Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Musings from my Facebook page

This would be my first Musings post this year. I’d forgotten all about it. I thought I’d share with you some of my inane jottings on my Facebook page under the heading ‘Odds and Ends’ which is neither here nor there, or anywhere else for that matter.

March 25: The fat is really in the fire. It’s an absolute scorcher out there, 41 degree Celsius (105.8 F) at 2 pm, up from 33 (91.4 F) on Monday. Wet with sweat? No, it’s much more than that. It's sweaticles! This is the time I wish I’d heeded my mother’s advice—“Finish your graduation and get a nice job in a bank,” she said. “You can stay there till retirement,” she said. “You’ll get free bank loans and so many holidays,” she said. Free bank loans? Never mind. I'm thinking of all the public holidays and no travelling to work. Right now, I'm staring at next fortnight’s calendar and asking myself—“Why couldn't I have had an employer like RBI, our federal bank?” What a generous fellow! Take a look.

March 28: Ram Navami (the day Lord Ram, the Hindu god, was born)
March 29: Sunday
April 1: Annual Closing of Accounts (at least no customers)
April 2: Mahavir Jayanti (the day Lord Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, was born)
April 3: Good Friday
April 4: Half-day, being Saturday
April 5: Sunday

Withdraw your money in advance. Later, there’ll be a run on ATMs. The machines will dry up, that is, if the heat doesn't melt your card first. You can’t bank on anyone these days.

March 24: I'm putting my neck on the guillotine. It is two months since I jumped on the Fb bandwagon and here is my verdict. It does wonders for the bruised ego, for the ego is always bruised. All these likes (and yikes), comments (and laments), and shares (and tears), making you seem popular and notorious at the same time, or notoriously popular if you like. A mild and harmless activity, really, even if a self-conscious and self-absorbing one. An occupational hazard, for the more prolific you are here, the less productive you are elsewhere. I, me, myself, 24x7, well almost. So here I am: addicted to my status, for all it is worth, 7 likes and 4 comments.

March 23: A week ago, it was 24 degree Celsius (75.2 F) at Churchgate. Either the winter gods had overstayed their visas or the sun gods were in snooze time. Today, it is 33 degree Celsius (91.4 F) and climbing, and it looks as if the hot gods are making up for lost time—they're throwing flames out there. One singed my eyebrows, another seared my earlobes and I can
already feel the skin peeling off my back in April-May.

While I can’t run off to 14°C (57.2 F)  Darjeeling, here's what I'm going to do to take some of the heat off from the fire-breathers in heaven—cut down on tea and coffee and drink four bottles of water a day, with a couple of fresh coconut water thrown in; eat plenty of fruits and salads without sugar and salt; cover my head with a wide-brimmed hat like the sombrero, they come in many colours; wear loose cotton clothes, preferably a poncho for maximum cross-ventilation; remain indoors, switch on the air-conditioner, and forget about next month’s electricity bill; speak less, that way I scream less; and finally, meditate, to keep a lid on my simmering temper—the sun total of all our troubles every summer.

March 20: I'm back in the 8.03 am local. Me and my fellow commuters are doing things without actually doing anything. Scanning financial newspapers, playing with cellphones, snoozing and snoring, reading books without turning pages, staring aimlessly into space, staring at each other, listening to music without earphones, reading shlokas and scriptures...a compartment of collective boredom and symbolic gestures. Aren't we the fortunate ones?

March 19: With so many logins and passwords online, it’s a wonder we don’t forget our own names. It’s not always easy to remember which login goes with which password and where, especially if you haven’t written it down somewhere. I usually devise my passwords by mixing and matching titles of, and characters from, books and comics and films and television series as well as memorable lines from all of these sources. I like them long. I find them easier to remember and I mostly log in successfully in my first attempt.

Sometimes I have a lot of fun thinking up weird and whacky passwords like these.

youmiserablethumbsuckingswine (you miserable thumb sucking swine)

whatthebloodyhell (what the bloody hell)

youlistentomeandyoulistengood (you listen to me and you listen good)

keepyourfilthypawsoffme (keep your filthy paws off me)

I think I'll lay off crime fiction and crime films for some time.

March 18: Every time I sit to meditate, I remember what the mystics say, "Witness the flow of your mind. Let your thoughts come and go." Thoughts come and go, all right, only to be replaced by newer and more robust ones. They are a formidable lot, these thoughts of ours. They play musical chairs in our head. This morning, for instance, try as I might, I couldn't remain immune to my thoughts, particularly one nagging thought that just wouldn't go away—“what shall I post on Fb today?” I found myself very eager to answer the question.

