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The Murder Bag – Tony Parsons

  This book was provided to me courtesy of Random House India in exchange of an honest review

The tagline of the book, ‘Do some people deserve to die?’, is one of those moral questions that never seems to have a clear answer. There are many who would say that mere mortals are not qualified enough to pass judgement on the crimes of others, however heinous they may be, whereas others stick to their philosophies of an eye for an eye. But how does one decide what is adequate punishment for someone like the butchers who killed Nirbhaya. Should they receive a quick, humane death after first living through possibly decades of appeals in rent-free accommodation with free food and lots of company? Or should they be released on a technicality which the whole country knows to be false? What about those who kidnap little children or young women and keep them as slaves for years together? Should they be thrown into a dark cell for the rest of their days with minimum rations and no outside contact and tortured on a daily basis? The decision seems impossible in the face of the myriad ways with which the human mind makes up ways to commit atrocities. The debate remains academic for most of us as long as the victim is an unknown name on the 9 o’clock news and will probably continue in this way leaving every individual to make their own choices if fate should ever choose to test them.

The plot of this book definitely had me agreeing to the question. Sometimes forgiveness just does not seem to be the correct answer.

After two very different and chilling introductions, or a prologue and an introduction, the plot opens with a man who has been brutally murdered in his office leaving the police scrambling for clues. When another murder occurs in much the same way, it is decided that there is a serial killer on the loose. The brutal and terrifying prologue of the book gives the reader enough of a clue to be almost 10 steps ahead of the police for a part of the story until they also figure catch up to what we already know . Max Wolfe has just been transferred to the homicide unit after managing to stop a terrorist on the basis of pure gut instinct. I am not sure whether that is a promotion or a reprimand as he acted on his instincts and against the orders of his superiors. Max is just too human a superhero, as is confirmed by his getting beaten black and blue by villains, also managing to get stabbed and then shot in the face on separate occasions. He is kind to his young colleagues and not very confident at times, almost seeming to be ready to fade into the background even as he goes about doing his work. He comes across as a thinker, one who would be most comfortable behind a desk and it almost feels wrong to see him in confrontational situations that seem out of his league. He has a daughter and for most of the book I thought the mother had died in some tragic incident that has left him the way he is, sort of as a switched-off person. He seems to be a good father, although he worries about not being a proper family for his daughter’s sake and sometimes for his own as well. Also, he is a bit of a chick magnet I think though he certainly does not seem to encourage that behaviour.

I found the name of the book ‘The Murder Bag’ slightly incongruous. It didn’t seem to tie in with the rest of the story and I never understood why the murder suspect had one with him. And who goes to a museum to look for clues nowadays? Any and every kind of information is available on the internet. The frequent trips to the museum were frankly a waste of time, or so it seemed to me, just to lend credence to the somewhat debatable title of the book.

However, but for that little hitch, it was a great read and I felt the author has done justice to all his characters, right down to the daughter and the dog.

2

Bad Luck And Trouble – Lee Child

I have loved all the Lee Child books I have read to-date and this one was no exception. Jack Reacher is a an exceptionally well-crafted character, with just the correct mix of machismo and vulnerability coupled with a romantic vagabond lifestyle to tug at the thickest of heart strings. Imagine a tall, dark, strong and silent, mysterious stranger swooping in to kill all the bad guys and then disappearing into the sunset. I also admire his quirk of being a mathematical aficionado, I suppose because I was always so terrible in maths at school. A man with so many epithets to his credit cannot help but be dashing and suave and an out and out heartthrob, which is probably why Tom Cruise chose to play this part. The movie, however, did not do justice to the book at all. For one thing, Jack Reacher is tall and Tom Cruise is not. Reacher’s physical appearance has always played a very important role in all his escapades, tending to intimidate most people before they choose to take a swing at him, and taking that away from him was just not fair. But then, that is what I suppose one would say ‘taking artistic license’ means and as they (the film people) did the same thing with Robert Downing Jr. in Sherlock Holmes, which worked very well, I think I should not complain overmuch.

‘Bad Luck and Trouble’ seems a very appropriate title for the book as Reacher reminisces about his experiences in and out of the army and pretty much covers all the shenanigans he falls into, voluntarily or involuntarily. The cover design is alright and looks very much like a still from the book.

