Monday, 27 November 2017

Dead Line by Stella Rimington, 2008

The story of English author Stella Rimington is as interesting as the plot of Dead Line, the fourth novel in her espionage series centered around MI5 agent Liz Carlyle. Dame Rimington, who joined Britain's domestic counter-intelligence and security agency in 1969, was appointed Director-General in 1992—becoming not just the first woman to hold the post but also the first head of MI5 to go public.

With nearly three decades of intelligence service behind her, the series is no doubt stamped with her rich and personal experience. Dead Line, the only book I have read so far, is a convincing story in the cloak-and-dagger world of spy fiction.

The British government is weeks away from hosting a Middle East peace conference at a resort in Scotland. While Syria and Israel are at the centre of the peace talks, heads of government from Britain, the United States, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iran are expected to lend their weight to the roundtable. The conclave may not yield immediate results but it's important for the UK that the event concludes peacefully. The prestige and reputation of 10, Downing Street depends on it.

But there are people, rogue agents, even nations who, true to reality, will stop at nothing to wreck the Gleneagles conference. Following a tip-off from MI6, or the Secret Intelligence Service, MI5 boss Charles Wetherby entrusts the sensitive case to agent Liz Carlyle—find the two terror suspects, including a Syrian journalist, who are planning to disrupt the global conference and save the day for Her Majesty's government.

There is just one problem: Liz has almost nothing to work on. So she starts digging from scratch and soon uncovers a plot far more serious than she and Wetherby, or anyone in British Intelligence, could have imagined; one that nearly gets her killed and out of business. Liz's investigations set her on a collision course with friends from other intel services, the CIA and Mossad. Eventually, she nails the threat down to David Kolleck—a diabolically clever Syrian agent with a grim past and an insensate thirst for revenge.

Dead Line may not have the glamour of a Tom Clancy thriller, the legacy of a John le CarrĂ© page-turner or the technical depth of a Craig Thomas novel. But it's a realistic depiction of what might actually take place in the sanitised corridors of intelligence services and those involved in the fight against terrorism and subversion. Rimington has an easy and evenly-paced narrative style, and her plotting is methodical, which can be attributed to her own experience. She has drawn Liz Carlyle as a credible intelligence officer who leads a normal life with her share of career aspirations, familial troubles, and hidden feelings. 

I plan to read more in the series by Britain's most famous spy.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Photo Essay: Browser's delight, buyer's paradise

Secondhand books have the tantalising aroma of a Goan vindaloo or a Malwani curry.

Browsing through books is half the battle. Buying books is not necessarily winning the fight. I have spent a greater part of my reading years doing no more than looking up books, admiring covers, flipping pages, reading back of the book, searching for bookmarks, and envying other people's choices and purchases. I find as much joy and satisfaction in browsing as I do in buying books. Of course, there have been many occasions when I have walked out empty-handed and instantly regretted not picking up a coveted title or an out-of-print book, and I have rushed back the next day only to find it gone. Book kismet.

Old or new, shops or footpaths, books will always be around, to mock, deny, bond, and befriend. Let me take you through some of my secondhand book haunts, mostly in South Mumbai, where I have browsed more than I have bought. A few of these pictures are old and have been reproduced before; the rest are as recent as yesterday.

The footpath libraries of Flora Fountain (Hutatma Chowk).

Abraham Lincoln in not so strange company.

My pick of the box — Jack Higgins, of course.

A pavement seller on Mahatma Gandhi Road opens for the day.

The suburban bookshop where I browse or board a bus.

The English historical novelist on my wish-list.

Fiction rubs spine with self-help on Mahatma Gandhi Road.

No customers yet but this footpath bookseller knows his books.

British crime writer Martina Cole at Books by Weight.

A closeup of the pavement seller on Mahatma Gandhi Road.

Heavyweights jostle for space at a suburban bookshop.

Take your pick or toss a coin.

Spy fiction writer Craig Thomas is an old school friend.

Books in a haystack near the old Central Telegraph Office.

© All photographs by Prashant C. Trikannad

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Sniff the Detective by Richard McClure Scarry

Sniff is a detective.
He helps people find things.
He helps catch bad people.
He thinks with his head.
And he smells with his nose.

Personal commitments over the long weekend kept me away from my computer at home, and naturally, from blogging. I'm not comfortable writing or commenting on my cellphone or tablet. Something or other goes wrong, there are unsolicited pop-ups and often the page reloads itself. I find that annoying. I took the time off to read short stories, including a delightful children's detective story. Yes, you read that correctly. It was a first for me in middle age. I found the story online and read it with wide-eyed innocence. No, that's taking it too far.

Sniff the Detective (Golden Books, 1988) by the late American children's author and illustrator, Richard McClure Scarry, is an illustrated book containing two stories—Sniff Catches the Robber and Sniff's Best Case Ever—with anthropomorphic characters, animals who talk and act like humans. They're all very likeable.

In Sniff Catches the Robber, Chief Hound asks Sniff, the dog detective, to help catch a thief who has been stealing Mrs. Jewel's precious bracelets from under her nose. Mrs. Jewel, a matronly pig, likes to grow pumpkins and eat them too. Since Mrs. Jewel has neither been out nor has had any visitors, Sniff decides to spend the night at her house and catch the culprit red-handed.

In Sniff's Best Case Ever, it's raining and Sniff is lazing in bed when the police chief in another city summons him. Our sleuth is not happy because it's his birthday next day, and he wants to stay home and eat cake and ice cream. But duty calls. Sniff catches a train where he encounters shady guys wearing dark glasses and carrying violins, staring at him and scaring him out of his wits.

Sniff the Detective is a funny little book with large colourful illustrations and large typeface, the kind that you can read to your little kids or grandkids at bedtime. I liked Sniff's sleuthing philosophy. The K9 detective has got it right.