March 17: This morning, Mumbai woke up to pleasant weather and a cool breeze. It's March 17 and the temp is 24 degree Celsius at Churchgate, 9.25 am. Let's not wake up the sun gods.

Friday, March 20, 2015

No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase, 1939

Another week, another review for my “First Novels” challenge and for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

Like The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933), the first novel by Erle Stanley Gardner I reviewed last Friday, No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939), the first novel by James Hadley Chase does not require a full-scale review. Most readers, and especially fans of crime and mystery, have read both these hardboiled novels featuring some very hardnosed characters of mid-20th century noir fiction. I'm sure both these novels must have set a trend, in terms of characterisation and plotting, for at least some of the crime stories that followed.

I can’t help thinking that both Gardner and Chase wrote their first novels as something of an experiment and in spite of much success and acclaim, they changed tack—Gardner, in his characterisation of Perry Mason from a gruff and tough lawyer-detective to a suave and smart attorney, and Chase, by toning down the vileness and violence in his stories. Either way, it worked for both the authors.

In No Orchids for Miss Blandish, also known as The Villain and the Virgin, Chase takes the immoral high ground in his stark and brutal depiction of a high-profile kidnapping and the villainous characters behind it. The abductors of the beautiful and diamond studded Miss Blandish, the daughter of a Kansas City millionaire, are both small-time thugs and big-time gangsters, although she spends months of drugged existence in captivity of the latter, namely the Grisson gang led by the fat and repulsive Ma Grisson and her knife-wielding psychopathic son, Slim, who takes a wicked shine to the girl.

Unlike in The Case of the Velvet Claws where Perry Mason is around to fight for his client, Eva Belter, there are no heroes for Miss Blandish in this novel; at least not until much later when her father, John Blandish, frustrated by the failures of the local police and the FBI, hires underworld reporter turned private investigator, Dave Fenner, to look for his daughter. Dave is tough and street smart but he’s just a good guy who knows the gangsters inside-out. His investigation finally leads him to the nefarious gang and the horrible truth behind the girl’s abduction.

As you read through Chase’s fast-paced and gut-wrenching narrative, you can’t help agreeing with John Blandish, that his drugged and deflowered girl, even if found alive and rescued, is better off dead.

There are no major characters in this story, which is both scary and sickening. There are only a handful of bad guys and good guys whose fate, one way or other, revolves around the one person who says and does the least—Miss Blandish herself. This gripping novel owes its success to an imaginative plot and some clever writing by James Hadley Chase. It's the kind of story that can be reviewed with a liberal use of adjectives, as I have done here.


Note: J. Kingston and Keishon have posted excellent reviews of No Orchids for Miss Blandish over at their blogs Rap Sheet and Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog, respectively.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Do you get turned off by TV drama?

Last week, I decided to stop watching Downton Abbey, the television drama which chronicles the trials and triumphs of an aristocratic English family and their servants. I was discouraged by the last episode, S4/E4, where Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), a lady’s maid to the Crawley family, is raped by a visiting valet in the deserted servants’ quarters while everyone is engrossed in a performance by a famous opera singer.

Until the crime, Anna and John Bates (Brendan Coyle), her husband and butler to Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, were the perfect couple—madly in love, fiercely caring and loyal, kind and thoughtful, and of charitable disposition. They have had their share of trouble in the wrongful conviction of Mr. Bates for the murder of his ex-wife. He spends weeks on death row before Anna investigates and finds proof of his innocence. Mr. Bates is released and they are back in Downton where the two lovebirds rent a cottage and live happily.

And then the rape happens and their happy little world comes crashing down, and with it my interest in the television drama.

Couldn't the makers of this refined soap opera have at least spared the Bates? Weren't they content with the many instances of misfortune and tragedy that strikes both the Crawleys and their servants? Why drag Anna and John into it?

The fact that Anna and Mr. Bates continue to share a beautiful relationship, in spite of the heinous crime and its sad aftermath, wasn't enough. They ought to have been left alone. Maybe, I'm getting old and sentimental. The family explained that the makers of Downton Abbey were being realistic and that such things happened to normal people in real life, so why not to characters in a television show. It was merely part of the script. I wasn't convinced. 

I think a part of me wanted the goodness and perfection represented by the Bates to go on forever; perhaps, because we see far too much of the opposite of the two virtues in the real world.

I don’t recall the last time I was so affected by something I saw on television or in film. Maybe, this is why.

Two episodes later, when Mr. Bates finds out what happened to Anna that night and why she had distanced herself from him, this is what takes place between them.

Anna: But I am spoiled for you, and I can never be unspoiled.

