Well, I know I was out of commission for a while but when you pursue a full-time working life on weekdays and use weekends for socialising like me, time just flies. I did make time for reading a few books though and as I have a glorious long weekend ahead (thank goodness for Labour Day in Vic), I can actually be not too tired to write. So I did manage to read the tome that is Shantaram despite my time poorness.
In 1978, the author of Shantaram was sentenced to nineteen years in prison after he was convicted of a string of armed robberies. In July 1980, he escaped from Pentridge Prison miraculously in daylight, becoming one of Australia’s most wanted men for several years. Written by Australian Gregory David Roberts who did actually live in the slums of Bombay, Shantaram is a unique novel that blurs the boundaries of fiction and autobiography.
The real story begins after our protagonist arrives in Mumbai with a false passport under the alias Lindsay Ford. The city impresses Lindsay and his stopover soon turns into an extended and dangerous stay on borrowed time. His chance meeting with an enigmatic taxi driver, Prabaker, who has an infectious smile, whom Lindsay hires as his guide to India shapes the rest of the narrative. They soon become fast friends and Prabaker takes to calling him Lin. Lin is taken to the village of Sunder, where the family of Prabaker resides. Prabaker’s mother decides that Lin’s character is of a happy and peaceful nature and renames him Shantaram (Man of God’s Peace).
So now the story of where the title comes from is over, the pace of the plot increases after Lin gets drunk, is robbed and decides to live in the Mumbai slums and thanks to a first aid kit and a fire ends up as the “slum doctor”. This experience makes him almost local and his fluent mastery of Hindi as well as Marathi, a popular language in Mumbai, opens up new avenues of earning money to him. He also interacts with other foreigners living in Mumbai, involved in all sorts of criminal circles, and then ends up involved in some shady situations, including a stint in theArthur Roadprison. The two foreigners that play a crucial role in Lin’s life is Karla, a Swiss-American woman and Afghan mafia lord Abdel Khader Khan. The former introduces him to true love and the latter inspires him to abandon his path of crime and return to living an honest life.
It’s funny but Lin is a villain that you want to see succeed. The writing in Shantaram is sometimes a bit too cliché and full of sentimentality, possibly to display the tender heart of the guy who looks tough, so if the plot is what interests you and not how the prose is written, I recommend you give it a go.
Kyle McAvoy is a promising young law student about to graduate from Yale. Editor-in-chief of the law journal, he hopes to perform some public interest law before caving into the lure of money promised in the high-pressure environment of tedious corporate law. This hope crumbles when he begins to be blackmailed by some high-class operatives with a video of his frat boy days, which pinpoints him as a possible accessory to a rape crime that could negatively affect his future employment prospects. What is even worse is that the video includes three of his friends from his frat boy days at Duquesne University prior to attending Yale. He is astonished when demanded he pass on information about some confidential case files between two big warring clients in the military aircraft industry by spying on the firm that he’s expecting to be employed at in the future and about how much information they already possess that should not have been known at all. Foolishly he decides to go along with the plan without consulting his lawyer father, a distinguished public interest law advocate who could have advised him about the right path to take and resolved his problem immediately.
This double agent ploy, which he is forced to play along with, quickly becomes complicated as he is asked to be involved in the case he specifically requested to avoid. He has to live an isolated lifestyle although a romance starts to bloom with a former mathematician, who is both a colleague and an associate. He realises that his home has been bugged with secret surveillance devices in advance, that he is regularly tailed and has to keep alert at all times to pull one up over his expert blackmailers. Luckily he keeps composites of those who shadow him and before he is about to violate any law ethics, he engages a lawyer for himself who entrusts the FBI to look into the issue. He also confesses the secret he has been hiding to his dad after one of his friends, who finally went clean after being a severe drug addict, also involved in the tape meets a grisly end. His father works out a solution for the tape problem while he has to deal with the consequences of being duped by the blackmailers into doing their dirty work and this time play double agent for the FBI.
The ending though is unexpected and feels unresolved. Perhaps it is to leave room for a sequel but it seems unlikely. We have been fed hints as to who the culprit behind the issue is but we finish reading with no solid conclusion except for a guess. All I can say is if you liked The Firm by this author, The Associate is recommended reading as it is another similar legal thriller.
