Friday, February 5, 2016

The Case of the Invisible Circle by Erle Stanley Gardner, 1956

Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

Any veteran investigator will tell you that it's very easy to overlook the most significant clue in a murder case. 

Erle Stanley Gardner wrote The Case of the Invisible Circle for the July 1956 issue of Mercury Mystery Book-Magazine. It is one of dozens of short stories and novelettes he published over more than four decades. These do not include the series of novels and stories based on his principal character, Perry Mason, and lesser-known protagonists like Cool and Lam, Doug Selby, Terry Clane, and Gramps Wiggins.

The Case of the Invisible Circle differs from his trademark mysteries in that there is a crime that is so perplexing as to baffle the police and pathologists.

The first-person narrator of the story, who I assume is the writer himself, is sent by the city editor of the Denver Post to the capital of Colorado — to investigate and report on the brutal rape and murder of a beautiful college girl, whose body is discovered at the bottom of a snow-covered ravine. He is accompanied by Dr. LeMoyne Snyder, a famous medico-legal specialist and author with a keen eye for homicide cases.

District attorney Hatfield Chilson, who is described as “a shrewd lawyer, a competent investigator and, above all, a fair man,” is in charge of the case. Our storyteller and Dr. Snyder assist him in getting to the bottom of the sex crime that has eluded police officers, forensics experts, and pathologists.

The challenging mystery is eventually solved after the men discover a vital clue in one of the photographs — a circle on the naked right hip of the girl — that everyone had missed the first time.

There is not a single dialogue in the story. The narrative is plain but engaging. I think Gardner deliberately wrote it that way. Instead, he offers the reader a structured investigation and police procedural that helps to nail the murderer in the end.

Interestingly, the author makes a strong case for the high character of district attorneys and lawyers in the country. He wants the public to know what these people are capable of and how they measure up to their responsibilities while investigating homicide cases.

If you are a fan of Erle Stanley Gardner, you will enjoy this story.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld, 2006

Opening line: “There is no mystery to happiness.”

My daughter Nyrica has eclectic taste in books. She borrowed The Interpretation of Murder, 2006, by American writer Jed Rubenfeld, from the library. The minute I read the back of the book, I had to write about it even if I’m unlikely to read it soon owing to other book commitments. 


This is what her 529-page Headline Review paperback says:

“On the morning after Sigmund Freud arrives in New York on his first—and only—visit to the United States, a stunning debutante is found bound and strangled in her penthouse apartment, high above Broadway. The following night, another beautiful heiress, Nora Acton, is discovered tied to a chandelier in her parents’ home, viciously wounded and unable to speak or to recall her ordeal. Soon Freud and his American disciple, Sttatham Younger, are enlisted to help Miss Acton recover her memory, and to piece together the killer’s identity. It is a riddle that will test their skills to the limit
, and lead them on a thrilling journey—into the darkest places of the city, and of the human mind.”


It’s the most intriguing book synopsis I have read this year. Freud plays detective along with his fictitious disciple, Younger, and his real-life acolyte Carl Jung. In 1909, the two renowned psychoanalysts actually visited the United States to deliver a series of lectures on psychoanalysis at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. You can see where the author got the idea for his first novel.
 
Jed Rubenfeld, Professor of Law at Yale Law School, has written one other novel, The Death Instinct, 2010, a mystery-thriller set around the 1920 Wall Street bombing. This should be equally interesting.

He has also written books on constitutional law and co-authored The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, 2014, with his wife Amy Chua.


Author's picture sourced from www.amazon.co.uk.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

I Am Sam, 2002

Love is all you need is the tag line of I Am Sam. I offer a review of the film for Tuesday’s Overlooked Films, Audio and Video over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

Lucy (Dakota Fanning): Why are men bald?

Sam (Sean Penn): Sometimes they're bald because their head is shiny and they don't have hair on it. So their head is just more of their face. 



Whether as a producer, director or writer, Jessie Nelson seems to be pleasantly obsessed with issues of coping and bonding, which form the underlying structure of many of her films. This is evident in her directorial ventures, Corrina, Corrina (1994), I Am Sam (2002), and Love the Coopers (2015), where she explores the complexities of love and relationships. 

Sam Dawson (Sean Penn), a mentally-challenged man, raises his daughter Lucy Diamond (Dakota Fanning) after her mother abandons her at birth. He has named her after The Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. He works at Starbucks and is equally obsessed with brewing coffee. Sam adores his daughter in his own childlike way and Lucy loves him no less. At times she is forced to play the role of parent, but she won't let on that her intellectual capacity is superior to his.

When she turns seven, the authorities take away the precocious child, ostensibly, for her own good. Father and daughter meet under supervision and hate every bit of it. Sam struggles to find a lawyer who will help him get his little girl back. He finds Rita Harrison Williams (Michelle Pfeiffer), a self-centered, high-society lawyer, who takes up his case pro bono, only to prove a point to her snickering colleagues. Does she win the courtroom battle?

Rita (Michelle Pfeiffer): I just don't know what to call you: retarded, mentally retarded, mentally handicapped, mentally disabled, intellectually handicapped, intellectually disabled, developmentally disabled...

Sam (Penn): You can call me Sam.

Jessie Nelson has handled the subject of a retarded parent, who is crazy about his daughter, with a great deal of sensitivity, and dignified humour. The camerawork is respectful of the delicate subject. The various scenes are well-crafted. While exploring the beautiful, and often poignant, relationship between Sam and Lucy, she also offers a glimpse into another—obsessed with her career, Rita, a single parent, learns to bond with her neglected young son and finds new meaning in her life. She owes it to Sam.

