29 October 2015

Spine-chilling Reads for this October: The Stuff of Nightmares!

If there is one maxim about books that every book-lover knows and agrees to, it is this: The book is always better than the movie! The reason is quite simple, really. The words in a book are fodder for that thing in our mind that is rarely ever in our control - our imaginations! What we can conjure up in our imaginations is much more thrilling than anything man can represent through the visual medium. 

This is more true than when you are reading the horror genre. There is something about horror that pulls you in, against your own good sense. This happens to me all the time. In the course of reading a horror novel, I keep jumping at every little sound or movement around me, and am convinced that some horrible creature is hiding behind every curtain, chair and darkened door. The minute I finish the book, I tell myself, "Never again!" And then I go to the library, and the Stephen Kings and the Dean Koontz' start calling out to me, and I cave and borrow another 800 pages of fear and regret!

So, 'Misery' loves company (get it?) and I am passing on these horror gems to you too. Here are a few novels that made me afraid of my own shadow for a really long time. Enjoy!

1. Lisey's Story, Stephen King: What is a list of horror fiction, without the king of horror himself? I
was watching a talk that Stephen King gave some students, and in it he says that people always ask him about his childhood to find out what trauma could have messed up his brain so badly. He claims that nothing happened, but I have to humbly disagree. That man has a very active imagination, I accept. But that level of 'messed up' has to be purely certifiable trauma! Just saying... Lisey's Story is another one of King's novels that I feel has a lot of him in it. It's the story of Scott Landon, a successful novelist, as recollected by Lisey Landon, his widow. Along with her, we peek into the history of mental illness that riddles Landon, his brother and his father that ultimately led to the death of the latter two. We also see the "other world" that Scott has created, to deal with the traumatic incidents in his life. If the creatures in "Boo'ya Moon" don't give you the heebie-jeebies, I don't know what will! By the way, I am reading King's Duma Key right now, and already mentally prepared to kiss goodbye to nightmare-free sleep.

2. The Visitation, Frank Peretti: Ghosts and demons are all scary enough, but throw in some
religion and it downright freaks me out! This is one of those novels that made me feel so unsafe for more than a week. The protagonist of the novel is former pastor and now drunken recluse Jordan Travis, who is disillusioned with the church and its hypocrisy, and shuns everyone in his little town. A series of miracles (weeping statues, the blind seeing, the deaf hearing and the wheelchair-ridden walking) sets the tone for the arrival of a man called Brandon Nichols who does not protest when people call him the messiah. Apart from healing people, Nichols also has the eerie ability to find out what everyone in the town is up to, without even spying on them. Turns out he is in cahoots with the Devil himself, and has a couple of demons running around doing his dirty work for him. It now lies with the reluctant Travis to find out the secret past of Nichols, convince the town of the man's evil nature, and save the town from the wrath of this demonic man. The final reveal of how Nichols became what he is, is too scary to read or recount. Please do not read unless your religious convictions, whatever they may be, are really strong. I'm serious.

3. Dean Koontz: Though his stories are not outright paranormal and supernatural like King's novels, Dean Koontz's books can be every bit bloodcurdling. I think he is seriously underrated as a horror writer. I am including 3 of his books here, because they are really gripping and fast-paced, and Koontz's story-telling skills are better than most others in his genre. 

From the Corner of His Eye: The first book of Koontz that I read, this book has one of the most malevolent villains that the horror genre has seen. Enoch Cain Jr. is first introduced to us trekking up a mountain with his girlfriend who he adores. It's a romantic walk uphill, and when they finally reach the top, he pushes her off a cliff, killing her in cold blood! There are a lot of other characters in this novel, but Enoch is the one that gave me nightmares. He is a psychopath in every sense of the word, and often there is no rhyme or reason for his malevolent behavior. His unprovoked anger combined with extreme physical strength chills the blood of everyone who comes across him, and one has to wonder what it would be like meeting an actual person like that. No one gets out alive, I'm guessing.

4. False Memory: Imagine being afraid of your own self... Koontz fast-paced and gripping narrative forces us to experience the abject terror of people with various crippling phobias. They imagine sinister beings hanging around their homes, are afraid of stepping out of their homes, or are terrified of the cutlery  in their own kitchens. I thought I would be less afraid of the phenomenon when I found out that it was just hypnosis. But then I freaked out thinking that there were people around who had the power to shut down the minds of intelligent normal folk and misuse or abuse the poor things for their twisted pleasure... Brrrhhh!!

