bookspluslife

July 7, 2017

Book: Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:50 pm

imageA really different story from the normal fare I read.

 

Fair Warning : The story is brutal in its details and this review also has some stark and strong descriptions. If you cannot stomach that, please do not read further.

 

China – Shanghai – during the Second World War and the world of expat Brits. Jim, a boy is caught up in it. They describe the evacuation of the expats and Chinese alike. There is a whiff of colonialism in the narration : the ‘superior’ British vs the ‘inferior’ Chinese and Japanese, without using those specific words. The Sikh police nonchalantly whips the ‘natives’ to bring order in the street. Who is he? A traffic cop!

 

But J G Ballard is known for this brutal portrayal in both his science fiction and this fiction inspired by his own childhood events.

 

Initially it is shocking. Americans and Europeans seem to go to a scene of battle and seem to stroll around as if in picnic among the dead Chinese soldiers slaughtered by the Japanese as a part of the war.

 

Jim witnesses, through his hotel window, the attack of HMS Petrel by a Japanese military ship. His father and he are separated in a hospital in different floors and his pa is arrested by Japanese military. He escapes the sweep of arrests of all Britishers by accident and is left alone to fend for himself in the aftermath of the Japanese occupation of China.

 

Jim is chased by a crazed Chinese man, who is after his watch and coat in a crowded tram and manages to elude him. He finds that his parents have been arrested by the Japanese military (his mom too) and his house is deserted.

 

The book gets better thereafter. He is partly safe because he looks like the Germans and Italians, who are safe during the Japanese occupation but looks like a vagabond because he is living off of the streets. For a while, a Japanese group of soldiers ‘adopts’ him and feeds him scraps but that too stops shortly afterwards.

 

He falls into the clutches of Frank and Bessie, two unsavoury Americans. When they are about to abandon him, failing to sell him to anyone, they get captured along with him by the Japanese military and he goes to a POW camp as a seven year old boy.  The detention camp is for the hopeless cases which will die, and Jamie is put in there when he becomes very sick but survives and fights his way “into” the POW camp. The descriptions are stark and brutal.

 

The people are forever near death with flies feasting on their wounds and with little bladder control. The scene where Jamie is taken by a truck from prison camp to prison camp only to be told to ‘go away’ because there is no space there, is touching.

 

He adopts to the life in camp so much so that he is afraid to go back to England and home. He has forgotten the names of his parents and wants Japan to win the war actually. When Japan lost the rations were cut in the camp in revenge.

 

The images are stark and revealing – I know I have said this multiple times but if you are faint of heart, this book may not be for you. The prisoners, when advised of their freedom don’t know what to do with it. Their whole world has shrunk into just a  fight for food and worldly possessions. Many of them die due to disease and workload during starvation under the uncaring eyes of Japanese soldiers. They talk of the tittering of Chinese when terrified and a man, knowing he will be executed – beaten to death with paddles by the military – bursts into a song which goes higher in pitch the more he is hit until he is dead.

 

Dr Ransome, a camp physician and Mr Matthews who chivvies James up as he gave up several time despite the former’s total exhaustion are some of the characters that populate this. There is an imperious family of Mr and Mrs Pearce, who share a room with James with partitions made of old clothes.

 

When they are taken back to Shanghai camp, many of the camp mates cannot go on and simply sit down on the way, left behind for God knows what fate. There is a faint suggestion that they were killed rather than let go, but never explained fully.

 

The imagery is stark but the descriptions are lovely, including the similes. Consider this description of the Englishmen who lay down and died while walking to the camp out of pure exhaustion in all kinds of directions “as if they were dropped from the sky in random poses”. Or another group killed in a field with spent shells shining yellow “as if they had looted a treasury in the final moments before they were killed”.  A dead body’s mouth is open ‘as if he was waiting for the last morsel of food’. Nice.

 

The description is raw and gritty. If you are queasy, do not read the book. It talks about a lot of maggots, flies, rotting corpses. More gore needed? Also in supply. A dead body is discovered with the face mashed into a pulp because after the war a Japanese soldier was killed by ex-prisoners by repeatedly beating his head with a blunt weapon. A rotting corpse’s skull is exploded by running a car over its head.  J G Ballard is a fan of the gruesome alright.

 

The imagery stays with you. If this is anything like what the author himself suffered or saw when he was a child (in China, he was a prisoner of war with his parents during the Second World War and left for England after the war, just like Jim), the conditions were pitiable indeed for those Westerners caught in the conflict.

 

It looks like death repeatedly stares Jim in the face of death but manages to wriggle out just in time, not without pain and injuries in many instances.

 

A very different novel that describes war from a totally different angle but still brutally honest in descriptions for all that.