Bates: You are not spoiled. You're made higher to me and holier because of the suffering you have been put through. You're my wife and I have never been prouder nor loved you more than I love you now in this moment.

It was an affecting scene and I was glad, at least, the makers of Downton Abbey had maintained the sanctity of the Anna-John relationship.

Does this sort of thing happen to you?

Monday, March 16, 2015

Photo Essay: Books by Weight is back!

I could have browsed all night…

As the title suggests, this post is largely pictorial. The Books by Weight exhibition of Butterfly Books in South Mumbai, of which I wrote about in 2013, is back again. Millions of books—paperbacks and hardbacks
are on sale according to their weight. General fiction weighs at Rs.100 ($1.6) a kg, children’s, literature and reference books Rs.200 ($3) a kg, and books by premium authors are up for Rs.300 ($4.7) a kg.

Books by Weight, currently on inside the sprawling Sunderbhai Hall near Churchgate Station, is the brainchild of entrepreneurs, husband and wife Ajay and Madhavi Gupta, who personally  oversee the exhibition which opened on March 4 and will run through April 1.

The exhibition is a sight for sore eyes. A lover of books can spend an entire day browsing through the horizontal stacks. There are also open cartons filled with books specific to genres like science fiction and children’s literature, particularly Enid Blyton. This afternoon, I spent two hours at the exhibition and though I found many books that I’d have loved to buy, I couldn’t make up my mind. Finally, I bought four novels, one each by Don Pendleton, Carter Dickson, Donald E. Westlake, and Ed McBain, weighing less than 1 kg and costing a total of Rs.70 ($1.1). The books were in good condition.

The main categories of books on sale include, apart from fiction, biographies, sports, law and academia, children’s literature, science fiction, health, craft and cooking, travel, antiques, interiors, astrology, religion, war, history, wildlife, gardening, and photography.

I’ll be going back for more as the venue is less than a kilometre from my office, which doesn’t help my reading cause.

Where does it end?

A few popular authors.

Cartons of science fiction.

Another row, more books.

More famous authors and their books.

Hardbacks on parade.

Books, books everywhere...

© All photographs by Prashant C. Trikannad

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner, 1933

I review this novel as part of my own “First Novels” challenge and for Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott’s blog, Pattinase.

The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933), the first Perry Mason mystery by Erle Stanley Gardner, is unlike any Perry Mason I have read. 

Mason doesn’t go to court, so there is neither a court trial nor a court battle. There is no district attorney Hamilton Burger or Lieutenant Arthur Tragg. A young and emotional Della Street and a sleepless and hardworking Paul Drake assist him on the case. There is a beautiful and seductive client who hires him to rescue her out of possible blackmail, involving her and an ambitious politician. She pays him a handsome retainer, flirts with him, lies to him, pleads with him, and turns around and accuses him when her husband, the owner of a society rag, turns up dead. Finally, there is Mason himself who, in spite of being in serious trouble, refuses to ditch his client and dump the case.

The Case of the Velvet Claws requires no introduction or review. Most readers of mystery and legal thrillers and especially fans of Perry Mason have read it. The tale of blackmail and murder has enough grit and grime and reads like the plot of a hardboiled novel. What really elevates the story is the hardnosed character of Perry Mason who pulls out every trick from his legal hat to extricate himself from the mess and sticks his neck out to prove his crafty client’s innocence. In this, he is both gangster-like and gentlemanly.

During an emotional lip-locking scene between Perry Mason and Della Street, Gardner uses a term which, I thought, best describes his character in the novel—“gruff tenderness.”

Fans of Perry Mason will enjoy The Case of the Velvet Claws for the excellent storyline and characterisation and because, like I said, it’s unlike any Mason novel you are likely to read subsequently.


Monday, March 9, 2015

Spontaneity is the art of life

One July afternoon, four years ago, I finished my lunch in office and on an impulse decided to draw something. I typed “scenery” and “landscape” in Google images and found one I thought would be easy to sketch in half an hour. After all, I was being paid to bring out a newspaper, not give vent to my creative juices. I picked up my HB pencil and rubber, flicked an A4-size paper from the printer, and proceeded to replicate the image sitting on my desktop. I don’t know what inspired me at the time. It was probably the canteen food laced with sodium bicarbonate. Two days later, my pet dog, who was less than a year old, made a nice meal out of my sketch. Luckily, I’d got it scanned. This was the end result. 

