bookspluslife

November 25, 2017

Book: Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:53 am

imageAfter reading the author’s Poisonwood Bible earlier, which I still consider one of the best books I have read, I could not wait to read this. As far as the story content goes, this could not be more different from that. This story happens in the wilderness of US not a tiny city in Congo. The protagonist is an independent lady Deanna, not the fanatical priest and a family under his thumb. But this book shines too. I still think that the other book is in some way crafted better but this does satisfy you when you have completed this.

 

The story starts with a girl in the woods, Deanna, living alone for years, working for the government and keeping an eye on the animals and the forest in general. She meets Eddie Bondo, a younger man, and seems to feel an instant attraction. We quickly learn that she is the ranger of the forest .

 

Lusa, another girl  is married to a farmer, but feels alienated by his entire family, near whom she lives. She is from Lexington and is constantly ridiculed for her ‘big town ways’, her education and her sympathy with wildlife. (She is an entomologist and an animal activist in her opinion). Her husband, whom she married as a rebellion against her parents, also constantly belittles her and fights her in his ideas. He dies in an accident about five years into their marriage. They expect that she will now leave and go back ‘where she came from’ but to their surprise and a little bit of chagrin, she decides to stay right there, tending to the farm alone.

 

Garrnett is a widower living alone. He is in battle with his next door organic, no-chemicals kind of neighbour Nanette. What he thinks as a heart attack is a snapping turtle attached to his leg. Parts of this relationship are very funny and part absorbing.

 

Lusa is irritated by everyone assuming that she will sell the property and move back to town where ‘she belongs’. She explains her Jewish and Muslim ancestry to a bewildered young man who is a relative.

 

In the meanwhile, Deanna discovers that Eddie is a hunter and he discovers that she is an animal lover and over twenty years his elder. The love of animals and ecology comes through in her  character and every character is true to form. This is what makes her books so readable. For example, Eddie says that hunting is definitely a part of the natural order and that if done within scientific principles, the culling of the animals in facts aids the ecological balance and helps the environment of the forest.

 

There is another  great example of this  where Nanette explains how prey multiply much faster than predators and by indiscriminately killing them both with spray, how you are actually promoting faster infestation of pests than predators! But when she uses that argument to question genetically modified food, the arguments are much weaker. Interesting view, nevertheless.

 

Lusa slowly wins over the people, even rebellious children, to her side. There are interesting viewpoints. Nanette, though subscribing to evolution, is against genetically modified foods, based on the same principle as prey and predator and the unknown effects of it.

 

She has done for the naturalist and animal world what she has done for fanatical beliefs in her earlier excellent tome, The Poisonwood Bible. Barbara proves her ability to immerse her in this world too but it is naturally not as shocking as the other onw. You learn a lot of tidbits about moths and you learn other interesting details almost as a byproduct of that story – for example, you learn  that the male turkey does not look after the young, it’s procreation being the ‘hit and run’ variety.

 

Garnette’s story  is really funny and well told. His fights with Nanette are really fun to read. Nanette cures the dizzy spells that Garnette always got into. He is offended by her (even for wearing a dress that is not age appropriate)

 

Deanna discovers that she is pregnant. Everything links up at the end. Garnette is related to Jewel (Lusa’s relative by marriage) – he is her father in law, is estranged but agrees to receive Jewel’s kids. Those kids will be adopted by Lusa due to the cancer eating at Jewel’s body. Nanette is related to Deanna who wants to come live with her. Interesting links and very well written story; very believable, and lovely to read..

 

The language is poetic and immerses you into the world of every character there is, and Barbara definitely has the knack to make you totally absorbed in a story that is not a thriller, and yet opens up a new world to you and keeps you reading, more and more absorbed in the story as you go along for the ride. You will enjoy the experience.

 

8/10

–  –  Krishna

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Book: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 2:26 am

imageThe author dares in his Notice for the readers to find any moral or plot or motive for the story. The threat is well made, though intended as humour,  since I could not find any of these in the story at all.

 

Cute story though. Huckleberry joins Tom Sawyer in a gang where they want to murder and pillage and want to ransom some people without even knowing what ransom is. Mark Twain is known for his one liner humours and this story is also written in the style of his famous Tom Sawyer. Huckleberry is an orphan being raised by a woman who tries to make him “civilized”.

 

He is beset by his good-for-nothing father who accuses him of putting on airs and asks him to stop going to school forthwith, and takes the only dollar Huck had to go drinking. He gets upset and takes Huck away and locks him up in a cabin. When he tries to harm Huck, he manages to wait until his dad is away, fake his own death and go off to an isolated island where he meets Jim, Ms Watson’s slave who has run away because he hears that Ms Watson plans to sell him away.