In this book, Jack Reacher is contacted by an ex-army colleague when a member of their old elite team is found murdered. As the remaining members gather together with a bit of ‘all for one, one for all’ mojo working for them, it becomes increasingly clear that someone has taken the time to eliminate more than one member of their team. The conspiracy that the author unfolds is actually so simple, it is brilliant. And just as plausible. How do you think terrorists lay their hands on military grade weapons from all over the world? Lee Child’s theory may well be the truth, when you put your mind to it. The loyalty that the team feels toward one another is the driving force behind all their actions and seems to epitomize the American culture of refusing to give up one man for the benefit of many, an idea that is indeed honourable and brave and may at times be stupid at the same time. Jack Reacher though is intelligent enough to realize how much time he can dedicate to saving his comrade before he must rush to detonate a proverbial time bomb that could kill millions.Usually, in a large group of co-conspirators, the reader expects at least one who would have been ‘turned’ by the end and would stab his friends in the back and since that never happens it lends a quiet dignity to the antics of these aging veterans. Loyalty, honour and friendship are the foundations of this story and Lee Child delivers on all three.

I loved the book and would recommend it to all fans of the thriller genre.

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The Queen of the Tearling – Erika Johanssen

 

This book was provided to me by Random House India in lieu of an honest review

I received this book courtesy of Random House India and promptly fell in love with the cover. What at first look appears to be a metallic crown on a cushion is actually a bear trap on a cushion. The image immediately conveys to the reader that the ‘Queen’ we are going to get acquainted with does not have an easy road ahead of her and is probably surrounded by people averse to her continued good health. I find that a good cover usually makes for a good book.

Then I turned the book and read the print three times, confirmed the date with my husband, read it again and then almost burst with pride and self-importance (so few moments like that in life). Random House India sent me a book for review before it actually hit the markets!! I was ecstatic! That was not the end of it though. I opened the first page and frowned at the scrawl at the bottom. Was it part of the design, me thinks. Turned the page and felt the indentations and realized it was a signature and, if you knew what you were looking for and screwed up your eyes, would read ‘Erika’. It was a signed copy!! Thank you Random House India! You guys are gorgeous!

Now, I just prayed that I would like the book. (You know a review is going to be good when there are so many exclamation marks in the opening paragraphs.)

Spoilers ahead! (Not too many, but a fair amount).

 I read somewhere that the PR team said something about the book being a cross between the Hunger games and the Game of Thrones. That was a silly thing to do. Because it is not. It is much simpler than the Game of Thrones and I thought better than the Hunger Games.

The story begins with Kelsea Glynn beginning the journey to take her place as the Queen of the Tearling in Tearling. Why the name ‘Tearling’ though? Tearling sounds as if these people originated from the teardrop of the lady in the moon. I don’t know why I thought ‘lady in the moon’. She has been brought up by an aged couple Carlin and Barty Glynn in isolation, and on the day of her 19th birthday must venture forth and seek her right to ascend the throne of Tearling. Here she meets for the first time the members of the Queen’s guard, who had once worked to protect her mother, the Queen Elyssa, and goes on to form deep bonds with most of them. They race across the countryside, dodging the assassins her Uncle has sent, meeting the most notorious thief of the kingdom, being attacked by trained hawks and finally reaching the palace on the day of the ‘shipment’, which leads Kelsea to take decisions that will eventually lead to war with the Red Queen of Mortmense (again, the name, a play on words). Kelsea must learn to run a kingdom, much more difficult than simply studying to do so, contend with the members in the court and the truly evil Thorne, and fight the corruption and poverty in her kingdom.

The story is spell-binding. I do not lie when I say that I read the book in one day, even managing to starve my family that day as there was no time to cook! The magic introduced almost in the beginning, but the reader is not really sure if he/she is reading the signs correctly. The magic is not too intrusive in the story. Kelsea is instantly lovable. Even as a 19-year-old, she is never truly irrational or unnecessarily obtuse (remember the times you have found yourself screaming at a character, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it”, to no avail). She is honest and becomes more and more aware of the responsibility that rests on her shoulders even as she refuses to back down in the face of her numerous enemies. I loved the part where she rushes to the rescue of some kidnapped tearling. It was brave and totally what one expects of a Queen. Lazarus was just the kind of person every girl needs in her life. As for the love interest, I withhold my judgement until I get to know him better. I don’t think he is good enough for her, too arrogant and too good looking. Kelsea grows on you, with her ideas, her zest for life, her sudden childish insecurities and the laughing in the face of death attitude. The Red Queen has not really done anything as terrible as I expected (immediately remember, ‘Be careful what you wish for’), but then she did not get enough space on the pages, which is understandable.