Copyright: Prashant C. Trikannad

I might add that professional art runs on my mother’s side though just about everyone in the family dabbles in it. I might also add that I posted just this sketch on my blog in July 2011. Back then, I was new to blogging and didn’t know many bloggers. Okay, now I'm fishing!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Mack Bolan needs a new home

Mack Bolan #1 by Don Pendleton
On March 6, fellow blogger Evan Lewis reviewed a Mack Bolan action-thriller The Executioner 42: The Iranian Hit by Stephen Mertz on his blog Davy Crockett’s Almanack. There, thanks to a comment by Steve Lewis, I learned that Gold Eagle, publisher of The Executioner series, had decided to close down, leaving Mack Bolan homeless, at least for now.

I completely missed Gold Eagle’s announcement, June 12, 2014, on its website—“Gold Eagle will be closed down in December 2015. All of the series belonging to Gold Eagle have been cancelled. Whether Mack Bolan will find a new home with a different publisher remains to be seen.”

When Gold Eagle says “All of the series belonging to Gold Eagle have been cancelled,” I assume it includes, apart from the 400-plus Mack Bolan novels, spinoffs like Super Bolan, Able Team, Phoenix Force, and Stony Man.

Mack Bolan, universal soldier, is a fictional character originally created by American writer Don Pendleton (1927-1995) who wrote 37 of the novels before selling his rights to Gold Eagle in 1980. Since then, Gold Eagle went on to publish some 700 novels, more than half of which include Mack Bolan standalone adventures. All of these have been written by a number of ghostwriters that include Stephen Mertz, Mike Newton, Thomas Ramirez, and Mel Odom.

Mack Bolan #442 by Mike Newton
I first read Mack Bolan in the mid-eighties. I was in my teens. I saw this paperback, whose title I don’t remember now, sticking out from under a pile of books at a private circulating library. I took it out and said to myself, “I can draw this picture.” In those days drawing and painting was a serious hobby, influenced by professional artists on my mother’s side. I found the cover attractive and proceeded to replicate it in an A4-size drawing book.

I don’t know what happened to my illustration but I read the novel and was hooked on to Mack Bolan—the warrior, the one-man army, the fighting machine. But then, I forgot all about The Executioner series in the nineties and until the close of the last decade when I revived my reading and collection of Mack Bolan and the spinoffs. They are not easily available in India but I have managed to buy some two dozen of the books, brand new from used bookshops.

So even if Mack Bolan doesn’t find a new home soon, I still have plenty of his books to read. Bolan novels are seldom boring. They are as quick as his trigger finger.

Friday, March 6, 2015

All’s Fair… by Richard Wormser, 1937

Today is Holi in India, the ancient Hindu religious festival also known as the spring festival and, more popularly, as the festival of colours or the festival of love. People light a bonfire the previous night and step out on to the streets next morning to smear and bathe each other in a riot of dry and wet colours, and sing and dance and make merry. I stayed indoors, as I do every year, and used the public holiday to do something useful, like writing this review for Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

“We want you to go in there," the scarred man said, "and find out who killed young Gowan. Why, how, everything. But you'll have to work undercover.”

Before I get down to my brief review of All’s Fair…, here’s a word about the New York-born author. Richard Wormser (1908-1977) has claimed to have written seventeen Nick Carter magazine stories during 1932-33. I have never read Nick Carter as a pulp fiction private detective who made his debut in 1886. I have only read his latter-day adventures as an AXE spy called Killmaster.

The novella All’s Fair… is about young MacBlair who travels from one mining county in California in the West to another in Ware County in the East ostensibly to learn how labour is taken care of and how miners are handled.

“They got a right to know about unions. So we sent this man in. Told him to play it easy, avoid the rough stuff. Hell, it's fertile ground there!

In reality, Mac is an organiser and a troubleshooter. He has been sent all the way to Ware County by union leader Lawrence to find out who killed his son, Gowan, and help bring the killer to justice.

The brave and feisty Mac operates undercover, disguised as the son of a fictitious mine owner in the west.

In Ware County, he encounters big old John Alastair and old Harford Rand, two rich and powerful mine owners who run the county with an iron hand. They are backed by corrupt deputies, foremen, and spies who help them keep a tight lid on union trouble.

Mac stays with the Alistairs who believe he is, in fact, the son of a fellow mine owner on a study tour, and enjoys their hospitality. Openly, he learns their mining ways; secretly, he investigates Gowan’s murder.

It’s not long before Mac falls in love with blue-eyed Sue Alastair who discovers his identity and the purpose of his visit to Ware County. She surprises Mac by revealing she is on the side of the miners.

The Mac-Sue love story, subdued as it’d seem, is soon overshadowed by the miners who, led by Lawrence, now in their midst, strike work. Sue is kidnapped but safe. And Mac finds himself in the crossfire between the mine owners and their gun-toting henchmen on one hand and the striking mine workers on the other.

