Sunday, April 27, 2014

Hounded by Kevin Hearne: An Opener to one of the most original fun urban fantasy series EVUH.

If you like your Jim Butcher, then you are in for a treat with this one. Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles have been around for some time now – enthralling readers with its original sardonic wit flying faster than the blinding action and giving us urban fantasy’ best lead pair ever in Atticus & Oberon.

Wouldn’t be far from the truth if I claim that Kevin Hearne has given us a refreshing twist to the Urban Fantasy tales – venturing as far away as possible from the cross-breed half-human half-fey heroine and her mysterious hot hulking vampire boyfriend saddled with protecting the universe. Hounded, Iron Druid series opener introduces us to the charming Atticus O’Sullivan, a two-thousand year old druid who looks like a normal twenty-one year old college kid and his Irish wolfhound who’s got a thing for French poodles and sausages. The book follows Atticus trying to carve out a normal living on the “Earth” plane – brewing tea & selling potions in his occult bookshop to curious college kids in Arizona, helping out widows mow their lawns and shapeshifting with his irish wolfhound to hunt down in the Arizonian mountainsides – all the time, lying low to avoid altercations with angry powerful Gods who have a score to settle with him. The thing is, our druid is no ordinary druid – having survived for more than two thousand years, he has got more than a few tricks up his sleeve. And a few unpredictable and dangerous allies. Including a pack of werewolves, the lead being his attorney at law who keeps the nosy cops from booking him in, despite of all the bloody fracas he frequently gets into – what with all other worldly demons who keep coming back to pay him “friendly” visits, his lawns are frequently mucked up with blood and grisly bits of body parts strewn around after such interesting visits – and a couple of other Goddesses, who have an unhealthy interest in the overall scheme of things being played out in the “Fey” domain for dominance and power. Atticus holds an important piece of artefact that could shift the balance of power: Fragarach, a powerful sword that can cleave through skin and iron alike that once belonged to the God of Love.

I know next to nothing about Celtic mythology. Gods or Feys or druids for that matter. For me, the book was like opening the door into a library filled with books I’ve always wanted to read but never could get my hands on. While initially I didn’t care about the slew of Irish sounding names, Kevin has a way with words that gradually makes you invested with the larger order at play. That of Gods/magical beings at conflict with each other for power. Filled with excellent world-building on the back of some excellent Irish myths and folklores, Hounded is a fun book from cover to cover. But don’t let these themes fool you. Kevin’s language is easy and perfectly suited to story-telling. Full of lively characters who will win your heart. The most engaging without doubt was the lead duo of Atticus and his wolfhound, Oberon. Irreverent banter, witty and fast quips that had me in splits half the time. One moment you are spinning around, avoiding the lance thrusts of Giants, while the other you are cracking up at Oberon’s outrageous demands for a harem of French poodles, sausages for breakfasts and his witty quips on whiney nature of werewolves.

It’s a perfect start to a new urban fantasy series – a genre I think I’m beginning to slowly savour. With his seventh book in this series now out, Kevin, a self-confessed comic-book nerd proves beyond a doubt that his isn’t a flash in the pan and he is a man whose talent is for the ages. Witches, a coven full of them (One even has an impossible Tamil name: Laksha Kulasekara, sound more Lankan to me!), shape-shifting Goddesses who smoulder and crackle with their sexuality & prowess, giants, packs of werewolves and vampire attorneys. Kevin’s thrown in all of it into this action-packed little book and the whole package is a blistering fun read. I am looking forward to read more. With six more outings, Kevin’s fleshed out his larger universe where his novels take place and from what I read, the next few get more exciting with the “hunts” upping the level of excitement. Ooh! 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

English Bites: My Fullproof English Learning Formula By Manish Gupta

Yeah that title isn’t going to get “brownie points” from you, I know. Oh wait, did you say Brownie Points? Do you even “ponder” what that means? I bet you used that as maybe that one-time clipped British-accent GF frequently used that, eh? Bam! Now I got you thinking huh? Brownie points? Brown is not even an attractive colour right? You would have thought scoring “greenie” points would have made a better idiom huh. Go on, shake that head. English is a funny language. And whoa! Look at that red circle over the “Fullproof”? You’re a little confused, errrr….isn’t it f-o-o-l proof? Maybe that is why the red circle. But you aren’t sure.