I’ve finished the Larsson trilogy. It was a very good reading experience as I expected. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a bit lacklustre with all its financial stuff at the beginning but my endurance for sticking it out rewarded me later on. It is compelling material that keeps you turning pages for hours. I finished Book 1 in two days because I couldn’t wait. Then I actually read the The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest because I couldn’t obtain the second instalment. I finished that in 3 days because how it started caused me some confusion at first until I realised the problem. Then in 2 days, I read The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second book but it was the third one in my reading pattern. If you are wondering, I don’t sleep more than 5 hours each night and I’m a super quick reader with a highly retentive memory; I’m the sort of person who can memorise textbook answers. By then, I knew a lot of the plot because I read the sequel beforehand. Don’t worry though, I’ll review them in order for you.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
So in Sweden, we meet a do-gooder financial journalist, Mikael Blomkvist of Millenium Magazine, who finds himself in strife after going to court against Hans Wennerstrom without sufficient evidence to refute the allegations of corruption he published. It dos not help either that his relationship with married Erika Berger, wife of bisexually inclined Greger and publisher and editor of Millenium, is public knowledge and subject to malicious gossip. Defeated and embarassed with the verdict, he accepts a special project in a small village town by pretending to write a memoir of the Vanger family while he undertakes an investigation for a long-lost niece called Harriet Vanger. The old man who commissions the search is searching for an answer to the mystery of having rare flowers sent to him. He suspects it is the murderer of Harriet tormenting him. When Michael investigates, he stumbles on family secrets.
He goes to Milton Security to ask for a research assistant and because of her computer related capabilities, Lisbeth, the perceived social misfit who is distrustful of all authority figures apart from her boss Dragan Armansky, is assigned to help. Lisbeth inadvertently reveals her hacking abilities and the fact she has a photographic memory but is confused about her feelings for him because she has always been subject to injustices by most men. He realises that Lisbeth is not an ordinary person but respects her needs not knowing she has been judged incompetent and is under the guardianship of Nils Bjurman, a man who takes advantage of her. Mikael, who’s nicknamed Kalle Blomkvist by author Astrid Lindgren, writer of the Pippi Longstocking books, finds himself trapped by the murderer.
Lisbeth comes to his rescue in the nick of time as she works out the truth but refuses to be involved with the police. Meanwhile Mikael realises the old man lied to him after he brings him a surprise visitor and is forced to compromise his integrity in order to acquiesce with an ardent wish to conceal the truth. But in a way, in the end we realise that Lisbeth makes sure Hans Wennerstrom receives his just deserts.
The Girl Who Played With Fire
We meet Lisbeth Salander again in The Girl Who Played with Fire, more than a million dollars richer after the suicide of financier Hans Wennerstrom. Mikael Blomkvist at Millenium leaked the truth about him on television again but with more success than the first time. This time her guardian Nils Bjurman, who still has not rescinded her incompetency declaration, decides he needs to hire some thugs to finish her off so he can remove the amateur tattoo which labels him as a pig, sadist and rapist on his stomach without fear of exposure of the rape video. It leads him to a man who absolutely hates her after she threw a Molotov cocktail at him – Lisbeth was angered about the domestic violence inflicted on her long suffering and compliant mother – her political refugee father from G.R.U. (a secret Russian military police unit): Alexander Zalachenko. He has criminal links with the illegal minor sex trade industry which she finds out through her computer hacking abilities coincidentally also the subject of an investigation at Millenium.