In spite of its fast pace, All Fair’s… is a moderate story about mine owners and their treatment of mine workers. It’s all quite atmospheric, in fact, and probably reflective of the state of union labour and the condition of miners prevalent at the time. I agree with the description that “It is more than a stirring love story” and that “Its setting is a turbulent mining county where money and corrupt politicians rule with guns” into which Mac walks to solve a murder. No single character, not even Mac's, stands out which doesn't make this novella any less readable.

“I don't get you, mister,” Mac said, mopping. “I’m from California.”

“Yeah?” One-eye sneered. “And me, I’m from the moon. What the hell, have the conservative unions gone in for boring from within now? I thought they left that to us?”

Judging from All’s Fair…, Richard Wormser, I suspect, knew a thing or two about the mining business and how it worked. At times I felt the novella read like a western for there were shades of it.

The author
Richard Edward Wormser wrote pulp and detective fiction, screenplays, and westerns, some of it under the pseudonym of Ed Friend. He is believed to have written 300 short stories, 200 novelettes, 12 books, and even a cookbook titled Southwest Cookery or At Home on the Range. He was fairly known for his Nick Carter stories. His two murder-mystery novels are The Man with the Wax Face and The Communist's Corpse. I’m interested in reading his pulp fiction.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Branham’s Due by Richard Prosch, 2012

In Branham’s Due, American writer Richard Prosch introduces the reader to Whit Branham, the bold and fearless deputy sheriff of Holt County, Nebraska, who sets out to bring in Johann Kramer, a notorious horse-thief and killer of Dakota Territory. The wanted man is holed up in old Iron Creek. Armed with his trusted shotgun, Branham approaches the “sod hovel” on foot and takes Kramer by surprise. The outlaw, a few years older than the lawman’s thirty-two, attempts a trick or two in a vain effort to overcome his captor. Branham helps Kramer get on his horse, Lubber, and the two men start back for O’Neill City.

As many western stories will tell you, bringing in a dreaded outlaw is never easy and Branham finds out the hard way when he is “ambushed” on the trail by “a big block of a woman” with a “big pumpkin face.” Her name is Darla and she is Kramer’s girlfriend. Years before, she and Whit grew up together. She was also his Sunday school teacher.

The twist in this 3,000-word story is in what happens next. Branham uses a ploy that could have cost him his life but he lives to take us on another adventure, in Holt County Law, a novella released in 2013.

Clearly, Richard Prosch is not handicapped by the length of Branham’s Due. Within the confines of his short and crisp narrative, we are also told about the novelty of barbed wire fences and the lay of the land in Nebraska, where he was raised; Branham’s thoughtfulness in shielding Barney Kearns, his boss and Holt County sheriff, and setting out alone to hunt down the outlaw; and the pleasing conversation between old friends Branham and Darla in the middle of the ambush. These may seem like insignificant elements in a seamless plot but they enrich the story a great deal. Whit Branham is a strong protagonist even though his character begs adequate description. But his is the sort of character that develops in your head as you read this fine western story.

I enjoyed Branham’s Due a lot and I’ll be reading Holt County Law soon. You can read more about Richard Prosch and his work at his website here.


Monday, March 2, 2015

My reading in February

In India, young students who live in slums and hovels and often have no access to electricity study under candlelight or streetlight and still triumph in their exams. It proves you can read anywhere, anytime, under any circumstance; even more so if it is for pleasure. Hence, fewer days in the month or preoccupation with personal and professional issues are no excuses for reading lesser number of books. I know I can make time to read. The reason I'm being apologetic about the few books I read, first in January and then last month, is because I have set a fairly high reading goal for myself this year—at least eight books and a dozen short stories every month. So far I have failed on both counts. I'm looking at the remaining ten months with renewed optimism.

However, I'm not letting all that take away the pleasure of reading the ones I do. I enjoyed four out of the five novels and novellas. The exception was Criminal Justice (2014) by Patrick Graham, a legal thriller with inexcusable grammatical and proofreading errors. It seemed as if the writer was keen to hammer out the story and have it self-published as soon as possible. I persisted till the end because that is what I usually do even with books that put me off and because I actually bought the ebook from Amazon.

As usual, I have listed the novels and short stories by year of publication and not in the order I read them. I plan to review at least three of these in coming days.

