Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Title: Dead Brilliant
Author: Christopher Ward
Publisher: Dundurn Press
Pages: 288

The premise for Dead Brilliant by Christopher Ward is in many ways dead brilliant, but it meanders on with too many characters and comes up with too many contrived coincidences, and ends up losing steam.

Roc Molotov is a rock star whose best album may find no takers, even as his greatest rocking days are behind him. Once the toast of the rock world, he finds that music alone is not enough any longer; the star making machinery of record companies now requires gimmicks to push record sales up.

With age catching up with him, the 38-year-old Roc finds his appeal slipping away. Every day, he finds himself sliding lower in the rock n’ roll food chain. His former band mates have split away and formed a band called the Cocktails, and Uncle Strange, his oldest friend and manager, has the temerity to suggest that he serve as the opening act on their maiden tour. To make matters worse, the Cocktails release an album a week before Roc can, and it hits Number 1 on the charts, riding on his reputation.

When the recording label shows scant interest in his record, Uncle Strange assets that desperate times call for desperate measures. He convinces Roc to agree to fake his death on MTV, adding that the move would give Roc much-needed publicity for his current album, besides the freedom to work on his music without any commercial interference. Uncle Strange would then release a whole body of music “posthumously”.

Since his love life with his on-off girlfriend Bobbie is going downhill and his estranged daughter, Emma, won’t acknowledge him, he agrees to the crazy scheme.

Soon it is a marketplace as his mom and Uncle Strange begin to cash in on his dead fame. Uncle Strange wants Roc to write a song to launch the career of his girlfriend, and Roc learns how difficult it is to stay dead when you’re not. Amid this crazy turn of events, Emma begins to grieve her father’s death.

Pretty soon, Roc allows his loneliness to get the better of his caution. And Uncle Strange, finding Roc unwilling to accept his suggestions or to act upon his bidding, begins to think it would be better if Roc were really dead, particularly when Emma, the heir, refuses to let him touch the profits.

Christopher Ward is Canada’s original MuchMusic VJ, the man who wrote Black Velvet, among other hits which have been recorded by such music legends as Diana Ross, and hit machines as The Backstreet Boys and many others. Ward brings to his novel a sarcastic eye born of years in the business and of knowing the music industry and its types inside out.

Reading the novel gives us an idea of all that goes on in the business to which he has devoted many years. This is fiction built on a foundation of a heavy dose of reality.

The book deliberately critiques the sort of people that, in the author’s words, let their hype buttons do the speaking for them, or, because they are in the music business, believe that they must copulate till their member falls off out of sheer exhaustion.

This is a business in which the fame and fortune run out eventually while the one-hit wonders find themselves on shows like “Where are they now?”

A business where the music is drowned out by the accompaniment of tours, groupies, the recording labels, stories of abuse etc.

Reading the description of the recording company, one gets an idea of how the music industry must have been, when music, not gimmickry, held centrestage.

The satire is unmistakable as when the author’s voice describes Uncle Strange’s hotel room as a mixture of “incense and pretence,” and the occupant’s carefully crafted identity.

The characters are well etched, particularly the two male leads. Uncle Strange is the consummate manager, pulling strings, placating egos, thinking up ruses to get the band going. He has the uncanny ability to sound sincere on demand.

Roc is the only character that does not stay true to type. For him, it is the music above all other considerations and he longs for a real relationship.

Unfortunately, the women in this story, Bobbie, the girlfriend; Tabatha, Roc’s ex-wife; Marie, the girlfriend of Uncle Strange; Julia, Marie’s best friend, all, except Emma, come across as flaky. Bobbie is better than the rest, but with her phone sex job, she doesn’t rise much higher than the others.

The cover is brilliant. It depicts both the outline of a coffin with the neck of the guitar that you notice when you stare hard, as also an icon of a face with the eyes closed and the tongue popping out.

The author succeeds in keeping the speech patterns true to the characters, and creates a world where friendships are fleeting but they could also last decades.