 

When Huck finds that the town is looking to lynch Jim because they think that it was he who killed Huck, he alerts Jim and they move on in the raft down the Mississippi and they surprise a gang plotting killing of one of its own members in an abandoned ship. It all reads like a cheap two-penny Western book of old times. Which fills you with surprise because this is one of the best known classics of all times.

 

This is not the ‘adventures’ in terms of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain refers multiple times to Tom in this book, as Huck is one of his best friends.

 

But really interesting visions of life then creep in almost by stealth. Jim dreaming of freedom when he reaches Free States is touching. As is his plans to go back and buy his wife and kids who are slaves in different households. As is Huck’s guilt in helping Jim because Mrs Watson, the widow ‘had paid good money for him’.

 

To get more information, Huck goes ashore but steps into the clan feud between Grangerfords and Shepherdsons. At the height of massacre, he is taken by the house nigger to a place where Jim waits for him and Huck is overjoyed to see that Jim has not “drownded” or lost as he thought.

 

Mark Twain is not deep by any means. All of it – the story, the narration –  has a juvenile feel. There are two vagabonds who get onto the raft chased by unknown people and they pretend to be a duke and (not to be outdone, the other says he is a) king. All simpleton dialogs with wry and shallow humour, not to mention the story. You cannot plead that it was early times and old style because Dickens and Dreiser wrote eloquently well during the same period.

More descriptions of a circus and a duel follow. It all feels disjointed. Then they go and scam a town putting up a play.

 

Then they try to cheat a family out of a dead man’s bequest. The stupid thing is that a traveller whom they meet on the way tells them everything they need to know to make a successful impersonation and nobody, I mean nobody even tries to check them out. See what I mean by childish?

 

Huck simply prats on nonsensically and they all lap it up. He has a change of heart when he realizes how good everyone is and how they are about to be cheated. He buries the gold with the coffin. Then they all get exposed and all escape to the raft. Juvenile again.

 

Then the duo goes behind Huck’s back and sell Jim off to someone. When Jim finds out he has a moment of guilt. He is bad and sinned because he helped a nigger escape who was legitimately the property of poor old Miss Watson, who had done him no harm. He knows he will go to hell for that but he cannot bring himself to do the right thing and write a note to Watson telling her where Jim is. He decides to be evil as that is his nature anyway and help Jim escape from his new slavery.

 

When he reaches the house where the slave was bought, he is mistaken, of all people, for Tom Sawyer. Realizes that Tom is coming back and waylays him and gets him as an accomplice. But Tom’s plans are foolishly elaborate. He gives warning that Jim is to be saved, rousing the entire village and so a number of farmers with guns are waiting in the house.

 

In the melee Tom gets shot in the leg and goes missing too.

 

Finally, everything is sorted out in a fashion satisfactory to all, with shades of PG Wodehouse-like revelations at the very end which makes everything hunky dory.

 

4/10

– – Krishna

November 9, 2014

Book: A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 1:01 am

imagesInteresting book from the author of such books as The Bonfire of the Vanities, already reviewed earlier. There are some similarities between the two books but they are completely different stories. Both books talk about men who are powerful at the height of their glory and how they are brought down bit by bit by circumstances.

This book is about Charlie Croker, rich, 60, with young wife Serena and burly, very masculine, very controlling – a bull in a china shop kind of personality. He has peremptorily divorced his first wife who had stood by him while he made his millions and has gone for a younger model.

At the start of the book, we meet him drowning in a bad investment due to an overreach due to hubris in his construction industry. He hopes to rope in Inman the wealthy pharma owner and takes him quail hunting. Irritated that his wife is pally with Elizabeth the teenage daughter of Inman and not his wife and two other couples. She did not even see him win his bet on shooting only male quails.

Roger Too White, a black lawyer who is successful enough to own a Lexus in Atlanta, is going through a Freaknic, black people’s beatnik or woodstock equivalent. He gets caught up in the frenzy and almost misses his appointment.

In the meanwhile, Charlie is humiliated by the interrogator of Plannersbanc royally as he owes them several million dollars in dues. The agent who humiliated him is Raymond Peepgas, who is otherwide just a clerk doing his work, but uses power to humiliate the big and the mighty, who come to him to negotiate. Harry Zale is the Artist who humiliates people. He enjoys creating ‘saddlebags’ (the sweat stains under the armpits in the shirts) for rich people by playing hardball.

In the meanwhile, Charlie ‘reinstates’ his honour by catching a poisonous snake with bare hands. Charlie tries to impress the Jew behind the gyms to take a large rental in his building – Herb Richman. And to the shock and dismay of the guests, shows them how a stud stallion is made to perform against reluctant female horses brought in by other owners.  Herb is liberal, Jewish, and cannot stand it.