Surprised with my choice? Well, children's, YA or adult, a detective story is a detective story and you're never too young or old to read one. Reading time: 10 minutes, maybe less.

Note: Writer-blogger Patti Abbott is hosting Friday's Forgotten Books over at her eclectic blog Pattinase, where you can read some fine reviews of forgotten or overlooked books.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Boot Hill: An Anthology of the West by Robert J. Randisi

"They died with their boots on."

© Forge Books
Boot Hill: An Anthology of the West (2002), edited by American author and anthologist Robert J. Randisi, is a remarkable and delectable collection of original short stories by some of the finest Western authors. Of the 15 stories only The Naked Gun by John Jakes (1967) is a reprint.

I borrowed the 351-page digital book from and I have a fortnight to read all the stories before it probably vanishes automatically. I'm sure there's a waiting list. The stories revolve around Boot Hill in Dodge City, Kansas, the final resting place of some of the wildest and bizarre characters that rode the American West—“from the coffin-maker with a death wish to the drunken cowboy haunted by one night of greed and violence, to the vigilante piano man and the tough-talking soiled dove.”

So far I have read only Randisi’s pithy introductions of all the writers and his own enjoyable and rather humourous short story, The Gravediggers, where the eponymous Gravedigger welcomes the reader to Boot Hill and, in characteristic Old West lingo, talks about the history of the place, the “dead folks” and their stories (“if’n they could tell ’em that is”), the backbreaking work of digging graves, the bare wooden headstones (“with some writin’ on it”)...

The Gravediggers sets the tone for the remaining stories that I look forward to reading over the next few days. Meanwhile, here is the cast of authors in order of appearance.

01. The Gravediggers by Robert J. Randisi
02. The Naked Gun by John Jakes
03. The Ghost of Abel Hawthorne by Elmer Kelton
04. Sinners by Wendi Lee
05. The Guns of Dusty Logan by James Reasoner
06. Hard Ground by L.J. Washburn
07. The Comfortable Coffin of Miz Utopia Jones Clay by Tom Piccirilli
08. Anonymous by Randy Lee Eickhoff
09. The Last Ride of the Colton Gang by John Helfers and Kerrie Hughes
10. The Sellers by Troy D. Smith
11. The Piano Man by Robert Vaughan
12. Dead Weight by Richard S. Wheeler
13. A Disgrace to the Badge by Ed Gorman
14. Planting Lizzie Palmer by Marthayn Pelegrimas
15. A Damned Nuisance by Marcus Galloway

A Western anthology can’t get better than this.

Note: Writer-blogger Patti Abbott is hosting Friday's Forgotten Books over at her eclectic blog Pattinase, where you can read some fine reviews of forgotten or overlooked books.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Booty for a Badman by Louis L'Amour, 1960

My belly was as empty as my prospect hole, and it didn't seem like I had much choice.

When young William Tell Sackett, the oldest of the three Sackett brothers, has no luck panning for gold, he agrees to carry 50 pounds of the yellow metal out of the camp and deliver it safely to a bank in Hardyville—all for a princely fee of $100. The gold belongs to four miners who trust him. There's just one problem: he must carry it through desert-mountain country over five days. And Tell knows he won't be alone on the trecherous journey. The Cooper gang, who make a living out of robbing and killing successful prospectors, will be hot on his trail. 

Unmindful of dangers on the trail, the quiet, honest, and tough cowboy packs a horse and rides out with the gold, each pound worth $1,000. He is not worried about the Coopers. While he can take on the desperadoes, he's not so sure what to do when he encounters Christine Mallory, a pretty woman on the run from her soldier-husband and stranded in the middle of nowhere. Disregarding his father Colburn Sackett's advice to stay clear of women because "They'll trouble you. Love 'em and leave 'em, that's the way," the chivalrous Tell agrees to escort her to Hardyville on the Colorado, even if it means slowing down and risking his life.

Right then I'd much rather have tangled with the Coopers than faced up to that woman down there, but that no-account roan was taking me right to her. Worst of it was, she was almighty pretty.

And then, all of a sudden, the Cooper gang turns up. Here it comes.

Booty for a Badman is a fine Western story told in an engaging, concise, and easy style, a Louis L'Amour trademark. The author draws a vivid picture of the wild country, the hostile terrain, the dust raised by his pursuers in the distance, the night campfire and smoke without going into a lot of detail. Tell is a god-fearing and an honourable man, as evident from his gentlemanly behaviour towards Christine who he addresses as "Mrs. Mallory," but he can't help dreaming of settling down with a woman like her and raising a family. In the end L'Amour throws up a couple of twists that I didn't see. I'm glad for it's the element of surprise that holds my interest in a story, especially a Western that often finishes along predictable lines. 

The short story, first published in The Saturday Evening Post, July 1960, and subsequently reprinted in the same magazine, 1975 and 1988, is part of The Collected Short Stories of Louis L'Amour: The Frontier Stories, Volume One. I believe there are at least four other volumes in this series, and including other stories add up to more than 250. I read L'Amour—one of the most popular and prolific writers of the last century—after many years, and I'm prompted to read (and reread) his Sackett series among other novels.

Note: For more Friday's Forgotten Book reviews, visit Todd Mason's blog Sweet Freedom. Todd is doing the FBB honours this Friday in place of Patti Abbott at her blog Pattinase.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

The lure of secondhand books

© Prashant C. Trikannad

Secondhand books are like antique furniture. They have a musty but pleasing smell, great monetary value, and are much sought-after by discerning readers and serious collectors. But just as it's not easy to buy old furniture, it's not that simple to get hold of forgotten and out-of-print books. You have to establish contacts with used booksellers over several years, like a news reporter cultivating his source for a scoop or a cop working an informant for a tip on an elusive gangster. Once you have a mole or two in the used book trade, you can get almost any title you want and tick them off your wish-list.

