Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Alistair Maclean: Where Eagles Dare

Nowadays one does not hear too much about Alistair Maclean's novels, but at one time they were all the rage. I remember reading more than 20 of them, and I used to claim at one point of time that I have read almost all of them. This novel was one of my favourite.
The novel was written in 1967 almost in tandem with the movie (1968) based on the novel, starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. The story is a very gripping one, and Maclean typically puts in a lot of tension, about double-cross, and a fair amount of action.
The story is in the middle of the war, before the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944. There is an American General who has been captured by the Germans and put in a mountain-top fortress. There is a lot of worry about whether he will reveal details of the Allied invasion plans under interrogation. In 1944, the allies were planning to invade Europe so as to start to fight the Germans in Europe (having been pushed out earlier); and the exact details of the invasion were a top secret. If the Germans got to know of these details, they would be much more prepared for this invasion and could possible cause it to fail. In the end, even after the invasion caught the Germans unprepared, it was still touch and go for the invading allies.
So, these commandos parachute near the mountain and have to make their way to the fortress, something that is equally challenging. The story moves through a number of twists and turns, with some very challenging situations coming up for these commandos. I really like the way Maclean adds the twists and turns in the story, and there is a final twist.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Story of evil: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

For people in this age, this book, published in 1960 (written by William L Shirer) may seem totally out of date, and something that is of a different age. Further, the end of Nazi Germany and World War 2 in Europe happened in 1945 (more than 60 years ago), so why bother. Read this book, and you will know why this book is still relevant today. That's also the reason why this book, though 47 years old now, is still being published and sold in fairly high volumes.
There are a lot of people nowadays who don't know what the period of World War II, and Germany before that, were like. My understanding of that stage got clear after reading this book, and once you read such a book, the most common reaction is 'Never Again'. The book is a fairly big book, over 11oo pages, so may slightly over-whelming initially, but the book is written in a fairly engaging manner, and does not seem like a historical work. It focuses on the personalities involved.
The book is based on the massive amount of captured documents that detailed the work of the Third Reich, details from the Nuremberg trials, and the experience of the author in Germany till 1940. The book details the rise of the Third Reich from the time after the defeat in the first world war, and the efforts by Hitler to build up a platform, the way he starts to build his platform of hate, and attracts a lot of people disillusioned by the current goings on. In addition, there are a number of people who blamed the jewish community, and communism for the current state of Germany and he starts to become their natural leader. There is a lot of detail in these sections, explaining how Hitler managed to plot his way to the leader of Germany and then dispense with democracy.
The growth of the Nazis pushes a set of leaders such as Goering, Goebbels, Rommel, etc who are powerful, and push aside all other power structures that existed till now, a lot of this having to do with setting up agencies such as the Gestapo that enforced a rule of terror. He systematically kept the army on a short leash, making sure that the army was totally subservient to the Nazi structure. In addition, weak European rulers and an insular US provided Hitler the stage to disregard earlier obligations, enhance military abilities and slowly take over other European countries.
Hitler realized that he had to break the Soviet and British regimes so that he would be the unchallenged autocrat. He almost achieved his goals, trying to bombard Britain into submission and attack the Soviet Union when they were not ready. However, he failed to break Britain, and then after the invasion of the Soviet Union was an initial spectacular success, it ground to a halt. Even though the Soviet Union suffered incredible casualties, they managed to halt the feared panzer divisions and then the course of the war changed. The red army managed to push the German army back from the Soviet Union and ultimately conquered Germany along with the western allies. At the peak of its conquest, Germany ruled over almost all of Europe, and was all powerful, including large sections of Africa along with its ally Italy.
Once the Nazi regime was defeated, Hitler committed suicide, rather than be displayed in a cage in Moscow (as Stalin threatened). The remaining leaders were tried in Nuremberg in the first such trial of people for genocide, and a number of them were sentenced to death.
When the German army was being pushed back, the world was witness to an inhuman spectacle. The Nazi's had come up with a Final Solution to the jewish problem, and the Final Solution involved the use of concentration camps, gas chambers, gory medical experiments and other such inhumanity. In addition to jews, those butchered included others deemed unsuitable by the Nazis - homosexuals, gypsies, communists. The loss of humanity during the Nazi rule included such thing as killing large numbers of people because a Nazi was killed, treating prisoners of war very inhumanely, and treating captured civilians without any humanity.
Read this book, it will give an idea of what humankind can do to each other, and then you will realize why the motto should be 'Never again'.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Sherlock Holmes: Hound of the Baskervilles

