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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014


Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 13/01/2013

Publisher – Pan Macmillan; Year of Publication – 1979; Pages – 319

42. The number 42 is one of the most widely recognized numbers among netizens and avid readers for it is “The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything”. If you are not sure, you can try googling it. The only problem with this answer is that nobody knows what the Ultimate Question is. The answer presented itself in the wackiest of all novels that you will ever come across, Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (and so did means to get to the question but it gets destroyed in the beginning).

The novel opens with the destruction of Earth, comically, to make way for an inter-galactic super highway. Only a lone man, Arthur Dent, escapes the destruction (sort of) thanks to the help of Ford Prefect who, unbeknownst to Dent, happens to be an alien researching Earth for the titular “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. From there on they have to hitchhike across the universe, for want of air to breathe. They are accompanied at times by the double headed Galactic President, Zaphod Beeblebrox, in search of a galactic El Dorado and Trillian, also a human (female). On their trail are the much hated Vogons, the bureaucracy of the galactic regime who bear an alarming resemblance to many Earth bound bureaucrats.

“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is a fictional travel guide filled with needless trivia and, if the reader is extremely lucky (like Felix Felicis lucky), some actually valuable information that may be of use to someone lost in the dark matter of the universe. However, the Douglas Adams’s novel is quite the opposite, designed to get the reader lost with a confusing plot that has a tendency to develop off shoots and parallel storylines into the middle of nowhere. Nevertheless, it is quite a hilarious work of gobbledygook that is guaranteed to entertain the reader for an uncertain period of time, with some intermittent periods of head banging on the desk.

Historically, the number 42 has some curious significance. The ancient Egyptians followed the code of Ma’at for moral guidance in daily life. It had 42 confessions to guide the people of Egypt and is one of the oldest set of ethics known to humanity, long before the Ten Commandments where declared on Sinai. On an unrelated note, this is my forty second review in this newspaper.

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Who Let the Dork Out? by Sidin Vadukut

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014


Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 02/01/2013

Publisher – Penguin; Year of Publication – 2012; Pages – 255; Cost at the time of purchase – Rs. 199

Robin “Einstein” Varghese is back, fumbling through another gem of a story with unsurpassable clumsiness, complete lack of intellect and excessive belief of self worth, and still manages to gets away with all of it as usual by the end. I had started my book review column with the second book of Sidin Vadukut’s Dork trilogy, God Save the Dork, when it was published late last year. Now the author has completed his laugh riot with its third and final instalment.

The last of the Dork books continues on with the general theme of clumsiness and comedy by the central character, Robin Varghese, though the author has chosen a more serious topic in the book; that of political corruption. While the first books had the protagonist as a small time business consultant who deals in corrupt business practices, the latest book has him heading (in the interim) the Indian unit of a global consultancy minor, who has been drafted in to be a consultant (of the Nira Radia variety) for a central government ministry dealing with a global sports event.

Hilarity ensues after the minister is send to jail and Varghese has now got to handle the affairs on behalf of the minister and in typical Indian Stretchable Time fashion, all projects are lagging behind in everything and needs more luck than Steven Bradbury to come through with flying colours (of t shirts). While the book is an obvious satire of the corruption saga tied on with the 2010 Commonwealth Games, coming in 2012, it is unlikely the general public can remember that far back in the past to connect the dots. After all, public memory is reputedly very short.

Nevertheless, Dork 3 is a complete laugh riot, but carries a stronger message than the previous ones. I had initially wondered how Vadukut could sustain the momentum of the first two books and build on it (and not have a copycat book by rehashing earlier themes). Dealing with events that may still be in many readers’ memory he has managed to achieve it.

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Dr Bloodmoney by Philip K Dick

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014


Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 22/12/2012

Publisher – Hachette; Year of Publication – 1965; Pages – 304; Cost at the time of purchase – Rs. 325

Philip K Dick is the master of dystopian fiction. He has written countless novels set in alternate universes, each as varied as the other. Most of his work blur the boundaries of reality and stretch your imagination to the extreme and “Dr Bloodmoney” is no different. Set in a post nuclear holocaust world, the novel has deformed mutants everywhere due to the nuclear fallout. One such mutant is out for revenge against the world, for the discrimination he had to face when he was younger.

