Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Retrospective 08.

While 2007 was awesome for me, 2008 was not.

A lot of things did not go well for me and people close to me this past year, and I'm not even counting my writing failures yet. I won't go into my non-writing disappointments this past year but I will touch on my writing disappointments.

Of the three resolutions I made earlier this year, I achieved none. No surprise there, really ... since when have I kept a resolution? But still! Pretty disappointing! I mean, I would have loved to have finished that novel and would have been blown away to be able to write 12 short stories, one for each month.

As it stands, not only have I not finished the novel, I went and started another unfinished novel for this year's NaNoWriMo, and I didn't even finish that. I did write 5 or so short stories this year, but all of them are unfinished.

Yep, 2008 was an epic fail and not a year I will look back on fondly. On the other hand, I did have more book reviews published this year than the previous year. Yay!

I look forward to 2009, a chance for me to redeem myself.

Resolutions for 2009:
  1. Finish that novel. (One day I will achieve this, you wait and see!)
  2. Write six short stories, one for every two months. (Maybe that's more doable...)
  3. Start submitting to foreign pubs again. (Didn't submit at all this year, how embarrassing!)
Okay! Enough whining and self-pitying! Happy New Year everyone!

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

REVIEW: Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup.

This review was published in The Star on 28th December 2008.

Unusual Whodunnit
Review by TED MAHSUN

Instead of following along in the steps of a detective unravelling a crime, we’re given a different perspective in this simply-told but cracking good mystery.

By Vikas Swarup
Publisher: DoubleDay, 472 pages
ISBN: 978-0385608169

VIKAS Swarup’s latest book, Six Suspects, looks conventional at a glance: a notorious mob tycoon, Vicky Rai, is murdered in his own house during a party, and there are six suspects. Sounds like a straightforward whodunnit, right?

Not quite. Unlike most crime novels, this novel does not employ a sleuth; well, not it in the conventional sense, anyway.

But then, Swarup is not your conventional novelist, either: he is a diplomat, currently posted in Pretoria as India’s Deputy High Commissioner to South Africa. His debut novel, Q & A, was also unusual in that its protagonist is a slum dweller who wins the jackpot on the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire TV game show. Q & A was made into a film called Slumdog Millionaire by British filmmaker Danny Boyle. The recently-released movie garnered critical acclaim and made it into Time magazine’s list of top 10 movies of the year. (Both Six Suspects and Slumdog Millionaire are available at a discount in the coupon below.)

In Six Suspects, a sleuth does initially appear, in the form of investigative journalist, Arun Advani, and it is his newspaper articles that bookend the novel. However, though it is Arun who eventually uncovers the clues that lead to the murderer, it is not his story we follow. Instead, the reader is given the stories of each of the six suspects, with each story resembling a self-contained novella, detailing their varied backgrounds, mishaps, and adventures that will eventually lead to and converge on the scene of the crime.

It is to Swarup’s credit that he has managed to imbue each of these six suspects with enough character and detail that the reader cannot help but be swept along by the narrative.

Each suspect is distinct from each other with nary a generic character in sight:

There’s Mohan Kumar, former Chief Secretary of Uttar Pradesh state in India, once corrupt and selfish, now channelling the soul of Mahatma Gandhi himself.

Shabnam Saxena, a Bollywood star who quotes French Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

Eketi, a 1.5m tribesman from the Andaman Islands who has come to the Indian mainland to search for a sacred stone stolen from his tribe.

Munna Mobile, so nicknamed because of his career as a mobile phone thief.

Larry Page, who isn’t the famous co-founder of Google, he just shares the same name and is in India to get married

And, lastly, Jagannath Rai, father of the murdered Vicky Rai, the corrupt Uttar Pradesh Home Minister who aspires to become Chief Minister.

Of these six, the most developed and interesting character to me is Eketi, the Onge tribesman from the Andamans.

It comes as no surprise to me that in the acknowledgements at the end of the book, Swarup mentions at least three books and a website about the Onge tribe that aided him in researching the character.

Eketi’s story is perhaps the most epic of the six. It is a sort of mini coming-of-age tale, with Eketi embarking on a quest across India to recover his tribe’s sacred stone, and discovering disappointment and betrayal along the way.

He is aided by the scheming Ashok, a junior welfare officer stationed in the Andamans who has a selfish reason of his own for finding the sacred stone.

Their travels through various locales, from a eunuch colony in Kashi to the slums of Mehrauli, provide many chances for the author to give readers a tour, albeit a generalised one, of India. Some readers may appreciate this, but I suppose those familiar with the country would likely be unimpressed.

The least interesting character – though I have to say this is a novel in which even the least interesting character remains engaging – is Larry Page.

It certainly seems as if Swarup didn’t put in the same amount of research and effort into creating Larry that he did for Eketi – and what research he did do was based on episodes of the TV soap, Dallas! You see, Larry comes across as a stereotypical redneck American. While such people may exist in real life, in fiction, this simplicity in personality comes across on the page as nothing more than a two-dimensional cardboard cutout.

Even so, as trite as the character may be, Swarup’s fast-paced and easy flowing prose allows the reader to forgive this setback. Larry’s misfortunes in India – losing his passport and money, and eventually being kidnapped by a terrorist cell – thankfully, make for a delightful and humorous read, and provide yet another chance for the author to caricature India’s “exotic” elements.

Taken as a whole, Six Suspects is an enjoyable and light read. Granted, it is no literary masterpiece; in many ways it is too generalising and too stereotypical.

