Just another reading game to entertain myself… The GOODREADS TOP 3 CHALLENGE: FICTION Complete!


One of the things I’d planned to do this year as part of my Reading Framework was to read the GoodReads top 3 voted Best Books of  2017 in the Fiction, Mystery, Sci-Fi and Debut categories. The idea was to diversify my genres (in this case moving towards more Sci-Fi and Debut), get a chance to catch up with the most popular titles from the year and at the same time also do my own ranking to see if the order of the top 3 changed for me and why.

I love GoodReads and the peer reading community that it supports. So the results of the GoodReads Choice Awards are always something I look forward to (even though there is a small glitch in the voting system that needs sorting, which I talked about here).

Though I’d set this challenge for myself quite eagerly, eventually I wasn’t too sure if I was going to be able to finish even one category, what with my wildly untamed reading moods and my thirst for new titles that throw me off-track all the time. But 10 books and two months into 2018, I’ve managed to achieve 25% of my GoodReads Top 3 target and I’m so glad because it made for some really great reading. 

So, the GoodReads top 3 voted books in the Fiction category in 2017 were:

I LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng with 39,077 votes

IBEARTOWN by Fredrik Backman with 38,268 votes

IIELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman with 32,156 votes

As you can see, the top two come really close and the third is behind by quite a margin, so there’s a clear popularity choice coming through. All three books are extremely well written and have very unique plot lines, which is refreshing. I was particularly enamoured by both Beartown and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, but something about Little Fires Everywhere fell short for me.

So here’s why I think they should have been ranked as follows:

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1. BEARTOWN by Fredrik Backman

BEARTOWN is a brilliantly translated Swedish novel about an obscure town whose culture and identity is tied to its local ice-hockey team, its only ticket for recognition and validation. When a crucial incident occurs, it threatens to destroy everything the community has worked for – years of sacrifice and dedication, and brings age old loyalties, friendships and ethics into question. The atmospheric characteristics of this remote, freezing town form the backdrop for a really introspective narrative for all the characters in the story.

Though it is not meant to be a mystery, the story is quite unpredictable and has many compelling plot developments that keep you hooked and thinking about what decisions a character is going make. Backman writes with a lot of wisdom, developing extremely complex but relatable personalities for his characters, in a way that you understand the psyche of each one. There are no black or white / good or bad people, everyone has a perspective that they operate from. He captures and expresses some of the most common and obvious though unmindful behaviours that we all practice or observe in our lives but seldom take the time to deeply think about. This is a great piece of contemporary fiction that I would recommend everyone to read.

2. ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman

A story about a misfit, a socially awkward woman who finds a new lease to life when she opens up to an unlikely friendship. This book gave me a fuzzy, warm feeling in the nicest most un-cliched way. I am not one for mushy romances, and this is exactly not that kinda book. Even though it deals with themes of loneliness and depression, it does it with so much sensitivity, and a whole lot of wit, humour and heart. This is a book about emotions, relationships and the importance of being accepted for who you are. Its a wonderful,  meaningful, funny, easy to read and uplifting book that must be read sooner than later 🙂

3. LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

I am not sure how I feel about this book anymore, even though I rated it 4/5 on GR. The story revolves around the themes of identity, belonging and rebellion, pitching the perfectly planned lives of native American residents into sharp contrast with the lives of Chinese-American immigrants, who struggle to make ends meet but fiercely protect what is theirs. When I think about it now, I am left with a sense of the story being dark and heavy.

Celeste Ng writes extremely well and I’ve been a fan since I read her first book Everything I Never Told You, which was brilliant, but I think with this one, I wasn’t able to form a connection with any of the characters. I also feel that the context was “too American” or “too suburban American” and somehow as more time has passed since having read it, its turned out to be less and less memorable. That said, it has been voted the most popular fiction in 2017 and has also got many rave reviews in America – but for me, it wasn’t better than the other two.

So those were my thoughts on the Best Fiction from 2017. I now look forward to getting on with the other categories. Until next time, happy reading!

 

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A book that is so much more than the sport it is centered on. BEARTOWN by Fredrik Backman


BeartownBeartown by Fredrik Backman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What can I say about this book that won’t sound like an understatement.
I would give it 10 stars if that was an option.

