Books that impress
The Girl You Left Behind (Jojo Moyes)
Most of us have been through numerous films and books that document life in Nazi Germany, or life in Europe around the time the Nazi party was taking over, under the brutal dictatorship of Adolf Hitler. This book is set in the small French town of Peronne, where a German army battalion is posted, and where there’s a small restaurant run by Sophie Lefevre who must serve these soldiers and their commandant every evening. The townsfolk barely have enough to get by, themselves — but serve the Germans they must. Sophie’s husband, a gifted painter, who is away fighting in the World War, leaves behind a painting that hangs on one of the walls of the restaurant. Complications develop when the German commander develops a fondness for Sophie and her painting in equal measure, culminating in her being “taken away” to an unknown fate. And we are transported from 1916 Peronne to 2006 London, where the very same painting hangs in the bedroom of young widow Liv Halston — a gift from her recently deceased husband. Life, as we know, doesn’t let up when it comes to complications. And Liv begins to fall for Paul, who happens to work for a firm who investigate stolen paintings that the Germans carried away during the war. He spots the painting, he stays true to his job, and a lengthy court case ensues, which traumatises Liv who is shocked to come to terms with parting with this gift her husband gave her.
Jojo Moyes is probably known for her romance dramas, but I’m glad this is the first I’ve read of her works. The way she weaves the two timelines and spins a thrilling historical love story, is a delight to live through. Did remind me a lot of Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy.
The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion)
“Caffeine has a half-life of three to four hours, so it’s irresponsible serving coffee at 7pm unless people are planning to stay awake until after midnight. Which doesn’t allow adequate sleep if they have a conventional job.” And I was hooked. That’s my favourite character trait — matter of fact, to the point, firm. That’s your protagonist. The oddly charming, fairly young, handsome and physically fit but socially awkward genetics professor Don Tillman who is on an amusing quest to find the perfect partner. He even approaches potential partners with a carefully designed questionnaire. Alas, “humans often fail to see what is close to them and obvious to others” as is evident with his borderline autism. The problem? No date has progressed beyond the first meeting — that is till he meets the messy barmaid Rosie. She comes with her own baggage, like a normal human being. And sets out with our “supernormal” hero on a quest to discover her parentage. The intersecting run of Tillman’s wife project and Rosie’s father project are replete with hilarious anecdotes, culminating in an unusual yet adorable conclusion.
I’m glad I choose fiction titles more or less randomly. It lets me explore a variety of writers and a variety of genres that do not belong to one specific category. I’ve consciously stayed away from love stories, whether it’s reading or viewing. However, in recent times I find myself quite enjoying works of this nature. Works that don’t only dwell on sweet talking and mushy escapades with the sole purpose of evoking a renewed sense of romance in the reader, but writing that encapsulates real life with very real occurrences that allow love to blossom organically in the process.
Child 44 (Tom Rob Smith)
Joseph Stalin’s Russia wasn’t the best of places or times to be alive in, a lot like Nazi Germany. This book has that USSR as its setting/backdrop. Gruesome cases of children being murdered and mutilated across the country are surfacing and being talked about. But no one from the Government wishes to tackle the problem or investigate it. The USSR of the time will not admit such “capitalist” crimes exist — such cases can only be the work of deviants, never of “normal” Soviet citizens.
MGB agent Leo Demidov, initially hesitant, takes up the issue and it rips his life apart. He realises his marriage is not what he thought it was, his colleagues aren’t who he thought they were, and being a member of the Secret Police is no guarantee that the State will not turn on you when you ask uncomfortable questions of the establishment.
I don’t fly through a book very often (even when reviews call them a page-turner), but with Child 44 I was hooked from start to finish. Every detail, every description of life in such times, makes you squirm, makes it hard to face what humans were (still are) capable of. The climax is a bit of a twist with an ending that’s unexpected. Smith’s strength lies in not treating it like a sudden punch in the gut, but creating a gradual build-up that raises tension till the last.
I had my sights on the film when it came out (especially because it starred Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman), but as with most other subjects — if there’s a book on it, I’d rather read first and watch later. This is why I always have a big “to read” pile and an unimpressive “to watch” wishlist.