Ultimately, Dead Brilliant is a happy story, and tells you much about the nature of the music business. Not only is fame ephemeral but anyone can become famous and enjoy their 15 minutes, or less, of fame.

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Book Review: EDWINA

Title: Edwina
Author: Willow Rose
Publisher: Self-published
Pages: 190

Not for the faint of heart, was the impression I got from reading the blurb at the back of the book. Since I am very much faint of heart, it was with much trepidation that I began to read this book. What a disappointment it turned out to be! 

There was so much potential to scare the reader. As a device, the possessed child frightens people like few other elements can. But Willow Rose seemed to want to tell a larger story about the neighbourhood than the one the title gave us to understand.

Six-year-old Edwina has been in and out of the foster care system, owing to the unexplainable deaths that often occur in any home that takes her in. Unfazed, spinster Marie-Therese agrees to take her home. She already has two children in foster care, a 7-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl, Ida, who cooks and cleans the house.

Marie-Therese's neighbours are Thomas and Minna and their two kids, on one side, and unmarried couple Paul and Emma on the other. Thomas takes ill all of a sudden, convinced that Edwina has spooked him into ill-health. In the hospital, Minna comes to know of his affair with an office colleague. Their daughter falls down to her death from the treehouse that Thomas built, and the family disintegrates.

Meanwhile, Paul and Emma come to a difficult place in their relationship. Emma is afraid to admit to Paul that she is pregnant, even as he wonders if the child is his. Driving under the influence of alcohol, his car rams into Minna, as she is walking out of her marital home and her marriage, and kills her.

Marie-Therese calls a priest from a cult to exorcise the demons that have possessed Edwina. Midway through she changes her mind, and asks them to leave the house.

Soon, the weird happenings in the house escalate. Ida is cornered by huge rats, her flesh slowly eaten away by them, and the house burns down, killing Marie-Therese.

There were so many things that this book got wrong.

There were moments that were really scary, especially when the book talked about Edwina, and particularly from the viewpoint of Marie-Therese and Ida. But as the old cliché goes, the scary parts were few and far between.

For the most part, the book was all over the place. For a book called Edwina, there wasn’t so much about Edwina. So all the effect that Willow Rose achieved was undone. There were far too many chapters devoted to the neighbours. The extended chapter in which Paul wonders if the child that Emma is expecting is his was not required.

The neighbours should have had their drama in relation with Edwina. In a horror novel, it was unseemly on their part to go around having normal lives, with normal struggles, completely removed from the possessed girl in their neighbourhood.

Edwina is possessed by a demon. But we are also given to believe that her condition must be the result of some form of mutation that she underwent as a result of being conceived in Chernobyl, as also from the abuse and neglect she received at the hands of her mother.

At some point, the book shifted into fantasy mode; the girl being tormented by the big rats made sense in a horror story but the unicorn that rescues her made absolutely no sense to me. If there was some symbolism there, something rooted in Danish culture, it totally eluded me.

The Sisters of Pain back story to Emma’s life, the fact that Paul had been deserted by his mother while still a child, Thomas’ so-called affair with a one-time colleague, all of these had no place in a horror novel, unless they had also had an interaction with Edwina.

I also resented being made to like and sympathise with Ida, and then having to see her meet with such a horrific end. The Bering twins and their premonition of impending disaster failed to impress me.

As the titutar, eponymous heroine, Edwina was badly shortchanged, with everyone else trying, and being, central to the story.

For someone supposed to be possessed by a demon, there was no account of how Edwina acted while at school. Didn’t the green eyes exude any menace in the classroom? And clearly, Line Peterson, the social worker, is immune to any havoc that Edwina is capable of inflicting.

Marie-Therese’s sudden epiphany, wanting to become a good mother and look after and protect the three children she had taken under her foster care, seems too forced. Why does she get so inexplicably and fiercely protective of a girl she believed was, only a short while ago, possessed by an evil spirit?

The only part that had potential was the subplot of the shadow of her mother’s fundamental religiosity under which Marie-Therese had belaboured all her life, and how she finds herself turning into her mother, but that element was not pursued.

