Reviews / Social drama

Book Review: The Sabbatical by Frederick Pinto

The Sabbatical Frederick Pinto

Usually, I skip debut novels because most of them are not as mature as the later works of the author. Even Turgenev’s On the Eve was not at par with Father and Sons or Virgin Soil. However, Frederick Pinto’s The Sabbatical seems a rare exception.

If you are just out of Jean Paul Satre’s Nausea and looking for a smart, entertaining read with a substantial story, pick up Frederick Pinto’s debut novel — The Sabbatical. It will cure you of any hangover from a sombre philosophy, yet won’t let you down as a light hearted effort that fails to leave an impression.

The Story

“Well, not fired, Charles,” Colin says. “Consider it more a forced buy-out.”

Charles Barca, the founder of an ambitious and visionary music startup— PlayLouder – finds himself in a tight spot after some conspiring people play smart to force him out of his own nest. Things become worse as he loses his girlfriend and rock star status. Even in the face of a crisis, Charles rejects opportunities to come back to the music business and tries to re-invent himself. Frederick Pinto’s The Sabbatical is an insightful story of “a bought-out, spit-over, disgraced and depressed” prince, seeking “a Copernican revolution of the self.”

Meet the Sharks

Pinto introduces you to real-life, morally ambiguous characters. You meet schemers, frauds and manipulative people. If you know the music industry, you easily identify them. If you don’t, you start feeling really close to it. Barca stands out as a confused, but honourable man among shady characters. He might not be a typical hero (for many readers), but he is certainly someone who makes you think. Barca is someone you can’t ignore.

The Sabbatical Frederick PintoPinto’s Style

If you are a sucker for snappy dialogue and descriptions, you can’t afford to miss The Sabbatical. Barca speaks and thinks in the equivalent of Clint Eastwood’s .44 Magnum:

“I know them by heart, those nightlife vamps, hunting for a pint of fame here, a pound of status there; those tweet chique groupie types whose gibberish runs in fast forward, junkies of tweener pop stars and the Disney channel by age seven, suburban beauty pageants between nine and twelve, then drugs and uniforms and public toilet blow jobs, then college and amateur porn cams, followed by entry level jobs and hard partying on the back of a vulgar hotness and loud makeup and sophomoric life theories, culminating into some version or other of the American way of life and a high earning beta male they can blood suck into a castrating relationship of mortified sex and consumerism and debt and death.”

Pinto can be deeply sarcastic and highly intense, but he always stays believable. Here’s a debut author who can write dialogues like a seasoned pro. Also, Pinto shows great narrative skills. Barca’s intercontinental journey is filled with amazing descriptions that give a tactile quality to the places Barca visits.

In the hands of a daring director, The Sabbatical could turn into a very thought-provoking and intelligent film. A noteworthy first literary effort!

Check out The Sabbatical at Amazon
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Reviews / Thriller / Crime Fiction

Book Review: Smokescreen by Khaled Talib

smokescreen khaled talib

Thanks to Frederick Forsyth, Ian Fleming and John Le Carre, the last 100 years had had its share of cold war espionage novels. While CIA, MI6, and KGB kept us highly entertained, maybe we need a break from the familiar landscapes of US, Britain and Russia. How about an intriguing plot involving Israel and Singapore with a touch of Cairo? Khaled Talib, in his debut novel, brings you a cold blooded and action packed world of espionage different from the conventional thrillers.

The Story

Jethro Westrope, a journalist, accidentally learns about an international conspiracy that involves the assassination of the Prime Minister of Israel. However, he is falsely accused of murder and someone tries to use him as a smokescreen to divert attention from the actual sinister plot. Jet struggles against mighty odds and finds in himself situations that are out of his control. But he has to stop the assassination or else lose his life to serve someone else’s purpose.

“You’re just the unlucky guy chosen to die” Jet is told. He is to be blamed for the assassination of the Prime Minister. Can Jet survive?

What’s so good

“Smoke clouded the man’s face like a Tuareg’s desert veil as he exhaled a long, apple-scented plume from the sheesha’s looping pipe. It bolstered the disguise he wore in the languid summer afternoon at El Fishawy Café in Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili souk district: a fake moustache and a thick goatee that seemed to make his round chin smile more, a pair of dark metal-framed sunglasses, a long-flowing brown galabeya, and a white turban.”

The setting and storyline is fresh, and this comes as a welcome change in a genre quite saturated with clichés. The exotic feel of the thriller gets you excited from the very beginning. A combination of Israel, Singapore and Egypt can hardly go wrong, eh?

