Saturday, June 29, 2013

Reading Challenge: Language Freak Summer Challenge

Half of the year is gone. (seriously, where did the time disappear?) And I am signing-up for my toughest challenge as yet: Language Freak Summer Challenge hosted @ In My Book.

The idea is to read books in the original language rather than in translation. But that means...Yes, it means that we learn that (foreign) language and read a text in that particular language.

Well, the language that I have chosen is Urdu. Now, by no stretch of imagination, can Urdu be called a foreign language in India which is the land of its birth but it is also true that it is slowly dying in India. I have working knowledge of some languages spoken in India like English and Punjabi and I am pretty fluent in Hindustani, which is a mixture of Hindi and Urdu but have little knowledge of Urdu per se. And learning the script is in itself a formidable task.

This challenge I hope will help me learn one of the most beautiful languages of the world. Two months that is the time I have. Hopefully by the end of it I'd have read a book that has long been on my wishlist: Badnaseeb Shaheed Sukhdev.

If you too are interested in challenging yourself, please follow the link above.

Due to my preoccupation with this challenge, posting on the blog will be erratic.

So off I go....wish me luck.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Reading Challenges: A-Z (Authors/ Titles)

I thought I'll not do the A-Z challenges this year but ...well I just could not resist, so I am signing-up for the 2013 A to Z Reading Challenge hosted @ On the Wings of Books. And I am going for both the authors and titles categories.

If you are interested, sign-up here.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Forgotten Book: Death in Retirement by Josephine Bell

Josephine Bell is the pseudonym of Doris Bell Collier Ball, a prolific writer of mysteries during the Golden Age of Detection. Having lost her father in childhood, the young Doris nonetheless followed his footsteps and went on to study medicine. Later on, she married fellow-doctor, Norman Dyer Ball, and the two set up a joint practice. When her husband died tragically in an accident, Doris was left alone to bring-up their four children. Thus, she picked up the pen in order to add to her income as a doctor. Her first book, Murder in Hospital, was published in 1937. This was the beginning of a remarkable career that saw her publish 64 novels in all. Most of her novels draw upon her experiences as a medical professional.

 Death in Retirement, first published in 1953, also follows the same pattern, in the sense that one of her protagonists is a retired doctor.

Gillian Clayton, staying with her aunt, the retired Dr. Olive Clayton, is dismayed when her aunt doesn't take kindly to the fact that she has become engaged to and is desirous of marrying Max Russell, a young lawyer working in the firm of Renfrew, Polder and Parkins. Having lost her parents in an accident, Gillian is close to her aunt and doesn't want to antagonise her. But Aunt Olive has serious problems as regards Max. The young man proclaims to be from Canada, has no family members in England, and has but recently joined the firm. As she tells Gillian, she feels responsible for her and is wary of getting her married off to a man about whom so little is known.

But that's not the whole truth. Having got used to Gillian's company, Dr. Clayton fears leading a lonely life in her twilight years. Having spent most of her youth, working in a medical missionary institute in India, she finds England a strange place to be in. Also, there is a financial angle, as without Gillian's income it would be difficult for her to manage the cottage and the household expenses. In a philanthropic gesture, she had asked the mission to not pay her her pension but rather to use it for charitable work.

Gillian, who knows that Max too is looking for decent lodgings, volunteers to stay on in the cottage after her marriage along with Max, and continue sharing the expenses. Max too, she says, is ready for such an arrangement. However, Dr. Clayton puts her foot down firmly, being of the opinion that a newly-wed couple should set up a separate house-hold of their own. 

Aunt and niece then rack their brains for an alternative arrangement that will suit everyone. Finally, Dr. Clayton agrees to have a married couple as companions who would live in the cottage and pay their share. However, the agreement that she draws up is very curious. It states that in the event of the death of either of the party, a full autopsy should be performed. And further that the entire property of the dead party should go to the survivor for a period of ten years, after which, of course, it can revert back to the chosen heir.