Sean Penn’s performance—as a kindly man with a mental capacity of a seven-year old and yet of keen perception—is good. I can imagine how much he researched and trained for the role that requires facial contortions and repetition of speech. He is a method actor, I think. He plays the mentally disabled Sam Dawson to near perfection, though not convincingly enough to convert his nominations for ‘Best Actor in a Leading Role’ at the Oscars and SAGA, into awards. Whether he deserved one is open to debate.

Dakota Fanning is a natural-born actress and her remarkable talent shows in this film as well as it does in Man on Fire, War of the Worlds, and Hide and Seek. Michelle Pfeiffer acts well but is clearly overshadowed by Penn. I’d have preferred Susan Sarandon. She and Penn shared a good chemistry in Dead Man Walking (1995). Dianne Wiest, Richard Schiff, and Laura Dern put in more or less guest appearances.

The underlying message of I Am Sam is that, the mentally challenged are nearly as normal as anyone else, certainly more so where matters of the heart are concerned. It's a nice film and I liked it, partly because of Sean Penn's affecting screen presence.

Rita (Pfeiffer): Sam, I worry. I worry sometimes.

Sam (Penn): Yeah... do you worry that you did something wrong?

Rita: No. I worry that I've gotten more out of this relationship than you.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Drabble #2: A story in 100 words

I write my diary on the 7.56 pm local.

I look at the man nodding off on my left. He looks sixty. He is fat and bald. I can see that. He doesn't have hair on his head. He has a large nose and hair on his ears, like vertical eyelashes. He has an ugly mole on his chin.

I turn to look at him. He is staring at me. I jump. “Eeeks! You scared me!”

“Are you making fun of me?” he points at my phone.

“Uh...no...I wasn’t.”

“Biff!”

Friday, January 15, 2016

Opening lines: The Wailing Frail by Richard S. Prather, 1956

I bought the ebook edition of The Wailing Frail—the 12th in the popular 40-plus Shell Scott Detective Mystery series by Richard S. Prather—thinking I’d review it for Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase. Unfortunately, I couldn’t finish reading it in time.

Patti is hosting a Richard S. Prather special today and had I finished the book, it’d have been my first by the American mystery novelist who has a cult following among fans of the genre.

I’m a little more than halfway into this hardboiled racy novel and I already like Prather’s style, particularly his use of short sentences that are as crisp as a fried South Indian papad, lines like “Beasley's mouth was working, but he didn't say anything.” He lives much to the reader’s imagination.

I also liked the opening lines a lot. I have a feeling that’s how most of his novels open, with more than just a hint of suspense and humour.

She yanked the door open with a crash and said, "Gran — "but then she stopped and stared at me. She was nude as a noodle.

I stared right back at her.

"Oh!" she squealed. "You're…not Grandma!"

"No," I said, "I'm Shell Scott, and you're not Grandma, either."

She slammed the door in my face.

Yep, I thought, this is the right house. 

 
I will be reviewing The Wailing Frail in coming weeks.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Revolutionary Road, 2008

This is my entry for Tuesday’s Overlooked Films, Audio and Video over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

It was a coincidence that just the day before Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet won Golden Globes for The Revenant and Steve Jobs, respectively, I watched the two in Revolutionary Road, an intense and at times depressing family drama that exposes the soft underbelly of “happily” married couples.

In 2008, Winslet won Golden Globes for Best Actress and Actress of the Year, including for The Reader. DiCaprio and director Sam Mendes failed to convert their nominations into what would have been well-deserved awards.

DiCaprio and Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler who live on Revolutionary Road in a Connecticut suburb with their two children. They seem content with their quotidian middle-class existence, he as an ordinary salesman in the company where his father worked for many years and she as a dutiful wife who manages home and the kids.

Mendes doesn’t waste time with the niceties of married life. No sooner the film is underway he tears away the veil of matrimonial bliss, at least in the eyes of their next-door friends Milly Campbell (Kathryn Hahn) and her husband Shep (David Harbour), and their real estate broker Mrs. Givings (Kathy Bates).

At the heart of the story lies April’s plan to migrate to Paris, in search of a new identity and a more fulfilling life as much for herself as for her family, which quickly turns into a nightmare as it conflicts with Frank’s own. From thereon, it’s downhill for the couple who are caught in a tangle of self-deception, frustration, anger, promiscuity, despair, and tragedy.



Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition) has made a powerful film that lays bare the harsh realities of married life, the frailties of ordinary people, and how “happy” couples can be their own worst enemies. Although the director gives equal weightage to the characters of DiCaprio and Winslet, I thought this was actually Alice’s story. Full of zest for life, Alice aspires to become an actress again only to see her dreams crash, after her differences with Frank erupt like a volcano.

Not surprisingly, DiCaprio and Winslet give a splendid performance in Revolutionary Road, particularly in their nasty arguments and fights, their emotions and feelings of guilt, so typical of problems husbands and wives face in the real world. In that sense the film holds a mirror to marriages. DiCaprio deserved an award too.


Recommended.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Drabble #1: A story in 100 words

A few years ago, I picked up the phone for a colleague and this is what happened.

"Hello, may I speak to Mr. Dinanathrao Harishchandra Bhatavdekar?

"Sure you can, but he is not here."

"Where is he?".

"He left."

"Left office for the day?"

"No, left the organisation."

"How can that be? I spoke to him ten minutes ago!"

"Then you must feel really stupid to let him go."

"JUST WHO IS THIS?!"

"Your friendly neighbourhood..."

DHB stood at my elbow, lips compressed and glowering.

“Here, it’s for you.”

