bookspluslife

September 19, 2013

Book: What the Night Knows by Dean Koontz

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:44 am

coverA good book from the ‘one good one bad’ kind of book series that Dean Koontz has embarked on recently. This book is enjoyable, and is nicely written. A good, recent book, evocative of his great early works.

The story involves John Calvino, a police officer, well to do. His wife, Nicky is a famous painter, and he has three adorable kids – Zack or Zachary, Naomi and little Minnie.

When Billy Lucas, a boy murderer is arrested and  John goes to see him, he realizes that there are uncanny parallels to an earlier murderer called Alton Turner Blackwood, who murdered almost all of John’s own family when he was a child. In fact, Billy also seems to know everything that Alton knew, and seems to know him, like Alton did. What is even more creepy is that he seems to know details about John and previous murders that only Alton could have known (so he was no faker) and also, his recent murders were a grotesque parody of earlier murders, following in eerily similar pattern to the earlier works of Anton. He is freaked out, even more so when he sees Billy Lucas return to his normal self, bewildered and with no knowledge of why or how he had committed the series of murders. He is convinced that Anton’s spirit is on the rampage, taking control of people and making them do heinous things. Who will believe him? How do you even fight this thing?

When he realizes that this Alan thing will come back to target his new family a second time, he is determined to find a way to stop him before his near and dear are harmed. No matter what it takes.

When a malevolent presence manages to enter his house through one of the service providers, things begin to happen. His wife and kids see unexpected phenomena – first harmless and slowly becoming more and more terrifying.

The story involves his housekeeper couple Walter and Imogene – who were once rich but had lost everything and accepting their humble calling now – and their bitter and wayward son Preston.

Almost as a side story we learn the transformation of Anton – via his diary entries – from a bad boy to an evil monster.

After leaving Billy, the spirit ‘rides’ other people – it cannot occupy good persons so the person taken over has to have been evil (at least partially) – in a chain and slowly takes over. First, it finds its way to the hospital to finish off a victim who survived the massacre. It does it through Andy Tan, a bent cop.

It ultimately continues its chain of command – interesting to watch it hopping bodies – until it comes into John Calvino’s own house. It occupies the house, waiting for its chance to do the massacre via Preston or any other person.

The children experience weird phenomena and here Dean comes into his own, describing with masterly skill the incidents. Creepy and fascinating at the same time! The image in the mirror and the blackened mirror solution are all interesting.

The final twist is when John misunderstands the order of killing and does not realize that the planned massacre of his family is close and also does not realize that Anton is approaching the house with multiple occupied personalities (the children’s math tutor Professor Leonid Sinyavski , Roger Hodd of Daily Post, Melody the child killer and Preston Nash)

This being a novel, they do overcome at the end – and on the way, the concept of a portal and an invitation from John himself to open up his soul for Alton to occupy him are all endearing and revealing.

If you can swallow the concept of a malevolent ghost bent on mayhem and revenge after the killer’s death – which in fact is easier to swallow than the quantum mechanics crap in an earlier book – the book is fascinating and retains your interest. Even the ending is very good and satisfying.

 

I will give this one a 7/10

 

n  Krishna

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September 14, 2013

Book: Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 4:16 pm

coverThe core of the book is a very interesting research. It managed to hold me spellbound for the first few pages but then it falls apart, unfortunately, due to several reasons.

He investigates why, over a period of time, seemingly invincible, rich and prosperous and very successful societies collapse and disappear from view altogether. Is the collapse sudden or gradual? What factors contribute to it? From that point of view, the title is great, because it tells you exactly what you can expect in this book.

In the preface, he lists several categories and reasons for collapse of industries. This makes interesting reading.

Jared talks about modern Montana – it was a prosperous place once but now in decline and he traces the causes to the mines and the resultant poisoning, environmental issues, the job losses when the mines closed etc and he convincingly shows how a modern society for which records are very much available show the decline in modern times.

He switches gears and goes to the Easter Islands – he talks about the Ahu (platforms) and Moai (statues) which became such a status symbol that this became an obsession with the rich folks, accelerating the trend  already prevalent denuding of the forests. He alludes to the rich lifestyle which could not be maintained when the forests were all gone and boats or canoes could not be made for trading. (They had severe tooth problems as sugarcane and sugary stuff made from them were eaten to excess by the populace). He talks about internal rivalry, battles and even cannibalism; they took to eating rats before vanishing due to starvation when these too became unavailable. All fascinating stuff so far.