Lisbeth purchases an apartment but does not change her address and offers her old place rent free to her girlfriend Mimi. This inadvertently brings Mimi unwanted publicity after it is discovered her friend Lisbeth was present at the murder scene of the journalists working on the sex trade article for Millenium and her fingerprints were on a used weapon. It does not help that the attitude of some of the police force is hostile to Lisbeth before they’ve made any assessment of her themselves – they just go on the word of inaccurate reports by the psychiatrist Dr. Peter Teleborian. In this book, the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ rule does not seem to apply at all. I’m unsure if this is standard police procedure in Sweden. Lisbeth is almost attacked by a giant blonde man by the name of Lundin, who is in league with a biker gang called Svavelsjö M.C., but miraculously escapes. This is witnessed by Mikael Blomkvist, fortunately for her but neither of them report it as she does not trust authority figures and he respects her need for privacy. Meanwhile Erika Berger struggles with her feelings as she’s been offered a post as chief of Svenska Morgon Posten, Sweden’s large daily newspaper but she does not want to leave Millenium hanging because Mikael is too focused on the murder to care about the other details of the production cycle.
When a famous boxer Lisbeth used to box with sees the posters advertising she’s wanted for murder, he goes to Millenium to defend her and explains the origin of her wasp tattoo. Dragan Armansky at Milton Security also sends two of his staff to assist the police to secretly gain information without the knowledge one of them had a strong prejudice against her who releases the details of a confidential police interview to a scum journalist. Because of the address she resides in, Mimi is abducted by tank-built Lundin who has congenital analgesia. This is seen by the boxer who follows the giant kidnapper. After a boxing bout in an abandoned warehouse when the good guy was almost about to lose, some welcome help from kickboxing fanatic Mimi manages to help them to disorient Lundin in order for them to escape to the refuge of the night’s cover of darkness. Mikael is tipped off that Lisbeth is going in search of her father who has been given a name not in the public records by the Swedish secret police, S.A.P.O., after discovering her secret apartment. He decides to follow her trail which turns out to be a good decision as when he finds her she’s in danger of dying from a brain injury inflicted from a bullet shot from a .45 Colt. It ends rather abruptly so this was my least favourite book of the trilogy.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (the film adaptation of which hit cinemas back in February 2011) is basically how Stieg Larsson ties up the loose ends of his trilogy. This is essentially the sequel to The Girl Who Played with Fire rather than a novel able to stand up on its own merits. The readers are mostly treated to a picture of a bedridden Lisbeth who ends up in the same hospital as her cruel, Russian ex-spy father who unsuccessfully attempted to murder her when she tried to kill him while Mikael only starts to put the truth together about what happened during the shooting that led to Lisbeth being branded a killer. Besides this, government officials in Sapö decide certain people need to be hired to dispose of other people who are thorns in their sides and Larsson uses this to criticise the police, the courts and the public service sector because of the injustice they display to Lisbeth due to her outward, nonconformist appearance. Meanwhile Erika Berger who is being stalked realises Svenska Morgen Posten is not her kind of environment as she realises her boss is keeping big secrets through Millenium.
In addition to this, Mikael is battling to get Lisbeth free from scrutiny by government institutions that have only treated her with hostility. Bublanski and Sonja Modig still work on her case because both believe Salander is innocent. Blomkvist and Armansky are also working together to prove her innocence. Faste, Solicitor Ekstrom, Teleborian (names you will have come across in The Girl Who Played with Fire) all work for the security police to put her behind bars. The Salander case draws the attention of Superintendent Torsten Edklinth from the Constitutional Protection unit who has to report to the Minister of Justice and the Prime Minister about his findings. In the process, he becomes fast friends with Blomkvist, which puts the ball in Lisbeth’s court. You could see this is a very feminist book although a male author wrote it. The fact that Salander uses her abilities as a hacker to gain her revenge on the guardian who raped her and gain justice is the stuff of revenge fantasy. This is all played out in a court drama, which ends positively for Lisbeth Salander. She is also finally able to get even with Lundin. Meanwhile she also gets over her romantic feelings for Mikael and sees him for who he is – a friend.
Given I’ve been a long-term fan of thrilling and entertaining crime fiction, the trilogy by Stieg Larsson was up my alley. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the best of the series as is often the case with the first of titles with sequels. The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, is in my opinion, one book split into halves. From the narrative pace of the titles, you can realise this as the first has its own plot while the second and third books begin to explore inner workings of the characters and their history. But I recommend reading of the series if you are not too squeamish.
