Author Archives: Binny

Book Review – Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa


Rashomon and Other Stories (Tuttle Classics)Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Short stories have always been a a challenge for me, and this is probably the most cryptic set of stories that I have read yet.

What is it about these enormously acclaimed Japanese authors of the earlier 20th century. The first I read was Yukio Mishima, who over and above being known for his controversial novels, is most remembered for his ritual suicide by sepukku; and now Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, who is called the “father of the Japanese short story” and has Japan’s premier literary award named after him, is also remembered for having killed himself at the age of 35.
Their literature and writings seem to have a cult following, because they definitely aren’t mass market material – and this is what attracted me to read some of their works.

This is a set of 6 tales that essentially explore dimensions of human nature. I don’t want to summarize the stories here, but I have to say that after reading each one of them, I looked up analyses online to understand the latent meanings that were clearly evading me – and in some cases I was surprised that I had almost completely missed the point – which in itself was amusing.

These are good stories to be read aloud, discussed and ruminated over. A good choice for book club reading. They are not very long, but some of them are complex.

The movie Rashomon was made based on two stories from this set and is highly acclaimed even today – with a rating of 8.3 on IMDb. That will be an interesting followup to the book.

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Book Review – Across the Nightingale Floor (Tales of the Otori – Book 1) by Lian Hearn


Across the Nightingale Floor (Tales of the Otori, #1)Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I quite enjoyed this book. I don’t usually pick up “fantasy fiction” unless I am really convinced. There seems to be some mental block from when I may have read a really bad one, and I’m always weary of picking up another. Anyway, I decided to give Tales of the Otori a try because stories set in “Japanese” environs are always attractive, with the hope of magic and mysticism and some smooth samurai action – and I must say I wasn’t disappointed.

In a gist, the story follows Takeo, an orphaned boy from a remote village who is forced into the complicated lives of ruling factions in the region, jostling and plotting for power, and finds himself tied to his destiny of defending the honor of those who have looked after him and his obligation to those whom he owes his lineage. Takeo is a respectably likable protagonist, who has a pretty impressive set of skills that he himself discovers and sharpens through the book. He is grounded and humble and quite believable, which really helped me connect with his character.

What I really appreciated was how the reader is instantly plunged into the story – its like you hit the ground running and there’s hardly ever a dip in the pace henceforth. The background is revealed as the story progresses and makes enough context to understand the motivations of the various characters, but also reveals hidden aspects gradually, so that the true nature of a character comes as a bit of a surprise.

Liam Hearn’s language and writing style has that Japanese “feel” – the dialogue is very restrained and to the point, in some parts poetic. It makes for simple reading – not complicated or weighed down by complex or elaborate text.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking for something light but not meaningless and with enough emotion and depth to continue reading the series. Ultimately, it’s a story about love, loyalty, power, politics, illusion and revenge – and with that combination, you can’t go wrong.

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Book Review – Behind Closed Doors by BA Paris


Behind Closed DoorsBehind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The danger with reading something that comes with such high praise is that you set yourself up for disappointment.

Crime fiction / psychological thrillers are my antidote, my cure for a reading slump, something that consumes my mind in the most deliciously twisted way, that I come out of satisfied and happy – marveling at the author’s ingenuity, intelligence or creativity; their timing; their ability to bring out the worst in human nature in the most believable way.

Probably, for many readers, this book delivered that. But for me, even though I was hooked to see what happened next, a large chunk of the story got very tiresome and there were many moments of impatience where I just wanted them to get on with it. The story tries hard but lacks depth. The villain is portrayed far too evil to be believable.

So even though I found myself reading it in every free minute I had, I also wanted to get done with it a.s.a.p. to be able to move on to something more meaningful – so its been a bit confusing to understand whether I liked it or not.

I can however say for sure that I did not “enjoy” it. I did not come away with a feeling of being on a roller coaster ride that was over too soon, or with an overwhelming feeling to make my friends read it 🙂

I think I’ve been #muchtoocritical on this one. But it is how it is.