Some people have no sense of humour.

Friday, January 1, 2016

2015: The year I didn’t read much

My reading went completely haywire in 2015. It was The year I didn't read much. I’m not putting a number to it because it hardly counts for anything. I probably read less than 25 novels and short stories and most of those in the first-half. I did read a lot, of course, just not books. In contrast, I read 41 novels and novellas and 31 short stories in 2014.

Ditto for reviews and sundry posts on my blog, down from 142 in 2014 to 76 in 2015. I wonder what I did with the extra time.

Something happened. I’m not sure what or why. I simply lost the desire to read, or write. Job transition and a new work routine played a role, I think.

I’m trying not to feel bad about it, because I enjoyed the books I read, and that is how reading should be. I certainly don’t want to be an apologist for tackling fewer books.

In November 2014, I announced a self-styled challenge to read and review at least 50 ‘First Novels’ by writers across genres. Tall order, for my final tally is just 10. I intend to continue with the challenge and see where I will be at this time next year.

My book of the year is British writer Sarah Ward’s debut novel In Bitter Chill, which made it to the ‘First Novels’ category. I reviewed the book and also interviewed Sarah, who was generous with her answers.

I’m looking forward to doing more author-interviews in 2016.

The 10 ‘First Novels,’ some of which I had read before, were:

01. In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward, 2015
02. The Thirteenth Day by Aditya Iyengar, 2015
03. Noble Beginnings by L.T. Ryan, 2012
04. Run Girl by Eva Hudson, 2014
05. America, America by Elia Kazan, 1962
06. No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase, 1939
07. The Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner, 1933
08. The Sheriff and His Partner by Frank Harris, 1891
09. War Against the Mafia by Don Pendleton, 1969
10. The Hardy Boys: The Tower Treasure, 1927

I also read some interesting short stories, including:

01. The Blood of the Fallen by James Reasoner, 2002
02. Harvest of War by Charles Gramlich, 2012
03. Blackskull’s Captive by Tom Doolan, 2012
04. First Offense by Evan Hunter, 1955
05. The Spider by Hanns Heinz Ewers, 1915
06. The Fog Horn by Ray Bradbury, 1951
07. Gladiator by Philip Wylie, 1930

You can read all the reviews under the ‘Rewind’ button on the right.

The other highlight of the year was my interview with prolific writer James Reasoner based on his fascinating story The Blood of the Fallen, an alternate history about Lincoln. I plan to read his westerns and historical fiction in future.

I will finish on a solemn note by remembering my dear blog friend Ron Scheer who passed away last April. He was very supportive of my blog and gave me a new perspective on westerns, or frontier fiction as he called it. I miss him.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward, 2015

Review & Interview

Sadler looked out across the whitening square. “I don't think it was ever closed.”


Detective Inspector Francis Sadler is talking about a three-decade old case in which two young schoolgirls in Bampton, a sleepy town in Derbyshire, England, were abducted. While Rachel Jones was found alive, her friend Sophie Jenkins was presumed dead—murdered by their kidnappers.

Way back then, the police investigation remained inconclusive and the case was closed. Was it really? Apparently not.

More than thirty years later, the unexplained suicide of Sophie’s mother, Yvonne Jenkins, in a hotel room, and the discovery of school teacher Penny Lander’s strangled body in a wooded area, comes back to haunt Rachel, survivor of that terrible event of January 20, 1978.

Rachel, now in her late-thirties, is a genealogist who digs up family secrets and histories, but keeps her own strictly under wraps. She’d like nothing better than to forget her past, the little that she remembers, and get on with her quiet life.


But the thing about the past is that it usually catches up with the present, and the outcome is not always pleasant.

When Detective Inspector Sadler and his diminutive partner, Detective Constable Connie Childs, link the two mysterious deaths to the old case, Rachel is sucked back into her past and forced to confront the sordid truth behind the abduction. She becomes an unwitting collaborator in the rebooted investigation of the crime.

In Bitter Chill—the debut novel of English writer and blogger Sarah Ward—is a compelling and well-written story of family secrets within secrets which, while being dark, is not discomfiting.

The novel is like a trident, a spear with three prongs, where each point holds three key plot elements of the story.

One, in spite of being a child-kidnap victim, Rachel becomes a genealogist when she grows up. She refuses to look over her shoulder but you can tell she is curious to know what happened to her and Sophie that day. Her own independent inquiries help her to come to terms with her mysterious past.

Two, Sarah has handled the subject of child abduction thoughtfully and sensitively, not to mention deceptively, because she doesn’t make it easy for the reader to guess why Rachel and Sophie were kidnapped. I had a few ideas, like child trafficking, for instance.


Three, DI Sadler and DC Childs are like two obsessive archaeologists who dig into the ruins of a thirty-year old case and put the skeleton of the crime together. They operate on the same wavelength in this mild police procedural. I expect to read more of their stories in future.

Sarah has written In Bitter Chill with an engaging frankness. The narrative is well-plotted, evenly paced, and meticulously clean. The descriptive nature of the story fits in well with the small-town setting where everyone knows everyone by name. The three main characters, Rachel, Sadler, and Connie, are believable and drawn with ease. Each one works on the case with a quiet determination. The genealogist and the two detectives are bound by a common interest—putting a lid on the case and achieving a sense of closure.

On the flipside, at 310 pages, I thought the novel was a touch too long. There were moments when I wanted the author to cut to the chase, but that was largely because I was keen to see what happened in the end. Frankly, I didn’t see it coming. Come to think of it, that’s another plus for Sarah’s fine debut.

Recommended.


