Tuesday, 31 December 2019

No One is too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg – Book Review +




Publisher’s write-up:

'No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference is Greta’s first book in English, collecting her speeches from climate rallies across Europe to audiences at UN, the World Economic Forum, and the British Parliament.’

Note: My book is the May 2019 edition, and thus, I shall not refer to the speeches added in the expanded edition published in November 2019

Regardless of our position on her activism, most of us have an opinion on Greta Thunberg. Before I get into the review, I shall make it clear that considering the size of the book, this review would also be a mix of my views on the book and her activism (hence, the + on the title). For starters, she is another teenage activist who garners unusual amount of hate to be merely dismissed as media hype and followed up with endless conspiracy theories. All I saw was a repeat of what happened with another teenage activist during the decade, being Malala Yousafzai, the girl who was supposedly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just for getting shot, completely ignoring the fact that she was shot because of her activism (click here to read the review of I am Malala).

This is a small book and takes less than an hour to read – it contains eleven of her speeches, delivered before May 2019. The central theme of her speeches is that we are running out of time in taking action against climate change to keep global warming below acceptable levels, how the politicians are not doing enough and an urge to listen to the scientists. There is also emphasis on how the current societal model which measures success by economic growth is not sustainable, much as sustainable development has been a term for years, they have just been empty words with very little intent to act on those plans.

It is a matter of surprise that in countries like the US (and several others, unfair to single out one), the debate is not over how to handle climate change but rather, on existence of climate change. Much as the consensus among scientists is well known, the lobbyists have been strong enough to propagate climate change, like ExxonMobil; a champion of climate change denial up until recent times, despite their own research suggesting otherwise (precisely the reason why they needed the propaganda).

The book contains her famous speeches such as ‘Our House is on Fire’ delivered at the World Economic Forum in Davos and ‘Can You Hear Me?’; where she emphasises how it is time the world recognises the problem as a crisis and treats it as one and the speech in House of Commons (being Can You Hear Me?), she brings up the creative accounting used by UK to show dramatic steps and achievements (having read several accounts about the Civil Service, I can easily imagine that coming from Whitehall).

She also explains much of the hate that she receives – as to how she is politically motivated, does not offer any solutions, etc. Especially regarding that latter, I have always felt that she never claimed that she had solutions and the crux of her speeches is urging politicians to listen to scientists. Much as she denies that she has any backing, it is very much possible that she does but I am not bothered by that so long as I am convinced about the cause that is being backed even if she is merely being used as a tool. I am satisfied that her activism regardless of our beliefs have got us to talk on this topic, across countries and that is what I consider as her success.

Of course, there are points I don’t agree with – where she points out that it is a black and white issue and there is no room for grey; while I agree with her on the issue part of it (need to reiterate my surprise at people still debating over the existence of climate change), it is not the same for solution and it is difficult to overhaul the system overnight. It is impossible to be completely in agreement with any person and Greta is no exception. The point that if the current rules do not permit the change, it is the rules that need a change, is a point that I agree with and has been emphasised well in all of her speeches.

My suggestion to the reader would be to not read all speeches at once as it might seem repetitive.

There were around a ten blank pages in my edition after the end of the book and it would have been much better if sources to the facts mentioned in her speeches were given; I do not challenge the factual accuracy as even her staunchest haters do not accuse her of factual inaccuracies, nonetheless, it would have been better to have the sources.

The book as such, I award it a rating of seven on ten.

Rating – 7/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam by Chris Ewan – Book Review




Publisher’s write-up:

‘In Amsterdam working on his latest novel, Charlie is approached by a mysterious American who asks him to steal two apparently worthless monkey figurines from two separate addresses on the same night. At first he says no. Then he changes his mind. Only later, kidnapped and bound to a chair, the American very dead and a spell in police custody behind him, does Charlie begin to realise how costly a mistake he might have made.

The police think he killed the American. Others think he knows the whereabouts of the elusive third monkey. But for Charlie only three things matter: Can he clear his name? Can he get away with the haul of a lifetime? And can he solve the briefcase-shaped plot-hole in his latest novel?’

