By Vikas Datta
For dedicated readers, or those who choose books for reading pleasure and not just to pass time, there can never be too many books. Yet even the most devoted adherent can overlook works that particularly interest them, given the vast amount of material available in every genre imaginable.
The reason isn’t too hard to see – books are written by people for the enjoyment and edification of other people, and given the interconnectedness of human experience, something or the other will touch a chord with someone somewhere.
Whether it’s, say, a cross-generational, cross-cultural romance set in pre-World War II Singapore, a “ripped from the headlines” thriller taking on a Daniel Pearl-like situation in Karachi, a story of political or criminal chicanery set in a forgotten corner of Europe, or sub-Saharan Africa, or a darkly comic look at a historical episode big or small, through the eyes of an anti-hero, or more.
Let’s look at a handful of books that may defy insertion into particular genres, may go unnoticed, but are compelling and delightful reads. Of course, there’s a caveat that playback choices can be very subjective, but then some of them might click, too.
The Mafia has inspired a number of books and films, the most famous of which is Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” (1969). A contemporary and less dark, even rambunctious look is American journalist and author James Earle ‘Jimmy’ Breslin’s “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight” (1969; filmed in 1971 with Robert DeNiro).
Based superficially on the life of New York mobster Joey Gallo aka “Crazy Joe”, it’s the story of Kid Sally Palumbo, a longtime Brooklyn mob agent and skilled in murder, who brings him to life. attention from local high mob boss, Baccala, but his calling doesn’t bring him the money and respect he needs. Also because his mental abilities are negligible – “Baccala was of the opinion that Kid Sally Palumbo could not run a gas station for profit even if he stole customers’ cars.”
To prevent Sally from causing trouble, the boss offers her an easy mission: organize a bicycle race through Brooklyn and keep the profits. The result: a messy turf war that quickly engulfs the borough and that the usually complacent police cannot ignore. And yes, there is also a lion somewhere.
Jokes are hard to stop evoking laughter – say: “Raymond the wolf died in his sleep one night of natural causes; his heart stopped beating when the three men who crept into his room stuck knives.” There are plenty of others like that. And the caricatures and the failed love story complete the whole thing.
More serious, but no less convincing, is the historical fiction “Samarkand” by the Franco-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf (1988 French, 1994 English).
This combines a depiction of 11th-century Persia and Central Asia, where poet-astronomer Omar Khayyam attempts to compile his famous “Rubaiyat”, and early 20th-century Iran, where a young American a impetuous little named Benjamin Omar Lesage tries to get his hands on the original manuscript of the book and gets involved in the Revolution of 1905.
Khayyam’s interactions with historical figures like the Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk and Hassan al-Sabbah, founder of the feared Order of Assassins, and his love affair with a titular city poetess add flavor to the story. work. The modern part deals with the American’s view of Persian culture and history and its bittersweet romance.
Lesage finally achieves his goal and sends his precious package home – only he chooses the Titanic.
Espionage, with all of its twists and layers and layers of deception, is a difficult genre to pull off, even for those who have firsthand experience of it. However, there is no shortage of books – Dan Fesperman’s ‘The Double Game’ (2012) gives a long list of old and new authors who are not well known – Geoffrey Davison, Desmond Cory, Adam Diment, Kenneth Benton, Alan Williams , and more.
British novelist Gavin Scott is also a filmmaker and screenwriter of Dreamworks’ Emmy-winning “Mists of Avalon” miniseries, “Small Soldiers.” After moving to the United States, he teamed up with George Lucas to develop and script “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles”. We are, however, concerned about his Duncan Forrester series.
“The Age of Treachery” (2016), set in Oxford a year after the end of World War II, has former Special Operations Executive Officer Duncan Forrester looking to resume his academic career, but the atmosphere of his University becomes tense when a much hated don is found murdered in the quadrangle and his colleague and friend is the main accused.
Our hero, whose PTSD has yet to be brought under control, steps in to save him and must navigate lost Viking sagas, satanic rituals and wartime espionage on his quest.
What elevates this are a few cameos from fellow scholar JRR Tolkien, preoccupied with his first ‘Lord of the Rings’ manuscript, helpful ex-colleague turned journalist (and aspiring author) Ian Fleming, and the toxic atmosphere of ambition and extremism as the Cold War begins even as Nazism remains to be rooted out.
If you like it, Forrester returns in “The Age of Olympus” (2017), which is set in Greece heading into civil war, and “The Age of Exodus” (2018), which is set in 1947, where the Great Britain comes to terms with the loss of her empire, a grisly murder at the British Museum and terrorists targeting a top minister make for gripping reading.
“Moghul Buffet/Murder in Peshawar” (2003) by researcher and analyst Cheryl Barnard, who also happens to be the wife of top US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, is another difficult book to categorize.
On the face of it, it tells the story of an American businessman who vanished from a Peshawar hotel, leaving only a cryptic message stained with blood and supposedly murdered. As her sister travels from the United States to find out her fate, there is a series of other murders, including those of a prominent local businessman and a fundamentalist cleric.
A police officer of integrity is sent from Islamabad to shed light on what is going on, and his wise wife and her hotwire journalist friend accompany him, while in Peshawar, an enigmatic woman from high society, an amorous student , an abused woman, and so on, complete the scene.
Technically a mystery, it’s also a comically dark look at modern Pakistani society, including its complicated gender roles and relations, how it interacts with the West, and, of course, the birth of the Taliban.
On a different genre and continent is journalist-turned-writer Nicholas Drayson’s ingenious yet endearing love story “A Guide to the Birds of East Africa” (2008), starring a Nairobi businessman , Mr. Malik, as well as his family and friends.
The middle-aged, short, slightly overweight and bald widower has a crush on the leader of his Tuesday morning bird walk and plans to invite him to his club’s annual ball, but a rival – a former classmate – surfaces unexpectedly and has the same goal. To solve the problem, their club members devise a unique gamble – and ensure plenty of misadventures for the two in the scenic Kenyan countryside, with not-so-sweet political intrigue to keep the reader enthralled.
You can see what Malik, his family and friends are up to next in “A Guide To Beasts of East Africa” (2012), where his planning for his club’s annual safari is hit by a series of bizarre crimes, which puts its very existence at risk.
It’s up to him and his friends to unravel this skein, as well as an age-old murder, recover the club’s mascot, and finally identify Africa’s most dangerous beast.
Try one of these – they can be quite appealing!