Wednesday 26 July 2017

Chain of Custody, by Anita Nair

A few thoughts on Anita Nair's Chain of Custody

Well, when I read Cut Like Wound a few months ago, I liked it enough to want to read the next in the series, which happens to be Chain of Custody. And here we are. Inspector Gowda is back, this time in the midst of an affair he won’t allow himself to feel guilty about. Santosh is recovering from the events of the last book. A new officer has joined the group.

But the main focus of this book is the organization and methods of child trafficking. From makeshift brothels with cupboard-sized partitions for the sex slaves, to the innocuous-seeming recruiters who prowl the town, to the various agents and customers who prop up the trade, and finally to the victims who suffer the worst depravities, Nair captures it all in agonizing detail. We squirm through it, knowing this is all based on research she has done and that it’s all too real. The efforts of Gowda and his crew seem futile next to the bloodthirstiness and implied scale of the operation.

In some sense, this is what makes the whole book single-flavoured instead of a balanced recipe. You’re left only with that sense of horror and shame, as if you just read a non-fiction book on the flesh trade. To make things worse, the investigation into the sordid affair - which was triggered by the kidnapping of Gowda’s maid’s daugher Lalita - seems to always lag behind the culprits. The only way the case is resolved is through a couple of involved parties either surrendering to the police, or being ratted out by victims’ relatives. Which would have happened even if Gowda had not been around. Yes, there is a murder that Gowda solves - but, as the book proceeds, you’re left with not much sympathy for anyone involved, and you care very little for it.

One thing that Nair pulls off really well is the absolute ending - it’s so typically Indian and so realistic, but with a touch of the Gowda magic. I will say nothing nothing more, except to allude to an old Stephen King book, Firestarter, as a touch point.

Once again I have the same complaint with this book that I had with the previous one: no allusions to the gigantic, influential, software industry and the effects it has on the city?

Would I read another of the series? For all its faults, yes, I would. The Bangalore setting brings things alive, Inspector Gowda is fun, and Nair’s writing is smooth as always. The pattern, too, is emerging: if it was the plight of the sexually fluid in the first book, it is child trafficking here. What will she bring up next?

Thursday 20 July 2017

The Puppeteers of Palem, by Sharath Komarraju

A bunch of young folks are called back to their childhood town  village. When they were little kids, they were responsible for killing a terrifying monster named It her. But now it looks like the monster is back, and they must again do the deed.

Glad to get that out of the way. Honestly, though, I’m not giving Sharath Komarraju enough credit here by alleging that The Puppeteers of Palem is a plain ripoff of Stephen King. Komarraju goes a lot further, and in fact does something very interesting here.

He takes the Indian village setup: farmers, lakes, a river, the old Shiva temple, old guys telling stories to younguns while sitting on charpois, and so on. And it’s not just a generic village, it’s a village near the Godavari, in Andhra Pradesh and peopled with Telugu-speaking natives. And then, he turns this into an actually creepy place. The ghost of a wronged woman haunts the temple. Something strange burrows under a field. A langur kills a villager by biting pieces off him. Multiple places in the village are named after women who died gruesome deaths. And underneath it all runs the gleefully malign undercurrent of misogyny. Rape, molestation, prostitution, all have their place here. If you’re a woman you wouldn’t want to live in an Indian village like this. Remember my old post about needing a new language for Indian fiction? That's the approach taken here.

I’m reminded of a Malayalam movie that has a somewhat similar undercurrent: 2009’s Paleri Manikyam. The movie has no supernatural elements, but is a tense, gripping murder mystery. I don’t know whether Komarraju has seen it, or whether there are dozens of similar movies around, but there’s some thematic resemblance here.

The book is also organized somewhat similarly to It, with chapters alternating between the childhood segment and the grown-up segment. But, in contrast to the King book, we have several more timelines of the characters that come in, revealing bits and pieces of the characters and their pasts. It takes a while to settle in, but Komarraju does a good job with that.

The writing is good, the descriptions and the flow are good, the book is generally worth reading. The only place, IMO, where it falters is in trying to stuff too many surprises into the ending. It almost seems like Komarraju’s trying to challenge all the genre conventions in one shot, while also bringing in the Indian spooky stories element. He could have kept it a little simpler, or spaced the ending out a little to allow readers to digest it.

Notwithstanding that, if you’re a genre fan, or a fan of Indian settings used in surprising ways, The Puppeteers of Palem is definitely worth reading. 

Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane

A few thoughts on Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River

So this book has been in my bookshelf for nine years, unread! (there are a few that are even older, I’ll get to them eventually). The HT Brunch challenge got me to pick it up, finally, so that’s one (more) good thing it achieved.