It is when he moves to Mangareva, Pitcairn and Henderson Isles that we start to see the repetitions – he talks about deforestation to cultivate, the plant and its sugary roots as staple food and tooth decay. You wonder if you just finished reading about this as a part of another place.

When you start reading about Anasazi and how they disappeared when their trade collapsed and they could not get essential supplies, you start noticing two other irritating things in the book. The first is – the author, like a professor proving a hypothesis, insists on taking his laundry list in the preface of the reasons for collapse and waves it insistently in your face, checking off all the causes he had listed that holds true for the current narration. He does this for every story and you feel like shouting ‘I get it. I get it. Can you now stop?’. But of course he does not. Till the end. The second even more irritating thing is that you notice the extreme left preaching that runs insistently along all storylines. “Look at what they did to the environment? Have we now stopped? No! We are still destroying our precious earth! We are still deforesting! We are still polluting! What do you think will happen to our entire world if we continue this practice?” On and on. Yes, I am concerned about mankind’s disregard for the earth but don’t want to be lectured to in a book by a disgruntled-uncle like figure while I am trying to focus on why societies collapse.

And so it goes on and on. You meet the same causes, similar causes, and others all carefully recorded in the laundry list ahead of time to prove that the author has got them all and waved in front of our faces and many of the stories read exactly like the ones you have read before. The book is not a small one and the investment you make in reading it starts to produce diminishing returns.

I know that it adds to the evidence and makes us understand that many societies had similar causes of collapse but wonder if this could have been grouped in some way to make us understand that very similar causes resulted in the destruction of multiple societies, instead of reading about each as a separate story and finding out that it is the same story as before with the names and places substituted with new ones. The tedium would have been less or absent.

There are some interesting facts that still come out. For instance, you are surprised to learn that even while starving, the Norse who populated Greenland did not eat fish! The animals they had imported from Scandinavia did not survive and when they could not import more, they died of lack of food! With the sea and abundant fish all around them!

One example of irritating preaching is this – I thought I’d just add one for sample : “We are increasingly seeing a similar phenomenon on a global scale today, as illegal immigrants from poor countries pour into the overcrowded lifeboats represented by rich countries, and as our border controls prove no more able to stop that influx”.

A lot of conjectures, how casurina trees were adopted by New Guinea – “I saw some of the New Guineans were curious when I took the samples abroad to them. That is how they must have done it all those years ago!” Come on, Jared…really? Since they were curious about what you personally carried, they must have gotten curious when an ancient trader took them and must have adopted to using the casurina trees? Is this one of your scientific research results?

To be fair, not all of Jared’s narration is so pokey. His description on how New Gunea and Tikopea survived by bottom up management is interesting. In Tikopea they even resorted to infanticide to control population explosion and resorted to voluntary suicides and virtual suicides by boat rides into sea in hazardous boats. This is very interesting. He contrasts this bottom up management  well with Japan with top down management of shoguns – delay of  childbirth, change food intake etc. Another interesting observation is that the caste system in India sprung up to provide sustainable living.

But he cannot be serious for long, apparently. He seems to support the alarmist theory of  Malthus in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary! He attributes the Rwanda and Burundi massacres to seven factors, which is a surprise to us who thought, especially in the former case, as an ethnic conflicts between Hutus and Tutsis.

He also seems to jump to other conclusions. Sample: “Dominican republic has a large diaspora in US, Canada etc so the country will be influenced by what happens there” Really?

China next. But  no new insights into the Chinese conditions except the regular lament about growth induced issues and problems due to aspirations to “First World Comforts”.

An interesting tidbit is how Australia became a penal colony (US, which was the main penal colony of UK was shut off by its declaration of independence). Salination as a unique Australian problem is described well.

Finally more preaching on why people are blind to their problems. He claims that economists preach that we should  use the resource today even if it leads to depletion tomorrow! Where? I have not seen an economic theory that supports unsustainable consumption. In fact they are calling for politically unpalatable things like the carbon tax.

He calls Chinese leaders as “having great foresight” to ban large families “before population explosion could become a problem”? Wow.

