Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes. Long live Horror !

Lauren Beukes has been churning out some very interesting novels over the past few years and unfortunately (for me!)I have not read her earlier books. Often described as “quirky”, “Scary as Hell and Hypnotic” by the “Kings” of Horror writing -Pretty heavy-duty endorsements! So If you like your spine-chilling horror stories, then Lauren Beukes should probably figure in your top 5 writers. Right up there with Stephen King and James Elroy. I decided to dive straight into her latest book, Broken Monsters without letting the blurbs carry me away on the wings of soaring expectations. 

By the time I was about 10% into this twisted exploration of a broken modern-day society set in decrepit Detroit that I knew nothing about, I was sold. Both on the terrifying premise of the story and her terrific storytelling abilities. And while yes, Lauren begs comparisons to the established greats of this genre, she definitely is striking out her own blazing path here. Broken Monsters is the latest in that growing list of achievements.
The characters of the book (And they are many!) are all so disturbingly real, broken and flawed in many ways like you and me – that you easily relate to them. Immersing us into a desolate atmospheric Detroit where most of the action takes place over a week, Lauren takes us on a tense creepy-as-hell tour of the weird and intriguing. Her writing is flawless – firmly drawing us into the murky murder mystery of a horrific nature that rocks the city of Detroit. The book starts with the discovery of a dead body – a sickening handiwork where the upper torso of an African-American boy has been glued to the lower half of a deer. 

Now if you cannot stomach gruesome murder descriptions, then I’d suggest caution. Coz Lauren deftly paints up a bleak picture of the murder scene, gruesome and horrifying, the first of many such blood splashed tableau; a possible handiwork of a deranged psycho killer out on the loose. This book thus is at heart a serial-killer chase - a detailed police-procedural with Detective Gabriella Versado, one of the leading characters in the book obsessively working the clues to get to the murderer – but what really shines amidst this excess of violence and gore – is Lauren’s handling of her main characters. The tumbling thoughts, the confusions and constant struggle within each of her lead character (It’s amazing how easy her writing is, letting us deep inside their heads!) is really what holds this story together. Transforming it from a taut and bloody serial-killer chase into a much more scary and a deeply psychological horror story. Lauren doesn’t build up the tension to a grand expose as would be expected. Instead from pretty early on itself, we are privy to the dark recesses of the minds of the killer. In a way, this is a far more effective tool; talk about being insanely talented. Hats off Lauren.

So the tragic crumbling city of Detroit in its forgotten glory of the ruins and the wannabe-hipster-art ambitions is a towering presence throughout the book - the main plot is told through multiple POVs – We encounter Detective Gabbi obsessed with this curious case, her precocious daughter Layla struggling with the usual issues of a teenager( acceptance, friendship, identity crisis, internet addiction…Frankly in Layla and her best friend Cas Lauren beautifully explores the insecurities of childhood and navigating the high school in the age of Internet trawling. Personally for me their chapters were a tour-de-force, , a very compelling read, authoritatively portrayed!), a failed writer Jonno Haim in search of his big break roaming the pubs and art-parties of Detroit [Using him as a foil to take satirical digs at societal norms and aspirations around art!) A homeless man called TK in search of an abandoned house-articles that he can salvage to build a home for himself and Clayton – a restless artist/sculptor who has fallen out of grace with the art community in Detroit and is struggling with his own personal demons. 

I say it again. Lauren Beukes can really write. And convey horror – in its purest and most chilling form. A deep-seated unsettling feeling that crawls up your back and lodges itself firmly in the back of your head. Broken Monsters is a “shining” example of Lauren’s abilities – with a prose honed to razor sharpness leaping between exuberant and addictive, this book is a telling exploration of the dark inside all of us in today’s society. Dark and utterly absorbing, Broken Monsters for me is the “doorway” to Lauren Beukes’ world. I got Shining Girls and Zooland next up!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Shovel Ready ( A Spademan Novel) by Adam Sternbergh

Okay – I will admit it. Dreary dystopian settings featuring an anti-hero will always be a weakness for me. This book was an impulse buy. And what an emphatically right decision it has turned out to be.

Having never heard of the book or the author before, it was just the premise that drew me in. A New York devastated by a series of dirty bombs – now shunned by all, the society clearly divided between the extremely rich and the waste-pickers. And the spademan, a garbage-collector turned hitman sifting through the detritus. Picking through the rich – man and woman alike, not asking any questions, pocketing the money and moving on. Spademan – we never really get to know the real name of the protagonist – a sociopath with no qualms about the violence is a known assassin among quiet circles who gets the job done without any fuss. And his latest assignment is to track down and hit a girl.

Unfortunately for him – he is not a killer of unborn children. Finding out that the girl is pregnant is only the first complication. The muck grows steadily deeper as Spademan is unwittingly drawn into a bear-trap; this one set by one of NY’s biggest Godman – one who promises an end to the sufferings of the world in a Heaven paved with gold. Add to that a ruthless killer on his trails. His woes were just starting.

It’s a crackler of a debut from Adam Steinbergh. Blending genres making an immersive thriller that just doesn’t take any prisoners and chugs along relentlessly ahead. Bulldozing any softer feelings. There is nothing feel-good about this work of fiction and we’re left dangling from the deep-end of a chasm that yawns dark and deep – a sociopath’s mind full of dark cynicism with no lights shining on any crevice. The steady form of stream of consciousness takes us into his mad man’s head and while it is no Barbie-Ken castle, we still see remains of the half-decent human being he once was. Flashes of forgotten past, of a NY before the bombs, his hazy good memories of a wife – all of this does nothing to dent the pace of the novel. It’s a runaway steamer. Plus the writing takes time to get used to. Adam employs short staccato sentences, packing them in one after the other, a sort of truism from the Chuck Palahniuk’s camp of writing.