At the centre of the novel is a mutant invalid, Hoppy Harringtion, who was born with no limbs and has to rely on a mechanical wheelchair for movement. But his intellect compensates well for his physical inability such that he can sustain himself on his own. However, living in a society bred to look at him as abnormal, he has to deal with racism in every walk of life. That is until he figures out he can move matter with his mind.

Philip K Dick’s novels are worth the read purely for the imaginative world he creates for them. In this novel, the world society has collapsed, forming loosely tangled paranoid self governing communities. The world is in a transition attempting to grasp sanity in the middle of a complete overhaul. Various themes of civil society are explored in this world in an effort to induce normalcy to the daily life.

Many characters exhibit metaphysical abilities and psychotic diseases, and sometimes interchangeably confusing the reader. “Dr Bloodmoney”, like many of his other novels, makes the reader question what is unreal and what is not. The story is so plotted that the reader may get lost in the middle just like while hitchhiking in the galaxy. But it also touches upon crucial daily issues like racism at work and discrimination.

Reading any of the author’s books is like being on a perennial high. He invests a great deal of creativity while shaping each character in his novels and by putting them in a dystopian world, Dick takes the reader out of his familiar universe. Many of his novels have been made into movies like Blade Runner, Minority Report and the more recent Total Recall (which in itself was a remake of a 1990 movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger). While he met with only limited literary success during his lifetime, he needed Hollywood to expand on his works to showcase its full potential to a wider audience.

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The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014


Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 16/12/2012

Publisher – Hachette; Year of Publication – 1953; Pages – 250; Cost at the time of purchase – Rs. 350

Ben Reich is a man on a mission; a mission of murder. Unfortunately he lives in a world where telepaths can absorb even the slightest bit of murderous rage from your mind. It is difficult to commit murder when the target has telepathic bodyguards to protect him. “The Demolished Man” is the story of how Reich plots an improbable murder and attempts to get away with it.

Set in a futuristic universe, the novel has Reich as the head of a struggling corporate cartel planning to take out his main rival, Craye D’Courtney. With peepers (people who peep into other people’s minds) on the lookout for criminals, it is difficult for anyone, even someone with vast resources like Reich, to commit a crime. In his aid is an ancient family guide to commit crime leaving no trace, not even a smoking gun, behind.

Written in 1953, when futuristic novels were still a rarity, “The Demolished Man” progresses into a psychotic nightmare, mixing dementia and telepathy to create an explosive cocktail of craziness. What appears to be a run-of-the-mill crime novel in the beginning goes on a perennial high as the author brings in psychosomatic traits. The author explores many psychological issues ranging from paranoia to oedipal complex to complicate the storyline, but keeps the reader hooked.

The story is at its most intriguing during the interplay between Reich and Powell (a telepathic cop chasing down Reich). Powell, like any good private detective, is able to instinctively identify the culprit, despite the obvious lack of physical evidence. The second half of the storyline has Powell trace out the path of the criminal and still remarkably get lost in the way, as the author slowly reveals the demented state of the plot.

On the whole, the book is an interesting read though the plot fizzles out towards the end as it gets mixed up with philosophical gobbledygook. The only saving grace for the ending is the act of demolition, the punishment for murder in this futuristic world; about which details are withheld till the end. While spoken of in infrequent whispers as the crime is plotted, the punishment of demolition gives the impression of being of a horrific nature unlike the contemporary capital punishment. In line with the overall theme of the novel, the act of demolition raises a few eyebrows about crime and punishment.

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The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014


Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 08/12/2012

Publisher – DC Comics; Year of Publication – 1989; Pages – 239; Cost at the time of purchase – Rs. 845

“Preludes & Nocturnes” begins with a mysterious old house; a house so old that it is guarded by gothic gargoyles. A doctor arrives, steps over the creaking steps, rings for the creepiest looking butler you may ever see and hands over a visibly old book to the master of the house. A ritual follows; a summoning of a demon of sorts, eventually captured and imprisoned in a bewitched circle.

