What I read in 2017 – Part 2 (Fiction)

I read a lot of fiction. Mostly crime-fiction, it is my guilty pleasure and companion on all my flights. Choosing what to read has been a very random decision. Sometimes I pick a book because I wanted to explore a new author or explore crime-fiction from a different country, language or theme.. And sometimes just because I synced my kindle with random books in my collection. Amidst all the crime-fiction I did read a couple of literary fiction, although I must confess that I had planned to read a lot more of literary fiction last year. If I look back at the books that I read last year, I explored several new authors and new series (from new or established authors) . So here goes the list of fiction that I read in 2017.

  • Poisonfeather by Matthew FitzSimmons– The second book in the Gibson Vaughn series. Gibson Vaughn is turning out to be an interesting new character. After reading The Short Drop, which got some good reviews on Amazon last year, I somewhat liked this character. Humane, emotional, troubled and super-hacker.
  • Cold Harbor by Matthew FitzSimmons – As mentioned above, I went ahead with the 3rd installment of the Vaughn series. A bit disappointed by the plot and the treatment but Vaughn did not let me drop this book unfinished.
  • Iron House by John Hart – There are very few popular crime-fiction writers who can write well. John Hart can blur the line between crime-fiction and literary fiction. If you have not read John Hart, you must explore his work. He is also the only author to have won two Edger Awards for his consecutive books.
  • Redemption Road by John Hart– The latest from John Hart and again he did not disappoint.
  • The Nowhere Man by Gregg Hurwitz– I discovered Gregg Hurwitz last year with Orphan X. Orphan X, the title character is a likable amalgamation of Jason Bourne, Mich Rapp, Will Robbie. Gregg Hurwitz surprised me with Orphan X (in fact impressed quite a few including Warner Brother who bought the rights for a movie series) and made me look forward to the new installment of this series. Fast paced, suspenseful and high-octane thrill ride.
  • IQ by Joe IDE-Isaiah Quintabe (IQ) is another character inspired by Sherlock Holmes, but in a very different setting and with a very different treatment. IQ, an orphan, exploring the accident that killed his brother, is lovable, street-smart and super-intelligent. The plot set in LA is quite engaging and realistic.
  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty– This satire by Paul Beatty, is one of the most talked about books of 2016 and winner of Man Booker Prize 2016. Highly enjoyable, unlike some of the other award winning books who disappoint on this front.
  • Chitralekha by Bhagvaticharan Varma– This philosophical novel deals with sin, virtue, desire and passion and how circumstances enslave people. Recommended for anyone interested in reading good Hindi literature.
  • Disgrace by J M Coetzee– Nothing much to add about this book. Masterpiece. One of the best books of last 50 years.
  • The Silent Corner by Dean Koontz– Last year I read Dean Koontz for the first time and immediately I knew why he is rated as one of the best authors of suspense thriller genre. When I read the blurb of this book, it was an automatic choice: a new character (Jane Hawk), elements of sci-fi, and the usual Dean Koontz style of storytelling.
  • Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz -A very intelligent whodunit that reminds us of Agatha Christie. A book within a book, a murder mystery within a murder mystery.. And a clever twist in the end.
  • The Trespasser by Tana French– Did not find anything great to talk about. Mediocre police procedural.
  • The Dry by Jane Harper– One of the better crime novels to hit the stand last year. It deservingly received rave reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.
  • Natchez Burning by Greg Iles: The first in the Natchez Burning trilogy. The expansive story that goes beyond the crime fiction genre to portray the racial hatred in this atmospheric thriller.
  • The Naturalist by Andrew Mayne -Another random pick based, which turned out to be a good read. A computational biologist turns investigators to prove his innocence in a murder case. Apart from him, the only other suspect is a wild bear; and our biologist discovers that the wild bear is innocent/being framed.
  • The Fix by David Baldacci – Another installment of Amos Decker.
  • Night School by Lee Child – Passable.
  • The Guilty by David Baldacci – Will Robbie series. Engaging.
  • 1st To Die by James Patterson – One of the earlier books of James Patterson. And it tells you why he became so successful.
  • The Girl Who Takes An Eye for An Eye by David Lagercrantz – Lisbeth Salander compelled me to read this as soon as it was out.
  • House of Spies by Daniel Silva – Daniel Silva gives a glimpse of international terror network in the latest book of Gabriel Allon series. Typical Daniel Silva stuff but nothing great.
  • Origin by Dan Brown– The latest from Dan Brown and it was a bit disappointing.