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Book Review: Unraveling Oliver / Lying in Wait – Liz Nugent


Unravelling OliverUnravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can’t remember where I read about Liz Nugent’s novels, but I don’t think it was on any of the popular / conventional thriller lists. So I am very glad I came across them.

I read both her books, “Lying in Wait” and “Unraveling Oliver” back to back and this is almost like a joint review of them. Both books base their stories on a foundation of human depravity and auto-centric conniving characters. I like that every chapter is narrated by a character, moving the story forward, revealing differing perspectives and conclusions on the same event. This is especially interesting when one of the characters fails to understand / discover the depths of another character’s deceit or duplicity.

The story begins with a powerful hook and you cannot help yourself but read on, because the reveal is so gradual – the event itself becomes less important, its the reasons that lead to the event that become much more interesting. There is something satisfying about the author’s unrestrained depiction of her low-life characters.

This is not a ‘whodunnit’, but more of a ‘whydunnit’ – and that is what makes it psychologically thrilling.

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Book Review: Prisoner of Tehran – Marina Nemat


Prisoner of Tehran: One Woman's Story of Survival Inside a Torture JailPrisoner of Tehran: One Woman’s Story of Survival Inside a Torture Jail by Marina Nemat

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It amazes me to read stories from around the world that reveal how in the name of religion, power, politics, revolution…. innocent people who choose not to comply end up paying such heavy prices to maintain the most basic of liberties.

It is not that I live in an idealistic world, oblivious to the realities and sufferings that result from war and violent conflict – but when one reads in such detail, the ordeal of an individual who survived a conflict, the gravity of what he/she endured really hits home. From a statistic, this person turns into someone who you get to know almost as intimately as your own family and friends, and it is that connect that provides such perspective into the silent suffering and strength of millions trapped in conflict zones.
I think with war continuing to carry on in so many parts of the world for so many years, one dismisses it as an event beyond one’s control and in the process also loses sight of all the lives that are changing and getting lost everyday.

This is an important story, one that took so much courage to tell.

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Book Review – Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim


Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's EliteWithout You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was meant to be investigative journalism, but it certainly does not read like one. Infact there was quite a controversy around it being publicised as a memoir – a woman’s journey of self exploration, much against the wishes of the author, who protested that tagging it as a memoir stripped the book and the author from its journalistic expertise.

While this may well have been the effect for many readers, it did not really change my perception about the book or the author’s journalism expertise. I still picked it up believing that it would provide a rare and engaging insight into this unexplored section of the North Korean society.

But the irony is that it reads exactly like a memoir, and not an interesting one at that. First I almost quit at 20% and then at 60%, and then just trudged on to the end because I wanted to read about what the author witnessed when Kim Jong Il died. But the details she shares from her two teaching months come across as so superficial, that anyone who has been reading about North Korea or has watched enough videos on YouTube, won’t be surprised by or find anything new in her reporting. There is so much of herself in there that all of this taking place in North Korea almost seems like a sub plot.

So much lost opportunity, not just in the writing but also in the information / investigation of information, especially since the book is a result of ten years of work.

People read about North Korea to understand it beyond the generic assumptions we have or make about the country, it’s systems and people. Investigative journalism is probably the most potent and dangerous means of getting the real picture. But how does it work in a country like DPRK when your every move is being watched, every word heard. So I understand that this is a big challenge and carries immense risk and may not actually provide the results one hoped for.

But a nearly day by day, lesson by lesson account of her time teaching English there adds no value to the larger scope of information that could have been gleaned and what one actually learns from this book could easily have been wrapped up in a chapter or two.

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Book Review: Dear Leader – Jang Jin-sung


Dear Leader: North Korea's senior propagandist exposes shocking truths behind the regimeDear Leader: North Korea’s senior propagandist exposes shocking truths behind the regime by Jang Jin-sung

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What made this book so interesting was the fact that the author was not a regular citizen who had defected to South Korea, but someone who came from the very core of the North Korean control system – bringing a never before seen perspective and understanding of how the country operates, it’s governance and propaganda systems and how they have managed to contain it’s people despite the harshest living conditions.