Manish Gupta cashes in on these exact sentiments and has fashioned this “almanac” (if I may use that word!) that is going to let you bulldoze through all your doubts around this “phunny language” and by the time you are through with this wonderful self-styled autobiography that charts the life of a boy from the hinterlands of Punjab who probably got the jitter-bugs thinking of his English classes but finally grows into a board-room rabble-rouser in the power-corridors of banking corporates (See what I did there? I combined “super-adjectives” and now you have the highest regard for this character) – you will be “talking English, walking English and even laughing English – ‘coz ainhhhh…English is a very phunny language alright but you are the master. And Manish definitely gets the "formula" right to master the same.

So harking back to the book – And we start with the front: Look at the gorgeous cover! It captures the whole aspirations & dollar dreams of the average Indian middle-class youth in its full glory. Perhaps in his final year of graduation, dreaming of the coveted “phoren” degree and burning the midnight oil, scampering through his notes and mugging his heart out. Trying to learn that “phunny” language called English. 

It’s a classic representation of what we all have gone through at some point of time in our lives. I personally know, by all the 333 million gods of the Hindu pantheon, how hard that GRE/GMAT verbal section was/still is. I’ve given both the GRE & GMAT versions. Shudder!! with a lot of exclamations don’t even cover it. So Manish Gupta, the author of this funnily titled book, comes as an angel in disguise for all of us. I am what people would call a “language nut” – I love words in all their hues and colors and I believe in using Fantabulously Stupendous where a simple good would have sufficed but good doesn’t quite convey the depth and the feelings behind something being that good.

But yes – a journey through life’s mis-adventures as Mr. Gupta calls it, has been painstakingly drawn up as the perfect foil to learning intricacies of this language called English. Simple stories really – starting from his school days and the engineering aspirations for higher studies followed by the toil for competitive exams, the first job and then the training or probation and then finding his own groove in a cut-throat industry. But the best bits aren’t the story. The fun parts which really shine are the anecdotes and the footnotes.
There be the diamonds in the rough. But just like some diamonds needs some processing, not all shine alike. 

The anecdotal stories range from comical and wildly entertaining to stolid and flat at times. But the earnestness and the efforts are commendable. I for one, wasn’t too enamored by the extremely large range of vocab recorded here, taking nothing away from the diligence and the fantastic manner in which the book peels away the layers around not just the “etymology” but spinning a story that helps jog the memory. (Remember I talked about Brownie Points? It comes from the British Railways – of a point system of rewarding good work or non-sloppiness, devised by a person called Robert Brown. There, go brag about this to that ex-GF with the British Accent who first used this, huh) But without doubts, this here is a cornucopia of knowledge for you parched desert rats scrounging around with your Word Power Made Easy or the PowerPrep CD exams.

But be warned that if you’re going into this book expecting an entertaining fictional story, then you are bound to be disappointed. As a story, the author’s autobiographical take kind of takes a plunge downhill in the second half where he has shoe-horned just too many dry stuff: Mini-stories of board rooms, brands & advertising and dry as bone dust trivia.

Overall, this book is a treasure. But as with all treasures, it needs the right temperament and handling. But with Manish doing a marvellous job of setting expectations with his emails, you’re advised to go slow. One Bite at a time. A chapter or two perhaps a day. It’s like chocolate fondue that you should probably store in the fridge and take a spoonful at nights. But trust me, like every good thing, unless you share the goods, it is going to useless in the long run. So whoever you may be, “Language Nut” or a GRE/GMAT aspirant wanting to crack Verbal – And this is from personal practice: If you really want this book to work for you – the best way would be to start discussing the new words that you come across with some close groups. It works wonders in slipping that into your memory. So next time, you come across that Brit ex-GF of yours, hit her with this new found treasure-trove. Wow her with the most beautiful language that has united people the world over.

Go ahead take a bite. It won’t bite back. You’ll love it. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Three by Sarah Lotz: A disturbing thought-provoking thriller

There is so much positive buzz around this “debut” from Sarah Lotz who describes herself as a “genre-crossing pulp-fiction” writer based in South Africa that it’s pretty hard to miss. 

So I got this book through the Galley ARC and pretty much dived into it – sucked in by the wonderfully engaging tale written very proficiently, switching between different voices, bending genres and generally cranking up that lever of tension and escalating fear levels. Now it is the first time I’m reading a tale being presented in such a manner. Like a vantage point or Rashomon movie, where the threads slowly unspool from different POVs – Email exchanges, Geek Forum discussions, Tape recordings, Skype interviews and social media shout-outs. Very clever writing device and trust me, it really works. Because Sarah expertly weaves in these narratives to build up that patina of fear that seeps in unnoticed as we read on.