I remember every secondhand book or comic-book I have bought over the past three decades, and it hasn’t been easy.

Some years ago, I visited a prominent new bookstore in South Mumbai to pick up a 1995 edition of DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favourite Comic Book Heroes by Les Daniels, a well-known historian of comic books. The 256-page hardback—described as "The complete story of America's favourite heroes and their talented and dedicated creators"—was on sale for the magical price of Rs 450 ($9). Naturally, I was elated. However, I resisted the temptation to buy the book. I thought I could use the money for something more useful, and walked away. When it comes to books, you can’t be blind all the time; sometimes you’ve got to be practical, too.

It was just as well.

A few weeks later, I spotted a near-mint edition of the volume at a pavement bookseller in Fort-Fountain area, a central business district about 7 km from the bookstore. It was sandwiched between an airtight stack of academic journals and coffee-table books. "It's yours for Rs 150," said the bookseller who knew his books better than I did. I offered him Rs 100. We finally settled for Rs 125 ($2.5). It was a bargain I would've been a fool to turn down. Of course, it helped that the bookseller was a "friend" of many years.

Not long after, I stumbled across a fine — and rare for me — edition of The Penguin Book of Comics by Englishmen George Perry and Alan Aldrige, 1967—a 272-page volume chronicling the evolution of British and American comic books. While Perry wrote the text, Aldridge designed the cover and the illustrations. The book analyses the rise and fall of comics in mid-20th century in the wake of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and the Comics Code, and the influence of comic strips and comic books on popular culture, and entertainment such as art, films, and television.

Until the mid-nineties, booksellers lined the footpaths in that part of South Mumbai. Today, there are fewer than a dozen, thanks to eviction drives by the municipal corporation. Interestingly, the civic officer in charge of one such operation left the booksellers alone even as he went after other hawkers in the area. "Books are Saraswati (the Hindu goddess of learning and knowledge). I want people to buy and read books," he told me at the time. Since the turn of the century many sellers have dumped books—that few people are reading, let alone buying—for more lucrative goods like mobile phone accessories. Book collectors like me were the losers.

Secondhand books are not as elusive as you think they are. You have to keep your eyes open, know where to look. Sometimes they can be right under your nose, other times you have to sniff them out like a wolf sniffing out its prey. After years of browsing, I can home in on a ‘wanted’ title like some kind of a heat-seeking missile. All it takes is a quick, sweeping glance of stacks upon stacks of pavement books, provided the titles are displayed prominently. With practice, you can hone book-spotting into an art.

Some of the most rewarding secondhand book haunts in my city of 18 million are raddiwalas. These hole-in-the-wall paper marts, dotting the island city and its extended suburbs, are more than dusty repositories of old newspapers, plastic bottles, and assorted junk. You never know what reading treasures you will find there. While a few organised paper marts know the value of good books and pass them on to professional booksellers, most stack up books near the entrance and sell them cheap. 

Like an archaeologist digging for bones, I have been prospecting raddiwalas for well over two decades, and rather successfully too. I once bought a dozen rare Phantom and Mandrake comics, under the Indrajal imprint, from a paper mart close to my home for Rs 10 each ($0.16), almost as good as free.

Obviously, the raddiwala didn't know their real value considering that owner Bennett Coleman & Co. Ltd, publishers of The Times of India, stopped printing Indrajal Comics in 1990. The result: booksellers and individual collectors have been quoting obscene figures for the comics which, apart from Lee Falk's Phantom and Mandrake, included Indian artist Abid Surti's hero Bahadur (the Brave), Roy Crane's Buz Sawyer, Allen Saunders' Kerry Drake and Mike Nomad, Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby, and Phil Corrigan, and Steve Dowling's Garth.

Some of the other prized books I bought secondhand over two decades ago, and still cherish, are Art Spiegelman’s Maus (I & II), the 160-page The Science Fiction Book: An Illustrated History by Franz Rottensteiner, a hardback illustrated edition of Futuredays: A Nineteenth-Century Vision of the Year 2000 by Isaac Asimov, Cows of Our Planet: A Far Side Collection by Gary Larson, Sudden paperbacks by British writer Oliver Strange, a hardback of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Calvin and Hobbes volumes, and dozens of DC and Marvel comics including pocket-size war and western comic-books. Back then, it wasn’t easy to cough up money for a new Gary Larson or a Bill Watterson.

In this age of Amazon and Ebooks, the secondhand book trade is almost dying. Until it does (though I really hope it doesn’t), I will continue to hunt down elusive and priceless fiction and nonfiction. So far I have been lucky, managing to find a few gems every year. The secret to a productive secondhand-book hunt is patience and perseverance—and sometimes luck, when wanted titles leap out at you when you aren't even looking. Those are the ones I like best.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Book Tag: Q&A about reading habits

On June 17, my friend Tracy did a Book Tag post on her popular blog Bitter Tea and Mystery where she answered trivia questions related to books. I found it interesting. She was inspired by book tags at other blogs (links below the post) and I in turn was inspired by her edition of this addictive meme, and especially the variety of books she had read—and continues to read and review across several genres.

I’m not a well-read person. I have a long way to go the book journey. I have many authors to discover, many books to read, and many years before I can sit back and feel good about my reading. So I’m going to be honest. Is there any other way? To twist a famous Kurt Vonnegut line—“We are what we read, so we must be careful about what we pretend to read and the books we pretend to talk about.”

Let’s see how it goes.

What book has been on your shelf the longest?

My paternal grandfather’s 1965 Tudor edition of Shakespeare: Complete Works (The English Library). I’m saving it for retirement, though I bet the bard will have a lot of company by then. I try to read Shakespeare every other year but all I manage to do is brush the dust off the cover, the spine, and the yellowed pages, and put it back in the cabinet.