There should have been some amount of closure, even if the book was meant to be a part of a series. The conclusion was no conclusion at all; I do not appreciate being made to read an incomplete book, under the guise of it being a part of a series. By all means, spin off into newer books, but let each one have a beginning, a middle and an end.

This one just didn’t work for me.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Book Review: 3 A.M.

Title: 3 a.m.
Author: Nick Pirog
Publisher: Alex Tooms Inc
Pages: 100

It was the premise that attracted me.

Henry Bins suffers from Henry Bins, a condition so rare, it has been named after him.

While the average person is awake for 16 hours each day, Henry is awake only for one hour every day, from 3 am to 4 am. The rest of the time, he can’t help sleeping a deep sleep from which no one can rouse him. There is no cure for the condition.

His body automatically jolts to wakefulness when it is 3 am. At the stroke of 4 am, he falls asleep, slumping down wherever he may find himself, often hitting his head on whatever object he falls upon.

While his mother abandoned him when he was still a child, his father has stood by him, a rock solid support. He has taught him Maths, Science and spelling, and made him as educated and knowledgeable as any other above average person among us.

At the beginning, he has a schedule for his lone wakeful hour. It consists of watching Game of Thrones on the Internet for 10 minutes, eating breakfast, which his house help has made for him, running some miles for exercise, messaging or talking to his dad, and showering. That schedule alters drastically when he hears a woman's scream, coming from the house on the other side of the street, and sees the face of the President of the United States, stepping out of her house – all this just as the clock strikes the hour of 4 am.

That is when the pace of the book steps up. On waking up, Henry is determined to find out if the woman is dead or alive, and if the President has been guilty of murder.

It’s an unlikely story, but Nick Pirog imbues it with passion, realism and a sense of urgency. He makes the investigation seem believable, filling it with intensity and a sense of haste that I have seen in the TV series, 24, with the additional challenge here of having to scrunch up all that excitement within the confines of one hour each day.

Like Henry, we find ourselves wondering about how much he has to accomplish in so little time. Nick, and Henry, never lets us lose sight of the time in the one hour and the criticality of each minute. Accounting for the time, minute by minute, you find yourself wondering if Henry will reach the safety of his bed, or if he will drop down even as he is being chased by the goons.

The story of his life, and that of the investigation, is played out in short one-hour nocturnal bursts. For the rest of the time, the world comes to a standstill, since our first person narrator is asleep. He does fill us in though, thanks to information streaming in through the Internet.

The character of Henry’s father comes across as very likeable. The guy genuinely loves his son, and is patient with the demands that his strange condition imposes on him.

Henry’s own conversational exchanges with Lassie, the dead woman’s cat who not only adopts Henry but also wholeheartedly embraces his condition, are also very amusing. 

I also liked the cover of the book, with its use of an innovative typeface for the name of the author. It lacks accuracy, though, since Henry solves the mystery over the course of many hours, spread over many days, and not in 3600 seconds, as the cover would have us believe.

The book succeeded in highlighting the importance of time through the premise of the strange,and completely fictional, 23-hour-sleep disorder. We have more time at our disposal, but what do we do with it? It wouldn't hurt to be more aware and mindful of how we spend every wakeful minute of our lives, and not pretend as though we will always have a never-ending supply of time to fritter away in mindless pursuits.

Of course, the plot is not without holes, as the premise does not account for what might happen if Henry were to fall sick. And while Henry understands that Lassie has to do his business, he himself does not seem to have any pressing business of his own to attend to, in the crucial one hour. 

No peeing happens either, in all the time we know him. And even though he's studied only in the one hour available to him, he's still super smart. I also found it strange that the police would be actively investigating murders at 3 am, day after day, when they don't suffer from Henry Bins syndrome at all. Also, the romantic element playing out between 3 am and 4 am at the close of the book is stupid and annoying.

But that is just a minor quibble. 3 am is extremely racy, and you won’t find yourself cribbing if Henry Bins keeps you awake long past your bedtime.

