Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Title: Spending Spree
Author: Ryan Wiley
Publisher: Self-published
Pages: 230

It’s everyone’s fantasy come true.

What if your bank account magically replenished itself no matter how much you spent? Would you go on a spending spree? Or would you restrain yourself, afraid of undeserved good fortune?

That is the dilemma faced by Johnny Davis, the protagonist of Spending Spree by Ryan Wiley. An IT graduate who works in a plastics factory, he opens an account in a local bank, with $150 transferred from his parents’ checking account serving as the opening balance.

Chosen for his “long-standing and impeccable service with us,” he is selected to receive a Black card, a debit card, which entitles him to 0% Intro APR, no annual fees or foreign transaction fees, and most important, “unlimited cashback that doesn’t expire.” So excited is Johnny that he doesn’t bother about the “Terms and Restrictions apply” posted in “impossible-to-read font.”

When he opens his account online, he learns the giddying truth that he has $100,000 in his account, with “Today’s Beginning Balance” at $150 and the remainder listed as pending transactions.

Anxious to try out the card, he spends $1.40 on liquor, and a little more on take-out dinner. Soon he learns that no matter how much he spends in a day, the money, all $100,000 of it, is magically replenished in his account the next morning.

Delighted with the unexpected good luck, Johnny and Dave, his best friend, take time off from work and head to Las Vegas to live the good life. Each night is more luxurious than the night before. The whole wine, women and song routine played up to the hilt. Soon Johnny becomes aware that somebody is watching and following them.

While in Vegas, they get mugged and the black card is stolen. When they get back to the hotel room through Dave’s persuasive charms, Johnny opens the safe to find a severed hand in it, with a note saying that it belonged to the guy who had taken Johnny’s wallet.

And then Johnny gets annoying messages saying it will all end tonight and everything will be the same as before. Even so, they head to Cancun, Mexico, wishing to enjoy themselves one last time before their luck turns. And it does. 

The bad guys catch up with the best buddies, and they discover just what kind of mess they have allowed themselves to get into.

In the first few chapters, you wonder why Wiley chose to make this a first person account. Johnny’s life isn’t at all interesting. He is a 25-year-old who looks more than a decade older. He comes across as a loser in more ways than one, and not just because he lives with his parents. His whole attitude reeks of laziness, of being happy with the status quo, spending time doing nothing but gaming and having a best friend, Dave, who is equally aimless in life. Also, early on, his much younger girlfriend, Ashley, breaks up with him.

In many ways, Johnny is annoyingly naïve. He is a guy who hasn’t changed his password since he first started using the Internet. His password to the room safe is 1234.

To make matters worse, Johnny is the kind of guy who isn’t too gung-ho about bathing, shaving or brushing his teeth. Fortunately, as long as he’s on paper, you don’t have to be offended by the stink.

And so, you find yourself becoming involved with his story.

There is something about the guy. His willingness to not take himself too seriously, perhaps. You find your attitude begin to thaw just a little bit. His self-deprecatory brand of humour also helps. Unwilling to face the question of his loneliness after Ashley breaks up with him and whether he should try to get her back, he decides to concentrate on killing zombies on Black Ops. The thought of playing or watching golf makes him want to paper cut his eyeballs.

The other character who holds prominence in the book is Dave, the kind of guy who has an answer to every problem. A charmer, he is at ease in any situation, able to talk with confidence or fake it with bravado.

Other than Dave, none of the other characters make a mark. Johnny’s mother plays a major role in his life, but not so much in the book; the father has no role beyond being Old Purple Face. And Mark, the guy who opens Johnny’s account, stands out slightly for the mysterious nature of his position vis-à-vis the bank.

The language isn’t the best of course, and the dialogues bits tend to get strained and monotonous at times. The conversation between Ashley and Johnny at the time of the breakup is an example.

There are some bits of sexual content which are in bad taste, and the conversation isn’t the most profound one can imagine. But I guess some guys talk like that. There is a lot of talk about body parts that should have been edited out.

In fact, tighter editing would have helped weed out some excessively done parts as well as some grammatical and spelling errors.

Strains of the book remind you of the film, The Hangover, mostly because of the Vegas setting.

While the book is good enough to read if you want something that doesn’t tax your mind, I think that Wiley should have put in a little more effort into building up the moral element of the story. Johnny’s sense of ethics is sufficiently strong enough for him to realize that he is doing something wrong, and that it will catch up with him eventually. And yet fuelled by that piece of black plastic, he and Dave drive themselves on, desperate to have a good time while they can.