 

7/10

–  –  Krishna

 

 

 

June 11, 2017

Book: The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 12:08 am

imageA light hearted adventure in the tone of the Shannara series (We have reviewed The Sword of Shannara and The Elfstones of Shannra here before). Also, this book is very British in its outlook as the ones in the Shannara series, with people calling each other “old chap” and things. I thought in the beginning that it may be a bit childish but it grows on you. I remember having the same experience with those two books as well!  Towards the end, you even take a liking to the book as you did of those books as well.

 

This is the Pyrdain series and this is the first volume in the series. It talks about the coming of age of a young man called Taran, who is thrust into the midst of adventure when he least expected it.

 

Taran begs Coll to teach him how to make swords and also swordfight instead of making horseshoes as  there are no horses any more in their world. Their monkeying is stopped by Dalben, the wizard of the place.

 

Dalben tells of the land of the dead, Annuvin, ruled by Arawn, who has stolen mankind’s gold and jewellery for his own evil purpose. The Son of Don foiled him from becoming King. Now an evil and mysterious warlord called the Horned King – because he wears a crown of antlers –  has risen, threatening the peace that has been kept for eons.

 

Dalben wants them to stay far from all such troubles but when the animals start acting weird, he wants to get Hen Wen, the pig,  in safe custody, so that the Horned King, who is after Hen Wen cannot get it. Once the Horned King lays his hands on Hen Wen, the evil wins. (Yes, they explain why later, and the reason, when you learn of it later,  is logical if a bit lame).

 

The Book of Three is a chronicle of secrets being updated by Dalben is protected by a spell from being opened, as Taran finds to his discomfort and burning fingers. The book hardly figures further in the story, despite the whole story being titled after it. Strange, is it not?

 

Hen Wen runs away and Taran runs into the forest chasing a pig and is almost killed by the Horned King, only to be saved by a scraggy man who turns out to be Lord Gwydion. The Lord  informs him that the pig, Hen Wen, is the most important thing to defeat the Horned King and his evil master Arawn. Gwydion is on the horse Melyngyar and they go in search of Hen Wen.

 

The creature Gurgi whom they meet in their search for Hen Wen reminds you initially of Dobby of the Potter series but turns out to be a very different kind of character as the story proceeds. (Incidentally, this book was written way back in 1964 so Dobby was NOT the inspiration for this character! )

 

The gwaythaints, the winged spies of the evil enemy, reminds you of the winged messengers in the first book of the Sword of Shannara.

 

Taran and Gwydion get captured by the minions of Arawn and taken to Achren the impossibly beautiful but evil lady. Taran is stopped from being fooled by her by Gwydion, and Taran is knocked unconscious by a whip handle and wakes up in a prison cell. Alone.

 

He is rescued by a chatty little girl Eilonwy, who knows all the underground tunnels. She tells him that Gwydion and the horse Melyngyar are also rescued but Taran falls into a collapsed hole in the tunnel. Incidentally Eilonwy is a very delightful character that you grow to like from the very beginning, though she seems to be wisecracking through serious troubles.

 

The two find another way out.  But on reaching the outside, Taran finds that instead of Gwydion, the girl has rescued a bard called (No, I am not kidding) Fflewddur Fflam. They discover that he was indeed a king but likes a bard’s wandering life more. Gurgi joins them and they set out for a quest after looking ineffectually for Gwydion in a castle that seems to have collapsed when they were out. There are some cute touches like the harp strings breaking every time Fflewddur tells a lie. (Rather like Pinocchio with his nose)

 

They go in search of Hen Wen, assuming this is what Gwydion would have wanted. They are chased by the Cauldron Born, the undead minions of the witch. They escape and get lost and finally meet the famous wizard Medwyn.

 

He heals the wounded Gurgi and when they resume their journey, Taran leads them to captivity again, almost immediately. they get sucked under a pond and reach the kingdom of dwarfs of King Eiddileg. He comes across as a grouch but is really a softie (Yes, another British staple for characters) and sends them on their way with food, horses, a guide called Doli, and Hen Wen, who Gurgi discovers is with King Eiddileg.

 

On the way they meet the Horned King himself and when all seems to be lost, are saved miraculously by Gwydion whom they thought was dead.

 

The story ends on a positive and romantic note. A pleasant read. But really a fairytale story, lightweight. So, I give it a 5/10

 

–  – Krishna

May 31, 2017

Book: She Is All That by Kirstin Billerbeck

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:33 am

imageWarning : Partisan rant follows. Please do not read if you are offended by anti “conservative” views

 

Disclaimer : Nothing against religion, in fact I think it is a force for good. But when you use religion like a fashion statement, it irritates. The same rant will follow in a later book review.

 

You wonder: Is this book for fourteen year old girls written by a fourteen year old girl? Immature to the core.

 

Lilly Jacobs, single girl, nearing thirty, is a designer and is awkward at dating, living in California. In the first part of the book, it feels like the above statement is going to be the entire story! Her friend is the daughter of a super rich diamond jewellery store owner Morgan Mallard. She is the one Lilly turns to when she gets the double whammy of losing a promotion to a friend in her fashion company and also finding out that her latest boyfriend is cheating on her. Boy, talk about world-shattering problems!