Product Review: Garnier BB Cream

I’m not the kind that usually signs up to review this kind of a product. I’m not much of a cosmetics user. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in a year that I wear lipstick, and while I might buy creams and face washes (for some inexplicable reason, I have a strange fascination for both these products), I rarely use them completely. More often than not, their Best Before date is up before I have used them to the fullest.

Makeup is an equally challenging beast. Supermodel Tyra Banks once said, “I like the confidence that makeup gives me.” Personally, I’ve never felt the need to squeeze confidence out of a bottle. And it’s not as if, you know, Maybe I’m born with it.

To this day, I am clueless about how makeup is used, and what should be done to highlight one’s cheekbones. In fact, I didn’t even wear makeup to my own wedding.

I find it more than a little disconcerting when a woman’s looks become the yardstick by which she is measured. Just how beautiful does a woman have to be before she begins to see herself as beautiful?

And so when Indiblogger offered the opportunity to review this product, I jumped at it. Maybe I wanted to know what BB actually stood for. The ads had staunchly refused to tell. The packaging continued the element of secrecy. Eventually, I had to Google the answer.

Then again, maybe I was lured by the desire to get perfect skin.

I’m human, like that.

I decided, why not squeeze out every drop of the almond-coloured cream, and see if it was good to the last drop. If it worked, this Diwali, the family might not need to put hard-earned cash down on Chinese lights that barely outlast the season.

The proof of the pudding would emerge if somebody pointed out that I was glowing. I just hoped they wouldn’t ask me if it was Luoov or Duoov.

It was the ease of use that appealed to me. Wash your face with a facewash, it said, then dab some BB cream. Light and circular strokes. Easy peasy.

I tried it, and it did feel good, and smelled nice too.

The BB cream is certainly going to need every ounce of its willpower to keep me feeling this good. Not an easy job, given the extent of pollution in this city; besides, it is Diwali pataka time, and October.

I won’t turn into a Garnier BB Cream bhakt overnight. Old habits die hard, and Best Before (another kind of BB) dates might sneak up on me, before the BB cream achieves its full effect.

Even so, this product has my aye-aye for its no-fuss stance.

“Fill it, shut it and forget it,” said a two-wheeler ad, decades ago.

Garnier BB Cream offers exactly that promise to your skin.

Friday, October 03, 2014


Title: Never Mind the Bullocks: One Girl's 10,000 km Adventure Around India in the World's Cheapest Car
Author: Vanessa Able
Publisher: Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Pages: 288

Never mind the Bullocks is the intrepid story of the 10,000-km journey that British freelance travel writer Vanessa Able undertook across 12 states of India in a Tata Nano. 

Starting from Mumbai, she goes through Nagaon, Pune and Kolhapur in Maharashtra; Arambol in Goa; Hampi, Bangalore and Mysore in Karnataka; Fort Kochi in Kerala; Kanyakumari, Tiruchirapalli, Pondicherry and Chennai in Tamil Nadu; Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh; Bhubaneswar and Konark in Orissa; Bodh Gaya in Bihar; Nainital in Uttarakhand; McLeod Ganj in Himachal Pradesh; New Delhi; Omkareshwar in Madhya Pradesh, and back to Mumbai.

Vanessa shows herself fully capable of navigating Indian terrain and understanding Indian sensibilities, despite her position as a single woman.

About to turn 33, what she describes as her “Jesus year,” the year when He took up active ministry and was put to death, she translates it to her own life as the year when she must make decisions and change things. And so, this self-described ‘leaf that floated in the breeze’ and didn’t believe in a steady 9-5 job, decides to buy a Tata Nano, and drive across India in all her splendid and squalid glory.

Having made up her mind to circumnavigate India in a Nano, she enlists the help of the friend of a friend to buy it. When one isn’t available for outright purchase, she authorises the buying of a secondhand Rs2,40,000 Nano with air-conditioning and electric windows.

Still in England, she receives photos of her Nano from the friend and is suddenly hit with the realization of how unroadworthy it looks. It is too late to back out, and so she opens a blog, the Nano diaries.

