Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street

Remember  that old saying - If you want something badly enough, the universe conspires to give it to you? In “Six Spellmakers…”, author Shabnam Minwalla has the universe doing just that, aiding a group of children in their battle against the dark forces lurking in their apartment complex. 

Now if you’re one of those readers whose eyes glaze over at the prospect of yet another tweeny  fantasy about a group of perky kiddos saving the world from malevolent, power-hungry baddies , with the aid of  magical sprites, mysterious relics and the odd spell,  – be warned. But also, be heartened.   For, ' Spellmakers..' is a fresh,funny and contemporary  take on those old tropes, that  also manages to throw in  a cheery shout out for the hidden powers of faith, friendship - and unsightly bric- a- brac.

Nivi Malik, new kid on the block, finds friends –both human and arboreal – at Cosy Castle, an apartment complex bristling with some wildly eccentric individuals.  Unfortunately, she finds enemies as well , chiefly in the form of three elderly women, collectively keeping the flames of snobbery and curmudgeonry blazing  .  When the women, purely out of spite, threaten the existence of the two beautiful ’bimbli’  trees growing near the building, she  steps in to the rescue. (Wizened witch trios? Trees? Seamy politicking?Who else yelled ‘Macbeth!  But I digress. )

The garden, Nivi  insists, is enchanted, and home to mysterious invisible beings that keep the magic alive.  But how do you keep magic alive when a building full of adults can’t help (or won’t dare to), your friends don’t share your fascination with fantasy , and even Google comes up near-empty? Easy, says Nivi – we go ask the magical beings how. With her loyal –if skeptical  - posse in tow, she does just that.

Sure enough, invisible powers set a cosmic Plan B in motion, and help arrives from the most unexpected quarters. Newspaper scraps yield the email ids of anonymous advisers (no, not the Nigerian uncle  kind); strange cookware salesmen appear, Gandalf-like,  at Nivi’s door with powerful gifts,  tattoo artists at kiddy parties make surprising revelations -  even the enemy camp yields an ally, albeit an extremely distracting one (described as “..cute. Seriously cute. Runner-up to Daniel  Radcliffe cute. I was partial to the Weasley twins myself, but hey, who’s complaining.) The kids supplement these efforts with their own – a little light thievery, some creative interpretation of a list of sacred offerings ( best use of an electronic mosquito racquet in juvenile fiction, ever!!) . But most of all, by exercising that most obscure of mental muscles -  Belief. 

Spellmalkers..’ is a breezy, well paced read that had me grinning from go. I enjoyed its wit, and its keenly observed kids’- eye view of the silly adults they must endure.  It also deftly captures the complex  hierarchies and rituals of modern day apartment living.  In fact, the oddball adult characters in the book, and the few bits of their back story that  Spellmakers..’ tosses our way, stayed with me longer than the uniformly pleasant  (and occasionally dishy) kids.  Which is why (SPOILER AHOY!)  I felt a little cheated by the actual Plan – surely an interesting triad of such legendary power would  need more  than glow paint and a fake portent to bring them to their knees ? And surely, such riveting creatures as the Cyclops, the stair-dwelling Gattu, and  the hapless kids of the  ‘vuwuvuwu’ chorus practically scream out for more airtime? Then again, perhaps author  Minwalla intends to take on that mother of all fantasy tropes – the multi-volume series?

