Book Review, Science fiction, Thriller

Timeline by Michael Crichton

2 This was a book recommended to me by Wikipedia when I was reading up on string theory which naturally referred itself to parallel universes and hence to time travel. This and ‘Man in high castle’ by Philip K Dick, both of which I immediately lapped up on my Infibeam Pi.
 
This is a typical  Crichton novel – an interesting scientific possibility with a decent amount of research, a band of adventurers, an evil but high-tech corporation and a great story which as always is a page turner.
And most importantly, for me – a science fiction and history buff, a story that combines both. And like every story that combines them, this story too packs quite a punch.
 
So just immerse yourself into a world where it has become possible to travel into the past, which as Crichton reminds us, is not too much into the remote future anyway. A team of archaeologists in modern France excavating a site which saw action during the Hundred Years war (between France and England in the 14th century) are drawn into a1 larger game plan of the company sponsoring their study, when they find their professor’s glasses and a note spelling ‘Help’ while excavating a site that had not seen light in the last 600 years.
 

So begins an adventure that sees the group tumbling into 14th century France, into a world which all their scholarship could not prepared them for. And the period is one of the most volatile times in the region’s history – an invasion is taking place and with medieval casual brutality around every corner, the story soon takes a scorching pace. And then comes a very unexpected twist – they may not be the only 20th century people out there!!!
 
A great read for a rainy day when you want to be entertained and thrilled. Don't expect too much depth or great characterization, that's not what the book is for. The book is for entertainment, pure and simple, with a very interesting plot.
 
And yes, the movie they made out of this is terrible. Give it a miss, read the book instead…
 

 

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Science fiction, Thriller

The Running Man written by Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)

300x300 I still cringe when people talk of Stephen King as a novelist exclusively of the horror or paranormal genre. It would seem that all the information deluge (or maybe because of the deluge) on the net is insufficient to wipe out the image carved out by popular media. This book is one which will not at all fit the stereotype. Set in a dystopian future (in 2025), this book owes its debt to Orwell rather than to Bela Lugosi…
 
I was lucky to start off on King by reading the novella – four seasons. There, in those four very different stories, you realize that above all, King is a master storyteller. And that is something that is common in all the books he has written. In fact I have liked his non-horror books more…
 
Ben Richards, the protagonist, is the classic quiet brooding angry man forced to play the part of the unwilling rebel in a world gone bad. And a world gone to extreme reality television. The proles in 1984 were kept in a state of zombification by lottery and sex magazines. Here the citizens are kept in a state of permanent television frenzy, with reality television becoming a permanent fabric of existence. The Games federation (which organizes the TV shows) is an unelected  quasi-government.

 

And the reality games have become actually that – a perverted terrifying reality. The greatest crowd puller over the centuries has been a public execution. The Games federation has just used this mob6a00d8345169e469e2011168c60571970c-250wi mentality and has come up with the “Running Man”, a game where men are hunted and killed- the longer the men stay alive, the more money they earn. And they have no shortage of takers. People are willing to put themselves on the show to earn money to feed their starving families, as Ben does.

Ben goes through the qualification process and finally proceeds to be selected for their star show, the ‘Running Man’, his often caustic comments and observations illuminating his world for us. He then has to find a way to stay alive and keep earning money for his wife and a sick daughter and somehow beat the system at the same time. Through his eyes, we begin to understand the world, its real nature and how it came to be as it is.
 
Like all King novels, this is a scorching page turner. And like all his novels, the characters come out well, especially Ben’s and all the people he meets along the way.
Stephen_King Though I would have liked a slightly less melodramatic ending, the book comes out very well in being both a great story and in setting out a bleak vision for a world that may very well be coming true in many shades today. This latter aspect, its relevant topicality, is what makes this book so interesting.
 
Looking at the world today, when big corporates have learnt that they need to control media and especially television for control (and control means money), when reality television seems to be getting weirder and weirder, a ‘Running Man’ may  not be far off…after all, a man getting killed in public is something that we have learnt to enjoy for many centuries. Its only a question  of bringing the beast out!!!
 
P.S- they made a movie out of this, with the same name, which leaves out the best elements of the book; made it into a typical mindless action flick. Avoid!!