It’s a tough book to review without being “spoilery” – The book is actually a collection of interviews and info-snippets – witness testimonies as collected by a writer Elspeth Martin – a journalist of sorts who is collecting material for her book on “Black Friday” – a fateful day that saw the simultaneous air crashes of four airplanes in Japan, South Africa, US and Britain. And all the cataclysmic series of events that are triggered off by the same. Three kids miraculously survive these horrific accidents while no one else has escaped alive – and the mysterious circumstances surrounding the crash only deepens the mistrust and tension. Religious groups use this to build an entire Christian propaganda around the End of World and anoint these survivors – dubbed 
The Three – as the legendary horsemen who precipitate the arrival of the apocalypse or the Anti-Christ and thus see the annihilation of the whole world. Except for the faithful. 

Now I usually am not a fan of this type of writing. There is no one consistent character I can hitch my wagon to – and watch the proceedings unfurl. (Call me spoilt like that) But while initially I was a little annoyed, the writing was so original in terms of getting the voices right for so many different types of people: Japanese Internet-trawlers and their sign-lingos, American soldiers posted in far-out desolate posts, Alcoholics, maniacs with psychosis, God-fearing Christians, rabble-rousing pastors waiting for the Rapture and lots lots more – there was no way I could put this down. Before I realized I was halfway through the book and then I realized my anticipations of a classic horror book with creeping doorways, dark and scary creatures or ghosts from the attic are pretty misplaced. This is more of a psychological horror – the deep-seated fear of the unknown that really grabs you by the neck as the whole world goes into a frenzy whipped up by unsocial elements looking to fulfill their own ulterior motives. It’s amazing how with some really clever writing, Sarah sweeps these events into a global pandemonium of fear and uncertainty. What is more creepy? That these three kids who actually survived horrific air-crashes might be three biblical Horsemen who signal the End of the World is near or power & money hungry elements possessed by mad rousing ambitions are whipping up the world into a frenzy over such premises? It’s scary how real and plausible the situations are today. And how scarily fast the fear-mongers are able to ensnare people into their own whirlpools of anxiety and fear.

The whole theme of the book is very real, very scary and very thought-provoking. A deeply unsettling novel that’s intelligent and beautifully crafted, by flitting through scores of unreliable narrators, Sarah manages to prolong that feeling of tension for a while with the fear of some impending disaster looming large over every page. And all the time at the back of your mind, you feel you’re watching the events through the lens muddled by Elspeth (the writer who collates all these narratives, remember?) who’s got her own interpretations into the play of events. This isn’t your edge-of-the-seat nail-biting tense thriller. The fear is of a baser version. One that creeps up unnoticed and hooks its talons deep into your mind and rattles it. Probably going to be one of 2014’s revelatory books.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Movie Review: Nilaakaasum, Pacha Kadal, Chuvvanna Bhoomi (Blue Skies, Green Seas, Red Earth): Best of 2013.

Best of 2013: I am unearthing gems in terms of books & movies that released in 2013.

A road movie? Made in Malayalam? Really? Motorcycle Diaries meets Thattu-kada Communism?

I couldn’t stop my jaws from hinging wide open when I first chanced upon this movie called Nilaakaasum, Pacha Kadal, Chuvvanna Bhoomi (also known as blue sky, green sea, red earth). I mean what an evocative title huh. Can they come more descriptive than this? A title that connects and tugs at your heartstrings. More than anything it flares up that urge to swing a backpack and go exploring our lovely country. Where every five miles the scenery would shift and so would the language and dialect and the delectable food. No, this is not an entry for a lonely planet column. But Vardhan Kondvikar would have been damn proud of this movie. As I am and pretty much everyone I think who’s probably seen this movie.  I was in love the title and looked forward to watch this movie with an interest rivalling that of Pavlov’s dog waiting for the bell. With  the folks back home in Kerala becoming more experimental and avant-garde in their movie-making, this new wave of film makers are indeed making a bright splash all over the country. All the right noises and the right execution, I have very high hopes for this industry now!