5. The Eyes of Darkness: This is the latest Dean Koontz that I read, and I have to say, it simply gets better. Interesting thing, though, is that this was
one of his earlier works, written under the pseudonym of Leigh Nichols. A bunch of kids go on a camping trip with their teacher, and are all killed in an accident. Among them is Danny, the son of Tina Evans, who died in that accident up in the woods, when he was just 12 years old. One day Tina has a nightmare where Danny comes alive, and she wakes up with her heart pounding. Soon after she finds the words "Not Dead" written on a chalk board that has been toppled over in her son's hitherto undisturbed room. There is one scene where the housekeeper hears a really eerie high-pitched sound coming from the boy's room and goes in to find the room literally freezing over. The characters constantly get the feeling that some sinister presence is lurking in the shadows and watching them. Although Koontz gives us a plausible explanation for it all, it still did nothing to calm the hyperventilation I experienced while reading this story!  

6. Deception Point, Dan Brown: This book came as a nice surprise to me, just when I was beginning to have enough of Dan Brown and his symbolism. Deception Point was literally a case of "don't judge a book by its cover" moment for me! Deception Point is a political+sci-fi thriller and calling it a page-turner would be an understatement. Every page has suspense, twists, and the heart-pounding that Dan Brown is known for. Plot points? Well, suffice to say that scientists find definitive evidence of alien life. And when I say 'definitive evidence', you know that Dan Brown has the magical ability to smudge all the lines between reality and fiction, and make us question our very basic knowledge and beliefs regarding our whole existence!! That's what he does here! Read it! It'll drive you bonkers!

7. Neanderthal, John Darnton: Ever heard of him? This was the first time I had heard his name, and
I was not prepared for the level of suspense in this book. A scientist finds a tribe of actual neanderthals living somewhere in the mountains in Asia. (Wait... is that racist? Oh well, whatever). Anyway, this fact is not revealed straight away, and it takes the two protagonists a while to figure this out. Meanwhile their journey there is simply nerve-racking for the reader. Coming face to face with the neanderthals is also spine-chilling, as it would be if we actually met some real ones, I'd imagine! The book does drag into the second half. I expect that is because the most interesting part (finding the existence of neanderthals) is over, and now we just wait to see what modern humans are going to do with that information. I read some reviews on Goodreads and I have to say some of them where a bit ungenerous. Still, I liked it a lot because the theme was so new to me, and I thought Neanderthal should find a place on this list. Yes, I realize I am apologizing too much for this book!

8. The Next To Die, Kevin O'Brien: Someone is killing off gay people in Hollywood in the most gruesome ways possible and leaking the personal stories of the stars to the press. Dayle Sutton, a rising actress, is all set to play the role of a gay lawyer in her next movie. As she sees her gay friends being butchered in real life, and their personal lives butchered in the press, she wonders if she will be killed next. The parallel story is of a Hollywood couple who are the people's sweethearts but they have a sad marriage owing to the mental illness of the wife. The characterization is very realistic and the murders chilling enough to make it seem all too real in our minds. 

9. Flash Point, Metsy Hingle: Another new find for me, Metsy Hingle is a great storyteller who creates enough suspense to make us want to turn the
page in a hurry. She also creates detailed characters who become endearing with their quirky conversations and their tender romance. The story is so simple that the paranormal aspect of the story catches us off guard every time. Kelly Santos, a New York photographer, comes to her hometown when she hears that her favorite friend and mentor from her orphanage has died. She returns reluctantly, only to see a vision of the murder of a man. She goes to the police to warn them of the murder, but finds herself suspected of the same. Only homicide detective Jack Callaghan is willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Kelly is shy by nature, and what forces her to avoid people even more is the fact that every time she touches someone or something, she gets a vision of the past of the person or senses if they are in danger. Hingle springs Kelly's visions on us so suddenly that it sends us reeling, just as much as it does Kelly Santos. A good read with enough twists to keep us guessing.

