Thursday, December 18, 2014

Reading Habits #16: Reading out of peanut paper

A Reading Habits post is long overdue. The last one, The bitter taste of my tablet, appeared on October 28. I still read, of course; I just haven’t been writing about how I read, or in this case where and what I read.

It’d surprise non-Indian readers to know that, in India, you can actually read a story or an essay out of peanut paper. By that I don’t mean reading the literature on a packet of peanuts or something written on peanut paper; not that there is such a thing as peanut paper, although we do have something called butter paper (parchment paper) used in craft.

Here’s how it works. A fistful of roasted peanuts is one of the cheapest and healthiest street foods you get in Bombay (Mumbai) and elsewhere. In my city it costs Rs.3 to 5 ($0.05 to 0.08), the minimum price these days. Roadside hawkers use a small measure and serve it to you in a cylindrical cone made out of paper. The cone has a wide open mouth at the top and a closed pointed tip at the bottom. Imagine a miniature tornado.

This is the “peanut paper” I'm referring to. The paper could be anything, like a piece of newspaper or magazine, a page out of a school or college textbook or notebook, a cutout from an annual report or a red herring prospectus, or a leaf out of an old diary.

After eating your peanuts, you unroll the wrapper and read what’s on it. You’d be surprised the things you get to read, even if it’s incomplete. I have variously read a poem such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, an algebraic formula, a director’s report, an essay by G.B. Shaw, a company balance sheet, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Moby Dick, to give you an idea. Sometimes the peanut paper is in other Indian languages like Hindi or Marathi.

Reading your “peanut paper” is a very old habit and I have yet to see one who throws it away without as much as a glance at it. Sometimes if you’re eating in a group then you compare your wrappers and find that you've all been eating out of the same book. And sometimes, you exclaim, “Hey, we studied this in school!” and then you crush the paper into a ball and toss it over your shoulder.

Unlike other street snacks, “peanut paper” remains clean after you polish off the peanuts. It’s mainly an after office hours snack though you can have it at any time of the day. They taste best in the rains. What it does is it educates and entertains you, however briefly, and kills your appetite till you reach home and have your dinner.

A slightly bigger paper cone is also used to serve sing (peanuts) and chana (chickpea) mixed with kurmura (puffed rice), small onion and tomato cubes, a shot of lime, a pinch of salt, and seasoned with a little powdered spice. It’s called chaat or bhel, a very popular snack that roughly means hotchpotch. Instead of eating with a spoon, you scoop up the concoction with a round puri (hard unleavened bread made from wheat flour) or a square piece of card paper, depending on how well-heeled the singwalla or bhelwalla is.

The sing-chana vendors are a common sight along the seafront, on beaches, and other tourist spots. They carry their stuff in a large circular wicker basket or metal container slung round their necks. Others sit along street corners, in narrow bylanes or outside railway stations, their sing-chana either heaped on a flat wood surface or stored in neat open compartments. They do brisk business.

The way I see it, you can eat and read out of your hand.

P.S.: I don’t have a picture of a sing-chana vendor but you can type “peanut seller” or “chanawala” in Google images and you’ll see what I'm talking about.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Gray Mountain by John Grisham, 2014

Coal was in the news in India, for all the wrong reasons, when I read Gray Mountain by John Grisham. In spite of its critical role in energy and economic growth, no news about coal is ever good news. 

Recently, India’s Supreme Court reversed a key government decision granting over two hundred coal blocks to power, cement, and steel companies because they were allocated in an “ad-hoc and casual” manner and “without application of mind.” Then, last week, environmentalists warned that India’s proposed coal expansion would prove catastrophic for the rural poor because of high levels of air pollution and coal dust, absence of emission standards, and lack of safety measures. In fact, one report predicted that India’s overdependence on coal-fired power stations and the increase in emissions would result in hundreds of thousands of premature deaths by 2030. And we’re not even talking about coal mine accidents.

If this review is beginning to sound like a news report, it’s because Grisham’s new legal novel—it’s not really a legal thriller—reads like a “docudrama,” as one reviewer on Amazon put it. I thought I’d add a little perspective on the fossil fuel which is big business for coal companies throughout the world and at the same time a harmful and terrifying reality for poor people who work with it. Coal comes with a very high human cost, as evident from Grisham's latest book.

