Congo – By Michael Crichton

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A young geotechnical field supervisor, a primatologist and a mercenary undertake a journey of a lifetime, one that they might end up paying with their lives.

An expedition to find Type II blue diamonds amidst the ruins of the ancient city of Zinj in the Congo rainforest meets a gruesome end with the camp destroyed and the geologists killed. Back in Houston, Karen Ross, the project supervisor along with the rest of her technical team watch the video transmission relaying the remnants of the camp, crushed bodies, and curiously, an unexplainable blurry moving image of what appears to be a large bulky man-shaped entity with an awkward gait. Further analysis throws up the image of a gorilla as the most likely match. This prompts her to reach out to Peter Elliot, a primatologist for help.

Peter Elliot’s most talked about work in research circles is his breakthrough with Amy, a gorilla capable of communicating with humans by means of sign language, combining signs for 620 words effectively. When Amy starts acting moody because of disturbing dreams, “Project Amy” is put in jeopardy. The project team coax her to communicate her dreams to them by finger painting. Amy produces an image bearing a resemblance to the Zinj architecture.

Peter and Karen, accompanied by Amy and led by Munro, a Congo mercenary and his team of porters, set out to seek answers deep in the Congo wilderness.

In Congo, Crichton does an amazing job of describing the unforgiving nature of its vast and unexplored forest terrains.  The obstacles faced by the team takes turns that are both real and fantastical, and even absurd – encountering pygmies, dodging the war between cannibals and the army, hailstorms and volcanic eruptions, climbing steep mountains, navigating through narrow gorges,  ducking wild hippos and finally arming themselves against an unknown threat that took the lives of the previous team. They are also racing against time to beat a consortium of Japanese and other countries that are after the same diamond deposits. With so much happening at every turn, after a point I stopped thinking about whether the outcome of their expedition is going to be successful or not and just sat back and enjoyed reading about their journey.

This story is set in 1970s when there were huge inventions and advancements made in the field of remote sensing and image and data processing. The terms used and their meaning is pretty familiar now and don’t really need detailed explanations. But this book is filled with nuggets about technology which some might find unnecessary. I didn’t mind it much, but I preferred reading the other bits of ancient history related to Congo, and also primate history related to their habits and behaviour. It is easy to see that Crichton relished the research work needed to explain them in this book. Reading about all that was interesting, but at times I was irritated with some old piece of history or explanation brought up suddenly. I mean, it is kind of weird when one moment you are describing about facing or fighting.. say gorges or cannibals.. and then suddenly you have to read long explanations about their origins.

Coming to the characters, Crichton doesn’t really invest much in making their interpersonal interactions stand out as such. Their conversations are pretty dry and most of it about their work. Sometimes it feels like, it is for us readers’ benefit, to explain everything to us. I guess what I am trying to say is, it doesn’t have much humour or witty repartees. The author does marginally better in establishing their individual personalities though. Ross is driven to the point of being obsessed. Elliot is your “typical” academic, comfortable in a lab setup but a bit out of sorts in the real world. Munro is this tough guide who doesn’t get flustered much by anything.  However, my favourite one has to be Amy who really livened up the pages a lot of times. The relationship between Elliot and Amy was just so sweet! Almost like a parent and child.

After all the thrills throughout the book, I probably expected a lot more in the end.  It felt like Crichton packed in everything he could think of that could go wrong, but ran out of steam in the end. And couldn’t pull out a rabbit from the hat.  Yet it was a great read. He does a good job of mixing facts with fiction and nothing really seems completely implausible. The world that he describes lingers on in your mind even after your have finished the book.

A B C Murders

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A series of murders. Well, quite literally .. an alphabetical one. A killer is on the prowl, murdering people, random people, with seemingly no sane motive. The only method to the madness : people murdered in an alphabetical order of their names and town : Mrs. Ascher in Andover, Miss. Barnard in Bexhill and Sir Clarke in Churston. At the scene of each crime, the murderer leaves an ABC railway guide next to the body. Before each murder, Hercule Poirot receives a letter addressed to him, revealing the name of the town and date when the murder is going to take place; taunting and challenging him to stop the next murder.

Can Poirot, with the help of his old friend Captain Hastings (and part first-person narrator of this story) and the detectives from Scotland Yard out-wit the murderer? Or will he end up running through all the letters of the alphabet?!!

The narrative occasionally breaks from the first-person account of Captain Hastings to third-person account of Alexander Bonaparte Cust, who seems to be not of sound mind; and is in possession of the railway guides.

Who is Mr. Cust? Is he related to the crimes?  Is the story more of a why-dunit than a whodunit? Or is there something more than what meets the eye?

It has been years since I have read or re-read an Agatha Christie novel and it felt quite nice to read a good old-fashioned murder mystery, without the trappings of the modern day aids in crime fiction. Deductions made only by analysis, observations, and conversations with the relatives, friends and acquaintances of the victim. I loved the little eccentricities of Poirot and Hasting’s exasperation and impatience with them. Their interactions were endearing!!

 

 

The Godfather

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Set in the decade of the second World War, the Godfather is a pretty entertaining story detailing the parallel universe and power structure of the Mafia operating in the United States.

The novel chronicles the life of Don Vito Corleone, as a young boy who is forced to flee his hometown of Sicily to his emergence as “The Godfather”, head of one of the most powerful Mafia families to operate in the country.

The book starts with introducing several secondary characters who are Italian immigrants. Each of them grappling with some major upheaval in their lives or dilemma that they need help with, they reach out to the Godfather.  With this, the author gives us a hint of what lies sprinkled throughout the book in generous amounts – a shrewd and strategic use and redemption of favours by the Godfather.

It was pretty fascinating to read about how each Mafia “Family” functions, runs their family business(es) and operates with a well-defined and established chain of command.

Don Vito appoints two men, Clemenza and Tessio, as his Caporegimes (heading a group of men, or “regime” thereby acting as both a conduit and buffer between the men and the Don) and Tom Hagen as his Consigliere who acts as his advisor and representative in meetings. We are introduced to his family, comprising of his wife, three sons, (Santino, Frederico, Michael), daughter (Constanzia), son-in-law,  Carlo Rizzi and his Godson Johnny Fontane, a singer past his prime and trying to make a successful debut as an actor.

Santino is hot-headed and impulsive, Frederico is indecisive and more of a follower than a leader. Both join their father’s family business readily, with no thoughts of any other career options of doctors, engineers or lawyers in the civil society. Michael is the reluctant one, rebel of the family, who enlists in the Marine Corps during the war, much to the displeasure of his father. However, Puzo is quick to affirm that the Don sees his youngest son as his most suitable successor.

As the story progresses, Michael comes to the forefront and ends up making the decisions that decide the fate of several characters in the book’s final pages.

The book is divided into several parts, with some parts used to shift the narrative back to some of the characters’ origins. I loved Don Vito’s backstory where we learn how he ends up getting acquainted with Clemenza and Tessio. I would have liked the denouement to have packed in a bit more punch though. The author alludes to a “master plan” thought up by the Don that he is holding back to prevent a full-scale war among the mafia families. I just found it unbelievable that the way the Corleones strike back in the end didn’t have any repercussions.

This is one of those “guy-novels” where the female characters don’t impact the storyline. The women in this novel are the spouses who act as child-bearers, the abused partners, the mistresses, the prostitutes, or mid-wives.

My hubby recommended the book, and I was initially hesitant to start reading. I was in the mood to try something on the lines of “light-reading” and not too many classics set in the 1940s fit that criteria. The prose is quite simple and Puzo does a good job of telling a story set in this alternate world of laws, oaths and justice. Definitely worth a read!