In crime fiction, the protagonist is usually a detective (police or private) or a journalist, but this book features the lead character Charlie Howard who is a crime fiction writer and a part time thief. Charlie is from the UK and is currently living in Amsterdam, in the process of completing his next novel.

Charlie is approached by an American, Michael Park, who has a job for him – to steal two monkey figurines made of plaster for a fee of € 20,000. While Charlie has exact instructions on how to carry out the mission, the plan falls apart and Michael is fatally injured. It does not take long for the police to find Charlie and is a suspect for the attack on the American; while Charlie is no way an honourable character, this is certainly a crime that he did not commit. The rest of the plot revolves around his own investigations on why he was approached for the job and the importance of the seemingly worthless monkey figurines.

The author got into the plot immediately and the city of Amsterdam was used well – be it the description of the canals, the cafes and the seventeenth century houses. It was interesting to read crime fiction from the perspective of a thief and why Charlie became a burglar also had a good background story. Apart from Charlie, I was also satisfied with the supporting characters, the barmaid Marieke who is acquainted to both Michael and Charlie and has a critical role throughout the plot, the investigating officer Buggrave; all of these characters have a past which becomes an important part of the plot and the way the past unfolded and connected to the present kept me gripped. The book had a good start, and I was satisfied with the conclusion and the way it unfolded as aforementioned, but the book seemed a drag in between (especially the segments where Charlie was trying to fix plot holes in his own upcoming book), which had significantly reduced my pace in reading the book.

Much as Charlie was interesting – a famous writer cum thief, I also found him to be vain, who is too proud of his achievements as a writer and also, his prowess in burglary (and his actions in the book made me seriously doubt both). There were aspects about his character that was not convincing, wherein, he is a famous writer, but nobody knows the real Charlie Howard to the extent that he does not use his own picture in his book cover, which neither the public nor anyone in the general public know about (hard to believe). There were times where I felt it was very evident that it was the author’s first novel – wherein, Charlie was surprised to learn that the monkey figurines probably had more value than being merely intrinsic to Michael; which was obvious to the reader from the very beginning (I am not revealing any more on their significance).

To be honest, I started reading this book with no expectations. The only reason I had this book in my Kindle was because, sometime around the end of 2017, the book was available for free. I did not bother reading the book till I had planned an Amsterdam trip myself (which is forthcoming on a date after the publishing of this review) and I do not regret the decision, the book has laid a good foundation, there were shortcomings like how I felt the narration and dialogues were a little too flat but I hope it improves in the series (the next book happens to be Charlie’s adventures in the city I live in at present, so, should be interesting for me).

To conclude, I would say that the book convinced me enough to continue with the series and I would award the book a rating of six on ten.

Rating – 6/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Friday, 20 December 2019

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari – Book Review





Publisher’s write-up:

‘Sapiens shows us where we came from. Homo Deus shows us where we’re going.

Yuval Noah Harari envisions a near future in which we face a new set of challenges. Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams and nightmares that will shape the twenty-first century and beyond – from overcoming death to creating artificial life.

It asks the fundamental questions: how can we protect this fragile world from our own destructive power? And what does our future hold?’

Homo Deus is the sequel to Sapiens:A Brief History of Humankind (click for reading the review of Sapiens) from Professor Yuval Noah Harari. While Sapiens explains the events in human history up to the 21st century, the author presents his prognosis on the future of the species – how are we going to deal with changing technology and artificial intelligence? Would we remain the same or would there be a fundamental change – the principal case the author built in the previous book was how our species managed to overcome several constraints without a fundamental change in the structure of our DNA. The author answers these questions in his book Homo Deus.

His coining of the term Homo Deus represents the species that would replace Homo Sapiens and the impact that genetic engineering and artificial intelligence is going to have. The author starts very well, explaining how we are living in the best time humanity has ever witnessed, that for the first time more people die of obesity related diseases than malnutrition, more people die of suicides than war and plague, inter alia. The book is split into three parts – the first explaining how homo sapiens conquered the world, moving on to explain how homo sapiens gave meaning to ‘their world’, and the final part explaining how we are losing control and the author’s prognosis on the future.

