A Prisoner of Birth

10/26/2011 at 1:19 AM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

A Prisoner of Birth by Jeffrey Archer is a modern twist on The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas played out in a courtroom battle. An innocent but illiterate man of uncouth appearance from London’s east end, Danny Cartwright, finds himself framed for a crime he did not commit by a group of rich and influential Cambridge educated gentlemen consisting of the soap television actor Lawrence Davenport, the youngest partner of a rising property development company Gerald Payne, Toby Mortimer and the cunning up-and-coming barrister Spencer Craig. His fiancée who was witness to the crime of her brother being assaulted is not even believed when she provides her testimony in court as Danny’s barrister, Alex Redmayne, is very young and inexperienced and his formidable opponent, who alleges Danny is the murderer as his fingerprints were on the murder weapon, is the well-respected barrister who is line to be made Queen’s Counsel. He has little chance of being believed as the group against him outshines him in credibility.

A Prisoner of Birth Book Cover

Danny Cartwright is the victim of choosing the wrong place and the wrong time to propose to his pregnant girlfriend Beth. When he is unjustly sentenced for the murder of his girlfriend’s brother and his best friend Bernie, he is placed in an opportune cell which enables him to make new friends who aid him to clear his name once they realise he truly is telling the truth when he says he is innocent. Making good use of his jail time to cultivate his appearance and make himself literate and knowledgeable of society etiquette through aristocratic cellmate Sir Nicholas Moncrieffe, when sheer circumstance offers him means to take revenge, having a friend in the warden Jenkins and in Albert Crann, the hospital orderly, assists him to find a solution to escaping Belmarsh, a prison from where no inmate has ever escaped. Not content with his escape and living under an assumed name, he plots a grandiose scheme to bring about the downfall of those who caused his initial misfortune. As he schemes his revenge plans, several people who become his friends after his escape unwittingly help him to outsmart and turn the tables on his foes.

Written by an author who writes convincingly of English trial system and prison life, the dramatic use of plot twists and the character transformation of the protagonist made the book compelling reading. Despite it just retelling the original Dumas tale set in the modern world with the repentance side of it kept under wraps, it still keeps you turning the pages.

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The Associate

10/19/2011 at 12:50 AM (Books, Crime, Thriller) (, , , , )

While I enjoy reading classic literature, I’m not averse to thrilling page-turners either. So here is a review of John Grisham’s The Associate, which was adapted into a movie as well.

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.

The Associate Book Cover

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.

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The Mayor of Casterbridge (Film)

10/13/2011 at 2:24 PM (BBC Drama, Books, Classics, Historical, Mystery, Romance, TV) (, , , , , , , , )

I first fell in love with Thomas Hardy novels after reading The Woodlanders. If you are familiar with tales by Hardy, you’ll know this guy probably would have been the master of soap opera storylines if television had been invented in his days but it really is his descriptions that you can’t go beyond due to his skill with evocative prose. Recently I watched The Mayor of Casterbridge, based on his novel of that name, adapted for the silver screen by David Thacker, starring Ciaran Hinds as Michael Henchard, who delivers a stellar, heartbreaking performance in the pivotal last scenes. The captivating and beautiful score set against the lush country backdrop does not hurt. By the way, Casterbridge is a fictional town representing Dorchester. Do note though it is a long production with a running time of almost over three hours so only start watching when you have enough time to spare.

It all begins in a small town where a young hay-trusser named Michael Henchard sells his wife and infant daughter for five guineas, in a bid that begins as a joke but turns serious, after having too much to drink. When he sobers up and realises his folly, he makes an oath not to touch alcohol 21 years, the number of years he has lived, and builds a good life for himself.

Nineteen years later he is a successful agrarian and the mayor of Casterbridge – a town not far from the fair where he sold his family. When his wife Susan (Juliet Aubrey) returns with his daughter Elizabeth-Jane (Jodhi May) because her other “husband” Newson was lost at sea, Henchard is tormented because while he has a chance to atone for his wrongdoing, he is paranoid that his past transgressions will be discovered by the townspeople. His deep-seated need to protect his reputation from past improprieties soon leads to a complex web of deceit and lies involving Henchard, his “mistress” Lucetta (Polly Walker) and his wife. Poor Elizabeth-Jane is an innocent but cannot help being caught in the middle of the ensuing drama.

Meanwhile on the same day his family returns, Henchard meets a Scotsman, Donald Farfrae (James Purefoy), who has developed a technique to restore bad grain.  The mayor persuades Farfrae to become his manager and confesses his secret to the young man. Luckily for him, although his secret is ousted later in court when he is judging a case, Farfrae is an honourable, just and trustworthy man unlike the mayor. So the mayor turns bitter and jealous when his new manager consistently outdoes him.

Like most other works by Hardy, the plot is full of secret revelations, hidden romantic entanglements, family feuds, complicated tangles of lies and business rivalries. What makes this story so interesting is that Henchard, his wife, and his mistress are not bad people but each makes terrible choices of which the aftermath is horrible. There are many themes in this story but the recurring theme is deception. In the end the people who hurt the most are the ones who give rise to it. Henchard’s behavior makes him difficult persona to admire mostly because of his hostility to Elizabeth-Jane after Susan’s letter provided the truth but because in sudden bursts he will do the right thing or tries to enables the audience to feel empathy for him especially when we hear his final will and testament.

I think that was the last straw for me because I felt stinging in my tear ducts and let out the waterworks. If you can stand tragic melodrama, enjoy classics and are able to endure the screen time, you’ll love this production if you can forgive the farfetched plot.

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Bee Season

10/09/2011 at 9:47 AM (Books, Educational, Religion, Spiritual) (, , , , )

Bee Season by Myla Goldberg is the story of a Jewish family in Pennsylvania.  We are introduced to fifth grader Eliza Naumann, the “ordinary” member of a gifted family. She surprises them all by winning the class spelling bee, followed by the district spelling bee and then makes her way into the final rounds of the national spelling bee.

Eliza’s new skill distracts her father Saul from the guitar and study sessions he used to have with her older brother Aaron who has aspirations to become a rabbi because he chooses to study for the spelling bee with Eliza instead. Feeling disillusioned with Judaism, Aaron experiments with several religions before deciding to join the Hare Krishna group, as he feels abandoned by his father. Meanwhile her mother Miriam progresses further into a psychosis that has been building up in her since a certain concept was explained to her by Saul and it is discovered that she is a kleptomaniac. It seems that Eliza’s new found talent is contributing to breaking her family apart at the seams.

Bee Season Book Cover

Although Eliza is rapt at the extra attention she was receiving, she feels bad about the deepening distance between herself and her brother and widening chasm between him and her father who once used to be quite close.  Different characters choose unorthodox ways to resolve their issues or neglect handling them and it causes problems later on. There are parallels between each family member but each decides to deal with it in their own way instead of confiding in each other. Eliza witnesses these changes observing how the actions of one family member indirectly affect all the others. Each fails to notice how similar they all happen to be but this is obvious to the reader.

In the end, Eliza is forced to make a big decision, which will either keep her father’s attention on her or give up her new talent. The terrifying experience she is subject to one night while perusing some mystical books in her father’s study makes her realise the right course to take. Given I expected this book to be about bees that produced honey rather than the spelling kind, it captured my attention when the story started out mild and kept getting darker in its mood. Nevertheless it is an incredible read!

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The Stieg Larsson Trilogy

10/01/2011 at 7:04 AM (Books, Crime, Mystery) (, , , , , , , , )

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

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 does 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

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 and the details of a confidential police interview is leaked 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 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.

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