Don’t go in expecting a Salman Rushdie or a Vikram Seth novel. There are certainly no verbal pyrotechnics to be found, and the only glimpse of magic realism remains just that, a tiny glimpse.

But I say this not because I scorn the novel. On the contrary, I rather like the simple tone the book takes. Swarup does not seem to want to show off; there’s no putting on of airs here.

Six Suspects may lean towards being literary by being slightly unconventional but it doesn’t take a Sherlock (sorry, couldn’t resist!) to know what the author intended to write: a good mystery crime novel – and in my opinion, he’s succeeded.

Monday, 29 December 2008

REVIEW: The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb.

This review was published in The Star on 28th December 2008.

Revisiting Columbine
Review by TED MAHSUN

By Wally Lamb
Publisher: HarperCollins, 832 Pages
ISBN: 978-0007290697

THERE’S a selection of the book-reading populace that thumbs its collective noses at books picked by talk show host Oprah Winfrey for her Oprah’s Book Club.

I don’t get this. Shouldn’t one judge a book by its own merit rather than dismissing it just because one isn’t fond of the talk show host?

I was pondering this after I finished reading The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb, whose previous two novels had both been selected for discussion by Oprah’s Book Club. It would be such a shame if Lamb’s latest novel is disregarded just because Oprah likes it!

Well, those who hate her book club ... they won’t know what they’re missing. The novel is intriguing and enjoyable; it constantly reminded me why I enjoy reading.

The novel weaves fiction and fact by placing its two central characters, Caelum Quirk and his wife Maureen, at the centre of one of the United States’ most tragic events in recent history, the Columbine high school massacre.

Both of them work at the school: Caelum is a teacher and Maureen is a school nurse. On the fateful day of the tragedy, Maureen is trapped in a closet while she listens to the students getting shot.

Caelum – though away during the tragedy to visit a dying aunt – is deeply affected when he discovers that many of the students he once taught and teachers he worked with were either dead or terribly wounded.

Lamb should be given credit for being able to write about Columbine in an intriguing way, yet treating the subject respectfully by not resorting to sensationalism or finger-pointing.

In fact, the chapters focusing on the tragedy are written in a neutral, journalistic style and Lamb tries to be as unbiased as possible.

Although, at first, it may appear that the novel revolves just around the Columbine massacre, the author cleverly uses this tragic event as a jumping point and takes us further by following the lives of the two characters after the tragedy.

Though she survives the ordeal, Maureen is psychologically scarred and finds it hard to recover from her trauma. She winds up being addicted to painkillers and antidepressants and so Caelum decides that it may be a good idea to move back to his family farm in hope that getting Maureen away from it all might increase her chances of recovery.

The Quirk family farm, which Caelum inherited when his aunt died, is not the solve-all that Caelum hopes it to be. Maureen shows little signs of improving and while Caelum tries his best to help her, he is obviously not a flawless human being either.

He has anger management and insecurity issues, which result from his wife having had an affair some years earlier, as well as his own painful childhood.

The Hour I First Believed, it turns out, is also a novel about the burden of family and the many skeletons a family can hide in its closet.

Caelum’s attempt to confront his past while coming to terms with his own tragedy ultimately become the path towards finding faith and meaning in his own life.

All this adds up to a wonderful and engaging read, a truly modern and contemporary epic journey.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Tales of the Unexpected.

Well, that was unexpected. I not only have one, but two book reviews in today's Star. The other review is for Wally Lamb's Hour I First Believed.

I only noticed when I went out to get my own deadtree copy. I'd have noticed sooner though if only Google Alerts wasn't being so choosy...

Anyways! A few months ago, I was given an advanced review copy (or as they call it, ARC) of Wally Lamb's Hour I First Believed for review, but when I finally finished writing the review, MPH Bookstores, who provided the ARC, told me they decided not to have a promo for the book so I thought, well that's that. Maybe the review wasn't going to be published.

Turns out the Star editors turned to another bookstore to get a promo discount coupon from them instead. Neat!

So there you go. If you get a copy of today's deadtree edition of The Star, you'll get a 25% discount coupon for both Hour I First Believed, Six Suspects and even Vikas Swarup's earlier book, Slumdog Millionaire (formerly published as Q&A).

I have a review in The Star today.

Dude, I totally forgot. I woke early today too – a rare event for me on a Sunday – to go to the dentist's. If I had remembered then I could have just picked up a copy while I was out. Dammit, now I have to make the long trek out to civilisation.

Anyways, behold, a review of Vikas Swarup's Six Suspects, just for you.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Met An Old Friend Last Night.

Met an old friend last night. It was his wedding. Haven't met him in at least 8 or 9 years. And now he's a doctor!

Monday, 1 December 2008

That Post-Writing Feeling.

Ahh! I feel pretty good.

I just finished writing a book review and it was the easiest peasiest book review I've ever written. Usually a book review would take me days to finish (sometimes even weeks!), but this one just took me 45 minutes.

Can't say what book the review is for, because I haven't sent it in for publication yet. This isn't on commission so I won't know whether they'll publish it ... until they do.

In the meantime, I'll be basking in that nice post-writing afterglow. It feels nice and warm!

It's December.

And before long it will be the New Year.


Well, NaNoWriMo was a complete and epic fail for me. It wasn't all a loss though. I do have the beginnings of a novel that I'm pretty excited to continue writing, but for now I'll have to shelve it because I'd like to continue writing the novel I was working on before November ... which was really last year's NaNo project.

Anyways, did you hear the news? Syed Alwi passed away. What a bummer huh? I enjoyed immensely his play "Alang Rentak Seribu" and regret I haven't seen any of his other theatre productions.


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