In Gray Mountain, the author gives us one such reality—strip mining in Appalachia, the coal country, and its disastrous impact on inhabitants of the region. To be honest, I didn’t know this sort of thing happened in America. Whatever happened to human right? To checks and balances?

Grisham narrates his rather heartbreaking, albeit well-documented, tale of Appalachian coal and its consequences through his principal character, Samantha Kofer, and a few lawyers who have made fighting crooked and powerful coal companies their life’s mission, often at grave risk to their lives.

Samantha, young and attractive, is the daughter of separated and seasoned lawyers. Her mother works in the Justice Department and her father is an aggressive lawyer who once sued airlines after crashes. She loses her comfortable but high-stress job in Manhattan in the financial crisis of 2008. She is furloughed with several others when her global law firm downsized. As a consolation she is allowed to keep her health benefits provided she interns with a nonprofit organisation for a year, but she’ll draw no salary. If all goes well after a year, her law firm will take her back with no break in seniority.

The city-bred girl chooses the free Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in the small town of Brady, Virginia, the heart of coal country, and is soon caught up in the murky and deceitful world of coal mining.

In Brady, she meets Mattie Wyatt, head of the aid clinic, and her nephew Donovan Gray, a noted trial lawyer. Mattie and Donovan, who share a tragic family history associated with coal, are feisty lawyers fighting for the poor and the oppressed. While Mattie’s aid clinic handles smaller and non-criminal cases, Donovan is vengeful and goes after big coal with big money, suing them for millions of dollars in benefits due to black lung disease and other serious issues. From them and their clients Samantha learns what it feels like to be at the receiving end of coal companies with friends in Washington D.C. and backed by law firms with muscle power, and what it takes to stand up and fight for your rights.

And then one day Donovan dies mysteriously in his own plane crash and his brother, Jeff, who idolises his older sibling, enters the scene. He is not a lawyer but behaves like one as he prepares the final ground for litigation against the coal companies that was set in motion by his brother. He is depending on Donovan’s lawyer-friends and Samantha Kofer to take up the gauntlet.

For Samantha, what was supposed to be a temporary phase in her legal career soon turns into the most decisive period of her life. She is caught between her dream life back in New York and an uninspiring existence in Brady. Her selfish interest pulls her in the first direction; her conscience drags her in the other.

Gray Mountain is more than just a legal tale. It’s a chronicle of the sordid side of coal mining in Appalachia complete with a detailed explanation of strip mining and its dangerous import, land grab and displacement of poor folks, prolonged suffering and painful death from black lung disease, and economic starvation of coal families.

While the story is “interesting,” as my blog friend Bill Selnes, a lawyer in Saskatchewan, Canada, rightly observed in his review at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan, it’s not as thrilling as many of John Grisham’s other novels. I found it inconclusive in some respects.

Recommended, if you are a Grisham fan.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Ruff Justice: Windwolf by Warren T. Longtree, 1983

When the wolves howled, the wind answered…

© Thayn Trikannad
Sometimes it’s interesting how you learn about the real identity of a pseudonymous writer.

I bought a western titled Windwolf, No.9 in the Ruff Justice series, by Warren T. Longtree. The author was unfamiliar to me. However, Longtree sounded more like a pen name than a real name.

After surfing the internet for a while, I came across a review of a book called Ute Revenge by Paul Ledd at Black Mask. The review was written by veteran author James Reasoner, no stranger to this blog, and reproduced from his blog, Rough Edges, where it originally appeared in June 2013. There I learnt that Paul Ledd was actually Paul Joseph Lederer, another prolific author of a series of westerns including Ruff Justice.

Later, I read a review of Ruff Justice No.2 Night of the Apache by Steve M. over at his blog Western Fiction Review and learnt some more about this rather elusive author.

If it weren't for the internet, I’d have taken most western and other paperbacks at face value and read them as such, and the real identities of writers would have remained unknown to me.