 

And get this, this girl is a Stanford MBA but does not want to do a lick of business and is instead in the “fashion” industry. OK, whatever. Her friend Pollard is a Stanford medical doctor and does not want to work as a doctor because “the medical profession is selfish and the pharmaceutical industry is the devil.” So why did she take up space (not to mention expenses) studying medicine? It would have helped someone else who would actually use the skills to cure people, right? And our own Lilly does not subscribe to modern notions of beauty where ‘girls have to be thin’. But conveniently, all these girls are thin, beautiful, and are into luxury products. It is a painful caricature to read. Pretending not to value the modern surface values while slavishly following it anyway.

 

She won’t get help from a friend because she does not want to “use” her. She knows Jesus loves her but her friends in college were like Jesus clones were living in the dorm with her. Give me a barf bucket! Fast!

 

And a conservative ‘Save me Jesus!’ chatter in between all that chatter about designer fashion. Not just our heroine but the entire crowd including organic loving doctor.

 

And the funniest (I mean unintended humour) part is that this brainy Stanford MBA graduate is flummoxed by the acronyms her brainiac friend who is in IT uses. Those words are – wait for it – MIS, IT and JPEG. These “tough” words give her a headache. I wonder what they teach MBA students in Sanford. Not anything hard, it looks like.

 

And she rants that financial work is “not creative” and she “does not want to do that”. It appears that jobs are just waiting for her in the highest paid financial sector and she is desperately trying to avoid it for the sake of “creative work”. Well, to a mind easily confused by JPEG and IT, perhaps it is reasonable that financial engineering is hard to do, let alone be interested in, but draping a body with a fabric cut a certain way has exciting appeal.

 

The barf bucket is slowly getting full.

 

She carries her bible to work because she needs “all the ammunition she can get”. (Huh? I do understand the power of prayer but…come on!)

 

Well, it gets worse. Lilly is offered the CFO job because “she has a sexy finance degree from Stanford” by the CEO. Never mind she is just out of college. She refuses even though she “can do design in her spare time”. What kind of a story is this?

 

They go to a spa. She loses her job and mopes some more, hoping God would show a way. Looks for a Christian husband who has a tendency to bald. Great.

 

Fascinated by commonplace TV and movie references like how handsome Orlando Bloom is and how great looking Paris Hilton is. In fact Morgan looks like Hilton so she is a great beauty. Rich too. Did I mention rich? Like a hundred times as Kristin never tires of insisting?

And Molly? Don’t get me started. She converted a hundred people to the way of Jesus due to her ‘flaming red hair’ and ‘piercing blue eyes that seem to shoot gamma rays right through you when she looks at you’. Not kidding: these are ctual quotes from the book. Also, when Lilly is attracted to Max (and Nate at the same time but that is a different topic), she wonders if he is a Christian becuase otherwise it is a deal breaker (‘Let him please be a Christian; any other answer would be shattering’) and is relieved to hear that he found Christianity already through Jews for Jesus.

 

And the stereotyping! She goes to a queue to get a business license and she finds “immigrants” everywhere. Immigrants and Americans are classified as different people, Immigrants, of course, cannot speak a word of English beyond “yes” but you have to know that this is the American way! And the person in the queue behind her is true to character and says “I open restaurant. Here coupon. You come.” Can you get tackier than this even if you tried?

 

And notwithstanding the frequent calls to Jesus, the major preoccupation seems to be fashion houses, TV, movies and how skinny everyone is or is not, and how frizzy Lilly’s hair gets. Well, would Jesus worry about these things?

 

She goes to the Church Singles Group to find love, much as the author herself did in her life. She does find love with a man with a dreamy eyes and hair and an English accent to boot, with the same belief sets as her, down to the power of alternate medicine  (even though he sells pharmaceuticals for a living).

 

When Nate kisses her, she likes it ‘even though he lacks the faith’. What a pity, right?

 

Also, Lilly Jacobs is extremely shallow. Very impressed by trappings of luxury like Jaguar car and disgusted by public transport, even her Jesus is a shallow prop, it appears. I don’t think many people could stand her, let alone be her friend, so I think she should thank her stars that she has some friends like Polly and Morgan.

 

She takes the thief Kim back. But insults Nate and chases after the English accented Stuart.

 

She has to leave the room when Morgan is in grief and running in the rain ‘to remind herself that God still provides the rainbow of promise somewhere in this storm’. Talk about firm faith!

 

Why is Morgan heading into an unsuitable marriage? Suddenly all is revealed.

 

When she hears that the birth mother who abandoned her has come back (a cliche if there ever was one, especially when it had nothing to do with the rest of the story), a lot of questions crowd in her mind, including ‘What kind of a car does she drive?’.  Really? That is what her priority is?