As mentioned earlier, the book started very well, giving out interesting facts and explaining how every human emotion is mere biochemical reactions; what if they could be recreated? That was a very good way to start the book which got us immediately into the book. Like his previous book, it dealt with a scientific topic and the author used layman’s language throughout the book. Owing to the similarity of the topic, this did not feel like a book different from Sapiens and in fact, in a lot of cases, it felt like the author was repeating the same contents as his previous book – during the second part, as to how humans rely on myth, how we need them for cooperation, etc. It seemed to me as a means to write a book very similar to the previous book including the size, whereas what the author wished to convey could have been done so in half the number of pages if we remove the redundancies.

I also observed the same flaws that I noticed in Sapiens, where the author seems to misunderstand the word 'religion' – going on to explain how ‘humanism’ and ‘liberalism’ are religions and what would be the religion of the future. Sure, there are some similarities between religion and the above-mentioned ideologies; to start with, they are ideologies, and both are myths that a lot of humans believe in, to create a stable society. But the similarities end there – religion is associated with the divine and there is usually a creator (which is the reason why theologians debate whether Buddhism could be considered a religion) and pretends to hold answers for every question and surely, the above mentioned laws do not (nobody would ask a humanist philosopher to explain how the universe came into being). This logic is the same as 'My dog has a tail. A cat also has a tail. Therefore, my dog is a cat'. These aspects of the book made me cringe.

It also needs to be mentioned as to how the author mentioned certain obvious facts as findings; to quote an example, tried to prove how human beings are not different from any other animals and there is no proof over existence of a soul. I have never come across even the staunchest users and believers in the concept argue that it is a scientific / medical concept. There was a similar argument over mind. Much as it was surprising and thus interesting to note that scientists conducted experiments to confirm the lack of it, it did not add any value to the book, nor add any knowledge to the reader.

To conclude, I would say that this book may be read for the sake of continuity and it has its high points and some interesting facts, but certainly not as informative as Sapiens. A relatively minor issue that kept bothering me is that the very title ‘history of tomorrow’ is a contradiction in terms. This book is a classic case of ruining a good start – the book dealt very little with the author’s prognosis. However, I would admit that if I evaluate the content ignoring all the redundant parts of the book, I would say it was fairly informative. That saves the author’s reputation in my books to read his next work, but not the rating of this book, I award the book a rating of four on ten.

Rating – 4/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Sunday, 1 December 2019

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick – Book Review





Synopsis (from Amazon):

‘America, fifteen years after the end of the Second World War. The winning Axis powers have divided their spoils: the Nazis control New York, while California is ruled by the Japanese. But between these two states - locked in a cold war - lies a neutal buffer zone in which legendary author Hawthorne Abendsen is rumoured to live. Abendsen lives in fear of his life for he has written a book in which World War Two was won by the Allies. . .’

Disclaimer: I have watched all four seasons of the Amazon web series based on the book. However, there would not be any comparisons between the series and the book and references if any, would not be made unless unavoidable.

It is a frightening thought – what if the fascists had their way in the Second World War? The book from Philip K. Dick explores the question in a hypothetical scenario of the Axis Powers winning the war leading to the division of world between technologically advanced Germans and the empire that focuses more on spirituality, Japan.

The book revolves around five principal characters – Robert Childan, an American artefacts dealer in San Francisco, Pacific States of America (vassal state of Japan), Frank Frink – a craftsman in San Francisco, Juliana Frink – his ex-wife who now lives in the neutral zone in Colorado working as a judo instructor and Nobusuke Tagomi – a high ranking Japanese official in San Francisco. Chancellor of Germany, Martin Bormann is ill which starts a succession battle in the Nazi party, that could well determine the future of Japan and the world at large. There is a famous book, banned by the Nazis – The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which explores the hypothetical situation of the Allies having won the war – which is of interest to the characters, particularly in the sub-plot involving Childan and Juliana.

I liked the tangled web that the author weaved, by writing novel which presents an alternate history in which there is a novel in that plot which presents an alternative history in the world of the author which is in fact the real world of the reader. Another interesting aspect is the way in which he brought out the fascist takeover and the reaction of the people – where there is no significant resistance movement and people seem to have accepted it (or those who did not probably were eliminated during the course of the fifteen years). The only interesting character in the book was Childan, who is a very proud American and has poor opinions on blacks, the Japanese, though the latter is a bit paradoxical where there are often situations where he can’t help but admire them.

