Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian

Going out with a bang – that is how I would describe the eighth and the last book in the Artemis Fowl series. As always Eoin Colfer manages a fine juggling act between plot and characterization. Through the books, characters grow dynamically as do relationships which allows each book to stand independently yet rewards faithful readers of the series with an understanding of the characters now and earlier.

Nowhere is that clearer than with Artemis Fowl himself. From arch enemy of the Fairy people, to friend and equal partner - in Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian, AF stands in stark contrast to his selfish, cynical, lonely self of the first book. Here he has moved on from being the youngest criminal mastermind in history to juvenile genius (as he prefers to style himself!). This is an Artemis who is very much part of the world – he is close to the fairies (having saved the world multiple times in their company), is a doting elder brother to his twin brothers and generally more  connected to the world around.

Colfer does not neglect some of my old favorites from the older books either. There is N°1 – demon warlock and fairy friend who first appeared in Artemis Fowl and The Lost Colony and continued to make appearances in the later books. N°1 makes a brief appearance here to tell us that he is going to be busy on the lunar colony for a few years. There is Commander Trouble Kelp– doing a good job of being LEP leader. And there is Mulch Diggums – kleptomaniac dwarf and provider of many laughs who continues to do what he has done best – steal from the Mud people.

But this is not some sentimental revisiting of friends. Like every other Artemis Fowl novel, this novel is packed with action and loads of adventure. There is nail biting suspense and enough fiendishly clever plot twists that assure us that Artemis may have mellowed but certainly hasn’t lost his touch!

Opal Koboi, imprisoned and apparently powerless, has not given up her plans to conquer the world. With typical cunning and impeccable planning, she comes with an idea that sets her free and she will only stop when she has destroyed the world as we know it and most of the fairy folk down below.

Unwittingly helping Queen Opal, as she now styles herself, are the Berserkers, the spirits of long dead warriors, sworn to protect the fairies against the Mud people. Schooled by Opal who pretends that she is the saviour of the fairies, the Berserkers possess the bodies of Juliet Butler and Myles and Beckett Fowl – Artemis’ twin brothers.

 How will Artemis fight against his own brothers? Or Butler harm Juliet even knowing that warrior spirits possess them? At their side stands Captain Holly Short, loyal and brave as always. With the help of Mulch Diggums and the wizard of all gadgets, Foaly, can our brave trio stop Opal before she succeeds?

It is a close run affair, I tell you. But if Artemis cannot pull a few dozen aces out of his sleeve, then who can you depend on this side of the earth? Only this time, the price for the aces may seem too high. The action never slows for a moment and Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian is a fitting ending to a grand series.

A fairy land underground and real fairies (although you won’t find them in any fairy tale ever heard!), an interesting hero, some science fiction, extreme fantasy, lots of hi- tech gadgetry, humor (some of it of the really gross kind, read sections on Mulch Diggums and his flatulence for example!) action and adventure – what is there not to like in an Artemis Fowl book?

The last book also includes a sneak peek at a new series Colfer is writing – it features a young hero, Riley and if the first chapter is anything to go by, and large dollops of adventure and magic to help the plot along.

I confess I will miss Artemis Fowl dreadfully. Especially Colfer’s trademark irreverent, tongue in cheek humor. But like millions of other people around the globe, I expect I will hang on to the series for an occasional dip into its pages… after all, the world is infinitely richer for Artemis Fowl’s know it all take on it!