The Ruff Justice series reminded me of another western series of violence and passion, of crime and justice, of fear and respect, that I’m familiar with—Edge, a half-breed and a Civil War veteran, written by George G. Gilman (Terry Harknett in real life), arguably the most popular western pseudonym.

One of the differences I see between the two series is that Ruff Justice is probably more adult than Edge.

Writer David Whitehead has written a fine article about George G. Gilman and his Edge character at his website Ben Bridges, which incidentally is David’s pseudonym.

I’m looking forward to reading my first Ruff Justice novel where “Ruff follows an icy-cold trail and a hot-blooded Indian beauty to track a savage killer.”

My copy of Windwolf, displayed on the shelf above, is a first edition paperback by Signet, New American Library, and printed in May 1983. This title was the 28th and the last in the Ruff Justice series.

Have you read this western series with the nice play of words?

Friday, December 12, 2014

War Against the Mafia by Don Pendleton, 1969

I offer this review for my ‘First Novels’ reading challenge as well as for Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbot’s blog Pattinase.

Mack Bolan: The Executioner by Don Pendleton was the first action series I ever read, in my late teens. Since then, I have been hooked to the daring and often improbable adventures of the war veteran and one-man vigilante squad. His speciality is sniper fire and his calling card is a marksman’s medal.

Over the years I have collected over fifty original and reprinted The Executioner books as well as spinoffs like Phoenix Force and Able Team, and I read a few of those every year. In spite of the bloodshed and mayhem, I find the novels entertaining. Bolan may be a fictional character but he is like a superhero and as long as there are men like him around, there is justice on this planet and hope for humankind. You have to keep disbelief aside.

In War Against the Mafia, originally published in 1969, American author Don Pendleton introduces us to Mack Bolan and his adrenaline-pumping brand of justice and fair play, which could be described in three words—all guns blazing.

Bolan is forced to leave the jungles of a war-ravaged Vietnam and return home to bury his father, mother, and sister, and take care of his seriously-wounded kid brother. Sam Bolan, his father, has gunned down his family after loan sharks associated with the mafia make life impossible for him and his family, and force his daughter into prostitution to recover the debt. Bolan infiltrates the mafia to find out who is who and then takes revenge on the mobsters in their backyard. His only accomplices are his first sniper rifle, a Marlin, and a .44 Magnum Calibre revolver, besides a range of other arms and ammunition. 

Bolan is unrelenting as he seeks and destroys the mob, commando-style. He has the unofficial sympathy and support of the police force which realises the mafia needs its protection more than Bolan. Along the way he falls in love, waxes eloquent about good and evil, and justifies why he must fight the war closer home than in remote Vietnam. He stays back to deliver Bolan justice. 

Mack Bolan’s character is not well-developed and is somewhat unconvincing in War Against the Mafia but it gets better and even credible as you read the other novels in The Executioner series. Don Pendleton wrote thirty-eight Bolan novels ending with Satan’s Sabbath in 1980. Since then, there have been more than five hundred in the series, kept alive by a host of pseudonymous writers, many of whom write under the collective name of Gar Wilson.

Interestingly, Bradley Cooper is set to play Mack Bolan in a Warner Bros. film directed by Todd Phillips (Hangover series). Years ago, I thought Tom Berenger was the most suitable actor to portray Sergeant Bolan on screen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Hari’s story

A week has passed since I posted my review of Hostage for a Hood by Lionel White. During this period I read more than I usually do, including a couple of unfinished novels, and wrote more than 3,000 words of what I think is shaping up into more than a short story. The characters and the setting are Indian.

At this point it could be either a novelette (7,500 to 17,500 words) or a novella (17,500 to 40,000 words), as categorised by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. I'm writing about five hundred words a day though the word count is moving up in tandem with my confidence. I hope to have the story ready by Christmas.

I haven’t thought of a title yet or what to do with the story once it is written. I'm thinking of self-publishing through Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing. It’s a crime story of sorts, more atmospheric and less hardboiled. The main character is an investigator in the Mumbai Crime Branch. His name is Hari, a popular Indian and a Hindu name. In Sanskrit, the name stands for Lord Vishnu, the supreme god, and one of the Great Trinity. It also refers to the colour yellow and its hues. The Hari of my story is neither god nor chromatic although his devout parents, whoever they may be, could have named their son after the revered deity.