I thank Sarah for sending me a review copy of In Bitter Chill as well as agreeing to do the interview that follows.


‘I became a writer because I'm a reader’


Photograph provided by the author.

Sarah Ward spoke to the 3Cs in an email interview, which is split into three parts: the book, the characters and setting, and the author.

THE BOOK

 
Sarah, how did the idea for In Bitter Chill originate? Was the child abduction and murder based on a true story?
It's based on an experience that happened to me as a child when I was walking to school and a woman attempted to persuade me to get into her car. Of course, I didn't go with her. But it left a feeling of confusion that I wanted to explore in my debut novel.

Did you always want to debut with a police procedural?
I see In Bitter Chill as a mix of police procedural and as a standalone book. Although the police investigation plays a role, I feel the book is primarily about Rachel's own investigation into her past.

What kind of research did you have to do for the subject of your novel?
I did a certain amount of tracing my own family tree and also talked to people about the impact of childhood trauma. I was keen to show that Rachel could come across as aloof but that this would be a response to what happened to her as a child.

Were you influenced by other crime fiction authors while writing In Bitter Chill?
Not while I was writing In Bitter Chill, but I suspect that I've been influenced by every book that I've enjoyed reading.

The narrative is slow but evenly paced for most part of the book and then builds up towards the end. Did you plan it that way or did it flow as you went along?
I suppose the flow was natural. I rewrote the book quite a lot, so it's difficult to assess In Bitter Chill objectively. I didn't want the book to be full of shocks but rather a gradual unfolding of the mystery.

CHARACTERS & SETTING

Sarah, I thought two of the three main characters, Detective Constable Connie Childs and kidnap victim and genealogist Rachel Jones, were similar in not too obvious a manner. Who or what inspired their characters?
That's interesting as I didn't intend to make them similar.

I see Connie as impetuous and investigating from the heart. She becomes involved in the story of the girls' disappearance when the rest of the team are lukewarm about the chances of discovering what happened those years ago.

Rachel, I see as more resolute, determined to find out what happened to her rather than it being done by an outside agency. She also comes across as slightly cold due to her self-sufficiency. Neither character is based on a real-life person. They developed during the writing.

Is Bampton, the small fictional town in Derbyshire, based on a town you knew well, or maybe, grew up in? 

Bampton isn't based on a real-life town but I wanted it to embody the sort of place where I grew up. There was one high school and one doctor's surgery. You would walk down the street and see someone you knew. It's the type of place where secrets can exist for generations and, at the same time, where everyone knows each other's business.

There is a subtle hint of attraction between Detective Inspector Francis Saddler and Connie Childs. Can we expect them to come together in future?

Who knows. I suspect Connie's path in life won't be a smooth one.

In spite of being an excellent genealogist, why is Rachel Jones reluctant to delve into her own past?

I think people are capable of drawing a distinction between their personal and private lives. I'm also drawn to how people can unwittingly choose professions that have a resonance with their own past.

How real are family secrets in the small towns of England?

I think every family has its secrets. But I think when families live in close proximity to each other, the potential for tension and conflict can be greater.

THE AUTHOR

 
Sarah, can you take us through your journey as a writer and an author?

I became a writer because I'm a reader. Crime fiction has always been my love but I do read other genres, particularly literary fiction and poetry. I started writing when I was living in Athens, Greece. In Bitter Chill was my second attempt at a novel. Both Sadler and Connie were in the first novel I tried but I decided I liked the characters better than the plot, so I had a second go!

What does writing mean to you? How do you describe the experience?

Umm...hard work! I wouldn't say it comes that easily to me although I have moments when the words flow out. But I am diligent and I try to write something every day. And I'm a conscientious editor and am happy to keep rewriting something until I like the ‘feel’ of it.

Where, when, and how do you write?

Usually in my house although sometimes at a cafe. And I do like to have at least one intense burst during a book's first draft. Mornings are my most productive time, afternoons are hopeless and I try again in the evenings.

How long did it take you to write In Bitter Chill?

About two years with long gaps in between.

What can your readers expect after your brilliant debut?

Thank you! I have just finished the second book in the series which will be called A Fragile Spring. It's coming out in the UK next September. It will feature the same police characters with a new female protagonist and a new mystery.

What books have influenced your writing and who are some of your favourite authors?

No individual book. My favourite crime writers are Agatha Christie, PD James and Ruth Rendell.

Do you have a specific time and place for reading?

Whenever I get a chance. Always in bed and on trains.

Finally, Sarah, what is your advice to budding authors?

Finish what you start and then make it better. I don't think there's any magic formula. Most of the best authors I know are extremely hard working.

Thank you, Sarah.



Reviews by my blog friends and acquaintances

Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery

Martin Edwards at Do You Write Under Your Name?

Bernadette at Reactions to Reading

Rebecca Bradley at Murder Down to a Tea 

Moira Redmond at Clothes in Books




Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Thirteenth Day by Aditya Iyengar, 2015

The old warrior lay on a bed of arrows.

The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are the two great epics that most Indians hear about from childhood. At the heart of the larger-than-life stories about royal succession and moral dilemma are dynastic conflicts that take place on a grand scale.

Although the narratives are more mythological than historical, many scholars cite archaeological evidence to suggest that the two wars in the epics actually took place thousands of years ago. Each battle of right and wrong and good versus evil occurs during a yuga, or epoch, in Hinduism.


Mumbai-based writer Aditya Iyengar has set The Thirteenth Day: A Story of the Kurukshetra War (2015) in Kali Yuga—the Dark Age or Iron Age—the fourth and final cycle of life, the times we live in. The Kurukshetra War is the main element of the Mahabharata. It pertains to a fierce struggle between two sets of cousins, the Kauravas and Pandavas, for the kingdom of Kuru at Hastinapura, said to be in modern-day Haryana in North India. 