 

 

 

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Book Review, Science fiction

Fatherland written by Robert Harris

n21490 I had read Harris’ Pompeii before and had found the setting fascinating. So the first thing that drew me to Fatherland was the setting – an alternate history world where the Nazis had won the war. And pretty soon, you realize that in Xavier March, you have a hero in SS uniform who stumbles upon one of humanity’s greatest kept secret, a secret always suspected but one so horrible that its almost impossible to believe!!!
If the setting is fascinating, so is the pace of the story.

As March gets deeper and deeper into a conspiracy that is the very foundation of the Third Reich, you get a glimpse of the world that would have been if the Wehrmacht had not been stopped at the gates of Stalingrad. A world where Albert Speer got to design Germany the way he wanted to, a world where Third Reich seems all set to fulfil the prophesy of Hitler of being a “Thousand year Reich”, a world where Europe is under the rule of the swastika and the eagle, where Churchill and the queen live in exile, a world where Goering dies of natural causes and Heydrich still lives and Stalin fights an endless guerrilla war on the edges of what was once the Soviet Empire. A world where Jews have disappeared and Slavs work as maids and gardeners.

Its 1964 and its a Cold War and its between Germany and USA and the president of USA, a Kennedy is on a detente visit to the Reich. The reclusive Fuhrer’s birthday is about a week away. A body is fished out one early morning and Xavier March is called in to investigate. So starts a story that ends up much bigger that anyone could have imagined. March, a member of the SS, who is not exactly the ideal National Socialist is a man who needs an excuse to turn rebel and this is a chance he gets as the story unfolds.
map_hitlersberlin
This is a story which is in many ways similar to Orwell’s 1984, in that  the state has become like Big Brother, except the level of technological surveillance has not not quite peaked yet (and unlike the terrifying spirit breaking world of 1984, the Third Reich simply kills you). March is similar to Winston Smith, with an undercurrent of rebellion and like Smith, March is lonely and desperate to seek even a glimpse of an alternate world.
What Harris does splendidly is that he creates an alternative world that is completely believable (Germany was close to getting an atom bomb at one time and them getting it is the turning point in this history). The way Hitler’s Germany permeated social life is shown here as it was – a society where children were taught that their loyalty lay first with the state and not with their parents. Harris, Robert
And I loved the portrayal of March – like Andrei Taganov in “We the Living”, he is a tragic hero who may have once believed but slowly and irrevocably becomes disillusioned  and in case of March, actively commits subversion against the state.
And I loved the ending – thank God it did not have a clichéd Hollywood ending, would have spoilt the whole feel of the book…
This is one book that may not have the power of 1984 but its not meant to be a social commentary. This is a book that is supposed to thrill you and set you to turn your pages. This the book does fantastically. You get to love the story, you get close to March and if you have even a passing interest in history, you would love the setting. Cheering for one of the SS is not something you can do everyday!!!

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Book Review, Horror

Carrie written by Stephen King

Just for my own record, this is the first book I finished on my e-book reader (the Infibeam Pi)!!!

n697 “Four Seasons” was the first book by King that I read and contrary to what people around me have been telling me about the author’s genre, the first thing that had struck me about King was that he was one of the finest storyteller I have read and all of his stories were not of the macabre. It did not matter whether he wrote about paranormal or macabre activities, spine chilling stories or whether he was talking about the art of writing, there is a magnetism about his writing that simply hooks you.

I mean few people I knew then knew that Shawshank Redemption was actually written by Stephen King and for once the movie version did justice to the written material.

Carrie is a typical King novel. A typical sleepy American suburb is unknowingly home to a terror that would be unleashed on them soon. Carrie has the TK gene or in other words she is telekinetic and she is also the butt of every joke in school – a dangerous concoction just waiting to explode.

But like every King story, its not a simple horror story. There are stories within stories and there are lots you can identify with – thatCarrie-Stephen-King_l make the stories almost believable. And as always it draws you in before giving the KO.

However when it comes to authors who are prolific and who have penned numerous stories, there is a tendency to rank novels. So having read a dozen King novels, where would I put this one? Somewhere in the middle. Though it is neither epical like “The Stand” nor immersive as “Hearts in Atlantis”, it is still a harrowing and tragic tale of a girl who is forced to turn into a monster.

The imagery, as always, can be frighteningly vivid and the words as always are gripping. And you get it, yet again, why film-makers just love Stephen King. He has already done all the work for them!!!

