2014: My Year in Books


Last year was an eventful one for me. A lot happened this year – which can be summed up in three simple words – I changed jobs. More than half of the year, I was occupied with stuff related to new job, new profile, new company and its culture, new coworkers, etc. etc. Reading really took a backstage. However, when I look back at 2014, I am glad that I was able to read 24 awesome books this year too. (same as 2013). The difference between this year and last year is that I was able to review a much lesser number of books (just four)

Some books I read in 2014

2014 Books Collage

2014 Books Collage

My thoughts on my 2014 reading list:

Well begin is half done

I started the year with Hercule Poirot – The Complete Short Story Collection. I really loved the television show Agatha Christie’s Poirot (starring David Suchet), and it was this show that prompted me to read this book. I am now a die-hard Poirot fan and hope to read some more Poirot stories in 2015 (esp. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which, as people tell me, is the best Poirot novel).

Rediscovery of Gabriel García Márquez.

This year we lost him, and as a tribute, I re-read some of my favorite novels by him. Most notably – A Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera (this is one of the best love story ever written – I you haven’t read this –  drop everything else and grab a copy)

Man-booker 2014

Of the six books shortlisted for Man booker 2014, I read three: To Rise Again At a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (which I absolutely loved – it is an awesome book – see my review here), The Life of Others by Neel Mukherjee (a wonderful book, but a bit too long), and We are Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Flowler (I did not like it very much).

Other Books by Authors who impressed me

If I like a book, I generally try to read other books by the same author. This is how I selected the following books to read:

  • The Unnamed By Joshua Ferris (Selected after reading To Rise Again at a Decent Hour) – hailed as ‘the first great book of the decade by GQ, I think it is one of the best books about marriage. See my review here
  • Malice by Keigo Higashino (selected as I liked The Devotion of Suspect X and Salvation of a Saint) – Not as good as other works by the same author. See my review here
  • Summer Home with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch (selected as I liked The Dinner) –  again not as good as The Dinner

Non Fiction

Just one non-fiction this year – Flash Boys by Michael Lewis – good book on algorithmic trading, but somewhat technically dense – not for everyone.

Indian Sherlock Holmes

This year I discovered Vish Puri series by Tarquin Hall – also called as the India Sherlock Holmes There are four novels in the series – The Case of the Missing Servant (Vish Puri 1)The Case of the Man who Died Laughing (Vish Puri 2)The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken (Vish Puri 3) and The Case of the Love Commandos. Not literary master pieces, neither as intelligent as Sherlock Homes series or Poirot series, but good enjoyable reads.

Some more Jack Reacher

Somehow, I find Jack Reacher series by Lee Child a very good travel/vacation Companion. I read three of them this year – Personal (Jack Reacher 19), The Affair (Jack Reacher 16) and The Visitor (Jack Reacher 4), taking my total tally to five. I enjoyed all of them, Visitor being the best of the three. Typical commercial entertainers – read, enjoy and forget. I am now selecting the next one to read for my upcoming vacation.

Grand Ending to a Great Year

The year ended at a wonderful note with The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. What a book!! Made me jealous of David, how can some one write something so awesome!

How was your year in books? Do Share.

And a very happy new year to everyone!! Have an amazing “book-year” ahead.

Book Review: The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris


The UnnamedThere are very few books where the agony and pain of the characters haunts you enough to keep you awake at night. It happened to me just twice before – with Saleem Senai in The Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. And with Florentino Ariza in Love in the time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris was the third one. It is definitely one of the most provocative (and somewhat unnerving) books about marriage love and relationships.

Tim Farnsworth and his wife Jane are a successful and happy couple – he is a successful your attorney in a prestigious law firm, she is a real estate agent. They love are care about each other, live a comfortable live in a seven bedroom flat and have a lovely teenage daughter. What wreaks havoc in their life is Tim’s “condition” – he suffers from bouts of unexplained, uncontrollable urges to walk. And when the “attack” comes he has to drop everything, walkout and just keep walking till the time he is so tired that he passes out.

Even with all it weirdness, at a very basic level it can be the story of any two people who love each other. Tim’s “condition” is a metaphor for anything – anything which, even with best intentions, is uncontrollable and how it affects a relationship. Herein lies the beauty of this story!

The Unnamed is a remarkable book, and has been rightly called as the “First Great Book of the Decade” by GQ.

Joshua Ferris’s third book – To Rise Again at a Decent Hour was shortlisted for 2014 Man Booker Prize. See my review here

Bonus Material:

The Unnamed “Trailer”

Joshua Ferris discusses “The Unnamed” with Asylum’s Anthony Layser.