In the final “lessons learned” section, there is high praise for Chevron’s environmental management in its Kutubu oil field operations in  Papua New Guinea.

There is an interesting discussion on the differences between oil industry and mining industry and resulting difference in attitudes for pollution cleanup. A very pessimistic assessment of the mankind’s future – does not give any credence to the ingenuity of man, a bit like Malthusian alarmist predictions, really.

His assertion that economy should balance environmental benefits against costs makes sense. But his rebuttal of ‘technology would find a way around current problems’ is very weak and is disputed even by the example of modern technology he himself quotes: horses being replaced by the motor cars.

On top of this overweening pessimism, beyond a token acknowledgement that corporations sometimes indeed do good, there is this specious arguments marshalled in defence of his statements. For instance, get this! Rich people are increasingly infertile because they eat polluted food! You start doubting whether the author is unbiased enough to do pure research.

Motherhood and pie statements irritate. Globalization is not first world people selling goods to third world people? It is about communication and trade? There is hope for us which is why we had children?  You start feeling sick at this point.

Or look at this: “First World countries export machinery, food aid etc to Third World countries. Third World countries also export to First World Countries: cholera, SARS, Bird Flu etc”.

The book has a good subject matter but really bad organization and management. And it looks like a scolding from a disapproving uncle about something totally different from what you wanted to learn. Sadly, at the end, it feels the reader very disappointed.

 

I think this book deserves a 2/10

 

— Krishna

 

September 3, 2013

The Game of Thrones by George R R Martin

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 2:52 pm

imageIf you are a fan of this series or if you already have seen the highly successful TV show, I think you need no introduction of either this book or the Series it belongs to:  ‘The Song of Fire and Ice’. The author George RR Martin has not completed the series. I think he was planning to do it as a seven part series, of which, at the time of my writing this, only five have been published.

 

If you have not read it, unless the fantasy genre completely turns you off, I would urge you to read the series, starting with this book. The author has been called ‘American Tolkien’ by Time and in rankings of the fantasy books, this comes out at the top, even beating books by Tolkien and other authors. I think that the ranking is very deserved, and I think that this book and this series is far, far superior and more interesting to anything out there.

 

I still do not know whether he will keep to the seven book idea or whether he will write an eighth book, since what was to be volume four got too big and had to be split into Volume Four and Volume Five. But that is another story. Also it is interesting that when HBO made the first season of the highly successful Game of Thrones TV series, we are told that they got concerned that the series was not fully done, that the author was already old and had some health issues and that he was publishing the series with large gaps between the books. So, reportedly they got him to write the outline for the full story and got it, before they agreed to film the first season, which pertains to this book.

 

The story is very powerful. The dialogs are amazingly crisp and effective. I have seen very few authors who do scenes that make you want to read more and make you wish that the story never ends. The TV series also was very close to the book, in fact reproducing many dialogs in the book verbatim, and if you have seen the series, you have a pretty good idea of what is involved.

 

The story’s central characters are Lord Eddard Stark and King Robert. Lord Stark is a childhood friend of Robert and helped him win the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. He rules the North and has two daughters and two sons. Sansa, the eldest, is breathtakingly beautiful with auburn hair, blue eyes and behaves like a classic lady, learning manners, and behaves like a daughter of a Lord should. Arya, the younger daughter, could not be more different: willful, tomboyish, and conventionally not pretty (‘Horseface’ is what she has been called). The sons are Robb, the eldest who is in his teens, and Bran, who is a lively kid who can climb any wall, tree etc in the castle.

 

Ed (for Eddard) is married to Catelyn, from the Tullys and her sister Lady Arrynn’s husband is killed in the beginning of the book. Jon Arryn was the King’s Hand (A sort of a Prime Minister) and Robert visits Ed to request him to be his Hand. Ed, if he accepts, needs to go to King’s Landing, the seat of the power.

 

Robert is married to Cersei Lannister, of the Lannisters. Her brother, Jaime Lannister, is the captain of the Kings Guard, an elite force which wears White and is sworn to both celibacy and the protection of the King. Cersei’s father, Tywin Lannister is the patriarch of the powerful Lannister Clan and also the schemer behind keeping the power in Lannister hands (thus having the very pretty Cersei married off to Robert). His third child is the intellectual giant, but a physical dwarf called Tyrion Lannister.

