Sunday, January 6, 2013

Zero Day

I haven't read a lot of David Baldacci books and neither am I a huge reader of mystery thrillers from the new fleet of writers as you may have gauged from my book reviews. So luckily I did not have any pre-concieved notions of the kind of books that Mr. Baldacci writes although I've always heard good reviews and my wife reads his books quite frequently. I am in beetween books right now and needed to read something that would not tax my mind too much. And so a mystery thriller seemed the best bet.

If the mark of a good author is when he delivers characters that are well defined giving you enough information of how they operate and why they operate that way while at the same time maintaining a little intrigue so that you want to know more in forthcoming books, then Baldacci hits a home run with John Puller. A former Iraq and Afghanistan veteran with enough battle scars to be able to pull rank and earn respect, Puller decides to let go of a possible high growth career to become an investigator with CID, the Central Investigation Division of the Armed Forces. And of course given that he is the hero of the book, he is the best at his job so much so that when a high ranking official of the Intelligence Agency is brutally murdered along with his wife and children in a remote coal mining town in rural US; Puller is sent in to investigate as a single-man team. He teams up with Samantha Cole, the deputy sheriff of the town and you can feel the tense chemistry building up between the two as the book progresses. Towards the end you feel like telling Baldacci to just get them a room to dissipate some of the chemistry.

Baldacci's Zero Day keeps you occupied with its small town connections where everyone knows everyone else and is connnected to one another in some way. The body count in the investigation slowly starts building up as the investigation proceeds. Baldacci does a great job of keeping you interested and on your toes as he introduces various possible solutions to the multi-murder mystery. He feeds us with snippets to make us think that this could be the angle but this also sometimes gets frustrating as a reader. The book really only takes off about three-fourths in post which it is difficult to put down. There is always that thought in your mind that the murder mystery is not simple as it looks because the main victim was a high ranking intelligence official and Baldacci makes sure that you don't forget that. He slowly builds the tension there with clues slipped in from various characters across the way. The end is extremely interesting to say the least.

Baldacci's Zero Day is not as much a fast action thriller as it is a slow descriptive murder mystery that becomes and action thriller towards the end. If you like long winded descriptions of what is happening and what the characters are thinking and if you like the intrigue that various characters bring in, then Zero Day will keep you engrossed. Personally I liked Puller with his strong past, his dysfunctinal family of a war hero and respected father but a convicted for treason brother, his acceptance of his limitations, his peace with his war dreams that he uses to his benefit and his confidence with himself. Baldacci has also given Puller a human touch with his feelings for Samantha Cole.

I didn't quite take to the ending and the final solution to the mystery. I thought it was too far fetched and not well thought out. But it did keep me engrossed and this is one of the fastest books that I have read.

I would rate it 3/5 and advice you to read it if you want some light reading where you don't need to tax your brains too much.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


History is always written by the winner, never the vanquished. Songs are written about the goodness and valour of the victor and cruelty and cowardice of the vanquished. One never gets to hear the story from the losers point of view, especially in mythology. There is no evidence left to unearth and no witnesses alive to validate the story. 

Ramayana is one such 'story' that has always fascinated me from a veracity viewpoint. It gives us such an idealist view of the human nature that one is left wondering if it was ever possible. Was Rama truly the ideal son, husband, prince and King? Was Ravana truly the evil incarnate? Or did he have his story as well? Did he have his viewpoint of why he did what we all know he did? I am sure there is a Ravanayana somewhere which I hope to get my hands on sometime. I have always thought that Ravana was a very mis-interpreted and mis-judged character. How could a king who had united the various Asura clans, built a 'City of Gold', promoted arts and artisans and brought peace to his kingdom fall prey to and be remembered by a single incident albeit a big one on historic scale! Maybe I've answered my own question. 

'Asura' promised to be the story from not just Ravan's perspective but also from an unknown individual in the Asura race. The premise is fascinating as it presents a unique opportunity to an author to espouse on his thoughts about the general populace and their travails, dreams, heartaches and aspirations while the Kings fought their own battles. 