The Sandman is a creature of mythology; a weaver of dreams. He uses his mystical sand to bring good dreams to good people. There are many variations of the character in folklore, including one by the acclaimed fairy teller Hans Christian Andersen. DC Comics, the publisher of Batman and Superman, introduced Sandman as a superhero as early as 1939, but he lost his place in the ensemble of superheroes with the end of the Golden Age of comic books after the Second World War. DC reintroduced Sandman over the next few decades under different characters, but was met mostly with mixed success. It is only in 1989 that Sandman would let go off his superhero cape for a higher calling.

The captured wraith is the king of dreams. For three scores and half years he is imprisoned in the circle like an animal in a zoo. When he finally escapes he finds his kingdom desolate and destitute. He is out for revenge. The Sandman is not just the creator of good dreams, but also the purveyor of the scariest nightmares you can imagine.

Neil Gaiman revitalizes the story of Sandman with his ten book series of graphic novels (of which Preludes & Nocturnes is the first). With the help of the long array of artists, inkers, letterers and colorist at DC, Gaiman is able to give image to his dream of a Dream. He makes Sandman the personification of dreams and his series a journey of Dream as he recovers from his imprisonment. With “Preludes & Nocturnes”, he creates a setting for the series to follow and introduces the dreamworld and its master’s eccentricities.

It is a dark graphic novel, with grim thoughts of misery embedded into its leaves. The artwork expands the theme and gives life to the novel. It plays with your mind convincing you of its existence all the while reminding you of its fiction. The rest is for you to dream it.

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The Bonfire of Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014


Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 01/12/2012

Publisher – Random House; Year of Publication – 1987; Pages – 690

The bonfire of vanities is a tradition of burning any object deemed to be sinful. The most infamous occasion of such an event happened in the Italian city of Florence, when the ruler of the city purged from the city many pieces of art, literature and wigs. But Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of Vanities” is a depiction of the 1980’s New York City. Torn by racism and income imbalance, crime rate was at its highest, but so was its economic growth. The financial industry was booming and investment bankers were buying up million dollar homes for themselves.

Wolfe’s story is about Sherman McCoy, one such investment banker, whose life reaches an unfortunate stop after an intersection with the lower strata of the Big Apple. While travelling with his mistress in the city, they go into the shadier parts of the city and accidentally run over a black youngster. The accident soon becomes a media darling after black rights groups put their weight behind it, and when the accused turns out to be a rich investment banker, the story gets more eyeballs.

What follows is a high octane court room battle that can rival even the best of John Grisham, interspersed with a political drama highlighted by the racial atmosphere of the city. There is a certain sense of facade left over the real story as the black youngster fights for his life in a hospital while rights groups, politicians and the media fight for fortune over his impending grave.

The book gives an excellent review of the 1980s New York society; the good parts and the bad. Wolfe had done excellent research for the preparation of the book, including interviewing many of the richer investment bankers of the time. The author is able to retain suspense till the end, since it was not McCoy who had actually run the black youngster fatally injuring him. But with the general public coming down on him for his avarice, it is his life that goes up in the bonfire of vanities. Or not.

The movie was released in 1990, starring Tom Hanks as a very likeable Sherman McCoy, co-starring Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman. Curiously, the story has a marked resemblance to the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida early this year, which created a huge uproar about the laws of the state. While the trial is still ongoing, it received wide-scale international attention after the involvement of publicists and rights groups.

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Satyajit Ray’s Feluda Mysteries: Danger in Darjeeling by Subhadra Sen Gupta & Tapas Guha

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014


Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 23/11/2012

Publisher – Penguin; Year of Publication – 2010; Pages – 49; Cost at the time of purchase – Rs 99; Purchased from Cosmo

Pradosh Chandra Mitter, aka Feluda, is a private detective. A creation of the acclaimed film director Satyajit Ray, Feluda has been a favourite among Indian mystery seekers for decades. During his lifetime, Ray wrote 35 stories about Feluda which have since appeared as stand-alone stories, anthologies, periodicals and more recently as comic books. Originally published as “Darjeeling Jamjamat” in 1987, Tapas Guha brings to picture the characters of the Feluda story, while Subhadra Sen Gupta provides the rehashed script to allow the novel be presented as a comic book.