With that said, I would say that this book was four different plots weaved into one with there being only a loose connection between the storylines of each of the characters. Much as the author is known for science fiction work, this seemed more of a fantasy novel with the characters relying more on the Chinese oracle – I Ching than any technological advancement. It took me nearly 70% of the novel to realise that I was more than halfway through and there was still, barely anything that resembled a plot, with each character having a different objective. I liked the discussions between Juliana and her Italian boyfriend – Joe Cinnadella, a former soldier who had fought in North Africa, but I found it very unusual why an Italian would have the name ‘Joe’ (I have no idea about the diminutive of Giuseppe but I am sure in a world where Allies lost the war, anglicising names would not have been trend). I do not normally nit-pick on names and I ignore it if the plot is good, but this book does not deserve the leeway. In fact, the book ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ within the plot does not even resemble the world as it was in the period in which the author claims to base this plot on.

The story might have been interesting if the author had chosen to focus on one plot, but instead, had four different sub-plots, with little to no connection of consequence. My disappointment may also be contributed by the fact that I enjoyed the series that my expectations on the book were rather high.
To make matters worse, the foreword from Eric Brown in my Kindle edition even contained spoilers to the book and so, if you plan to read the book, avoid the foreword.

To conclude, you are often told never judge a book by its movie (I have a lot of bookmarks with similar quotes). However, this is the first time I am encountering a reverse situation where I enjoyed the series but not the book. To those who have followed the series but have not read the book, you have not missed anything. I would award this book a rating of two on ten.

Rating – 2/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Monday, 25 November 2019

The Stranger (L’étranger) by Albert Camus – Book Review





Publisher’s write-up (translated / paraphrased as necessary):

‘When the bell rang again, when the door opened, the silence in the room approaching towards me, the silence, and this strange feeling I had when I notice the young journalist before turning my eyes away. I didn’t look towards Marie. I did not have the time because the president had told me in a strange way that my head would be guillotined in a public place on behalf of the French people…’

Note: I read the book in French

I had come to know that The Stranger is a classic in French from Albert Camus from the owner of a bookstore in a lovely small town in Côte d’Azur where I bought this book. Unfortunately, I had never heard of this book or the writer but I found the subject and the plot to be interesting when I had heard it.

Our society has a lot of rules, some of them unwritten and very often, a person ends up on the wrong side of the society if these rules are not followed. The plot concerns Meursault, a person who is very different from the average person in the society. This did not affect his life till the day he needed to face the law.

The story starts with the death of his mother who is in an asylum. However, what concerned Meursault more than his mother’s death was whether it would be appropriate to smoke a cigarette in front of his mother’s corpse and was simply annoyed that most guests around were old. He returned to normalcy immediately after the funeral, be it his work, his relationship with his new girlfriend, etc. He then accepts to be a witness to testify against an Arab girlfriend of his neighbour Raymond following a discord between the two. Following these events, Meursault eventually ends up committing a murder, and problems over his attitude and indifference in general start to become a problem in front of the judge.

The author has created an interesting character in Meursault, who is an anti-hero with whom the reader does not share much sympathies from the outset. Even if he is not like the other people in the society (for example, he doesn’t cry for his mother’s death), one can only think if it is a reason good enough to be condemned, especially where a lot of people think that his indifference is an even bigger issue than the murder he had committed. The author made me think on this aspect, and of course, I did find the attitude of Meursault bizarre but at the same time, not following a societal convention the violation of which harms nobody else should not lead to condemnation – and I found it very interesting that these aspects made me regain sympathy for Meursault during the course of the plot which he had lost immediately after the start.

I liked the manner in which the author brought out how Meursault’s detached himself from every dire situation, and what had in fact helped was his indifference with people and the world at large. He remained complex as much as he was indifferent, he was not someone who could be termed a misanthrope either. Much as he was a character very well created by the author, he was also the only character and no other character in the book had even a reasonable level of depth.

