Friday, November 30, 2012

Masala Murder - Madhumita Bhattacharyya

Madhumita Bhattacharyya’s debut novel, ‘Masala Murder’, is literally that – a murder committed over spices. And it lives up to its name in other ways as well since there is a bit of everything in the book including tons of money, lots of sleaze, an ex-boyfriend and a new romantic interest, and not one, but two mysteries in the form of a kidnapping and of course, murder. Almost as if having named it Masala Murder, Bhattacharyya has determined to give her readers a dash of every spicy element she can think of!
Reema is a private detective – not of the mystery solving kind although that is what she would like to be. Instead she is Kolkata’s expert on infidelity cases. But PI work does not pay her bills hence Reema Ray is a food critic by day. She is also a part a group of do-gooders – the ‘Calcutta Crime Fighters Club’ who are instrumental in helping her solve the two mysteries that land on her doorstep.
The first mystery is the sudden death of a gourmet food exporter – from a suspected case of food poisoning. The doctor who treated him reports a suspicious death but later backtracks and claims that all is as it should be. Reema, who has met the victim earlier as part of her day job as a food critic, is drawn to the case. And because one mystery is not just enough, her ex-boyfriend turns up, asking her to help him find his kidnapped wife and free him from suspicion of kidnapping her.  
While Reema works on both the cases, the supporting cast of actors, mainly from her group, turn out to have answers to everything she needs. Image enhancing – ask the detective with the high end software. Previous legal complaints? Ask the lawyer dedicated to just causes. Inside information on what the police force is thinking – ask the policeman.
If this big a support cast is not enough, there is also a very high up police official – Reema’s Uncle Kumar - who is willing to listen to all that Reema has to say. Why someone who has spent years in the police force let a rank amateur take so much of his time just because she is a friend’s daughter is rather confusing, especially since Reema has done nothing in her detective career to earn that kind of trust. To be fair, Reema does make some clever deductions that eventually lead to solving of both cases –but with all the help she had, it is hard not to think that she had it pretty easy.
The other mystery that Reema is keenly interested in is the identity of Shayak who is rather unnecessarily cagey with details. I dislike detective novels that attempt to distract the reader by inserting romantic episodes – romance after I have read the book, I say, and I won’t complain. But when I am following the clues to find a murderer, I am very displeased with tall, dark, handsome men attempting to derail the plot.
It is hard to feel menace or dread – after all there is a murderer on the loose – when the investigating detective is gushing about how sexy she finds a man she just met. Plus the whole deal with her ex- boyfriend who attempts to seduce her so that Reema is distracted from finding out the truth is frankly just sleazy. Like Reema is so weak and desperate for a man that a few kisses will leave her unable to think straight although that nearly happens before she manages to wake herself up out of her romantic stupor and get on with solving the case.
And I think this is where the book failed for me. I would have appreciated it better as a simple whodunit. Bhattacharyya only makes Reema look defocused and rather easily distracted – and while it is Reema who saves the day, for me as a reader, she did too little, too late!
Masala Murder is likely to be the first of a series – hopefully Reema Ray will spend less time on men and more on detecting in her next book!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ape House - Sara Gruen

Ape House is the story of six bonobos and the humans who take care of them. In her author’s note, Sara Gruen reveals that the book is based on her visit to a Great Ape lab which “astonished” and “changed” her.
This novel could have been a serious discussion of the philosophy and ethics behind the capture and training of great apes. And there are some indications through the book of a deeper thought process – for example in its analysis of the sheer vulgarity of pop culture, the possibilities opened up by human and ape communication and particularly the scenes presented inside the Ape house which are both touching and amazing to the reader. But sadly, Gruen has merely showed the presence of deeper issues here. The novel is much more of a thriller with intricate plot twists and jam packed action.
Isabel Duncan is the scientist working with the bonobos, communicating with them in American Sign Language (ASL). She loves the apes and thinks of them as family. To meet Isabel and to get a look at the apes, comes confused reporter, John Thigpen. Like most of Gruen’s readers, Thigpen has had no contact with apes before this and his awe, fear and complete unpreparedness for the sheer humanness of the great apes - Bonzi, Mbongo, Sam, Makena, Jelani, and the baby, Lola, are well documented by Gruen.
The book picks up pace soon after, leaving the reader little or no time to be contemplative. The lab is blown up, Isabel is seriously injured and one of the animal activist groups claims responsibility for the attack. The apes are bundled off campus and no one knows where they are until they appear on TV in a reality show.
Isabel is not about to give up on her family though and with the help of Thigpen and a host of secondary characters, manages to win the apes a home again with her. A rather bald plot summary, but if you take away the sudden coincidences, the galloping action and much of the melodrama, this about sums it up.
Personally, I would have been happier to read more of the apes and less of the humans. Particularly since the main characters, Isabel and John, are so uninteresting and lack depth. Isabel only becomes real when she is shown interacting with the apes, at other times, she is weak, slow to reason out and easily spooked and often too upset to act. Similarly John Thigpen is not much of an investigative reporter, and is, for most of the novel, busy being overwhelmed by his relationship with his wife and her desire to have a baby.
Not even the villain of the piece gets the distinction of being a strong character. The biggest mystery in the book is how no one, including Isabel, did even the most basic research on his past! And there is not much role for him in such an overcrowded cast of characters and he seems more of a walk on character who conveniently gets caught near the end of the novel so that all loose ends are neatly tied up. Convenient, yes - but convincing, not at all.
The redeeming character in the human cast is Celia, a colorful lab intern originally suspected of the crime, and her group of eclectic, eccentric friends who actually unravel the true story behind the explosion with some electronic wizardry, otherwise known as hacking.  The supposedly minor group of characters is more interesting and action oriented than the main characters who mostly seem to be lost in the woods.
Read Ape House for its tantalizing and enthralling glimpses into the life of the great apes. Everything – and everyone else - is just ordinary.