10. The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe: Well, hello! There has to be Poe! The Raven is not a novel, I know. But you read that poem and tell me it doesn't give you the chills. A raven itself is quite an unsettling creature, with its dead eyes, pitch black feathers, and the potential to gouge your eyes out (Thanks a lot, Hitchcock!). And then it just sits outside Poe's window, and repeats "Nevermore" and then stares at him. I think it was Poe who single-handedly turned the raven into a quintessential symbol of horror, thus completing the scary fauna selection for horror-movie directors everywhere. With the owl, the raven, shrieking bats, and the black cat, I think we have blood-curdling covered!

So there it is. 10 horror novels that gave me my worst case of neck-hair prickling, goose-bumps inducing, spine-chilling scares. Read at your own peril! Don't forget to enjoy...

19 October 2015

Colors Infinity - Too Many Cooks?

Yes, Colors Infinity is finally gracing us, complete with a semblance of a TV schedule, with actual
 ads and repeats and all that. Indian Television can now boast of having one more entertainment channel and 7 more shows we are going to ignore to watch a bunch of drawling Australians cook. Don't get me wrong, I mean Masterchef Australia is actually one of the best shows on TV right now, whether reality or otherwise. But I feel that 'My Kitchen Rules' is actually worse than Masterchef US. I could rant about that last one for a week, but I'm savoring it for a later date when I really feel like punching a wall!

Right now, back to Colors Infinity. A new channel with a good look, I think those guys have their television-loving hearts in the right place. Colors doesn't err too much in these things. Even their Hindi line-up is decent. 

Here's why I would want to watch Colors Infinity:

Good Line-up of Shows - Colors Infinity offers some really good shows. Blindspot is an awesome show. The excessively tattoed woman who can't remember who she is, but can take down three men in under 10 seconds... I mean, COME ON! And she has an FBI agent's name tattoed to her back...INtriiigggue!! Black Mirror is another show that actually deserves the adjective 'gripping'! With one-hour long episodes, each telling a different story, I kind of got an acutely Roald-Dahl vibe from the show. And I LOVE Dahl, so thumbs-up right there. Shows I wouldn't mind watching are Flash, The Big C, and Forever.

The Stage: Another singing contest reality show, The Stage is different from the rest in that it features Indian contestants singing English songs. A refreshing change from other reality shows of this kind, so far, The Stage doesn't have any of that stupid introspective inane monologues that contestants indulge in and there is no bitching (yet) of other contestants. A nice surprise is that the judges are actually fair and open with their critiquing. I completely expected them to be impressed
with every contestant who did a poor imitation of every singer from Western pop music. But it was nice to be proved wrong! When someone is all swag and no performance, they call the person out on their BS and send them to the bench. Seriously, try slipping a quick one past Vishal Dadlani! The judges are equally quick to appreciate an unassuming contestant if they have an amazing voice. More than anything, all judges unanimously insist that the contestants bring out their unique personalities to their singing, and make the song their own, instead of doing an imitation of the original artiste. The cherry on top is the pleasantly engaging Shibani Dandekar, who hosts the show with a 'Çat Deeley' vibe, but toned down tastefully for an Indian audience. Her language is impeccable, and has none of the vomit-inducing vocabulary like 'mind-blowing'and áwesome'and 'fantabulous'... blech! I have a sour taste in my mouth just saying those words! Looks like Colors Infinity has put a lot of serious thought into putting The Stage together, and it does not disappoint.

However, there's a couple of things where the channel is completely missing the point, and that's where AXN and FX are going to steal audience numbers if Colors Infinity doesn't get its act together quickly.

How Colors Infinity is Pulling the Rug out from under its own feet:

'Curating'by Karan Johar and Alia Bhatt - Seriously? Anything with Karan Johar and Alia Bhatt is meant to suck big time (refer Student of the Year, every episode of Koffee with Karan where Alia was the guest, and every time those two appear together on screen...EVER! 'Think intelligence black hole'...) Anyways, I don't know who made the decision to put those two in charge of anything at Colors Infinity, and quite frankly, other than the word 'çurating' (as if this were a museum? Wha...? *smh*) I don't know what those two bring to the table. And going by how hoity-toity and totally unnecesary the word 'curating'sounds in relation to a TV channel, I bet that was Karan Johar's idea. Classic Karan Johar, along with his ridiculous Broadway-James Bond cross dance with leggy girls! 