Book Review: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour


To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

“Most men live their lives vacillating between hope and fear,” he’d say. “Hope for heaven, on the one hand, fear of nothingness on the other. But now consider doubt. Do you see all the problems it solves, for man and for God?” – Excerpt from To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour tells the story of Paul O’Rourke, a dentist in Manhattan. Paul is a man of contradictions – he is a passionate Red Sox fan – he hates the Yankees, records every Red Sox game on his VCR, he even have seven VCRs in backup for the fear that he will not be able to buy a new one when the current goes bad, eats the same meal before every match and even travels to New Jersey, checks into a hotel to watch the game outside city limits, if his team is nine or more games below the Yankees. And yet, one of his greatest disappointments in life is the 2004 Red Sox world series victory over the Yankees.

In spite of being a successful and well to do dentist, Paul is not happy with his life – he is missing purpose or meaning and is desperately lonely – he wants to find a “something” which can become “everything” for him.

Paul’s life turn upside down when someone starts impersonating him on internet/social media and starts writing about a group called ‘Ulms – follower of a religion based on doubting God’.

I must warn that this is not an easy to read book. There are heavy religious references, which makes it hard to follow and understand. There a long monologues, the narrative keeps jumping from one topic to another – basically this book requires (and deserves) absolute devotion in order to understand, appreciate and enjoy it. However, there are passages so beautifully written, so candidly exposing the hollowness of today’s world – there is one section where Paul is describing his inability to say Good Morning to his office staff, just a plain simple platonic good morning, but he is just unable to do that – absolutely brilliant! Overall this book, about the existential suffering of today’s world, is witty and intelligent, yet sad and thought provoking.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize 2014. This is Joshua Ferris’s his third novel, after the hugely successful and critically admired Then We Came to the End and admired and criticized in equal measures The Unnamed. He sometimes reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut.

PS: Bonus material – Joshua Ferris talks about the book (In a hangout organized by MashableReads)

Book Review: Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino


Salvation of a SaintSalvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino is the second book of the Detective Galileo series, the first being the hugely popular Devotion of Suspect X (see my review here)

The series revolves around Inspector Shunpei Kusanagi and his friend, Manabu Yukawa, a physics professor who, occasionally, helps Kusanagi solve some of his most challenging cases, and is known as the Galileo detective.

This story starts with the death of a wealthy business man, Yoshitaka Mashiba, by arsenic poisoning. There is one prime suspect – Yoshitaka’s wife Ayane, but she has an iron clad alibi. Working on the case are detective Kusanagi and his assistant Kaoru Utsumi, with some help from Prof. Yukawa.

Salvation of a Saint is what I call as “minimalist suspense thriller”. There is only one suspect, that too with a perfect alibi, very few characters, very few (and very subtle) clues. It is very clear, within the first few pages, who committed the murder and why. And it takes the rest of the book to figure out how!! It is really commendable that the author has managed to keep interest levels high and the narrative simulating enough to keep reading. By the time I was half-way thru, the only thing I wanted to know was how it was done. The book was simply un-put-down-able.

After the ‘The devotion of suspect X’, I had very high expectations from this book and it certainly lives up to it. A very intelligent book, indeed.

For fans of mystery genre, both this and The Devotion of Suspect X is a must read.

PS: In some marketing/PR stuff, Higashino is referred to as “The Japanese Stieg Larsson. This is a very unfair comparison (both to Higashino as well as to Larsson). There is very little in common between the their writings, apart from the fact that both belong to the broader genre of thrillers and were translated to English.

PS: Keigo Higashino’s next novel ‘Journey Under the Midnight Sun’ is releasing on October 08, 2015 and I am already excited about it.

Book Review: The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino


The Devotion of Suspect XWhich is harder: devising an unsolvable problem, or solving that problem? Ishigami to Yukawa in The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

A divorced woman, Yasuko Hanakoa, along with her daughter Misato, accidentally murders her ex-husband Togashi. Tetsuya Ishigami, their neighbour, a brilliant mathematician having unrequited romantic feelings for Yasuko, offers to help her cover up the crime. He comes-up with a near perfect plan to dispose the body, leaving the police completely clueless about the crime. Ishigami would have succeeded but for the involvement of Yukawa, a friend of Kusanagi, the investigating officer. A physicist, Yukawa is Ishigami’s ex-classmate and as intelligent and analytical as him. What follows is an immensely interesting battle of wits between these two.

An extremely clever, intelligent and well written book, it will definitely surprise you with the way the plot unfolds. It is a cover-to-cover book, very difficult to leave in between once you start. The logic and scientific deduction techniques used reminded me of old classics from Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. I strongly recommend this book for lovers of good mystery fiction.