What is your current read, last read, and the book you plan to read next?

Current Read: The Midden by British satirical novelist Tom Sharpe (one of my favourite writers) and Shall We Tell the President?, an alternative fiction by Jeffrey Archer, one of several bestselling authors I read in college. I like Sharpe’s raw wit and offensive humour. Archer is an old hand at storytelling. Remember Kane and Abel?

Last Read: Past Tense, where prolific writer-blogger Margot Kinberg introduced me to her affable sleuth Joel Williams, former policeman and now academician.

Next Read: To be honest, I have no idea. It’s usually a random choice, though, I’m tempted to read a P.G. Wodehouse or an Agatha Christie from my wife’s formidable collection. It’s been a while since I did. Wodehouse has me in splits even though his humour is stereotyped.

What book do you tell yourself you’ll read, but probably won't?

I’m going to answer this question in a different way. I struggled with the first 30-odd pages of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and almost gave up. I had little idea what was happening. It was one of the most difficult books I read in recent memory. Faulkner seemed to be mocking me at every turn of the page—“My narrative style is not for you. Get off and read something else.” I did not like that.

What book are you saving for retirement?

Well, as I said, giving Shakespeare company will probably be some distinguished Russian authors, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Solzhenitsyn, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer, Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche (which I never finished), and a few classics. Of course, it’ll all depend on my eyesight and state of mind.

Which book character would you switch places with?
James Green, alias Sudden, the Texas outlaw. I have liked the character ever since my paternal uncle introduced me to the cowboy when I was 14.

Sudden, created by British writer Oliver Strange, is my favourite Western. He earns both nickname and notoriety because of his lightning draw; branded outlaw for crimes he didn't commit. In reality, Green the gunman is a gentleman, defending ordinary folks against crooked gamblers, ranchers, rustlers and land-grabbers, even as he quietly hunts for the two men who killed the man who raised him. Sudden also has a badge, a secret identity: Deputy Marshal United States, reporting to the governor of Arizona.

While Strange, who never once travelled to America, wrote ten Sudden novels, fellow English writer Frederick H. Christian (Frederick Nolan in real life) wrote another five. You can’t tell the difference. This is the only series in any genre that I have read more than once.

What book reminds you of a specific place, time or person?

I’m usually so engrossed in a book that I never think of relating the plot, setting or characters to real places and people. Such things seldom occur to me.

Which book has been with you most places?

Plenty of spiritual books but mostly Love Never Faileth by the late Indian spiritual teacher and author, Eknath Easwaran, who established the nonprofit Blue Mountain Center of Meditation in California in 1961. This and most of Easwaran’s forty books serve as a useful and practical guide to leading a fulfilling life, through his simple eight-point programme of passage meditation. You can open any page in any of his books and you’ll be like, “Hey, this is for me!”

Which book have you reread the most?

The only books I reread the most are philosophical and these include books by Easwaran and other mystics, including my spiritual preceptor. They have been my comfort zone, my mental prop, for over three decades.

What book outside your comfort zone did you end up loving?

Not one, but two. The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. I read these powerful classics over a decade ago, thanks to my wife’s recommendation. Until then, I’d never read a classic, not counting abridged versions in school.

What are your three bookish confessions?

1. I hoard books. I have several unread books that I bought in the eighties and nineties. Though, I have been exercising restraint—so far this year I bought just three books.

2. I will happily miss a bus or a train or an autorickshaw if I see used books on sale, even though I might not buy any and reach home late.

3. I will never lend books I treasure. My Corgi editions of Sudden novels and my comics? Don’t even think about it!

Do you prefer used or brand new books?
There is something about being among secondhand books, which comprise 97% of my modest collection. This includes over two dozen used but mint-condition paperbacks of Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan: The Executioner. As for new, I buy more Kindle books than paper books.

Have you ever seen a movie you liked more than the book?

Maybe not more than books, but I liked all the movie adaptations of the novels of Jack Higgins (The Eagle Has Landed, A Prayer for the Dying) and Alistair MacLean (The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra). I also liked the cinematic versions of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night. And that goes for the Harry Potter series, too.

Last page: read it first, or wait till the end

I have never read the last page first, even to end a book sooner, though I was tempted to do so with Irving Wallace’s The Second Lady. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know why. 

Name a book that you acquired in an interesting way.

DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes (Bulfinch, October 1995).

Many years ago, I found this DC collector’s edition on sale for Rs 450 ($9) at a new bookstore. I so badly wanted it. But wisdom prevailed, and I walked away thinking I could use the money to buy something more useful, like groceries. Weeks later, I was on my way to the office in another part of town when I spotted the volume at a roadside bookseller, in mint condition and a tag of Rs 125 ($2.5). I grabbed it and hurried off. Book providence, perhaps.

Final two questions, my own.

Which authors you wish you had read by now?

Most Indian authors. There is such variety in Indian writing in English, that I don't know why I neglected it for so long. Ideally, the focus of my blog should have been desi rather than western fiction. I do plan to review Indian fiction in future.

If you didn’t read books, what would you be doing?

If I didn’t read books, I’d be painting or playing a musical instrument. It’s essential to have a life among the arts and crafts; much of everything else is so mundane.

Bottom line: Now that you’ve read my answers, you can see that I haven’t read a lot of books. The important thing is to read, even if it’s one crawling book at a time.

