Black Flags: Joby Warrick


‘Black Flags’ recounts the story of the rise of ISIS, from the chance entry of Abu Musab Zarqawi into a remote part of Iraq, to the American invasion, and how the two unrelated events came together to become a combustible combination that exploded into ISIS 1.0. It took another ten years, Arab spring revolution, and destabilization of Syria to establish ISIS 2.0 under Baghdadi’s leadership that, at one time, controlled two thirds of Iraq and had enormous resources at its disposal including oil wells and banks. Warrick tells the story in a really engaging way that it seems you are reading a page-turner thriller than a historical account. Two problems. One, the book focuses too much on Zarqawi and too little on Baghdadi; ISIS 2.0 was the real deal after all. Two, it is a little too partial to the Jordanian monarchy and establishment.

A must read.

After Paradise: Robley Wilson



‘After Paradise’ is an inappropriately named tale of a small town in Maine where a carnival event triggers an interaction between two teenagers and an exotic dancer. Not sure what the author was going for, but nothing much happens really. David and Kate break up and then David is killed in a car accident that had nothing to do with the carnival. There are a number of stereotypical characters: the angry priest, his suffering wife, the exotic dancer with a troubled past, her savior and so on. Most of the time when a book doesn’t work, it’s the writing that lets it down. In case of ‘After Paradise’, the writing is fine. Not special, but fine, but it’s the meaninglessness of the plot that lets it down.

Don’t bother.

The Drunk Bird Chronicles: Malay Chatterjee


A giant white raven who is hundreds of years old, speaks multiple languages and has a taste for brandy, a London brothel-keeper who is an inventor of sorts and designs the Calcutta tramway, a young architect in CPWD who is visited by the then PM Indira Gandhi in hospital, a royal uncle-niece duo in love with the same man who they do not mind sharing . These are amongst many more colorful and unique characters that breathe on the pages of Malay Chatterjee’s ‘The Drunk Bird Chronicles’. The book traces the lives of five generations of Gareth-Braganza family from London to Calcutta to Khasi hills to Goa to Delhi. You have to salute the author’s ambition, his imagination and the breadth of the canvas he paints in vivid colors and minute details. The book stands out on many counts: literally hundreds of characters that are all unique, the pacing – characters come and go – but the pace of story-telling doesn’t slacken anywhere, and the interweaving of fiction and reality. Karl Marx, Jackson Pollock, M.F.Hussain, and many others make cameo appearances that enliven the proceedings. Chatterjee does a great job in holding the story together, capturing the essence of the cities the story plays out in, and in capturing readers’ imagination. A masterful piece of writing indeed.


On Tyranny: Timothy Snyder

41qAqGoeRvL._SX353_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgB1tH+hXuXjS._UX250_.jpgThese are turbulent times indeed.  Ultra-nationalist, populist leaders in power in Russia, India, Turkey, US and many more places.  Snyder provides a list of twenty things ordinary citizens can do, not to get sucked into the spiral of potential dictators, drawing lessons from the twentieth century.  Defending institutions, being aware of the dangers of one-party rule or domination, speaking out, and believing in truth, are some of them.  The book does make a compelling case for being watchful, to ensure that the twentieth century history (rise of Hitler, persecution of Jews, the Holocaust, World War II), are not repeated.  Some of the parallels drawn between today’s leaders and Hitler are chilling.  However, the writing, when it’s theorizing, is not engaging.  It holds attention only when there are examples of twentieth century that bear an unpleasant resemblance with today’s events.

Read, if some of today’s leaders are ruining your sleep.

Exit West: Mohsin Hamid


1490311628206-pjimage-33.jpegLife is full of wonders.  One of them is Mohsin Hamid’s ‘Exit West’ being short-listed for Booker 2017.  It’s a badly written book that didn’t make much sense to me.  Sayeed and Nadia meet,  in their country that is soon to be engulfed in a conflict.  They fall in love, well sort of, and then escape the country to the west, when living in their country becomes untenable.  The first half of the book is reasonably good – the sexual tension between the lovers, and the worsening situation in the city of their birth come out well.  My only complaint about the first half was what I thought was a bit of a lazy writing –  Hamid won’t tell us where they are  – and when is this all happening.  It could be Iraq, Syria, Yemen, but we don’t get to know.  I didn’t appreciate the abstraction.  But the novel nose-dives big time in the 2nd half, when Sayeed and Nadia make their way to Mykonos, London and then San Francisco.  The abstraction touches a new and a completely understandable level.  I don’t even know what Hamid was trying there.  Was he going for some magic-realism ala Marquez and Rushdie.  If he was, he sure didn’t succeed, with his light and dark Londons. The story floundered.   The arc of Sayeed-Nadia relationship didn’t make any sense either.  It was repetitive, unengaging and seemed to go in a circle.

Don’t bother.