Off the Shelf: March 2019

Off the Shelf: March 2019

Anyone know the feeling of being let down by a really hyped book? Like it’s been praised to the earth and back by almost every single person on various online portals but you’re the only one who found it pretty flat? Ever happened to you? I’ve faced such situations quite a few times: I usually give up, because the drudgery of the novel makes itself evident within the first hundred pages. I’ve put down Sacred Games (Vikram Chandra), The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje) and The Black Dahlia (James Ellroy) multiple times. I got fed up with The Shining (Stephen King) too. However, getting fed up with a thriller was a new experience.

Lately, the domestic thriller novel seems to have taken off pretty well, with books upon books releasing every other week. The widespread success of the genre has to be attributed to Gillian Flynn in particular, for it was really with Gone Girl and its subsequent film adaptation that readers – especially lay young chaps like me – became more aware of this kind of book.

Unfortunately, too many books out there seem to have taken for granted the success of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, as a result of which there are books like The Woman in the Window which are given way more credit than they deserve. Leave aside the fact that the book’s writer A.J. Finn has recently been outed as a pathological liar (Dude killed off his mother when she is alive and kicking, apart from a lot of other shit; link to the New Yorker piece that nailed him) and that the book is supposedly plagiarised (So there are two books with the same plot, then, huh? *Chetan Bhagat sniggers* And a movie, you say?!) Anyway, this particular book revolves around an agoraphobic (Google it!) child psychologist by the name of Anna Fox who hasn’t set foot outside her house for ten months, and whose passion is to spy on all of her neighbours with a camera from a window. She does that a lot, drinks Merlot like water, talks to her husband and daughter quite a bit, drinks Merlot, binges on Hitchcock films, drinks Merlot, spends a shitload of time on a shrinks-and-need-to-be-shrunk website, and oh, did I mention her addiction to Merlot? It’s not just the repetitiveness that’s a problem, nor is it the numerous thriller films that are mentioned (Boy, it’s like a laundry list). It’s just that in a bid to create a journal-like narrative, Finn (or Mallory, as we should refer to him) forgets to put in enough stuff to excite you, and edit the stuff that is tedious and flat-out dull. The unreliable narrator here is nowhere as well crafted as Amy in Gone Girl or Rachel in The Girl on the Train, which is a shame because the shell of the story here is delicious, but the way it is written is so superficial that you’re never drawn into it.

Also, there’s another debut novel by a now-successful author to diss. I’ve enjoyed both Kane & Abel and First Amongst Equals. Jeffrey Archer’s latest outing Heads You Win was the first book of his I found disappointing. And now there’s the second – Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, written when Archer was in financial dire straits. The thought of the novel is an intriguing one – that of four men who have been conned taking their money back from the conman – but the way Archer tells the story is plain boring. There is not a single defining feature in the plank of characters – nothing but their names and ethnicities to tell them apart, the prose has none of Archer’s later flourish and some of the events that take place in the novel are contrived and far-fetched even for a work like this (I get that one must suspend one’s belief for a while when reading but surely those rules need examination when your plot is about confidence tricks). What’s worse is that Archer turns everything into one big circus in a bid to wrap up the proceedings, revealing only more of the novel’s shortcomings. Thank heavens he’s a better writer now!

There are usually books one likes and those one doesn’t like. And then there’s the third kind, which are on the fence, the two stars of five on Goodreads, if you please. That’s pretty much how I’d describe David Szalay’s The Innocent, whose premise is beautiful, which really works wonders in places, but is just as unremarkable in a lot of places. It’s a tedious read, even though the pages number just 192. The protagonist is a former MVD (the KGB’s predecessor) officer and a Stalinist in 70s USSR, where his idol’s “legacy” has been desecrated by those who followed him into office. The novel deals primarily with a case in the protagonist’s career which changed his life. More about the life of the protagonist than a plot in particular, the book meanders off quite a bit and doesn’t dig deep into its characters. My assumption is that the author was going for a more distant, subtle style of narrative, and there’s no doubt that the writing is skilful, but the book just doesn’t come together.

The past few weeks have been fraught with tension between us and our darling padosi to the West, what with the Pulwama terror attack, the Balakot strikes, and the dogfights between the IAF and the PAF, which culminated in them losing an F-16 and an IAF pilot being taken prisoner in PoK after he bailed out of his aircraft flying over the area. The first of the two books I read about India and Pakistan seemed a rather apt one, given the prevailing situation.

JNU professor Happymon Jacob went on a trip few can boast of having ticked off their travel itinerary – he got to travel along the Line of Control (the demarcation that separates Jammu & Kashmir and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir) on both sides of it. That’s right! Jacob was hosted by the Pakistan Army on his travels in PoK and by the Indian Army and the BSF on this side. I have seldom found myself being so envious of someone’s travels. Jacob’s book is a detailed account of this trip and his experiences of it, the differences between the Indian and Pakistani Armies, and the similarities too. Overall, it makes for a rather compelling account of one of the most dangerous places on the planet, and Jacob delves into the finer details like opinions on either side, both uniformed and civvie Yes, there are certainly times when his behaviour (as he describes it) is a tad bit too dramatic and you roll your eyes, but he does a fine job otherwise. It’s interesting to note how he is viewed with certain hostility on both sides, at least initially – in Pakistan because he’s Indian and in India because he’s from JNU. What he could’ve – and perhaps would’ve done had his visit not been so academic – is humanise the Armies. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the sections where he writes about the locals living along the LC. They feel like flesh and blood, but Jacob doesn’t seem to have dug for as much in the Army officers he interacted with. Still, I’d recommend The Line of Control: Travelling with the Indian and Pakistani Armies to anyone interested in the two countries’ relations and their respective Armies.