In case you’re wondering how the name is pronounced, this will give you an idea.

“Hari? What kind of a name is that?”
“It’s a proper name.”
“As in Harry Potter or hairy legs?”
“No, as in hurry up, please!”

In May this year, I wrote a post about my experiment with other forms of writing, a collection of short stories including one about an Indian avatar of an American cowboy, a short book on self-help, and a possible flash fiction.

About the flash fiction piece, I had observed, “I have no idea where this is going, if it is in fact going anywhere at all.” Since it wasn't going anywhere, I despatched it to the recycle bin. The short story collection and the self-help book are still in the works.

For now I'm enjoying writing Hari’s story. I type out a few lines every now and then, at work, and then again at home late evening. I’d love to spend all day writing it out. So far it has been the most realistic writing project I have taken up outside of my newspaper job.

Every morning I revise what I wrote the previous day, wherein lies the challenge. I read the rewritten words and sentences and find a dozen ways to rewrite them. Which word reads better? Which line sounds convincing? Where do I draw the creative line? Is there a line at all? How come I can't see the line!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Hostage for a Hood by Lionel White, 1957

A review of a gritty crime novel by Lionel White for Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

Every minute she had was borrowed, and every second ticked off the time for murder.

If ever I have read a hardboiled story about a lead character who happens to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and gets into serious trouble, it’s Hostage for a Hood, 1957, by Lionel White. Chronologically, it’s the American crime writer’s twelfth novel out of a total of nearly forty dark and noirish stories.

Joyce Sherwood, small, slender, beautiful, and in her early twenties, is returning from the bank with a cashier’s cheque for $2,600 when she crashes her seven-year old sedan into a Cadillac on a deserted stretch of Brookside. Two hoodlums, one of them carrying a Tommy gun, step out of the other car, assess the damage to their vehicle, and straightaway hijack Joyce, her French poodle, and her Chevy.

The hoods were on their way to ambush an armoured car ferrying a quarter of a million dollars and a pretty housewife had suddenly messed up their plan. Cribbins, the one with the Tommy gun and in charge of the caper, takes Joyce with him to a deserted mansion in Cameron Corners, an old farming town two hours away. However, before he does, Cribbins and his accomplices manage to ambush the armoured vehicle, kill the driver in cold blood, and make off with the loot.

Joyce’s dream—of buying a new car for her loving husband and ex-marine, Bart Sherwood, for their first wedding anniversary—soon turns into a horrible nightmare, as she is chained and locked up in a dark and dingy room inside the mansion.

Enter Detective Lieutenant Martin Parks, in charge of homicide of the Brookside force, and his assistant, Detective Horace Sims, who are understanding of Bart’s plight but can do little without leads and witnesses. Also enter the other hoodlums including a particularly evil junkie called Santino who is obsessed with sex and slaying, and a sexy moll called Paula who unwittingly sparks trouble between Cribbins and Santino.

Back home, Bart Sherwood is anguished by his wife’s sudden disappearance. He doesn’t lose faith in Joyce in spite of the possibility that she might have run out on him, with another man and all their savings. He and Joyce are crazy about each other.

“My wife and I are in love with each other. Joyce wouldn’t leave me. Even if she wanted to, which is preposterous, she couldn’t have done it this way.”

Joyce spends a week in abject fear and chained captivity during which she comes very close to being raped and killed and, in one particular scene, is a mute and tormented spectator to a midnight romp between Cribbins and Paula on her bed. There is no graphic description but White tells you what is happening through the shock, surprise, and humiliation felt by Joyce.

With little help from the police, it is left to Bart Sherwood to find his missing wife and he does so by following a series of coincidences, including the reappearance and disappearance of their poodle.

Frankly, I didn’t realise that Hostage for a Hood was a caper until my blog friend George Kelley brought it to my attention that Lionel White, in fact, specialised in capers. And, in so far as capers go, this is the best one I have read in many years. The characters are atypical but very well-drawn; the plot is solid from the start; and the narrative, while slow to begin with, gathers momentum and finishes with a chilling climax. Recommended.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Delhi is Not Far: The Best of Ruskin Bond, 1994

© Wikimedia Commons
Roald Dahl and Ruskin Bond have common ground in India. The British novelist, born in Wales to Norwegian parents, and the Indian author, born in Himachal Pradesh to British parents, are two very popular writers of children’s literature. Their books are prominently displayed in Indian bookstores and continue to sell in good numbers.