 

Robert and Ed won over the Mad King Aegon Targaryan. The Lannisters were protectors of the Targaryans, who in the past had dragons; the dragons had died out long ago, and when the battle was sure to be lost, Lannisters switched allegiance to Robert (Barratheon) and had Jamie kill Aegon before Ed could reach the palace. The Starks had always been suspicious of the loyalties of Lannisters.

In fact, Cersei hates Robert, who is rude to her and treats her like dirt. Robert also plays the field, having any woman he wants, while Cersei watches helplessly.

When Starks find a group of young werewolf pups, each adopt one, and Snow, the white one, goes to Jon Snow, who is a bastard of Ed and therefore hated by Catelyn as a living symbol of Ed’s infidelity.

When Aegon was defeated, the kids Viserys (the boy and heir of the Iron Throne when it is recovered) and Daenerys, escape and are on the run. Daenerys runs away to Dothraki land, and marries Kal Drogo, who is a great warrior. Ser Jorah Mormont (Ser is Sir in today’s world and denotes a knight; Septa is nun and Septon is monk) has also defected and is an advisor to Kal.

Bran, during Robert’s visit, climbs the ivy and finds that Jaime and Cersei are having an incestuous relationship. (In fact, all of Robert’s children with Cersei – and therefore the legitimate princes of the kingdom – are all Jaime’s). Alarmed at the implications, Jaime pushes him over, causing him to fall several stories to the ground. He survives but is crippled for life and is in a coma for several months, and when recovered, loses his memory.

Jon Snow takes the “black” which means that he goes to the North Wall, the end of civilized country, but protected by an army (made of very few volunteers like Jon but mostly made of the unwanted dregs of society like criminals, destitute men and others who join for the food provided). They are sworn to not take sides in the “Game of Thrones” played by competing kings and to stay neutral and celibate.

When Ed accepts the responsibility to be the Hand, and goes to Kings Landing, he meets cunning men like Littlefinger (who was in love once with Catelyn and is now the treasurer; he also runs a few brothels on the side) and Varys (the powdered eunuch or the ‘spider’ – master of the spy organization working now for Robert and prior with Aegon).

An assassination attempt on Bran, foiled by the DireWolf but not before Catelyn’s arm gets slashed, convinces Catelyn to go to King’s Landing to find who the assassin is. She finds that the knife in the dead assassin’s hand belonged to Tyrion and wants revenge.

Meanwhile, Vayon Poole, Ed’s steward, teaches Arya to fight, initially with a wooden sword.

 

Viseyris demands the kingdom and gets humiliated by Kal Drogo and finally killed by pouring molten gold on his head when he whined too much about the Golden Crown that he deserved.

An old Stark, Benjen, who was at the Wall disappears after leaving for a Patrol.

When Robert wants to take part in a tournament, Ed is warned by Varys that the Lannisters are planning to kill him in the melee and stage an accident. He prevents Robert from going but when Robert goes hunting, he is killed by a wild boar anyway (with help provided in the form of wine by someone – likely queen Cersei)

Jon protects Sam, a portly, cowardly man on the Wall (part of Brothers in Black) from ridicule and befriends him.

There is a lot more to the story – Tyrion gets kidnapped by Catelyn in revenge and taken to the Vale, the mountain fastness of Lady Arryn. You meet the Mountain, the incredibly big and strong warrior in the Lannister Pay (Sandor Celgane) and his equally impressive brother (The Hound) who has a charred half of a face due to an accident with fire earlier. He is afraid of nothing and no one – except fire.

Robert commissions attempts on the life of Daenarys (Dany) against the advice of Ed.

Kal Drogo gets infected in a fight he won. A lady called Mirri Maz Tur was asked to revive him (she was a captive) and he dies due to her treachery. Dany is left with most followers defecting, in true Dothraki custom.

Dany gets to the mother of dragons. How? Read the book to find out.

The book is fabulous and makes you keep turning the pages. The story is complex and intricately woven, and makes you want to continue reading – almost impossible to put down.

It is definitely the best fantasy novel I have read and probably will be yours too, if you take the time to read.

A very definite 9/10

 

—  Krishna

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