The succession battle eventually leads to an internecine war fought over eighteen days and decides the fates of the cousins and their friends and allies.

Iyengar infuses a fresh perspective into his story by narrating it through the eyes of Yudhishthira, Radheya, and Abhimanyu, three of several principal characters in the epic who are as flawed as they are infallible.

Yudhishthira, the eldest and most virtuous of the five Pandava brothers, fights his own inner battles as he tries, somewhat reluctantly, to prove he is as good as his more valiant brothers. The man who would be king would rather be elsewhere than on the battlefield.

Radheya, popularly known as Karna, is half-brother of the Pandavas. He lends his warfare skills to Suyodhana (Duryodhana), the Kaurava leader, after he learns the truth about his illegitimate birth to Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas. The stable boy grows up to become a great warrior and an expert archer. In this, he is almost equal only to Arjuna, the third Pandava. Radheya is bitter and confused as he struggles with his feelings towards his royal half-brothers and his desire to rule the kingdom as the eldest.

Abhimanyu, the warrior son of Arjuna, is desperate to prove himself on the battlefield. He resents his father’s instructions to stay in the reserves. Skilled in warfare and audaciously brave, the young prince enters the battleground, vanquishes rulers far more experienced than him, and pays with his life.

The thirteenth day in the title of the book refers to the 13th and most decisive period of the 18-day war when the wily Kauravas lure Abhimanyu into the Chakravyuha, a multi-layered battle formation akin to an onion, and kill him in cold blood. The event is seen as a game changer in the war as Arjuna, distraught with grief, vows to destroy the enemy and avenge his son’s brutal death. 


Author Aditya Iyengar
The author explains the premise behind his debut novel in his synopsis. 

“The 13th day treats the Kurukshetra War as a historical event rather than mythology. So the events are explained as if they really happened—without the fantastic elements: the flying asuras, nuclear potential astras and divine intervention. In doing this, I've tried to explain how real events and people become stories and legends, and eventually the myths that become a part of our living heritage.”

He continues, “In a sense, I've written the story as a parallel to our times and while the story is set a thousand years ago, it acts as a mirror to society today. The underlying theme of the story revolves around identity and deals with our need for a positive public impression and the lengths we can go to secure it. All the characters act with a motive to gain greater glory or public currency from the battle. None more so than Abhimanyu, who wants to be remembered as the greatest warrior of his times and who, like any young person, wants to be spoken of 'in the words of bards and poets' (the mass media of those times).”


In retelling a section of the Kurukshetra War, Aditya Iyengar has tried to remove the veneer of mystery and romanticism from the epic and redrawn its feared and revered characters and made them more realistic and appealing. While he has kept the famed celestial weapons of war out of his narrative, he has described the battle on the ground with graphic intensity. The brutality of the Kurukshetra is reminiscent of violent and bloody conflicts of the modern world.

I enjoyed reading The Thirteenth Day because of my familiarity with the epic. The Mahabharata can and has been interpreted in different ways. Iyengar chose to do so from the point of view of three disparate characters and, in so doing, demolished some of the myths surrounding the powerful warriors and the battles they fought. I saw them as more human and less supernal beings.

Iyengar’s writing is good and his narrative is engaging, though it tends to meander through some of the battle scenes. At 260 pages, I thought my ebook was a tad too long. It’d have read crisper with less, but that's the writer's prerogative. A reader not familiar with the Kurukshetra War will find the book of interest as it provides a glimpse into one of ancient India’s premier Sanskrit literature.

Recommended.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

New Year's Eve, 2011

Theme: Tuesday’s Overlooked Films, Audio and Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

I enjoy watching films with big casts of popular and familiar actors, called blockbusters in Bollywood. Of course, blockbusters pertain to mega hits and not the strength of actors, as they usually do in Hindi cinema. The thinking is more the number of actors, greater the entertainment. It doesn’t always work that way unless we are talking of The Dirty Dozen.

New Year’s Eve, directed by Garry Marshall, has a diverse cast that includes both principals and ensemble. The 2011 romcom is all about twosomes caught in various stages of their lives and in different situations on, you guessed it, New Year’s Eve. The various characters put their lives in perspective hours before ringing in the New Year. It’s not a happy time for everyone, though. For instance, we have a dying patient, Robert De Niro, and his caring nurse, Halle Berry, in a hospital setting. Two mature people coming to terms with the realities of life.

You can give the film a miss if you like. There is nothing terribly exciting about it. I watched the film because it was a lazy Sunday afternoon when I didn’t feel like doing anything truly worthwhile. Besides, I wanted to see how Michelle Pfeiffer, Zac Efron, John Lithgow, Robert De Niro, Halle Berry, Jessica Biel, Josh Duhamel, Hilary Swank, Héctor Elizondo, Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Katherine Heigl, Jon Bon Jovi, Ashton Kutcher, Sofia Vergara, Russell Peters, Seth Meyers, and Jim Belushi, among others, got together and entertained the rest of us, in a decent and mild sort of way.

Garry Marshall made Valentine’s Day, a somewhat similar film, in 2010. He seems to be the master of makeup and breakup movies as evident from his other fare that includes Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, Raising Helen, and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Dead Money Run by J. Frank James and The Victim by Eric Matheny

Kelsey McBride at Book Publicity Services has drawn my attention to two suspense novels by authors I have not read before.

Dead Money Run (2013) by J. Frank James, author of crime thrillers, is the first in the Lou Malloy Crime Series.