“Danger in Darjeeling” has all of the usual suspects of the Feluda story line. Feluda, accompanied by his cousin / sidekick, Topshe and their writer friend, Jatayu, are off to Darjeeling for the filming of a novel written by Jatayu. But before they could enjoy the scenic climes of the hill city, a murder happens. Their host, Virupaksha Majumdar, is killed and a priceless idol is stolen. There is danger lurking at every corner for Feluda and his companions as Feluda is literally thrown off into a ravine while attempting to solve the mystery. Another murder follows and the mystery becomes ever so murkier.

It is inevitable for a reader to look at parallels while reading detective fiction. Every great detective has a knowledgeable sidekick, be it Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. There are few such clichés that you can spot immediately in Feluda, but these add to the nostalgia by helping the reader get familiar with the characters than be a hindrance in the development of the story. There are enough twists and turns for the ardent mystery fan and the mystery is perfectly solvable too, provided you avoid the false leads and not take any missteps.

It is a welcome sign to see Feluda presented as a comic book, competing with the familiar Tintin and Asterix ranges. Though they are excellent and entertaining stories for all children from 6 to 60, Tintin and Asterix tend to be on the expensive side. The story is well written and just as entertaining. The other books in the series are also set in different parts of India and her neighbouring countries bringing out local culture, society and scenery creating a visual feast and give out a wealth of information for the observant reader.

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Imperium by Robert Harris

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014


Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 10/11/2012

Publisher – Simon & Schuster; Year of Publication – 2006; Pages – 452; Cost at the time of purchase – Rs 290

Yesterday in Chicago, we saw Barack Obama deliver another fine speech to declare his victory in the US Presidential elections. Many great leaders are great orators, who have the ability to inspire and enthral their followers by the mere sound of their voice. Regrettably, our own elected leaders have been lacking in this capacity but history tells us of many such rousing speeches. Ranging from Hitler and Churchill during the Second World War to Lincoln in the American Civil War to Mark Antony in his eulogy to Caesar could unleash war with their words. Nowadays it is easier to rouse an audience because leaders can rely on loudspeakers and media, but a person like Mark Antony was able to raise a nation, nay, the entire southern Europe to launch a war against Caesar’s killers, without all the modern technology that our leaders can now make use.

Ancient Rome saw many great orators. The fact that the word rostrum, the pedestal for a speaker, has a Latin origin tells us of their importance. While Rome was largely a military state, during the first century BC as the Roman Republic neared its demise, it produced many skilled orators. Cato the Younger is often credited to be able to speak for an entire day so as to prevent others from raising issues he did not like in the Senate. Many know of Caesar and his one liners like “the die is cast” and “veni,vidi, vici”, but he needed to be just as good in the long form if he was to lead the Roman Senate, which he did for over a decade.

Imperium is about another famous orator, Marcus Cicero, a man of humble origins unlike Caesar, but rose to become one of Rome’s most powerful men and a strong critic of Caesar at the height of his power. He is assisted in his raise to power by his trusted slave (later freedman) Tiro who acts as the narrator for this fictional biography. Tiro is at times credited to be the inventor of short hand writing, perhaps an indication of the volume of articles spat out by the orator. Robert Harris covers the early life of Cicero tracking his rise to consulship to become one of the two heads of state of the Roman Republic. But the book goes beyond the realm of a biography. It details the political intricacies and corruption that would eventually lead to the demise of the Republic. The early part of the book covers the rise of Cicero the orator as he defends clients as an advocate in the Senate and later as a politician which is when Cicero glows on the podium.

With Imperium, we get the Roman society at its best, in the Senate halls, as the Senator debated and legislated the laws, and at the election booths, as many Roman citizens exercised their right to vote every year. We also get to see the Roman society at its worst, in the Senate halls, as powerful coteries led waste to the many colonies of Rome and corruption went hand in hand with power, and at the election booths, where bribery became common practice and only a small minority of the people who lived in the Roman Republic actually got to vote.

