Friday, May 24, 2019

A fascinating love story with a tinge of mystery

Book Review: Safe Haven

Author: Nicholas Sparks

Rating: 5/5

I recently completed reading Safe Haven. Just like all books written by Nicholas Sparks, this one too enchants the reader with its simplicity and emphasis on our purpose in life.

If Notebook redefined passion and friendship and A Walk to Remember strengthened your belief in true love, Safe Haven will show you how despite innumerable obstacles, divine intervention helps unite lovers. 

Katie is the unassuming beautiful protagonist who leaves the city where she has lived all her life, in search of peace. To add a new dimension to her life and ward off her abusive past, Katie comes to a faraway city and takes up a humble job to distract herself and keep the cash flowing. 

Having given up on happiness and love, Katie doesn’t talk much to anyone. However, she is quite amused to have a female neighbour who is inquisitive about all the happenings in her life.

Soon, Katie finds love in Alex, a widower. Their fairy-tale romance is interrupted when Katie’s abusive ex-husband reaches the new city, looking for her. What follows is a heart-warming story of love, betrayal, and hope - with several goosebumps’ moments.  

Love as a topic for a novel has been tossed over and been used by almost every second author who ventured into fiction writing. Whether it is mystery, comedy, humour, or something else, the stories usually have hues of love embedded in them. So, why is it that some love stories touch your heart and others don't? May be because of the way the author’s style captivates your mind or the characterization. I have often seen it is the simplicity and honesty with which a character is depicted that makes a story memorable. 

Probably that is the reason Sparks’ Safe Haven strikes a chord. We spend a lot of time on social networking sites these days and often meet ‘the special one’ meant for us online. However, at the risk of sounding ancient, I must admit that I still believe that a face-to-face interaction and ‘hand-written’ communication is way more romantic than any virtual interaction can ever be.  

Safe Haven is not a sloppy, mushy love story. It talks about the value of life, the price we pay for being emotional, and establishes the fact that Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. Full of interesting plot twists and surprises, this book is a page-turner. Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Feeling of Guilt

How often does the feeling of guilt bug you? Do you lament over the thought that you are not being able to live up to your family's expectations? Guilt enters our lives in more ways than we can imagine.
You can feel guilty if you had that extra piece of chocolate which you forbade your kid to have. You can feel guilty giving a flimsy excuse to your family and sneaking out to enjoy your 'me time'. You can feel guilty for not earning enough. You can feel guilty lying to someone just because you want to avoid them. The list is endless.
More than anything, we feel guilty when we want to do something solely for ourselves. We think a hundred times before planning a quiet weekend, sceptical that it might offend the family. I know several people who have sacrificed their dreams only because they felt guilty about putting their own interest above the others. They have let years pass by. Now in their twilight years, they regret not having done what they always wanted to do.
That is exactly what guilt does to us. It eats into our present and disturbs our future. It makes us unhappy and forces us to unwillingly make sacrifices to please others. What we don't realize is that sometimes those repeated selfless acts turn into expectations.
For example, if you are spoon-feeding someone every day, you will be loved and appreciated initially. Soon, it becomes a routine. The day you stop, you will not just annoy the other person, they will blame you for being selfish. Because, it has become a habit for them to expect the spoon-feeding from you. Similarly, if you are offering money to an able family member in need continuously, the person is slowly turning into a parasite. S/he will always be in need of money and will have a tendency to take advantage of your goodness. Just refuse them the money once and you will see their true colours. Of course, only if you are able to get rid of your feeling of guilt first.
Perhaps there is no perfect way or approach to kill that guilt-feeling.
But you can always make a beginning by setting daily goals. For example, "I will complete these 3 things today, regardless of everything and NOT feel guilty." How often do we feel guilty for depriving ourselves of the little flickers of happiness we deserve to enjoy? Rarely. Those unfulfilled desires translate into regrets later in life.
Even on this day, there are thousands of school-girls especially in villages who feel guilty for going to school and not being able to help their mother with household chores. There are 21st century superwomen who feel guilty for going to office and leaving their child with a family member or a babysitter. There are people, both men and women who stay unmarried lifelong to provide for their families. They feel guilty that marriage might change them, because they are the sole breadwinners.
It is great to help others and always be there for them. But not at the cost of denying yourself what is rightfully yours. Go dance in the rain, enjoy that cool breeze, go on that solo trip, set your eyes on the unthinkable dream and achieve it. Because no one but you and you alone can stand up for yourself and live your dream. Shed your inhibitions, kick the guilt, and enjoy life till you have it.