There is hardly anybody who comes forward to agree to such an agreement but Dr. Clayton insists that it is only for her own safety. Finally, even as Gillian is despairing and Max becoming moody, a couple answers the advertisement and agrees to the term. The only hitch, the Weavers, have a dog. Would Dr. Clayton mind having a dog on the premises? No, she would not. Everybody sighs in relief. The Weavers seem to be respectable, middle-aged couple, with right references.

Gillian is happy; now she can get on with preparing for her wedding. Her troubles seem to be over. But have they just begun? First, Max seems to develop cold-feet about the wedding, dragging his feet trying to find the right flat. Then Muriel Weaver starts taking charge of the kitchen which rubs Miss Bone, the household help of Dr. Clayton, the wrong way. Also Bone is not fond of the dog Trixie which also does not get along with the gardener  Potter. Dr. Clayton tries to smoothen things but they become more tangled. Meanwhile, Gillian starts disliking the Weavers too. She is further astonished when she comes to know that Max had not checked their references properly. When she confronts Max about it, Max tells her that she is becoming paranoid. Their relationship becomes strained.

Things come to a head when Trixie is found dead of poisoning. From rat-poison left carelessly about or from the biscuits that Muriel made especially for Dr. Clayton? An infuriated Potter, who thinks he is being suspected of giving poison to her, leaves his job. Miss Bone follows suit, so Dr. Clayton is left with the Weavers. Doubts, suspicions, claustrophobia, undercurents of tension, feelings of guilt, simmering hostilities...murder is inevitable.

Though there are only a small number of suspects, this novel works well in its depiction of a claustrophobic community. As tension rises, every person begins to be assailed by doubts:

"Here," said her husband. He thrust the beaker into her hand, and automatically she lifted it and drank, gulping about half its contents before she suddenly put it down on the bed table, to stare at him with fresh panic in her eyes.

"Well," he asked lightly, "what's the trouble, now?"

But he knew quite well what was to follow. So he kept his mouth shut as he took the beaker, and his back turned to her as he put it on the mantelpiece out of her reach.

"You know very well what I'm thinking now."

"Oh, for heaven's sake! The same I was drinking myself!"

"Not when I came in the room. You had it in your hand; I know that. But you weren't really drinking any. Only pretending. How do I know you did drink any? Tell me that. How do I know?"

And even when the identity of the culprit is known, doubts remain, adding further to the chaos.

The novel is also a marvellous description of post-war England. After losing an empire and barely surviving a war which  has left its economy in shambles, England is a shadow of her former self. People find it difficult to survive amongst the steep prices and are forced to migrate. The social churning has undermined the social hierarchies. Servants not merely turn their backs in ill-mannered gestures but also answer back. Gone are those servants of yore who had great loyalty towards the family they served. 

Dr. Clayton went out to the kitchen. Miss Bone heard her come, but remained at the sink, with her back turned to her employer, clattering the teacups and plates with dangerous vigour.

"Miss Bone, " said Dr. Clayton, and waited.

"I can't talk to your back, Miss Bone. Please stop the washing-up for a minute, and turn round to face me."

"I've got my work to do," answered Miss Bone, still presenting her back. "And I'm not a child in school, nor yet one of your black natives to be treated like a child, poor devils. I'm late already. what with arguing and fault-finding. I don't suppose you want to pay overtime." (56)

The plight of the elderly too is well brought-out.

"...Your saintly missionary aunt is getting senile."

"That's nonsense."

Gillian remembered her own fears, and the way she ahd watched her aunt for further signs of decay. but a chill crept over her to hear Max declare the same thing. It was too easy to call old people senile if you didn't agree with them, or if you caught them out in a petty deception you were quite capable of trying to effect yourself. It was too sinister. It suggested the mental home, unjustified restraint, pitiless injustice. (46)

All in all, a book well worth the read. I am glad to have discovered another GAD great and would love to read more of her works.