Khaled’s attention to details, comprehensive knowledge of local culture and political machinery makes the plot completely believable. The characters look real and the dialogues are carefully crafted. Cunning spies, merciless assassins, shady politicians — Smokescreen is nothing less than a Hollywood blockbuster. Khaled’s sharp sense of humor adds to the fun.

Smokescreen, with its fast pace and Jason Bourne like situations, will remind you of Ludlum’s novel. Khaled said in an interview that he was fascinated with The Bourne Identity. Smokescreen could have easily been a rip-off of the classic thriller but to his credit, Khaled succeeds in making his novel something different. Jet is not a trained killer like Bourne. He is a common journalist forced into the world of Bourne. And that makes his adventure so sublime.

Khaled Talib, a former journalist and a full time writer, has made an impressive debut. We will be waiting for more from him.

Smokescreen at Amazon.
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Opinion & Featured Articles / Reviews

Top 10 Spy Novels of All Time

vintage cover art

Are you a dedicated collector of espionage novels? If yes, check out the following list to make sure you haven’t missed the classics of the genre.

the spy who came in from the cold john le carreThe Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carre (1963)

The Story of a British agent who is about to end his professional career, but is sent to one final assignment. While Ian Fleming pampers his hero with sultry seductresses, fast cars, and vodka martini, John Le Carre offers you believable characters and stories where spies act like spies.

From Russia with Love, Ian Fleming (1957)from russia with love ian fleming

Bond takes on Russia’s counter-intelligence agency SMERSH, who plots to kill the MI5 agent in the context of a carefully contrived scandal. The hugely successful 1963 film adaptation (starring Sean Connery) has turned this novel into a cult espionage book.

the secret agent joseph conradThe Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907)

Mr Verloc, a secret agent, gets involved in an anarchist conspiracy, but things go horribly wrong. The Secret Agent stands for everything that James Bond is not. Conrad makes a fine synthesis of politics, spying and moral anarchy to write an atypical spy classic that has multiple layers of meaning.

The 39 Steps by John Buchan (1915)the 39 steps john buchan

On the eve of WWI, Richard Hannay — a bored London guy — gets entangled in an intricate web of codes and homicide. Buchan piles improbability upon improbability and brings about nothing profound. Read simply because it’s a brilliant story, brilliantly told. Check out the classic Hitchcock film too.

dashiell hammett red harvestRed Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

More a hardboiled piece than a spy novel, Red Harvest tells the story of the Continental Op, who takes on an entire town to avenge the murder of an honest citizen. A gushing, violent masterpiece of crime fiction and the best Dashiell Hammett novel without question.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré (1974)tinker tailor soldier spy john le carre

George Smiley is assigned to identify and destroy a double agent in British Intelligence. A really tricky novel where office politics and international espionage are hardly distinguishable. It’s unlike anything you get to read in spy fiction. Watch the film version starring Gary Oldman.

the bourne identity robert ludlumBourne identity by Robert Ludlum (1980)

Jason Bourne wakes up to find that his memory is gone. Why someone wants him dead? What are his secrets? Who is he? A great dose of adventure, action, and conspiracy with some surprising twists. The film adaptation, though pretty good, differs from the book.

The Man Who was Thursday By G.K. Chesterton (1908)the man who was thursday gk chesterton

This classic spy story is about a detective who infiltrates a group of anarchists. The Man Who was Thursday is part mystery, part philosophy, and part fantasy. This is an allegorical tale, which needs multiple reading. Recommended for readers with a taste for thought-provoking books.

impossible virgin peter o donnellThe Impossible Virgin, Peter O’Donnell (1971)

Modesty and her lieutenant, Willie Garvin take on Brunel — the savage killer — in Central Africa and fight for the secret of the Impossible Virgin, a key to enormous wealth. Incorrect political attitudes, quirky characters, and lots of hand-to-hand combat make this action-adventure novel too much fun.

Guns of Navarone, Alistair MacLean (1963)the guns of navarone Alistair maclean

Five men sent to silence the Guns of Navarone. Can they do what an entire navy could not? A tense WWII thriller that was made into an equally good movie starring Gregory Peck. Detailed military strategies and plot twists will keep you guessing till the end.

What’s your favourite spy thriller? Continue reading

Horror / Fantasy / SF / Reviews

Book Review: Uncanny Tales (The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult)

Uncanny Tales The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult

In the 1960s and 70s, Hutchinson were selling a million copies of Dennis Wheatley books every year. Wheatley’s occult books (including the classic The Devil Rides Out) were also made into films by Hammer. To bank on the author’s popularity, Sphere Books came up with a series called The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult. There were total 45 books in the series; Wheatley edited and wrote introductions for each one. The titles included occult themed novels as well as non-fiction works on the subject. Among the notable works in the series were three creepy volumes — Uncanny Tales 1, 2, and 3.