The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez was actually an interesting book despite its tendency to go into explanations of mathematical theory using formulae that was gibberish to me. For a book that talked heaps about math, it was enjoyable. I may have worked in the past as a supermarket cashier but this algebraic equations stuff was forgotten quickly after high school. We are introduced to a young protagonist, a Spanish scholarship student who is undertaking a mathematics PhD in London. He’s lodging with an old woman, a war veteran widow, who is suffering from cancer and her pretty carer, the violinist Emily. He has barely settled in when the old woman is murdered.
He arrives at the murder scene at the same time as another famous mathematician residing in London. The two come to the conclusion the work is characteristic of a serial killer who is trying to commit “imperceptible murders” and advances this theory to the police. They too try to predict the pattern of the murders on their own by studying mathematic patterns and reading up on psychological profiles. In the middle of this is the story about Fermat’s Theorem being solved by Andrew Wiles (who actually spent 25 years on it by the way). What is funny is that I finished reading The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson recently and it also tells us the story of Fermat’s Theorem as an anecdote. This French mathematician is a popular fellow in the literary world.
To get back to the crux of it, there are three more murders but the fourth doesn’t fit the pattern. It turns out there is a connection at the hospital where his girlfriend works to a father, who’s a bus driver, waiting for his kid to receive a kidney transplant. He has been mentally affected by the necessity of Christians to have a full body for burial to preserve their souls. When our main character realises how far a parent would go for their child, he realises the truth about who the real murderer is and manages to figure out who “committed” the ensuing murders. If you are interested, there is also a movie based on the book starring Elijah Wood. I thought it was funny I read this book at the time of this Google Doodle.
When I first got into mysteries and tales of murder and intrigue, it was through copious volumes of Nancy Drew tales – by the way do you know Carolyn Keene is not one writer but a bevy of them? I must admit Enid Blyton had a hand in it too what with her Five Find Outers and Famous Five adventure stories. The most recent crime story related book I read was called Murder in Vegas: New Crime Tales of Gambling and Desperation. It is a collection of crime short stories about Las Vegas edited by Michael Connelly.
For me, three of the stories particularly stood out: Nickels and Dimes by Ronnie Klaskin, A Temporary Crown by Sue Pike and Iggy’s Stuff by J. Madison Davis.
Nickels and Dimes is a short story about a stop in Las Vegas made by two parents on holiday with two young children. Once is a bookish sister who tends to have allergies and the other is bit of a tomboy. The father is told by the mother to only use nickels and dimes if he gambles. But he disregards her advice and makes a tidy sum, which he conceals from revealing to her because he used dollars. Then when his young daughter, the tomboy, wants to make her pocket money higher, he places the bets for her and doubles her pocket money. Coming up with a cunning plan, the girl says she wants to nap and she is sent to her room to sleep. But while her parents and sister are in the other room, she sneaks away to take her chances with the slots. When her parents return, they can’t find her in the room or in the hotel and get even more worried when they hear girls have been kidnapped for ransom there. When they report her missing and the older sister sneezes after receiving a hanky from a lifeguard, she discovers the culprit because of a trick her sister used to play on her using sprigs of lavender.
A Temporary Crown is about a lady who is obsessed about a celebrity and thinks that he is her boyfriend. Somehow she accidentally escapes her confines and meets with a strange woman. This woman who had a temporary crown discards it but fails to notice that a fake pink fingernail also gets dislodged. The celebrity obsessed woman picks up the crown with the fingernail stuck to it and puts it in her pocket because she likes to collect treasures. The woman with the crown then takes this woman who thinks the celebrity is her boyfriend to an apartment and gives her the hotel key. When she goes into the hotel room, the crazy woman sees a murder scene but in her mental incomprehension leaves the temporary crown enmeshed with the fingernail of the true murderer as a tribute.
Iggy’s Stuff is about a stoned pool boy who stumbles upon a murder scene and unwittingly gets involved because of a traffic mishap. He thinks when he gets involved that he is rescuing a woman from a would-be brutal and sadistic rapist but in reality what he is treated to is a staged scene. So when the actors who are responsible for the staging find out the pool boy is a liability because of his accidental heroics, they want to dispose of him but things don’t go quite as they planned.