When she begins her journey, she is hesitant, unsure of herself, and rightly so. After all, she is attempting this journey with no GPS, no navigator by her side, bits of road that may or may not be marked, where drivers play by their own rules, armed with nothing but a map of India, an old edition of Lonely Planet India and a book called Beginner’s Hindi.

This was not Vanessa’s first cross-country driving experience. She had driven across New Zealand, Serbia, Turkey, the American deserts, Mexico City, France, Italy and Greece. And yet, none of her previous experience had prepared her for what she would encounter on the streets of the riot of sound, colour and sensation that is India.

The book is not always complimentary to India. Vanessa describes things as she sees them, as they appear to her. Seen from the veil of Western perception, India does appear to be a land of outrageous chaos, a land which follows its own rules. And yet, we must be slow to take offence as each perception is entitled to its own opinion.

But there is no negativity here. She genuinely allows herself to soak in the sights and smells of the country in her attempt to feel at home during the three months that the 10,000-km journey would inevitably take.

Along the way, she gives us the history of how the Nano came to be, the promise made by Ratan Tata, the then Chairman of Tata Motors and the Tata group. As if to strengthen the premise, she repeatedly encounters families of four, riding precariously on motorbikes, and gleans the truth of Mr Tata’s desire to build an affordable car.

The narrative brings a smile to the face. The lady does have a felicity for the language. Sometimes though the writing becomes LOL-worthy, particularly when she elaborates on the Delhi Traffic Police’s website instructions to “divide the road mentally into appropriate lanes,” when they are not marked.

Other hilarious descriptions talk about the madness displaying sessions at the Osho resort, and of her getting lost in the hinterland of Maharashtra. Seen from eyes for whom the spectacle of India is novel, it is rather funny. And Vanessa’s observations are forthright, precise and sharp.

She offers deep insights, from a Westerner’s perspective, into the land that is the canvas for her journey that is at once harebrained as it is spiritual. Her experiences include intestinal upheavals, suicidal overtaking of lumbering Tata trucks on narrow roads and a deflated tyre on a dark night in Delhi. The beginning of a romance with Thor, a French-American, who accompanies her through two states and who she marries later, is marked by severe incidence of Delhi Belly. She is also attacked by a herd of elephants, is shaken by a highway ending abruptly into a sheer drop down a cliff and is horrified to see a bunch of half-naked mendicants at her window, shortly before midnight, on an ill-lit road.

As a reader, you warm to her as she discovers truths. Whether you are a Porsche or a rickshaw, you have to struggle for space, she says. In a country whose road network seems bereft of rules, she makes up her own, ranging from ‘There are no rules,’ to ‘Horn OK please,’ ‘Stay Safe’ etc. There are also rules that are thrust on her: Don’t try anything cute in Naxalite country.

Vanessa frequently takes detours, stopping by with friends or sightseeing. She even signs up at Super Driving School at Pondicherry to learn “Indian” driving.

Those looking for descriptions of India’s must-visit destinations will be disappointed. Vanessa’s descriptions are limited to her experiences. She rarely lets you armchair travel through the places she drives through.

All manner of roads play out as her stage, from crowded alleys, to mountainous climbs and sharp highways with well maintained tarmac. Through it all, she, a non-Indian woman coping with Indian realities, keeps her grip on the steering wheel and her eyes on the road, as she meets the challenge of bullocks and trucks driven by alcohol- and possibly crack-stuffed drivers and fears of Nanos spontaneously combusting against the backdrop of a heat wave. 

Her trusted Nano, anthropologically named Abhilasha, Sanskrit for aspiration, proves to be a valuable contender in taking on the challenge of the great Indian outdoors, as it juggles its celebrity status with the challenge of the road ahead.

Only somebody crazy would sign up for this act of daring foolishness, I had thought when I started to read.

By the close of the book, even I began to feel weary and fatigued as though I had been her co-passenger, mostly silent, except when a turn of phrase or a piece of narration got me laughing uncontrollably.

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


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