The plot took place in Algeria, before its independence and even though the Arabs have a rather important role in the plot, I did not like the manner in which the author had dehumanised them – none of the Arab characters had names, no witness was an Arab (which I found to be odd), etc. One could argue that perhaps that was not the intention of the author, considering the second part was narrated by Meursault, it merely brings about the divide between the native population and the French settlers. However, I struggle to arrive at giving a benefit of doubt to the author in this case. I understand that there is a novel from Kamel Daoud – ‘The Meursault Investigation’ – where the author has given a character to each of the Arabs in the plot of The Stranger and retells the plot, and right now, I am inclined to try out this novel. Coming back to the location of the plot, much as it was in the city of Algiers, whether it was Algiers or any other city in the world, there would have hardly been a difference to the plot as the author hardly used any facets of the city in his plot.

To conclude, it is a deep and interesting novel, I am sure that a person with an excellent level of French (unlike the pidgin French I muster) might enjoy Meursault’s defence of his positions and views better. I hope it is not lost in translation in the English edition. On that note, I award the book a rating of seven on ten.

Rating – 7/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari – Book Review




‘100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens.

How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?

In Sapiens, Dr Yuval Noah Harari spans the whole of human history, from the very first humans to walk the earth to the radical – and sometimes devastating – breakthroughs of the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, palaeontology and economics, he explores how the currents of history have shaped our human societies, the animals and plants around us, and even our personalities. Have we become happier as history has unfolded? Can we ever free our behaviour from the heritage of our ancestors? And what, if anything, can we do to influence the course of the centuries to come?

Bold, wide-ranging and provocative, Sapiens challenges everything we thought we knew about being human: our thoughts, our actions, our power ... and our future.’

Based on the material I have read so far (Richard Dawkins in particular), the human species is around 200,000 years old. However, we have very little data the history of our species beyond 10,000 years (which is a very generous estimate). In this book, Yuval Noah Harari, a historian and professor tries to explain the history of our species – from the time homo sapiens coexisted with other human species till the era as we know today.

The book is split into four parts – the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, the unification of humankind, the scientific revolution and a conclusion with the author’s insights into the future. Through these phases, the author explores how the species evolved, how we learned to cooperate, and more importantly, how they learnt to adapt to different conditions and scale up our abilities without any significant modifications to the DNA structure. The author challenges several traditionally held views – such as ‘agriculture being the greatest invention of humanity’, how myths are essential for the survival of the society as it is today (eg – for instance, we all believe that a piece of paper printed by an authority has a value, the moment people stop dissociating themselves with the myth, the society as of today would collapse), inter alia.

Much as this is a book discussing a scientific topic, the author has not used technical terms and has written in simple language. I took a week to complete this book (with most of my reading being during transits from home to work and vice versa) and that is perhaps that’s a personal record for me when it comes to completing a non-fiction work of this size (almost 500 pages). I liked the fact that the author strictly maintained the sequence and at several points – regardless of whether you’re a conservative or a liberal, religious or an atheist, the validity of your firmly held convictions would be strongly challenged by the author. It was interesting as to how I was initially shocked at some of the statements but when we think of it deeply, it was true; and still we come to the conclusion that these are very necessary inventions. I’d quote one such instance which challenges some of my strong convictions on equality and human rights

‘Advocates of quality and human rights may be outraged by this line of reason. Their response is likely to be “we know that people are not equal in biologically! But if we believe that we are all equal in essence, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society’. I have no argument with that. This is exactly what I mean by by “imagined order”. We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.’

-          Page 123

With that said, there were also instances where I felt his arguments were a little shallow, where he argues how a lot of principles we have today, be it equality or respecting individual freedoms is a revamped version of monotheist conventions (that all are equal before god) (page 258); which seems an extreme conclusion to infer. This is arising from the idea that individuals cannot arrive at the same idea independently; and it contradicts with one of the very findings of the author’s – where he explained how different communities developed similar agricultural societies without ever contacting each other. Just to quote my own example, much as I hold strong views on equality, I am an atheist and was neither raised nor been associated with any monotheistic religion in anyway.