Anand Neelakantan's Asura begins on the battlefield where Ravana is being devoured by animals and left to die like a common soldier. It begins in his thoughts as he reminisces on his life and his decisions. Anand's story unfolds on parallel paths - one being told by Ravana while the other from the point-of-view of Bhadra, a simple man trying to make ends meet but whose destiny is closely linked to Ravana. Anand uses Ravana's perspective to tell us how a clear focus and belief in his destiny transformed a poor boy who used to look at his cousin Kuber's palace with jealousy became the King of Lanka uniting the Asura clans. Anand's Ravana, however, is raked by uncertainty and insecurity in the latter part. 

Across the story Anand presents some fascinating insights into the Asura and Devas battle for supremacy across the Indian landscape and brings out the basic differences in their lifestyles and culture. While he portrays Devas as being rigid and governed strictly by rules and regulations of castes and place in society, Anand's Asura clans are more freestyle living their lives as they wish with no overpowering rules except that of meritocracy. In the Asura world if you are good at your job, you can rise to be King as well while in the Deva world it is more about if you are eligible for it by birth and caste.   Anand uses Bhadra's viewpoint to talk about how simple, hardworking men get caught up in the ego battles of kings and lose their lives. He poignantly brings out the ravages of war on the poorer class while the rich fight from the confines of their palaces and the middle class enjoy the king's patronage. At some point, Anand's 'Asura' becomes a treatise on the evils of the Brahmin caste system and the uselessness of war. 

While Ravan starts off secure and focused, in the latter half he becomes insecure and unsure of his place. Ram (and Brahmins) on the other hand is portrayed as a scheming, conniving person whose main aim in life is that he should be percieved as an ideal person who does not go against the wishes and dictats of his Brahmin culture even if he wants to. And therein lies his biggest fault. Anand's Ravana also has a nice twist in the tale to explain why Ravana is unwilling to let go of Sita which explains so many things in Ramayana. 

For me the book gives the same image of Ravana as you now right from the start. The cover itself portrays Ravana as an Asura with big teeth thereby pandering to the known image. The book starts with Ravana laughing at the prospect that Ram asks Lakshman to take lessons in administration from him. I didn't like that as I expected the book to show how Ravana was a great king who made some mistakes - not a one questioning himself. But I would recommend that you read it. Ramayana will never be the same for you.

I rate it 4/5. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Breakfast of Champions

Science fiction has always been my favourite genre. I strongly believe that a good science fiction writer is a boon and literally shows us the future. Think of cell phones and Arthur C Clarke and Star Trek. Think of private space tourism and interstellar travel. At the same time, however, science fiction is not just about space and technology. Science fiction is also about assuming what can be in the realm of science - be it biology, physics or even psychology. The games minds play on humans is also a branch of science fiction - albeit not the one that I prefer.

I also believe that is another genre of writing which is a form of inconsequential conversation i.e putting pen to paper and then letting the characters and the story write itself just putting down whatever comes to mind at that moment and building from there till the next idea strikes. The best book in that 'genre' is probably The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy which I absolutely adore. It is a book that can put a smile to your face whenever you read it. The idea is to go with the flow and enjoy the author's meanderings.

'Breakfast of Champions' belongs to a combination of the above two 'genres' - science fiction psychology with an inconsequential conversation form of writing. Unfortunately it does not match up to either of the best-of-breed writing. It seems like a book that Vonnegut actually wrote when he was absolutely bored with life and just wanted to write something. There is no real storyline other than how the paths of the two central characters - one an author who unknowingly becomes famous for his science fiction stories published in porn magazine and the other a successful car dealer with brain clots who believes that in the author's one particular story and goes berserk.

Does it make sense? It didn't to me and I struggled to find some sense of purpose in the book. Sad to say, I was unsuccessful. The books is peppered with drawings of tangential things to the story as if Vonnegut just wanted to draw something at that moment and so did it. These drawings have little or no connection to the story in itself.

Vonnegut is hailed as one of the best satirical authors of all times. Unfortunately his satire and subtle plays on racism, dark underbelly of society and America's degradation is lost on me. The book probably makes a great reading for literature grads in peeling away the layers of writing and reading between the lines. For me however, give me a simple straight forward book anytime. This one didn't appeal to me.

You could check out some other reviews here and here to get a counterpoint.

I would rate it 1/5 if only to appreciate the 'effort' gone into 'writing' this book.