So before I go further, let me put this straight down. This movie is an experience. Transcendental doesn’t even quite cover it. A delightful movie shot at haunting mesmerizing locales that twists and meanders along, pretty much like the road that the characters follow across the whole of the nation, stopping awhile to rest and treat your senses to an atmospheric tale of a young man in pursuit of happiness. It’s quite the package in terms of the brilliant cinematography, the rocking music and the tight beautiful script. Absolutely top class. So hop on and let your senses wander.

So Samir Tahir’s second movie doesn’t quite fit into the “typical” movie mould. A finesse that belies the fact that this is only his second directorial venture backed by a flawless script from Hashir Mohammed and some exquisite riveting visuals that will blow your mind, the movie is multilingual. Effortlessly embracing Tamil, Hindi, Bengali and even Naga dialects thrown in for good measure. Shot across India, starting from Thrissur to the tip of North-East Nagaland, this movie is definitely the quintessential road movie. 

Two boys out on their rumbling bullets – searching for truths that would transform them – sounds like Motorcycle Diaries? Well, while the protagonists of the famous South American movie are driven by new found ideals, this movie features two youngsters who are happy to take the winding meandering roads to avoid the some painful memories and start afresh. And the road experience does indeed transform them. From idling at rave parties and learning to paddle-surf on the beaches of Puri to helping set up an automated flour-mill in the backward villages of Bimanghat near Kolkatta and experiencing the communal riots of naxal-infested Assam villages. The movie moves like a fast flowing river – twisting and forking past boulders, never a dull moment as Dulquer Salman and Sunny Wayne (sharing an amazing camaraderie, picking up where they left off in their first outing, Second Show) bring a winsome charm to the roles of the two youngsters. While Dulquer displays all the emotional turmoil of a confused hurt youngster out to erase some painful memories and then realize the key to his own happiness, Sunny plays his loyal friend who is the calming steadying influence in his life, following his best friend without any questions asked. It’s a gifted performance by these two – displaying a rare maturity, underplaying their emotions and bringing these two characters to life on the screen with a natural grace. Absolutely fantastic performance. All the characters whom they meet on the road also are very deftly etched out and played to perfection by a multitude of talented actors from across India. His love interest, Assi – played by Manipuri girl Surja Bala brings a restrained charm and freshness to the college heroine and is a pleasure to watch.

It is a love story at the most basic level – the flashes of backstory crisp and fluent in its handling, effectively conveying the depth in spite of the lack of too much dialogs. The movie also touches upon the political situations across various states of the East without getting heavy handed, effortlessly folding them into the narrative – the ever-perceptive Kassi, the lead character would get some indelible lesson etched into his mind and write that into his travel diary at every juncture. His voice-over is expressive and apt for story telling – weaving in an emotional touch to the proceedings.

You can almost smell the ocean and the clean pristine sands of Puri, blink and be mesmerized by the twinkling city lights at the bottom of the valley in West Bengal, watch the black meandering road snaking into the mountains amidst the lovely roiling wafts of fog in the colder stretches of North-East and feel the cold. The sheer energy and vast scope of this movie is just brilliant. As I said before, it is an experience you shouldn't miss out. One of the best movies of 2013. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Blogtour: The Crossover Year by Bhargavi Balachandran

Okay guys - letting you in on the big one!!

So I am hosting my first ever blogtour for The Crossover Year by the talented Mrs. Bhargavi Balachandran, a funny and heartwarming story of a twenty-nine year old banker at the cross-roads of life before she hits the big 3-O. 

About the book

Meet Sri Anuprabha, aka Anu, a twenty-nine year-old banker who is terrified of entering her thirties. She dreams of quitting her job at the bank, sporting yoga pants and traipsing around the world. Her world turns upside down when things go awry and she is faced with the prospect of spending her days watching Tamil serials. She comes up with a five-point plan for reclaiming her life back before she hits the big 30. But things are never as simple as drawing up a flowchart in real life, are they? Especially with a ghastly recession rearing its ugly head…. Anu bumbles through the corridors of domesticity and travels on a funfilled roller coaster ride in a bid to discover her passion in life.Along the way, she meets new people, experiences crazy new things and learns some hard lessons in marriage, friendship, parenting and life. The Crossover Year is a funny, yet heartwarming story of a woman in search of her identity, and a chronicle of her hilarious quest for discovering her inner mojo. Bring out a platter of cookies and a steaming mug of chai, and join Anu on the ride of her lifetime.