 

The story can be unintentionally funny. Lily wonders about all of the friends having bad luck and wonders if this is what Christians call bad karma! Of all the things to say, does the author not know where the word karma came from?

 

And like a dutiful Christian girl who believes in all the Creationism theory lock stock and barrel, she says somewhere ‘While I am not buying into Darwin’s theories, the survival of the fittest seems to fit here’. Really? The literal word of the Bible and all that?

 

Then there are the worst kind of statements like ‘I guess my finance degree comes in useful because now I can do precise measurements for a dress’. I won’t even dignify that statement with a rant.

 

Are there no good pieces in the story? Yes there are. The comeuppance of the haughty Sara Lang is nice. The chaos at the climax ending is sweet and is really well done. But the rest is too irritating for even these to compensate.

 

A bad plot, bad narration, trivial subject matter. Did not enjoy reading it.

 

1/ 10

 

  • – Krishna

February 26, 2017

Book: Desert God by Wilbur Smith

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:27 pm

imageThis is the second installment in the successful Ancient Egyptian stories from Wilbur Smith featuring the ‘I-am-so-good-at-everything’ Taita. This follows the first book, River God.

Taita is playing a bao board game with a friend and fellow strategist Aton. We learn that the Hyskos, who were vanquished in the original River God by him and Queen Lostris are regrouping and gaining strength. Taita comes up with a clever plan to break up the alliance forming between Hyskos and King Mintos. He takes an army disguised as Hyskos and plunders another king, thereby forcing him to consider Hyskos as the common enemy and enter into an alliance instead with Egypt.

 

If you have forgotten that Taita can do it all (superhuman, super intelligent, super musical and so on) he reminds you of this a million times until it becomes mildly irritating. He however finds that there are galleys with silver bars – untold wealth, being transported into a heavily fortified fort, which looks impregnable. Taita has of course an ingenious plan. He breaks the only bridge from the castle by going in a boat.

He successfully plunders not only unimaginable amount of treasure but also arms, releases some Egyptians captured and turned into slaves, and returns via the Nile, ramming into the Minoan emperor’s boat on the way. He kills the emperor too.

 

He now hatches a plan to give both his beloved girls (sisters of the Pharoah) to the womanizing Supreme Minos as a gift to get an alliance with Crete.

 

I realized while reading this that Taita is to Wilbur Smith what Odd Thomas is to Dean Koontz. The same tone of self-congratulation, the same idea that the person, though defective in some way (autism like behaviour in Odd Thomas and castration in Taita) have superhuman skills in almost all walks of life. And the mildly boastful tone that permeates all their stories – which, to me, spoils the story a bit – that results takes away from total enjoyment of the story.

 

He finds that the elder princess may have been kidnapped by an unknown intruder where they stayed. He follows and conquers Al Hawawi the Bedouin pirate but not before Zaras is grievously wounded.

 

Taita is in his element. He invents surgery, “mentally” copulates with a goddess, discovers that he is a demi god and excels in everything including self praise, all the while saying that he is embarrassed to praise himself.

 

He discovers that the Hyksos are preventing his plan to unite the kings against them and are trying to ambush him but they are of course they are no match for him. He ambushes them and takes them as slave. When a pirate ship attacks them, he reforms the pirate captain and enlists him to get him more ships for the impending war with Hyksos.

 

When he reaches Crete, he finds the king weird and the people weirder. He is attached by an Auroch and is saved by his stable boy who gives his own life to save Taita. The princesses were whisked away to be consorts of the king.

 

He meets and kills an Auroch, having his servant killed in the process. When he learns of Hyksos amassing chariots and guarding with too few people, Taita goes to surprise them in an attack but is in turn ambushed. Nakati helps him and warns of treachery that caused this.

 

They win over the Hyksos after nearly being defeated.

 

In addition, Loxias meets Taita and says strange happenings in the Supreme Minos and his harem. Forty women were sent to the king on the day of the earthquake but never seen again. We the readers can put together what happened but the suspense is revealed only much later in the book.

 

They rush back to the aid of the princesses in the midst of a roaring volcano (the wrath of Cronas) that seems to have destroyed Minoa. They reach just as the princesses are about to be sacrificed to an auroch.

 

This piece has its action pieces but overall I think this Taita book leaves a lot to be desired. Not up to his earlier standards in the first book.

 

5/10

–  – Krishna

February 25, 2017

Book: The Lords Of The North by Bernard Cornwell

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:33 pm

imageThe Lords of the North is the third in the Anglo Saxon series and follows The Last Kingdom, and The Pale Horseman. This continues the story via Uhtred, the central but invented character.

 

Uhtred buries his treasure because he has to leave for Babbenburg, his childhood home.  He reaches the place and goes to see the king, pretending to be another man in Alfred’s army. He is however exposed by the priest and realizes that he is among his old enemies, unmasked.