I thought I wouldn’t enjoy a book about a sport much, and that too one on ice-hockey, which I know nothing about and have no interest in. But it was so much more than a book about a sport. It took me by surprise. Backman’s writing is beautiful – some of his lines are statements that hit home like a bullet and some are questions that make you pause and think about your own perspectives.
When a story has more than 20 characters and you end up feeling like you completely understand all of those 20 people, and even really start to deeply care about a few, it speaks volumes about the writer’s abilities. I finished the book under an hour ago and I already miss Beartown, I did not want to leave.

This is a ‘human’ story about friendship, loyalty, family, community, ambition, loss and love, about the emotions, and secrets that people carry around in their hearts, about suppressed silences, the things they say and everything they don’t and the extent to which they find themselves go to take a stand when a community’s ethics are tested. I marked endless passages in the book, re-reading them over and over.
There were many wow moments.

Some quotes that gave me pause,

There are damn few things in life that are harder than admitting to yourself that you’re a hypocrite.

Hate can be a a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard, It makes demands. Hate is simple. So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe – comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy.

There are few words that are harder to explain than “loyalty“. It’s always regarded as a positive characteristic, because a lot of people would say that many of the best things people do for each other occur precisely because of loyalty. The only problem is that many of the very worst things we do to each other occur because of the same thing.

Having gone through such brilliant writing, I am at a loss of being able to properly articulate what made this book so awesome, but the one thing that really made this book shine was the excellent translation by Neil Smith. Its so good that it feels like it was written in English.
This is not one to miss!

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How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story – INFERIOR by Angela Saini


Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That's Rewriting the StoryInferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As far as we’ve come into the ultra-modern 21st century, we are still women living in a man’s world.

Inferior is a well timed book that explores why the gender dynamic works the way it does, across cultures, generations and professions.
How did women come to be in the social positions they currently live in?
Who decided what roles men and women must have? And what were these based on?
Why are women believed to be inferior to men?
Are we biologically built to be lesser humans?
Do our brains have lower intelligence capacities?

Through really extensive research spanning neuroscience, psychology, medicine, anthropology and evolutionary biology, Angela Saini delves deeply into the question about women’s position in society, revealing hard scientific evidence that somehow never gets the limelight, but definitely questions the one-sided superiority argument that has favoured men in areas dominated by men.

The book lends a lot of perspective to the historical and social constructs, where “women have been systematically suppressed over the course of human history by men and their power structures“. It take a critical look at how we came to develop these traditional gender stereotypes of the breadwinning father and the stay-at-home mother, and if these are really part of our biological makeup. I think it’s a really interesting and important study into our evolution as the “social animals” we so like to label ourselves.

My favourite chapters in the book were Chapters 1 and 7 because they present such interesting insights into the patriarchy led socio-cultural control system that confines women within a desirable boundary of acceptable behaviour. These are norms that define our “character” or “characterlessness” for that matter, and we all still live by them today.

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When a crime novel goes kaput on you – Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi


Black Water LiliesBlack Water Lilies by Michel Bussi

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

To shuffle things up a bit, I decided to move from Indian regional novels to a French crime novel in translation, written by the most popular crime writer in France, and what a disappointing venture it was! I don’t remember the last time I gave a book two stars, but there was nothing redeeming about this one.
I finished it anyway, only to see where the story was going, and only to find that the eventual “twist” was almost annoying, instead of what may have been a charmingly wow moment for many – going by the ratings.

Three things that I think completely failed this one for me (FYI – there’s a spoiler in the third point):

1. The translation / writing – I’ve always wondered how a translation is judged good or poorly done, and I think this book is where I understood that. I just couldn’t find the flow in the narration. I don’t know which to blame, there’s no way to tell. So it’s Either that, or the writing.

2. All those French names! – this was probably more frustrating than the writing / narration. The book is set in Giverny, a quaint French town famous for its inhabitant, the impressionist painter Claude Monet – and there are innumerable references to its buildings, roads, streams and gardens. I understand that the author was trying to create an ambience but it was tiring to read all these French names which have to be three word phrases instead of a single word name.
I couldn’t keep them straight and after a point just glossed over the text. In the end, the over referencing didn’t lead anywhere, it wasn’t important to the plot.

3. The plot (**spoiler**) – So when I realised the “twist” in the story, my first reaction was irritation at all the hard work I’d put in to get to that point, to understand where all of it was going. And you know what, nothing happens. Everything is a flashback! Done in a way that it intertwines with the present, and you can’t tell the memories apart from the present day reality.
After 3/4th of the book, or maybe more, the plot is still building up, reaching that breaking point when you know that sweet pleasure will come and all the loose ends will tie up – and poof! One of the most deflating endings is served up, And happily ever after if you please!