Despite the darkness, it is a gripping entertaining novel that skims across genres. Science Fiction- the future is a place where rich escape the dreary realities by immersing themselves into an artificial second-life called Limnosphere connecting to their fantasies and dreams. Noir/dystopia – bleeding hard edges of a world where violence is frequent and human life worthless. Above all, the novel is a nod to the recent craze to celebrate the anti-hero. A down on his luck psychopath  who takes on the world’s corrupt rich guys. It’s gripping and it's punchy. If you don’t mind the dark and the violence, it’s a fascinating portrayal of the future – written by a talented author announcing himself to the world.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Cult of Chaos ( An Anantya Tantrist Mystery) by Shweta Taneja

Say hello to Anantya Tantrist: A notoriously bad-ass supernatural detective who has a penchant to smoke beedis, vent out in foul-mouthed profanity that would make a fisher-woman blush and has a never-ending love-affair with nameless dangers as an everyday occupational hazard.

On the surface, Cult of Chaos is billed as an urban fantasy set in the underbelly of Delhi with a liberal smattering of Tantrism and magic thrown in. But Shweta’s meticulous research and assured story-telling skills turns this premise right on its head. It’s a relentless avalanche of a novel that crams in so many novel ideas – Tantric concepts, supernatural beings that range from talking serpents who brew potions, ghosts (Oh so many!), Rakshasas to wholly new and intriguing races called Datyus ( Spies relying on disgusting smells!) or Dasyus ( Bat-like creatures with a predilection for movies!) – While yes there is an all-too comforting feel in the atmospheric Delhi that Shweta draws up, the events and the phenomenal world-building tears you away into an unfamiliar and dark underbelly – crawling with disgruntled Tantrik clans warring with each other, Daevas and Asuras in mortal bodies, a resentful Nagin and a prophesied dark lord of chaos among others.

Personally, what really excited me about the book was this mad bubbling brew of ideas and imagination that somehow gelled with an urban day-to-day setting (Anantya chugging along the crowded Delhi-Gurgaon highway cursing the traffic, for instance cracked me up like crazy!) and still made me shiver with both fright and anticipation. It’s a refreshing change from the genre as is now popular in India – where Fantasy is only inspired by mythological stories or perhaps a mix of history entwined with Dan Brownesque mystery-thriller format. Shweta goes on to break the mold and doesn’t check her punches - running amok with her imagination to give us a colorful account of a supernatural world juxtaposed against a modern-day Delhi where Apsaras do item numbers, CBI has special sections to deal with crimes of the “sup” nature and Tantriks are over-ground.

So at the soul of the punchy narrative is Anantya Tantrist. Shweta paints her protagonist as a woman fighting hard to stay relevant and independent in a world that has gone to hell. Having broken away from her upbringing, the Kaula Clans – White Tantriks who believe in controlling Magic gained through sex, desire to covet Shakti – Anantya now peddles her services as a Tantrik detective helping solve cases that are bizarre and the CBI doesn’t have a logical solution to. Leaning on her CBI Buddy - Madhu who's part of the special forces on the Bureau, Anantya acts as a consultant on these occult and bizarre cases. The story starts off with Anantya trying to get into a semblance of a normal life - by going out on a blind-date with a normal "human". However when her date gets disrupted by Rakshasas, her life goes back to "normal". A normal day involves trip to the corporate "Mayan" office of Qubera, negotiating for the release of her date frozen in a golden mould with rakshasas - and then getting called to investigate a bizarre blood-splashed tableau of the banned art of "Black Tantrism". It's  a romp starting from here - with the relentless pace never letting up. 

Anantya's back-story seems pretty intriguing. Something that Shweta plays close to her heart and probably plans to reveal more in the future. Like her parentage. Again in terms of side-characters, Madhu her CBI friend and Shukra, the logical forensics expert were nicely sketched out and folks I am hoping to run into again soon. The others really didn't have much mind-space. 

The reader however doesn't have it easy. Navigating through the innumerable new races takes its toll. The multiple characters introduced in rapid succession right at the beginning as well gets confusing. Not to mention the in-your-face graphic violence/titillation scenes that by turns were provocative yes but ultimately perhaps was as demanded by the twisting storyline. Shweta throws one haymaker after the other at you. Sometimes the violence gets crazy. And to my consternation, Anantya brushes past these innumerable injuries and gets on with the investigation undaunted. This superwoman-prowess slightly lowered my realistic assessment of her as the heroine. And the Tantrik paraphernalia that she relies on - now that's a long innovative list there - too gets a little muddled unless you pay attention. 
And in between all this, Shweta throws in labyrinthine explanations of the wonderfully intricate world she's built. So yes - there is a lot going on and a lot to take in perhaps. But have faith in the explosive narrative and Shweta's consummate story-telling skills will take you past these troubles. 

For all this, I really liked Anantya Tantrist. And her opening chapter, Cult of Chaos is an audacious, bold and exciting start to a new occult detective series that promises the moon and then some more. It's a proud new direction to Indian fantasy writing - and I for one, can't wait for the next mystery to unfold.