 

Based on the propaganda by priests that Saint Cuthbert himself had come to the aid of Alfred, the king of Babbenberg has the Danes slaughtered when the Danish army was away and now, fearing a massacre at the hands of the returning Danish forces, Uhtred just wants to get out of that place. When he makes a deal with a merchant to escort him and his family, he falls into the hands of his ancient enemy Sven. He covers his face and pretends to be a leper. He humiliates Sven and escapes with the merchant. In the same event, he meets Guthred, also called the Slave King, who is another Dane.

 

Guthred is crowned King of Northumbria by the priests, after a brief moment of confusion where Uhtred is confused for the king. He is captured by the men of Kartjan the Cruel who pretend that they have come to join his army and he gets saved in the last minute. He takes revenge on all of them except Kjartan’s bastard son and takes him into his fold when the latter declares an oath of fealty to Uhtred.

 

They go to expand the empire and capture the next kingdom without any resistance. However, Kjartan refuses to surrender and Guthred’s sister Gisel, who hoped to marry Uhtred, is dismayed by what she saw in the runes.

 

He finds out what it is when Guthrum sells him into slavery as a part of the deal and he is branded and manacled and made to row the oar of Trader, a slave galley. He gets saved by Ragnar and Steapa and pledges a second oath to Alfred and goes back to Guthred with Steapa as an emissary from Alfred.

 

He finds Guthred trapped and rescues him and his beloved Gisela. Then with Ragnar, he attempts an attack on Kjartan’s fortress Dunholm. How they fare in their attempt to capture Dunholm is exhilerating, with stealth, cunning plan and fortunes swinging constantly one way and then the other with stunning twists when they think all is lost… This is perhaps the best sequence so far in the series.

 

I thought that after such a climactic scene it would be time to end the story but the story continues. And keeps its tension till the very end. Brilliantly told, especially how Ivarr, the Danish king opposed to both Ragnar and Alfred, meets his end.

 

Excellent read, and I repeat: the best in this series so far.

 

8/10

– – Krishna

January 22, 2017

Book: Revival by Stephen King

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:29 pm

imageStephen’s ability to surprise with a totally different storyline never stops to impress. This book is unlike many others I have read from him and has its unique moments.

 

Of course, I may be biased because I have liked many of his books and reviewed many here. For a sample, see the reviews on Duma Key and Lisey’s Story in earlier entries.

 

A family of five kids, dad Richard and “Mom”. Jimmy Morton, Con(“rad”), Terry, Andy and the only sister, Claire.  Jimmy enjoys the toy army his sister gave him. He meets Charles Jacob, whose visit changes everything. Charles is the new young pastor who comes to the town to take over the duties when the older one died.

 

He shows the model town he has built with a motorized light sensor that can turn on the town’s miniature lights on and off. His wife is a bombshell and most boys in town have a crush on her and most girls on Charles, who is also good looking! His interest in science – especially electricity – and his unorthodox ways of preaching annoy the older people but young kids flock to his sermons.

 

His brother gets his voice impacted by a skiing accident and this causes a huge row between their dad and mom. Charles puts him in a contraption that passes (mild) electricity around his throat. It seems to cure him and bring his voice back!

 

A horrific accident where he loses both his wife and his little boy – involving a tractor with a vicious agricultural attachment and a driver who suffered a stroke at just the wrong time – seems to turn things for Charles. His next sermon is almost blasphemous and is forever called the Terrible Sermon and he is dismissed from his post.

 

Jamie goes to the Church basement to find out what present Charles left him and finds the mechanical Jesus. His faith shattered by then, he throws it on the wall and walks out.

 

He subsequently becomes interested in music and is chosen for a boy band. Astrid becomes his girlfriend. He drifts away from both and goes rapidly downhill, becoming a junkie fully and then meets Jacobs, who calls himself Dan Jacobs now and is a carnival artist. He offers to cure Jamie of his drug habit. When he passes electricity through Jamie (a special type) Jamie gets cured but has strange episodes of uncontrollable acts and nightmares. One of the people who participated in the act robs a jewellery shop in plain view of everyone in a state of fugue as well. There is something (“Something is happening!”) wrong with the treatment. Jacobs says goodbye and goes away and Jamie grows older by staying straight and working in a recording studio. The work was provided by introduction from Charles to a guy called Hugh and then Jamie discovers that Hugh was also one of those helped by Charles through the miracle of electricity.

 

When Jamie learns that Hugh was also one of Charlie’s clients with a side effect, they decide to go see Charles, who is now a ‘preacher man’ a televangelist. Jamie’s research with Bree, the daughter of Georgia, a coworker of theirs, turns up very disturbing rssults of Charlie’s miracle healing. He realizes that Dan Jacobs is not in it for benevolence or money but is in it for its own sake, not caring about what he does to whom.

 

He decides to stop him and travels to his hometown, where he now lives in a fabulous mansion, having made his money as a famous healer.

 

The story is interesting, but not one of the best of Stephen King’s. You wait for something serious to happen and it sort of happens now and then but the story drags a bit at times.