Into The Water (Paula Hawkins)
Having enjoyed The Girl On The Train, I decided to give Hawkins’ second novel a go and didn’t come away unimpressed. Set in the fictional countryside of Beckford, there’s a gloomy and dark undertone throughout the narrative that serves as a ominous canvas. The story opens with the apparent suicide of Nel Abbott who has drowned in the Drowning Pool, the infamous river that runs through Beckford. Her sister Jules comes back after years of detachment to look after Nel’s daughter Lena who is convinced her mother killed herself despite Jules suspecting otherwise. Suspicious psychics, controversial school teachers, multiple families with a troubled past and a couple of tormented police officers all serve to provide plenty of drama in weaving up this conflicted story.
The multitude of characters and the frequent shifting between first person and third person narratives will possibly disorient some readers at times but I did not feel any of it was redundant. Towards the end, the more the mystery unravels, the more the character placements and sub plots fall into place and help make sense of the larger picture. Some might even perceive a sense of historical fiction writing as the Drowning Pool has been a hotspot for “troublesome women” who have had their lives ended there for centuries. Back stories, shifting to the present day from hundred years ago, and unpleasant characters popping up when you least expect them to, make Into The Water a riveting read that will not disappoint thriller fans. The climax has a setting that makes it dramatic to visualise (possible big screen adaptation soon, like its predecessor?) and like any good fiction writing, transports you to the scene as a third-person witness.
Nothing Ventured (Jeffrey Archer)
For fans of Lord Archer’s Clifton chronicles, the character of William Warwick will not be alien; and for the uninitiated I’ll just summarise briefly. The Clifton chronicles is a seven-part series by Lord Archer that has as its protagonist, a successful author by the name of Harry Clifton (to be fair, success comes to him towards the end of the series). And William Warwick is Harry’s famous creation. We’ve seen films within films, Lord Archer gives us a book within a book — another stroke of his genius.
Much to his high-profile barrister father’s disappointment, William Warwick has always nurtured a desire to join London’s Metropolitan Police Force. After earning a degree in art history from King’s College, William spends 18 months under the watchful eyes of his mentor, veteran Fred Yates, graduating to a full-scale detective in Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Squad. Right away he is tasked with tracking down a priceless Rembrandt masterpiece, stolen from the Fitzmolean Museum. By the end of it all, William grows immensely in his career as well as his personal life. Numerous twists and turns, cunning lawyers, femmes’ fatales and a powerful nemesis make it a roller-coaster journey, all while being super fluid to a reader like me who has a particular fondness for British writing. More so, when the writer in question is someone of Jeffrey Archer’s stature.
I made the mistake of starting the Clifton chronicles with The Sins Of The Father, not knowing it was the second book in the series. Going back and forth did not spoil the fun in any way — such is his writing brilliance. Couldn’t help but tweet about wanting the sequel of Nothing Ventured to be out soon (his reply made my day); this was one of those super rare books I finished in a day. The Warwick Chronicles might just outperform the parent series.
Bruce Lee: A Life (Matthew Polly)
His life has been a long-standing source of inspiration, albeit more for fitness enthusiasts than movie lovers. However, if you get your hands on this book you will realise Bruce Lee wasn’t just an Asian martial artist who happened to enter the world of cinema, but an intensely philosophical and powerful personality who had proper ambitions to become the biggest Asian star the world had ever seen.
Growing up with a father who had addiction issues, moving to Hong Kong as a child (he was born in San Francisco) and struggling to pursue a career in acting while teaching Kung Fu, every step of the journey is fascinating. I remember being introduced to his work when as a child I first saw Enter The Dragon. Being only about six or seven years old at the time, I sort of thought it was a documentary on his life, probably because I couldn’t believe an actor could be that convincing as a fighter or that fit physically. Over the years, this fascination led me to read all I could on his life and this book was just what I needed (I read it in January 2019).
His obsession with perfection, with training his mind to be the strongest muscle, with pursuing his career relentlessly makes him the legend he is today. An added bonus of this book is how it also lays bare his shortcomings as a family man, how it reiterates that even the greatest of personalities are humans at the end of the day, how no one “has it all”. His death remains a mystery to this day, only fuelling more rumours and driving up the curiosity we’ve always had about him and his life.
The Anarchy (William Dalrymple)
As a student of history in high school, I now look back and realise why I never could enjoy the subject or appreciate its beauty. That’s what happens when you prioritise mugging up and reproducing instead of reading it like the fascinating story that it is. Mr. Dalrymple has almost single-handedly made people fall in love with the subject. A master historian who says it like a novelist.