Other notable Book Tag posts
Nancy Elin 

Brona's Books

On Bookes

Howling Frog Books

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

The definitive novels of Jack Higgins

Regular readers of this blog will know that Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson) is my favourite author. In my opinion, the bestselling British writer is one of the finest storytellers of my time. He makes writing stories, including thrillers, look so easy, just like his compatriot Jeffrey Archer. Although I have not read all his 85 fast-paced action-espionage novels, I have read many, and I look forward to reading the rest with much excitement. I started reading Higgins in early eighties, with his most significant work, The Eagle Has Landed, followed by Hell is Too Crowded, The Last Place God Made, and A Prayer for the Dying. I remember each of these well. His heroes, many of them ex-IRA, are anti-heroes and vice versa; the kind you want on your side because you know they're good men, almost saint-like, and all very likeable. Here are six of my favourite novels of Jack Higgins, though, if you ask me tomorrow I'll replace them with another six including Night of the Fox, Toll for the Brave, and The Keys of Hell. Have you read Higgins?


Thursday, 22 June 2017

It Might Have Been by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

I don't usually share posts from my other blog B+ve where I post infrequently. But I thought I'd make an exception with my pithy review of Ella Wheeler Wilcox's poem that I like a lot. It's both inspirational and spiritual. I read a lot of the latter, more as an approach to life. I offer my take at the end of the verse.

We will be what we could be. Do not say,
"It might have been, had not this, or that, or this."
No fate can keep us from the chosen way;
He only might who is.

We will do what we could do. Do not dream
Chance leaves a hero, all uncrowned to grieve.
I hold, all men are greatly what they seem;
He does, who could achieve.

We will climb where we could climb. Tell me not
Of adverse storms that kept thee from the height.
What eagle ever missed the peak he sought?
He always climbs who might.

I do not like the phrase "It might have been!"
It lacks force, and life's best truths perverts:
For I believe we have, and reach, and win,
Whatever our deserts.

© Encyclopedia Britannica
Second Take: “No fate can keep us from the chosen way.” In my opinion, this one line perfectly sums up American author and poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s 1917 poem It Might Have Been. Many of us spend our lives dreaming about the things we want to do and the goals we want to achieve. And when we can’t — or choose not to — pursue our dreams, we spend the rest of our lives in regret and feeling sorry for ourselves. We blame our luck or the lack of it; we bemoan our fate for what isn't and what should have been. The truth is we have no one to blame but ourselves. When people with serious difficulties in life can swim against raging currents and climb hostile mountains and taste sweet victory, why can’t the rest of us climb a few rungs of the ladder to reach our destinations? The only way to change It might have been to I made it! is by substituting the proverbial “Impossible” with “I-am-possible”. Then we shall win, and have our deserts too.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Past Tense by Margot Kinberg, 2016

Kramer walked slowly in the direction Stephens had indicated. Then he stopped short. His face drained of colour and he gulped twice. He could see it clearly — a bone sticking up out of the dirt he’d been preparing to move.

It’s not often that the principal character in a work of fiction takes a backseat and allows the secondary players to lead from the front. In Past Tense, Joel Williams, the affable and self-effacing policeman-turned-academician, does just that and still walks away with honours. But then, he's the hero of the novel.

The professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Tilton, a fictional university in Pennsylvania, hasn’t lost his detective streak as he quietly investigates an old case buried by time and dirt. Construction workers on the campus are stunned when they dig up bones identified as those of Bryan Roades, a 20-year-old student who went missing four decades ago.

As coffee-drinking Tilton police detectives Donna Crandall and her partner Ron Zuniga work on the case with a steadfast resolve, Williams makes his own inquiries into the suspected murder of Roades. Along the way he cooperates with the cops, passing on useful leads that could help solve the riddle—who killed Roades, and why?

Investigations lead the campus sleuth and police detectives to people Roades was associated with 40 years ago. Inspired by journalists Woodward and Bernstein of Watergate fame, Roades was relentlessly pursuing a story on the women’s liberation movement for The Real Story, the Tilton University newspaper. He was trying to interview professors and fellow-students, including women, who were reluctant to talk to him because they didn't want their personal lives and secrets exposed. His fanatical zeal evidently cost him his life.  

The discovery of his remains opens a Pandora’s box, as those who knew Roades back then find themselves in the crosshairs of the investigation. As Williams and the police detectives inch closer to the truth, one of his old women acquaintances is found dead. And suddenly we have two murders, past and present.

Past Tense, the third in Margot Kinberg’s Joel Williams series, is a fine blend of police procedural and campus mystery.

Though Joel Williams greets us from page one, he gets into the thick of the mystery much later. Until then, he reads about it in the Tilton Sentinel over a cup of coffee. I found his character interesting: I don’t think I have read any mystery where a detective or private investigator keeps a low profile and solves the case from the sidelines; in fact, almost as a spectator, it’d seem. However, it’s clear from the start that his interest in the Bryan Roades case is genuine and it has more to do with his previous job as a cop and his passion for solving mysteries, than winning accolades and fans.

The narrative swings back and forth, offering a glimpse into the character of Roades and his relations with people we are familiar with in the present. There are few descriptions and plenty of dialogue, the way I like most fiction. The pace is easy, almost leisurely, but the author keeps the momentum going throughout the course of the 421-page generously-spaced novel. If you’re familiar with writer and blogger Margot Kinberg’s prolific crime-fiction blog Confessions of a Mystery Novelist..., you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Past Tense is engaging and entertaining, and the author, I assume, brings her vast experience as an academician to bear on this campus mystery of a high order. You won't be disappointed.

P.S.: Special thanks to Margot for sending me a signed copy of the book.

Other Reviews of Past Tense

Bitter Tea and Mystery
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Tuesday, 25 April 2017

On a blog break

I have not blogged for a month and nor have I visited other blogs in recent weeks. Unfortunately for me, that's going to continue for a few more days, probably until early May, as I rush to fulfil personal commitments and finish work-related assignments.