 

He learns that he has retired but asks Jamie to be his assistant. He refuses, goes back for a nostalgic trip to Maine and returns to Colorado, only to be emotionally blackmailed by Charles Jacobs into helping him.

 

When he returns for one last time, he learns that Jenny, a friend and lover of his Astrid, has been also roped in to help. The end is exhileratingly told, as only Stephen King can. Nice read, good book. But….

 

Yes. there is a but. I cannot but be disappointed. Stephen builds up Danny Jacobs and his lifelong obsession about secret electricity so much that when you finally find out what he is so obsessed about, you go ‘Wait… what?’. Not that it is not logical but it almost seems to be a let down compared to the build up. I don’t want to tell more in order not to spoil the story, but you tell me, after you read it, whether you agree with it or not.

 

Then there is Mother, who is like many of the Stephen King stories, is an elusive but horror inducing presence (Remember the Big Boy of Lisey’s Story?)  He is usually very good at the hinting of the horror – things left untold are scarier than clear descriptions, but here even the Mother’s description is kind of not up to his usual standards – at least in my mind. Still good story and the long epilog of what happens to Jamie Morton and all the characters we know in the book is interesting, for sure.

 

Let us give this a 6/10

 

  • – Krishna

 

January 1, 2017

Book: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 1:38 pm

image.jpgInteresting book from Steinbeck. Not what I expected.

 

A memoir-like description of a quaint Californian town depending on fisheries and the canning industry (hence the title). The story is not about the fishing or the very difficult conditions of work but about what happens after the factory closes down and the town comes into its own.

 

Populated by interesting characters like Lee Chong, a grocery shop owner to whom half the town owes money but who has a golden heart, Mack and his group of homeless folks, Dora Flood who runs the local brothel, the story is an interesting slice of American small town life.

 

The story of William who was the watchman before Alfred became the watchman and how he killed himself is interesting too. The thing about this book is that there is nothing that is earth shattering or game changing for the city. Small vignettes that could happen in any small town are strung together, almost like short stories linked to each other.

 

There is the mysterious Chinaman who does not talk to anyone and has an unvarying routine. There is Western Biologique which sells rare sea creatures. It is owned by Doc, a “half Christ half Satyr” faced man.

 

Because Doc is so nice the thugs decide to do something nice and after borrowing a broken down van from Lee Chong (against his preferences) and stealing a battery from another car, they go and find that it breaks down. When one of them goes to get some gas, he ends up in jail and does not return. They want to give Doc frogs, collect their fees and use the fees to give him a surprise party.

 

They meet a man who treats them well in his house and also shows them where they can get the frogs. In the meantime, Doc is fighting a kind of a pandemic of fever. He is not a medical doctor for humans (he is a vet) but tends to patients anyway.

 

In the well intentioned plot to give Doc a surprise party, Mack and the gang end up thrashing the entire laboratory!

 

There is good hearted brothel owner Dora, there is the town’s bouncer with a good heart really and many strange characters that populate the story. Like Mary Talbot, who likes to give parties at other people’s expense and to cats when she is alone.

 

It feels like sitting by the side of an old man from a small town and hear him listen to how it was in his city. But the problem is that there is nothing major that happened. It is a word picture of the town’s less fortunate residents in a poor town. Period.  No story beyond incidents narrated.

Perhaps a  4/10.

 

–    – Krishna

 

November 6, 2016

Book: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 4:46 pm

imageFlaubert is said to have modelled the heroine on one Delphine Delamare, but was unable to say so due to the social mores of the time. He said that “Madame Bovary is me” which convinced nobody. The infamy followed the men whereby the man whom Rodolphe portrayed emigrated to US and returned years later. As scandal still followed him, he committed suicide in France!

 

And the story was considered so raunchy for those times that there was a movement demanding that this book be forbidden in France. So what is in that book that caused all this hullaballoo?

 

Charles Bovary is a dull student from a fairly well to do family. His mother somehow makes him a physician, against the wishes of Charles himself, as he was a dull student and could not get in through merit only. On top of that, she gets him married to an unattractive, older but a very wealthy woman, whom Monsieur Bovary does not love. She becomes a shrew, disillusioned with him.

 

He goes to take care of the broken bones of a wealthy farmer Monsieur Rouault and falls in love with his daughter Emma. When his wife dies, he marries Emma. He is besotted with Emma but Emma gets bored easily. She wanted to be a nun and then backed out. She does not feel the romantic dreams with a country doctor. The highlight is when they are invited for dinner by Marquis d’Andervilliers. Emma is, of course, the Madame Bovary of the title.

 

She longs for the rich life and hates her husband, fires his most trusted housekeeper over a trivial error and behaves abominably to him who worships her every footstep. They move to another town to help her, against the husband’s wishes and against the interests of his practice. She pines for extravagance and resents fate for denying her the share that is “owed to her”.