In a parallel story, Conrad dreams of an independent life, especially after marrying the daughter of a well to do girl for love against the wishes of her parents. He works in the freezer section and saves the life of Kenny a weird friend and gets fired for ruining the supplies.

Mayor Wes Jordan is the friend of Roger Too White. Roger Too Whites appointment was to meet a manager, who wants to hire him to defend his pop singer client in a case for rape charges against him. He is alleged to have date raped the daughter of Inman Armhostler, who is a big gun in Atlanta. Wes has his own axe to grind in this matter. The pop singer is barely civil to anyone and is a colossal asshole who throws his weight around, not just unrepentant but also not even aware of the consequences if he loses the case.

Great descriptions of the racial history of Atlanta. If Charlie Croker can stand to recommend the athlete against Inmon’s daughter, we have a case – says the mayor.

Conrad gets his car impounded after an unsuccessful interview and cannot get his car out. His wife will kill him now for sure. Then when his plane is impounded, he manages to sabotage it so it cannot be moved.

Conrad ends up in jail, since his car was impounded and in a frenzy he attacked the keeper of the impound yard. He refuses to admit guilt on principle and gets thrown in jail as a felon. The jail, he witnesses an insubordination and tasered for his pains. And jail life described in detail. Inman confides in Charlie Crocker

Conrad ends up in jail on principle and meets the gangs there: Five-O, the African American gang, the blond boy molested openly. When Conrad goes to defend him, he becomes the target but an earthquake saves him and let him escape to Kenni and Mai.

Ray Peepglass befriends Martha, Crocker’s ex wife.  Now he has Serena ‘a boy with breasts’ according to Martha.

Peepglass tries to make money by setting up a front company in the Caribbean and also woos Martha Croacker. Charlie is persuaged by Roger Too White to go see Fareek and if he does support Fareek, his financial troubles ‘will disappear’. Struggling with loyalty to his friend Inman, Charlie decided to just go see Fareek. And he agrees to support Fareek just to get out of his financial troubles as a return favour.

Conrad ends up in Florida and gets work at minimum wage taking care of an elderly couple.

He rescues them from a bully and becomes a ‘favourite employee’ and then gets assigned to Crocker. Crocker learns about Stoics and Zeus from Conrad.

In the end what he decides to do is interesting and the prologue fully explains what happens to major characters. A neat book with Roger Too White appearing at the beginning of the whole saga and appearing at the end too.

It deserves a 7/10

 

  • – Krishna

 

 

July 26, 2014

Book: The Jungle Books by Rudayard Kipling

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:57 am

imagesYou can imagine how many people have seen the movie Jungle Books by Disney and how many people of those would have read the original series by Rudayard Kipling. So, it is not surprising that the movie version is the one that people will remember.

 

And also, most people know that Rudayard Kipling was a poet and a serious writer, and that the story will not be funny like the movie version, aimed mainly at children and adults too. (And the songs in that movie! I digress.)

 

And knowing Disney has a reputation of twisting the fairy tales to suit its taste for happy endings, especially in the past when it made Jungle Books, I fully expected to read a completely different book when I took up this one to see what it is really like.

 

It is amazing how much Disney has not deviated from the book, while making it still fun and entertaining. You have Akela, the wolf pack. Mowgli (meaning ‘frog’ according to Rudayard) and Baloo the bear.

 

Overall, I would say that it is a narrative work, no deep meanings, no thought provoking ideas, but it keeps you engaged. Hindi words are used here a lot –  Sher for Tiger (with a honorary title of Khan), Baloo for bear, Bagheera for panther, Hathi for elephant and Dewanee for madness, Bandar Log for monkey people, all literally true.

 

On the other hand, Mowgli and Kaa are not borrowed from Hindi but seem to be invented

 

Talking of Kaa, he is very different in the book but close enough to be recognized.  The movie wisely leaves Sher Khan until the end (climax) whereas the book keeps him constantly intriguing against Mowgli.

 

Another interesting thing is that the book is episodic, which is like a collection of short stories about Mowgli and the Jungle. (Incidentally, the word ‘jungle’ itself originates from Hindi). The first story in the book is about how Mowgli is expelled from the wolf pack by the younger group seeking to overthrow Akela; the second is about Bandar Log kidnapping Mowgli – so you realize that the order in which the story is told in the movie is also different.

