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Monday, December 31, 2012

The Ten Best Books I've Read In 2012

There were two things I originally intended to do as far as this post is concerned. I wanted to write this post on Christmas (given I got an unexpected week-long break from college) but I fell ill right on the first day. And secondly, I pondered over including all the great books I’ve read this year rather than a top-10 list but it’s just too much of an effort.
Now that I’m finally feeling okayish and 2012 isn’t over yet at the time of writing (atleast not in India), I’m gonna write about the ten best books I’ve read this year. This list isn’t like most lists which include books only from the current year (I’m penniless as far as that is concerned, okay?) but this list will include titles that have been published before and much, much before.

So in no particular order, here goes my list of the ten best books I’ve read in 2012 –

Band of Brothers [Pocket Books]

 Author: Stephen E. Ambrose

First Published: 1992

Summary: They came together, citizen soldiers, in the summer of 1942, drawn to Airborne by the $50 monthly bonus and a desire to be better than the other guy. And at its peak -- in Holland and the Ardennes -- Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Divison, U.S. Army, was as good a rifle company as any in the world.

From the rigorous training in Georgia in 1942 to the disbanding in 1945, Stephen Ambrose tells the story of this remarkable company. In combat, the reward for a job well done is the next tough assignment, and as they advanced through Europe, the men of Easy kept getting the tough assignments.

They parachuted into France early D-Day morning and knocked out a battery of four 105 mm cannon looking down Utah Beach; they parachuted into Holland during the Arnhem campaign; they were the Battered Bastards of the Bastion of Bastogne, brought in to hold the line, although surrounded, in the Battle of the Bulge; and then they spearheaded the counteroffensive. Finally, they captured Hitler's Bavarian outpost, his Eagle's Nest at Berchtesgaden.

They were rough-and-ready guys, battered by the Depression, mistrustful and suspicious. They drank too much French wine, looted too many German cameras and watches, and fought too often with other GIs. But in training and combat they learned selflessness and found the closest brotherhood they ever knew. They discovered that in war, men who loved life would give their lives for them.

This is the story of the men who fought, of the martinet they hated who trained them well, and of the captain they loved who led them. E Company was a company of men who went hungry, froze, and died for each other, a company that took 150 percent casualties, a company where the Purple Heart was not a medal -- it was a badge of office.

Review: Okay, I did say this list is in no particular order but this was on top of my list. The book might require a bit of patience at the start but once you are into it, there’s no letting go. A tale of bravery, courage, friendship and brotherhood (as the name suggests) in the midst of adversity and triumph. Look out for the ‘million-dollar-wound’. A MUST READ for those interested in history of the World Wars. I’d recommend it to everyone.

Child 44 [Pocket Books]

Author: Tom Rob Smith

First Published: 2008

Summary: Stalin's Soviet Union strives to be a paradise for its workers, providing for all of their needs. One of its fundamental pillars is that its citizens live free from the fear of ordinary crime and criminals.

But in this society, millions do live in fear . . . of the State. Death is a whisper away. The mere suspicion of ideological disloyalty - owning a book from the decadent West, the wrong word at the wrong time - sends millions of innocents into the Gulags or to their executions. Defending the system from its citizens is the MGB, the State Security Force. And no MGB officer is more courageous, conscientious, or idealistic than Leo Demidov.

A war hero with a beautiful wife, Leo lives in relative luxury in Moscow - even providing a decent apartment for his parents. His only ambition has been to serve his country. For this greater good, he has arrested and interrogated.

Then the impossible happens. A different kind of criminal-a murderer-is on the loose, killing at will. At the same time, Leo finds himself demoted and denounced by his enemies, his world turned upside down, and every belief he's ever held shattered. The only way to save his life and the lives of his family is to uncover this criminal. But in a society that is officially paradise, it's a crime against the State to suggest that a murderer-much less a serial killer-is in their midst. Exiled from his home, with only his wife, Raisa, remaining at his side, Leo must confront the vast resources and reach of the MBG to find and stop a criminal that the State won't admit even exists.

Review: I count myself lucky the day I came across this book in a second-hand bookstore. A fast-paced crime thriller based on real-life events and set in Stalinist Russia, this is an absolute page-turner and its no-nonsense prose from the very start pulls you into the world Tom Rob Smith envisions. This is not just another crime thriller - it provides excellent insight on how difficult and terrifying life was in Soviet Russia during the Cold War. This book is an achievement given it was Smith’s debut novel and it was duly recognized through a host of awards and nominations such as the Man Booker Prize longlist and the winner of the CWA Steel Dagger, to name a few. I recommend this as a MUST READ for everyone, especially for fans of crime fiction.

