Monday, January 24, 2022

Mini Reviews - XIV

High Citadel

High Citadel

  - Desmond Bagley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a wonderful action thriller, with a lot of tension and suspense. It is basically a fight-to-survival story of a set of improbable characters, thrown together by fate and conspiracy (my words sound like a cliche, even to me!). So yes, it is a common trope of this genre, yet when well done, these novels can be quite entertaining.

Here we have a small plane hijacked and crash-landed in the Andes, and the ill-equipped passengers must survive not only the extreme weather, but also an army unit intent on killing them.

I have read quite a few novels on this theme, but the relatively lower rating is not due to lack of novelty value. Its because I have read almost everything by Alistair Maclean, some of them multiple times, and Maclean is superb in both - gritty tales of extreme, nearly inhuman, nature conditions, as well as those of resourceful protagonists. This one was so reminiscent of Maclean's plots that the comparison became inevitable. It also had too much violence, and though it was unavoidable for the plot, I don't like this much of gore, even though it is tamer compared to the graphic violence of contemporary thrillers.

The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel

  - Emmuska Orczy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I remember reading this book twice earlier - the first time in my school library a long time ago. I recalled finding the story nice and entertaining. Sometime between then and now, thanks to the internet access and availability on the web, I was able to read it again, and still found it amusing. Since I did not remember much about the story, except the very basic plot line, I took the chance to buy an old print in excellent condition. As I held the book in my hands, I thought that the book I read in school must have been an abridged edition - my vague recollection is of a rather slim volume.

I still found the adventure readable and the story entertaining. However, my more mature outlook now discerns the shortcomings as well. I found the outlook in the story elitist and extremely racist. The loyalty towards the nobility, flawed as they are, is rather incomprehensible in these current times. I also observed that the author is quite prone to repetitions, so we encounter a number of "pretty Sally"s in the opening chapters, are told about the lazy eyes and inane laugh of Lord Blakney throughout the book and hear the exclamation "Odd's fish" a number of times in a single dialog exchange towards the end. An enjoyable time-pass read, and even though a bit dated, it hasn't aged badly.

The Dalai Lama's Cat (The Dalai Lama's Cat, #1)

The Dalai Lama's Cat

  - David Michie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a sort of an introduction to Buddhism for beginners, and is a lovely and light read. It is indeed commendable that the author has found such a unique and interesting voice to relate the Buddhist philosophy, interwoven with the story of the eponymous cat. His Holiness's Cat is a lovable character, who has her own faults but owns up to them, and who narrates the story sometimes with grave insight and usually with humor.

I really liked the story, yet I only gave it 3 stars, because although I could enjoy it, I did not find it life-altering in the way people who recommended it on my reading group did. Perhaps I was not in the right frame of mind, or it was not the right time for me.

Friday, January 21, 2022

His Dark Materials

His Dark Materials Trilogy

  - Philip Pullman


#1 Northern Lights

I loved the first book in the series - Northern Lights, also published as The Golden Compass. The heroine, Lyra Silvertongue is a fearless, spunky teenager. Courageous and empathetic, she is a true friend. The reader is made aware of a great secret prophesy, which she herself is unaware of for the most part, but one which puts her in grave danger.

The fantasy world introduced a very interesting concept - a unique daemon associated with each human, reflecting their personality - I visualize this as a sort of soul, but residing outside the body. There is the concept of parallel worlds, which of course is a common one, but used well. Lastly, it takes a stand against organized church, which I feel is true to great extent, but for no reason explained by the author. But it comes down rather heavy painting it so evil and black, that it is no surprise that the church took an issue against it.

It is considered as a Middle grade or YA fantasy, but I think it is rather complex for the younger readers.

#2 The Subtle Knife

The second book in the series is The Subtle Knife, where Lyra finds a friend in Will Parry, and they go off to more adventures, finding more secrets and more pain in the worlds. Though this was also taut and thrilling, I did not like it as much as the first. The novelty of discovering a new (fantasy) world has worn off, and run and chase take up a significant part of the story. But I regretted that there is very little of Lyra in this - she spends most of the book in a coma.

I comforted myself that the first one focused on Lyra, Second is focused on Will, and in the final one, they will join forces and accomplish great things together.

 #3 The Amber Spyglass

However, the concluding part - The Amber Spyglass was a big letdown. It was an interminable sequence of walking, people going this way and that, and I found a whole section of it quite pointless (and what were those weird creatures again?!). The whole grand buildup and the huge suspense fizzled out like a damp cracker.

Another thing that was a major put off was the whole characterization of Lyra. In the first book, she is a strong and independent girl. In most of the second one, she is missing. But in the third book, she hardly shows any initiative of her own, and is reduced to a whimpering damsel. Will! Oh Will!. What shall we do, Will!