Though Jang Jin-sung is not the first government man to have defected, he is probably the only one who decided to tell, in as much detail and so openly, about the workings of DPRK’s administrative and government system. The closer he got to the Dear Leader, the more the smokescreen around him cleared and suddenly everything he knew and believed came into question.
In an article with the Guardian, he describes the regime’s grip to be so deeply psychological and emotional for North Koreans, that the closer one gets to the center of power, the more dangerous it becomes because you know more, and then control is maintained through fear.

After working as an expert analyst on North Korea for the South Korean government, Jang Jin-sung now runs an independent reporting website out of South Korea, with the primary agenda of dispelling myths and assumptions about North Korea and helping shape a picture that is much closer to reality – all as he continues to be a wanted criminal in North Korea on false murder charges.

The story of his escape and final entry into South Korea via China is amazing, bewildering and exciting and forces you to think about how such a country continues to exist even today, and the people who continue to languish there, stuck and stagnant.

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The 7 Best Things I Read in 2016!


2016 has been a bitter-sweet reading year with the usual mixed bag of disappointing books but also some very very good ones that I couldn’t recommend enough!

Surprisingly, I very comfortably finished my reading target of 31 books for the year (which is a tiny number  compared to the many book bloggers here – and I wish I could read even half as much as they do!). The down side is that I haven’t been able to sit tight with a single book since that happened – and my last month this year has gone with me pining to read but making no progress with the annoying reader’s block that I can’t seem to shake off!

So! Since its that time of the year, here are the 7  best things I read in 2016!!!! (in no particular order coz they are all great). Click the title to read full reviews!

  1. The Blood Telegram – India’s Secret War in East Pakistan by Gary J. Bass

Ah, such a pleasure to think about this one again. A journalistic masterpiece. I read this book  like the history student I never was, completely absorbed in the details, marking margins, watching interviews on YouTube as I read and constantly resisting the urge to underline complete paragraphs on nearly every page in the book. The 1971 Bangladesh War is an important, recent and probably much misunderstood / misinformed event in modern history. This is a must read. Cannot compliment Gary Bass enough for writing and researching this as well as he did.

2. Five Days in November by Clint Hill

If you’ve ever been obsessed by the the JFK assassination, then you will appreciate the very personal insider account of what happened immediately after the shots hit JFK. Written by the Kennedys’ secret service agent, Clint Hill, and published on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death, it is a sensitively written book that gives you a glimpse at the profound sense of grief that everyone close to JFK felt but had to keep in check as official procedures and protocol took precedence. This is easily a book you can finish in a couple of hours.

3. The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

I spent a beautiful month reading all four books in this series. Actually I tore through one book after the other until they were all done and each one was brilliant. If I had to summarize, I’d just say that Elena Ferrante’s writing captivates, engrosses, absorbs, consumes, devastates and satisfies. All the fuss and buzz around these books is completely authentic and well-founded. Being nominated for the Man Booker was well deserved. I only wish she hadn’t been harassed by that Italian journalist’s obsession to uncover her true identity – in the end it has nothing to do with who she is as an author and this all this reader cares about.

I reviewed each book in this series separately, so I’m leaving links to those here:

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

The Story if the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

4. The Dalai Lama’s Cat by David Michie

Oh what an adorable, wonderfully written book on the basic tenets of Buddhism and its simple yet profound philosophy for a happy life narrated by the Dalai Lama’s cat Rinpoche! A happy book that must be read by everyone at least once.

5. The Short Drop by Matthew Fitzsimmons

Probably the only thriller that worked this year! Also, it breaks away from the usual ‘super hero’ typecasting of the main character, which is refreshing and realistic, and gives him a great back story too. Modern day fast paced, intense and exciting – its just the kind of book you can curl up with on a cold night this winter; with some hot tea or chocolate? whatever you prefer!