As a kid we all loved comic books. I remember spending hours on Tinkle, Amar Chitra Katha, Phantom and others. The natural expectation is that as you grow older, you grow out of comic book reading and start reading novels. Comic books are for kids. Adults do read comic books but they are called Graphic Novels. However, most of the graphic novels that I had come across were again superhero variety and filled with violence. Not really my cup of tea!

Till I happened to chance upon 'Habibi' while browsing in a book store. The first thing that struck me was the magnificence of the art in each panel. Filled with Arabic style and art, Habibi appeals to you to at least browse it, even if you did not know the story. Each panel seems to have been lovingly drawn by the author who must have spend days to get the detailing right and to carry the story forward. From the marketplace to the slums to the palace or harem and the unfinished building, each frame is a story by itself. Add to that the beautiful manner in which the Islamic explanations and stories have been woven into the fabric of the larger story and you can be reading this 'novel' for hours.

Set in a modern day fictional Arabic country, 'Habibi' is a story of two slave kids - Dodola and Zam - and their struggle to find independence from not just their enslavers but also from their enslaved minds and their feelings for each other. Habibi is a harsh love story that has you rooting for the characters while at the same time cringing at the struggle that they have to endure just to stay alive. Dodola is the elder of the two who is sold to a scribe as a young wife by her father for survival at a tender age. When her 'husband' is murdered, she finds herself at a slave camp from where she escapes with a young year old boy. Her journey takes her through prostitution to a favored concubine to falling from grace before realising her true feelings. His journey takes him through adolescence and first love to questioning his masculinity before finding and rescuing his only love. Through these two journeys, Habibi introduces you to some facets of the Arabic world - some true, some fictional - and your learn to appreciate the freedom that you enjoy and take for granted.

As a love story, Habibi tears at your soul. As a graphic novel, Habibi keeps you glued on each panel looking for some nuggets of magic and daily life.

If you loved comic books but don't like the violent graphic novels, if you would like to know a bit more about Islam, if you want to know how lucky you are in a democratic world; you should read 'Habibi'.

I rate it 3/5 for the story and 4/5 for the graphic content.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Raiders from the North

In a country that thrives on dynasties - political, business, films and general life - the Moghul dynasty was arguably the first of its kind. From Babur to Aurangazeb, the Moghul dynasty impacted the culture, politics, religion, art and way of life in India. As students we learnt about their reign in our history lessons gleaning tidbits of who they were or rather what they had done in and for the country. But who were these people? Where did they come from? How did they manage to rule over a vast country like India? And why did the Indian population accept their rule? Or did they have a choice at all?

If, like me, some of these questions bother you then Alex Rutherford's 5-part series might be the answer. I like historicals but when written in a fictional novel format. It makes for easy reading and sparks interest in the reader rather than the drab original history format. Of course, historians will vehemently disagree since the historical fiction format takes creative liberty with the actual story introducing new characters where none existed, giving interpretation to the main character's psyche where none is needed. But that's what makes it fun, doesn't it?

Alex Rutherford's 'Raiders from the North' introduces us to Babur, the first Moghul. Spanning Babur's life from a tender age of 13 when he becomes the King of Ferghana due to his father's untimely death to a ripe old age of 36 as a ruler of India with dreams to establish the Moghul dynasty; Babur's life is filled with constant struggle to establish his identity. Living from one battle to the next, Babur rarely experiences a period of tranquility and peace other than towards the end. With a lineage of Genghis Khan and Timurid, Babur believes that he is destined for greatness and strives to achieve it. In his drive for greatness, however, he goes from being a king to a brigand with no kingdom, to a vassal of a lord until he finally finds his path to India.

Supported by a stellar support system of his fiery grandmother, Esan Dawlat - on whom he banks for advice; his loyal commanders Wazir Khan and Baisanghar and his close friend Baburi, he manages to overcome every defeat and hurdle on his way to greatness. Alex Rutherford beautifully captures the emotional journey of Babur from a naive 13 year old to a mature leader who enters India with an open mind and a clear vision to establish his dynasty.