Synopsis: Lou Malloy learns of his sister's death right before he is released from prison, having served 15 years for the theft of $15 million from an Indian casino. He wants two things: to keep the $15 million, which no one has been able to find, and to track down and punish whoever killed his sister. Lou Malloy teams up with Hilary Kelly, a private investigator. In no time, Lou has found the hidden $15 million, recovered guns and ammunition hidden with the money, and murdered two low-level mobsters and fed them to the crocodiles. As the body count rises, the story grows more complex and his sister's death becomes more mysterious. 

The Victim (2015) by Eric Matheny, a criminal defence lawyer, is described as a “tense, fast-paced, legal thriller.” The author draws on his experience in the legal system where he has handled everything from DIU (driving under the influence) to murder.

Synopsis: Anton Mackey is a man with everything. At least, he seems to be on the surface. He has a rising career as a private attorney, a lovely wife, a beautiful daughter; he and his family live in an idyllic neighborhood that most people dream about. Sure, there are troubles that plague this family, the same as any other, but all in all things are looking up. Life is good, and the future is better. Except Anton has a past, too, and something has been looming, bearing down on him from that history, just waiting for the chance to strike. Soon, everything will change, and the life he’s struggled so hard to build will come crashing down around him. And the worst part of it all: Anton Mackey has no one to blame but himself.

You may click on the links above to learn more about the authors and their books.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Chess in the movies

Theme: Chess in the Movies for Tuesday's Overlooked Films, Audio and Video at Todd Mason's blog Sweet Freedom.

In many ways, chess has been integral to films. The 64-square board game has featured umpteen times in all kinds of movies, from mystery and fantasy to horror and espionage. It is one of a handful of games and sports frequently seen in a cameo role, others being golf, snooker, and cards.

There is something fascinating about chess that appeals to a lot of people including film-makers, even if not everyone understands the game or knows how to play. It has an air of allure about it which, I feel, has to do with intellect, chance, suspense, winning, subtlety, intelligence, strategy, plot, thrill, and style associated with chess as well as films.


The game can make quite an impact in a film and on the viewer. For instance, the symbolic match between the characters of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender in X-Men: First Class, in front of a fireplace, resonated with me because that’s the kind of setting in which I’d love to play the game. The two brothers, Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr (alias Magneto), play in a relaxed environment even though they have serious issues to deal with, such as preventing World War III.

Chess blends perfectly with most plots and settings, be it in a comedy with Charlie Chaplin, science fiction with Leonard Nimoy, fantasy with Daniel Radcliffe or action with Jason Statham.

Although chess is incidental and mostly used as a prop or a backdrop, it glamourises films more than any other game or sport. It is an equaliser, a diversion, a fairy tale, even if for a short cinematic moment.

Here is a chronological list of movies that have featured chess. Some of these films, like Shatranj Ke KhilariSearching for Bobby Fischer, and Queen to Play, are actually about the game. 


Charlie Chaplin in The Masquerader, 1914
Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, 1942
Vladek Sheybal in From Russia with Love, 1963
Woody Allen in What's New Pussycat?, 1965
Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek, 1966-1969
Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen
in The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968
Timothy Dalton in The Lion in Winter, 1968
Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, 1971
Saeed Jaffrey and Sanjeev Kumar
in Satyajit Ray's Shatranj Ke Khilari
(The Chess Players), 1977
John Cleese in Silverado, 1985
Max Pomeranc in
Searching for Bobby Fischer, 1993
Samuel L. Jackson in Fresh, 1994
Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint in
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, 2001
Patrick Stewart and Ian Mckellen
in X-Men 2, 2003
Jason Statham in Revolver, 2005
Robin Williams and Christopher Walken
in Man of the Year, 2006. While Williams
was a prolific chess player in real life,
I'm not sure if this is a scene from the
film or they played on the set,
as actors often did. 
Kevin Kline and Sandrine Bonnaire
in Joueuse, or Queen to Play, 2009
Steven Seagal in Born to Raise Hell, 2010
James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender
in X-Men: First Class, 2011
Cliff Curtis in The Dark Horse, 2014
I haven’t seen many of these chess-o-pics. How about you? Which are the other chess flicks I missed?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

First Offense by Evan Hunter, 1955

I offer this review for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

A replica of my edition of the book.
Do you know what can make a gritty police procedural a good story? An element of humour. Evan Hunter (alias Ed McBain) provides a fair bit of it in First Offense, the first short story in The McBain Brief, a collection of twenty non-87th Precinct stories published in 1982. 

Of course, it’s all unintended and incongruous in this realistic story about first-time felon Stevie, a 17-year-old cocky and defiant boy who thinks he knows more than the Chief of Detectives and the other hardened felons, including one veteran called Skinner who sizes up our protagonist for what he is, a punk, and advises him to keep his mouth shut.

Stevie is one of many felons who is brought to Centre Street Headquarters in Manhattan for a line-up before every detective squad in the city, 
so they will remember him the next time. Stevie’s crime: he assaulted a candy store owner for a lousy twelve dollars.

The gravity of his offence—stabbing the old man in the chest and abdomen—is lost on Stevie who behaves like a bum at a party, only to find there is no escape from this one.

First Offense is cold and atmospheric. The narrative transforms the reader into a silent witness at the police inquisition. I liked the matter-of-fact questioning of felons (a McBain trademark), including Stevie, by the Chief of Detectives. It was all a bit unsettling. You don’t want to be inside a police station for whatever reason and you certainly don’t want to be in a line-up, prior to arraignment, where you are not innocent till proven guilty.