The Schedule: This is why you can't put Karan and Alia in charge of real work - the scheduling of shows at Colors Infinity. Those two are just sufficiently out of touch with reality to assume that normal people have 3 hours to spare, sitting in front of the telly watching 3 episodes back to back of any show, however popular or gripping it is. Most people watching shows during the evenings are folks back from work, sometimes bringing a bit of work home, or making dinner or feeding kids or getting them to finish homework, or getting ready for bed in general. And these are not shows that you can let run in the background and go on with your work, and still keep track of the story. Believe me, I've tried it! So, the back-2-back episodes are just not working. You get hooked on the first episode and you really want to watch, but by the time the opening credits roll for the second episode, you find that there are a million things left undone around you, and you've just got to ditch this show and hope for reruns some time in the future. FAIL guys!
Yeah...I wouldn't advertise that, if I were you!
Shows that don't really work: My Kitchen Rules, as I said earlier, is a messed-up version of Australians cooking. They have taken the back-biting and sabotaging to a whole new level, by giving these inane people the right to score their opponents! Predictably, the contestants deliberately give each other low scores. Nice going guys. Real mature! iZombie, Arrow, and The Musketeers are a few other shows I happened to watch. They just didn't keep me hooked all that much, and I let them go after a couple of episodes, I'm afraid.

I confess I haven't followed Colors Infinity from start of the day to the end, and there are some shows like Chasing Life, The Player, The Last Ship (promos looked really good), The Night Shift etc. that I simply have never watched, because its just not possible to do that and continue to live like a functioning member of the human race. So this isn't a thorough review of the channel. This is just my overall impression, and comments on some glaring issues and some really good stuff I noticed.

Well, as TV channels go, this is not one of the worst, I'll say. That honor goes to MTV. That channel has been on a downward spiral for a long time now! Anyways, Colors Infinity is in its growing years, and I'm sure they are going to get better with time. I'm really looking forward to the news shows on their list - The Royals (sounds delicious!), Bates Motel (some good old psycho horror) and Nashville (I'm sure there's got to be oodles of sass in that one. Backstage with singing sensations! Oooh!) So, yay! There's not much that can go wrong from now on.


Oh, Karan? Please stop saying 'paradigm shift'! Just STOP!

06 October 2015

My Comeback Post - 3 years in the making!

I read my last post about doing nothing for an hour, and I remember thinking that getting an hour like that in my whole day was such a luxury. And now, I would give an arm and a leg for that kind of time, and I still wouldn't get any!! That post reminds me of how relaxed I used to be and what has changed since then that has forced me to practically fall of the grid.

This is my comeback post, because, seriously, come back sleep, come back good skin, please come back 25-year old body with ache-free back, come back normal food habits and clean vomit-free clothes, and please, oh please come back peace and quiet!!

On the other hand, I am glad that was the price to pay, for the joy I have right now.

Here's what happened: (I have held off writing this for 3 years, since it is still difficult to put words to paper and express my thoughts clearly. Everything's turned out well since then, and that gives me the confidence to talk about things...)

During April of 2013, I was smack in the middle of my second pregnancy. In December of the previous year, we found out I was carrying twins and we were elated. Ours was the first twins pregnancy in a long, long time in both our families and everyone was eagerly looking forward to it. It was a difficult pregnancy at best (which one isn't!) and it was also one of the hottest years I have ever experienced in my whole life. I think 100% of all Indian residents will concur with me on that.

So anyway, we had just been to the doctor on 14 April for my 6-month checkup and the doctor told me everything was normal, and that I should start walking more. I, on the other hand, needed a person to help me to so much as roll over in bed! 'Huge as a house'would have been a crass understatement!

On the morning of 16th April, I woke up in extreme pain, and I couldn't sit or stand or keep any food down. We called our respective mothers, and both advised that we had better go to the doctor just in case. I could barely climb down the 15 or so steps leading down from our house on the first floor, and the trip to the hospital (which was literally across the street) was agony. Once there, the on-call nurses took one look at me, put me in a wheelchair and took me up to the labor room.