The other highlights of the book included how the author established differences between humans and other animals – especially since the cognitive revolution. He also makes the case as to how our ancestors were in peace with nature to be a myth and in fact, what we have today is one of the best times in the history of humankind (contradicting the ‘good old days of our ancestors’ argument).

I cannot comment on the technical aspects of the book and from what I understand, most academicians do not have a very positive view on the book, but as always, if you can either satisfy the scholars or the public at large but impossible to satisfy all at once. On that note, I would award the book a rating of eight on ten. It is a book that would make you think, and thus, one could say that the author's manner of narration is the greatest highlight of the book. 

Rating – 8/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Saturday, 7 September 2019

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Book Review






Publisher’s write-up:


‘Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger disappeared from a family gathering on the island owned and inhabited by the powerful Vanger clan. Her body was never found, yet her uncle is convinced it was murder - and that the killer is a member of his own tightly knit but dysfunctional family.


He employs disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the tattooed, truculent computer hacker Lisbeth Salander to investigate. When the pair link Harriet's disappearance to a number of grotesque murders from forty years ago, they begin to unravel a dark and appalling family history.


But the Vangers are a secretive clan, and Blomkvist and Salander are about to find out just how far they are prepared to go to protect themselves.’

Afin de lire ce commentaire en français, cliquez ici

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first book in the Millennium series from Stieg Larsson. It is said that one should never judge a book by its cover, but that is exactly what I did with this book for several years. Much as I always saw this in the bestseller category in bookstores, judging by the title, I always thought it was going to be a novel under the genre romance (maybe if the Swedish title had been translated word for word – ‘Men who hate women’, it might have attracted my attention). This perception would have continued till I was recently forced by a colleague to start reading the book with it being described as a ‘page-turner’.


The plot has two principal characters – Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist recently convicted for defamation against a leading Swedish investor and Lisbeth Salander, a private detective. The conviction led to Blomkvist having to leave the magazine he founded, and at the same time – receives an offer from the 82-year-old chairman of Vanger Corporation to solve the murder of his niece Harriet – in what was a typical ‘locked room murder situation’ with both the murderer and the victim vanishing without a trace. Blomkvist, at first was not convinced moving up north to a remote island north of Stockholm but agrees as he wanted a break and also how Vanger offered a compensation more than sufficient to cover the compensation he needed to pay as libel damages. Lisbeth Salander on the other side, is working as a private detective in a security services firm and while she does not have any formal training regarding the same, proves to be extremely accurate and detailed in her analysis. The only connection between Blomkvist and Salander to begin with was the latter doing a background check on the former for a client of her firm. 


The book is almost 560 pages long and it never felt that way owing to both, the pace and the manner in which the story was narrated. The plot fell in place one after the other – Blomkvist’s conviction, Salander’s investigation, Blomkvist’s appointment by Vanger; happening within the first fifty pages with the plot seamlessly moving from thereon. Blomkvist’s character was completely revealed at the outset to the reader through Salander’s investigation but then, her own profile is hardly revealed – which also contributed to the page turner effect. Another key character is Henrik Vanger – the chairman of the Vanger Corporation, the ailing businessman whose only obsession in life is to find out what happened to his niece. He does not have a very positive view on his family and is shown to be a suave and achieves what he wants without displaying aggression. The Vanger family has a murky history with its members having had connections with the Nazis during the war and neo-Nazi organisations much after the war, another reason for Henrik’s antipathy towards his clan. 


It is interesting to note that unlike other whodunnit novels, this features a murder, or so believed by both police and Vanger, was committed forty years ago – which adds a complexity to the case. The number of names and characters might be a difficulty to some of the readers but not quite if you have prior experience reading stories with several characters and in my case, having read novels like The Luminaries and One Hundred Years of Solitude helped. While the novel is not exactly a fantasy novel, the city of Hedestad and the island of Hedeby to the north of Stockholm is fictitious and both the places were described in good detail (including a map). 


