Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

harry-potter-and-the-cursed-child

You know that great feeling when you get together with a group of old friends who you haven’t seen for ages? It’s wonderful to see everyone again and reminisce about old times. Well, this is one of the best parts of reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the first Harry Potter ‘book’ after a 19 year gap. It is exciting to relive the magic of the earlier books by spending time once again with these characters who we all know so well.

I won’t provide too many details on the plot. As one might guess, the first generation is grown up now and they have kids, and the kids attend Hogwarts (of course). After the introduction where we meet known and new characters, there is one main adventure which occurs, along with some smaller side stories, and in the end all is resolved. I know, the same as all Harry Potter books – but the key point here is that the plot overall is good. It is somewhat creative, consistent with earlier books, and moves along at a good pace. And, considering that the primary author was not J. K. Rowling (she was one of three), it does a reasonably good job of having a similar ‘feel’ to the earlier books.

The other highlight is the relationship between Harry and his son Albus. This is sensitively handled, and adds a touching human dimension separate from all of the magic and spells that we expect in a Harry Potter book. This theme is carried out well throughout the book from start to finish, and this in itself makes this book worth reading.

What doesn’t work is the play script format. Understood that this was written to be a play – but WHY?! Why not just write a book based on the play script? The reason that this doesn’t work is that this book is completely missing the depth of characters and storyline that was part of the brilliance of the earlier books. It is very ‘lightweight’ and at the surface level, without the depth that we expect in these books.

Thus, while I really enjoyed this book and would highly recommend this for Harry Potter fans, I was left a little disappointed at the end due to the lack of character and plot depth. But that was a minor concern compared to the excitement of once again being back in the Harry Potter universe!

 

 

Advertisements

Book Review: “Smarter Faster Better” by Duhigg (3 of 5 stars)

51JktCRRHrL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

Reading this book on improving productivity was, unfortunately, not a very productive use of my time.

Which is unfortunate because Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Duhigg’s first book, The Power of Habit, was well-written, thoroughly researched, and quite motivating. But,despite some unique and thought-provoking insights, Duhigg does not match that same high standard in this book.

Duhigg has taken eight themes and written a chapter on each. These are themes related to both work and personal life, and, to his credit, the topics are well chosen.

The strength of Duhill’s writing is that he is a master storyteller. He is like the person at the party who starts telling a story, and slowly everyone stops talking and listens to him or her – and soon all are hanging onto every single word. He did the same in his first book, and this unique ability, somewhat similar in approach to Malcolm Gladwell’s style, is a true pleasure to read.

Where the book falters is in the actual content and messaging for these eight topics. The first couple of chapters are quite interesting and one has high hopes for this book based upon these initial chapters. But the remaining chapters don’t match this same standard, and by the time one finishes this book, there isn’t a feeling of having gained much more actual learning and insight then one could get from reading a couple of good articles on productivity topics. For some of the topics, one even struggles to see what is new and insightful beyond what is commonly already known about the topic.

Each chapter follows a pattern of starting with one fascinating story, switching to another equally-compelling story in the middle of the first one, and, as Duhigg is completing these stories, he interweaves the specific theme for the chapter along with research on the theme, lessons learned, and how we can apply this topic in our work and personal lives. The approach is great, but more often than not, at the end of a chapter one is somewhat underwhelmed by the final conclusion and lesson(s) from the chapter.

I was debating whether to give two or three stars, but am going with three since I personally did gain from this book by applying some of the few items I learned from this book.

Duhigg’s first book was very good and quite impactful, so – just like Dan Brown came back strong with his solid “Inferno” after the lackluster “The Lost Symbol”, hopefully Duhigg also soon writes a wondeful third book that matches, or perhaps even exceeds, his first book.

Rating: Three stars (out of five stars)

Book Review: The Power of Habit

Power of Habit

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

The title “The Power of Habit” (by Charles Duhigg) sounds good – but what new could there be to read and learn about habits?

Turns out that there is a lot of new thinking about this topic in this wonderful book! And the book covers not only habits in our personal lives, but also in our work environments – and even in society.

Duhigg starts with an story related to habits, and then gets straight to the ‘science’ of habits. While on the surface this part might seem simplistic and perhaps obvious, upon further reading, one realizes that there is both depth to the theory shared, and also ample supporting scientific research. Duhigg to his credit has done extensive research on this topic, including having reviewed the latest relevant scientific papers.

Duhigg then moves on to examples, and the various real life stories shared are often both remarkable and inspiring. Duhigg also explains some related topics, such as ‘keystone habits’, which are very interesting concepts.

The next section extends the discussion to the workplace – a topic most books on this habits don’t cover. Once again, the author starts with a fascinating and thought-provoking example of how a new CEO transformed the entire company by starting with a focus on a single habit (and a surprising choice for this initial habit!).