Novels & Novellas

1936 - The case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner - Crime

1937 - All’s Fair by Richard Wormser - General

1942 - The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas - Historical (Reread)

1976 - Swag by Elmore Leonard - Crime

2014 - Criminal Justice by Patrick Graham - Legal Thriller

Short Stories

1914 - Death at the Excelsior by P.G. Wodehouse - Detective-Mystery

2012 - Branham’s Due by Richard Prosch - Western

Meanwhile, I continue to join the family in watching Monk and Downton Abbey on week nights. While the former is becoming stereotyped, the latter is holding fascination for now. Adrian Monk’s OCD is getting to me. He is spending a better part of the hour being preoccupied with one thing or other and touching and straightening things rather than investigating the crime, which he eventually does in the last ten minutes or so. And I can see why some of my blog friends said Downton Abbey was like a soap opera. A polished one, I might add. My favourite character so far is Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith), on account of her one-liners told with a straight face. The makers of the series have started bumping off characters which means we’re in for some bad times.

As I mentioned earlier, personal and professional reasons have kept me away from blogging these past few days. I have been using my laptop at home only to pay bills. There are times when I feel like giving up blogging altogether. Although I enjoy blogging, I find it a bit overwhelming at times. In any case, the blogging world won’t be any poorer by my absence. For now I’ll stick around and see how things work out.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Oscars

It took me an hour, not counting the half-hour and more of the red carpet, to decide that I didn’t want to watch the rest of the four-hour long Oscars jamboree. Neil Patrick Harris, in spite of his good and honest intentions, and spotlessly clean undies, was flat and most of his jokes were lame, some to the point of embarrassing the viewer. He seemed awkward and looked as if he’d rather be somewhere else than inside the Dolby Theatre that night. I was assured that Harris usually acted like that on screen. In any case I was watching a rerun with four-minute long commercials every fifteen minutes, the Academy Awards were already history, and it was past my bedtime.

I watch the Oscars and the Golden Globe mainly to listen to the acceptance speeches which, in recent years, have been a disappointment. The speeches are seldom witty and clever. They’re mostly boring and drawn-out.

I remember the time when Michael Caine won a Golden Globe for Little Voice in 1999, and began his speech with this classic line—“Oh, what a shock. My career must be slipping. This is the first time I've been available to pick up an award.” He had the audience and viewers eating out of his Golden Globe. But you expected that sort of wit from Caine.

Years later, in 2007, his compatriot Hugh Laurie won a Golden Globe for House M.D. and proceeded to regale us with, “I am speechless. I'm literally without a speech. It seems odd to me that in the weeks leading up to this event, when people are falling over themselves to send you free shoes and free cufflinks and free colonic irrigations for two, nobody offers you a free acceptance speech. It just seems to me to be a gap in the market. I would love to be able to pull out a speech by Dolce & Gabbana.” You expected that kind of wit from Laurie, too.

Are the Brits naturally good at it?

In contrast, yesterday, Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, who won the award for best foreign language film, rambled on for so long that he was “booed” out by the orchestra, while best supporting actress Patricia Arquette did what I dislike most, a political statement on gender equality much to the delight of Meryl Streep who was on her feet and clapping.

It’s funny how Arquette looked like Streep’s twin.

A few points of view: why do award winners thank their spouses, their children, and their parents in predictable fashion? Why do the cast and crew of foreign film, documentary, and short film categories sit in the balconies like pariahs? What if the prompter mixes up the lines of the various presenters? What happens if the master of ceremonies has a panic attack? Are Clooney, Streep, and Travolta warned in advance they’d be the butt of jokes? Why is the Golden Globe better than the Academy Awards? Why can't the dozen-plus Bollywood film awards be as snazzy as their Hollywood counterparts? Why don't I read a good book, instead?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Death at the Excelsior and Other Stories by P.G. Wodehouse

My good friend Sergio is doing the FFB honours today, instead of Patti Abbot, over at his excellent blog Tipping My Fedora.

Flat on his back, with his hands tightly clenched and one leg twisted oddly under him and with his teeth gleaming through his grey beard in a horrible grin, Captain John Gunner stared up at the ceiling with eyes that saw nothing.

Did you know that P.G. Wodehouse had written a locked room murder mystery? I, for one, did not.

There is plenty of adventure, spirit of enterprise, and even an element of mystery in his novels but I don’t remember ever reading about murder in his delightful stories. So I was pleasantly surprised to find a dead body in Death at the Excelsior (1914), the first in the namesake collection of seven stories that includes a couple of Jeeves yarns.

Mrs. Pickett, the matronly owner of the respectable Excelsior Boarding-House, finds Captain John Gunner dead in his room, in the manner described above. She summons Constable Grogan who is, we are told, “a genial giant, a terror to the riotous element of the waterfront, but obviously ill at ease in the presence of death.” I liked that description.