Bond, 80, is more Indian than many Indians and this reflects in his vast body of work consisting of many novels, short stories, essays, and songs and love poems. He writes about life in the hill stations close to the Himalayas in North India. The award-winning author has been singularly responsible for the growth of children’s literature. Bond was born in Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh, in 1934, and now lives with his adopted family in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, at the foothills of the mountain range. He has never left his adopted country.

© Prashant C. Trikannad
In many ways Ruskin Bond reminds me of that other celebrated Indian writer, the late R.K. Narayan, who wrote about the charming life in a small fictional town called Malgudi in South India. While Bond’s and Narayan’s stories essentially grew out of their experiences in the north and south, respectively, their writing styles run parallel in terms of simplicity and lucidity of prose.

As with Roald Dahl, both young and old read Ruskin Bond and R.K. Narayan. They are the ambassadors of Indian literature.

I don’t think I have written about Ruskin Bond earlier. An opportunity arose when I recently bought his collection, Delhi is Not Far: The Best of Ruskin Bond, 1994, from the annual charity sale at Home for the Aged run by Little Sisters of the Poor, founded by Jeanne Jugan in 1839, in France. The old-age home is located behind my house and I have picked up many good books from their yearly fair, as much for a charitable cause as for my own.

Delhi is Not Far is a 428-page anthology of four decades of Ruskin Bond’s writing, particularly the best of his prose and poetry and essays and short stories. India Today has described his writing thus: “Bond’s sentences are moist with dew and the mountain air, with charm, nostalgia and underplayed humour… (he is) our resident Wordsworth in prose.”

While I read his stories a long time ago, this is the first time I’d be reading them in an anthology and I’m looking forward to it, especially his five tales of the macabre. I didn’t know Ruskin Bond wrote those too. He begins his introduction with these lines: And here I am again, in my little room overlooking the winding road to Tehri, writing another introduction. No one has ever offered to write an Introduction for any of my books, and so, perforce, I must do my own.”

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Rendezvous by Nelson DeMille, 2012

“I saw her in my field glasses. It was a woman.” I added, “They make good snipers.”

Remember the alien that haunted and hunted a US special forces team in the jungles of Central America in Predator, where only the head of the commando unit survives in the end? Cut back to the Vietnam War and imagine a sniper eliminating an elite reconnaissance patrol, where again only the leader of the detachment lives to tell the tale. Except, in Nelson DeMille’s Rendezvous, the sniper is neither man nor alien. It’s a young woman who is as deadly with a long-range Russian-make Draganov rifle as she is sensuous bathing naked under a waterfall, in full view of the lieutenant whose men she is taking down one by one.

The female sniper, clad in black silk pajamas, plays mind games with the ten-man recon patrol which, in spite of being entrenched in the dark and treacherous jungles of Vietnam, has nowhere to run or hide. They are lost and confused and are sitting ducks for the “bitch,” and DeMille shows them no mercy in this crisply written story.

The sniper torments the nameless lieutenant by killing all his men and then mocks him by sparing his life, so that he can go back and tell everyone about her, and thus create the legend of the female sniper. Her trophies should not go in vain.

Rendezvous is entertaining with an element of unintended humour, and it moves at a brisk pace. I don’t know if there were female snipers in the Viet Cong that fought the carpet-bombing Americans, but there were highly-trained insurgents whose guerrilla tactics often won the battle against the enemy.

Rendezvous is the second of Nelson DeMille's Kindle Single; his first was The Book Case (2012), a delightful story about a murder in a bookstore, which I reviewed a couple of years ago. I recommend both the novellas.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Love Ageth Not by Ramabai C. Trikannad

On August 16, I reproduced a poem titled How Long? by my late grandmother Ramabai C. Trikannad who was a writer, columnist, poet, and a spiritual aspirant. Below is another of her poems, Love Ageth Not, which I’d like to offer as an ode to all those who have found their soul mates and have loved and cherished them all their lives.