I feel like the author made a mid-story decision to change it all up and took a completely new direction. I also think The story could have been pared down, edited. There was just too much atmospheric description and too little plot. All those Monet painting references came to nothing in the end, except now I know who Monet is and where Giverny is :-/

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A Brilliant Retelling of Indian Mythology – The Liberation of Sita by VOLGA


The Liberation of SitaThe Liberation of Sita by Volga

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really really really liked this book.
I had been looking for modern re-tellings of Indian mythology, something beyond Devdutt Pattanaik and Ashwin Sanghi, that either brought a new perspective or told the story more objectively, and what I found was this slim, 100 page marvel, now a treasured addition to my favorites.

Written by a feminist, the book takes a completely fresh critical direction through a feminist point of view to Sita’s story. Picking up at different points in her life, the author creates a narrative between Sita and several other female characters from the Ramayana, treating these key moments in her life with a new perspective to help her understand the implications of the trials she has borne or will bear. There are many many layers in what is such a simply written no-frills narrative.

Written originally in Telugu (titled Vimukta) through the late 70s and 80s, I find this book timeless in the message it ultimately seeks to convey and borrow a few lines from a critical review included at the end of the book, written by one of the translators, to describe what this book really achieves:

Volga’s Vimukta not only belongs to this tradition of feminist re-visionist myth-making but it takes it further. Volga does not use re-visioning merely as a strategy to subvert patriarchal structures embedded in mythical texts but also as a means to forge a vision of life in which liberation is total, autonomous and complete.
…….Women are no longer a means to serve someone else’s ends, nor are they merely the prizes in men’s quests. On the contrary, they are questers seeking their own salvation.

Does liking this book so much mean I am a feminist? I couldn’t say… but I do relate to and support this perspective wholeheartedly. I will definitely be re-reading this book a few times.

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A Review and A Comment on the GoodReads Choice Awards System


Into the WaterInto the Water by Paula Hawkins

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This year I decided to read the top three voted novels on the 2017 Good Reads Choice Awards to see which one of the 3 was the winner for me, and Into the Water was the first one I read in the Mystery/Thriller category. But a the bigger mystery it seems is how it won the award for the year’s best mystery / thriller at all!
Riding on the popularity wave of her first book, The Girl on the Train, this book was much awaited and obviously promoted as the next amazing thing from Paula Hawkins, and received a lot of attention from readers who liked the first one.

But one look at the average rating (3.53 by over 92,000 reviewers) will show you that its nothing special. I got caught up by the fact that it was voted the best mystery / thriller in 2017 by readers and without checking its reviews decided to listen to the audio book. Approximately 20% in, I was heading to its review page to see what I was missing and why I wasn’t enjoying it at all. When I saw the 3.53 number – I was so put off, but also not surprised.

I decided to finish the book anyway, mostly because it was audio and did not eat into my actual reading time. The story is so dark and gloomy and dreary and pointless – its not fun to read at all! The thrill and pace of an engaging and engrossing mystery is completely missing. So all I would say is, Skip It.

A view on the GoodReads Choice Awards

As most readers know, the GR Awards are based completely on the votes readers give to a book, whether they have read it or not. While this is a great initiative, it leaves room for misrepresentation. This is because even though you haven’t read the shortlisted titles, the system allows you to put in your vote anyway – and you end up voting either because of how popular that book seems to be or because you read something else by the author that you liked. I know this because I’ve done it too!

Now, if you look at the number of votes for the winning title, Into The Water, versus the number of people who have read it – it is just 52%. The close second, Origin by Dan Brown, has a share of 82% votes against the total number that have read it and an average rating of 3.84. This alone shows that the backing of the actual readers on the winning title was super low.

I know that the GoodReads Choice Awards are meant to be a popularity vote – but if they can think of a way to avoid this kind of polarised misrepresentation, then the results (and deserving winners) would be so much more authentic – like everything else this site has managed to keep all these years.

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Reading Plans for 2018 – THE FRAMEWORK!


I think I’m in trouble.

Because every passing day, the intensity of the “pull” from books I’m pining to read escalates. So much so, that the other important things I’m supposed to be doing in a day (like work!!) are now seeming like an annoying distraction. The only motivation to carry on working is so I can make enough of a living to feed this feverish and frenzied but oh so fulfilling habit.

Like I cannot wait for the weekend to get here, because the annual book fair is finally happening and I’ve already got my backpack cleaned up and ready, to stuff with all the loot I don’t deserve but have to have to, oh have to have!

