Books I read in 2016

The Authority of Influence by Jessica Harriden

Genre and Keywords: Non-Fiction; Myanmar; Women; Feminism

More of an academic text than a non-fictional narrative, the book gives great insight into how history, society, religion and politics in Myanmar have shaped the lives of women in the country. While providing extremely useful information (such as thilashin, royalty and civil war), the author has also offered some analysis that can be the foundation for a deeper discussion or food for thought. This book is not meant for light reading, and it took me almost a month (maybe more?) to read it completely – it was part of my research for presentation to my “study group”—Myanmar women in the private and public sphere.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker (Translated from the German by Kevin Wiliarty) (Fiction, Myanmar)

The book (set in Kalaw, Myanmar) had an intriguing premise with elements of magical realism (hearing heartbeats and the tiniest of sounds) with some amount of suspense. But I didn’t make a connection with the protagonist Julia, who went in search of her father to Kalaw. While there were some details and descriptions of locations, they failed to create a strong sense of place. There were also some loopholes that seemed a bit problematic, especially from the pragmatic point of view (for instance, why the forced separation, and why the sudden departure, where is the brother in the entire book?). In the end, it was essentially a love story, but the love-story development took too long and dragged quite a bit. The end of Julia’s father’s story was touching, a fitting end to a love story.

The Adventures of Stoob: Testing Times by Samit Basu

Genre and Keywords: Fiction, Children, India

Fun read and a great introduction to an interesting young man Stoob. He has a distinct voice and a great sense of humour, observant and sharp without being OTT or outrageous. The story wasn’t an adventure or deep mystery, but a simple plot that I identified with nonetheless. The primary plot took a while to develop (a friend who decides to cheat in the final exams), but the characters are all extremely identifiable, as is the plot and the sincerity the characters possess. Couldn’t wait to read the next one.

The Adventures of Stoob: A Difficult Stage by Samit Basu

Genre and Keywords: Fiction, Children, India

My second Stoob book and another entertaining read. I think I finished this in just 2-3 sittings (mostly due to lack of time). The drama, politics and theatrics around a school play (pun unintended) has been wonderfully captured. One of the author’s favourite themes (Indian mythology with a modern twists) is touched upon as well. While the plot is nothing substantial, the kids’ innocence and mastery is quite endearing and great fun. Great tongue-in-cheek illustrations too.

Urmila by Pervin Saket

Genre and Keywords: Fiction, Modern, India, Retelling, Women

Modern yet mythological, this book is a contemporary and bold take on Urmila – the wife left behind in the Ramayana. The woman’s point of view is strong and modern throughout, apt for an epic tale adapted to the 21st century, urban, Maharashtrian context. There are certain liberties that divert from the original storyline, but they seem perfectly natural in the novel. The initial few chapters moved slowly and confused me chronologically, especially the chapter covering the pilgrimage (the chapter highlighted Urmila and her in-laws’ emotional distress during the journey and rituals). The good thing is that Urmila is never portrayed blatantly as feminist, righteous or a do-gooder, but a woman whose life is almost entirely driven by others. It’s only toward the end she exercises her free will, and the novel feels as much the character’s journey as my own. It’s refreshing to know that such voices are published. Even a reader unfamiliar with the Ramayana will enjoy this book.

The Lady Astronomer by Katy O’Dowd

Genre and Keywords: Fiction, Fantasy, Historical, Science, Women

From my Amazon review:

With such high Amazon ratings and the premise of a book, I had high expectations from this book. Unfortunately the book was a big let-down.