(‘Child 44’ is the first instalment of the Leo Demidov trilogy and it is followed by two acclaimed instalments – ‘The Secret Speech’ and ‘Agent 6’.)

Schindler’s Ark [Sceptre]

Author: Thomas Keneally

First Published: 1982

Summary: In the shadow of Auschwitz, a flamboyant German industrialist grew into a living legend to the Jews of Cracow. He was a womaniser and heavy drinker who enjoyed the good life, yet to them he became a saviour.

Thomas Keneally's Booker Prize-winning novel recreates the story of Oskar Schindler, an Aryan who risked his life to protect Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland, who continually defied and outwitted the SS, and who was transformed by the war into an angel of mercy. It is an unforgettable tale, all the more extraordinary for being true.

Review: This is one of those few books that moved me to tears quite a number of times. An extraordinary book that was the result of the efforts of Poldek Pfefferberg, a Schindler survivor, who made it his life’s mission to ensure that Oskar Schindler’s story did not remain untold. Thomas Keneally traces the story of Schindler with the backdrop of Germany during WWII and does it brilliantly. Filled with horrifying incidents of cruelty as well as endearing moments of kindness, this book is a masterpiece and will stay with you for a long time. A MUST READ for readers across all genres.

Nineteen Eighty-Four [Jainco Publishers]

Author: George Orwell

First Published: 1949

Summary: Hidden away in the Record Department of the sprawling Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith skilfully rewrites the past to suit the needs of the Party. Yet he inwardly rebels against the totalitarian world he lives in, which demands absolute obedience and controls him through the all-seeing telescreens and the watchful eye of Big Brother, symbolic head of the Party. In his longing for truth and liberty, Smith begins a secret love affair with a fellow-worker Julia, but soon discovers the true price of freedom is betrayal.

Written in 1948, 1984 was George Orwell's chilling prophecy about the future. And while the year 1984 has come and gone, Orwell's narrative is timelier than ever. 1984 presents a startling and haunting vision of the world, so powerful that it is completely convincing from start to finish. No one can deny the power of this novel, its hold on the imaginations of multiple generations of readers, or the resiliency of its admonitions. A legacy that seems only to grow with the passage of time.

Review: I’ve read only two of George Orwell’s works – the other one being his memoir ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’. And he’s already one of my all-time favourite novelists. Orwell gives us a vivid picture of what ‘hell on earth’ would look like in this terrifying dystopian science fiction novel. The technologies described are synchronous with quite a number of the ones seen in today’s world and many words used in this novel have found their place in English vocabulary. ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is a book that will remain a great work of modern literature for generations to come.

To Kill A Mockingbird [Mass Market Paperback]

Author: Harper Lee

First Published: 1960

Summary: The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it. To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.

Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior—to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story, by a young Alabama woman, claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.

Review: Not much remains to be said about this book. This is another one that made me numb. A book full of unforgettable characters and a narrative that makes you question whether the goodness in human beings can inspire social change or not. A timeless classic that again falls into the MUST READ category and transcends readers across all genres.

Inverting the Pyramid [Orion Books]

Author: Jonathan Wilson

First Published: 2008

Summary: For soccer fans, following, discussing, and arguing about the tactics a manager puts into play are part of what makes the sport so appealing. This fascinating study traces the history of soccer tactics back from such modern pioneers as Rinus Michels, Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Catenaccio, and Herbert Chapman. Along the way, author Jonathan Wilson, an erudite and detailed writer who never loses a sense of the grand narrative sweep, takes a look at the lives of the great players and thinkers who shaped the game, and discovers why the English in particular have proved themselves so "unwilling to grapple with the abstract." This will be a modern classic of soccer writing that followers of the game will dip into again and again.

Review: This is a book for those looking for something far more intellectual than reading one of those footballers’ ghost-written autobiographies that are churned with alarming regularity every year. Jonathan Wilson’s masterpiece of football literature gives us a detailed account of the evolution of tactics and provides valuable insight on how and why some teams have continued to play a certain style of football over decades. A MUST READ for all football fans.