This is a classic tome from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For Sherlock Holme's lovers and for the lovers of detective novels, it is a must-read. Set in the moors of England, you can get a feel for the desolation of the place and for the suspense hanging. It is considered to be one of the best works for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and was released in 1902 in book form.
What is the story about? Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are in their Baker Street lodgings when they receive a visit from Dr. James Mortimer, who is due to receive the last heir of the Baskerville Mansion, who is returning from abroad. He is very apprehensive about taking Sir Henry Baskerville to Baskerville estate in Broadmoor; when pressed, he reveals that this is due to the circumstances of the death of the last lord of Baskerville Hall, who died in his garden with a sign of acute terror on his face. Examination did not show any apparent physical reason for this death.
There is apparently a family legend about a huge and terrible hound that killed one of the previous owners of the Hall, Sir Hugo Baskerville, a couple of centuries back. Holmes is not exactly a believer of the supersititious, but does not dismiss anything outright. Dr. James Mortimer is more likely to believe it because of the death of Sir Charles Baskerville. In addition, near the body he had found the footmarks of a giant dog.
What begins is a cat and mouse game between Holmes and his unseen adversary. Things start happening before Sir Henry Baskerville even leaves London, with his shoes being stolen. Holmes sends Watson to Baskerville Hall, but refuses to come himself. Watson does his end of the investigation, and finds a few things, such as a convict being loose on the moors, and being related to the house-keeper who sends food to him. Sir Henry becomes acquainted by the brother-sister pair of Stapletons who are naturalists, and starts developing an affection for the sister. All attempts are made to keep him away from the moor, so that even if they do not believe in a giant dog, still no reason to put him in harm's way.
When things start heating up, Watson pursues a figure in the moor, who turns out to be Sherlock Holmes, who has been living on the moor. He had learnt a lot of things, but in order to get proof, Holmes needs to offer Sir Henry Baskerville as a bait to the hound, and when a sudden mist arrives on the scene, can they prevent the bait from being accepted? It is a suspenseful climax, but well worth the reading.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Erich Segal: Love Story - Romance with tragedy

This is a pretty short novel. I have known people to read it one sitting, but nobody who has read it has forgotten this book. Written in 1970, it has been made into a great movie. Even though this book is a tragedy, it is widely acknowledged as a master-piece in romance. 2 famous phrases from the book - The starting "What can you say about a twenty-five year old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. The Beatles. And me." & the line that stays throughout the movie "Love never means having to say you're sorry". The movie got a host of nominations, but won one Oscar only, due to its musical score.
Storyline is simple: Oliver Barrett IV (Ryan O'Neil in the movie), studying in Harvard Law, from a wealthy family, meets a girl Jennifer Cavilleri (Ali MacGraw) who taunts him and otherwise does not seem too impressed by his wealth. He in turn is smitten by her and does not treat her like any other conquest. They figure out that they are in love and want to marry each other.
Oliver's father is not very impressed, and cuts him off. They marry, and struggle through his college, while she pays by teaching at a private school, thus supporting the family. Life is fun, and when he graduates, they are in a better financial position. Planning for a baby, when talking to doctors, Oliver learns that she is ill and will die soon. He struggles to keep the information from her, but she soon discovers the truth.
They are going through cancer therapy, hoping for a cure. Oliver, for paying the medical bills, borrows money from his father by making an excuse, but time is running out. Jennifer is ready to face death, and consoles her father and husband to love her a last time, and then she dies ...
By this time, Oliver's father has learnt the truth, and reaches the hospital after Jennifer has died, trying to console his son.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Sydney Sheldon: If tomorrow comes

This is an incredibly interesting novel. The common motif running through Sydney Sheldon's novels is that of a strong woman character who faces challenges, and eventually triumphes.
If tomorrow comes is about a woman called Tracy Whitney, who is seemingly well set. She is in love with a rich handsome guy, and he, over parental disapproval is all set to marry her. In a tragedy, she finds that her mother has committed suicide after being cheated by a local hood. She attacks him, and he uses that incident to get her jailed, as well as convicted of a painting theft (so that he can benefit). She gets betrayed by her lawyer and the judge.
She is now in jail, subject to the pressures over there, and having been dumped by her fiancee who can't have relations with anybody who has been convicted for theft and is an attempted murderer. In jail, she comes across inmates who are used to dominating others, and is setup as a target by one of these. Another one such defends her, but she really needs to escape from jail. She gets a plot, but as she is moving away, she makes the choice of saving the jailor's son who is drowning.
She is now a heroine, and eventual public pressure gets her a pardon. So she is now out, but without a job. After not luck regarding a career (due to being an ex-felon), she joins a cheating crowd, and starts becoming an expert at cheating people. First she takes revenge on the people who betrayed her (and this is interesting reading, especially the part about the judge getting convicted of spying in Russia). The rest of the book is all about her various adventures in cheating people, as well as the attemtps of an investigator who is always on her trail.
This is a pretty gripping novel, and not something that you can easily put down. Fun to read, and the incidents don't seem very unrealistic. You can actually emphatize with the heroine, who is actually cheating people.