It is almost as if the author started off with a well crafted, daring idea - challenging the church and creating a strong female lead for a fantasy-adventure. But owning to pressure and convention, eventually backed out on both.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Mini Reviews - XIII

 The Ghost of Blackwood Hall (Nancy Drew #25)
  - Carolyn Keene

1/5 stars

Picked this up on a whim from the book sale I went to, for two reasons - I haven't read a Nancy Drew book in perhaps three decades, and this original Armada publication copy was in quite a decent condition (I also hit a jackpot with a very good Three Investigators - The Vanishing Treasure, one of my favorites in the series).

So, I was reminded why I never liked Nancy Drew, even when I was in middle school and loved Three Investigators Series. First the plot that is completely illogical - grown women putting money in tree trunks to supposedly support an orphanage, people believing in seances and spirits telling them exact details of places to bury wealth and names of people to avoid. Then, the plot hole - how did the thieves know their victim's jewellery so well that they were able to create such great imitations upfront? Next - sleuthing - consisting of officials giving all information that a 18 year old asks for, lawyer father getting information for her, and her being rescued from difficult situations by father or boyfriend.

I don't think I felt this in my younger days, but now I felt that the writing was juvenile, and I am inclined to put it at the level of Enid Blyton's detective series for younger children.

The Golden Keel
  - Desmond Bagley

3.5/5 stars

Desmond Bagley is one of my favorite thriller writers, the old-school straightforward action/spy thrillers being the kind I like. I also feel a partiality towards treasure hunt/chase stories, so it was no surprise that I enjoyed this one that tells a tale of Nazi gold lost during WW2.
I did expect the 'twist' that came towards the end, as well as the final outcome, yet the pace and the narration kept me engaged. The build-up of the story and the execution was done well enough. I wouldn't call it a must-read for the genre, but its quite a nice one to keep one interested to see how it unfolds.

High Stakes
  - Dick Francis

3.5/5 stars

Like most of the other novels by Dick Francis, High Stakes is also a thriller set in the world of horse racing. It does involve a bit of the how the betting works, but I am glad it did not delved into much detail of jockeying or care of horses - one of his previous books I read went into these aspects too deep and bored with these, I skipped whole paragraphs to get to the main story.
The rich protagonist, Scott, gets interested in buying racehorses, even though he knows very little about racing and nothing about horses. The book opens to his realization that his trainer and adviser Leeds has been swindling him outrageously, playing on his generosity as well as lack of knowledge. From there starts a cat-and-mouse game, with Scott playing to safeguard his property and reputation, and Leeds, his ill-gotten gains and freedom.
It is a well written book, with a likeable protagonist you can sympathize with and an exciting sequence of events as he plans to protect his interests where he cannot expect to get help from the law.

Smiley's People

Smiley's People

Smiley's People

  - John le CarrĂ©

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third book in the Karla trilogy, where now-retired George Smiley finally gets an opportunity - a last chance - to beat his lifelong nemesis. I have read the first book in the series, but not the second one (The Honorable Schoolboy), and from the comments it appears I really missed something. Anyhow, this can be read as a standalone, though it is good to have context from the earlier one - the image of the primary characters and the conflicts that they have engaged in previously. It is fraught with a gripping tension, as the intricate web is oven, things go wrong or threaten to fail at the last moment.

This is the fourth Le Carre novel I read, but the first one read as a physical book. In the previous three that I read on kindle, I had a little trouble following his narration and plot, and I attributed the challenge to the digital version. So I bought a physical copy (a large print, beautiful, hardcover) that I found in a used book sale, since the author had been so highly recommended to me as I am fond of thrillers and espionage novels. Having read this, I concluded that the challenge I had was not not solely due to the kindle format - Le Carre often composes long, convoluted sentences and at times I had to read them twice to figure what he was trying to tell - there was one that was almost half page long!

Apart from this issue, I loved the book. It is not packed with action (think Bond movies), but demonstrates the slow and skilled and painstaking work that espionage is, which I feel is much closer to the truth. On one hand there are huge risks and intrigues, and on the other, the calm and patient way they must be carried out. I now understand why so many readers consider him to be the master of the genre - his stories resonate a lot with the true accounts of cold war espionage and counter-espionage I have read.

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Eleventh Commandment

The Eleventh Commandment

The Eleventh Commandment

  - Jeffrey Archer

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I had read it long time back, and the only thing I remember is that I just loved it. So at a used book sale I went to recently, when I saw a hardcover edition of this, I couldn't resist the chance to buy it.
I just read it again, perhaps after a gap of 18-20 years, and now, my more world-weary mind does not find it as extraordinary as I did the first time - in this while I have read more of spy thrillers, and watched a few movies in a similar vein.

Early on in the book (as well as in the blurb on the paperback edition), we are told that the protagonist Connor Fitzerald is a CIA assassin, and his boss Helen Dexter is an unscrupulous director of the CIA. This formula of betrayal is leveraged in several books and movies, making the story arc predictable. But what keeps one hooked is how it all pans out - all the twists and turns, treachery and loyalty, offensives and counter-offensives, and of course, our protagonist always keeping one step ahead of his enemies. This is the kind of 'clean' thrillers that I love, a pity they don't write more of these any more.