This really is getting out of hand, or…. is it too late to worry now?

But wait, isn’t 2018 supposed to be about celebrating books? Of course it is! Thank you very much for the reminder!

My target for the year is 50 books – and here is how I am going to make the most of it!

The idea is to keep it structured but also allow enough room for those impulsive choices that are inevitably going to be made. I’ve learnt this about myself and I’ve stopped fighting it – because in the end, the discipline really sucks away a lot of the FUN that books and reading are supposed to bring. (The #unreadshelfproject, which I am following via Instagram, is a fun way of bringing in that tiny bit of discipline though!).

So after browsing numerous reading challenges from all over the web, this framework is what I’ve come up with. Finishing 50 books is itself a challenge for me so I am not making the framework too schematic or overly defined. I’m happy with the direction its  taken, and also because it will serve as a reminder to not miss the kind of genres I generally overlook.

I’ve already identified a bunch of titles for these categories, but I think it would be wiser to add those after I’ve actually read them. Lets see where I get in 6 months time.

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I’m so excited to begin and see how this goes!!

Are you also following a reading strategy this year? I’d love to hear  how you plan to do it.

Happy new year and happy reading!

Best of 2017: Fiction


On the 2nd last day of 2017, I am much too excited about getting together my reading lists, plans and challenges for 2018, than about the fiction I read in 2017. The most frustrating bit about this whole reading business is not being able to read enough; I can never stop bombarding myself with book lists from Twitter, Feedly, the Guardian, Goodreads and what not – and there is always just too much to read but too little time and too slow a reading speed to do it with!

I guess this is probably the most bitter-sweet of all frustrations in the world and like Ann Patchett said,

Its always better to have too much to read than not enough

So I will try and hold back the ranting for a bit 😛 and celebrate the good stuff I was actually able to read in two-oh-one-seven!

Oscar Wilde

I embarrassingly admit that it was in 2017 that I finally discovered Oscar Wilde, and it was probably the best thing to have happened in all the good things that happened this year. And what fun it was to read all three plays aloud and dramatically – funny, witty, layered and oh that punchiness that comes with the refined language and dialogue! So artful, so satisfying.

The Importance of Being Earnest is the first one I read and it is my favourite, though An Ideal Husband and Lady Windermere’s Fan are super too. After having read the plays I craved for more and found a couple of film versions, which are apparently pretty popular. I watched these two – and I must say, I was NOT IMPRESSED – at all!.

Neither of these are even half as good as the written play. So, if you’ve seen the movies but haven’t read the plays, I would highly highly recommend you read the plays and enjoy how brilliant they really are!

Madhavi by Bhisham Sahni

madhabi_hbAnother brilliant play I read this year, in Hindi, was Madhavi. Written by renowned writer, playwright and actor Bhisham Sahni, Madhavi is the story of one woman’s sacrifices in the face of the duties that all the men in her life must fulfil.

The play is based on the story of Madhavi, King Yayati’s daughter from Mahabharata and brings out the notions of how male pride and honour often, if not always, supersede female sacrifices – that go unrecognised and unconsidered, obscure in the pride and vanity that each man feels – even though, without her, they could never have fulfilled their duties.

Read my full review on GoodReads.

Unravelling Oliver and Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent

I really really enjoyed reading both these books by Liz Nugent and read them back to back. Unravelling Oliver was her first book (so brilliant!) and won the Irish Crime Fiction Book of the Year Award in 2014. It has also been translated into 7 languages. Lying in Wait is also pretty brilliant.

Both stories are based 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 the depths of another character’s deceit or duplicity.
Both stories begin with powerful hooks and after the first sentence, you can forget about doing anything else for the rest of the day. Isn’t that the best kind of thing ever! here are the opening lines of both these books:

‘I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.’ – Unravelling Oliver

‘My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it.’ – Lying in Wait

The reveal is so gradual that the event itself becomes less important. It is the reasons that led to the event that become much more interesting. There is something satisfying about the author’s unrestrained depiction of her low-life characters. Just go get them!

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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I closed the year with this sweet, warm, funny, touching, witty book. By the end of if, I just wanted to give Eleanor a few hugs and tell her, she really was completely fine 🙂

Another great debut – I don’t know how people are so good at writing their first book, but who’s complaining eh!

If you’re looking for a meaningful, funny, easy to read and uplifting book, then I highly recommend this one. I waited nearly 6 months to get a copy and when I finally did, it was absolutely worth it.

Read my full review here.