PS: This book has sold a whooping 2 million plus copies in Japan. 2 million is more than 1.5% of Japan’s population buying (not reading, there would obviously be more readers) it, probably making it the most successful Japanese book ever.

PSS: Trailer of Korean movie “Perfect Murder” based on this novel

PSS: Trailer of Japanese movie “Suspect-X” based on this novel

2013 – My Year in Books


I was a voracious reader during my college days at IIT Guwahati. Those were the days when I had ample free time, access to a superb library, and a set of awesome friends who shared my passion for books. After leaving college, due to multiple priorities and other pressures, the amount of time I was able to spend reading books gradually declined. Until this year.

2013 was the year when I rediscovered and reclaimed the book addict in me. In terms of the number and quality of books I was able to read, this year was as good as any of my golden college years. Through my blog and twitter I discovered a new set of friends sharing the same passion and zeal about reading as me, making my reading experience much more enjoyable and satisfying.

Ignoring Kindle Singles and short story collections, I read around 24 awesome books this year.

Some books I read in 2013

PicMonkey Collage

 Some thoughts, facts and trivia about the books I read on 2013:

  • Best Book I read in 2013 (it was very difficult to decide) – ‘The Lowland’ by Jhumpa Lahiri (see my review here). ‘River of Smoke’ by Amitav Ghosh would be a close second (see my review here)
  • Most Innovative book – ‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’ by Mohsin Hamid (see my review here) – I have never read a second person narrative fiction before!
  • Best opening line – “History is the third parent” from ‘The Blind Man’s Garden’ by Nadeem Aslam
  • Crib of the year: Out of the six books shortlisted for the Manbooker prize, I had read five. The one I did not read, actually won the prize.
  • One that was tooooooooo long – ‘NOS4A2’ by Joe Hill (700 + pages – at one point of time, I was literally praying for it to get over)
  • Deeply Philosophical – ‘Narcopolis’ by Jeet Thayil (see my review here)
  • Most anticipated yet really disappointing – ‘Doomed’ by Chuck Palahniuk – This, I think, is the worst Chuck book ever.
  • Made me laugh out loud – ‘The 100-Year-Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson (see my review here) and ‘The Competent Authority’ by Shovon Chowdhury
  • Ending totally surprised me – ‘Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino
  • Out of the 24, if I have to select one to be made into a movie – it will be the ‘Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino
  • Most uplifting book (it’s actually a Kindle single) – ‘In the Tunnel’ by Takamichi Okubu (see my review here)
  • “Blast from the past” read of the year – Idle, alone, and completely bored on a weekend, I fished out one of my old favorites and an all time classic – “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” by Salman Rushdie. This book is such a delight.
  • Brilliant unreliable narrator book – ‘The Dinner’ by Herman Koch
  • Notable Misses: There were two brilliant books which came this year, and in-spite of being on top of my “to-read” list, due to one reason or the other, I was not able to lay my hands on them. These are the “Life after Life” by Kate Atkinson and this year’s Manbooker winner – ‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton 

How was your ‘2013 in books’. Do share through comments.

Book Review: The Future of Boards by Jay Lorsch


Note: The following review was published in the November 2013 edition of Strategic Finance. Many thanks to the editors at IMA/Strategic Finance for spending time to review and edit it.

The Future of BoardsThe growing complexity of today’s businesses, rapid technological changes, globalization, and increasingly assertive investors have made the role of corporate boards more challenging than ever before. The success of companies today depends highly on the ability of their boards to navigate them successfully through these challenges. The Future of Boards is a collection of eight essays covering the most important challenges faced by today’s corporate boards. Key topics covered include role of boards in strategy formulation and implementation, CEO succession, CEO compensation, group dynamics within the boardroom, independent chairmanship of boards, and the concept of lead director.

With contributions from some of the most eminent thought leaders in the field, both from the industry and the academia, this book is edited by Harvard Business School (HBS) professor Jay Lorsch, a leading authority on corporate boards.

On the topic of board’s role in company’s strategy, Krishna Palepu, HBS Professor and a leading expert in business strategy, opines that strategy formulation and implementation is the responsibility of the company’s management, and the board may not have the necessary expertise and time to get deeply involved. However, the board should not be passively approving the strategy presented by the management. Instead, they should actively review the underlying assumptions and implications, and monitor the implementation. In the essay “Focusing on Strategy to Govern Effectively”, he outlines a basic framework for strategic engagement which can help board members actively engage in discussions related to company’s strategy.