What I read in 2017- 1 (Non-fiction)

Thanks to my sleeping disorder and the age-old habit of going to bed with a book or kindle, I did manage to finish 30 books this year. There are several books that I left midway or just finished a few chapters and dropped them (or put them on to-be-finished-later list). While crime-fiction remains my guilty pleasures and preferred genre for light reading/in the flight reading, this year, I ended up reading some thought-provoking non-fiction and literary fiction. Although, I feel bad that I could not read some of the most talked about books this year. Lincoln in the Bardo, The gene, When Breath Becomes Air.. although these are the books still on my reading list and I hope to finish them in 2018. So here is the list of books that I read in 2017(Non-fiction).

  • The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche – Undoubtedly one of the most impactful and thought-provoking book that I read this year. In fact, it was more than reading. Every page, every chapter that I read forced me to go through lengthy ruminations and introspection. I have already recommended this book to many people who want to explore Buddhism or are looking to find some meaning and solace in life. This profound book helps you live better, be a better human being by dissecting our final destination i.e. death. Many people pick this book in the fag end of their life when death starts staring at them, but this is the book one should read as early as possible to live a better life. Although the title has the word ‘dying’ in it but this is a book about living.
  • At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell – Almost 18 years back, I got to know Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus by serendipity. I found second hand copies of their works (Being and Nothingness and The Rebel) in old book shops in Patna. At that time I only knew these names because they appeared in some quotable quotes in some magazines or newspapers. Though I liked the Rebel but I could not manage to go beyond the first chapter of Being and Nothingness (It is rated one of the most difficult books to read) till recently. But both Camus and Sartre intrigued me and I went to read some of their popular works later. ‘At the Existentialist Cafe’ is an intimate and interesting narrative of leading figure of existentialist movement: Sarte, Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Heidegger and others. As the author puts it “Their ideas were interesting but their personal lives are more interesting than their ideas”. After reading the book, one gets a very different perspective about the entire existentialist philosophy.
  • The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben – A fascinating read. My two-years at IIFM introduced me to many things about trees and forest by forcing us to read those horribly written sleep-inducing technical text books. Reading them was a compulsion. But this is the book which makes it so much fun to explore trees and their ecosystem. I strongly suggest that this should be the first book that a person who is interested in trees and forest should read.
  • The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J Levitin A very good resource for anyone who is looking to get cutting edge brain science behind how people organize their life and work.
  • Profit Over People by Noam Chomsky The book reminds of our often misplaced faith in the infallibility of the unregulated market. He produces a scathing attack on neoliberalism and points out the major flaws. Very good read to understand the limitations of the market led development and how big corporates play the market.
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – Coates’s letter to his son shows us what does it mean to grow up as a black kid in today’s America. Coates writing is brilliant and his portrayal of black life in America raises many questions.
  • How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci – Last year, a friend talked very highly of The Antidote – Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking and I read it on his suggestion. This book got my interest piqued in stoicism. Pigliucci’s book popped in my book recommendations in Goodreads and I should thank Goodreads for that. This book clarified many of misconceptions about stoicism.

The Oraganized Mind

Despite my several attempts to oThe_Organized_Mind_hardcover_coverrganize information in different ways, I am still to find a way that works decently for me. My job frequently requires synthesizing a lot of information,  and to do that I need to quickly retrieve information, often stored in different digital formats across multiple machines.

Retrieving information is primarily a function of how one’s brain processes and organizes information, and how information is organized in physical or digital space. Poor organization puts a lot of stress on brain’s limited resources and I get frustrated when I am not able to recall something easily.

The frustration led me to invest in a comprehensive study of whatever that can help me in organizing stuff in a better way. The Konmari method, made popular by the book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” is great for un-cluttering the life but did not help me much in  managing information and how I can use or understand my mind so that I can organize better.

But The  Organized Mind does a great job in that regard. There are a lot of great tips but more than that it is also an exciting read on how our mind manages, organizes information. What I like most about the book that it goes beyond suggestions/tips and explains the rationale and science behind it. It surely makes my life a bit easier.

Malice – Another gem from Higashino

Keigo Higashino is referred as ‘the Japanese Stieg Larsson’ on the cover of this book. I think this is a very bizarre comparison if I consider the plot and writing style of these two authors. The comparison can only be justified if we consider a) both write crime fiction, and b) both have been bestsellers in their respective countries. Anyway, I am happy if this comparison brings more people to read to this master storyteller’s work. wpid-PastedGraphic-2015-01-4-13-38.tiff
Malice, written in 1996, is the third book by Higashino to be translated in to English from Japanese. The other two books “The Devotion of Suspect X” and “Salvation of a Saint” are among the best murder mysteries that I read in last five years. In both these books, readers were aware of who committed the crime but the mystery was how the murders were committed. In Malice, we know who committed the murder but the mystery was why the murder was committed.
Kunihiko Hidaka, a bestselling author, was found dead by his wife Rie and friend Nonoguchi just before he was to move to a new country. Detective Kaga, ex-colleague of Nonoguchi, gets the responsibility of the case and soon he discovers major flaws in Nonoguchi’s alibi. Nonoguchi, a writer himself and aspiring to be a bestseller author like Hidaka, confesses his crime but there were many missing pieces in his confession about the motive of the crime.
Higashino narrates the story through Nonoguchi’s and Kaga’s written accounts of the event during the investigation. The two main characters of Malice are writers and there is a lot of discussion of meeting timeline and writing styles, yet Higashino’s prose is bereft of any literary-ostentatiousness. Higashino is easy on his readers.
Malice is another gem from Higashino. I am eagerly waiting for his other works to be translated in English.