The fictional world wasn’t well established- even after finishing the book I don’t understand what was the “orchestra” and “clockwork court”. No explanation was given and since I have no reference point, I couldn’t even rely on my imagination.
The characters were all black and white. I understand this is a children’s book, but better characterisation would have helped.
The main plot/ conflict remained elusive most of the book, only about halfway through did things actually pick up.
There is no insight into the lady astronomer and her work. Throughout the book we are told that she was her brother’s assistant and that she was fascinated with the cosmos and did star gazing, but we never learnt anything about the trade. For instance, she once says, “I’m making progress here”, but what progress? New stars, new planets? Never once do we see her actually working, though we do see her busy in setting up the house and seeking domestic staff. If the astronomy part of her life is so important, why not offer something to the reader without getting too technical?
Another reviewer has pointed out that there were some issues with grammar, and I fully agree on those points.

The few things I found fascinating were her time at the King’s castle, the mechanical butler , the dwarves (though mostly unexplored) and the Royal family.

On the whole, I wouldn’t recommend this book to my nephews and nieces.

My Gita by Devdutt Patnaik

Genre and Keywords: Religion, Spirituality, India, Hinduism, Interpretation

I have an understanding of the key concepts of the Bhagvad Gita, especially in terms of how they apply to life (such as action vs inaction, sense organs and attachments, samata), but this book offered me a new perspective on this great book. While I was looking for practical wisdom and guidance in daily life, the author has instead focused on understanding how the main precepts of the Bhagvad Gita fit in with Hinduism’s broader principles and ideas. For instance, he’s explained the concept of “yagna” as “give and get” as opposed to “sacrifice”. Each chapter has some diagrams and illustrations explaining concepts, and ends with an easy-to-understand two-line summary, which I found quite useful. My main takeaway from the book is a broader understanding of Bhagvad Gita and Hinduism. I’ve highlighted a lot of paragraphs across the book, and I’d to re-read the book and ponder over some of the concepts.

Writing Great Fiction: Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell

Genre and Keywords: Nonfiction, Reference, Writing

I began reading this book to get some ideas on how to develop the first idea I had in mind. The author has taken a step-by-step approach and used plenty of published examples. Besides individual chapters on the beginning, middle, end and more, there’s a chapter on “Outline” vs “No Outline” plotting and I used that list to identify what style would work for me, and how to exploit it. This gave me a new book idea AND plot, and also gave me the confidence to pursue this idea without having a detailed outline in place. I’m now filling in the gaps. This book is turning into an important guide for a newbie fiction writier like me.
What The Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

Genre and Keywords: Nonfiction, USA, Compilation

I thoroughly enjoyed this rich selection of the author’s long reads from The New Yorker. The author is an excellent story-teller and has a wonderful knack for explaining even technical terms in a simple form. The title piece is about a dog whisperer and I retained some key points from the story which helped me when I was almost “attacked” by stray dogs at Yangon University campus. The other memorable stories include the one about finding alternatives to ketchup, about pausing menstrual cycles as key to cancer prevention and what makes someone likable in a job interview.

Writing Great Fiction: Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress

Genre and Keywords: Nonfiction, Reference, Writing

After reading the book on plot by James Scott Bell, I moved on to this book in the series and found it just as immensely helpful as the plot book. Nancy Kress has explained the key aspects of characterization very well, from dialogue to backstory to attention to detail. Now that I’m working on my first novel, this book gave me a lot of insight and helpful tips- the chapters on point of view are especially useful right now. I also liked the chapter on characters in different genres (can be very useful in the future).

All the Light we cannot see by Anthony Doerr

Genre and Keywords: Fiction, Historical fiction, WWII

Great book! I couldn’t put this down, thanks mostly to the crisp chapters and the building suspense of how the two protagonists (Werner and Marie Laure) meet. Unfortunately, that meeting took too long to materialize and was too short for my satisfaction. The changing chronology was initially confusing. I was mostly impressed by the strong verbs and descriptions, and even highlighted some sentences from the book. However, this became tiresome towards the end and almost seemed pretentious. The most part that hit me the most was the story of Frederick, Werner’s school friend. My heart went out to him, and Werner’s handling of his friend’s situation set the base for the help he offered Marie Laure in the future. (their blindness, vulnerable position, life at risk). For me, the key theme was the devastation caused by war, but at the book club meeting last week, someone pointed out that the title indicated hope. There were also several motifs that stood out for me: radios (propaganda, connections, knowledge, learning, science) and books (adventure, new worlds, exploration, hope).