Grogan and the sailors on the waterfront are wary of the formidable Mrs. Pickett who is tormented by the incident, the first such calamity to strike her boarding house. She is not worried about the loss of money as much as the loss of reputation of the Excelsior. She hires Paul Snyder who runs a detective agency in New Oxford Street to investigate the murder. The private eye, in turn, deliberately hands over the case to Elliot Oakes, a newbie on his team looking to challenge his boss and revolutionise the agency’s methods.

Oakes solves the case in no time and announces that Captain Gunner was killed from the bite of a poisonous snake imported from India. His boss, Snyder, who set out to teach the upstart a lesson, doubts his theory but is impressed.

Has the pompous Oakes actually cracked the murder case? Not really. Reenter Mother Pickett, who teaches both of them a thing or two about sleuthing.

In Death at the Excelsior, Wodehouse has shown us that he could write in other genres too, like detective fiction, and he does so without giving us an investigation and only a locked room and the power of logical thinking to crack open the case. There is humour in the story but not the wit and hilarity that you'd find in, say, a Blandings or a Jeeves story. Even the writing, while clear and unique, is different from the Wodehousian style you might be used to.

Had the story come to me without the name of the author, I’d have never guessed P.G. Wodehouse had written it. Nonetheless, fans of the English humourist will love the story. You can read it at Gutenberg.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

They Met at Shiloh and The Friday Edition

Nowadays I receive more than just bills in my personal email. I also get polite requests for book reviews and tempting offers on new books. I rarely commit myself to the former and seldom give in to the latter. I can’t make a promise that I can’t keep. Books take time to read and review, especially those you have committed yourself to. Under the circumstances, spotlighting them is the best thing I can do.

Last week, I found two new ebooks in my inbox: They Met at Shiloh, a historical novel about the Civil War by American researcher and ex-army man Phillip M. Bryant, and The Friday Edition, a mystery novel by American journalist Betta Ferrendelli

© Phillip Bryant
They Met at Shiloh, the first novel in the Shiloh Series, is about the great battle of the American Civil War, fought April 1862, also known as the Battle of Pittsburgh Landing. 

This is the description.

Pittsburg Landing was a place at peace—one that never expected to be the site for one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Peace is shattered as Confederate and Federal troops meet on the fields and farms surrounding a tiny Methodist church. In the midst of death and destruction, friendships form as four soldiers struggle to survive the battle. 

Forced to leave his position as minister, Phillip Pearson knows his life is in danger, but not just from the Confederates. The Harper family, incensed at Pearson's refusal to bury a philandering son, has a vendetta against him that is played out on the battlefield. Demoted from his command by a West Point graduate, Capt. Michael Greirson is forced to choose between ambition and duty. 

Phillip Bryant
When a bumbling youth becomes his shadow, Private Robert Mitchell gains an unlikely friend—something that has been missing from his life. Afraid to trust, he is forced to confront those fears and depend on others in the heat of battle. War is an adventure to Private Stephen Murdoch and his best friend, William Banks. For months they dream of the glory of war before volunteering together. On the eve of battle, they sense something momentous is about to happen. Their idealistic views fade in the blood of their fallen comrades.

Of the 40,000 Confederates and 30,000 Federals about to come face to face along the banks of the Tennessee River, these four soldiers will experience fear and questions of faith for what lies beyond. Two days of horrific fighting turn boys into men and sever the sacred bonds of comradeship in the bloodiest days of the war.

In The Friday Edition, the first in the Samantha Church Mystery Series, Betta Ferrendelli has set her suspense novel in Denver, Colorado. 

This is what it is about.

A beautiful, young district attorney tumbles from her balcony to her death. Police suspect suicide, but the DA’s sister, newspaper reporter Samantha Church, isn't buying it. 

Samantha discovers evidence linking her sister to a drug smuggling case and quickly learns she has stumbled onto a major news story. She must summon the courage to not only face a cartel of criminals, but her own fears and shortcomings when she is confronted by the inescapable specter of a far greater enemy—her addiction to alcohol. Samantha’s dependency has not only cost her job at a major metropolitan daily, but, worse, custody of her daughter, April. 

Betta Ferrendelli
Samantha pursues her sister’s killers, maneuvering through a minefield of intrigue deliberately set out to divert her from the truth. Despite being betrayed, physically beaten and facing the possibility of sharing her sister’s fate, Samantha refuses to stop her investigation. However, when the killers threaten to harm April, Samantha realizes that, for her daughter’s sake, she can no longer continue the investigation on her own. She knows she must swallow her pride and turn to her ex-husband and police detective, Jonathan Church, for help. Can Samantha ultimately prevail—find her sister’s killer, write the story of her career, confront her drinking problem, and finally begin to change her life, or will she and April become the killer’s next victims?