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling

 It takes courage to end an immensely successful series. Especially one that gave its author fame, glory and much money – it would have been easier to sit back and enjoy it. Rowling however has chosen to break away completely and write a novel for adults. I am not sure that any other book of Rowling's will reach the same dizzy heights of the Potter series but I think many people, like me, will be curious enough to read The Casual Vacancy.
This is a novel that takes a hard, long look at reality and discovers that life is – in the main - unfair and depressing. It is a straightforward story of the residents of Pagford – adults and children who live in disconnected universes from each other except when tragedy pushes them into making tenuous connections.
When Barry Fairweather, a parish councilor, dies unexpectedly, the adults of Pagford clumsily plot to gain his seat on the council (the casual vacancy of the title). The book captures Pagford at a crucial moment in its history and presents its residents at their worst.
There is Simon Price, a wife beater who terrorizes his children with words and physical violence, Gavin Hughes, weak and unlikable, who is not interested in the parish seat but in the wife of the dead man, Colin “Cubby” Walls, who is paralyzed by his own internal demons, ‘extravagantly obese’ Howard Mollison, who is only able to see people in terms of what use they are to him, his son, Mike Mollison who cannot grow out of his parents’ shadow… the only male who is remotely appealing  -  in terms of looks and personality - is the Sikh surgeon, Vikram Jawanda who makes brief appearances through the book.
Rowling is not kind to the women either. At one end of the spectrum is Terri Weedon, heroin addict and sometimes prostitute who is unable to break free from her destructive downward spiral. But at the other end, the women with careers and socially acceptable relationships (like Kay Bawdon, the social worker or Ruth Price, guidance counselor) don’t seem to be doing much better either.
Their relationships are at best about an ability to deny the truth and at their worst, about physical and emotional abuse. These are adults who do not know how to be happy and consequently fill their lives and those around them with misery and pain.
Uniting them is a common thread of snobbishness, of being better than ‘those’ people found in the Fields – ‘Pagford’s unwanted burden’ - which houses the poorer sections of Pagford. There is deep resentment that “the offspring of scroungers, addicts and mothers whose children had all been fathered by different men” should study in the same school and enjoy the same benefits as Pagford’s brightest and best. Pagford likes to pretend that it is an idyllic paradise but Rowling is pitiless in her exposure of their pretensions.
The children of Pagford are delineated clearly and come alive with Rowling’s pen – she has after all had much practice at that! But these are not the loved, socially adjusted, nice children of the Potter books. These are children of the 20th century – sex, drugs and computers are the key forces in their lives. Their parents suck all the fun out of their lives, and make them nasty and mean. Andrew Price copes with his father’s abusive bullying by creating a secret life and posts anonymous online messages revealing his father’s dishonesty on the parish website, Sukhvinder deals with her mother’s angry disapproval by repeatedly cutting herself… But hiding beneath the abnormal actions  are normal teenagers who want to get on with their lives but are still learning how.
Krystal Weedon, a child of the Fields (and a symbol of all that is wrong with Fields for Pagford’s residents), is one of the most likeable characters in the book. If one is willing to look beyond her abrasive personality and her abundant swearing, Krystal has pluck and determination. She also genuinely cares about her younger brother and may make something of herself if given a few chances.
But Rowling denies her the opportunity. Darkness dominates as the novel moves to its inexorable end. Darkness, as a trend, is clear in the later Potter books as well. The difference here is that the good people don’t stand a chance – no matter how much they try, their efforts to make a difference are but a temporary and fragile barrier against the dark, harsh and ugly world that Rowling sees as reality and has uncompromisingly presented.
I read this book because it has Rowling’s name on the cover. The plot has few surprises and it is clear, early on, that tragedy waits to spread her wings.  It is not all dark in the end, to be fair - there is some redemption for Andrew who is moving out of Pagford and is hopeful that his new locale will be better. Sukhvinder has mastered her hatred of herself and risen above her family’s patronizing attitude to her, Kay walks away from her dead end relationship and may begin anew, creating the possibility of something better for her daughter Gaia.
The renewals are tenuous though and – and frankly, I found the focus on the inevitable march of life towards death and early, untimely deaths that the novel presents rather depressing. Not a book I would read more than once!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Miss Moorthy Investigates - Ovidia Yu

It is Singapore of the 1970s and the Singapore Strangler is on the prowl, targeting single successful women. While the police hunt desperately for clues, the newspapers frontpage his gruesome murders.  With characteristic wit and dry humor, Yu explains how the Strangler has captured public imagination.

“The Strangler’s terror-hold on the female imagination had had unexpected social repercussions.  Single, successful career women were stampeding to get married to a man, any man.”

Miss Moorthy, former entertainer, now pursuing her career of choice as a school teacher was content to read about the infamous Strangler in the paper and double check the locks on her doors. But when a teacher, Evelyn Ngui, working in her school is murdered, the story acquires a personal angle for Miss Moorthy. 
Miss Moorthy has a personal run in with the Strangler when turns up at the apartment she shares with a former school friend, Connie, a producer of popular TV serials. The Strangler was apparently looking to murder Connie because she fits the profile of a single, succesful woman,  but  hunter turns into hunted, as he is efficiently apprehended by the two women. As Miss Moorthy tells us, catching burglars is easier than seen on TV.

“All it took was a little presence of mind and a good brick. Nothing to it, really.”

Miss Moorthy finds out from her boyfriend, Dr Anthony Tan, the Forensic Pathologist in charge of the case, that the Singapore Strangler, has not killed Evelyn and that the suspect list includes a friend of Anthony’s, who was once dating Evelyn.

Miss Moorthy takes it upon herself to find out who murdered Evelyn. Was it the married man Evelyn was having an affair with? And why is David, Anthony’s friend and former boyfriend of Evelyn edging towards a nervous breakdown if he had nothing to do with the murder?

On a parallel track, Miss Moorthy is faced with belligerent parents who want to ensure their children get the best marks, inquisitive students who believe their teacher has all the answers, a girl who will not speak, a mysterious money transfer into Evelyn’s account and a blue and white rabbit that goes missing.

There are enough clues in the story for the reader to figure out the murderer. This is not a classic whodunit in the sense it fails to keep up the suspense to the end. But read it anyway for its interesting glimpses of life in newly independent Singapore, cheeky wit, a feminist take on society and entertaining characters whose oddities and eccentricities are worth a few chuckles.