PS—Last evening, I was chatting with my French friend Laetitia and she was travelling very close to Saint Malo (where most of the book’s action takes place) earlier this month!

I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

Genre: Memoir, Nonfiction, Women, Feminism, South Asia, Pakistan, Memoir

Written in the simple voice of Malala, this was an easy and quick read. Malala wrote about her life in Pakistan, interspersed with the history of her family, the Swat region, key historical events in the country and, most importantly, the rise of the Taliban. Her key focus was her father’s struggle to educate boys and girls, and how she contributed to the movement (by speaking up publicly, writing an anonymous blog etc). The story built up to the time she was shot and its aftermath. While it’s a compelling read, I felt a bit “empty” after reading it. I didn’t understand why is she this passionate about universal education? Is it just because it sounds good or righteous or because it enables people to read the Koran? I’m not so sure.

The Never List by Koethi Zan

Genre: Women, thriller, crime

A psychological thriller, it started out as a brilliant read, but ended on a slightly underwhelming note. Characterisation and voice was excellent, as was the suspense. I especially liked the gradual unfolding of the past and the horrific imprisoned years of the protagonist’s life. But there were several things that unraveled a bit too quickly. The BDSM angle was played out a bit too much and the explanation offered by the perpetrator’s colleague/ student was unconvincing. The author tried to leave some things unsaid about the physical and emotional torture of the victims, perhaps to better leave it to the imagination, but a bit more insight would have been good—like perhaps one concrete example of the torturer’s modus operandi.

Conflict & Suspense by James Scott Bell

Genre and Keywords: Nonfiction, Reference, Writing

Another gem by James Scott Bell. There are several lessons to be picked from both his books. The lesson I’ve picked up right now from this book is to build in conflict/ initial disturbance in the first chapter itself, and as I’m working on it, I’m seeing the difference in my writing.

Warhorse by Michael Morpurgo

Genre and Keywords: Fiction, Children, war, animals

This is an award-winning book, and I borrowed it from Ishan because I heard that it had been made into a film. But the book didn’t strike a chord with me. Maybe it’s because I don’t identify with horses or because there wasn’t enough rising action or a character arc or a climax per se.

Wisha Wozzariter by Payal Kapadia

Genre and Keywords: Fiction, Children, fantasy

I’d been wanting to read this book since ages, and finally I got my hand on Adi’s copy. He also insisted I take another Payal Kapadia book to read. The book, right from the name to the bookworm and terms like “Thought Train” and “Ideas” is a creative (yet simplistic) take on the writing process. It was fun initially, though I lost interest towards the end, perhaps due to lack of tension on the page. Or maybe because I’m too old for this?! I can understand why this book appeals to kids, though. Adi enjoyed explaining it to me!

Horrid High by Payal Kapadia

Genre and Keywords: Fiction, Children, humour  

This book was so much more fun than Wisha Wozzariter! Payal Kapadia-style pun-intended character names, along with a great concept, well-developed characters and a fast-paced plot. I enjoyed the book from beginning to end!

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Genre and Keywords: Fiction, science fiction, classic, adventure

I was in the mood for a classic adventure story, so picked up Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Absolutely path-breaking for its time (especially in terms of the science and imagination), but I felt the story was slow, a bit too technical (too many names of marine flora and fauna), and characters mostly uni-dimensional. Jules Verna did a great job, but that style of writing isn’t popular anymore, as literary preferences have changed in the past century.