The Goldfinch – A very short review of a rather long book

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I just finished “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tart. A really bulky book (784 pages) and on top of it this is a very slow book. I read some glowing reviews of this book and since I was planning to read something other than a murder mystery or thriller I chose to read this book. This was anyway the first book from this author so I had no clue about what kind of experience I am going to have.

This is a story of a son who lost his mother in a bomb blast in a museum and gained multi-million dollar painting “The Goldfinch”. The whole book is about a dead mother, a lost painting and growing up years of a grieving son. However, the supremely detailed narration is drab and dreary. I kept on going through this book, searching for things that made this novel the most talked about bestseller fiction of this year. The Independent and many others summarized this as a gripping page turner that describes modern day life. Surely my reading taste is different than many of these reviewers. Although, there are still some readers who will agree with me.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hours Bookstore – A nostalgic read

Some places might not be very exotic, scenic or on people’s list of must see-must visit but often they offer something that many places do not: nostalgia and comfort arising out of familiarity. The neighbourhood park where one spent many of the childhood evenings playing with friends is one such place. If we take this analogy to stories, Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hours Bookstore is one such story. This is a story of 24 hour bookstore which employs a recession-hit, out-of-the-job website designer Clay Jannon.

A simple story which takes you through some of the familiar world of books and technology. There is an undercurrent debate on traditional books/bookstore vs the modern technology; and a fistful of elements taken from mystery and suspense thrillers thrown in there. The story forces one to move from one page to another, but for me reading the book was akin to visiting the neighbourhood park of my young days. There were a lot of things to make me feel nostalgic or relate to the story. Clay was a web-designer, loves technology (is a MacBook/iPhone/Kindle guy) and loves book

Mr. Penumbra’s quaint bookstore is not a normal bookstore, it has mainly arcane and cryptic books for a devoted clientele. Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore has a higher purpose and Clay Jannon, the bookstore clerk, is not supposed to know that. But the curiosity gets better of him. With the help of his friend ( a lady who works at Google ) and Google’s tech-tools, Jannon tries to figure out the true story behind this unusual bookstore full of books containing gibberish.

Robin Sloan provides interesting glimpses of a modern metropolitan life, and pervasiveness and potential of technology. However, the story takes a formulaic path in the end and is only salvaged by the characterisation and the narrative.

Decoded – An Unusual Thriller

Although, Decoded blurb and reviews considered the book to be a thriller, it is surely not a thriller in the traditional sense. It is a languid and intriguing story of a mathematical genius who worked for a top secret cryptography unit of Chinese government. However, this is surely worth a read for its beautiful, poignant  and intelligent portrayal of a life of a mathematics genius.

I had never heard of Mai Jia or any of his works before this book, but the glowing reviews and the bestseller status of this book made me pick this one. Also, since this year I am reading translated popular fiction of different countries, this book fit very well in my reading plan. In China, Mia Jia is a literary sensation and his work has been adapted in movies and television serials.

The blurb of this book and all the online reviews, highlight that this book is a thriller, about cryptography, code breaking etc., but I did not find any elements of a thriller or mention of these themes in first 100 pages. However, this book is not boring, on the contrary, the first 100 pages gave a very interesting snapshot of China in 1960s and described the childhood of a socially awkward mathematics genius Rong Jinzhen.

The story turns into a new direction, more familiar to the genre of spy thrillers, when Rong Jinzhen gets recruited by a mysterious character and disappears from the normal life to join the cryptography section of China’s military intelligence. Rong gets the task to solve two legendary ciphers PURPLE and BLACK, developed by his long time friend, professor and mentor who now works with Country X. Mai Jia (the pen name of Jiang Benhu), reproduces the development in the field of mathematics and cryptography with details that very few can provide. As Jiang Benhu, Mai Jia spent a significant part of his life in intelligence unit of People’s Liberation Army, and he borrows a lot from his personal and professional life to enrich the story.

Once Rong joins the cryptography unit, most of the story describes the challenges of cryptography, application of mathematical logic in cryptography and joys and frustration of code-breaking. Rong’s success makes him a national hero and a reverential figure in China. However, in subsequent turn of events he loses his mental balance.