I sit in my garden chair,
Musing on faraway things.
The hush of the evening air,
Rest to the weary heart brings.

My hair is turning a grey,
Lines in my hands I can trace.
Long years have passed since the day,
I loved to gaze on her face.

The bud of love would unfold,
To blossom and fade away.
But my worn, feeble life holds,
Perfume of the longpast day.

The strength of our arms is run,
We make our aged pair.
But the spirit of love won,
Still with each other we share.

A deep voice calls and I rise,
“It’s so cold, the wind is blowing,
To linger, dear, is unwise,
Come in, the fire is glowing.”

© Ramabai C. Trikannad

Friday, November 28, 2014

B(l)ogged down

You might have noticed that I haven't posted anything significant since my review of the first Hardy Boys adventure on November 21. I have been rather busy with work-related commitments and deadlines. Although I do get the time to read, especially while commuting to and from my office—a good 45-minute journey one way—I prefer to play chess online, listen to music, or play scrabble on my tab with Android as my opponent. All three activities reduce stress. I find a game of chess extremely relaxing and addictive. It keeps the mind off mundane thoughts. There is immense satisfaction in checkmating your opponent or getting your opponent to resign, and you don’t need anyone to rejoice in your victory.

Meanwhile, I completed John Grisham’s latest Gray Mountain and read a short story by Leonard Finley Hilts called Murder Rides High, both of which I’ll be reviewing soon. For now, though, I'm content visiting blogs and leaving comments, if I have something to say. It’s actually a relief for me not to post my own.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Musings on a tired Tuesday

There are some things you don't forget. In my case there is a line someone said to me. Rather it was a question to which I had no answer. It has stayed with me.

I was in my late teens and on a trek to a mountain top 3,000 km (1,864 miles) above sea level. We were a big group and I was part of a small bunch of college friends and new acquaintances. The night before the long trek we halted at a desolate railway station and slept on the platforms. Some of us walked along the tracks, others sat huddled on the platform, talking and joking and laughing. It was winter and quite cold even by western India standards.

The conversation veered to sun signs and ego trips for that is what discussing sun signs are usually about. Linda Goodman was the unseen referee. We talked about each other’s sun signs, our good and rotten characteristics, and bragged about famous people born under our signs. A Gandhi here, an Einstein there, a Churchill above, a Hitler below.

One of the girls in the group wanted to know my sun sign.

“I’m a cusp,” I said.

“Between which two signs?”

“Libra and Scorpio,” I replied. “Bang in the middle.”

“What!” she said, and then came the unexpected question, “How do you manage?”

That took me by surprise. I didn’t know what to say.

Since then, I have always considered myself to be more Libra than Scorpio. I owe allegiance to the scales even though there is seldom any balance in my life. The signs are all there. Show me a menu with more than one dish on it and I’ll show you how not to make up your mind. Suggest a dozen lovely places to visit and I’ll come right back at you with, “So where do we go?” Point me in the right direction at an intersection and I’ll scratch my head and look the other way. Watch me make a decision to write a book and then watch me dream about winning the Booker already. And that’s just tipping the scales. For a Libra-Scorpio cusp, I manage quite well. I do, don’t I?

What was the wisest, weirdest or wackiest question you were asked?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Self-styled challenge: first novels

Last Friday, I reviewed The Hardy Boys No.1: The Tower Treasure as part of a self-styled challenge to read the first novels by both famous and not so well-known authors. These will also comprise writers, including pseudonymous writers, whose novels I read in my younger days. Short stories don’t count but novellas do. My goal is to read and review at least one such novel every week and retrace a part of my book route over the past four decades.. I could mention some of the authors I intend to read but it’ll take away the element of surprise, for whatever it’s worth. Nonetheless, author selection is a challenge.

I kicked off this challenge with The Hardy Boys because it was the first of any kind of fiction I read. By this time next year I hope to have read some 50 first novels by 50 different authors.