 

The new town offers friendship with Leon, which Emma eagerly receives. When he leaves town to go to Paris, she is devastated but a playboy called Rudolphe gets interested in her. He is bored with his current mistress, an actress and wants to conquer Emma. Makes his play at the agricultural fair where he gets her alone. He plots and slowly convinces her that he is in love when he is only after another fling.

 

When you read the book, you are struck by how the age of the book shows in the story : Rudolphe “feasted his eyes on the bit of white stockings [that Emma wore] that showed like naked flesh between the black of the [riding habit] cloth and the boot”.

 

He seduces her and she becomes brazen in seeking him out in his own house in the nights. She almost got caught by Binet, who was out hunting ducks, when she returned from one such visit.

 

His object acquired, Rudolphe begins to lose his passion and ardour for her, which stings her. After her husband bungles a clubfoot operation necessitating another surgeon to come and amputate the leg of the unfortunate Hippolyte, her contempt of her husband and ardour for Rudolph overflow and she forces Rudolphe  to plan an escape with her – to run away. He is in it only for fun and runs away one day earlier, leaving her devastated.

 

She also is so free with her husband’s money as to nearly ruin him and steals other money from him to hide the fact. She also flaunts her affair to the extent she dares (before he runs away, of course) so much as to scandalize her mother in law and half the town she lives in.

 

After Randolphe leaves her,  she is crestfallen but goes back to Leon as an easy prey for his seduction and spends her husband’s money prodigiously again while she finds ways to meet Leon on a weekly basis. I can understand why the book may have scandalized society in the nineteenth century when it was published.

 

Finally, her wayward ways catch up with her and her debts mount, Leon grows tired of her and she tires of him as well but still is unable to stop.

 

The heroine of this story is supposed to be understood and pitied by us readers. It is very hard to sympathize with her when she has no concept of money, has an unrealistic ambition of living an aristocratic life, tramples over her husband who even gave up his mother in her support and then makes him bankrupt too, when the noose tightens around her neck (figuratively speaking), when all the loans come due and no one will help her. In desperation she takes a lot of arsenic and dies painfully.

 

It is pathetic to watch Charles devoted faithfully to her memory and still blind to her infidelities even when he is drowning in debt and even when he comes across one of Rudolphe’s letters to Emma. He alienates everyone including his mother in his stubborn devotion. There are side stories of Monsieur Homais and his journalistic crusades etc.

 

The scales fall from his eyes when he finally stumbles across all the love letters of her various lovers. He soon dies.

 

The book ends with a mock trial where the prosecuting and defence ‘attorneys’ present the case for and against – wait for it – not Emma but the book itself! Kind of cute. Overall, not a bad book, and rightly judged scandalous all those years ago for ‘preaching immorality’.

 

The only complaint about the last trial is that it is mostly a rehash of the story. I like the idea of attacking and defending the author for immorality but instead of arguments, all you get is extensive quotes and repetitions as well as a summary of the story again. That drags down the impact a lot. On top of that the self-praise on how well Flaubert has written the story jars a lot. Like reading the Taita series of Wilbur Smith or even the annoying Seventh Scroll where Wilbur Smith is praising himself as a historian.

 

The theme according to the epilog is “the education that is given to a woman which caused her misstep and corruption”. Really? Women should not be educated above their station in life? Or else they start a series of adulterous relationships?

 

I would say this deserves only a 5/10

–  – Krishna

October 22, 2016

Book: Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:06 am

This book shows why Roddy Doyle can justifiably claim to be one of the best chroniclers of life in Dublin as it is. This is one of his best books. He is known for his Barrytown Trilogy and also for image.jpg, all of these good books, but I think this takes the cake.

 

The mix of humour and pathos is a combination that the author uses expertly, moving you to burst out laughing one minute and have your heart strings tugged the next. Let us look at the story.

Kevin and Patrick Clerk (the ‘Paddy’ of the title)  are friends – they are young boys – and Kevin  has a little brother called Sinbad (Francis, really). They have teachers who are partial to some boys. Liam, another boy in class soiled himself one day.

 

Kevin and Patrick pretend people are chasing them and leave Sinbad behind. They try to put lighter fluid in his mouth and try to burn it to simulate the fire breathers. This has the classic feel of a small town Irish boy group trying out various stuff and is really in line with Roddy’s other great books. You are horrified at the casual cruelty of boys to boys but do recognize it as a feature of the seventies life in small towns all over the world.

 

Nice intro into the school and all the mischief the kids get up to. How the teachers treat them, how they play with the peeling paint in the portacabins, all of it is very entertaining and rings true at the same time.

Just small touches like how he is careful cleaning the house and how he hides sandwiches under the desk until the pile  grows so big that the ink bottle wobbles, how his dad gets mean because Sinbad will not eat his vegetables, how the Jesus in the picture “with his heart showing” has his head tilted ‘a bit like a kitten’ are all hilarious and interesting. A true kid’s perspective of life is what you get.