6. Belonging by Umi Sinha

I still consider this to be one of the most underrated and undiscovered books of the year. A well-crafted, elegantly written epistolary novel set in early 19th century India, spanning three generations and their struggle to understand their identity in colonial India.A definite must read.

7. One Child by Mei Fong

Wrapping up the list is another brilliant journalistic novel on China’s one-child-policy, that was enforced in 1980 as a drastic family planning initiative to arrest its exploding population. Reading about how this policy was implemented has impacted and will continue to impact the country’s people and economy was disturbing but also such an important story that needed telling. China never ceases to amaze and this social experiment from its modern history is a big lesson for the world to reflect upon.

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And that wraps its up! If I wasn’t such a slow reader, I would have likely re-read nearly all these books again, but for now I’ll be glad for having read them at all.

Merry Xmas and Happy New Year everyone!!!!

Looking forward to a bookpacked 2017!!!!!!

Book Review – ONE CHILD by Mei Fong


5/5 STARS!!!!

An account of what may possibly be the world’s most extreme social experiment in modern times, ONE CHILD tells the story of China’s one-child-policy, that was enforced in 1980 as a drastic family planning initiative to arrest its exploding population. The policy was phased out last year, in 2015, and this book takes a look at what this policy has really meant for the people of China, how it was implemented, and how it will take a long time for the country to recover from its impact. 

Two of the most striking emotions that I have associated with China from whatever I have read and heard in the past, and more strongly through this book now, are fear and control. The way the Communist Party and government system control the country down to the last and remotest person is disturbing. Several instances in the book show how people were bound by the one-child rule, breaking which brought about a slew of fines and punishments, economically debilitating an already poor population and leaving them with nearly no choices of a fair recourse. It was non-negotiable. 

The book shows how the policy has affected not just the parents who were forced to adhere to it, but also its impact on the children who were born as the one-child generation. There are horrifying instances of in-human forced late-term abortions, and sad tales of parents losing their only child to natural disasters – like the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that claimed the lives of thousands of children, who were at school at the time, due to the poor quality of their school buildings. In the aftermath of such incidents, the desperation of parents scrambling to register themselves to have another child, as they would be eligible again, is heartbreaking. 

But there is also a very economic and pragmatic reason driving them to make such desperate scrambles to have children. As the author states, everything in Chinese society is geared towards marriage and family, and being unmarried or childless placed you very low on the societal totem pole. (There are labels like “leftover women” for those who remain unmarried after 25, and “bare branches” for men who are also unmarried after the designated ripe age. There are “bachelor villages” because of an extremely lopsided gender ratio, that was further exacerbated by the one-child policy, which encouraged people to be even more choosy about having their “one-child” as a boy.) 

People who broke the one-child rule or did not have any children, could not claim several of the benefits that the state offers – they simply became ineligible. Without any progeny, people found it difficult to buy even burial plots for themselves. Also, as the ratio of the older generation in China increased, and with expensive hospice care, having a child to look after you in old age became a critical requirement and investment. 

Other discriminating policies like hukou, which prevents migrant populations from overpopulating cities by making them ineligible to government benefits that a resident would normally get, show how difficult life is in China for the economically weaker class.  

There is a very interesting section early in the book, that talks about how the Olympics were also one area for the authorities to exercise population control to bring glory to the country – – where selective breeding to raise more talented humans was a central part of the elite sports program. 

Held very soon after the devastating Sichuan earthquake, the 2008 Beijing Olympics were China’s opportunity to dazzle the world, and they likely did. But some of the facts about how they did this has been an eye-opener – from spray painting the city’s dry grass an emerald green, to deploying 25 control stations to fend off rain clouds approaching the Bird’s Nest stadium, to the computer generated imagery of the fireworks one saw on TV – – it shows how China can and will go to any extent to paint a picture of perfection. 