The story does not start like a thriller and it also does not end like a thriller. The end of the story leaves some questions unanswered and might not be palatable to people who grew on Dan Brown, Lee Child or Baldacci. But as I said earlier, this is not a typical thriller.

Buying eBooks in India ?

A few weeks ago, Apple opened its iTunes music and movies store for India users but Apple bookstore is still not available for Indian users. Similarly, Google Market/Google Play does not offer its vast collection of ebooks to Indian users. The Indian stores Flipkart and infibeam do offere ebooks but their collection is nothing much to talk about. The only option Indian users have is to buy books from Amazon kindle store.

This is strange considering India is a booming market for tablets. And, many of the tablet users do use the tablets as ebook reader but when it comes to buying ebooks they do not have many optoins. Recently, we saw Amazon launching its outdated ebook reader Kindle in India and Asus launching its Nexus tablet. Although, ebook readers are not going to find much market here (even globally they are losing out to tablets) but people are looking forward to buying ebooks and reading them on iPads or android tablets. But eBook lovers do not have many options. As of now, there is only one option. Buy ebooks on Amazon and download kindle app for reading books on your devices (luckily the app is available for all your devices and for all operating systems). However, the prices of ebooks/kindle books are more than the price of hardcopy edition of the same book in India. I wish google play or Apple bookstove soon start selling ebooks in India till then we are better buying hardcopies of the books.

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The Mind of the Market

For someone who works on ‘understanding markets’ and is familiar with previous works of Michael Shermer, picking “The Mind of the Market” from the bookshelf was an impulsive decision. And, the blurb made it clear that I have an interesting read for my weekend.

Shermer, drawing extensively from behavioral economics, neuroscience, psychology and evolutionary biology, offers his explanation of our seemingly irrational and often unpredictable economic behavior. Shermer, en route to his explanations, builds an excellent repository of cutting edge research in several disciplines and provides his readers a plethora of interesting examples and theories which have been part of great debate among academics; this itself makes his book immensely valuable and enriching. He starts with drawing parallels between Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Adam Smith’s invisible hand makes a cogent argument about interconnectedness of these two seminal works and how they affect behavior. His rebuttal of ‘Homo Economicus’ might not be very convincing to some but it does provide some good insights nonetheless. 

“Morality of the market” and “morality and market” are the two themes you will come across in many chapters.
While Shermer confesses the limitation of research findings when applied to real life settings, yet he does resort often to the same for his arguments. Shermer cherry-picks cases and examples to establish the creativity and efficacy of markets and its self correcting mechanism; and this has invited a fair amount of criticism to this book. This was almost expected if you consider that Shermer is also known as skeptic and wrote a scathing criticism for Ayn Rand’s philosophy in his essay “The unlikeliest cult in history” , in this book Shermer the skeptics takes the back seat and Shermer the libertarian emerges very strongly.

Reading list – 2011

Fiction
1. Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro Kazuo
Highly recommended if you are looking for a good thought provoking science fiction.  A mushy story about the lives of clones who were raised to be ‘donors’ for human beings. Was shortlisted for Booker in 2005.

2. 1984 by George Orwell
I read a couple of dystopian novels recently. This was surely one genre defining novel. Does not need any recommendation.

3. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Probably the most widely read novel by an African author. Loved this book, reading this book was a pleasure. Simple story, simple writing, great impact.

4. The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevesky
One of the greatest Russian novels. You will love the struggle of ‘the original’ protogonist  with the materialistic society. The tragic love story of Prince and Nastasya adds a number of new dimensions to relationship and love.

5. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
The second dystopian novel that I read this year.

6. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain
A very highly rated crime novel. Some people put this novel in top 100 novels of last century. Did not impress me that much, story seems too familiar.. probably I read too many adaptation or saw different versions of the story in some movies.

7. Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
Somehow finished it. I am not a big fan of horror stories, Stephan King’s writing and story telling skills made me tolerate this one.

8. Along came a Spider by James Patterson
Wanted to read some light fiction and picked the Alex Cross series for time pass. Nothing much to write about here. A time pass.

9. Max: Maximum Ride by James Patterson
Juvenile fiction. Well just picked it out of curiosity and lack of other options.

10. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
I read this 15 years ago, could not get much of this book at that time. Re-read it.

11. 2666 by Roberta Bolano
A slow and very lengthy novel. Over 1000 pages. It was an ordeal in patience and test of my passion for reading as the story did not move much in first few hundred pages.

Non-Fiction
12.I hope they Serve Beer in Hell by Tucker Max
Curiosity. Yes, that’s why I picked the book.

13. May I hebb Your Attention Pliss by Arnab Ray
By One of my favorite bloggers who turned author. A great satire on our life in eighties and nineties.