About the Author

I am a part-time writer, part-time entrepreneur and a full-time mom.

My Thoughts on the book

Clearly there is more to chick-lit than candy-floss romance (extra-marital affairs mostly to spice up things) and hot hunky ex-boyfriends & disgruntled nubile young things full of teenage angst and misguided I-will-conquer-the-world notions that completely go awry – all to beautifully tie and end up in happily-ever-after scenarios. As is shown in The Crossover Year by Bhargavi Balachandran, a funny and heartwarming story of a twenty-nine year old banker at the cross-roads of life. A well-deserved break from the imagined tropes (Oh the Horror!) of this sub-genre of romance. 

So the heart and soul of this story is twenty nine year old Sree Anu Prabhu, an ambitious go-getter who is pat in the middle of a “quarter life crisis”. Yeah that is a word. Bet you’ve heard of it (click on that link to be enlightened and come right back!). Second (or Third or somewhere always in the top ten!) in that rat race for word of the year after “Selfie”. Where twenty-somethings get afflicted by this strange lethargy towards life, stuck in a rut and ruing (read drinking piss-cheap vodka at some dimly lit pub) their ruined-life stuck in a 4x4 office cubicle slaving for a boss you would love to murder and stick through with a peeling knife (And you probably do that only a thousand million times over in your concocted dreams) and thinking about travelling the world, experiencing life and culture and good food. 
See that clever thing right there? The author’s got a sliver of you and me wedged in tight with our heroine’s soul. Add to that a lovely engaging style of writing liberally sprinkled with light hearted well-intentioned funny puns and stereotypical tam-brahm jokes, you’ve almost got a winner!
You get exactly what is there in the back of the book. A twenty-nine year old banker who quits her job to search for her inner “mojo” and sets out on a hilarious harrowing self-realization journey. 

Bhargavi does a bang-up job of bringing alive the Chennai city – with its rash auto drivers who spout “shishter” and curse in the same breath, the hot filter kaapi or the watered down sugary version of the same, the landmark called Spencer Plaza, the maniacal devotion to watching “Chithi” and all the further generations of this landmark achievement on the mini-screen and of course the maambalam maamis or the tam-brahm culture rage. And knowing the idiosyncrasies of this self-effacing niche culture pretty well (I am married to one after all) I was silently grinning to myself at all the lovely tropes spun in this novel. And no I ain’t complaining. It brings out the authenticity and atmosphere of the novel. 

Now being a first person narrative, for a reader to like the book, the protagonist has to be a top-rate charmer. And well Anu is. Up to a certain point in the book. Till Anu decides to stow away her well paying job to find her inner self. Hitting thirty is peaking in your life. After which life probably takes the ticket for the fastest elevator downwards. With this belief, Anu chucks her well-paying job in Analytics (Can you hurt me anymore! Being an Analytics person, I LOVE my job and I am a total brand ambassador for all things data. You know what Gartner called the “sexiest” job of the twenty-first century? Data Scientist. Yeah. Anu, sometime my heart bleeds for you for what you traded! Anyways, sigh.) Anu whiles away her time watching the serials, munching away on fatty food, hunting for deals in gym clothes, making friends with other “jobless” folks in the gym and getting down to do some extremely unconventional jobs. The pace of the book is a rajdhani express until Anu quits. The political imbroglio, the office gossip, the corporate meetings and deadlines, the zany office counterparts with their own character twists – forms the juicier nicer part of the narrative. After which we climb into the local train. The plot loses its zing after Anu hits a slump in her life and none of the characters introduced in the second half of the plot can hold a candle to the hard-ass boss or the best friend in office. 

What saved the book from getting dreary for me is Bhargavi’s writing. Lucid, clear and very engaging, she strikes the right balance between humorous and insightful, never getting preachy or heavy handed. It’s a comfort read, like a home coming for a lot of us in this age and times. A book about the one person who dreamed. And dared to follow through with her dream. It’s an inspiring journey with lessons for a lot of us. Wrapped up in the guise of a hot filter kaapi, served piping hot with just the right kind of high-quality popcorn. The perfect types I need on a mental vacation. Truly enjoyable fare, dishy and well paced throughout, the Crossover Year is a remarkable and meaningful addition to the new age books being published in India today. 

A Rafflecopter giveaway

1 Copy of The Crossover Year by Bhargavi Balachandran. Open to Indian Residents only.