Manchester United: The Biography [Sphere]

Author: Jim White

First Published: 2008

Summary: Following the club’s extraordinary journey from its birth in the railway works of Newton Heath to its current status as the biggest club in world soccer, this is a fascinating history of a remarkable team. The key stages in Manchester United’s history are covered: the Munich Air Crash of 1958, which saw the best part of an entire team (the Busby Babes) being killed; becoming the first English team to win the European Cup in 1968 (with Bobby Charlton and George Best); the dominance of the club in the Premiership; the controversial sale to American tycoon Malcolm Glazer; right up to Moscow 2008. By drawing on the recollections of everyone from players and managers to fans and backroom staff, enough new material has been unearthed to interest fans and casual supporters.

Review: There are Manchester United fans who take more interest in reading every autobiography of Wayne Rooney but prefer to remain blissfully unaware of the history of the club they support. Jim White does a spectacular retelling of the history of Manchester United Football Club like a fan (yes, a fan) possessed and gives us a book that every Manchester United fan across the globe will cherish for the rest of his life.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time [Vintage]

Author: Mark Haddon

First Published: 2003

Summary: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is a murder mystery novel like no other. The detective, and narrator, is Christopher Boone. Christopher is fifteen and has Asperger's Syndrome. He knows a very great deal about maths and very little about human beings. He loves lists, patterns and the truth. He hates the colours yellow and brown and being touched. He has never gone further than the end of the road on his own, but when he finds a neighbour's dog murdered he sets out on a terrifying journey which will turn his whole world upside down.

This improbable story of Christopher's quest to investigate the suspicious death of a neighborhood dog makes for one of the most captivating, unusual, and widely heralded novels in recent years.

Review: The book’s most unique aspect is the narrative – it’s exactly how you would imagine a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome. Christopher Boone endears himself to you over the course of the book and the prose ensures that the book is never too difficult to read. This book won the Whitbread Novel of the Year and a nomination on the Booker longlist among others and to sum it up, it’s a children’s book not for children.

Inside Steve’s Brain [Portfolio]

Author: Leander Kahney

First Published: 2008

Summary: Steve Jobs has turned his personality traits into a business philosophy. Here is how he does it.

It’s hard to believe that one man revolutionized computers in the 1970s and ‘80s (with the Apple II and the Mac), animated movies in the 1990s (with Pixar), and digital music in the 2000s (with the iPod and iTunes). No wonder some people worship him like a god. On the other hand, stories of his epic tantrums and general bad behavior are legendary.

Inside Steve’s Brain cuts through the cult of personality that surrounds Jobs to unearth the secrets to his unbelievable results. It reveals the real Steve Jobs - not his heart or his famous temper, but his mind. So what’s really inside Steve’s brain? According to Leander Kahney, who has covered Jobs since the early 1990s, it’s a fascinating bundle of contradictions.

Jobs is an elitist who thinks most people are bozos but he makes gadgets so easy to use, a bozo can master them.

He’s a mercurial obsessive with a filthy temper but he forges deep partnerships with creative geniuses like Steve Wozniak, Jonathan Ive, and John Lasseter.

He’s a Buddhist and anti-materialist but he produces mass-market products in Asian factories, and he promotes them with absolute mastery of the crassest medium, advertising.

In short, Jobs has embraced the traits that some consider flaws - narcissism, perfectionism, the desire for total control to lead Apple and Pixar to triumph against steep odds. And in the process, he has become a self-made billionaire.

In Inside Steve’s Brain, Kahney distills the principles that guide Jobs as he launches killer products, attracts fanatically loyal customers, and manages some of the world’s most powerful brands.

The result is this unique book about Steve Jobs that is part biography and part leadership guide, and impossible to put down. It gives you a peek inside Steve’s brain, and might even teach you something about how to build your own culture of innovation.

Review: I was initially not hoping too much for this book, having gone looking for Steve Jobs’ official biography or ‘i-Con’ at the annual Strand Book Fair. As luck would have it, both were sold out by the time I got there and so I settled for this book. And what a pleasant surprise this book proved to be! Leander Kahney dissects every chapter in the life of Jobs the entrepreneur with aplomb. The best thing about this book is that you don’t need to make notes while you’re reading or done with it – there is a comprehensive section dedicated to that after every chapter. Apple fans and those who wish to understand the marketing genius of Steve Jobs – this is the book for you.

About A Boy [Penguin Books]

Author: Nick Hornby

First Published: 1998

Summary: Will is thirty-six, comfortable and child-free. And he's discovered a brilliant new way of meeting women - through single-parent groups. Marcus is twelve and a little bit nerdish: he's got the kind of mother who made him listen to Joni Mitchell rather than Nirvana. Perhaps they can help each other out a little bit, and both can start to act their age.