My review of Past Tense by my good friend Margot Kinberg is still pending and I owe her a big apology. The review will be the first thing I'll be posting on my return, though I hope I can do that much earlier. Joel Williams, the former police detective-turned-professor, is a likeable main character in this nice little mystery set on a campus. I enjoyed reading the book. It had a light and easy pace. You can read Margot's guest post about her new book and flash fiction by clicking on the above link.

Meanwhile, I remain active on Facebook and Twitter, as some of you may have noticed, but that's only because I mostly post while waiting for a bus or train or just before turning in for the night. That way I can at least follow what many of you are blogging about.

See you in May.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Daredevil TV Series

Wilson Fisk: The city and its future...seeing Hell's Kitchen to its fullest potential is very important to me.

Matt Murdock: I feel the same way.

The Daredevil TV Series (2015-present) has a popularity rating of 64 on IMDb, up 32, though I don’t know since when, but I’ve added to its growing appeal. I liked this show about Marvel’s much-underrated superhero. I found it dark, gritty, violent, flawed, and oddly unsettling, perhaps because I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I was on tenterhooks through Season 1. Besides, I've always been partial to Daredevil, as I'm to Batman, the Hulk, and Wolverine.

Going back, I liked the 2003 namesake film a lot because it lived up to my comic-book image of The Man Without Fear (unlike Tobey Maguire who didn't as Peter Parker in Spider-Man). Ben Affleck was perfect as Matt Murdock blind lawyer by day and vigilante by night. For many years, I hoped there would be a sequel. There was none. And now the TV series has compensated for the gap.

British actor Charlie Cox steps convincingly into Affleck’s shoes and raises hell in Hell’s Kitchen, the dark side of Manhattan in New York City. He is not infallible. He makes mistakes and gets walloped a few times, including by arch enemy Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, who clobbers him like Bane smashes Batman in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). And like Batman, the caped crusader of Gotham City, he falls only to rise stronger, wiser, and more determined.

A little wisdom is what Daredevil picks up after his often impulsive and bloody fights with local thugs, junkies, kidnappers, and extortionists. With every episode he learns more about the masterminds behind his battles—the Russian mafia, Japanese crime syndicate Yakuza, Chinese gangsters, and finally Fisk/Kingpin himself—who want to carve up Hell’s Kitchen between them. And slowly, he also learns to be one step ahead of his ruthless enemies.

A television series provides more reel for longer stories. Daredevil gives us more than the heroics of the vigilante. It also offers us a peek into the back stories of the familiar characters—Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), his buddy and law partner Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), their first client-turned-secretary Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), famous crime reporter Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall), and Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio)—which adds to the twists and the suspense.

Daredevil is stark and realistic with a degree of brutality not common in superhero movies. Murdock and Fisk, while representing good and evil, share a tragic childhood, their lives haunted by demons of the past—prompting Hell’s Kitchen’s supervillain to say they’re not very different from each other. Although, they have their own reasons for making the seedy neighbourhood a better place.

As Daredevil, Cox is as good as Affleck, while, as Kingpin, D'Onofrio is several heads above Michael Clarke Duncan in the movie version. What works in his favour is his depiction of the bald Kingpin as a businessman who is both vicious and vulnerable. He reeks of evil and yet doesn’t necessarily seem like one, if that makes any sense.

Finally, what I found appealing about Daredevil is the music, the opening theme and the background score that plays during critical moments in every episode, heightening the thrill and tension of watching a series that deserves wider recognition.

Next up is Season 2 on Netflix, followed by Season 3 in 2018. This is because, in 2017, Netflix plans to release Marvel’s The Defenders comprising Charlie Cox as Daredevil, Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones, Mike Colter as Luke Cage, and Finn Jones as Iron Fist. The last three superheroes also have their standalone series.

Have you seen the Daredevil TV series?

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Blaze! Red Rock Rampage by Ben Boulden, 2017

Review & Interview

“I have no predilection about dropping you where you stand,” J.D. said. “Put the man down, gently as you would your breakfast egg, then raise your hands as high as God allows.”

© Rough Edges Press
I picked up Red Rock Rampage—No.15 in the Blaze! Adult Western Series—for three reasons. One, it's written by writer-blogger Ben Boulden whose reviews I read with much interest. Two, it's a western and packed with action, romance, and adventure. And three, it recounts the daring exploits of a husband-and-wife team of gunfighters I’d never heard of.

Red Rock Rampage is a fine debut by Ben. I read the book in three sittings, which I seldom do now. And I look forward to read more in the series, both by him and other writers.

A few pages into the book and I found myself riding at a distance behind bounty hunters J.D. and his beautiful wife Kate on their journey to Small Basin. Utah. The couple is on the trail of a gang of robbers who have been holding up trains in Arizona. They have been hired by a railway company whose northern route has been the target of the marauders.

If J.D. and Kate thought it would be a simple case of track and nab, they were mistaken. Small Basin turns out to be as hostile as an inhospitable desert under a ruthless sun. The settlement and the surrounding area are ruled by a renegade Mormon patriarch called Levi Skousen and his hired gunmen, and crooked Sheriff Allred who wants them to keep riding. The town is inhabited by a bunch of unfriendly polygamists and dirt farmers.

But our bounty hunters have no plans to vamoose now that they have tracked down their prey. And that’s when their troubles begin.

Skousen has kidnapped two young girls with the intention of adding them to his harem of twenty wives. One of the girls belongs to a poor Mexican settlement, the other has a thing for the outlaw’s estranged son. Suddenly, J.D. and Kate are forced to alter their plan and rescue the damsels with help from a priest who can shoot.