I was also disappointed with the way the story ended. I found it too pat and dry.

Wild and fantastical as the premise was, I had been attracted to the fantasy of having so much that one could never be able to spend it all. I was curious to know how it was going to end.

A little more philosophical thinking about how the dream ended for Johnny would have been better, instead of what Wiley actually put down in the Epilogue.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Title: Elizabeth is Missing
Author: Emma Healey
Publisher: Harper
Pages: 320

I had been keen on reading Elizabeth is Missing ever since I’d read the Publisher’s Blurb on the back cover. With four very dear family members suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, this is one disease that has always terrified me, and I was keen to read a book which was brave enough to name a person suffering from the disease as the protagonist.

Elizabeth is missing is an idea that takes deep root in the mind of Maud, an aging grandmother. It is a fact that no one else seems concerned about. Not Helen, her daughter; not Carla, her caregiver, not even Peter, Elizabeth’s son, who can’t stand Maud’s snooping. Even the police dismiss her with faint ridicule.

Egged on by concern for her only living friend, Maud tries to make investigations. While the idea of Elizabeth’s disappearance is fixed yet vague in her mind, we learn of its roots in the disappearance of Sukey, Maud’s older sister, which she remembers in detail. Past and present get mixed up as the unfruitful quest to find Sukey converges on the fact that Elizabeth has disappeared and no one seems to care.

That older mystery was never solved, and so unconsciously Maud makes it her mission to find out about Elizabeth. To learn more, she puts an ad in the paper, digs outside Elizabeth’s house, even sneaks into her home, when Peter isn’t watching, in a determined effort to find out if he is keeping her prisoner.

Strangely, even though it is Elizabeth’s disappearance that occupies Maud’s thoughts in the present, it is the mystery of Sukey’s disappearance that her memories seem to unravel. Each incident in the present takes her inexorably towards the past. Because her memories are unreliable and her thoughts seem to slip from her grasp, one often finds oneself stranded, anxious to know how a story ended, yet powerless to get answers. Often too, the past blends into the present with such a ghostly effect, it frightens both Maud and us.

We get an understanding of the despondence in which Sukey’s disappearance plunges the family. Interspersed within the memories is the mention of Douglas, a lodger at their home, and a mad woman who attacked people with her umbrella.

It is with an effort that Maud tries to keep her quest for Elizabeth alive in her mind. Her handbag and her home are stuffed with bits of paper with various reminders to herself. Many of the chits say such things as "Elizabeth is missing," and "Don't buy peach slices." A hopeless attempt to halt the decline, to capture faint, fleeting bits of memory.

Author Emma Healey captures most effectively what a person affected with the disease might suffer from. At one point, when Carla, the caregiver, stares at Maud, the latter remarks that it feels as if she were back in school. But she can’t remember the story that was in her head a moment ago. She forgets people minutes into a conversation yet remembers her childhood vividly. Her memories about her late husband Patrick are equally unmarred.

Once she goes to the shop to buy eggs, milk and chocolate, but can’t remember what they look like.

Emma catches the fragile details beautifully, taking us through the slow decline that Maud goes through, often putting us inside the mind of a person suffering from Alzheimer’s. She has based the book on sound research and observation. If, like me, you have a close family member who is battling against the ravages effected by this disease, your heart will go out to Maud. This brave woman who, through the haze that threatens to overwhelm, clings to her friendship with unswerving loyalty.

Emma captures myriad emotions: the frustration experienced by caregivers, the amusement felt by those who are ignorant (the level of ignorance is such that even the doctor that Maud calls in thinks “it’s not something strictly medical.”), the rising feeling of helplessness on the part of the afflicted person, the loneliness of realising that your own mind won’t stand by you any longer.

Maud, the narrator, is at once unreliable on account of her fragile and fragmented memory, and reliable on account of her honesty and the ferocity with which she clings to whatever sense she can make of the world.

Written in the present tense, the writing invites us to savour it, to roll one’s tongue around the words as if they were something unfamiliar, as well they might be to Maud whose illness forces her to make sense of a world in which the familiar has assumed a cloak of strangeness.

The metaphors are a delight. Sample this: “And now the earth…has spat out a relic…where did it lie before it became the gristle in the earth’s meal?

Through the memories, one gets a glimpse of what the younger Maud was like, the one that Patrick loved, the one with a sense of humour. When her foot gets lodged in the wetness of a garden bed, she thinks, “Good thing I’m not planning anything criminal.

Despite the unreliable nature of the narrator’s memories, we become strongly acquainted with the other characters. One of the few things we know about Patrick is that he grinned every time he saw Maud, and that is enough for us to know him. Helen’s interactions with her mother also reveal much about her.