Review: Most fans of Nick Hornby’s novels will claim his first novel ‘High Fidelity’ was his best but I rate ‘About A Boy’ higher. ‘High Fidelity’ was a story of extremes (no complaints) but ‘About A Boy’ is a much more refined novel in many ways – the characters, the relationships and the manner in which Hornby makes this novel work is astounding to say the least. A light-hearted novel that will make you laugh out with its irrepressible humour, awkward situations and characters you just can’t stop loving.

So that’s the ten best books I discovered this year. But hey, that’s not all! There were quite a few more that deserve a mention alongwith the aforementioned books and they are as under:

The Damned United by David Peace

A brilliant ‘factional’ account of Brian Clough’s ill-fated reign at Leeds United that lasted 44 days.

The Constant Gardener and Absolute Friends by John le Carre

The first is a political thriller so unlike John le Carre’s earlier novels while the latter is vintage stuff.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

One of the funniest books I’ve read in my life. Would’ve enjoyed it much more had I read this some five years ago when I was still a teenager.

Shutter Island and Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

Both books are engaging and absolute page-turners. For those who love suspense and American noir.

Serious: The Autobiography by John McEnroe

A cracking read about the life of tennis legend John McEnroe that gets better with every page you read.

That's all Folks!

Wishing you a very Happy and Prosperous New Year 2013!

United are Comeback Kings

Manchester United midfielder Darren Fletcher has revealed that he thinks that other teams fear the Reds going into the closing stages of games and that gives his side an advantage.

Fletcher, who has recently returned to the United side after nearly a year on the sidelines with a bowel complaint, has won the Premier League title four times during his career and over that time he has seen his team put together many memorable comebacks. "The never-say-die attitude is ingrained in this club," said Fletcher. "It comes from the players, who believe in themselves, and opposition teams, who fear it.”

Manchester United certainly have a reputation of snatching points from losing positions and this season they have already taken 21 points from games that they have been behind in- 6 points more than their nearest rivals Manchester City. Coincidentally, their lead over City in the Premier League currently stands at 6 points, and Fletcher is clear that the fighting spirit and the attitude of the players have been key drivers in their rise to the top of the table. 

"The club has such a history of it you almost expect it to happen. We have a great bunch of players with a great attitude” Fletcher said.  “We will fight right to the very end. And the history of the club definitely plays a part.

Manchester United not only have a reputation for having a never-say-die attitude in individual games but also in long, drawn out fights for the title. Sir Alex Ferguson has been written off too many times before, only for his side to de-rail a rival’s bid for the title. After last season’s failure to pick up any silverware United certainly seem to have the bit between their teeth and if they continue to show the form that they have in recent weeks then they won’t need to worry about overhauling anyone this year...they could have the title wrapped up by Easter.

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Ferguson Right to keep Nani

Sir Alex Ferguson once again had to deflect speculation linking Nani to a rival Premier League club after rumours surfaced on Betfair suggesting that the Portuguese winger was set to leave Old Trafford this January.

Speaking at a press conference in late December, the Manchester United manager denied any reports linking Nani with both Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur and instead insisted the 26-year-old was still part of his squad plans.

“We need a Nani. He offers something different from the other players,” said Ferguson. “Yes he has a future. Absolutely. Why would I want to let him go?”

Indeed, Ferguson does need Nani but as nothing more than a backup player, as better men either develop or are signed in his place. Nani has never fully lived up to the hype that surrounded him when he moved to Manchester in 2007 and had made just 11 appearances for United this season at the time Ferguson was quizzed.

Antonio Valencia, Tom Cleverley, and Ashley Young all start before Nani and all perform to a higher standard when required, stimulating rumours the winger was set to depart this January.

But why should Ferguson sell to a Premier League rival one of his talented assets? While Nani may not be getting games at Old Trafford, he is nevertheless a good player and would improve both Arsenal and Tottenham’s squads; it would be folly for Ferguson to bolster a rival’s team, something he very rarely does.

The last time he sold to Arsenal it was Mikael Silvestre, who turned out to be awful, while Teddy Sheringham was an old man when he was allowed to move on a free to White Hart Lane in 2001.

No, if Nani is to depart United, he will go either abroad or to an English club not challenging for European places. Arsenal and Spurs do right to look elsewhere and not waste their time with a player whose manager would only sell for an over-inflated amount of money.

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