They said that my labor pains had started, and for the first time in my life I felt abject fear. More than 2 years after the fact, and my heart is still pounding as I write this. I just prayed, "Lord please hold my children inside of me for a little longer until they are strong enough to come out. You gave them to me, and now You are going to make sure I get to actually hold them in my arms." The doctor gave me some injections to strengthen the heart and lungs of the twins, and also some drugs to delay the delivery. We held on for another 24 hours, but finally on 17th morning I started to show signs of labor again, and the nurses suddenly whisked me off to the labor room. I was in there for a few hours with not a single familiar face to comfort me. All I had was the faith that God was with me in that room, and He was still in control of the situation, no matter how hopeless it seemed. At that moment I decided that I would talk more about God to Debbie and my twins (in the faith that they will be born healthy) because I realized that sometimes you can end up in situations where even your most loved ones cannot be by your side, and you may feel totally alone  in this huge, mean world. And the ONLY PERSON who can be with you wherever you are and offer words of comfort is God.

At around 3:30 pm, I entered the final stages of labor, and Judith Grace Hamilton was born at exactly 4:04 pm. 3 minutes later, out came Jason Russell Hamilton. I didn't know who was born first at the time, and all I remember was the doctor telling me that it was a breach delivery and that the chord was tied badly around both of them. They emerged looking so tiny, and grey, and .... silent. I think that was the most chilling moment in my life. Right this moment, my heart is stuck somewhere between my chest and my throat and my hands are shaking so badly I can't even type this....

The Neonatal first-aid team was standing by and my doctor just handed the babies over to them. She later told me that even she didn't get a good look at the babies. All she cared about was handing them over to the neonatal team so that the babies could receive the care they so desperately required.

The post-labor time was more difficult for me as my fear for the life of my children had taken over, and I had dropped my guard against the pain I was experiencing. I just wanted to know if my kids were alive or not. Later Hamilton would tell me how he was undergoing his own pain, as he stood feeling helpless and very afraid outside the ICU of the Neo-natal hospital while doctors and nurses took his new-born children in without a word to him. He said that the only thing he could do was pray and intercede with God for the lives of his kids. 

This is them at around 40 days. Jason on the left, and Judy beside him
Judy weighed 800 grams when she was born, and Jason fared slightly better at 890 grams. The neonatal specialist, a lifesaver in the true sense of the word, told us that Judy seemed to suffer from some kind of infection and was struggling to come out of the womb, and hence the premature birth. He said he had never taken in babies as premature as ours, but he would do everything in his capacity to help the babies. The twins were kept in the Neo-Natal ICU, on a heart monitor, respirator machine and ten other gizmos for the next two months. My kids required help breathing since their heart and lungs had not fully formed. In fact, almost all their internal organs were underdeveloped. For the first two months, they couldn't even accept mother's milk in its original form. The nurses used to re-grind some nutritional supplement powder and add it in small quantities to the milk to thicken it slightly so that it would settle in their stomachs and not regurgitate into their lungs and give them an infection, or worse, affect their breathing. The milk used to be fed through very thin tubes inserted through their noses, going directly to their stomachs. They were given blood quite a few times, and were also given a cart-load of medicines throughout their stay in the hospital.

I was allowed to hold Judy around 40 days after her birth. They was as tiny as newly born kittens and could barely open their eyes. When they cried their faces would contort but no sound would come out, since their throats were sore from tubes being inserted into their throats so many times.

Jason is on the left, and Judy with the extreme balloon cheeks, next to him
Judy was the first to hit the target weight of 1kg and was able to breath room air without support. Hence she was sent to our hospital room first, so that the doctor and his team could monitor us to see if we could care for Judy efficiently. I had to learn how to feed her milk orally from a tiny container. I had to learn how to mix all her medicines into the milk as I fed her, according to a huge timetable that was given to us. And I had to learn to stay alert at all times, even in my sleep, and be aware of every breath my child took. Jason joined us after a week, but the week away from his sister had dampened his spirits a little bit I think, and a day after he had been with us, he had some breathing trouble and had to go back into the ICU.
We finally left for home after having been in the hospital for 72 days. We practically lived out of that hospital room. Debbie would even come back there from school and do her homework sitting with us.

The hospital had very strict rules about people visiting the babies inside the ICU. Only parents were allowed to see the babies or hold them. Grandparents were allowed only for 30 minutes at a certain time in the day, and even then they were not allowed to hold the babies. This was done to ensure that the already struggling babies did not have to deal with further infections from outside.