Red Rock Rampage, published by Rough Edges Press, is 115 pages of twists and turns, surprises and ambushes, and humour and excitement all the way. It’s a realistic portrayal of the Old West’s only husband-and-wife gunfighters whose derring-do and skill with guns does not hide their vulnerability. They find themselves in a tight corner more than once. When J.D. is caught and beaten up badly, Kate knows what she must do. The woman’s got guts. At one point I found myself thinking, “Come on, you should’ve seen it coming.” That they don’t adds to the reality of the plot, the descriptions, and the well-drawn characters.

I liked the book a lot, as much for Ben Boulden’s narrative style and relentless pace as for J.D. and Kate’s passion for each other and for adventure. They share a telepathic bond from the beginning. It lent a nice touch to this unusual western tale.


'I genuinely enjoy telling myself stories'

Photo by Kara Boulden

Ben Boulden, a trained accountant by profession, writes a column and regularly reviews mystery, crime, and thrillers for Mystery Scene Magazine. His essays, ‘Reading Ed Gorman’ and ‘Easy to Read: A Story of Rick Ollerman’ have been published in the Stark House Press editions of The Autumn Dead/The Night Remembers by Ed Gorman and Truth Always Kills by Rick Ollerman, respectively. He also regularly reviews books and interviews authors at his blog Gravetapping. Ben lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his wife and daughter.

He spoke to the 3Cs about his debut novel in an email interview, which is split into three parts: the book, the characters and setting, and the author.


Ben, why did you choose to make your writing debut with the Blaze! Adult Western Series? Why not a standalone western?
A really good question. A year ago I was interviewing Stephen Mertz, creator of Blaze!, for my blog Gravetapping and when everything was complete—questions asked and answered, formatted and posted—Steve asked if I would like to try writing a Blaze! novel. No guarantee of publication, but I unhesitatingly said, “Yes” and everything worked out. Pure blind luck aided by the kindness of Steve Mertz.

What made you pick the title Red Rock Rampage? How did you hit upon the idea?
The title was the last thing I came up with. The story was mostly complete, still lovingly titled “Untitled Blaze”, when Red Rock Rampage sprang into my head. It fit the setting, the painted rock badlands of Southern Utah, and the genre; rampaging desperados, outlaws. I especially liked the smooth alliteration.

The idea for the story arrived in a hurry. I knew I wanted it in Utah, where I’ve lived most of my life, and I narrowed it down to Southern Utah because of the beautiful, desolate setting. It was, and probably still is, wilder than Northern Utah; fewer people and less law. And, of course, it was and still is a hotbed of plural marriage. So

I took what I knew about the setting—it is called Utah’s Dixie because someone in Salt Lake City decided its arid landscape was perfect for growing cotton. It wasn’t. There was either too little water, or too much water (in the form of flash floods) and as far as I know there was never a successful crop. So I created a villain who, not satisfied with his failure as a cotton grower, found other means to gain wealth. The rest of the story bloomed from there.

You are more than familiar with western fiction. And yet, did you have to do any research for your book?

I  did some research for RRR. Mostly about the early Mormon pioneers sent from Salt Lake City to the Southwestern corner of current day Utah to grow cotton. My wife and I lived in a small college town in the area several years ago while I studied for my master’s degree and that, mixed with many trips to Canyonlands National Park (in Southeastern Utah) as a child with my parents, gave me a grasp to imagine the setting.

Were you influenced by other western fiction authors while writing Red Rock Rampage?
I don’t think it shows, but my major influence was Ed Gorman’s work. The way he develops characters, especially women, in his Western novels amazes me. Gentle, intelligent, long suffering, horny, angry, and everything else that makes a person a person.

I also followed two pieces of advice that came to me second hand, both heavily paraphrased. Ed Gorman wrote, on more than one occasion, that he owed his career to Max Allan Collins who told him to write a novel like every chapter was a short story to keep from becoming overwhelmed. And Stephen Mertz told me that Don Pendleton always said you should write, no matter what you’re writing, like it is a serious and important work.

In spite of consistent action, the narrative has an even and unhurried pace. Did you plan it that way or did it flow as you wrote?
I wanted the narrative to have a nice fluid pace, but to say I planned it from scene-to-scene (beyond hoping it worked) wouldn’t be accurate. Although I worked heavily to keep it tight and unhurried throughout the writing and then rewriting processes. I’m glad it worked. And I’m glad you told me since I still have doubts about it late at night.

Is there any part of the story or character that you wish you’d written differently?

Maybe  one. A gunny named Jackson Rockwell, who was originally intended to be the fictional brother of the Mormon gunfighter Orrin Porter Rockwell, who, as the story developed took a smaller role than I originally planned. I think the story would have benefited from developing JR’s character more as I had originally intended. Instead he became more of a stock villain with a mean streak and a desire to make his name by gunning down J.D.


Both J.D. and Kate are very likeable and, in a certain way, vulnerable too. What were your thoughts as you wrote about the husband-wife gunfighters?

J.D. and Kate were the best part of writing Red Rock Rampage. I fell in a kind of literary puppy-love with Kate. Tough, smart, kind, beautiful. And I genuinely liked J.D. Although, based on the beatings I put J.D. through there may have been some jealousy at work (I hope I’m kidding). I liked the give and take between the two, and my favorite scenes are where both are present.

I couldn’t help noticing that Kate and J.D. seem to have the perfect marriage, which I felt was a great selling point. Of course, I’m basing my opinion on just this one Blaze! novel. Is that how they are in the rest of the series?

It is, I think. I’ve only read a couple of the other books in the series. I’m actually reading Stephen Mertz’s The Christmas Journey right now. But J.D. and Kate have something of a dream relationship. They have their moments, mostly when J.D. is, or isn’t, doing something Kate feels strongly about. Steve really deserves some kudos for creating this pair.

Kate is brave and determined, and more than capable of taking care of herself. I, for one, thought she stole the show. Would that be a fair assessment?