 

How Sher Khan dies in the book is interesting – I understand why it was not inserted into the movie! And the stories about seals (Sea Catch and his wife and the baby seal) is not included for the same reason in the movie. Riki Taki Tavi is interesting but a sidebar to the main story.   There is an elephant called Kala Nag (stands for Black Cobra if you go for the literal translation) but no Colonel Hathi. There is a story related to Little Toomai the elephant mahout, not anything to do with Mowgli.

 

Then there is a story about army animals (camels, mules, bulls) that is soooo boring and pointless.

 

What an imperialist attitude especially in the story about Mowgli’s return to the village and banishment! Only the white man can stop savages (native Indians) beating and killing each other; only a white man can arrest Jungle from taking over a village and destroying it. The hidden paternalism and condescension is fascinating. I know Rudayard loved India and spent most of his life there but his ideas and attitudes reflect the times he lived in (the book was written in 1894).
and are interesting and anachronistic to read today.

 

A story about a sannyasi (as Kipling spells it) who had a white man’s education and therefore was wise, who saves a village from destruction through mud slide. Purun Dass who becomes Purun Bhagat.

 

A very different proposition from the movie, you realize as you read on. It is a jumble of stories, all unrelated to each other, continuity being given only with the repeating characters and their past experience.

 

The biggest surprise is the colonial attitude that drips from each page. The English got the filthy natives to clean up Calcutta. And only they can save the natives who are needlessly slaughtered by other natives in the same village… And of course, only a white face will dare come hunting a crocodile.

 

The one cute thing is that everyone spouts poetry at the end of (almost) each story. Rather like a story turning to a musical at the end.

 

Kaa’s relationship with Mowgli is very different in the book(s). It is a mixed bag. There are stories which are only mildly interesting and some are plain boring and a pain to get through.

 

Disney I think got it right when they decided which parts to choose and which parts (Colonel Hathi) to invent.

 

This is one of those cases where the movie is far better than the book

 

The book gets a 4/10

 

–        – Krishna

April 20, 2014

Book: Debt of Honor by Tom Clancy

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 3:14 pm

imageJack  Ryan is back, this time recruited by the President to be his Chief Security Advisor. His wife Cathy has a patient who, it turns out, was raped by a Senator who is now the Vice President.

 

The crack CIA team is introduced by showing a warlord is captured in a “friendly African country” and handed over to the government.

 

Quaint references to SCSI as the “latest technology” (book was written in 1994) will bring smiles to the lips of geeks. And a GB of storage is spoken off with admiration! This is a common hazard among authors, as technology changes with such blinding speed that a   year old story has weird connotations when you read again. In fantasy stories, it seems to be OK to deal with lances and swords and horses, but in a modern story, this dates the story.

 

One of the evil persons is an Indian admiral Chandrakatta. This  is an invented Indian name by the author; sounds plausible with the Chandra prefix unless you happen to know Indian names well. In his story, the Indians come out well, as brilliant army strategists. But still they are evil since they chose to side with the wrong side.

 

It is fun to read Tom Clancy explain how a housing bubble works, with his pithy analogies and efficient statements and since Tom does top class research on everything, true as well.

 

Now for the story. A very successful Japanese businessman is convinced that Japan is being systematically oppressed by US and plots revenge. When a faulty exhaust is involved in a fiery accident that kills a US army officer, the President orders all car imports stopped, which severely impacts Japan and angers this man to an extreme. This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back of patience for him.

 

Also the VP is being accused of rape and it is being kept under wraps until the next Presidential election is concluded.

 

Not only does Clancy explain the financial stuff but he also explains a crash pretty well. Amazing explanation for a guy who writes spy thrillers. His inimitable style is there.

 

To continue with the story : Three things go wrong together for US. There is Japan who declares war suddenly, the VP’s peccadillos get exposed suddenly with a national papers, and on top of that, an ‘easter egg’ in a secret program hatches wiping out financial records of investment trading!
Jack Ryan is a Secretary of Defence and is far removed from the action on the ground such as the ones he was involved in Red Rabbit but then you have Clark and Chavez, you have Chet who is Japanese-American spying in Japan, lovely scenes that explain why people love Tom Clancy’s stories. But there is a lot of fluff and the story flags a lot, descriptions of planes and tanks and weaponry that can be too much.

 

How they recover from the financial disaster is very interesting!

The US covert actions against Japan is classic Clancy. Book takes off then.
The way they thwart the aggression and the ending of the book are all brilliant. Well done, Clancy. Too bad it took so long to warm up.

 

Let us say a 6/10

–        – Krishna

January 29, 2014

Book: 1st To Die by James Patterson

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 5:23 pm

imageJames Patterson has written a number of books that are in a series, like most others. This is one of them. Like Sue Grafton, who used letters of the alphabet to find titles, this particular series has numbers. ‘1 st to Die’ is the first book (duh!) in the series and the detective team is introduced and formed in this book and they go on to the books titles with other numerals later.