This and a number of other titles by Josephine Bell have now been published by Bello, an imprint of Pan Macmillan. Besides Bell, there are a number of other half-forgotten writers. Books are available both in paper and digital formats. Their catalogue (guaranteed to make your mouth water) can be savoured over here

As a participant in the Vintage Mystery Challenge, hosted by Bev Hankins @ My Reader's Block, I was lucky enough to receive a copy from the publishers. This offer is open to all non-US participants of the challenge. [If you needed another initiative to join this challenge, here it is :)] Details can be found over here.

Disclaimer: Receiving a book free from the publishers,  in no way influenced this review. Nor did I receive  payment of any kind.

First Line: "I am terribly sorry, Aunt Olive, but we are quite definitely engaged."

Title: Death in Retirement

Author: Josephine Bell

Publication Details: London: Bello, 2012

First Published: 1953

Pages: 218

Other books read of the same author: None


Submitted for the Vintage Mystery Challenge

Also submitted for the following challenges: 52 Books in 52 Weeks, 2013 Genre Variety, 2013 Mystery/ Crime, 2013 Women, British Books, Let Me Count the Ways, New Authors.


Entry for Friday's Forgotten Books.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Teaser Tuesdays and Tuesday Intros

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly meme hosted by MizB @ Should Be Reading in which one shares a couple of sentences from a current read.

Here's mine from Josephine Bell's Death in Retirement.

"I am not suggesting you needed more than five minutes - for what you were doing."

Muriel gasped. Dr. Clayton's words were ordinary enough, but instead of the warm air of sympathy that had enveloped her speech so far, an icy, hostile blast quite suddenly swept about the room. Muriel lost her head. (pg. 91)

Tuesday Intros is a weekly meme hosted by Diane @ Bibliophile by the Sea in which one shares the opening of a book. Here's mine from Simon R. Green's Drinking Midnight Wine.

BRADFORD-ON-AVON is an old town, and not all of its ghosts sleep the sleep of the just.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Tuesday's Overlooked Films and/or Other A/V: Star Trek

In the late eighties, India had only one T.V. channel: The government owned and controlled Door Darshan. On weekdays, telecast was limited to a few hours, mostly in the evenings. Sundays were different though. One could watch programmes being beamed almost the entire day. Some of the serials were imported: Old Fox, Different Strokes, and of course, Star Trek.

Of late, I do not know why, but perhaps because the sun is scorching and the afternoons are very long, my thoughts keep returning to those Sunday mornings and especially to Star Trek. To the sensitive, emotional Dr. McCoy; to the emotions-tightly-under-control Mr. Spock; and to the oh-so-suave Captain James T. Kirk. [The way Shatner pronounced his name, you could virtually hear the dot after the T].

There was also the Russian Chekhov, to show that earth was one and the United States and the Soviet Union were pally-pally and part of the great galaxy. And, of course, the nominal Asian presence in Sulu. Though, some would argue that the treacherous Klingons in space were nothing but Russians with Japanese cast of features, these political analogies did not make an iota of difference to our enjoyment of the programme.

There were others too like Scotty, and Lieutenant Uhura, and those poor Red-Shirts who seemed to exist only to die and bring up the body-count. Of course, there were those who snidely remarked that Dr. McCoy too seemed to be there only to declare people dead rather than to save their lives. Incidentally, I did not realise that "He is dead, Jim" had become such an iconic line till my lap-top started showing it whenever google chrome crashed.

 The Vulcan greeting was mandatory in school on Mondays and anybody who could do it with both hands was immediately deemed a Higher being. Furious whispers during classes meant that some point of the previous day's episode was being debated. Phrases like 'the final frontier', 'new worlds', 'where no man has gone before' were used ad nauseam in literary compositions. And invariably, there would be a few Mr. Spocks in fancy dress competitions.