Maud’s memories conjure up war-time England, a time of rations, and women having to take up jobs to aid in the war effort, and the fact that families often fled, leaving their pets behind in their desperation.

Through the course of the novel, Maud’s condition deteriorates further, as she gradually fails to recognise her own daughter and granddaughter. It is a slow, protracted, often painful experience of life, when seen through the eyes of an Alzheimer’s patient. The mystery of the two disappearances gets resolved at the end, and one mystery is solved by Maud herself, but not before the thin line between her present and past are totally blurred.

This one is definitely going on my read-again list.

A book to be savoured.

(I received a Kindle version of this book from Edelweiss.)

Monday, August 11, 2014

Book Review: DON'T LOOK AWAY

Title: Don't Look Away
Author: Leslie A Kelly
Publisher: LK Books
Pages: 270

Don’t Look Away manages to combine science fiction with a murder mystery to give us a highly engaging thriller.

Set in a highly secure USA in the year, 2022, Leslie A Kelly’s book sees the country swaddled in a rash of security measures since the worst terror attack in human history decimated Washington DC and the White House in 2017. It is a time when all American citizens have to have a tiny chip implanted in their arm to capture their background details, medical and dental data, and criminal records. Like a digital dossier.

Veronica Sloan, a tough cop from the DCPD, is also one of only 500 cops and 5000 people to have the innovative Optical Evidence Programme (OEP) device implanted in her head, making her a willing participant in a radical experiment that will permit the visual memories in her mind to be downloaded and seen by others. In the event of an accident, felony or homicide, it would allow the evidence to be seen through the eyes of witnesses, perpetrators, even victims.

Veronica and her partner, Mark Daniels, are summoned to DC to investigate the murder of Leanne Carr, an employee of a company involved in the rebuilding of the White House, who was brutally tortured before her death. It turns out that Leanne too had undergone the optical implantation.

During the course of the investigation, Veronica is grievously injured by the killer. When she is pronounced unfit for duty, Jeremy Sykes, an FBI agent and an OEP implantee, is invited to carry on the investigation. On the face of it, neither Jeremy nor Veronica can stand each other. On the other hand, both also apparently secretly long to scratch each other’s eyes out, while also longing to jump into each other’s arms and into bed.

It seems that this might be the first OEPIS investigation until it turns out that the killer has made off with Leanne’s head, prompting the investigators to believe that the killer knew about the implantation, narrowing down the list of suspects. Soon, the decapitated head is found again.

The modus operandi is repeated a few days later when two other OEP implantees are found murdered and decapitated, their body parts displayed in an equally gruesome fashion.

Veronica, Mark and Jeremy must now race against time, to find the killer before he or she strikes again.

I found myself quite fascinated with the science fiction bits inherent within the story, especially the 3D projection of the visual memories captured by the OEP device. The viewing of these images really succeeds in accelerating the motion and urgency of the action in our mind’s eye.

Kelly has got the science fiction bits down superbly, down to the imaginary Google FaceSearch software, which, if Google obliges, could really cause all that unthinking uploading of selfies and other photos of ourselves on Facebook and elsewhere to come back and bite us where it hurts the most.

I must also commend Kelly for writing a crackling Prologue, one that grabs your attention instantly. It’s tough pulling off a prologue, something that all the action of the novel, or at least a significant part of it might lead to, and here the author pulls it off with commendable skill. Very often writers set out in the Prologue what does not seem to fit in any of the other chapters.

The reliving of the murder victims’ visual memories was a tricky one that Kelly has managed to pull off well. One, two and three-word sentences also heighten the effect and take us into the mind of the victim.

If there is anything that got tedious for me, it was the sexual tension with which the author tried to beat us every chance she got. The prolonged tug-of-war between Veronica and Jeremy was annoying and added nothing to the urgency of the story. The book would have been shorter and tighter without it.

To add to the tedium, it turns out that Mark has a thing for Veronica too, and he tries his best to be the third side of a love/lust triangle that never should have existed at all.

The repeated sexual references also take away from the story’s focus. Also the character of Veronica, hardnosed, with “balls in her pants”, yet sexy and beautiful, is too much of a cliché to be credible.

Another thing that took away from the character of Veronica was the reflections she was prone to, a thinking ‘aloud’ that we, poor readers, were often subjected to. The “Oh” and “Ha” running riot through her mind talk was childish and off-putting. At one point she even thought of the head of forensics as a “science geek”.