Very typical detective work. Lindsay Boxer is the superhero(ine) detective in this book but the book starts with her contemplating suicide. She wants to die when she has learnt from the doctor that she has a life threatening disease, with low blood cells.

The story shifts to the crime that starts  it all – David and Melanie Brandt are a newlywed couple, who have reached their hotel rooms right after the wedding, and a waiter brings a complimentary champagne bottle when Melanie has just gone into the bedroom to change out of her bridal dress. David opens the door and the waiter turns out to be a murderer in disguise, called Phillip Campbell. He kills them both and exits, and comes back with the crowd that forms to exult in his thoroughness and how neatly he got away with murder. A typical murderer who thinks he can outwit the police forever – a staple of so many thrillers.

Cindy Thomas is an aspiring reporter. She is new to her newspaper office, and is usually assigned society pages – the lowliest work in any organization, because it is the easiest and is usually assigned to rookies as a safe training ground. But the crime reporter is away and the hotel crime is big news, so Cindy gets to go temporarily. When she is denied entry into the hotel by the police, as they do with all other reporters, she shows remarkable ingenuity in getting in and getting an exclusive scoop.

The fly in the ointment is, of course, the organization. From the head office, they send Charles Raleigh, who is a highflying big shot. When this story threatens to become huge for the newspaper, he comes in to offer to “work with her” in a “partnership”. She suspects he is in to corner all the glory for himself.

Claire Washburn, chief medical examiner and buddy of Lindsay is another woman of extraordinary talent.

Claire, Cindy and Lindsay form the Women’s Murder Club, the theme of the whole series

While they are investigating the huge murder case, more bodies start to fall and they realize they have a serial killer in their midst.

Newlyweds Becky and Michael de George were lured into a limo by the killer and shot while making love. The investigations by Claire turn up the clue that the killer has a red beard

Kathy and James Voskuhl are next.  The Murder Club realizes that he is targeting newlyweds.

They pin the murder on Nicholas Jenks, the author. In the first murder, there are several items that link him to the murders. The champagne served in the first hotel was from a case he owned; he was in Saks the wedding shop where the bridal suits were tried by the second couple and also knew the third victim. Of course, in stories, you immediately say that ‘with this many arrows pointing to him openly, he cannot be the murderer!’

Lindsay in the meanwhile has constant sex with Chris, who she is in love with, despite her gloominess regarding cancer. Then it turns out that he is framed. They suspect his first (divorced) wife Joanna who is fit as a fiddle but she ends up murdered. She almost gets Nicholas. But Chris gets shot in the bargain and dies.

A terrible twist at the end when Jenks comes to visit Lindsay may surprise you. But I will not give it away.

I think this is a reasonable mystery yarn, if you like James Patterson style of writing. But nothing truly extraordinary. Entertaining? Surely, yes.

 

Let us say 6/10

 

— Krishna

October 12, 2013

Book: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 1:20 pm

imageA classic that everyone has heard of, but how many have really read the book? If you are not into classical novels, the answer is very few.

 

It has throughout, an invented language. The language is based on Russian (or Slavic languages) but not entirely. It has mostly English words with viddy for “see”. It can be very irritating at first but you simply get used to it very soon. Let us see what the story is about.

 

Alex has three friends, Pete, Georgie and Dim. They are hooligans, enjoy terrorizing the neighbourhood and having gang wars just for fun. They are cruel, out of control and are feared even by their parents. Alex terrorizes a writer and his wife and tears up a story he is writing, called A Clockwork Orange. (Clever to name a story in a story with the title of the book itself)

 

When you viddy the slovos (words)  that the author chelloveck has written, you can’t believe your own glazzies and you wonder “Am I to figure out what this is in my gulliver all by my oddy knocky?’. Your rot drops and you grind your goobies  in frustration.

 

Did that make any sense? If you have this dictionary (viddy – see; slovo – word; chelloveck – fellow; galzzies – eyes; oddy knocky – myself; rot – mouth; goobies – teeth), then it makes sense. There is a glossary at the end of the book but it is more fun to read and guess. (I did not know it was there but by the time I found out, I had guessed most of it anyway and did not need it. But you, on the other hand, may feel more comfortable to check it out from the beginning)

 

Alex goes to a cat lady and accidentally knocks her on the head and she dies. He is arrogant and treats everyone with disdain and takes what he wants – including taking girls to his room and raping them. It is a kind of a futuristic society where the rule of the law has broken down and the police seem to be ineffective.  He insults his own cronies but they trap him with the lady and when the millicents, sorry, police come by, he is taken to jail, which turns really dire when the old lady dies.