While Lisbeth Salander was an interesting character and I could connect to a lot of her adjectives such as introvert, socially aloof, etc., there was insufficient detail on how she acquired those skills (hopefully described in the sequels). Moreover, she achieved her tasks with relative ease that she almost seemed like a superhero. It is true that she has gone through a lot of hardships in her life and it has taken her effort to reach this stage; but during the course of the case, she achieved her ends with relative ease. 


The Salander-Blomkvist was good contrast, while the former focuses more on the ends regardless of the means whereas Blomkvist often takes stands on principle, even if it is to his disadvantage. The unravelling of the whodunit was certainly the best part of the novel – the multiple characters they interact with. With that said, the novel was 560 pages long and the final quarter felt like a drag, and in most cases seemed unrelated to the plot. 

I also have a bone to pick with the English title - as I felt The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was neither the principal character nor the central theme of the book - a direct translation of the Swedish title would have been more appropriate (which I understand was the case in French, for instance).


I judge books by their cover and I have often selected books on that basis. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not, but this is a case where I missed out on a good book by this approach. I do have a fascination for crime stories from this region – having read Karin Fossum as well as having followed TV dramas such as Broen and Forbrydelsen. It was just that in this case, I was not aware that it was a crime novel and judging by all that I have had to say on this book thus far, I would rate this book an eight on ten. 


Rating – 8/10


Have a nice day,
Andy

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Soul Matters by Shreyas Shankar – Book Review






Publisher’s write-up:


‘The book Soul Matters is built on the writer’s lifelong fascination for the human psyche and answers to humanity’s great questions. What started as timely observations of life’s intricacies collected in a bookshelf that screamed to be heard in some form. From being one of the thousand voices yearning to be heard, it now stands to be read in the shape of a series of 18 wisecrack quips and befitting explanations.’

Soul Matters is a short collection of thoughts from the artist Shreyas Shankar. In this, the author has presented a few quotes and given his interpretation for the same.

The quotes are largely philosophical covering the topics of life - such as the process of learning and also certain one's relationship with the soul. On any such book, I try my best to not let my personal opinions get in the way - for instance, I don't consider the body and soul to be different or independent of each other. The same disclaimer appears here as well before I get into the review. 

I liked the way in which the author presented his book - a full page allowing you to fully read the quote before getting into the chapter to read his take on it. If it was on the same page, we could be tempted to immediately get into the interpretation rather than read a vague quote. I enjoyed reading some of his thoughts, especially on aspects such as silence, perfection, expertise, inter alia. This book was also a very ideal short read and could be ideal to spend to read during your regular commute - for I took just half an hour to complete the book. 

That could perhaps be annoying to some of the readers as they might feel that the book finished as soon as it started. Considering that the author is quite young, both in age and in his career as an artist, this is a first step and I hope in future, this book is expanded by the author. There was an interesting excerpt of a fantasy novel that the author is in the process of writing and I look forward to the publication of the full novel. 

As aforementioned, this is a great short read, but at the same time, could have been much more enjoyable had there been more of his wisecracks and a deeper plunge into each of these thoughts. On that note, I shall award this book a rating of six on ten. 