Friday, November 30, 2012

Masala Murder - Madhumita Bhattacharyya

Madhumita Bhattacharyya’s debut novel, ‘Masala Murder’, is literally that – a murder committed over spices. And it lives up to its name in other ways as well since there is a bit of everything in the book including tons of money, lots of sleaze, an ex-boyfriend and a new romantic interest, and not one, but two mysteries in the form of a kidnapping and of course, murder. Almost as if having named it Masala Murder, Bhattacharyya has determined to give her readers a dash of every spicy element she can think of!
Reema is a private detective – not of the mystery solving kind although that is what she would like to be. Instead she is Kolkata’s expert on infidelity cases. But PI work does not pay her bills hence Reema Ray is a food critic by day. She is also a part a group of do-gooders – the ‘Calcutta Crime Fighters Club’ who are instrumental in helping her solve the two mysteries that land on her doorstep.
The first mystery is the sudden death of a gourmet food exporter – from a suspected case of food poisoning. The doctor who treated him reports a suspicious death but later backtracks and claims that all is as it should be. Reema, who has met the victim earlier as part of her day job as a food critic, is drawn to the case. And because one mystery is not just enough, her ex-boyfriend turns up, asking her to help him find his kidnapped wife and free him from suspicion of kidnapping her.  
While Reema works on both the cases, the supporting cast of actors, mainly from her group, turn out to have answers to everything she needs. Image enhancing – ask the detective with the high end software. Previous legal complaints? Ask the lawyer dedicated to just causes. Inside information on what the police force is thinking – ask the policeman.
If this big a support cast is not enough, there is also a very high up police official – Reema’s Uncle Kumar - who is willing to listen to all that Reema has to say. Why someone who has spent years in the police force let a rank amateur take so much of his time just because she is a friend’s daughter is rather confusing, especially since Reema has done nothing in her detective career to earn that kind of trust. To be fair, Reema does make some clever deductions that eventually lead to solving of both cases –but with all the help she had, it is hard not to think that she had it pretty easy.
The other mystery that Reema is keenly interested in is the identity of Shayak who is rather unnecessarily cagey with details. I dislike detective novels that attempt to distract the reader by inserting romantic episodes – romance after I have read the book, I say, and I won’t complain. But when I am following the clues to find a murderer, I am very displeased with tall, dark, handsome men attempting to derail the plot.
It is hard to feel menace or dread – after all there is a murderer on the loose – when the investigating detective is gushing about how sexy she finds a man she just met. Plus the whole deal with her ex- boyfriend who attempts to seduce her so that Reema is distracted from finding out the truth is frankly just sleazy. Like Reema is so weak and desperate for a man that a few kisses will leave her unable to think straight although that nearly happens before she manages to wake herself up out of her romantic stupor and get on with solving the case.
And I think this is where the book failed for me. I would have appreciated it better as a simple whodunit. Bhattacharyya only makes Reema look defocused and rather easily distracted – and while it is Reema who saves the day, for me as a reader, she did too little, too late!
Masala Murder is likely to be the first of a series – hopefully Reema Ray will spend less time on men and more on detecting in her next book!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ape House - Sara Gruen

Ape House is the story of six bonobos and the humans who take care of them. In her author’s note, Sara Gruen reveals that the book is based on her visit to a Great Ape lab which “astonished” and “changed” her.
This novel could have been a serious discussion of the philosophy and ethics behind the capture and training of great apes. And there are some indications through the book of a deeper thought process – for example in its analysis of the sheer vulgarity of pop culture, the possibilities opened up by human and ape communication and particularly the scenes presented inside the Ape house which are both touching and amazing to the reader. But sadly, Gruen has merely showed the presence of deeper issues here. The novel is much more of a thriller with intricate plot twists and jam packed action.
Isabel Duncan is the scientist working with the bonobos, communicating with them in American Sign Language (ASL). She loves the apes and thinks of them as family. To meet Isabel and to get a look at the apes, comes confused reporter, John Thigpen. Like most of Gruen’s readers, Thigpen has had no contact with apes before this and his awe, fear and complete unpreparedness for the sheer humanness of the great apes - Bonzi, Mbongo, Sam, Makena, Jelani, and the baby, Lola, are well documented by Gruen.
The book picks up pace soon after, leaving the reader little or no time to be contemplative. The lab is blown up, Isabel is seriously injured and one of the animal activist groups claims responsibility for the attack. The apes are bundled off campus and no one knows where they are until they appear on TV in a reality show.
Isabel is not about to give up on her family though and with the help of Thigpen and a host of secondary characters, manages to win the apes a home again with her. A rather bald plot summary, but if you take away the sudden coincidences, the galloping action and much of the melodrama, this about sums it up.
Personally, I would have been happier to read more of the apes and less of the humans. Particularly since the main characters, Isabel and John, are so uninteresting and lack depth. Isabel only becomes real when she is shown interacting with the apes, at other times, she is weak, slow to reason out and easily spooked and often too upset to act. Similarly John Thigpen is not much of an investigative reporter, and is, for most of the novel, busy being overwhelmed by his relationship with his wife and her desire to have a baby.
Not even the villain of the piece gets the distinction of being a strong character. The biggest mystery in the book is how no one, including Isabel, did even the most basic research on his past! And there is not much role for him in such an overcrowded cast of characters and he seems more of a walk on character who conveniently gets caught near the end of the novel so that all loose ends are neatly tied up. Convenient, yes - but convincing, not at all.
The redeeming character in the human cast is Celia, a colorful lab intern originally suspected of the crime, and her group of eclectic, eccentric friends who actually unravel the true story behind the explosion with some electronic wizardry, otherwise known as hacking.  The supposedly minor group of characters is more interesting and action oriented than the main characters who mostly seem to be lost in the woods.
Read Ape House for its tantalizing and enthralling glimpses into the life of the great apes. Everything – and everyone else - is just ordinary.

