua and the family banter that occurs at several points in the book are absorbing.

Unfortunately, that is all that is good about this book. There is no attempt to explain even the imagined basis of RU2. Ishmaru pops in and out at will and finds out secrets useful to him with no apparent effort. There is a convenient ploy invented in the last minute to get rid of Ogden. The plot in tense moments is almost childish, as opposed to the playful banter during normal moments (that is a surprise to me!)

The ending is weak and uncertain. Just when all obstacles to the original goal of publishing it in US has been eliminated, she decided to change course and go to Amsterdam!

The most annoying thing is that, contrary to the intended effect of  Kate Danby coming across as a strong willed and intelligent woman, see seems to the reader to be  a stubborn brat insensitive to anyone else’s feelings and appallingly self-centred.

I know Iris is a successful author with legions of fans, and so maybe I chose the wrong book as my first.

I would give it no more than 2/10.

— Krishna

March 27, 2012

Book: Digital Fortress by Dan Brown

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 1:24 pm

This was an earlier book written by Dan Brown and was written in 1998. (Has he been REALLY writing books for that long?). With the phenomenal success of the Da Vinci Code, this has been enjoying a sort of a revival and is being republished.

We have, of course, reviewed both the Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code earlier in this blog.

This is the story of a ring, which contains a password engraved on it. The password is the only way to break into the biggest encryption algorithm (wow it already sounds like geek-speak) ever invented. This algorithm would make it impossible for NSA’s most powerful computer (named TRANSLTR) to break and so would increase the threat to the US that undesirables can communicate with impunity.

David Becker, a professor in Harvard (yes, really! all Dan’s heroes are Harvard Professors!) is given the simple task of retrieving the ring from Ensui Tankado’s fingers in Spain. Ensui just died of a heart failure while in Spain. Getting the ring from a dead man’s fingers should be easy with unlimited cash to spend and with no one else realizing that the ring is anything but an ornament, right? This turns into a nightmare when the ring was ‘given away’ when the owner died to a random tourist who happened to be nearby. In the meanwhile, Susan Fletcher, David’s equally intellectually  accomplished girlfriend (beautiful, young and already a head of cryptography in NSA) is trying to solve the puzzle of NDAKOTA.

All the Dan Brown ingredients are there: Cliffhangers almost at the end of every page, enough puzzles, anagrams plus riddles to keep you amused, intellectual conversations on cryptography in computers, etc. However, the plot is ‘early Dan Brown’ and simpler than his later books (The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons). You know who the villain is
almost two thirds into the book but still the tension is crackling until the last page almost.

It is a good read, not the huge roller coaster of his later books but a mini roller coaster nevertheless. It is a darn good read if you have a few hours (say on a plane ride or on vacation) and want to spend it absorbed in a book.

Overall, a 6/10.

— Krishna

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