Sunday, April 8, 2018

Book Review of "The Sense of an Ending"

“What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you witnessed.” - says Tony Webster, your average-working-joe protagonist of Julian Barnes' extraordinarily perceptive novel, "The Sense of an Ending". The novel which appears like a simple, mundane, everyday story of an average working class British person's kind of a boring life, takes a brilliant turn in the last 10% of the book, leaving you awestruck and making you appreciate every single clue deviously planted by the author throughout the story. This is a short book - barely 150 pages or so. Told to us by Tony Webster himself, who as it turns out is an "unreliable narrator". The author, Julian Barnes, sprinkles the story with some amazing gems of quotations and remarks about memory, its fickleness and how the age affects what we remember.

Recommended - 5/5 from me.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Book Review of "Sceptical Patriot"

"Sceptical Patriot", if nothing else, makes us question the bias we all carry in our hearts for our motherland. This book by Sidin Vadukut has a simple structure - take some of the most commonly held and the most widely believed "India" facts and methodically investigate their veracity. Did India really invent the zero ? Was India really THE richest country in the World ? Was Takshashila the first University of the ancient world ? We have all heard these factoids before - either via email and WhtsApp forwards or sometimes even perpetrated by pop culture and the media. What Sceptical Patriot tries to do is, instead of blindly accepting these factoids at face value, it subjects them to a "litmus test" of checking historical records, searching for real, verifiable and evidential proof and as far as possible arriving at an "informed" conclusion - you know, the sort of thing we all should be doing always - before "accepting" anything as truth.

The effort is definitely commendable here. The author wants to debunk the commonly held India myths - and while doing so the conclusions that he arrives at do appear logical and convincing.

That being said, the book is not without its faults. The big put off for me was the unnecessary humor ! Just when things get interesting and it looks like we are
getting at some inconvenient truths, the author takes it all away by cracking a silly joke. And this is a recurring pattern. In all honesty, it felt to me that the author didn't want to appear too sceptical ! Secondly, with all the talk of being detail oriented and scientific when getting to the roots of something, the author chooses a hand-wavy explanation sometimes. An example of this is the Chola invasions on Myanmar chapter.

But these things aside, "Sceptical Patriot" is a breezy and an entertaining read - a mixture of some new historical details about ancient India coupled with some insightful anecdotes. A definite 4/5 from me.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Book Review of "Death's End - by Liu Cixin"

"At what point does life become not worth living ? Faced with an inevitable extinction event, how would one think & behave?" - asks Cheng Xin, the protagonist of "Death's End" - the final book in the mind bogglingly amazing Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy. To me, Death's End is probably the weakest of the three books with the middle volume, The Dark Forest, clearly being the best. That being said, this third book by itself is still a pretty good read -  a solid 4/5. 

Author Liu Cixin continues his masterful plotting, criss-crossing multiple characters & multiple stories - spread across literally centuries. Some of storylines that have been building up for the last 3 books do end up with a dramatic crescendo. There is a chapter in the book where children's fairy tales are used to embed secret scientific messages and it is one of the most perfectly executed plots.

But Death's End is unfortunately not without its faults - the main one being its protagonist - a super-smart female aerospace engineer named Cheng Xin. She is intelligent, emotional & empathetic. But due to the sheer number of things that happen in this book, there is no time to add any depths to her character and she just comes across as an exposition tool or a glorified narrator for us, the readers. "Luo Ji", the main character of The Dark Forest, was interestingly conflicted and had a much nuanced personality.

The second and probably the most glaring issue is that the last 20% of the book just drags on. The author has literally tried to fit so many things that the overabundance of ideas feels tiring. The story could have been neatly tied up and finished at the 80% mark itself making the last 1/5th of the book feel like a weird last-minute unnecessary idea-cramming.

But anyhoo, this is not a deal-breaker. Death's End is still a great read and I would very highly recommend The Remembrance of Earth's Past Trilogy to any science fiction reader. 4/5 for Death's End but a definite 5/5 for the trilogy as a whole.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Book Review of "The Dark Forest - by Liu Cixin"

Hands down, "The Dark Forest" is a jaw-dropping and an epic Sci-Fi novel ! It literally takes efforts to put this down once you get into the story. This is the second book in the "Remembrance of the Earth's Past" trilogy. Following the first one, the Three Body Problem, was never going to be an easy task but the Dark Forest proved to be an amazing continuation of the story. In fact, I would rate it a notch higher than the first. The main gripe I had with the Three Body Problem was the not so great characterization which the Dark Forest more than makes up for by introducing a whole new set of characters with an intriguing personality as the protagonist.

The ideas in this book are great, their application to the plot is ingenious and their execution simply superb. The book does start out slow but it picks up at around 30-35% and after that it is a roller coaster ride of fantastic storytelling. The overarching symbolism, the main metaphor of the plot and the various philosophical discussions and conundrums make this a great read. The overall writing and the prose flows smoothly like a calm, serene river and it is simply, for the lack of a better word, beautiful.

So yeah, 5/5.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Book Review of "Three Body Problem - by Liu Cixin"

"Three Body Problem" is a fascinating & brilliantly crafted Sci-Fi novel ! This was my first book written by a Chinese Author and I am completely hooked - no convincing required to pick up the next one of the "Remembrance of Earth's Past" trilogy. 

Even though this appears as a simple "extra-terrestrial beings" story on the surface, there are elements of philosophy, the good old tussle between science & spirituality, a deep rooted look at human folly and a very plausible imagined scenario of how geo-political forces could shape human action if "aliens" were to really exist. Be warned though - Three Body problem is a science heavy book. Some mind boggling science fiction stuff - but quite entertaining.

My only gripe with the book is the not so strong characterizations of some of the story players and the middle one third portion of the book kind of meanders and feels slow. Of course, the last 30-35% of the book is lightening fast and the end is executed superbly.

My verdict: 4/5