Mystic River and Shutter Island are probably the best known of Lehane’s books, thanks to the movies. Reading MR, one can see why it got turned into one. There’s a very atmospheric quality to the writing, describing a typical, downmarket, Boston neighbourhood and the people there. The story starts with three boys, one of whom gets abducted by pedophiles, and then escapes them after four days. This is just the bare bones, though - the reactions of all the three, their families, and their neighbours, are what give the narrative its texture.

The “real” plot then starts twenty years later, with these three kids grown into adults. A murder takes place, the event and the investigation eventually enfolding all the three protagonists. Events trigger off events, as in the best crime stories. This is not a police procedural - and that’s kind of its strength. I’ve written elsewhere that police procedurals are typically bound by their genre - the policeman must catch the bad guy eventually, most of the characters must survive to another day, the reliance on the police system must be eventually justified, and so on (see my notes on Cut Like Wound for another example). Here, we have no genre safety net, and anything could happen to even the good guys. Lehane plays this off really well, and the murderers’ motives are perfect for the location and setting.

Spoiler alert: If you’ve seen the third season of Broadchurch, you might find the solution here easier to guess. There are multiple thematic similarities, though no exact matches.

I have only one complaint to make here, and that is the long, long descriptions Lehane puts in. Not War-and-Peace-level long, but still - I bet fully 20% of the book could have been pared out and created a tighter product. You hear about people effortlessly writing thousands of words a day, and then you read something like this and see how they did it. Now, James Ellroy, on the other hand, though his books are just as long and even more atmospheric, doesn’t really have any fluff to his writing.

But never mind that. Once the book gets going, it gets going well, and you are willing to read the 400 pages just for the ride.

But I’m not sure at this point whether I’d read another book by Lehane. 

Wednesday 5 July 2017

Timequake, by Kurt Vonnegut

A few thoughts on Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake:
So let me say this up front. I’ve never really been able to connect with Vonnegut’s work. Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions were on the Modern Library’s top 100 list, so I read them as part of that binge. While S-5 was okay, with a bunch of quotable thoughts, BoC felt like rambling, too meta for my taste, and overall too lightweight to really enjoy.
I picked up Timequake against my own better judgement, deciding to give Uncle Kurt another chance, and I’m glad I did. Probably my own writing and reviewing experience helped me “get it” to some extent.

So here’s the concept: Time has reset itself to ten years ago. Everyone finds himself doing what they were doing ten years ago, and are forced to do exactly the same thing again, with nothing changed at all. What this means is no free will - everyone is, and everyone knows they are, ordained into a routine they don’t need to think about.

Given this idea, how would you write a book around it? The beginner would take it step by step, detailed what triggered it, selecting a bunch of characters to live through it, examining the after effects through these same characters, and so on.

The advanced would pick up a small piece of the concept, zoom into it, and tell the events of that short part in detail with all the ramifications.

But what does Vonnegut do? He turns it into something almost real. Timequake is partially an autobiography with Vonnegut talking about himself, but also about Kilgore Trout, his alter ego, and how he, Trout, survived the timequake. Vonnegut “hears” the story from Trout over multiple sessions, while also talking about a book written by Trout, Timequake One, that is somehow fictional but also real and describing the events in the linear manner. It all gets mixed up and feels somewhat like Vonnegut just rambling about random things, from his two wives to his children and his work, and then little stories he’s heard here and there (like the Robert Fulghum stories) - and then, interspersed, what happened when the timequake hit.

The approach almost reminded me of Borges’ reviews and examinations of imaginary books. Implicit in Borges’ approach is that the books themselves aren’t as interesting as our reaction to them, and their place in the larger scheme of things. Implicit in Timequake is the assumption that all the wierdness did happen, there’s no real reason to explain it further, and we might as well just get on with it. Wonderfully done.

It helps that Vonnegut is extremely quotable. The one I’m taking away from this book is Trout’s exhortations to the world at large, to get them out of the catatonia of the timequake: “You’ve been sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.”

Don't Disturb the Dead, by Shamya Dasgupta

A few thoughts on Don’t Disturb the Dead, by Shamya Dasgupta

Every 80s and 90s kid in India knows about the Ramsey brothers and their stream of horror movies - Tahkhana, Veerana, Purani Haveli, and so on. Like most others, my cousins and I used to reference these very movie names when talking of scary stuff, even if we never saw the movies. Indeed, my first Ramsey movie was Purana Mandir, as late as 2010. But there was always the Zee Horror Show, and bits and pieces of their movies seen at video parlours, playing on cable TV in the late nights, referenced in all sorts of other media.

So Shamya Dasgupta’s book was an instant buy for me. It’s the kind of pop history that is documented all too little in India and is even acknowledged grudgingly by the self-declared cultural custodians. Dasgupta painstakingly documents the history of the brothers (original surname: Ramsinghani, before their father moved from Karachi to Mumbai). He talks of their struggles to get their movies made, on low budgets and with opposition from the established film industry. From multiple interviews with members of their family and their regular stars, a picture emerges of sound businessmen who nevertheless mastered their own art form and produced something memorable.