Rating - 6/10 

Have a nice day,
Andy

Monday, 29 July 2019

Moneyland by Oliver Bullough – Book Review




Publisher’s write-up:
‘Investigative journalist Oliver Bullough reveals the obscene dark side of globalised finance, a shadow realm of oligarchs and gangsters, unimaginable power and zero accountability. It’s a place you are unlikely to visit, buy you can see its effects everywhere. Just look around. 
How did we get here? In the 1950s, a small group of bankers in London had a clever idea: ‘offshore’, an imaginary zone where money could flow free. Their breakthrough created a vast reservoir of secret wealth, one that bends the laws of every nation on Earth in order to protect its masters. 
Thanks to offshore, for the first time thieves could dream big. They could take everything – which is exactly what they will do, unless we stop them.’
Moneyland is a book with the subtitle – Why Thieves & Crooks Now Rule the World & How to Take it Back, from the investigative journalist Oliver Bullough. Moneyland is the term the author uses for describing the current financial structure. The case is built over nineteen chapters in the book as to how in this hypothetical country sans physical presence, those with money can legally enjoy their wealth, regardless of its source. 
He begins building the case with Ukraine – and this is taken as the prime example of kleptocracy throughout the book where corruption is so rampant and still; how their former President Viktor Yanukovych had large amount of wealth in London. He also describes how even most basic healthcare services cannot be obtained in Ukraine without bribery. He then describes the problem in most developing nations in Africa or former Soviet states as to how; there is extreme inequality with those in power holding unusual amounts of wealth, all hidden in offshore assets and with properties all over the world, expensive clothes and watches (for which he gives the example of Angola), etc. It was an interesting observation he made that in the Corruption Perception Index from Transparency International; while countries like Angola or Ukraine have a very low rank, their wealth is stashed away in UK, Switzerland, Cyprus, etc. who rank very high on the corruption index and in a way, they are guilty. 
He also talks about how corruption can completely destroy the economic prospects of a country and criticises Western complacency over developing nations that they would eventually transform themselves into economies similar to that of the developed world. However, he explains how it is against the interests of those in power to be more transparent and so long as they are able to hide their assets, they prefer maintaining the status quo. 
The author writes about various financial instruments and how they have been misused, be it the Eurodollar bonds, or the offshore companies in Cayman Islands or Saint Kitts and Nevis, how even diplomatic immunity is available for purchase, the misuse of libel laws in London and so on for if I keep going, I would be listing all the chapters. While I appreciated the deep research involved in all of these topics – it was evident considering the sources mentioned at the end of the book; however, I had an issue with some of the sweeping statements, an example of which I am giving below:
‘You may have read how millions of dollars have been sent back to Nigeria, Indonesia, Angola or Kazakhstan, and that is true. But they represent less than one cent of every dollar that was originally stolen.’ Chapter – Aladdin’s Cave, Page #13
While I am not defending the record of any of these countries but when such statements are made in a book of this kind, it must be backed by sources and number. How many millions went back to the countries (some references are made in future chapters) and what is his basis for making the less than one cent for every dollar allegation? He probably has a basis for this claim but I expected a footnote or some such detail and considering this was something I read in the very first chapter, it put me off. 
I appreciate the author for building the case against corruption and I could relate to most of the examples considering I lived most of my life in a country which ranks 78 in the Corruption Perception Index and many of the problems he cited in Ukraine are very similar. His fundamental basis for making the case was ‘money could move borders, but laws do not’ and thus, how the corrupt manage to move their stolen wealth to countries with favourable laws and exploit the same.
The author admits that there could be genuine reasons to use offshore accounts to hide their money from vindictive governments but the issue of laws being different is fundamental to the very fact of us having so many different jurisdictions in the world. The reason why I am saying jurisdiction instead of country is because the author explains how within US, they exploit favourable laws in Nevada making it a de facto tax haven. 
The author also cracks down on the ability to purchase passports and while it is true that many exploit it, it is also a very practical solution in many cases. Imagine a business person holding a passport and is called for a meeting by the client; someone holding the right passport just needs a ticket, otherwise, you need to apply for a visa and prove your credentials and tell your client to wait till then which simply isn’t practical. The author being someone who holds a British passport would never be able to understand the pain of a visa application process; I can even cite a personal example where I once joked with a HR in one of their random questions – ‘what would you do if you win a lottery?’ to which I responded that I would secure a Maltese nationality. Much as I would like to satisfy requirements in a proper way, if there is a legal alternative available, I would take it in a heartbeat; a lot of opportunities are denied for the sheer lack of a passport and thus, several countries are definitely going to offer schemes to overcome this ridiculous system currently in the world which has no logic whatsoever.
To end the digression, I would say that I certainly enjoyed reading the book but the author did mention ‘how to take it back’ and all he did was dedicate one chapter to it; that too mentioning that he does not have a very clear solution. I am fine with that, the author I understand is not from a banking / financial services / legal background and has presented the case well; but in that case, he should have refrained from promising the sky in the cover page.
To conclude, the book is informative, and can be read by those who are not finance professionals as well (no unexplained jargons); and my hint is do not be deceived by the title. I shall not let what I disagree with on a personal level get in the way of my review (like the passport issue) and so, I award the book a rating of six on ten.
Rating – 6/10
Have a nice day,
Andy


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