“Tell us the story, Stevie.”

“Whatya makin’ a big federal case out of a lousy stick-up for? Ain’t you got nothing better to do with your time?”

“We've got plenty of time, Steve.”

“Well, I’m in a hurry.”

“You’re not going any place. Kid. Tell us about it.”


This story takes a hard look at delinquent crime and sociopathic behaviour of young people in the backdrop of some terrific police procedure. I think, this is an early instance of police procedural that Hunter/McBain became so notoriously famous for.

The McBain Brief is a collection of crime stories dating from as early as 1944. In ‘A Brief Introduction,’ Ed McBain ponders the question of why most of these twenty stories were first published under his pseudonyms like Hunt Collins and Richard Marsten. 'First Offense' was first published in Manhunt, December 1955, and was selected as one of the Best Detective Stories that year. McBain has said that he did not write the screenplay for this story on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, though the two masters of suspense met after he wrote 'First Offense.'

Recommended.


Further Reading

MysteryNet has an interview with Ed McBain on their website.

My blog friend Todd Mason had this to say about the story on his blog Sweet Freedom: “First Offense is a not-bad but utterly unsurprising story which reads for all the world like a rendering in prose of a typical script from the CBS Radio series The Lineup.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Musings from my Facebook page

As you can see, I have not been posting much on my blog for a variety of reasons, mainly lack of time and general lethargy. I have been trying to get back into blog and review mode by writing on my Facebook page, where I'm more consistent. I pen my thoughts, and little stories, mostly on sentimental and nostalgic stuff almost every day. I steer clear of controversial topics, politics and religion, about which there is growing intolerance on social media and elsewhere. The forced refrain is: “You have a right to your opinion provided you agree with mine.” There is just too much negativity out there and it is pathetic. 

I'm on Facebook for a bit of fun.

I stick to the simple and ordinary things of life—memories of my childhood years, everyday observations, books I read, movies I'm watching, inner peace, food I love eating, places I visit, life in pictures, and that sort of thing. I write about things that make me feel good—as everything we do, should—and also resonate with others including family and friends.

You’ll get an idea from the following compilation of my most recent Facebook entries published over the past ten days. Some of my blog friends who are also my Facebook friends might have read these before. Others need not be compelled to read at all. It might be dreadfully boring and result in reader mortis. I have edited some of the posts for brevity, if brevity is, indeed, possible these days.

November 8: The PhantomThe Ghost Who Walks and Man Who Cannot Die—married in the mid-80s, a few years before I did. I "attended" his wedding in the Skull Cave. He tied the knot with the beautiful Diana Palmer of New York, in the presence of an odd bunch of guests—Diana's mother and Uncle Dave; Mandrake the Magician and Lothar; the pygmy Bandar led by best man Guran; his adopted son Rex; friend Thal, king of the Little People; Hero and Devil, his white stallion and wolf; and, Hzz, the prehistoric half man-half beast living on his isle of Eden, where all his other animals, including a stegosaurus, eat grass and live peacefully; where lions eat fish.

I thought the Phantom's attire was wholly inappropriate for such an important occasion. But then, he got married as the Phantom and not as Kit Walker, his secret urban identity. If Diana didn't mind, who the hell was I to object? I wore a suit at my wedding. The Guardian of the Eastern Dark didn't show up. Ever since, we haven't been on talking, or reading, terms.


November 6: My dad loved Kapi. He liked his coffee hot and strong with a spot of milk and very little sugar. Sometimes he used to skip dinner and have Kapi and buttered bread or toast, instead. He'd apply a good amount of butter on the bread slices and toast them on an open pan till they were golden brown. He'd then carefully slice each toast into four perfect squares, dip each bit in hot coffee, and pop it into his mouth. He made them for me, too. And was it delicious! The taste of salted buttered toast dunked in coffee or tea, if I may rightly exaggerate, is heavenly. Over the years I have tickled my palate by dipping crisp and crunchy Khara biscuits and Brun-maska in tea.

I'm not fond of coffee unless it is an authentic South Indian brew. Occasionally, I feel like having Kapi when I'm reading about detectives in crime fiction, gulping down mugs of steaming black coffee. I can almost smell it.

November 5: I love slapstick comedy and I'm extremely partial to Laurel and Hardy. They are the best. Such sweet innocence and so much fun. It's a pity there have been such few comedians in that laugh-out-loud category. I left Charles Chaplin out because, while I like him as an actor and have enjoyed many of his films, he is not funny. In fact, he can be quite depressing. When I think of slapstick, I think of mindless comedy. Comedy for the sake of comedy.

November 5: Last evening, I hit pay dirt at one of my secondhand book haunts: a used brand new 4-in-1 collection of Lucky Luke comics. Lucky Luke is a Belgian namesake comic-book series created and drawn by Morris (Maurice De Bevere) and written by Goscinny, who also wrote many of the earliest Asterix comics. I have been reading the adventures of Lucky Luke, the American cowboy known to "shoot faster than his shadow," since early teens. Good fun and absolute value for my Rs.50 (less than $1).

November 5: My reading room on wheels—where I read more Facebook and less book. The 7.45 am siren at the Khar railway yard, en route to work, just went off. A familiar sound back from my childhood. As long as it's not an air raid siren, all's well with our world.