 

And who knew you can make a school medical examination so interesting? And the mix of deep religiosity with the childhood natural instinct of mischief make for lovely combinations.

 

The kids speculate that a couple in the neighbourhood are childless because “she ate them”.  They have races through neighbour’s carefully tended flower gardens. The object is to escape before they are caught but also make so much noise that the slowest of the group does get caught!

 

Lovely little pieces like the above are strewn all over the book. It is simply a pleasure to read.

 

Paddy’s attempts to not eat lettuce (quoting an African who ate a leafy vegetable and got a severe stomachache that, upon being operated, turned out to be lizards in the stomach hatched out of the eggs in the lettuce are scenes that make you laugh out loud. Also the game where the Lord punishes each with a painful poker strike in the back when they given themselves vulgar names – titties, mickey and the worst of all, fuck – is interesting.

 

There are heart wrenching scenes where the da and ma are fighting and he is very puzzled.

 

Ending is very touching too. A great read, all in all.

 

8/10

 

  • – Krishna

September 17, 2016

Book: Death On Tour by Janice Hamrick

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:44 am

imageSuch a curious title, sounds like an old age mystery of the type Agatha Christie would dream up.

 

One of a group of tourists, Millie Owens is found dead, in broad daylight, in the middle of a trip to Egypt, in open space. A mystery if ever there was one. She climbed onto a pyramid and fell to her death and no one noticed the event?

 

Jocelyn Shore, with her cousin Kyla is there and is puzzled as to how the elderly woman climbed up the pyramid and how, given the short height, she died when she fell.

 

Alan Stratton an attractive fellow traveller flirts with Jocelyn but oddly does not want to have his picture taken. Then there is a big description of the tour and everything they saw (the Sphinx) and did (camel rides). You get the feeling that you are reading someone’s boring travel experiences rather than a mystery that you wanted to read.

 

When an Egyptian carpet seller tries to get fresh with Jocelyn, Alan rescues her. When she reaches the van alone, she finds Millie’s bag still in the bus and cannot resist a peek. She discovers right away that Millie was a full blown kleptomaniac.

 

The story continues to feel like it was written on a tour of Egypt. I am not talking about authenticity here but the boring details on whether you need one more ticket to visit the most famous part of the museum and the carpet salesman and the sequence of things you do on an organized trip etc.

 

In Millie’s bag she finds a clue that may indicate that she found that someone else had a big secret (smuggling) in the group. When she hears that Millie was murdered (stab to the neck) she thinks she knows the motive for the murder right away.

 

When a second salesman mistakes her for being from Utah, she smells that something is wrong. Alan makes mysterious remarks about Kyla which puzzles Jocelyn more.

 

The story gets a lot weirder when Ben and Lydia pass off another girl as their niece who was sick. Jocelyn caught this subterfuge and wondered why. Alan displays a surprising fluency is Arabic when she least expected it. The plot thickens? It was very watery to start with, so you think that it could do with a lot more thickening.

 

When they thrust an expensive necklace in her hands in a tent and send her out, she naively decides to keep it and thinks of it “as a gift”. Come on, even a six year old thinks better than that!

 

In the meanwhile, she teams up with Yvonne, a fellow passenger who had been a criminal lawyer (somewhat modeled on Miss Marple of the Agatha Christie books) and try to do some detective work.

 

The developments are insipid. Think about this. You are mistaken for a lady from Utah repeatedly. An expensive looking necklace is thrust into your hand saying specifically “It costs thousands of pounds” and a group tries to blackmail you for “more money” and then back off when an old man comes and gives it in your hand saying  “the agreed price is OK”. You of course have no clue on what this is all about. What do you do? You simply “assume” that they wanted to give it to you free because they had “frightened you”. And keep it. When you are subsequently attacked and your purse searched (in the middle of a tourist throng no less), you do not link this to anything else (until a ‘great detective’ points that possibility to you). What is more, you decide to wear it in public at the next open party and dance. If you told me that you are also trying to be a detective to find out who murdered Millie and, later, an Arab vendor, my reaction would be to burst out laughing!

Jocelyn, the heroine of this story, is subsequently attacked and knocked unconscious when she ‘ventures out alone’ from that party (with the necklace on) and has her necklace stolen and seems to be surprised that this happened. You are now thinking ‘Does Jocelyn have a mental deficiency?’

 

Also the book feels like it started as a personal diary entry about an Egypt trip and then suddenly Janice decided, ‘why don’t we put a couple of murders in it and turn it into a mystery book?’. The problem with that approach? The whole story reads like personal notes with spice added  and is very annoying.

 

She learns of Alan’s true identity after a quarrel with him. (For once, it is not what you would expect). Then comes the climax where the real identity of the culprit or culprits is revealed. It is a twist in the classical sense. All ends well finally.

 

The end is nicely explained. But the toll it takes in the meanwhile reduces the interest in the book.

 

4/10

 

  • –  Krishna

 

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