It is interesting to note that Babur was almost a failure as a monarch in his home base of Afghanistan losing his kingdoms within the first 100 days and being reduced to guerrilla warfare. He was constantly hounded by his arch rival Shaibani Khan, the Uzbek and lived under the knowledge that one of them had to die for the other to survive. He lost his beloved sister - Khanzada - to Shaibani Khan and strived the early part of his life to get her back. For a brief moment, Babur lost sight of his destiny when he became a vassal to the powerful Shah of Persia and regained Samarkand although losing his closest companion, Baburi, in the bargain. Rutherford captures Babur's emotional growth as he goes through the rollercoster of experiences in gaining kingdoms but losing the battle for the hearts of his people.

Things only come around for Babur when he understands that he can be the master of his own destiny and when his friend returns to him with weapons - cannons and muskets - which give him the confidence that he can capture Hindustan. As you walk with Rutherford and Babur; you celebrate his victories, feel sad for his defeats, feel dejection for his dire situations, feel the frustration when he realizes his arch rival was killed by someone else, get angry when he loses sight of his destiny, feel happiness when Baburi comes back to him, feel alarmed when he realizes that he can motivate his army through the concept of jihad on India and appreciate his open mind to assimilate the culture in India and establish a good dynasty. In essence the book takes you through a rollercoster of emotions as well.

I learnt new things about the start of the key part of Indian history through the book. Mogul was meant to be an insult to Babur by the Persian king but Babur adopted it as a compliment and decided to call his dynasty The Moghul Dynasty. The 'army' of moguls was in essence a coming together of different tribes and fiefdoms paid for to fight and motivated by the lure of a good loot and winnings at the end of the battle. I wonder if the root of Indian corruption started from there!

Although part fictional in nature he book is based on Baburnama written by Babur himself. While Rutherford does bring out key aspects of Babur, I feel he lost out on the military strategy of the battles to some extent. Also Babur's relationships are to some extent glossed over. Was Baburi a close friend or a gay companion? Inspite of all this the one thing you take away from the book is to believe in your destiny and strive towards it even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

I would suggest you read it to know more and would rate it 3/5 !

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy

If you've ever read a story that ended with 'Happily Ever After', have you wondered what really happened after that? Did everything work out for the characters? Or did it all fall apart?

As I watched the Star Wars series recently and the last frame rolled by, the same thought stuck me. If you are as big a Star Wars fan as I am you would realise that there was still a lot of work to be done. After all the only thing that had happened was the Emperor and Darth Vader were dead! As in any dictatorship, the real work of getting the country to work begins after the dictator is dead and this was a GALAXY. So I thought it would be great if we knew what happened next. Of course the same thought had crossed many people and the whole expanded Star Wars universe existed out there. But I just didn't know where to start. And that's when a random search on iPad introduced me to the Thrawn Trilogy.

As the dust settels on the demise of the Emperor in 'Return of the Jedi', the new Republic is faced with the onerous task of brining order into the galaxy and setting up a democratic system. Out on the fringes of the galaxy, however, the last few units of the Empire are being brought together by Grand Admiral Thrawn, an alien and the only non-human Grand Admiral. A brilliant military strategist, Thrawn's speciality is that he gleans information about his enemies from their art and culture and is usually spot on. Diametrically opposite from Darth Vader, Thrawn is cool, calculating, rewarding and a strategic thinker. Unlike Vader who ruled with fear and anger, Thrawn commands respect within his ranks with his brilliant strategies and willingness to accept mistakes. All this without the force as he is no Jedi!

On the 'good' side; Luke is the first in the new Jedi order while Han and Leia are expecting twins. Luke has started teaching Leia in the ways of the force and she knows that her twins are strong in its ways. Han is trying to get the 'neutral' smugglers on to the new Republic while Leia is exercising her diplomatic skills to set up the new government.

In all this add the new leader of the smuggler clan - Talon Karrde who does not know if he should side with the new Republic or stay neutral, a rouge maniacal Dark Jedi Joruus C'baoth who is hell bent on setting up a new Jedi order with Luke and Leia's twins, a confused Mara Jade who keeps hearing the Emperor's command to kill Luke and the assasin clans of Noghri and you have a fantastic story of what happens next. Of course our old friends R2D2, C3PO, Lando Clarissian and Chewbacca are there as always.