Friday, November 16, 2012

What, no houries? - the Taliban according to Mainak Dhar's 'Zombiestan'

Zombies – what’s not to love? The undead - rising up from their graves in various stages of unsightly decay, shuffling down the streets in silent hordes with a serious case of the munchies- have captured the collective imagination since their first appearance on the horizons of pop culture.  As a confirmed undeadhead, I have devoured (eh, what pun?) my share – and then some – of paperbacks, comics, films, and even the odd hit TV series celebrating that kitschy genre. 

But for all my fangirlyness, I have to concede that sooner or later, you can pretty much predict plot trajectories in your sleep - the dead rise for whatever reason (usually bioweapons dunnit)  , start chomping on the living and pretty much ring in the apocalypse. The world falls apart, the unbitten band into unlikely posses of survivors and  slowly journey towards some distant safe haven rumoured to be free of zombies. They also discover that, menacing as the zombies are,  the humans they meet on the way prove infinitely worse.  There is always one person in the team whose DNA is vital to the survival of the human race, prompting several others to sacrifice their lives to keep him/ her alive. The cast – human and undead- will be pruned in various gory ways, heroes will discover themselves, bonds of friendship forged  and one last confrontation occur before said Mecca is found and claimed. One last thing - when killing zombies, always, always aim for the head. 

Mainak Dhar, author of Zombiestan, seems to have done his homework, and added some touches of his own. His book follows pretty much the usual plot; his bioweapon, on the other hand, is nothing short of the Taliban’s Last Stand. Unwittingly unleashed during an American assault on a terrorist camp, the bioweapon swiftly slays its victims, only to make them rise again as rabid foot soldiers of the holy war (called Biters hereafter) , obsessed with wearing black turbans, yelling stuff like ‘Jihaaaaaaad’ and ‘Kafiiiiiiir’ at regular intervals  and increasing their fold by biting (NOT eating, mind you) every hapless human that stumbles into their path. They also evolve rapidly, learning (or perhaps, remembering) to use weapons, drive vehicles and coordinate attacks on the unbelievers still standing. And the headshots don’t work, guys. 

In the middle of all this mayhem, a US Navy Seal, a pampered teenaged boy and an elderly romance novelists come together in zombie-torn Delhi , trying to stay alive. They are joined soon after by a young girl and her brother, a toddler who just might be the key to humanity’s survival. Overcoming all kinds of odds – especially the ones posed by other humans – they struggle to make their way to an army base in Ladakh that just might be the only safe haven left in India. 