Magnificent, spellbinding and terrific are some of the adjectives I could use to describe William Dalrymple’s latest offering. Six years in the making and an ultimate masterpiece, yet again. The last few pages were rather profound when the author visits Allahabad Fort, replaying the events of centuries ago, while the locals have next to no idea about how this Fort came into being and what transpired within its walls.
Rediscover India through Dalrymple’s eyes, like I do. Like any other fan does. Every time. Ten stars!
The Emperor of All Maladies (Siddhartha Mukherjee)
Now I’ve always maintained I’m not a very interesting person. So do bear with me if this is getting boring, but alongside history, I often enjoy medical literature. US-based oncologist and author Siddharth Mukherjee tells us the story of that dreaded disease that has plagued humankind for centuries. His writing has a historian’s perspective while laying the facts that only he, as a medical professional from the department, can. Also, like Dalrymple’s history, Mukherjee says it like a novelist — which is why the apt title A Biography of Cancer. From its first identification five millennia ago in Egypt, the Persian queen Atossa’s “surgery” for cancer removal in 440 BC, to the more recent 20th Century research and work of Sidney Farber (regarded as the father of modern chemotherapy), the disease has had a terrifyingly dramatic journey. And we still don’t have a proper “cure”, which only goes to show just how complicated the human body is.
To someone new to non-fiction or medical accounts, it may seem a slow read in parts because we tend to be overwhelmed by all the information, but there’s no denying how much of an eye-opener his research is.
Mukherjee shares profound accounts of his own patients’ personal journeys which will sound (unpleasantly) personal for those readers who have had any experience of this disease up close in their circle. Nevertheless, this is sure to be an interesting read if you’re into such a subject.
Leonardo da Vinci (Walter Isaacson)
Isaacson’s Steve Jobs was the first time I read his work, and his fluid writing along with unparalleled in-depth research made me want to pick this one up.
Studying the flight of birds to design “flying machines”, designing the waterways of Florence, drawing a cross section of the human brain, the exact muscle and skeletal structure of a human body, creating the diagram of the Vitruvian Man with the exact proportions of a human body (unthinkable at the time), playing with light and shade to make paintings look three dimensional — everything he made, fascinates scientists and artists to this day. It is unimaginable, what curiosity led him to do. Like all geniuses, there was plenty of craziness in him which is why he’d often leave projects unfinished, much to the disgust of his employers.
He was “an illegitimate child, he was left-handed and he was a vegetarian”.
But are these the things we remember when we speak of him? Or do we speak of The Vitruvian Man, The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and countless other works of genius? That’s legacy.
I can’t recommend this book enough — Leonardo “of” Vinci (that’s what Da Vinci means — it wasn’t his surname) was one of the greatest minds to ever have lived.
The illustrations are a collector’s item and the ‘Coda’ which comes at the very end (after the conclusion) is probably the most interesting one page I’ve ever read. Don’t miss this.
Thank you Bill Gates for reverting to the name of Codex Leicester (one of Da Vinci’s original notebooks), and for recommending this book.
Mossad (Michael Bar-Zohar, Nissim Mishal)
Espionage has fascinated my brother and me for ever since we can remember, which is probably why we’re so into James Bond-ish cinema and books. Real life, however, is way more terrifying and brutal — as books of this nature make clear. The authors have interviewed former and current members of the Israeli secret service to unearth sensitive, never-before-heard accounts of some of the most daring missions the Mossad undertook. The most famous of these would probably be the eradication of the terrorist organisation Black September (responsible for the murder of the Israeli Olympics team at the 1972 Munich Olympics) that Steven Spielberg brought to life on screen in his film Munich. Another one of history’s most ambitious covert operations — the capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann who was living under a new identity in Argentina, in 1960 — is equally infamous. The book covers almost two dozen missions that the Mossad carried out from their inception till recent times, and each one of them is hair-raising. It’s not for nothing that they say truth is stranger (in this case, scarier and a lot more horrifying) than fiction. Despite being slammed by critics who say this book glorifies killers who are no better than the ones they hunted down, it is a comprehensive account of one of the deadliest and most secretive organisations in world politics. The watered down and glamourised version of things we see in cinema is far removed from what things are or were, though I really enjoyed The Spy (top Israeli spy Eli Cohen’s story of when he infiltrated the Syrian government) and Red Sea Diving Resort (which is a 1980s Mossad operation where they provided safe passage for Jewish refugees from Sudan) on Netflix.