The book ends on the prospect of another delicious sequel, Don’t Ever Stop

I'd love to read another murder mystery involving the OEP device. But only if the love triangle is give a much-needed rest.

(I read a Kindle version of this book on NetGalley.)

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Book Review: THE SHROUD

Title: The Shroud
Author: David Moore III
Publisher: Self published
Pages: 392

I felt myself reeled into the plot of The Shroud right from the first page. There is something about mystery stories set in medieval times, particularly in monasteries, that I find quite appealing. They seem to be the perfect settings for mystery and suspense stories.

In The Shroud, David Moore III does full justice to the setting by giving us a story that intrigues us, from the first few pages of the opening chapter itself.

The story begins in 1046 AD in Italy when Brother David, a monk, makes a remarkable prophecy about an evil that will plague mankind in the future. Abbot Thomas, who is witness to the prophecy, records his testimony in a journal.

The Abbot’s journal is passed down the centuries as a brotherhood of monks pledges itself to rid the world of evil. Carlo is one such monk in the present day.

Centuries later, in the latter half of the 20th century, Roman Catholic priests Joseph, Anthony and Michael scrape a few blood shavings off the Shroud of Turin, a burial cloth revered for being the shroud of Jesus. They hire a German scientist, Gunther, who possesses specialised skills in cloning. The scientist succeeds in creating a clone, a little baby who is born with the DNA of Christ.

The priests hope that their attempts to hasten the Coming of Christ will usher in a new revolution of peace on earth. The hope is a fallacy, and the people involved with the exercise soon realise that they have erred greatly in taking matters in their own hands and trying to ‘create’ God.

As the cloned child, ironically named Christian, grows up, a series of suicides by people driven by him to take their own lives, wake the priests to the realisation that not only is Christian not God, he is, in fact, the anti-Christ, better known as Lucifer. These suicides, many by people who are rich and powerful, cause Christian’s stock to rise, and he becomes very powerful, a force to reckon with in the financial world.

And then Fathers Joseph and Anthony and nun Sister Mary Elizabeth are found murdered, their heads decapitated and placed on the altar, and their bodies hung upside down. Two sceptical cops from the New Orleans Police Department, detectives Danny and Stan, are called in to investigate the murders and find the killer. They interrogate Fr Michael in an attempt to make sense of the dastardly crimes.

But how can mere humans stop Lucifer? How can two cops who have lost their faith and a priest who has tried to play God make things right again?

The answer may lie in certain books that were not included in the Bible. A solution which might reveal the way to destroy the anti-Christ.

Hearkening back to the prophecy, Fr Michael learns that the shroud alone has the power to destroy Christian. When the shroud is stolen, it appears as if nothing can stop Lucifer, or the world from plunging into irrevocable disaster.

The book is certainly an edge-of-the-seat thriller and because it is based on a screenplay written by Joseph Patton Mashburn and Joseph Paul Ferina, the structure gives one the impression of actually watching a film. Moore beats time to the original in a remarkable way, with the added incentive of taking us into the minds of the characters, something film cannot do.

The scene with Fr Vincent in the archives at the Vatican is brilliant and causes your hair to stand on end. So strong is the air of menace that it exudes. The one-sided conversations between Christian and God in the nave of St Michael’s Church, the descriptions of Christian’s office on the 42nd floor and the events that take place there, as also the freak series of accidents wreaked by Christian in the park, are all very well executed. The confrontations with Christian are well written, and serve to create the image of a man who is ruthless yet suave, sophisticated and thoroughly malevolent and evil.

The book raises some questions worth pondering over. Living as we do in an age when cloning is more possible than ever before, what are the repercussions of trying to play God? It reminds us that our grandiose dreams might be capable of destroying all of humanity.

For a self published novel, this one is very good and barely shows the need for editing. The dialogues are particularly realistic and witty, especially those that are mouthed by Danny. The script also succeeds in bringing out the different personalities of the characters, particularly the arrogance of Christian. Even the receptionist working in Christian’s building has her own individual quirky style. Writing dialogue in a way that can help readers to identify the personality of each character is a tricky job, but Moore pulls it off well.

The only place he falters is when he begins to let us into the thoughts of characters. Setting them off in first person italics doesn’t quite achieve the purpose, making the whole effort look fake. They would have turned out better in third person indirect speech.

There are many times when a reading of the novel presupposes a basic knowledge of Christianity, but not knowing these facts would not take away from the thrill of reading this novel or the lesson it passes on.

And that lesson is that humans may boast of the technology, but that does not qualify them to play God.

I suggest you pick this one up.


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