Friday, November 16, 2012

What, no houries? - the Taliban according to Mainak Dhar's 'Zombiestan'

Zombies – what’s not to love? The undead - rising up from their graves in various stages of unsightly decay, shuffling down the streets in silent hordes with a serious case of the munchies- have captured the collective imagination since their first appearance on the horizons of pop culture.  As a confirmed undeadhead, I have devoured (eh, what pun?) my share – and then some – of paperbacks, comics, films, and even the odd hit TV series celebrating that kitschy genre. 

But for all my fangirlyness, I have to concede that sooner or later, you can pretty much predict plot trajectories in your sleep - the dead rise for whatever reason (usually bioweapons dunnit)  , start chomping on the living and pretty much ring in the apocalypse. The world falls apart, the unbitten band into unlikely posses of survivors and  slowly journey towards some distant safe haven rumoured to be free of zombies. They also discover that, menacing as the zombies are,  the humans they meet on the way prove infinitely worse.  There is always one person in the team whose DNA is vital to the survival of the human race, prompting several others to sacrifice their lives to keep him/ her alive. The cast – human and undead- will be pruned in various gory ways, heroes will discover themselves, bonds of friendship forged  and one last confrontation occur before said Mecca is found and claimed. One last thing - when killing zombies, always, always aim for the head. 

Mainak Dhar, author of Zombiestan, seems to have done his homework, and added some touches of his own. His book follows pretty much the usual plot; his bioweapon, on the other hand, is nothing short of the Taliban’s Last Stand. Unwittingly unleashed during an American assault on a terrorist camp, the bioweapon swiftly slays its victims, only to make them rise again as rabid foot soldiers of the holy war (called Biters hereafter) , obsessed with wearing black turbans, yelling stuff like ‘Jihaaaaaaad’ and ‘Kafiiiiiiir’ at regular intervals  and increasing their fold by biting (NOT eating, mind you) every hapless human that stumbles into their path. They also evolve rapidly, learning (or perhaps, remembering) to use weapons, drive vehicles and coordinate attacks on the unbelievers still standing. And the headshots don’t work, guys. 

In the middle of all this mayhem, a US Navy Seal, a pampered teenaged boy and an elderly romance novelists come together in zombie-torn Delhi , trying to stay alive. They are joined soon after by a young girl and her brother, a toddler who just might be the key to humanity’s survival. Overcoming all kinds of odds – especially the ones posed by other humans – they struggle to make their way to an army base in Ladakh that just might be the only safe haven left in India. 

Zombiestan takes a while warming up, then breaks into an energetic canter that it sustains till the end. The characters are interesting, and young Mayukh Ghosh, our teenaged hero, is both likeable and believable as he falters, then stands tall, on the threshold of adulthood. He also gets his first shot at romance, courtesy Swati, the girl he saves. (Sadly her character is rapidly reduced to ‘frail, victim girl who makes kissyfaces at boy hero every few pages’ - this is very clearly Mayukh's story. )  I also enjoyed the character of Hina Rahman (even if she is too obviously  the token ‘good Muslim’among the, um, kafiiiiirs) and the brief cameo by a band of ex-armymen who spiritedly join Mayukh and gang in  fighting  off the Biters. 

Right, now the things that made me go hmm  (or should that be ‘Hmmmmmmmmm’ in the style of our rotting, biting brethren) – several aspects of  ‘Zombiestan’ had me gritting my teeth.  The zombies’ penchant for black turbans seems ridiculous and is certainly pointless to the plot;  it also reminded me of the innocent Sikhs and Muslims  targeted across America by lynching mobs immediately after 9/ 11, simply because they were wearing turbans.  And what’s with the constant refrain of ‘Jihaaad’ and ‘Kafiiiir’, when the zombies can’t seem to say anything else? Dhar seems to have succumbed to the easy charms of racial stereotyping here, much like those mobs.  Other slips up are equally glaring - the disease initially starts off as airborne, then mysteriously switches to spreading only through biting . And Dhar just can’t seem to make up his mind over whether guns will fell his zombies or not.

For a book based in India and peopled with very Indian characters,  the lead players of Zombiestan’ seem curiously genial and heroic.  At the best of times, most of us  tend to stay divided over our religion, caste and class prejudices, yet Mayukh and gang manage to instantly bond and stay together till the end. A terrific opportunity to explore those differences, utterly lost in all the gunfights .  Romance is all very well, but  (spoiler alert!!) in a book aimed at young adults, having your teenaged characters getting engaged  seems both prudish and misguided –  another black turban moment, methinks.   And why, why, why does  India’s first homegrown zombie thriller need a blond all-American war hero  stepping in as savior - given who kickstarted the apocalypse anyway ? Allegory or another black turban - I'll let you decide. 

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