Ironically, after three decades of making the one-child policy mandatory, the Communist Party is now having trouble making people choose to have two children – With such high parenting and child rearing costs, most middle-class Chinese now prefer to have only one child. 

There’s a lot more that the book covers that is interesting, insightful and informative and I would recommend everyone to read it, just to know a little bit more about this intriguing land of smoke and mirrors and the struggles of its people.

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Why I’m Still Rooting for Blackberry


Most people I know have written off the BlackBerry. In fact, its more than most people, its nearly everyone.

When people at work (and for that matter at home) see me using my BlackBerry phone (the Z30), its like a novel experience for them to watch someone use what they believe is probably the biggest failure in mobile technology today. The most natural reaction is generally the “but why” reaction. But why must you be using a BlackBerry when there are so many great Android / Apple options!? But why must anyone be using a BlackBerry at all, isn’t the company closing down?

So, while earlier I used to try and defend why I continued to be a BlackBerry user for the past 6 years, I’ve simply stopped doing it anymore. And that’s because until one actually uses a BlackBerry that runs the BB10 OS – which I have been using for the past 4 years, I don’t think they can fully appreciate why some BlackBerry loyals aren’t giving up on it just yet.

BlackBerry released the BB10 OS in 2013 taking a leap from its BB6 version, which everyone said was a desperate attempt at bringing itself at par with Android and iOS. And maybe it was,  an attempt to re-imagine and re-position the BlackBerry on an equal operating plane.

But consider what BlackBerry did with BB 10. It actually innovated! And it out innovated Apple as well as Android.If we leave the app world factor out, BlackBerry actually delivered a much more sophisticated, productive, thought through and streamlined operating system. The Hub, which is the central feature of the BB 10 operating system, is such a simple, efficient and practical solution that I cannot imagine functioning without it. It is immediately intuitive, integrating all notifications from SMS and emails, to social media and instant messaging. I never have to actually enter the Gmail, Twitter or Whatsapp apps to check and respond to my messages, which if you think about it, is a huge convenience.

BlackBerry Flow – gesture control. When I first started using a BB10 device, it took me about a week to get used to having no home, menu or back buttons on the phone. But pretty soon, I realized what a blessing gesture control was! True to its name, BlackBerry Flow allows you to run apps side by side; you can hop from one to the other without losing any content or progress and pickup exactly where you left off without having to exit and enter apps repeatedly. Try doing that on the iOS or an Android, and tell me if it isn’t super annoying to constantly get in and get out of every app you’re using. With Flow, BlackBerry nailed navigation. It is the single most fluid operating system and interface I have experienced across devices – and I’ve used both iOS and Android.

Don’t they call Blackberry the king of the keyboard? Yes they do, and for good reason. Whether its the touch keypad or the iconic physical keyboard, BlackBerry knows what its doing and is hands down the king of keyboard design, so lets not even get into that.

And finally, the handsets. BlackBerry launched a whole new generation of handsets when it released the BB10 OS. And while some of these had a bumpy start, almost every flagship device won accolades for its design and performance. In 2014, the BlackBerry Z30 won gold in the ‘Consumer Product of the Year’ category at the Best in Biz Awards 2014 International. The same year, it also won the WIRED’s CES Smartphone Thunderdome Challenge with a 110 point lead on Apple in the second place (hah!). CES is a global consumer electronics and consumer technology tradeshow that takes place every January in Las Vegas, Nevada. In 2015 the BlackBerry Passport won the Red Dot ‘Best of the Best’ Award for Product Design – I could start gushing endlessly about this device, so just go and read what the jury had to say about it here. And in 2016, the BlackBerry Priv won it again.

My only regret would be to miss out on the BlackBerry Passport, which was going to be my next device – and that too only because it wont get Whatsapp support, which I use extensively like everyone else. But for more reasons than that, Blackberry shouldn’t let this premier device slip through the cracks, and I can only hope they bring an Android integrated version on it too.

So yes, I have more than “some” hope in BlackBerry’s revival and I am waiting to see what they bring out next!

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