 

Then they conceive of a medicine, which can make a person incapable of deceit, lying or cruelty. They decide that this is a better way to reform criminals and even hooligans, and that way, there is no need for jails or punishment. If you are caught for a crime, they can just ‘cure’ you and let you back in society, knowing that you will be incapable of being bad again thereby eliminating the problem of recidivism.

Alex is the gunea pig  for the  miracle medicine and made “good” but a lot of folks do not like it. He is “re-cured” and resumes a life of crime but his heart is not in it.

 

The explanation for why he loses interest in crime, though making for a satisfying ending to a book, is weak and unconvincing. I leave it to you to read it and either agree or disagree with my assessment.

 

But the book does indeed raise very interesting ethical questions. The most important one, I think, is this: If you were forced, as by medicine in this story, to choose good and are incapable of making a voluntary choice between good and evil, are you really good? Is not being a good person automatically imply choice to be good? Very interesting questions.

In essence, the story is interesting, and is well told, and the invented artificial language adds, in my view, and additional layer of enjoyment. It is not a profound book and does not move you very much, but still very readable.

 

I would give this book a 6/10

 

– –  Krishna

February 6, 2013

Book: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:58 pm

imagesAfter the spectacular success of his fourth book (The Davinci Code – See the review elsewhere in this forum) , this is his latest book. All the normal Dan Brown ingredients are there: The World’s Shortest Chapters, the taut suspense at the end of each chapter, the tension, the famous hero Robert Langdon – the symbologist – everything is there. The storytelling style is familiar and even the explosive twist is there in the book – and yet, it does not look as taut as the last two books of Dan Brown. This time it is Washington DC that is chosen as the locale of unexpected wonders.

When Langdon is called for a lecture to Washington, he is asked to bring in a box that was given to him for safekeeping. When he enters the auditorium where he is expected to give his lecture, he is already a few minutes late and is frantic. But when he enters the lecture hall and finds no one waiting for him, he realizes that something is very wrong. He is not aware that he has started on a desperate race to solve a puzzle and save his mentor and friend, Peter Solomon, whose severed hand is left as a clue on the centre of the hallway of the building.

And so starts another treasure hunt of symbols, chase by the FBI and keeping one step ahead of both the police and a vicious killer Malakh, who is determined to get to the end of the puzzle with Langdon’s help.

The story races ahead with a lot of trivia and technical wizardry. The tension is there, a cute girl is there, and a puzzle to solve.

The story is not as gripping as the Da Vinci Code since the subject matter is mundane. Religion and the bible enter the picture again but only peripherally. The story, in my view, ends quite a few pages (about 40) before the end of the book and that is a disappointment. What is even more disappointing is what fills the last 40 pages. If Dan Brown thought that material is exciting enough to fill in for the story at the end, I suppose he is in a minority.

The story is also incredible. After suffering a great loss (to tell you more would be to give away the plot), in the very next scene the characters behave as if nothing at all has happened and are ‘excited to show Langdon the greatest spectacle he has ever seen’. Really? It is like those cartoons where Sylvester Cat is chopped to bits and the next scene it is whole, doing its next prank.

The story is still good and keeps your interest, but is this the best book he has written? No. I would rank his books personally in the following order, from best to least good: Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol (this one), Deception Point and lastly Digital Fortress.

Back to this book: Let us say a 7/10

— Krishna

December 3, 2012

Book: Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 8:15 am

imagesMy God, what a collection! This is a collection of stories by that master storyteller, Stephen King. When you have read enough books of any author, you think you get a sense of the author’s style and even plot lines but this one keeps serving surprises all the time, in a way. Yes the storytelling is all there, as is the suspense that he ratchets up slowly until breaking point, but the angles are new and some stories have a power of unexpected surprise ending even after all this time (as in Fair Extensions in this collection. We will discuss this shortly.)

We have already reviewed many other novels of Stephen King already (see for example, the review of Leisey’s Story or The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon ).

On to this book: This is a collection of four stories. I hesitate to call them short stories because the first one takes up almost half the book and is a novella rather than a short story. The others are smaller. But without exception, all of them are exceptionally good, which makes this book a totally fun read from end to end, in my view.