Most of the stories in The Uncanny Tales series are from the first half of the 20th century. Along with some short masterpieces, it offers a few little know yet delightfully spooky stories. Here are some pieces worth mentioning:

  • Clarimonde by Théophile Gautier: Romuald, a priest, falls for a beautiful and sensual woman who turns out to be a vampire.
  • Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu: A gothic novella about a female vampire. It’s somewhat marked by lesbian tones.
  • Ligeia by Edgar Allen Poe: A woman comes back from the realms of the dead and is transformed into her husband’s former wife.
  • The Snake by Dennis Wheatley: An eerie piece on black magic and voodoo set in Africa.
  • The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs: Needs no introduction.
  • Witch’s Vengeance by W. B. Seabrook: A cool story about witchcraft.
  • A Life for a Life by Dennis Wheatley: The author deals with Egyptian mummies and nightmares in his own signature style.

Uncanny Tales books are truly remarkable and worth hunting for.


Uncanny Tales 1

Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
The Dream Woman by Wilkie Collins
The Tapestried Chamber by Sir Walter Scott
The Open Door by Mrs Oliphant
The Spectre Bridegroom by Washington Irving
Ligeia by Edgar Allan Poe
Clarimonde by Theophile Gautier.

Uncanny Tales 2

Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
Witch’s Vengeance by W B Seabrook
Gavon’s Eve by E F Benson
Feet Foremost by L P Hartley
All Hallows by Walter de la Mare
Smee by Ex-Private X (A. M. Burrage)
The Angelus by William Younger
A Life for a Life by Dennis Wheatley.

Uncanny Tales 3

Afterward by Edith Wharton
The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs
The Miracle of Stigmata by Frank Harris
Playing with Fire by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Snake by Dennis Wheatley
The Trod by Algernon Blackwood
The Canary by F. Tennyson Jesse
The Hand by Theodore Dreiser
The Call of the Hand by Louis Golding
The Snow by Hugh Walpole
Lucky’s Grove by H. R. Wakefield. Continue reading

Horror / Fantasy / SF / Reviews

Book Review: The Pastel City by M John Harrison

The Pastel City M John Harrison

There are certain books you want to take off the shelf couple of times a year for sheer reading pleasure. These books never get old and take you for a spin every time you read them. M. John Harrison’s epic fantasy — The Pastel City — is one such case. It’s a perfect example of the classic seventies $.75 mass-market paperback that you adore on rainy evenings.

What’s it about

The Pastel City is set in a distant future (in the city of Viriconium) and delineates the struggle of an Arthurian kingdom that has grown from the ashes of a high tech empire. This state fights against an army of brain eating androids led by a ruthless woman. Sword and sorcery is on the rise and ancient relics that cannot be controlled have been unearthed. The war threatens to destroy civilization.

Why it works

The pastel city succeeds largely due to brilliant use of diction and some incredible action. Use of archaic words for conversation and explosive colors instead of bland descriptive prose makes Harrison’s writing highly appealing and exotic. And it’s tough to think of another epic fantasy that brings so much ferocity and terror into its combat scenes. Even Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers seems pale by comparison.

The standard features of fantasy are all here — a beautiful and good-hearted queen under seize, a lonely poet warrior, a cranky dwarf, traitors, an evil queen, and weird entities. But Mr. Harrison works with a different template; he blurs the thin line between science fiction and fantasy. So we have terminator like creatures and scientists living in high towers.

What’s not so cool

This Pastel City can be categorized as a long story or a novella rather than a full length novel. The plot is epic in scope but the thin size of the book leaves you wanting for more. Certain situations and characters lack details; at times, things seem a little too rushed. In this context it can be mentioned that the The Pastel city is a preamble to the greater things that come in the sequels — but it is a fun ride and can be read on its own. It reminds you of masterpieces like Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth, which evokes the feeling of stagnation and hopelessness.

Do you know

The Pastel city is the first volume of the series Viriconium. The sequels to the novel are A Storm of Wings (volume 2) and The Floating Gods (volume 3). There is also a collection of short stories called Viriconium Nights. A single volume edition is available (fantasy masterworks edition) where you can find all the Viriconium stories and novels.

The Pastel city and this series in general, is tight and well paced fantasy worth your reading effort. Continue reading