The sparring, the leg-pulling, the quarrels, and the reconciliation between characters, especially the primary three, kept us glued to our T.V. sets. Yes, I know it came almost twenty years late to the Indian shores, but so what? It was still a strange new world for us. And we Indians did crow a lot about former Miss India Persis Khambatta's bald act as Lieutenant Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

In the late nineties, when Star Trek was telecast again, this time on Star World, India having acquired a plethora of T.V. channels, a young teenager, fresh out of school, asked me "Who are these weird looking people?" I knew then that a generational shift had taken place.

So many years down the line, some of them have crossed over to the final frontier (Sorry could not resist). DeForest Kelley whose death made it to prime-time News in India and whose obituary did read (yes, you guessed it right) - 'He is dead, Jim'; The, suaver-than- the suave Captain Kirk, Robert Lansing, who played the Space 007, Gary Sevens, in Assignment Earth and whose dialogue: "That, Miss Lincoln, is simply my cat" is unforgettable.

Gone too is Steve Ihnat, who played the tragically insane Captain Garth, in the melancholy named episode: Whom Gods Destroy. In fact, the wiki entry tells he died very young and had already passed-away by the time Star Trek was telecast in India. Sad.

Faded into oblivion are people like Skip Homeier who played Dr. Sevrin in search of paradise in The Way to Eden. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy hardly look like the same people. The uniforms look tacky and there is hardly anything special about the special-effects now. But so what? That series is still the only Star Trek for me.

And here's a fan's tribute to those years of Enterprise's mission:

So, do you have fond memories of Star Trek too? Do share.


Submitted for Tuesday's Overlooked Films and/or Other A/V at Todd Mason's blog Sweet Freedom.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Book Beginnings and Friday 56

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a weekly meme hosted by Rose City Reader in which one shares the opening of a book. Here's mine:

"I am terribly sorry, Aunt Olive, but we are quite definitely engaged."

Gillian Clayton, turned her head towards her aunt, who sat forward in her chair, gazing at the fire, clasping her knees with her bony wrinkled hands, and refusing to look at her.

The Friday 56 is a weekly meme hosted by Freda's Voice in which one shares a couple of sentences from page 56 of any book. Here's mine:

Dr.Clayton went out to the kitchen. Miss Bones heard her come, but remained at the sink, with her back turned to her employer, clattering the teacups and plates with dangerous vigour.

Interested in knowing why people are getting so upset? Just grab a copy of Josephine Bell's
Death in Retirement from which both the extracts are taken.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Forgotten Books: Fuzz by Ed McBain

The first time Ed McBain really registered on my mind was when I saw a book of his at a second-hand books store. I read the brief description at the back and decided not to buy it as I am not too keen on police-procedurals. Only to return home and discover that one of his books: Cop-Hater was on many Top 100 Mystery novels lists. Did I curse myself? And then suddenly all the blogs seemed to talk only of McBain. And did I curse myself?!

This fortnight finally, I read my first McBain: Fuzz. And have fallen in love with the 87th Precinct series.

Fuzz is slang for the police. As the antagonist in the book elaborates, they are called fuzz because "They're fuzzy and fussy and antiquated and incompetent.Their investigatory technique is established and routine, designed for effectiveness in an age that no longer exists. The police in this city are like wind-up toys with keys sticking out of their backs, capable of performing only in terms of their own limited design, tiny mechanical men clattering along the side-walk stiff-legged, scurrying about in aimless circles. But put an obstacle in their path, a brick wall or an orange crate, and they unwind helplessly in the same spot, arms and legs thrashing but taking them nowhere.' The deaf man grinned, 'I, my friend, am the brick wall.' "

The 87th precinct is in a state of chaos. There are two painters, straight from a music-hall comedy, who are painting the office apple-green. The colour is everywhere, even on the cuffs of Lt. Byrnes. Meanwhile, Steve Carella is posing as a vagrant (and smelling like one) in order to to apprehend the lunatics setting vagrants on fire. Carella is so immersed in the role that he even blows his nose noisily in a dirty kerchief making his colleague Meyer Meyer think that there is something like taking your role too seriously. Meyer Meyer is himself troubled as somebody has written a book in which the central character is called Meyer Meyer. He wonders whether some action can be initiated against the author.