Both Bryant and Ferrendelli have banked on their areas of expertise to write their respective novels. The two books have great covers and, inside, thrilling stories await the reader, I'm sure.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Air Force One is Down by John Denis, 1981

First, a clarification: John Denis is not Alistair MacLean as I wrongly assumed and mentioned in earlier posts, since corrected.

According to Wikipedia, John Denis is the collective pseudonym for John Edwards, former editor of BBC’s That's Life programme, and Denis Frost, his collaborator on the show. Together, they authored the initial two UNACO books, Hostage Tower (1980) and Air Force One is Down (1981).

UNACO, which stands for United Nations Anti-Crime Organisation, was invented by Alistair MacLean as part of a series for an American movie company that was to produce the action films. While MacLean wrote the story outlines, the novels were completed by other writers beginning with John Denis. Interestingly, in 2013, Cilla Ware directed a two-part mini television series titled Air Force One is Down credited to Alistair MacLean. I'm assuming it’s based on the John Denis novel.

Below are the eleven UNACO books.

1980: Hostage Tower - John Denis
1981: Air Force One is Down - John Denis
1989: Death Train - Alastair MacNeill
1989: Night Watch - Alastair MacNeill
1990: Red Alert - Alastair MacNeill
1991: Time of the Assassins - Alastair MacNeill
1992: Dead Halt - Alastair MacNeill
1993: Code Breaker - Alastair MacNeill
1995: Rendezvous - Alastair MacNeill
1997: Prime Target - Hugh Miller
1998: Borrowed Time - Hugh Miller

Alastair MacNeill is a Scottish writer and not to be confused with fellow Scottish author Alistair MacLean. I'm not sure who Hugh Miller is.

UNACO does not exist in reality. The closest I can think of is the United Nations Security Council which has the mandate to launch wars and end conflicts.

Alistair MacLean’s UNACO is not a council of member-states; it’s an influential security agency within the United Nations led by its charismatic director, General Malcolm G. Philpott, and ably assisted by his beautiful girlfriend Sonya Kolchinsky. Philpott has managed to keep UNACO independent of other intelligence agencies like CIA, KGB, MI6, and Mossad, although it cooperates with them in global espionage and peacekeeping.

In Air Force One is Down, Philpott and his anti-crime organisation are tested to the limit as the US President’s aircraft is hijacked from Bahrain by international criminal Mister Smith and taken to distant Yugoslavia, which, in spite of its proximity to Soviet Russia, is a law-abiding member of UNACO. Fortunately, the President is in Washington D.C. He has lent his aircraft to ferry OPEC ministers from the Middle East to America to sign a crucial oil treaty. They are held captive for a fat ransom.

However, there is more to the hijacking of the President’s aircraft, the kidnapping of the oil ministers, and the subsequent destruction of a fake Air Force One, to make it seem like the real one.

The real story is about the kidnapping of Joe McCafferty, a US Secret Service agent on loan to UNACO and head of security aboard Air Force One, and his replacement by a lookalike, the ruthless Cody Jagger, who would fool the real Joe’s mother. Jagger goes under the scalpel to look like McCafferty's identical twin, take over the plane, and "betray" his friends on board.

The Cold War plot of Air Force One is Down is as farfetched as that of Irving Wallace’s The Second Lady (1980) where a KGB impostor takes the First Lady’s place in the White House and even sleeps with the President without arousing his suspicion. However, Denis’ action story is no patch on Wallace’s political thriller.

Equally implausible is the situation where UNACO’s commander Philpott succeeds in keeping the western intelligence community at bay, in the hijack drama, although a general within the Pentagon provides assistance from his office. The Secret Service is nowhere in the picture. Neither is CIA. The KGB is in on the plot for its own sinister motive and doesn’t hesitate to backstab hijack mastermind Mister Smith.

There is plenty of action in Air Force One is Down and while the story, 
even if unconvincing, is well-written and entertaining, it lacks the narrative stamp of an Alistair MacLean thriller.

Saturday, February 14, 2015


I have been slack in blogging this past week because of family issues, niggling but not insurmountable, like grappling with spondylitis (my wife) and a frozen shoulder (me), visits to orthopedic doctors and x-ray clinic, physiotherapy at home, B12 shots, meeting office deadlines, and computer problems. All is well, though, and I hope to return to active blogging next week.

A word of advice: if you’re reaching out for something, never stretch your hand beyond its capacity. Climb on a stool or go round and pick it up. It's worth the effort.

The doctor gave me three options: physiotherapy for a minimum of three months (though, he said, it could take up to six months for the shoulder to heal) with heat and ice packs, steroid injections or straightening the joint under local anaesthesia. I have ruled out the last two—they scare me.