The third and last section of this book discusses habits and society in general. This is the one part of the book which I thought could have been better. While some parts of this section are good and insightful, other examples provided here are not that compelling. Too many pages are spent on this topic. I would have preferred if less time had been spent on this topic and more details would have been covered on the earlier topics.

The book leaves the reader with at least two clear takeaways. The first is  a solid framework which can be used to start, change, or stop, any habit. The second is that any such change is not simple. It will take a lot of determination persistence, and patience – one is reminded of Edison’s famous quotation on genius being “one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” This same ‘ninety-nine percent perspiration’ will be needed here, but, as this book demonstrates well, it can be done, and it is well worth the effort.

Overall, this is a very good book which has a lot of practical application for our own selves, our work environment, our society, and other areas such as instilling proper habits in children and teenagers. What makes this book a gem is the fascinating stories that he includes which features individuals and companies such as Starbucks, Michael Phelps, Martin Luther King Jr., and Alcoa.

I’m personally now testing what I learned – hope to see some positive results soon!

Rating: four out of five stars

(thanks to my brother Sundeep for suggesting this book)

Book Review: The Man in the High Castle (4 of 5 stars)

TMITHC

This is a fascinating work of alternative history written in 1963 by Phillip K. Dick (known more for three of his books that have also been turned into well-received movies: Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report). The Man in the High Castle’s (“TMITHC”) setting is in 1962 in a world where the Axis won World War II and the Allies lost. Furthermore, the US is divided into three parts: the western Pacific States of America (“PSA”) ruled by Japan, the eastern half ruled by Germany and which has retained the name “United States”, and a middle section (approximately from the Mississippi River through the Rockies) which remains independent and is known as the Rocky Mountain States (“RMS”).

First, some background: I first heard of this book only recently when reading an article on Amazon’s new TV series with the same name. The premise sounded interesting, and this is the background on why I decided to read this book. Disclaimer: I have not seen the TV series (not even any previews) and thus, this review is based solely upon the book.

With regards to the plot, while there are several parallel plot threads, it is set primarily in the San Francisco area, and initially centers around a dealer of ‘Americana’ antiques (primarily from prior to 1900), and how Japanese individuals are obsessed with owning such antiques. From there various plot threads develop, where the setting is in the PSA and RMS, and any of the plot involving Germany and the United States is shared via description by the characters. Events transpire throughout the book, both at the individual level, and at the national and international political level. Throughout there are a lot of references also to the I Ching, the 3000 year old ancient Chinese divination text, and how this is used for decision making by several of the characters. From the characters one gets a sense of what life is like in the PSA, the RMS, and the United States, in this altered version of history. The ongoing plot involves spies, a popular book, two friends starting a business, the ‘historicity’ of objects, and other topics – however, beyond this I will not comment further on the plot, since this would give too much away.

The primary strength of this book is how realistic it feels. The way Dick has written the book, describing day-to-day life and various activities in this setting, and slowly providing clues about how life is like in this world, and what has happened to the rest of the world between World War II and the current setting, provides a very realistic feel to the story. The character development is also reasonably well done. Finally, Dick also has done a good job of capturing the subtle cultural aspects of his setting – for example, just as many countries looked to and found many positives in US culture and thinking after World War II, Dick captures the reverse idea in the PSA setting – implying that the defeated will look up towards the culture of the victor. There is one other strength to the book – but I will describe this later.

One area that could have been better is to have included some first-hand description of life in the United States. Understood that this was more of a stylistic call by Dick, but when writing a book with such an interesting pretext, it seems like meeting the goal only half-way by only focusing on first hand descriptions for the PSA and RMS, and not including any first hand descriptions of the Germany-ruled United States. Of coursed Dick also omits a lot of other aspects of the setting – e.g., what has happened to some of the other countries in the world in this alternative history scenario. However, these are acceptable ommissions because it would not have been practical to detail out every single aspect of this setting. But any firsthand description of life under the Germany-ruled United States seems like too much of a gap for a book centered around the US being occupied by both Japan and Germany.

The other area that could have been better would have been to reduce a bit the references to the I Ching. The references to Eastern philosophy in general were both fine in length and interesting, but the constant references to the I Ching started to drag a bit after a while. Apparently Dick himself used the I Ching to make plot decisions for this book, so understood on his fascination for this – but it seemed to dominate more of the story than it should have.

Finally – the ending of the book is disappointing. Very disappointing. I wanted a very clear and decisive ending and didn’t get it. It was vague, ambiguous, and confusing…

…however, upon further reflection, the ending started to grow on me, and very soon I became convinced that the ending was brilliant! This is the hidden gem of the book. A clear and precise ending would have been so simple to write…and both boring and predictable as an ending because this is what almost all books have as endings. But to take a risk with this type of ending, an ending which each reader can interpret in their own way, this is true genius.