Debbie with Judy

I remember that Debbie was so upset that she couldn't meet her brother and sister whom she had been waiting to see for so long. She made such a fuss, that the doctor eased the rules for the first time and allowed her to catch a glimpse of the babies through a window of the ICU. And one night, when the doctor was away, the nurses sneaked Debbie in for a couple of minutes to peek at the twins! I could see the happiness and pride radiating from her smile when she first lay eyes on them...

Debbie holds Judy for the first time.
The doctor said that we had to maintain a highly clean and infection-free area around the children for a few more months, and so we actually moved to a bigger house, so we could have one room specially for the twins. No one except me, my mom and my sis were allowed inside that room, since we were the primary care-givers. I lived in that room for the next 1 year, and only stepped out for a few hours to attend my sister's wedding... Yes, my sister got married in the interim, and I could not even be fully involved in it. I still regret the missed opportunity. She also had a little girl last year, and little Sarah is turning one this month.

Okay, here's a nice picture of those cuties:

My sister Jone and her hubby Wilson

This little chilli is Sarah Abigail Wilson

Anyways, our little twins have improved in health in leaps and bounds since our time in the hospital. They are now 2-and-a-half and are terrors in their own respects. They are doted on by relatives, neighbors and strangers on the street alike, and frankly, I think they're a little spoilt!

Debbie has introduced Judy to the awesomeness of bubbles and the concept has caught on. Jason... hmm... well, not so impressed.
They can fray your nerves to the last tiny thread and then give you such an angelic smile that you are suddenly confused as to why your were cross with them moments ago!

They love, LOVE, their dad and tolerate their mom. I've made my peace with that, since I figure it only serves to prove the fact that I'm the one who disciplines and brings up the kids in earnest and their Dad simply puts in an appearance at the end of the day, as the FUN GUY!

Although, it is sweet to watch him with the kids, so... 
Judy is the wisecrack of the lot, and just as I suspected when she was barely a week old, she's a control freak who has her brother and sister on a short leash!

The face that launched a thousand fights, spills, and hours of cleaning up terrible messes!
Jason is much quieter and reserved and always has an amused smile on his face, as if we all look comical to him as we scurry around with our lives, and he alone is aware of the higher meaning of it all, .

He loves his wheels, whether on a car, a bike, a kiddy tricycle, or broken off a toy and spinning helplessly on the floor!
Their best friend is their ever-patient, loving tolerant elder sister, who has had the good fortune of living with nosy 2-year old siblings just when she is beginning to appreciate having her own room, her own stuff and some privacy. Poor thing is often found crying that her homework notebooks got scribbled on, her hair accessories got thrown in the garbage or her Barbies got painted with markers... I empathize...

Side note: Proudest moment - watching my kid check books out from the library
I wanted to share this story because during our hard times I had read about a couple of families who had premature kids, and how they struggled. I just want to put my story out there because I believe it can give hope to others who have premature kids. I want to assure them that preemies are fighters and will overcome all odds to live a healthy life. All we need to do is have faith and patience and hope. Oh, and also, a LOT of patience, because, guess what, preemies are more prone to be extremely mischievous and they lack an appreciation for discipline and authority much more than other kids. So, yeah, get yourself an extra dose of patience and teeth-gritting and swearing-under-the-breath!

The Twins' first birthday

Judy bored when the food took a long time to come out at a restaurant

I love this chap to bits!
I want to end this post by saying Thank You! Thank you to all my readers, friends, colleagues, relatives and everyone who helped us out through this ordeal when our children were in the hospital. Some of you helped us financially, some brought us meals regularly, some stuck around for a really long time on the day of the birth and the days following, to hold our hands, encourage us, and just sit with us. Many of our friends visited regularly in the hospital, and we felt like we really had a protective wall of people watching out for us. I have to talk about some of our colleagues who gave blood for the twins several times. Words cannot express how grateful we are to you guys! And to all those people out there who kept us in your prayers, I just want to say thank you so much. Miracles can happen when God answers our prayers, and my children are the very proof of that. 

Phew... Okay, I am all talked out right now, and so glad I did this. Now all I have to do is have my fingers crossed and hope that I can keep doing this blogging thing at a sensible rate and that my kids don't delete my first drafts from the desktop when I'm not looking...

That's all for now, folks!