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Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014


Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 03/11/2012

Publisher – Penguin; Year of Publication – 2005; Pages – 375; Cost at the time of purchase – Rs 299; Purchased from Cosmo

Percy Jackson is an ordinary teenager. He lives with his mom and has a step father whom he hates, has trouble at school and hates a real lot of things about life. Until he finds out his real father is a Greek god. But sadly for him he finds it out in a tragic manner, after his mom his killed by a Minotaur, straight from the “Theseus and the Labyrinth” myths.

From there on, the book is a recap of your favourite stories from Greek mythology upgraded to the 21st century. The story is peppered with many creatures of the Greek yesteryear like the minotaurs, satyrs, centaurs, gorgons, Furies and nymphs. The Olympus, the abode of the Greek gods, has shifted far west and is sitting atop the Empire State Building in New York and the Olympians like before, goes around fathering (and mothering) illegitimate children around the world. Percy Jackson is send to a summer camp for children of gods where he learns to combat and make use of his godly inheritances.

There is also a dangerous mission. The most powerful of the Greek gods, Zeus, thinks Percy stole his lightning bolt and will kill Percy if he gets hold of him. Percy, with his disjointed group of friends, has to find and retrieve the lightning bolt and clear his name before all is too late. Waylaying them is Hades, the god of the Greek underworld, who also intends to kill Percy, over an old angst with Percy’s father, the sea god Poseidon. And in the ancient realm of Greek mythology, who knows what other foe lies in wait of our intrepid adventurers.

While the book does come off a bit childish at times, it would be a good and humorous read for a middle school student, especially for the ones unfamiliar with Greek mythology. Though many of the encounters with the mythical bad guys are a modern retelling of the old stories, they can still induce a sense of suspense and curiosity in the reader. The author has upgraded these stories in a delightful manner and tweaked them to meet the larger storyline of the search for the missing lightning bolt. By the end of the novel, the author is able to create an intriguing storyline which he continues in the book’s four sequels. The movie was released in 2010, but received mixed reviews.

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The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

Posted by RB Kollannur on October 28, 2012


Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 27/10/2012

Publisher – Random House; Year of Publication – 1954; Pages – 270; Cost at the time of purchase – Rs 244

Today we look at another detective novel, but not a run of the mill one. It is set in the future, a thousand years from now. A noted roboticist is killed and detective Elijah Baley is summoned to solve the crime. The dead roboticist is also a noted diplomat and his unnatural death is ripe for chaos in the interplanetary relation between Earth and its colonies in space.

As a pure detective fiction, “The Caves of Steel” has its good moments, but it is not enough to enthral the reader. What makes the novel exciting is the portrayal of the future Asimov has done. The noted science fiction writer constructs an agoraphobic society who has isolated themselves into massive super cities protecting themselves from the elements by massive caves of steel. Ironically it has a shadow of the present world, where connected by the internet, people very rarely have to leave their homes to get their work done or even do shopping (The only difference would be that companies like Amazon, flipkart and Dominos would be driven by robots).

The Caves of Steel is the first novel of the Robot series, a set of detective space fiction novels Asimov wrote in the 50s and the 80s. It is here he introduces R Daneel Olivaw, a humanoid robot, who would play a central role in many of Asimov’s later works. One of the thought provoking aspect of Asimov’s writings is its connection with the everyday world. The author is well versed in history and copies liberally from historic situations in many of his novels putting new meaning to the phrase “history repeats itself”.

Adding to the agoraphobia, xenophobia is also driven into the novel. The people on Earth do not get along with the people in space. While the former are many in number, they have to live in a meagre manner because of limited resources. The latter, on the other hand, can afford to be lavish with the resources at their disposal. But driven by their agoraphobia, developed after living for generations in a secluded environment, they are incapable of moving to a different environment. This has also an interesting take in today’s society. While migration has been common among humanity from the invention of the wheel, there is a noted resistance for migration in subsequent generations. So today you are more likely to see migrants coming from people who for generations have not migrated, than from second generation of migrants. The underlying theme of the book is to make a way to reengineer the pioneering spirit among humanity to forge ahead in evolution.

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