Then a note arrives, stating that unless $5000 are put at a stipulated place, the Parks Commissioner would be gunned down. Everybody dismisses it for a crank note, till the Parks Commissioner is shot down. Even before they can recover from this blow, Carella is set on fire by two hooligans. Meanwhile another note arrives. This time the demand has risen to $50,000 and Deputy-Mayor Scanlon is the intended victim. Once again the assassination attempt succeeds. The 87th precinct comes in for a lot of flak. At the end of their tether, the police officials fear that it is their old nemesis The Deaf Man who has come to haunt them. And then another note arrives warning about the imminent demise of the Mayor, His Honour James Martin Vale. Would the 87th precinct be able to save its reputation?

There are certain things that I really liked in this book. First, the policemen are not shown as super-heroes. In fact, at times, they come across as bumbling fools. One of them, for example, shoots himself in haste. Secondly, there are no personal demons that the officers have. They think about their quiet, private troubles but are not goaded by devils. I am tired of police officials bedevilled with broken marriages, unsympathetic children, failing relationships et al. Thirdly, I loved the camaraderie between the officers. They seemed like one close-knit family: Byrnes,  Carella, Meyer, Bert Kling, Arthur Brown, Hal Willis, Cotton Hawes...

And above-all, I absolutely loved the humour present in the book. Here is a description of the good cop-bad cop routine:

Do you expect me to believe that? Willis said.

The cue was one the detectives of the 87th had used many times before in interrogating suspects, and it was immediately seized upon by Meyer, who said, 'Take it easy, Hal,' the proper response, the response that told Willis they were once again ready to assume antagonistic roles. In the charade that would follow, Willis would play the tough bastard out to hang a phoney rap on poor little Alan Perry, while Meyer would play the sympathetic father figure. The other detectives (including Faulk of the 88th, who was familiar with the ploy and had used it often enough himself in his own squadroom) would serve as a sort of nodding Greek chorus, impartial and objective. (108)

Did you or did you not laugh at 'nodding Greek chorus'? I sure did, much to the amusement of my co-passengers in the Delhi Metro.

Or this passage, describing a tense meeting in the mayor's office:

'Your Honour,' the city comptroller said, 'I'd like to suggest that you cancel all personal appearances at least through April.'

'Well, I don't think I should go into complete seclusion, do you?' JMV asked, mindful of the fact that this was an election year.

'Or at least curtail your personal appearances,' the comptroller said, remembering that indeed this was an election year, and remembering too, that he was on the same ticket as His Honour the Mayor JMV. (186)

Now I want to read more of the series. Thankfully, the library has quite a few books.

By a strange co-incidence, Sergio@ Tipping My Fedora reviewed the book, the week I borrowed it from a library. For an incisive review of the novel (and the movie), please see Sergio's post.


The rest of the post contains SPOILERS so please don't read further unless you have read the book.

Did you suspect the painters? I really did as they seemed to be present everywhere.

Had the Deaf Man selected some other man from the queue and not Anthony La Bresca to bring him the lunch pail, the police would never have tapped his phone, not come to know of the heist planned, or planted themselves at an opportune time at the John the Tailor's shop. That was the wild card in the Deaf Man's deck, the joker that spoiled the show. I can't help but feel that there is some sort of a poetic justice in that.


First Line: OH BOY, what a week.

Title: Fuzz: An 87th Precinct Mystery Novel

Author: Ed McBain

Publishing Details: London: Pan, 1974

First Published: 1968

Pages: 205

Other books read of the same author: None


The book might be available at second-hand book stores or libraries. I borrowed it from H.M. Library at Fountain [F.M.A 110].


Submitted for the following challenges: 52 Books in 52 Weeks, 2013 Mystery/ Crime, Let Me Count the Ways, Library Books, New Authors.


Entry for Friday's Forgotten Books.