One of the most important and challenging responsibility of the board is CEO succession. In the essay “Managing CEO succession” Joseph Bower, HBS Professor and author of “The CEO Within: Why Inside Outsiders Are the Key to Succession Planning”, mentions that the best way for any board to manage CEO succession is to make sure that they don’t have to make a succession choice. The job of identifying potential successors and mentoring them is best done by the CEO and the management. However, typically CEOs are reluctant to do this. It becomes the job of the board to encourage them to do so. Once a pool of potential successors is identified, the board should regularly interact with them, access their strengths and weaknesses. This will ensure that when the time to make a decision comes, the company has an abundance of well groomed options from within.

Executive compensation remains the most touchy corporate governance issue today. Jay Lorsh and Rajesh Khurana, HBS professor of Leadership development, in “The Pay Problem – Time for a New Paradigm for Executive Compensation”, question the assumptions behind a typical CEO compensation plan and urge board members to align executive pay packages with long term company results. They also highlight the fact that incentives have a motivational effect only if they reward outcomes over which the executives have control. They propose a compensation plan which includes both monetary and non-monetary rewards and encourages collaborative behavior within the executive team.

Multiple topics related to board leadership structure – who should chair the board: CEO or an independent director, should there be a lead director, and the group dynamics amongst the board members, its impact and whys to manage it – are covered in the remaining essays.

The Future of Boards is not only an outstanding assessment of the challenges currently being faced by boards, but also a provocative and insightful analysis of these challenges as well as a blueprint of how boards should work to overcome these challenges. Highly recommended for CEOs, CXOs, board members, and anyone interested in corporate governance and working of boards.

PS: Copyright 2013 by IMA®, Montvale, N.J., http://www.imanet.org, used with permission

Book Review: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki


A Tale for the Time being

“Am I crazy?” she asked. “I feel like I am sometimes.”

“Maybe,” he said, rubbing her forehead. “But don’t worry about it. You need to be a little bit crazy. Crazy is the price you pay for having an imagination. It’s your superpower. Tapping into the dream. It’s a good thing not a bad thing.” – Excerpt from A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

‘A Tale for the Time being’ has an innovative and non-linear structure. Nao, a Japanese teenage girl, has recently relocated from California to Tokyo after her software engineer father lost his job. Nao has decided to commit suicide and as a last meaningful activity, she decides to write a journal telling the story of her great grand mother Jiko, a Zen Buddhist Nun. However, this journal is as much about her and her family as about grandma Jiko. In fact, this journal seems to be an escape route for Nao, her way to deal with her problems – extreme bullying in school, family’s financial problems, and her father’s acute depression and resulting suicidal tendencies (the idea that suicide is a legitimate means of solving one’s problem is a recurring occurrence in this novel. This is probably due to the fact that Japanese Culture is much more tolerant towards suicide.)

Travelling across the pacific ocean, this journal reaches Ruth, a Canadian author of Japanese accent who lives with her husband and a pet cat (named Schrodinger) in a remote island. Recovering from the recent death of her mother due to Alzheimer’s, Ruth is struggling with writers’ block. Alternating between a chapter written by Nao and Ruth’s reaction to it, the story moves back and forth between the past and the present, Canada and Japan, Ruth and Nao – until it all converges.

I would categorize Nao as one of the most nuanced teenage characters ever written. From being bubbly and humorous, she will suddenly shift gears to something visceral and brutal. Like being hit suddenly by a hammer when you are laughing out loud. Ruth’s character on the other hand could have been better itched out. Other characters like Oliver, Ruth’s husband, Nao’s father and mother, etc. are deliberately underdeveloped, probably to keep the focus on Ruth and Nao and present their world as seen by them.

A Tale for the Time Being is an offbeat novel. It will require patience, careful attention and some amount of thinking and introspection to fully understand and appreciate this beautiful book.

Ruth is a Canadian/American novelist/filmmaker and her earlier works include the critically acclaimed “All over the Creation”.  ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ is one of the six books shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013.

Bonus Material: Ruth talking about the book

Bonus Material: Trailer of the book

Book Review: River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh


“Democracy is a wonderful thing, Mr Burnham,’ he said wistfully. ‘It is a marvellous tamasha that keeps the common people busy so that men like ourselves can take care of all matters of importance. I hope one day India will also be able to enjoy these advantages – and China too, of course.” – Excerpt from River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh.

River of Smoke is the second book of the Ibis trilogy. Like the first book, Sea of Poppies, it is set in early 19th century, against the backdrop of the opium trade between India and China, and explores the lives of various characters involved in the trade.