Take the first story, 1922, for instance. As I have said, this is the longest. This deals with Wilfred Leland James and his wife Arlette. They live in the country with the land bequeathed to the wife with their son Henry. It is anything but a quiet life. Arlette hates the form, and wants to move to the city, selling the land but for Wilfred, who is the narrator, it is like cutting off his hand. Henry is sweet on Shannon Cotterie. Harlan, the father of Shannon, allows that as a harmless puppy love until Shannon finds a man more suited to her stature in life.
Arlette makes life miserable to both her husband and her son, by nagging, making lewd remarks to her son about Shannon and when she is drunk, which is often, she is very near intolerable.
When she gives an ultimatum to Wilfred and Henry, Wilfred realizes that the only way out of this impasse is to kill her; he hatches a brilliant plan to kill her and to hide the body – and claim that she just ran away – she has done so before. The plan goes horribly wrong, and the story is pretty gruesome and horrifying to read. The murder first does not go according to plan and a reluctant Henry is pulled into it. Then the corpse is thrown into an old well and the body does not hide well – there are some hideous descriptions of how it shows up inside the well. Then there are the sinister events with the rats…
In the meanwhile the relationship with Henry sours and Henry starts to go bad from the good, pure hearted, soft, son that he was. When Wilfred finds out that Shannon has been made pregnant by Henry, all hell breaks loose.
The story goes from tension to tension, with Arlette, that foul mouthed, rude, uncouth woman in life, pursues her husband from beyond the grave. (No, this is not a ghost story). A great read.

The second story, The Big Driver, is about Tessa, a moderately famous author, who is called to be the guest speaker in the Books and Brown Baggers Club’s knitting society. Ramona Norville, the organizer suggests a shortcut back on the way home and there, she is forced to stop by obstacles in her path and a large man comes in rapes her and stangles her. She is left for dead, and wakes up near other corpses stuffed in a pipe. She manages to escape and is traumatized. Slowly, she realizes that she has to do something because the killer has killed before, as evidenced by the other bodies, and will do so again unless stopped. She decides to call the police and immediately changes her mind and decides to stop him in her own way.
She researches and finds that the Big Driver is Al Stretchlke of Hawkline Trucking Company.
The story is not just a simple one of revenge, but also one of some twists and turns that will make you gasp. Very good story.

The third story, Fair Extensions, is a very different story from him. It tells the life of David Streeter, who is friends with Tom Goodhugh. Their lives can be hardly more different. Tom is a man in rude health, a sportsman in university and now married to Norma Witten. They have two kids and seemingly everything in life. Tom is an executive, his two children are destined for greatness and are doing well in school.
David was dating Norma when she was swept off her feet by Tom, and ends up marrying her. David is bitter but then meets Janet and is very happy. He also has a son, Justin, doing OK in college and a daughter. David is toiling in a cubicle all day long and then discovers he has cancer and is in chemo. One day, when he is driving through a deserted road, he meets a salesman, George Elvid, (yes, the anagram is obvious) and makes a deal with him. He will have good things happen in his life, just for the asking, but on two conditions. He should choose someone who must have the bad stuff happen to them and also, like the ancient tithe, 10% of his earnings, no matter how high, must be given to charity. He agrees and his life is transferred. Until he is asked in the same meeting, he does not even know that he is going to name his buddy Tom as the person who should bear the brunt of the bad things to happen.
The story is told very well, and ends in a surprising way (at least for me).
A Good Marriage is the last story in the collection. It is about a wife, Darcy Anderson, who is in love with Bob Anderson, a salesman who is funny, gentle and lovable. Her two grown kids have moved out and are living a happy life. One day, when cleaning the house, she stumbles into a box, and realizes that her fun loving, gentle husband is Beadie, the serial killer that the police are trying to catch! Her world comes crashing down. Can she live with the fact? Can she expose him? What will happen to her kids when this is known? Her struggle and the escalating tension when her husband discovers that she knows his secret are extremely well told. The end is satisfying, and the elderly detective who comes to investigate is also very endearing.

All in all, one of the best collection of short stories from the author. Deserves a 9/10

— Krishna

November 27, 2012

Book: An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:22 pm

This book was written in 1925. The first surprise to me was how well the story is told. It is in modern English, as this author lived in the early 20th century, and the narrative flows beautifully and builds up tension and suspense slowly, ratcheting up consistently. (No, this is not a suspense novel). It is remarkably well written, and I was often reminded of the writing style and storytelling brilliance of Charles Dickens, especially his The Great Expectations, even though, to reiterate, there is no great suspense or twist in this book, as there is in the book by Dickens.

The story opens with a family, very poor, set in their ways and deep in their beliefs in God, proselytizing in the streets of Denver. They have moved from city to city, living barely above subsistence level. The father Asa Griffiths is a severe man, quoting scriptures constantly, and is rather incompetent in the practical sense. His wife Elvira Griffiths bought into this wholeheartedly and was a deeply religious woman who taught her family to live as Good People. Their eldest daughter Esta seems devoted to the way of life, but her younger brother Clyde, cannot stand it. He sees boys of his age having the comforts of life, good clothes, food that is varied and tasty, an education, which is denied to him for no good reason. Besides he cannot see his way out of this, and is pained. His two younger siblings, Julia and Frank are too small to understand or like or hate the vagabond lifestyle.