 

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Book Review, Humour, Satire

A Case of Exploding Mangoes written by Mohammed Hanif

81437 The subcontinent’s answer to Catch 22!!! and Slaughter House V!!

This book is one of the best dark political comic thriller that I have read in a long time..this is bitingly satirical and at times cuts you like a knife while making you split on the other side with laughter.

And for anyone who knows Pakistan’s troubled political landscape even passingly, this book is a realization that the best way to express themselves is by humour – the savagely comical variety. The truth which would be depressing in a factual format suddenly becomes something that can be laughed at and laughed with. You understand the anguish much better when you have shed a few tears of laughter…

The book is based loosely around the assassination of General Zia-ul-Haq, who died with almost his full military brass and the American ambassador in a plane crash in 1988.

But the story becomes a sort of “Murder on Orient Express”, with everyone trying to do the killing – the generals, trade unions and our hero and narrator,  Under Officer Ali Shigri, who seeks revenge for the death of his father, a decorated officer but who is ultimately haunted  by his actions.

The book is dark and funny at the same time. The events happening are dark but the narrative and the characterisation makes it humorous. There is intense lampooning of General Zia and other military top brass, which cuts them down to size and makes you almost feel sorry for them at-times. In fact Zia comes across as a dangerously deluded avuncular character who has got worms in his ass, who is browbeaten by his wife and uses the Koran as a daily horoscope.

That the author makes the country almost devoid of civilian in the hanif-book narrative is deliberate. It heightens the sense that the military are living in their own lie. And the occasional glimpses of the people only results in them abusing the ‘uniforms’, much to the soldiers’ amazement, who thought they were idolized…

The book alternates, in its chapters, between Ali and Zia, with our narrator stumbling from one hole to another (sometimes, quite literally), meeting quite interesting characters on the way especially the ‘Secretary General of the All Pakistan Sweepers Union’. Zia, on the other hand moves from one paranoia to another, convinced that someone is out to kill him (he was not wrong of course!!). The two characters converge in the closing part of the book, when Zia is killed in more ways than one!!!

What makes this book stand out is that the material it deals with is dark yet the author manages to bring out the laugh out of you almost every page. You feel like a phantom floating above a comic opera. And that is the best vantage point from which to see the panorama. At times what Zia and Co is doing almost seems unreal, but then you realize that we have been fed too many boring news reels!!! And seeing them bumbling around makes you almost closer to them and produces better laughs!!!

20050715001104902 And boy, is this book racy. I finished it in one sitting and its 364 pages long! It just keeps you on the edge, not only with the humour but also because you can see the plot thickening!!! And yes, the political satire is mature, which makes it even more enjoyable!!!

One of the best reads of the year for me definitely, if not one of the best of all times!!!

 

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Book Review, Historical

Empire Of The Moghul – Brothers At War written by Alex Rutherford

n331665 This book is the second in the Great Moghul series. The Mughal empire falls into the hand of Humayun after Babur’s untimely death just after he had conquered Hindustan from the Lodhis.

Though a fearless warrior, Humayun is a dreamer of sorts, preferring to watch the stars instead of court activities. He finds himself thrust with a legacy that he feels he needed more time to get adjusted to. Babur’s death had left the fledgling empire vulnerable with enemies closing from all sides. But as the new emperor soon finds out, its the enemy within that is much more lethal.

Babur had left the whole of the new empire in the hands of his eldest and favourite son. This left a lot of hearts broken, but the one who is most affected is Kamran, his half brother who is only a few months younger. Askar and Hindal were to follow Kamran’s lead, though Hindal, the youngest, was always a reluctant conspirator.

So begins this book, which, as is readily apparent, is much well written than its predecessor, Raiders from the North – about Babur. The action is more gripping and seems less like a tract of historical text. The characters have much more flesh. Of course some of the old characters from the previous book make an appearance – especially Khanzada, the pillar for Humayun in the most difficult of times.

And as you progress, you realize that the old cliché – truth is stranger than fiction is well, so true. The story of intrigues, love affairs, battles, betrayals, the incredible turning around of fates and an end that any fiction writer would have been proud to have come up with. The book is so packed with so many twists and turns that you literally have to keep reminding yourself that this is in fact historical fact (of course with liberties taken from a writers point of view).