I have no rules. The first novels could be classic, vintage, golden, modern, or contemporary spanning every genre there is. I may read more novels in one genre like western, espionage or mystery. I’ll publish a scorecard every quarter. And the reviews could be as short as two paragraphs or as long as ten paragraphs. The idea is to keep it as simple as possible and in a way that suits me best. No pressure. I also reserve the right to pull out of the challenge any time I want although the excuse won’t be as feeble as a shortage of novels. That just won’t hold.

I’m fairly excited and a little scared about this challenge because I’m not the fastest of readers or reviewers and I can be easily distracted from my reading. Still, I’m looking forward to it and with your encouragement, I’m sure I’ll succeed, at least a good part of the way of first novels.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Hardy Boys: The Tower Treasure, 1927

This is the first Hardy Boys adventure and it commences my plan to read the maiden works of authors in genres I usually read. I also offer this review for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

© Wikimedia Commons
Some things have stayed with me since my school days. The Hardy Boys, which introduced me to the joy of reading books, is one of them. I have read most of the imaginatively titled books. Since my teens nearly three decades ago, I have been reading the Hardy Boys off and on.

Yesterday, I finished rereading The Tower Treasure, the No.1 adventure of Frank and Joe Hardy published on June 1, 1927. Did it hold up as well as it did in the seventies? Yes and no.

Yes, because I knew what to expect and I was reading for the pleasure of it. And no, because I found the story and the characters juvenile and unrealistic, which was to be expected at my age. But it was fun.

Today, teenagers are no longer exposed to the idyllic world of Frank and Joe and their friends. Instead, they are thrown into the terrifying world of Harry Potter and his friends. The Hardy boys live with their doting parents, Fenton and Laura, in a secure and comfortable family environment. Harry is orphaned by the evil Voldemort even before he takes his first baby steps and then raised by equally evil relatives, in a cupboard under the stairs. The small ocean-side city of Bayport has been substituted by the dark and imposing Hogwarts and its dreadful secrets. Everyday thieves have made way for the Dark Lord, the Death Eaters, and the Dementors. These are the creatures that inhabit our world today. Only we call them terrorists, gunmen, and militias.

© Wikimedia Commons
With the line between the fictional and the real blurring, as often as it does, it helps to escape into sunny Bayport once in a while. My recent trip into the annals of The Tower Treasure was a pleasant experience as I retraced my youth through Frank and Joe Hardy’s maiden case—first helping their best friend Chet Morton recover his stolen jalopy, The Queen, and then assisting their father, Fenton Hardy, the famous private detective, recover thousands of dollars worth of securities and jewels stolen from the Tower Mansion owned by a rich old man called Hurd Applegate and his sister Adelia.

Frank and Joe do more than crack a robbery case. The boys, aged 17 and 16, along with their parents, show compassion towards Henry Robinson, caretaker of the Tower Mansion, and his family. Applegate charges Robinson with the robbery, fires him from his job, and removes him and his family from the mansion. Robinson, whose son Slim studies with the Hardy boys at Bayport High, is forced to leave town and find accommodation in a seedy quarter of Bayport. Slim leaves school to find a job and support his family. The detective and his sons are determined to clear Robinson's name and restore his honour and his job.

The Tower Treasure, written under the collective pseudonym of Franklin W. Dixon and published by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, is as much a story of human values as it is about solving a mystery. Those values are inculcated into Frank and Joe by their parents, Fenton and Laura. The Hardys are the epitome of a happy middle-class American family. The boys are dutiful, well-behaved, and always helpful, the cynosure of most parents. They run errands for their father and mother, attend school and do their homework regularly, and stay loyal to their friends. They are naïve and innocent in their ways. It’s what makes the Hardy Boys series still appealing for old readers like me.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Anxiety attacks in films and sitcoms

Can superheroes get anxiety attacks? Apparently, they do. Tony Stark or Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) gets a few of them in Iron Man 3. The billionaire-playboy experiences the nervy episodes both inside and outside his impregnable armoured suit. Inside the suit, Stark panics and feels claustrophobic and his AI buddy, Jarvis, coolly tells him that he is having an anxiety attack, like an indifferent butler announcing dinner is served. Outside of it, he goes weak in the knees and drops to the ground. The founding member of The Avengers doesn’t have a clue what hit him. In one scene, it takes a precocious kid to bring him out of it. 