Very  fair assessment. Kate’s character really spoke to me. As I was writing the story her role, both as the ethical guide and tough as nails get things done kind of person, developed beyond what I had originally intended. In a sense, RRR is more her novel than J.D.’s.

How did you come to create Brother Skousen as the evil and lustful Mormon patriarch who terrorises young women?

He was the first villain I created for the story. In a sense, and I don’t mean this to be demeaning or derogatory to early-Mormon history, he is a composite character of the stereotypical Mormon leader. Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, etc. who practiced polygamy for a stated reason—to take care of the older women without a man (Sister Mary in the story)—but actually seemed to have an abundance of attractive 17 year old wives who, I’m sure, had a line of young male suitors. But, Skousen is a true scoundrel and many of the early Mormon leaders did some amazing things, like create the infrastructure for the American West to be settled and develop the way it did.

How easy or difficult was it to capture the descriptions of the settlement of Small Basin, Utah, and the surrounding area?

It was really fun and fairly easy. It all came out of my imagination based on my experiences in the Southern Utah landscape. The canyons with painted rock, red dirt, the Fremont Indian ruins, many still awaiting discovery, all captured my imagination as a boy and it still does today. I hope I was able to describe the wonder of the place, even a little.


Ben, can you briefly take us through your journey as a writer and an author?

I've been writing fiction since my early teens and over the past six or seven years I gave up the idea of seriously pursuing publication. I had a few very small successes placing short stories in tiny literary magazines (circulation less than ten, probably) in the early-2000s, but my writing plateaued. Each story had the same flaws as the one before. Not developed quite right, out of sync narrative, underdeveloped characters, etc.

So I started reviewing novels and short stories, first for a website, then my own blog and finally for Mystery Scene Magazine, to see if critically reading the work of successful writers would help my own writing. And it did, but not exactly the way I expected. I learned a bunch about structure, and even more about style, but the knowledge was still a little hazy. Then I started writing individual scenes, not for publication, but rather for my own amusement, about anything that caught my fancy. A mother mourning a child, a firefight, cowboys finding a flashlight. This more than anything improved my fiction writing, but I was still an unbeliever.

Then, an amazing thing happened, which I talked about in a question above, Stephen Mertz—creator of Blaze!—asked if I would be interested in writing a Blaze! novel. And I did. And Rough Edges Press published it. My writing life, I hesitate to call it a career, has been one filled with mostly work and a few lucky breaks. The first was Ed Gorman’s unflagging support of my critical writing and his help getting me a chance to write for Mystery Scene and then Steve Mertz’s simple question. I owe them both more than I can say.

How would you describe the experience of writing, and especially writing a book?

Hard, but satisfying. I genuinely enjoy telling myself stories, but the daily grind of working all day, then coming home and writing is difficult. The self-doubt is hard, too. Never knowing if something is good, or even readable, as I write and rewrite. But as satisfying as anything I’ve ever done when I type “the end” after the last paragraph. And then as I started revisions, actually enjoying the story.

Where, when, and how often do you write?

I have a weekly goal of 2,500 to 3,000 words. I often don’t make it, but I try. I have a tiny office in the house, cold in the winter and hot in the summer, where I do part of my writing. I also write at the kitchen table, which is where I am now. I travel some for work, and I write in hotel rooms at night when I’m away.

I may write for fifteen minutes or two or three hours, depending on my schedule. On weekends I write in the morning, and during the week I write in the evening. It all depends, but it would be nice if I could find a rhythm with a defined schedule. 5–7 AM, or something. I think it would increase my productivity, but I haven’t been able to make it happen yet.

How long did it take you to write Red Rock Rampage? Can you take us through the process from the time you conceived of the story idea?

I started planning the story—doing a little research—and basically stalling the actual writing in mid-April, 2016 and I turned the final draft into the editor the first week of August. So, from that first idea to the finished product was about 3-1/2 months. The first few chapters went like wildfire and there were a few spots in the story where I found myself lost in those murky middle portions. I knew where I wanted to go, but my map disappeared. When that happened I stopped writing for a few days, once for nearly a week, and thought about the story, what made sense, what J.D. and Kate would be inclined to do. And I always figured a way forward. And it always felt natural to me. Something that much of my earlier writing didn’t have.

What can your readers expect after your brilliant debut—more in the Blaze! series or something else, perhaps?

I’m working, rather slowly, on another Blaze! novel now. It’s been slow for a few reasons. My work schedule has been unusual the last few months and I have been able to gain a rhythm on the story. But I like the story, and I’m hoping to have it finished in a few months. I just finished a hardboiled crime short story that I like a bunch. I’m not sure what is going to happen with it, but it felt great writing “the end” a few nights ago.

Once I finish my next Blaze! novel I may try something of my own. I have a few ideas percolating, mostly western and crime. We’ll see. But I’m excited that things are looking bright (in a very small way) for me.

Who are some of your favourite genre authors? Which books have influenced your writing?

I’ve already mentioned Ed Gorman. He is probably one of the most underrated writers of his generation. His works tends to be dark, which may be a reason it hasn’t caught on like I think it should, but he is well worth reading. Especially is mystery and western fiction.

Ron Faust is another favorite. No one writes better, more meaningful, or even beautiful prose than Faust did. He didn’t write enough, only 15 novels over four decades, but if you ever find anything with his name on its cover, buy it, steal it, or do whatever you have to do to get it home.

What were your thoughts when you first held Red Rock Rampage in your hand?

Woohoo! Then disbelief. Then woohoo! Then, man, I hope a few people like it.

Finally, Ben, what is your advice to people like me who aspire to publish someday?

Keep at it. I had given up, writing snippets of fiction here and there for my own amusement, but an amazing thing happened. I wrote a book, it was published. And I’m nothing special. Maybe lucky, but not special. So keep writing and something will come.

Thank you, Ben.