And that wraps up the Best of 2017: Fiction edition! I’ve really enjoyed thinking about all of these books again and I really hope you will give some of these a shot.

Officially looking on to 2018 now, and all the amazing, stunning, astounding, astonishing, awe-inspiring, stupendous, staggering, extraordinary and incredible books that I will get to read!

Happy New Year!!! And see you in 2018!!! 

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Book Review – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman


Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely FineEleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh Eleanor Eleanor Eleanor, can I give you a hug and then a few more!

My reading luck seems to peak at the end of the year, every year, because the most enjoyable book somehow happens to be the last one I squeeze in before the year wraps up, usually after the obligatory reading target has been met.

I’d been waiting to get my hands on this book since July and when I finally did I was afraid of being left disappointed because of all the wanting and expectations I had built up over the months. Luckily though, I absolutely loved the book and Eleanor’s character and I loved the voice that the author created for her; she is so unusual and endearing. Also, the vocabulary in this book is enough to get you half way through your GRE preparations! But thats just Eleanor being Eleanor, you’ll see.

There were so many passages I highlighted and saved through the book. Some of them deadpan but hilarious, like this one where Eleanor talks about fast food,

I wondered why humans would willingly queue at a counter to request processed food, then carry it to a table which was not even set, and then eat it from the paper?

and others which were heart breaking but so well put, like the one where she describes ‘loneliness’

These days loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.

This is just a great debut novel and I’m gonna be watching out for Gail Honeyman’s next one. If you want to close the year on a meaningful, funny, easy to read and uplifting book, then I highly recommend this one.

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Best of 2017: Non Fiction


I read some amazing non-fiction in 2017, ranging from memoirs to behavioural science to psychology and health. Even though reading 14 non-fiction books in a year has been a major achievement for me, a first infact, I regret not being able to cover a lot more of the exciting stuff that is being written and published almost every week!

With renewed vigour to read a lot more in 2018, here are the 4 books that compelled me to think and stayed with me in 2017.

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THE POWER OF HABIT by Charles Duhigg

I enjoyed this thoroughly researched, well written and extremely interesting so much, I still haven’t stopped talking about it to people, months after having read it.
If you’re curious about the neuroscience of how habits work and manifest themselves through our daily routines, and want to really understand the key to altering or developing habits, then this is a great book to read. It is simply written and full of case studies from neurology, business, marketing, analytics, crime, religion, disasters /crises – – illustrating how habits are used by organisations and systems to influence beliefs and attitudes to elicit desired behaviours. You’ll read about Pepsodent, Alcoholics Anonymous, Target’s marketing analytics, the African-American Civil Rights Movement and much more!


51PF0757JNLBETWEEN TWO WORLDS: ESCAPE FROM TYRANNY: GROWING UP IN THE SHADOW OF SADDAM by Zainab Salbi

This is an intimate, revealing and disturbing first hand account of life inside Saddam Hussein’s inner circle and what it was really like for the people who were loyalty bound to the tyrant. Zainab Salbi’s father was appointed Saddam’s personal pilot, and someone who Saddam considered a dear friend. Fear made his friends acutely loyal. As much as this book is about how Saddam impacted Zainab and her family, eventually forcing it to break apart, it is also a chilling portrait of the man himself. Of all the stories one had heard about his savagery and ruthlessness, there is still more, and that in itself makes this book a remarkable read. To appreciate and understand Salbi’s struggles, her grit and determination to break out of a life controlled by fear and psychological manipulation, having a complete perspective on Saddam is imperative.

I already feel like I will read this book again.

 

25899336WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR by Paul Kalanithi

I will not be saying a lot about this book except that it is definitely one that you must read if you haven’t yet. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year, When Breath Becomes Air has been one of the most talked about and appreciated books in 2017.

Written by a terminally ill neurosurgeon, who, finding himself on the opposite end of the table, looks back at his long and arduous training to become a neurosurgeon and comprehend what really lends meaning to life.

 

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DEAR LEADER: FROM TRUSTED INSIDER TO ENEMY OF THE STATE, MY ESCAPE FROM NORTH KOREA by Jang Jin-Sung

The two things we’ve seen mentioned together the most this year are Trump and North Korea. North Korea has always been a topic of interest for me. I find this book fascinating and absorbing because 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 manage 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 centre of power, the more dangerous it becomes because you know more, and then control is maintained through fear.

 

With that I wrap up my thoughts on my top 4 non-fiction favourites from 2017. If you’ve read any of these, I’d love to hear what you thought about them!

Until then, happy reading!