It reminded me why I love Archer once upon a time, until a couple of his more recent story collections broke the spell. It is a good one time thoroughly entertaining read, though if you are looking for matter of substance or enlightenment, this isn't a right choice. Lowering my earlier 4.5 rating to 3.5.

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

The Fox

The Fox

The Fox

  - Frederick Forsyth

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Where do I begin to describe the problems with this book?

- Aspergers: The over-hyped (and rather incorrect) stereotype of this disease on the Autism spectrum endows its sufferers with uninhibited genius, with the only downside being a lack of social skills.
- Computer Hacking: The whole premise of this book is based on hacking, but there is not even the slightest indication of how the boy genius achieves the impossible - breaking into the most sophisticated security systems all over the world - and takes only a few hours to do it.
- White Supremacy: West is the epitome of all-good - with the UK being the benevolent protector of the world, the USA can be tolerated, and the rest of them are either uncivilized or 'enemies of the world' (or both) - Russia, Iran, North Korea, China. I don't disagree with some of this as far as terrorism goes, but this 'savior of the world' formula annoys me.
- Human weapon: Government manipulating and abusing the youth to execute what it considers to be the best for the world, risking his life most severely while doing so.

- There is no single thread, except the UK saving the world from the worst tyrants on earth. It is just a series of events, one project per terrorist state - going into their security system, getting their access codes, and overriding it to cause complete destruction.
- It finds a very simplistic solution to deliver a happy ending - a solution that cannot be justified by any stretch of logical belief.

Writing Style:
It is perhaps the biggest problem of all. A great storyteller might have made something of this story, despite all the issues above. And that's why I felt it really wasn't written by Forsyth, several of whose books I have read and enjoyed. It seemed to be written by a novice, and the story outline may or may not have been provided by the author. I have read a few books where the outline was created by Alistair MacLean though the novel was written by another author - but the fact is clear from the cover page (and they are very well written even if not in the class of an original MacLean). But that was definitely not the case here.
- Too much info dump: It seems a primer on the world politics wrt the countries mentioned above, several security agencies, and a host of other things, some of which were not very relevant in the context of the story. For example, there is a 4-5 page description of the 9/11 terrorist attacks (does anyone need it in today's world?) only to explain why the US is paranoid about security. There are descriptions (factual or fictional, I am not sure) of some past spy maneuvers, to clarify that this is the strategy the spymaster used.
- The language: It is plebeian, even for my non-literary tastes. Feels more like a high-school kid's homework submission.
- Repetitions, an endless number of them: In phrases, adjectives, events, and use of multiple adjectives/synonyms when one would have sufficed. I lost the count of usages of 'the fat man' (for Kim, the Korean dictator), 'the master of all Russia', spymaster (for the protagonist), drunk (for Yeltsin), 'plundering of assets' (of Russia, under Yeltsin), fragile (for the youth), etc. I also did not need to be told repeatedly for my brain to register how Gorbachev lifted Russia and Yeltsin drowned it, how Weston escaped capture in the cafe, how the enemies' systems destroyed set them back millions of dollars and a couple of decades.

Best to avoid!

Sunday, January 02, 2022

Reading Journey 2021

In the year just gone by, I read a total of 63 books, against my reading challenge of 78 (1.5 books per week). I also managed to write reviews of nearly 45 books, some detailed, others succinct. In between, there were five months when I didn't read anything at all, but no regrets as during that time I was busy with other responsibilities, and did a lot of art. What I do regret is that this number represents more of quantity than quality.

Favorite reads of the year:

  • The Dictionary of Lost Words - Pip Williams [Historical Fiction]
  • Daevabad Trilogy - S. A. Chakraborty [Fantasy]
  • The Duchess of BloomsBury Street - Helene Hanff [Memoirs]
  • My Animals and other Family - Clare Balding [Memoirs]
  • The Beekeeper's Apprentice - Laurie R. King [Fiction/Adventure]
  • Moon Over Manifest - Clare Vanderpool [YA]
  • The Eyre Affair - Jasper Fforde [Science Fiction/Fantasy]

Surprisingly, for someone who is not much into non-fiction, two of the seven top favorites this year are memoirs!

Worst read of the year has to be "Undelivered Letters", hands down.

I binge read a lot of cozy mysteries, and sadly, didn't even like most of them. And I couldn't appreciate many of the highly recommended books as much as I expected. That resulted in a rather low average rating for the books read in this year, and a very small list of the books I loved.

A look at the readings stats of this year (thanks to Goodreads) and of the past years since I started tracking my reading on the site.


And, my resolutions for 2022 ...

  • Read more books that are meaningful 
  • Stay away from fluff like cozy mystery genre 
  • And reduce the 'unread' pile to low single digits before buying more books!