Zombiestan takes a while warming up, then breaks into an energetic canter that it sustains till the end. The characters are interesting, and young Mayukh Ghosh, our teenaged hero, is both likeable and believable as he falters, then stands tall, on the threshold of adulthood. He also gets his first shot at romance, courtesy Swati, the girl he saves. (Sadly her character is rapidly reduced to ‘frail, victim girl who makes kissyfaces at boy hero every few pages’ - this is very clearly Mayukh's story. )  I also enjoyed the character of Hina Rahman (even if she is too obviously  the token ‘good Muslim’among the, um, kafiiiiirs) and the brief cameo by a band of ex-armymen who spiritedly join Mayukh and gang in  fighting  off the Biters. 

Right, now the things that made me go hmm  (or should that be ‘Hmmmmmmmmm’ in the style of our rotting, biting brethren) – several aspects of  ‘Zombiestan’ had me gritting my teeth.  The zombies’ penchant for black turbans seems ridiculous and is certainly pointless to the plot;  it also reminded me of the innocent Sikhs and Muslims  targeted across America by lynching mobs immediately after 9/ 11, simply because they were wearing turbans.  And what’s with the constant refrain of ‘Jihaaad’ and ‘Kafiiiir’, when the zombies can’t seem to say anything else? Dhar seems to have succumbed to the easy charms of racial stereotyping here, much like those mobs.  Other slips up are equally glaring - the disease initially starts off as airborne, then mysteriously switches to spreading only through biting . And Dhar just can’t seem to make up his mind over whether guns will fell his zombies or not.

For a book based in India and peopled with very Indian characters,  the lead players of Zombiestan’ seem curiously genial and heroic.  At the best of times, most of us  tend to stay divided over our religion, caste and class prejudices, yet Mayukh and gang manage to instantly bond and stay together till the end. A terrific opportunity to explore those differences, utterly lost in all the gunfights .  Romance is all very well, but  (spoiler alert!!) in a book aimed at young adults, having your teenaged characters getting engaged  seems both prudish and misguided –  another black turban moment, methinks.   And why, why, why does  India’s first homegrown zombie thriller need a blond all-American war hero  stepping in as savior - given who kickstarted the apocalypse anyway ? Allegory or another black turban - I'll let you decide. 

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program  at Participate now to get free books!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian

Going out with a bang – that is how I would describe the eighth and the last book in the Artemis Fowl series. As always Eoin Colfer manages a fine juggling act between plot and characterization. Through the books, characters grow dynamically as do relationships which allows each book to stand independently yet rewards faithful readers of the series with an understanding of the characters now and earlier.

Nowhere is that clearer than with Artemis Fowl himself. From arch enemy of the Fairy people, to friend and equal partner - in Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian, AF stands in stark contrast to his selfish, cynical, lonely self of the first book. Here he has moved on from being the youngest criminal mastermind in history to juvenile genius (as he prefers to style himself!). This is an Artemis who is very much part of the world – he is close to the fairies (having saved the world multiple times in their company), is a doting elder brother to his twin brothers and generally more  connected to the world around.

Colfer does not neglect some of my old favorites from the older books either. There is N°1 – demon warlock and fairy friend who first appeared in Artemis Fowl and The Lost Colony and continued to make appearances in the later books. N°1 makes a brief appearance here to tell us that he is going to be busy on the lunar colony for a few years. There is Commander Trouble Kelp– doing a good job of being LEP leader. And there is Mulch Diggums – kleptomaniac dwarf and provider of many laughs who continues to do what he has done best – steal from the Mud people.

But this is not some sentimental revisiting of friends. Like every other Artemis Fowl novel, this novel is packed with action and loads of adventure. There is nail biting suspense and enough fiendishly clever plot twists that assure us that Artemis may have mellowed but certainly hasn’t lost his touch!

Opal Koboi, imprisoned and apparently powerless, has not given up her plans to conquer the world. With typical cunning and impeccable planning, she comes with an idea that sets her free and she will only stop when she has destroyed the world as we know it and most of the fairy folk down below.