Each time Stark has an episode, he is very afraid but still manages to joke about it. Those who have experienced anxiety or panic attacks will tell you that it is no laughing matter—it all seems horribly real at the time—even as those who haven’t will insist that it’s all in your head and ask you to snap out of it or, better still, out of yourself. Never easy. In Stark’s case, the attacks are probably understandable: the Mandarin has aerial bombed his hilltop Malibu mansion, nearly killing him, and he holds himself responsible for putting Pepper in harm’s way.

Anxiety or panic attacks are 21st century’s new urban malaise fuelled and driven by 24x7 stresses and rat races. So widespread and debilitating are these so-called mental disorders that they are beginning to find their way into films and sitcoms, perhaps to add a touch of perverse realism to the shows.

In one particular episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, Ray Barone (Ray Romano) has his first anxiety attack when he is playing golf with his brother Robert (Brad Garrett) and his friend Kevin Daniels (Kevin James). As in the case of Stark, the reason for Ray’s episode is guilt. Ray has lied to his wife, Debra (Patricia Heaton), so that he can avoid household chores and run off and play golf. The scary episode has him scurrying back to Debra for comfort.

Similarly, in an episode of Becker, Reggie (Terry Farrell), the owner of a diner and friend of Dr. John Becker (Ted Danson), has a panic attack on top of the Empire State Building and the only person she thinks of calling to her ‘rescue’ is the misanthropic doctor who practices in the Bronx. Reggie breaks down because of low self-esteem, of having achieved nothing in her life, by way of money, men, and marriage.

In one scene in Three and a Half Men, Alan Harper (Jon Cryer) has an emotional breakdown, first in a library and then in a movie theatre, and his brother Charlie (Charlie Sheen) is off to see a therapist on how he can deal with the situation or more likely how he can get rid of his brother. If I'm not mistaken, Charlie also has an attack or two elsewhere in the series.

I was thinking, given their emotional insecurities, most superheroes ought to be prone to anxiety attacks. Batman instantly comes to mind. But, however funny it might seem even on screen, it’s never fun to watch someone go through a nerve-wracking episode. Not that you'd know in real life as most adult sufferers disguise it well owing to a sense of self-preservation.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Red Reef by James Reasoner, 2008

In The Red Reef, a 23-page sea adventure, Captain Thomas Larkin is racked by guilt even though he committed no crime. The master of The Red Reef is distraught with grief ever since a gale sank his ship. The shipwreck costs lives and sends Larkin, one of the survivors, into gloom. Although he can still command a ship, if he wants to, he decides to sail as an ordinary seaman, “sweating out his guilt in the blistering sun on deck” and trying to forget his past. 

But his past catches up with him. One day, as Larkin is drowning his sorrow in liquor at a port-side tavern, Giselle Beauchene, a young and sensual woman, walks up to him and asks him to take her to the spot where the ship sank. She wants to pay tribute to her father, Charles Beauchene, who was a passenger on The Red Reef.’ 

Although the deep-sea journey will not bring her old man back from the dead, Larkin reluctantly agrees to take Giselle because it will in some way enable him to overcome his guilt. Giselle hires a schooner called the ‘Gallister’ captained by a dubious-looking Scotsman named MacGreevey and the trio and crew waste no time in setting sail for the Navabutu Straits.

However, once the ‘Gallister’ reaches the graveyard at sea, Giselle reveals her true colours and her hidden motive. The morning after a night of lovemaking with Larkin, she turns on the tormented captain with a gun and tells him what she has in mind. The journey of redemption soon turns into a nightmare for Thomas Larkin.

Seasoned author James Reasoner tells a classic pulp story without much fuss. There is little description of people and places. The characters of Larkin and Giselle are well drawn. It’s short and gritty, and it has some good action and an unexpected twist in the end. I liked The Red Reef as much as I liked Reasoner’s The Man on the Moon which I reviewed on October 6. Both stories are crisp and very entertaining to read.

The Red Reef was originally published in Hardluck Stories, June 2008, but you can pick up the Kindle edition at Amazon.