Overall, a very interesting book which will really make you think about this story once you’ve finished this book.

Rating: four out of five stars

Parental Guide: 16+

 

Review of ‘Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War’

Ghost Fleet

‘Ghost Fleet’, by P. W. Singer and August Cole, is a novel describing the next world war as a confrontation primarily between the US and China.

The event starts some time in the not so distant future, and describes events that lead to this confrontation. The book then focuses primarily on how the confrontation plays out – not only on land via traditional warfare, but also in space, via cyberspace, and on land using advanced new military technologies.

The book does do a good job of creatively envisioning the world political environment in the future, and also how advanced technologies will be possibly used in future warfare. Interestingly, the authors claim that these technologies are already developed (at least in research laboratories), and they include references in the bibliography supporting this statement.

The challenge with this book is that the authors jump around different sub-plots quite quickly and have included a large number of characters. It is not that easy to keep track of everyone, so sometimes one starts a new chapter and is trying to then re-connect this to something read earlier.

The plot, while decent, does lack certain items. The build-up with regards to the reasons for the conflict occurring happens quite quickly, and more time could have been spent on this part. The conclusion is also OK, but could have had a stronger conclusion.

Thus, overall, it is an OK book which might be good for those really interested in this topic. For all others, I wouldn’t highly recommend this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Parental Rating: 18+

 

 

 

Book Review: The Girl on the Train (5 out of 5 stars)

The Girl on the Train

This is the best ‘psychological thriller’ that I have ready in years! Congratulations to Paula Hawkins on her wonderful, on-the-edge-of-your-seat, can’t-put-the-book-down debut novel!

The story centers around Rachel, a young lady who takes the same commuter train each morning and evening. On the morning ride each day she sees the same couple sitting on their deck having breakfast. One day, she sees something different…something that will change everything…and I’ll have to stop here, because I can’t reveal more of the plot without spoilers..

The Girl on the Train was in the number one spot on the New York Times Best Sellers list earlier this year for 13 weeks, and in some articles this book has been noted to be the fastest selling adult novel in history. Three things stand out in Hawkins’ novel: plot, setting, and characterization. The plot is solid, well thought-out, fast-moving, and creative. The setting is very realistically described with the theme of trains in the background there throughout the book. And the characters are described and defined so well that you feel like you know them.

Hawkins also includes some other themes (which can’t be noted here because they would be spoilers) throughout this book, all of which are interesting. The narrative style involves first person narrative from more than one character, and this works well for slowly revealing the intriguing storyline.

It is hard to find a flaw in this book. Truly immersing, gripping, and stunning – Enjoy!

Rating: Five out of five stars

Parental Guide: 18+

Book Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

NarrowRoad

Richard Flanagan is a truly gifted writer, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North is an amazingly written novel with such powerful descriptive writing that one feels that they have been transported to another time and place. This book won the Man Booker Prize in 2014, and it is easy to see why; the book stays with you long after you’ve finished the last page.

The novel centers around the life of an Australian named Dorrigo Evans, and can roughly be divided into three parts. The first part is his life prior to World War II, and the third part is his life after the war. The middle part is about his being a POW forced to work on building the “Death Railway“, a 415 kilometer railway built by Japan in 1943 between Bangkok, Thailand, and Rangoon, Burma. Dorrigo was a doctor by profession, and he was also the leader of 1000 POWs working on building the railway. That’s it – I won’t say more about the plot to avoid any spoilers.

While the book is very good overall, the second section is superb. When one reads this, one feels like they are there in Thailand working on building this railway with this group of POWs. One can see, hear, and almost touch, the surroundings, and the characters all seem very real. Flanagan also describes the very harsh realities faced by these POWs; some of the scenes are quite graphic and brutal. But he also captures the camaraderie and the lighter moments that made this entire experience bearable.

The book has underlying philosophical themes on topics such as war, right and wrong, love, leadership, and the meaning of our lives. The plot jumps through different time periods at certain points in the book; this is a bit confusing initially, but one soon gets used to this. One interesting aspect of this book is that Flanagan not only provides perspectives from the Allied POWs, but also from Japanese and Koreans involved in supervising the building of this railway.

The only area which I felt could have been better is that the book does drag at certain points. Overall it is definitely a “page turner”, but at some points his writing drags on a bit too much when focusing on the details of a particular scene.

But this is more than made up by his magic with words – his analogies and his depiction of the surrounding environment in detail make this a memorable novel.

Over 100,000 people died building this railway, of which over 90,000 were forced civilian labor and over 12,000 were POWs. Richard Flanagan’s wrote this book as a tribute to his father, who passed away at age 98 on the day the book was completed, and who was a survivor of the Death Railway.

Rating: 4 out of 4 stars