However, the most interesting bit in the story is ‘the Crossing’ and ‘the Landing’. I was a bit confused as to the setting of the novel. Was it a fantasy planet? Or was it set in medieval Earth? But then I came across the references to machines and ‘pre-crossing’ and even ‘J.K. Rowling’. So I surmise that this is a parallel universe where people have fled when something terrible happened to Earth. The author never explains it and I thought that was brilliant. It assumes a certain intelligence on the reader’s part and is definitely an intriguing idea. Eventually, of course, she will come around to it, but, for now, I am pretty satisfied.

Must, must read!!

Also, disturbingly, Emma Watson is supposed to play Kelsea in the movie adaptation. What? Nooooo! Over and over again in the book the author emphasizes Kelsea’s problems and insecurities about her looks as well as the comments by other people on the same topic. She is tall and muscular, whereas Emma is petite and too pretty. Its not fair or correct! But I guess that is cinema.

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The Random House May-June Book-Bag

This time Random house pulled out all the stops in the selection of books that they sent me.

First is the box that the books came in. It was huge! I just wanted to sleep with it for a night or two before I opened it, but then I just didn’t have the patience or the discipline for that. Thank you Sachee and Anindita! You are the my very own Summer Santas!

And look, look what they sent me. All the books are really really great picks. There is fantasy, murder, thriller, romance and even a little bit of matters-of-the-state stuff in this bag.

I am happy!

So the books in this bag were:

1) Tony Parsons – The Murder Bag

2) Erika Johansen – The Queen of the Tearling

3) Anita Desai – In custody

4) Reshma K. Barshikar – Fade into Red

5) Lee Child – Bad Luck and Trouble.

Whew! My eyes grow moist with unshed, happy tears just reading that list.

To be honest, I have already finished reading three of them. I didn’t mean to! I just opened the package and picked up one book to see how it was and, before I knew it, I was three books down. All of them were absolutely fabulous, just the kind of stuff that powers my engine and revs my motor (not very sure about those analogies) as some would say (and I actually know nobody who speaks like that)!

Also, Bookworm in McLeod Ganj yielded some great books too.

I have read almost all the fiction books. ‘Trespass’ was excruciatingly boring straight from the first chapter and I left it there. The top two books are my husband’s choices and will take me a long time to get around to, if ever.

So, what does my summer/almost-monsoon reading list seem like to all you bibliophiles out there?

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Gone – James Patterson

Gone_James-Patterson

This book was provided to me courtesy of Random House India in return for an honest review

A truck idles along a dark suburban street, and pulls up under the shadow of a large oak. For a few minutes there is complete silence but for the comforting sounds of night crickets ( or whatever those night-time creatures are called ). Suddenly, a group of some 25 black-clad individuals jump out of the truck and rush toward the tall walls of a palatial home some 15 feet away, soundlessly throw ropes with grapple hooks and shimmy across the walls. A few muted flashes are the only signs of activity within the walls. Who are these people? The police? Or an elite mercenary task force? Ta da da daaah!

This is how most of the novel reads to me. It is strongly reminiscent of how I would imagine a screenplay for an action movie reading right from page 1; and once that idea got into my head it just refused to walk out again. The story revolves around Detective Bennett, father to a brood of 10 children, who once captured a dreaded mafia boss and then watched him escape, is currently in hiding under the witness protection program and has just been recalled to active duty to look for the same criminal who has now managed to create havoc by sending armies of mercenaries into the US and Mexico and eluded all the best investigatory forces of the United states.

I absolutely failed to detect any charm in the entire narrative and considering that it was part of the April book-bag and it is now June, one can understand the pain and the sheer determination it took me to finish this book. The dialogues are short and staccato and the story never really flows with any degree of effortlessness. The plot was unnecessarily forced and better fit for an episode of Miami LAPD. The love interests were presented with absolutely zero chemistry and  I knew from the cover itself that this was not going to be my kind of read (alright, maybe that last bit is too judgmental).  But really, when I pick up a series from a well-known author, I usually expect the book to be worth my while. To be so severely disappointed sorely tests my nerves. I think this a sad case of an author pandering to a menu for the sake of a 10-book contract without worrying over much about the content of their writing.

My humble advice, please stop. Either kill the character off or just take a break and write standalone novels for a bit. Michael Bennett needs a rest.

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Our Moon Has Blood Clots – Rahul Pandita

The soul-stirring memoir of a community forced into exile in their own country. Of a government that shut its eyes to save some votes and after 20 years has now very effectively swept the whole matter under the carpet. Of a media that refuses to share the unbiased truth about the gross injustice suffered by a section of the people of our country simply because they belong to the majority religion. How can the world view of the most intellectual citizens of one of the most intelligent civilizations be so warped, unfair and blinded, laboring under a continued misconceived notion of righteousness?