© Prashant C. Trikannad

November 4: At the end of the day

I step out of my air-conditioned coffin.
Street boys hammer drums,
the devil knows why.
Roadside woofers, like black holes,
blast distorted music.
Fuckin' drivers leapfrog signals,
nearly knocking me down.
Crackers go off on my tail,
precursor to the advent of hell.
I rugby my way to the station,
past hawkers and jaywalkers.
I sweat it out in a crammed local.
I sweat it out in a snaky bus queue.
I sweat it out in drunken traffic.
Two hours too late,
I reach home, lose my head.
My pet wags her little tail.
I growl at her, sending her off.
“How was your day, darling?”
My face looks like burnt toast.
A hushed silence descends.
The air-conditioner comes on.
I set off again,
this time on a guilt trip.

November 4: I grew up with images of many iconic films. Of course, I realised they were iconic much later, after I started watching old movies on VCR & VCP and cable in mid-80s and early 90s. Two classics are etched in my mind: the scene where a crop-dusting plane is chasing Cary Grant in Hitchcock's North by Northwest, 1959, and the Burt Lancaster-Deborah Kerr steamy beach kiss in From Here to Eternity, 1953.

Elders in the family fondly recalled actors of their generation, who they grew up watching on the big screen. I'm glad they became actors of my generation too. When I look back on their era, I think of absolute class, style, and substance.

November 3: This Christmas-New Year I'm going on a tour of some of the most fascinating places in the world. My global stopovers will include Gotham City, Xanadu, Metropolis and The Daily Planet, Jaigarh, Gaul, the Skull Cave and Denkali, Asgard, Marlinspike Hall, Dwarka, Riverdale, Mongo, Bayport, Rich Mansion, Coast City, Pellucidar, Disney, Atlantis, and Sherwood Forest. S.H.I.E.L.D. is lending me their Quinjet.

Would you like to join me?

© Prashant C. Trikannad
November 3: Spare a thought for my pet...and me: Next week is Diwali, the festival of lights...and loud noise. The next few days are going to be traumatic for Stubs as deafening firecrackers cause her such fear as to make her lose her appetite and spend most of her time under the bed. She and her affectionate kind must curse humans, as I do. Request a reveller to desist from firing bombs, or light them elsewhere, and the smirky response will be, "Uncle, it's Diwali. No fun without crackers!" or it could be something like this, in crass Hindi, "What goes of your father?" effectively telling me to go to hell.

There is growing awareness about the harm firecrackers can cause to animals and people, but it's never going to be enough without a corresponding increase in compassion.

November 6: The World's Finest comic pictured below was one of 40 DC-Marvel comic-books my uncle from San Diego gifted us in the mid-70s. He inspired my dad, and his elder brother, to add to the lot every month. Before long, we had an impressive collection of Amar Chitra Katha, Indrajal, including Phantom, Mandrake, and Flash Gordon, the Harvey bunch, Archie and the Gang, Walt Disney, Tintin and Asterix, Dell, Whitman, and pocket Commando, and Western.

I took the comics baton from dad in the early 80s and widened the collection to include M.A.D., Maus, Classics Illustrated, and DC-Marvel annual editions. Forty years later, I can still smell those 40 brand-new comics. 

If you've read thin A4-size comics from that era, you'll know what I'm talking about. It felt like heaven to this kid.

November 1: Chess has been the single greatest learning experience of my life. This beautiful game beats school, college, and university education by a long mile. Chess is a seamless blend of passion, excitement, concentration, strategy, management, sacrifice, loyalty, patience, and ambition. I like to think of the 16 pieces as members of a close-knit family who look out for each other, like the mafia. They have their strengths and weaknesses but what holds them together on the 64-square board is blood kinship. 

Chess has taught me a lot in life; everything else I learnt on the job.

October 31: Barring Red Sonja, I have read the wild adventures of the other three superwomen—Axa and Modesty Blaise as comic strips and Xena as a comic book. I first read Axa—the forever-nude female Conan written by Donne Avenell and drawn by Romero—in the tabloid magazine, The Sun, known largely for its coverage of music. This was in the early 80s. I think, The Sun bought the rights for Axa from its British namesake where it was originally published. 

Axa bears a striking resemblance to Red Sonja who came before her. The origins of these two sword-sorcerers is interesting. Modesty Blaise was, of course, a three-unit black-and-white comic strip that many Indian newspapers published, alongside a similar James Bond strip. Sometimes, you didn't know which was which. I'm sure most Indians first heard of Xena the Warrior Princess through her television show. I didn't know she had a comic-book until much later.

Have you read any of these femme fatales of the comics world?

October 29: Every morning, a blind couple enters my coach in the 7.49 local and begs for alms. They sing lovely bhakti-geet, or devotional songs. They don't have much of a voice but together they sound good. I find it soothing, even if it is for a brief moment, till they get off at the next station and hop into another coach and start all over again. Singing blind during peak-hour rush can’t be easy.

I was raised on devotional songs, thanks to my dad who sang to my sister and me at bedtime, almost every night in our childhood and early teens. You can't go to sleep with a more secure and comforting feeling.

October 28: I'm seriously thinking of replacing my car with this single-wheel eco-friendly self-propeller. I could get around much faster. But I'm going to have to make sure I look like a formal guy and not a circus clown. Imagine, I could wheel myself right into my office and up to my desk. No pay and park. The more I think of my fuel-efficient idea, the more I'm convinced it'll work.

This weekend I'll hop over to the nearest stone quarry and place an order for a custom-built spoked wheel with a small headlight and a loud horn that I can control with my feet. I"m pretty excited. I must thank Johnny Hart whose B.C. comic strip was my inspiration. Next step: licence.

October 27: When we dogear the pages of our book, the book must feel like someone is twisting its ears. We know how painful that is. A book has life too. Every word on a page is like each breath we take.


That’s all the corniness for now. If you’re on Facebook, I’d be delighted to connect with you.

© Prashant C. Trikannad