Unwittingly helping Queen Opal, as she now styles herself, are the Berserkers, the spirits of long dead warriors, sworn to protect the fairies against the Mud people. Schooled by Opal who pretends that she is the saviour of the fairies, the Berserkers possess the bodies of Juliet Butler and Myles and Beckett Fowl – Artemis’ twin brothers.

 How will Artemis fight against his own brothers? Or Butler harm Juliet even knowing that warrior spirits possess them? At their side stands Captain Holly Short, loyal and brave as always. With the help of Mulch Diggums and the wizard of all gadgets, Foaly, can our brave trio stop Opal before she succeeds?

It is a close run affair, I tell you. But if Artemis cannot pull a few dozen aces out of his sleeve, then who can you depend on this side of the earth? Only this time, the price for the aces may seem too high. The action never slows for a moment and Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian is a fitting ending to a grand series.

A fairy land underground and real fairies (although you won’t find them in any fairy tale ever heard!), an interesting hero, some science fiction, extreme fantasy, lots of hi- tech gadgetry, humor (some of it of the really gross kind, read sections on Mulch Diggums and his flatulence for example!) action and adventure – what is there not to like in an Artemis Fowl book?

The last book also includes a sneak peek at a new series Colfer is writing – it features a young hero, Riley and if the first chapter is anything to go by, and large dollops of adventure and magic to help the plot along.

I confess I will miss Artemis Fowl dreadfully. Especially Colfer’s trademark irreverent, tongue in cheek humor. But like millions of other people around the globe, I expect I will hang on to the series for an occasional dip into its pages… after all, the world is infinitely richer for Artemis Fowl’s know it all take on it!

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling

 It takes courage to end an immensely successful series. Especially one that gave its author fame, glory and much money – it would have been easier to sit back and enjoy it. Rowling however has chosen to break away completely and write a novel for adults. I am not sure that any other book of Rowling's will reach the same dizzy heights of the Potter series but I think many people, like me, will be curious enough to read The Casual Vacancy.
This is a novel that takes a hard, long look at reality and discovers that life is – in the main - unfair and depressing. It is a straightforward story of the residents of Pagford – adults and children who live in disconnected universes from each other except when tragedy pushes them into making tenuous connections.
When Barry Fairweather, a parish councilor, dies unexpectedly, the adults of Pagford clumsily plot to gain his seat on the council (the casual vacancy of the title). The book captures Pagford at a crucial moment in its history and presents its residents at their worst.
There is Simon Price, a wife beater who terrorizes his children with words and physical violence, Gavin Hughes, weak and unlikable, who is not interested in the parish seat but in the wife of the dead man, Colin “Cubby” Walls, who is paralyzed by his own internal demons, ‘extravagantly obese’ Howard Mollison, who is only able to see people in terms of what use they are to him, his son, Mike Mollison who cannot grow out of his parents’ shadow… the only male who is remotely appealing  -  in terms of looks and personality - is the Sikh surgeon, Vikram Jawanda who makes brief appearances through the book.
Rowling is not kind to the women either. At one end of the spectrum is Terri Weedon, heroin addict and sometimes prostitute who is unable to break free from her destructive downward spiral. But at the other end, the women with careers and socially acceptable relationships (like Kay Bawdon, the social worker or Ruth Price, guidance counselor) don’t seem to be doing much better either.
Their relationships are at best about an ability to deny the truth and at their worst, about physical and emotional abuse. These are adults who do not know how to be happy and consequently fill their lives and those around them with misery and pain.
Uniting them is a common thread of snobbishness, of being better than ‘those’ people found in the Fields – ‘Pagford’s unwanted burden’ - which houses the poorer sections of Pagford. There is deep resentment that “the offspring of scroungers, addicts and mothers whose children had all been fathered by different men” should study in the same school and enjoy the same benefits as Pagford’s brightest and best. Pagford likes to pretend that it is an idyllic paradise but Rowling is pitiless in her exposure of their pretensions.
The children of Pagford are delineated clearly and come alive with Rowling’s pen – she has after all had much practice at that! But these are not the loved, socially adjusted, nice children of the Potter books. These are children of the 20th century – sex, drugs and computers are the key forces in their lives. Their parents suck all the fun out of their lives, and make them nasty and mean. Andrew Price copes with his father’s abusive bullying by creating a secret life and posts anonymous online messages revealing his father’s dishonesty on the parish website, Sukhvinder deals with her mother’s angry disapproval by repeatedly cutting herself… But hiding beneath the abnormal actions  are normal teenagers who want to get on with their lives but are still learning how.
Krystal Weedon, a child of the Fields (and a symbol of all that is wrong with Fields for Pagford’s residents), is one of the most likeable characters in the book. If one is willing to look beyond her abrasive personality and her abundant swearing, Krystal has pluck and determination. She also genuinely cares about her younger brother and may make something of herself if given a few chances.
But Rowling denies her the opportunity. Darkness dominates as the novel moves to its inexorable end. Darkness, as a trend, is clear in the later Potter books as well. The difference here is that the good people don’t stand a chance – no matter how much they try, their efforts to make a difference are but a temporary and fragile barrier against the dark, harsh and ugly world that Rowling sees as reality and has uncompromisingly presented.
I read this book because it has Rowling’s name on the cover. The plot has few surprises and it is clear, early on, that tragedy waits to spread her wings.  It is not all dark in the end, to be fair - there is some redemption for Andrew who is moving out of Pagford and is hopeful that his new locale will be better. Sukhvinder has mastered her hatred of herself and risen above her family’s patronizing attitude to her, Kay walks away from her dead end relationship and may begin anew, creating the possibility of something better for her daughter Gaia.
The renewals are tenuous though and – and frankly, I found the focus on the inevitable march of life towards death and early, untimely deaths that the novel presents rather depressing. Not a book I would read more than once!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Miss Moorthy Investigates - Ovidia Yu