One surprise for me was the attention to detail that the Ramseys paid in their projects - the masks were ordered from a custom craftsman in England, the statues on the sets cost lakhs, and the scripts were written around specific locations that they were comfortable with. In fact, in the industry, they were considered the “premium” horror film makers, with others making even cheaper movies with only good posters. The reason for their decline, Dasgupta ventures, is just that unwillingness to let go of their formula and to start learning again. He points out newer projects by the extended family, stating that they aren’t as good. But then - many of the Ramsey’s first projects weren’t good either. What they did was to keep going at the problem, honing their skills as they went. That’s how they got good.

You know what? Forget the self-help books section. Read this one instead for inspiration.

The only thing I didn’t enjoy as much was the extended profiles of the younger Ramsey generations - none of them are as iconic as the original brothers, and we’re simply not as interested in them. But I suppose those are needed for completeness’ sake.

And one thing that would have been nice is a synopsis of their movies - there is a detailed list with cast and crew listed, but no synopsis.

But still - if you’re one of those people who stared at the posters of Tahkhana and Purani Haveli with fascination and who laid bets with themselves on watching the movies, this is the book for you. It does complete justice to desi horror cinema’s First Family.

No Middle Name, by Lee Child

A few thoughts on No Middle Name, by Lee Child

I’m very likely to read the next Jack Reacher book after No Middle Name, just as I’ve read everything of Lee Child’s work over the years. Let it be said, however, that if Child decides to give up on the series right now, No Middle Name would be the perfect coda.

No Middle Name is a collection of the short stories and novellas featuring Reacher, that have shown up in multiple publications over the years. I’m pretty sure this is not an exhaustive collection - there’s at least one more story (from Face-Off, an anthology featuring team-ups of thriller characters), that isn’t in this book. Notwithstanding that, the present volume gives you a really good overview of Reacher over the years. There are stories from his youth (High Heat and Second Son), from his Army days and from his wandering years thereafter. Most fans would have read some of these stories before, but it’s good fun to read them all together. Think of it as a montage of moments.

The best work here in my opinion is still High Heat, which has all the typical elements of a Reacher novel - violence, sex, leaps of deduction, and “unofficial” truth behind the official story. But other short works, such as (the subway+ CIA one) showcase the character of Reacher as well. An equivalent example I could think of is The Living Daylights, the James Bond short story that encapsulated Bond like nothing else, even if the movie by the same name used nothing but that name.

No Middle Name is an excellent read for the not-quite-beginner - someone who’s read a novel or two featuring Reacher, but is not dedicated enough to read all 20+ books. It’s also great for the loyal follower such as myself ( :) ).

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

A few thoughts on We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

This one has been on my reading list for a long, long time. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Haunting of Hill House was properly creepy, when I read it years ago, and Life Among the Savages revealed a very human side of Jackson (a lot has been written about this duality in her writing; it makes me like her even more).

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, actually accomplishes a very strange feat: it takes the atmospheric creepiness of Hill House and combines it with some of the familial-affection vibes of Savages. Mary Catherine, nicknamed Merrikat in the family, is a teenager living with her elder sister Constance and her physically handicapped uncle Julian. They live in a large mansion in a New England town, and are well known as the original “rich folks” of the area. Because of their standoffishness, the townsfolk hate them. 6 years ago, everyone else in their large family was murdered - arsenic in their sugar. Constance was arrested but eventually released for lack of evidence.

Merrikat is a very unreliable narrator. She believes in what is called Sympathetic Magic - where objects belonging to certain people or associated with certain events acquire mystical powers. So she might nail her father’s notebook to a tree, or bury his silver coins, to protect the mansion and the attenuated family from evil spirits. She also is completely happy in her present time - with her sister and with her uncle around, she needs no one else. They all have a very fixed weekly routine of cleaning, cooking, and of Merrikat going to the village for supplies.

Things change when Constance’s cousin, Charles, shows up one day. (By the way, it’s the strength of Jackson’s writing that she doesn’t hurry up this event at all - she manages to coax us into Merrikat’s little world so thoroughly that we don’t feel the need for anything else, either, and we feel this intrusion as badly as she, Merrikat, does). I will not talk any more about which way things go after this arrival, but it’s a masterclass in subtle character studies.

Considering this is Shirley Jackson we’re talking about, we’d expect spirits and malevolent influences to pop up sooner rather than later. The story goes off in a different direction, though, and gets bad enough even without those props.

Absolutely impressive stuff, and I’d highly recommend it for all readers who don’t mind a slow burn read.