What I’d recommend even more vehemently is Shaunak Agarkhedkar’s Let Bhutto Eat Grass, both parts. I’ve already written about Part One here, and I’d recommend reading that piece or at least knowing what Part One is about before you peruse through my take on Part Two, which takes off almost exactly where its predecessor left off. Indian espionage in fiction gets a very, very raw deal, in my opinion. There’s just too many bombs going off and agents running around like the Avengers to save Bombay or Delhi or Kashmir. Corporate espionage has had a much better time (RV Raman is absolutely fantastic; I’d recommend all four of his books) but somehow, nobody is moving beyond 21st century terror plots in the military fiction genre. Shaunak remedies that, given that his novel is neither set in contemporary times nor is it about terrorists. LBEG was about how Pakistan acquires the know-how to produce The Bomb and this book looks into how the Indian establishment reacts to their production activities. I must commend the very real setting of the book – there is plausibility in every scenario that presents itself and Shaunak doesn’t opt for convenient solutions. He also manages to bring out the sarkariness of Delhi extremely well. It’s an engagingly told tale, and yet takes its time. Nothing unfolds at breakneck speed. Very rarely do writers let a thriller simmer and move languidly. It’s an interesting change of pace (pun intended) and there is plenty to enjoy, provided you’re willing to invest in a little bit of whiz-talk where all the science stuff is concerned. That, and the characters being a bit too surface-y are my only issues with the book, as they were with the predecessor. It’s still a damn good book and really worth your time. Also, given how I’m a lover of puns and how the book spends so much time in Delhi, I must commend Shaunak for naming a character “Vikas Puri”!

The Nazis – as you may have noticed if you’ve followed my writing (thank you, if you do) or know me (I pity you) – are a fascination for me. Not in the sense that I puja karo Hitler, but I find them to be a particularly intriguing bunch for who they were. When you actually look at the history of the NSDAP – the official English acronym for the Party – you’ll find that nobody really took them seriously till 1923. And ten years later they usurped power. Till ’23, they were no more than a rabble-rousing bunch of thugs, though their presence and their ideology had started to make waves across the Weimar Republic. David King’s book The Trial of Adolf Hitler: The Beer Hall Putsch and the Rise of Nazi Germany is supposedly the first English-language account of the attempted coup by the Nazis in Munich in November 1923, and of the trial that followed, which would culminate in Hitler being propelled to the heady popularity of the likes of Bismarck. The issue with a lot of non-fiction is that often it gets too academic, too technical. The writing is drab in a very bureaucratic sense. Not here. No, King delves into the available material – nearly ninety years’ worth of it – and makes an absolute meal of every scrap of paper he seems to have laid eyes on. As a result, the book reads a lot like a novel and is quite unputdownable. King goes into every nook and cranny possible rather than sticking to Hitler – remember that not until the trail began would Hitler become a popular figure. So King draws up a dramatis personae (which should be made mandatory for all books with a sweeping cast of characters), and we see how each and every character – from the Nazis to the old Prussian military veterans to the Bavarian government leaders to the prosecutors and the judge – went about their way in the whole scheme of things. King has a way with narrative and it blends seamlessly with all his research to form a formidable piece of work which, by the way, confirms the “Hitler and his one testicle” theory, in a way. I cannot recommend this book enough. Buy it. Now!

I continued to accompany the late Philip Kerr’s complex, conflicted detective Bernhard Gunther with If the Dead Rise Not. The book – divided into two parts set twenty years apart – takes place in Nazi Germany and in Batista’s Cuba. In Berlin, Bernie has been shunted out of the police force because of his Social Democratic leanings and now finds himself an employee of the prestigious Adlon Hotel, where he is the house detective. In the course of his duties there, Bernie runs into a smouldering woman who will change his life, and a shady businessman who will shape it, to some extent. The backdrop is the awarding of contracts for the upcoming Olympic Games, scheduled two years from the time the first part of the book is set in (March Violets, the first book in the series, takes place at the time of the Games) and a murder, as is to be expected from the series. The Cuban connection lies in what happens in the first part, so that’s about all I’m going to say about it. I really admire Kerr’s willingness to throw Bernie into the deep end and make the reader question whether he is a hero or not. Some of his actions are undoubtedly questionable (more on that as the series goes further; the next novel Field Grey examines some of Bernie’s time in the SS) and yet he seems to have some amount of good in him. You can’t dislike Bernie, despite the very obvious and glaring biases that reside within him. A more compelling character I truly haven’t read in a while. As for this book in particular (sorry for having deviated), one particularly sappy sub-plot aside, it was quite enjoyable. Kerr’s writing is peppered liberally with humour and the voice he uses for Bernie is in a league of its own.

And that’s March done and dusted. See you in May about April!

© Varun Oak-Bhakay’s Writer’s Block 2019

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