It is Singapore of the 1970s and the Singapore Strangler is on the prowl, targeting single successful women. While the police hunt desperately for clues, the newspapers frontpage his gruesome murders.  With characteristic wit and dry humor, Yu explains how the Strangler has captured public imagination.

“The Strangler’s terror-hold on the female imagination had had unexpected social repercussions.  Single, successful career women were stampeding to get married to a man, any man.”

Miss Moorthy, former entertainer, now pursuing her career of choice as a school teacher was content to read about the infamous Strangler in the paper and double check the locks on her doors. But when a teacher, Evelyn Ngui, working in her school is murdered, the story acquires a personal angle for Miss Moorthy. 
Miss Moorthy has a personal run in with the Strangler when turns up at the apartment she shares with a former school friend, Connie, a producer of popular TV serials. The Strangler was apparently looking to murder Connie because she fits the profile of a single, succesful woman,  but  hunter turns into hunted, as he is efficiently apprehended by the two women. As Miss Moorthy tells us, catching burglars is easier than seen on TV.

“All it took was a little presence of mind and a good brick. Nothing to it, really.”

Miss Moorthy finds out from her boyfriend, Dr Anthony Tan, the Forensic Pathologist in charge of the case, that the Singapore Strangler, has not killed Evelyn and that the suspect list includes a friend of Anthony’s, who was once dating Evelyn.

Miss Moorthy takes it upon herself to find out who murdered Evelyn. Was it the married man Evelyn was having an affair with? And why is David, Anthony’s friend and former boyfriend of Evelyn edging towards a nervous breakdown if he had nothing to do with the murder?

On a parallel track, Miss Moorthy is faced with belligerent parents who want to ensure their children get the best marks, inquisitive students who believe their teacher has all the answers, a girl who will not speak, a mysterious money transfer into Evelyn’s account and a blue and white rabbit that goes missing.

There are enough clues in the story for the reader to figure out the murderer. This is not a classic whodunit in the sense it fails to keep up the suspense to the end. But read it anyway for its interesting glimpses of life in newly independent Singapore, cheeky wit, a feminist take on society and entertaining characters whose oddities and eccentricities are worth a few chuckles.