As against the Sea of Poppies, which was set mostly in India, a large portion of River of Smoke happens in Canton, the port thru which opium was imported to China. Balram Modi, a wealthy Parsi businessman from Bombay is carrying one of the largest consignments of opium ever on the Ship Anahita to Canton. Another ship, Redruth, carrying horticulturist Frederick Penrose and his assistant Paulette, who are in search of rare Chinese plants and flowers, is also heading towards Canton. Things take an unexpected turn when the Chinese emperor bans opium trade, resulting in some interesting social, political, and economic consequences.

There is no doubt that River of Smoke is a difficult book to read. It contains dialogues in multiple dialects – English, Hindi, Gujrati, Bhojpuri, Cantonse, pidgin etc., with little effort from the author to translate everything to English. Many a times, one has to judge the meaning of these dialogues by the context. There are words like pus pus, muchi, allo olo, gradmanzees, etc. One has to interpret the meaning of these words. Although making reading difficult and demanding, it give a unique flavor of authenticity to the narrative. And in spite of being laborious to read, it is by no means boring or dull.

The characters, some continued from ‘Sea of Poppies’ and some new, are engaging and there are interesting ways in which their  stories crisscross each other. The author has presented early 19th century Canton beautifully. The depth of research which has gone in writing this book is commendable.

The book (and the trilogy) covers one of the most interesting and historically significant part of British-Indo-chinese history (the events leading to the Opium War). It is most certainly a captivating read of those who are interested in this slice of history.

I have read the first two books of this trilogy and I have no qualms declaring it one of the most epic and grand literary exercise undertaken by any Indian author. Eagerly waiting for the third installment.

PS: I received a complimentary copy of this book, in order to review it, from MySmartPrice Books. Know more about them here

Book Review: Smart Tribes by Christine Comaford


Note: This review was published in the July 2013 edition of Strategic Finance. Many thanks to the editors at IMA/Strategic Finance for spending time to review and edit it.

Smart TribesWhat are the biggest challenges faced by rapidly growing companies? Ask the CEO of any such company and chances are that establishing a growth-oriented culture, where employees are self-motivated, loyal, can perform to their fullest potential, and are passionate about the company’s shared goals, would be at or near the top of the list.

Typically, such companies are characterized by rapidly shifting internal and external priorities, frequently changing business models, unclear directives and accountability structures, and/or the lack of alignment within the leadership team. As a natural response to such situations, employees fall into a “fight/flight/freeze mode.” In her book, Smart Tribes: How Teams become Brilliant Together, Christine Comaford refers to this as the “critter state.” People in the critter state are driven by fear, individual safety, and survival rather than collective success. Instead of focusing on real issues that impede growth, they’re emotionally disengaged, don’t collaborate, and spend time and resources on solving problems that either don’t exist or aren’t important. When management decision-making and behavior is driven by the critter state, it’s nearly impossible for companies to move up to the next level of growth.

In Smart Tribes, Comaford, an applied neuroscience expert and a New York Times best-selling author, presents a recipe to move employees out of the critter state. When in the critter state, decision-making is driven by the most primitive part of the brain, which is a stimulus response system focused on survival. Instead, employees need to be in the “smart state,” where decision-making is driven by the pre-frontal cortex, a more evolved part of the brain that enables us to plan, innovate, solve complex problems, and think abstract thoughts. Employees in the smart state are focused, accountable, collaborative, loyal, and imbued with a passion to solve problems. With their creativity, innovation, and passion unleashed, they not only outsmart the competition but do it consistently, again and again.

Employing well-researched neuroscience and behavioral science techniques, Comaford proposes a very structured approach to move from the critter state to the smart state. She recommends the following five accelerators that can help the transition:

  • Focus: Be aware of what is important and delegate, defer, or ditch everything else.
  • Clarity: Be aware of why you do what you do.
  • Accountability: Make accountability a part of the company’s DNA by having clear expectations, owner’s agreement, and well-defined rewards and consequences.
  • Influence: Be able to understand, empower, and motivate people.
  • Sustained results: Have energy to enjoy your work and avoid burnout.

Interspersed with numerous real life cases and examples, Smart Tribes is a very well-written book. Comaford follows a “do it yourself approach,” using assessment questions, resources, and actions plans at the end of each section, making it a very engaging and interactive read. Another highlight is that it’s backed by rigorous scientific research, making it very credible and trustworthy.

The issues Comaford raises in the book are extremely critical for success in the contemporary business environment. Smart Tribes is a great read for anyone managing a team in a fast-paced and dynamic environment.

PS: Copyright 2013 by IMA®, Montvale, N.J., www.imanet.org, used with permission.