Humayun’s dreamlike character, his addiction to opium (encouraged14603_Humayun by the scheming mother of Kamran), his haywire schemes of running his court according to the stars, the titanic clashes with Sher Shah Suri, Humayun’s miraculous escapes, his fleeing across half of northern subcontinent seeking refuge (at one time reduced to a handful of men in rags pursued by armies), his reversal of fortune, the constant betrayals by his brothers, the constant battles when one battle has been won, his love of the women in his life – especially Hamida (the mother of Akbar).

All these read almost like a potboiler. I mean, for it being a novel based on history, I found myself on the edge of my seat many times as the book was polished off in a couple of readings.

For me, as with the first book, the appeal is in knowing more about the Mughals in a way that Wikipedia can never teach me – learning while being entertained. It is strange how little we really know of our history. As we witness the early Mughals struggling to reserve a vision that Babur had nurtured, we almost see modern India in the making as one of the greatest empires in modern world begins to take foothold. You get to know more about other characters – like Sher Shah, who are dismissed in a couple of sentences in most school books.

Importantly, it brings into focus a Mughal who is so often overlooked in history with almost everyone else hogging the limelight, even though it was him who actually set a firm foundation in India for the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Mughals. Humayun was emperor in actuality for a very short time and died almost in a bizarre tragedy when he tripped and fell down stairs after he had secured his kingdom after long gruelling years. We see a man who in more peaceful times would have become more of a poet rather than a king. His acts of benevolence especially in forgiving his brothers again and again is a feature that is almost impossible to imagine in his times when kings eliminated rivals at the first chance. Humayun comes as irritable personality  possessing all faults but more than compensating for them with his more generous qualities.

All in all, a gripping and enjoyable read. And hopefully the writing would keep on improving with the next one – on Akbar. Cant wait for that one…

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Book Review, Historical, Non-Fiction

Bandits written by Eric Hobsbawm

bandits This was a book that i wanted to read for a very long time but this is one book that is not easily available. I finally was able to get hold of a copy from the online site “Friends of Books”.

Hobsbawm literally pioneered the study of bandits as a social phenomenon. Bandits as a popular form of resistance. Bandits was first published in 1969 and the field has expanded greatly since then, with many theories (some complementary and some opposing) coming forth on the subject.

This book, however, remains a seminal one. And for that reason, this book is simply must read for anyone who is interested in this fascinating topic.

The book starts by explaining who and what a social bandit is. The earliest form of banditry is the example of the mythical Robin Hood (who in all probability did not exist as a single individual). The late examples include bandits like Salvatore Giuliano (whom Puzo immortalized in international popular culture in “The Sicialian”) and bandit turned revolutionaries like Pancho Villa.

Hobsbawn prepares the basis of the definition of bandits by describing the political, social and economic reasons for the rise of bandits and37457 why they still exist in some forms even to this day. He goes on to describe some forms of banditry that persisted for a long time in some countries (like Haiduks in the Balkans).

He describes the environment under which they flourished and gives explanations for the reasons why some bandits are eulogized and become legends, even in their own lifetime and why some other bandits are not (and the latter are not a part of his description of social bandits). He explains why the social bandit enjoyed extensive support in the rural and marginal areas even when they may not have actually lived upto the Robin Hood principle of robbing the rich to give to the poor.

Later he ties up the bandit phenomenon with revolutionary and independence movements in the countries and he explains the various relationships that bandits had with the nationalist movements. He brings in the role of women and their relationship to the bandits.

39-pancho-villa-mustache As I said it is a fascinating topic and it is an interesting book. But I was expecting and hoping for much more. From a purely academic point of view, the book is excellent since it brings forth its theories well. But from a reading point of view, it falls short of expectations.

To be an enjoyable read, you need more description of the bandits. You get the theory but you dont get to know the bandits. You dont quite get the smell of the world that they lived in. You dont get many examples for the different theories that are given to you. You cant quite relate to the bandits and you feel an itching want to do so. The author whets your appetite that much.

Another point is that the book is almost exclusively devoted to European or South American bandits. Eastern ones (from India or China) get only passing reference.

To be fair, the author concedes as such in the introduction. The author explains that he intends to give this book as a primer and the reader must read other books to get more meat.

So, read this book as a window to a world that is not easily accessible. But be ready to trawl the internet to delve deeper.

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