This story is about Clyde, who plans to run away when he can no longer bear this, especially when the family is planning to move to yet another city in what seems to him as a never ending stream of migrations and humiliating singing in the streets, barely a step ahead of panhandling, as it seems to him. But before he can act on it, his sister Esta, the seemingly well adjusted kid, runs away with a boy she met, and with the same speed comes back pregnant, abandoned by him. Since Asa will not allow her back, Clyde’s mom houses her in an apartment in another part of the town and secretly looks after her, struggling for money and borrowing from Clyde.
In the meanwhile, Clyde secures a job with a chemist and then moves up to get a job at the upmarket Green-Davidson hotel as a bellboy. He gets a group of friends, and saves and spends money on himself, buying himself nice clothes and shoes. That is not all he picks up. His new friends Ratterer, Higgelund and Arthur take him to a brothel and introduce him to the pleasures of the flesh. A virgin, all this is heady and new to Clyde.
When he meets Hortense, the cheap but pretty girl who has high ambition, Clyde falls head over heels in love with her but she keeps him dancing to her tune while she does not have any interest in him except for what he spends on her. She escalates her (wily) demands and finally asks him to buy a fur coat that costs several months of his salary. He pays partly for it, but still Hortense Briggs keeps stringing him along.
When a friend “borrows” a car from his employer (An expensive Buick) and as a big party they go to a far away place, they are late returning and in a hurry to get back to the hotel on time, they run over a child, killing the girl, and in panic trash the car. The driver and the girlfriend get arrested but all the others run away in panic to avoid jail. Clyde changes his name and starts fresh again in Chicago, doing menial jobs and then finally gets a job as a bellboy in a big hotel there – not as posh as Green-Davidson but good enough.

His mother is in shock and cannot believe that his boy would be involved in a scandal like that. However, when he writes back to her, she tells him of a rich uncle in Lycargus, who owns a Collar factory there and is doing well.
Accidentally, he meets Samuel Griffiths in the same hotel and introduces him. Samuel invites him over to Lycargus, promising him a job at his factory, more out of guilt that his brother Asa (Clyde’s dad) did not get a fair shake of family fortunes due to mental instability.
Clyde is hated on sight by Samuel’s son, Gilbert and his dislike intensifies when everyone says that Clyde looks just like him but ‘is better looking’. He shoves Clyde in a corner, in a menial job, washing collars since his father insisted that he be given a job.

When Samuel visits the factory, he feels that Clyde, being a Griffiths should not be seen washing collars but wants him transferred as a supervisor. This department is full of girls, and one girl in particular, Roberta Alden, catches Clyde’s eye. She falls for him too, but since the Griffiths have a strict rule against workplace romance, they meet on the sly and against her wishes, Clyde coldly forces her to have sex with him.

She gets pregnant and in the meanwhile, he finds that the rich society of Lycargus has opened its doors to him and what is more, one of the richest, Sondra Finchley, falls in love with him and wants to marry him! Riches and comfort at last! Only if he can escape from Roberta. He tries to get her pregnancy aborted, with her consent, but to no avail.
Finally, she says that the only way out for her is if he marries her, and then, after a decent interval and the child’s birth, she will let him go. But that would be the end of his dream with Sondra.
He sees a news item where a boat was drowned with a couple in a lake. They found the body of the girl but not that of the boy. This gives him an idea… Can he go through with this plan to get out of his predicament?
The story is well told, his slow transformation to riches and a slow moral degradation well told. His plans to execute murder and the last minute change of heart are also extremely well told. The subsequent turn of events and his clumsy efforts to get out of trouble are good but the third half of the book, which is a courtroom drama is brilliant, as well.
In the meanwhile, especially at the end, there are thought provoking discussions on the nature of faith, morality, true guilt and really informed viewpoints, especially for a book written in 1925. Taking into consideration the story, the narrative style and the issues discussed, this book could have been written today with minor changes (in language style) and will still be considered relevant.
The ending of the story is a bit surprising, at least to me but what is surely an epilog, though it is not named as such, has a pleasing symmetry with the beginning of the book.
In all, a very surprisingly well written book. As I said before,  with minor changes of language (for instance the “Gee”s and “anyhow”s sprinkled liberally and the word gay (which now has an acquired, different popular meaning) it could read like a book written today and you could read it as a modern story!

This book deserves a 8/10

— Krishna

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