An Obedient Father by Akhil Sharma

Genre and Keywords: Fiction, India, Delhi, literary

A very interesting premise, set in a very interesting time. Written very well, it’s a great debut novel. Akhil Sharma has great grasp of language and style while not forgetting the importance of a real story. He also played very cleverly with the sympathy and likability scale of the central characters Ram Karan, his daughter Anita and even his granddaughter, and maintained the deliberately ambiguous characterization right till the end. Wish I could write with such maturity.

In the Country of Deceit by Shashi Deshpande

Genre and Keywords: Fiction, India, literary, women

Adultery is a very common theme in literature and films, but Shashi Deshpande handled it well. Yes, there were some obvious plot twists and character responses and I had problems with the voice (letters written by very different characters had the same voice!). I also didn’t get much insight into the lead character Devayani Mudhol’s mind (like why was she against marrying, or what were her ambitions, whether she liked being alone etc), so the emotional impact of the book was minimal. But it was a light read, and I was quite interested in small-town India.


I’ve read only a couple of graphic novels before, and that was a while ago, so Batwoman was a wonderful experience. I thought I’d finish it in a jiffy, but I took some time to read it. As S pointed out later, it’s also important to take in the art work and imagery. And yes, the art work conveys emotions, feelings, action and so much more. I’m not yet hooked to superhero graphic novels, but maybe I will someday.

The Chocolate Wars by Robert Cormier  

Genre and keywords: Young adult, violence, boys, high school

I took this up as a book challenge by The Sunday Book Club (TSBC) on Twitter, which began because the group’s discussion of young adult fiction didn’t have a single mention of Robert Cormier. Though the book is based in a high school, it serves as allegory for the larger world out there. How fear, loathing and propaganda make us monsters, how sympathetic friends can turn into an angry mob, and how a peaceful world can turn dangerously violent. There were also underlying themes of non-conformity, grief and emotional fragility.

Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga

Genre and keywords: Fiction, India, literary

Aravind Adiga’s first novel, the book is actually a compilation of stories profiling a town in Karnataka. Through the numerous stories and varied characters, he portrays the pulse of a town- hopes, dreams, vices, sins, lies and truths. As the book goes on, the observations get sharper, the characterization improves and the writing overall gets better. Now I’m keen to read White Tiger (already read Last Man in Tower).

Bodymaps – anthology of short stories by women writers of South Asia

Genre and keywords: Fiction, women, India

There were stories by Mahashweta Devi, Amrita Pritam, genres like science fiction, LGBT, and several of them were very well written.

The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple

Genre and keywords: Non fiction, history, India, Bahadur Shah Zafar

I’ve wanted to read this book since I moved to Yangon over a year ago, because Bahadur Shah Zafar- the last emperor of India is buried here. It’s a fascinating account of the Revolt of 1857, as it unfolded in Delhi. There is special emphasis on the scenes in Zafar’s court before, during and after the recapture of Delhi by the East India Company. The author doesn’t take sides here, but it is quite clear that Zafar  had nothing to do with the revolt and was nearly coerced into “participating” at the age of 80. While the book is not in the narrative non-fiction style, it is still quite engaging since Dalrymple has narrated the stories of the Emperor, royal poets and British officers.

Empty Family by Colm Toibin

Genre: Fiction, short stories

Colm Toibin’s collection of short stories had a mixed effect on me- hated some, enjoyed some and just didn’t “get” the point of a couple of the stories. However, I did enjoy the story about the art director.

The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Genre: Historical fiction, children, fiction

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Genre: Thriller, Psychological thriller, Mystery, Crime, Women


The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Genre: India, rural, literary, fiction

This book is not an easy read, partly because one of the key themes is the “servant-and-master” relationship in India. The rags-to-riches story is also not easy to digest, especially since the means are dishonest and rather real in the Indian context (murder, theft, corruption). The book lagged in the first chapter, but picked up a bit after that. Use of simple voice, but extremely effective, and also some interesting metaphors, like “eggs” used to describe cars in Delhi, and “Darkness” to refer to Jharkhand.

Last updated: January 14, 2017

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