Book reviews (2nd half of 2013)

Even though I was quite busy juggling between school work and research obligations last semester, I found some time to read a couple of books. I am quite particular about authors and so when I fall in love with someone’s style of writing, I will pick up their other books without even reading the synopsis. In general, I enjoy reading books about war, religion, travels and occasionally, I like to read a couple of self-help books.

1. The Hand of Fatima by Ildefonso Falcones

Synopsis: A story about the clashes and conflicts between Christians and Moors set in Granada, Spain in the 16th century. The main character, Hernando, a Moorish boy who has a Christian father, attempts to resolve the conflict between the two cultures.

Why read? I think this is the best book about religious conflicts that I have ever read. Falcones covers both perspectives of the conflicts rather extensively in a neutral tone. Different from The Cathedral of the Sea, The Hand of Fatima has a very clear message that Falcones wants to convey to his readers – forgiveness is the only way to resolve religious conflicts; revenge and anger will only serve to prolong the vicious cycle and make the situation worse. I really like the ending of the book – it realistically shows that resolving the age-old conflict by a single person is an impossible task.

Why not? It has quite a bit of violence and the book is rather depressing so it may not be appropriate if you want something light to read. Furthermore, some of the plot twists are rather unrealistic.

2. Digital Fortress by Dan Brown

Synopsis: A techno-thriller about cryptography and national security.

Why read? Dan Brown moved beyond the Da Vinci Code and explored modern cryptography in this book. Can a digital fortress really exist today given how intrusive surveillance is? I have always been interested in encrypting and decrypting codes as well as the mathematics involved so I find it a really informative read.

Why not? The plot twist is rather predictable for anyone who has read other Dan Brown’s books and so this kills half the fun. Furthermore, I am quite bored by the “we made it just at the nick of time” endings.

3. Best Kept Secret by Jeffrey Archer

Synopsis: This is the third book in the Clifton’s chronicles. Jeffrey Archer claims that he doesn’t know how many books there will be to this series but he estimates that it will be at least 7. The story is a continuation of the #2 book “The Sins of the Father” and it is essentially about Giles’ election and Sebastian’s misadventures in London and Argentina.

Why read? “The Sins of the Father” ended with a cliffhanger so readers of that book need to read this to know who inherited the family’s fortune. I have read several Jeffrey Archer’s books about elections but personally, I find this particular election rather thrilling. Sebastian’s misadventures in London and Argentina are pretty interesting too.

Why not? The Clifton Chronicles seem to be more about the plots rather than the characters. I find the character development pretty weak and it’s impossible for readers to predict what the character will do next (except for Emma the feminist) because we just don’t know the characters well enough. Unless you have already started on the first book, you should not read any book from this series. I find it annoying as well how he ends each book with a cliffhanger. Certainly there are other ways to compel people to pick up the book. It gets rather absurd as well when the “villains” somehow found one another and teamed up against the protagonists.

4. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Synopsis: A story set in Afghanistan about two friends (a master and a servant), who participated in kite fighting together, and how cowardice and a war changed their lives forever.

Why read? I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and the moment I reached the last page, I was tempted to re-read the book immediately. People tend to just associate Afghanistan with Talibans and wars and we forget that Afghanistan is a country rich in history, tradition and culture. In this book, Khaled Hosseini bring Afghanistan’s colourful history, tradition and culture to life through kite fighting. I especially like how Hosseini did not use a heroic main character. Instead, his main character, Amir, is imperfect as he shows human weaknesses repeatedly – cowardice and selfishness. Because of this, I can empathize with Amir and at some point in the story, I feel that I have become Amir and hence caught in his numerous dilemmas. I also really like how realistic the story is – when Amir eventually wanted to seek redemption, he couldn’t get it because war had happened. The story is simple and elegant and most importantly, it moved me.

Why not? I find it very difficult to think of a reason why someone should not read this book. I think that the only weak part in this book is the ending as it gets rather draggy and overly reflective. But that is certainly not a good enough reason to give this book a miss.

5. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Synopsis: A story set in Afghanistan about the tumultuous lives of two women who are married to the same man under different circumstances. They later became friends and attempted to flee the country.

Why read? While The Kite Runner is about human weaknesses, A Thousand Splendid Suns is about human strengths, particularly courage and determination. The book focuses on the role of women in the traditional Afghan society and under the Taliban regime. I quickly fell in love with the strong-headed Laila and the scene in which she gave birth through a C-section procedure without anaesthesia is deeply ingrained in my head. However, I took a longer while to like Mariam. But eventually I love how protective Mariam is of Laila and how she eventually sacrificed herself to save Laila. Similar to The Kite Runner, I was very tempted to reread the book the moment I reached the last page.

Why not? The beginning of the book about the early life of Mariam was a little too boring. I guess readers can only appreciate the start of the book on the second read. Similar to the Kite Runner, the ending was unnecessarily long and draggy and felt like it was going nowhere.

6. Aleph by Paulo Coelho

Synopsis: Aleph touches on the theme of spirituality and it is about how the protagonist set off on a trans-Siberian train journey to find his faith and unexpectedly, he met and fell in love with a girl whom he loved 500 years ago in his past life.

Why read? It has a good collection of philosophies from different cultures and religions and it makes readers reflect on what a personal journey means. I also like his description of the trans-Siberian train journey – something that I really want to do at some point in my life.

Why not? Personally, I don’t really appreciate Paulo’s obsession with faith. Many of his preaches also get a little too abstract to my liking and more often than not, I struggle to understand the point that he is trying to bring across.

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