Kashmir is a topic that will invariably incite inflammatory viewpoints in every Indian; either for India or against. Being an army officer’s daughter and having known the number of lives lost to terrorists in the region, it becomes very hard for me to take an objective look at the situation as a neutral commentator must do. I was most surprised by the stance of some highly educated Kashmiri Muslim women I came across who professed to be staunch supporters of Pakistan; did they not realize that, if they were in Pakistan, they would find it very hard to receive higher education, let alone go out of the house to watch a movie, to scream a slogan of independence, to walk with a group of girlfriends, or even to show off their new suits? What can you say to convince someone when the elemental need for self-preservation takes a backseat to fanaticism?

Reading Rahul Pandita brought back all the memories and discussions of our teenage years, only in sharper focus than ever before. I tried to imagine being huddled in a dark room, listening to someone announce on a loudspeaker outside my  home that they were preparing to murder my family and me the next day and found myself immediately paralysed with fear and indecision. What would you do if something like this happens to your family? How would you decide on the wisest course of action, knowing that staying in your home makes you a sitting duck and going out just changes that situation into becoming a moving target? How did the people caught in such situations spend their nights and days, knowing full well that no police and no army would be taking any action against this terrorizing situation? Maybe if the government had taken swift action all those years ago, today the people of Kashmir, Hindu and Muslim alike, would have been living without the fear of dying at the hands of a terrorist or of being accused of being one.

I think only an Indian can truly appreciate the hardship and pains that go into erecting one’s own home and the sense of immense pride and attachment one feels for it. As Pandita narrates his father’s emotions on leaving his hard-earned home, I found myself standing beside them outside the gates of their 22-room house, weeping in commiseration, knowing that they will never come back to this home again. The story of a lost home is repeated over and over again in the book, emphasizing the pain and complete desolation of the exiled families. Reading of the developing tensions through a child’s eyes was frustratingly heartbreaking; his confusion at his friends’ betrayals, the first realization of his parents’ very mortal struggles, the suffocating confinement in four walls after growing up in the fresh open air of the mountains and that ever-elusive promise of ‘going back home’.

The prose is anecdotal, with a stark simplicity to the narrative. The helplessness, the loss and the heart-breaking nostalgia leap out of almost every sentence in the book. It is the story of a way of life lost through fanaticism and political greed. It is not an easy read and it makes you question our government policies and the apathy of our appointed leaders to human pain and suffering. It is also the story of human nature, the refugee underdogs and the petty landlords with the power over them as well as the courage and kindness of people living in fear. The author comes across as an extremely disillusioned youth and a cynical adult right up until the last few pages. I pray that he continues to live in hope, because in his own way he will certainly make a difference to the journey of Kashmiri Pandits back home by providing them a voice that can be heard and understood all over the country, which may in turn help to pave the way for achieving peace and stability in the valley.

This book also made me bow my head in thankfulness for the sense of security that my life provides to me by virtue of my birth, selfish though it may seem.

I definitely recommend this book to everyone.

1

Time to travel!

 

 

People have been asking me what I have been doing for the past 20-odd days having been pretty much off-radar. Well, here it is. The sum total of my travels, put up for the perusal of one and all.

Mother Google believes that this path can only be traversed by car or by foot. 56 hours by car. Doesn’t seem too long, does it? A pilgrimage indeed!

 

Varanasi was a city vibrating with the echoes of centuries of accumulated tradition and culture, where life still seems to revolve around the meandering course of the Ganga.  Delhi seemed to have calmed down a little, may be in response to the searing heat of the summer, but people seemed more laid back, the traffic was not so bad, and the city looked gorgeous. Panchkula, which usually translates into Chandigarh for most of us, was as hot as Delhi, if not more. The opening of new, beautiful and huge malls in Chandigarh has sadly over-powered the lure of the once dearly coveted visit to Sec-17 and its huge open spaces and exotic trees and the rows upon rows of shops catering to one and all.

The day we arrived in Palampur from the searing heat of the capital and Chandigarh, it was raining torrentially and everyone was wearing sweaters! Palampur seems to have grown umpteen new houses over the last year and more and more tracts are being excavated for newer establishments. The beautiful tea gardens are almost gone. But that is the inevitability of civilizational progression and how can I complain when my home was constructed in the middle of one of those tea gardens a good two decades ago.

The second leg of the tour is tentatively designed to proceed as follows:

In the middle there will be impromptu, work-related trips to New Delhi, maybe Pune and Surat for the hubbles. I will be working from home.

Each place deserves a post dedicated to itself, but that needs a computer capable of functioning without a power plug at its elbow for which travelling is not an ideal state. I promise to do it now that I am settled in one place finally.

Cheers!