Timothy Zahn combines all these elements into a series deserving of high praise and a heartfelt Thank You for helping us to continue to live the saga. If you have any doubts whether you would feel the same love and exhilaration as the Star Wars series, then lay those doubts to rest and go pick up these books. A logical extension to the saga, the trilogy helps you live the love again but with new fantastic characters. If Vader fascinated us as kids because of his use of the mysterious force and his presence, Zahn's Thrawn appeals to us adults with his brilliant strategies, leadership and use of resources. Even though Thrawn is the villian of the piece, you are not sure if you want him to fail or succeed. And that's a testament to Zahn's writing.

Zahn resolutely takes forward the story of each of our favotite characters while at the same time introducing new elements that keep us riveted. Mara Jade wants to kill Luke but everytime she ends up helping him or taking his help. Will she kill Luke? What is her destiny? C'boath wants to set up a new Dark Jedi order to rule the galaxy and become the new Emperor and for that he wants Leia's twins. How close does he come to doing that and how is he vanquished? Talon Karrde is the new leader of the smuggler clan, or is he? And the deadly Noghri are an asset to any side in this war. Where will they end up - on the victor side or the vanquished? What is their secret?

If you love Star Wars and always wondered what happened after the Battle of Endor; I suggest you pick up these books immediately and go back to your childhood and get lost in the Jedi, the force, the X-Wings, the fights and the wonder hoping that you were one of these characters.

May the Force be with You!!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Do you matter? How great design will make people love your company.

Citrix, the company where I work, has been organising a Tech Day for the R&D division where we choose one key topic and update the teams around the world building the agenda around the same. This year's key topic was 'Design' and the book was given out to the attendees.

The book encourages you to think about incorporating Design into the very fabric or DNA of the organisation. In most of the organisations, Design is considered as a good-to-have part of the product or service rather than a must-have and the book emphasises that organisations that consider Design to be an integral part of their strategy are the ones that matter to the customers. It was an interesting thought and the authors have done a good job of expounding on the concept.

When we think of what makes us really love a company or a product we don't usually think of the design aspect, rather the thought goes to the people, the processes and the experience. In the book, Robert Brunner and Stewart Emery talk about the fact that it is the design experience that makes us love the company - think of Apple, think of IKEA, think of Samsung, think of GoodGrip products. In the same breath think of the times when you have not had a good experience with an organisation or a product and you realise that its probably because the product was not designed properly or did not meet with your expectations. The most obvious part of the book is the fact that Design is not just about product but about processes as well. As you read the book you will go back to your experiences and start relating the good or bad parts of the experience with the design parameters.

A most obvious choice when you talk about design excellence is Apple. Apple products are loved across the world and have a fan following. It does not make a difference if the product does not have all the cutting-edge features - it still commands a premium and a line-at-midnight. Robert and Stewart take us behind the scenes on some as-yet-unknown aspects of how the design came to be and how that contributes to the immense popularity of the brand. Its interesting to read these nuggets and understand how you relate to these design excellence bits.

The authors have built a great story in the book as it takes you from an understanding of why design is of paramount importance to how do you incorporate it into your DNA. My only grouse against the book is that it only concentrates to a large extent on product companies and does not give insights into how a services company can get Design incorporated into its DNA. While the principles are sound and are all there, it is difficult to take the product design experience and translate that to a services or a software company for excellence. After all product is a tangible thing where the design changes can be touched, felt and sensed while for a services or software company its about experience.

Having said that the book will teach you on how Design as a core factor in your strategy will create a visible impact on your bottom line. In a way the Design aspect shines through in the book itself as it creates a story with enough and more examples along the way to help you understand the concept. From why Design is of paramount importance and is a must-have part of your strategy to How does it make a difference to the customer's perception, from how you can ensure that the entire organisation takes Design seriously to why the product design is a portal to your customer's experience of your company and how that makes a long term impact and finally it gives great insight on how to build a design-driven culture.

The most important chapter of the book is the last one where the authors espouse on the steps to become a Design Oriented company through FLAVOR - Focus, Long-Term, Authentic, Vigilant, Original & Repeatable. Each of these is a great segment on how to start the journey and continue on it. Needless to say, Design is a journey and not a destination!

I would encourage everyone to read this book and try to imbibe aspects of FLAVOR. I would rate the book 3/5 only because it focuses heavily on product rather than services of software!