Photo from Pexels

Friday, December 14, 2018

The World of Automation

Photo by from Pexels
Noted science-fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s observation that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” is more relevant today than ever before. 
A world where smartphones walk and crawl with robotic limbs, humanoid robots conduct job interviews, autonomous cars drive people home, drones make home-delivery possible, smart assistants plan investments and make routine decisions for their users – doesn’t seem fictional or far-fetched anymore. 
Several of these technologies are either already available or in development. Automation has made that possible.
Automation is the application of technology to improve business productivity, save time, and reduce costs. Technological advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (MI), robotic process automation (RPA), and Internet of Things (IoT) have weaved automation so seamlessly in our digital lifestyle that challenges that earlier seemed unsurmountable can magically be addressed with automation. 
Today, business intelligence in applications has taken automation to a whole new level and it is constantly evolving. Organizations like Amazon, Google, and other technology bigwigs are constantly on the lookout for advanced AI platforms with highly skilled digital assistants that will transform the way organizations behave and connect with their clients.
The benefits of automation
Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels
Automation is not a new concept and companies have resorted to automate processes to improve efficiency in the past too, especially in labour-intensive sectors. Economist J.M Keynes had predicted in the twentieth century that automation would enable a shorter work week of less than 15 hours. 
Today there is an increased demand for intelligent automation platforms across industries not only to improve productivity and reduce costs but also to gain deeper customer insights, understand consumer behaviour, and achieve customer delight. 
AI and ML are constantly evolving and equipping machines to learn through experience, minus explicit programming.
Computers with artificial intelligence are being designed to complete human tasks including speech recognition, decision-making, visual perception etc. With IoT, the intent is that the things around us should be able to understand, yield, and use the information generated by humans, systems, or other things.
Automation improves business performance, cuts costs, and eliminates human error. Robots have mastered the art of performing repetitive tasks and revolutionized turnaround time in areas such as customer service, data-entry, and IT support. 
Now, with artificial intelligence performing mundane, routine tasks, human minds can focus on more innovative and creative work.
On the flip side
Automation has impacted every aspect of our lives – political, social, economic, and personal. However, there are areas where AI cannot be fully utilized such as jobs that involve expressing emotions or showing empathy. 
For example, the role played by doctors, care givers, social service workers, counsellors etc. For careers in creativity too, automation has its limitations – while there is knowledge and information, sensitivity is missing.
Some experts argue that if not monitored, automation could be dangerous to the human race. 
While automated digital platforms may empower users to switch their professions as frequently as they wish (be a cab driver one day, a programmer the next day), working on diverse work areas might not be empowering but rather enslaving in the long run. Besides, progress in automation and artificial intelligence will not only eliminate the need for people with routine, repetitive tasks but will also impact those with high qualifications and non-routine jobs.
Going forward
We are witnessing a technological revolution with automation that is evolving and scaling new heights with every passing day. Automation platforms are on the path to becoming more mature and proficient. 
With real-estate agents turning to automation to attract buyers, researchers from the University of Toronto claiming that AI may be able to predict if a person has the Alzheimer’s disease five years in advance, and Saudi Arabia becoming the first country to give citizenship to a robot, automation continues to be the go-to technology across industries. 

Friday, October 12, 2018

Must-read Crime Thrillers of the 20th Century

In the 19th century, Oscar Wilde wrote, “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.” Don't we wish that even today, while devouring a spine-chilling crime-thriller? Regardless of the generation we belong to or the century we live in, crime-fiction continues to be an extremely popular genre for readers all over the world. 

As we dig into the not-so-long-ago past, we unearth a treasure trove of exciting  and suspenseful page-turners. The 20th century witnessed a steep growth in the number of books written in the crime-thriller genre.
Here is my pick of 10 timeless crime-thriller books from the early and mid-20th century that fascinate me even today.  Do read them, if you haven’t.

1. The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1902)

My most favourite Sherlock Holmes novel, this book is a class apart. The story unfolds with the mysterious death of Charles Baskerville, which Holmes is asked to investigate. The brilliant descriptions of the Baskerville estate and the scary hound weave magic and suspense into this almost spooky thriller. The detective’s scientific investigation makes this book an ageless classic. 

2. The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad (1907)
Set in London, Conrad’s novel is an intriguing spy-thriller featuring characters that leave an indelible impression in your mind. Adolf Verloc is a secret agent, who exploits his mentally-challenged brother-in-law to execute his political goals. This is a must-read not only for it’s exciting plot and intense storytelling, but also for the chemistry between the characters and how a bombing impacts their lives.

3. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

Much more than a romantic thriller, The Great Gatsby centres on America in the 1920s. It explores the social history of the era, the life of the rich and their economic prosperity, as well as organized crime. This is also a story of intense romance, passion, betrayal, and revenge. The vivid depiction of the times and the emotions it evokes make this an unforgettable piece of literature.

4. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie (1926)
For its fascinating storytelling, meticulous characterisation, incredible climax, and thrilling ending, this book remains an all-time favourite and proves again that no one can unravel a mystery like Christie. The story is about the murder of Roger Ackroyd, a widower who was engaged to Mrs. Ferrars, a wealthy widow. Hercule Poirot’s suave investigation and the narration by Dr. Sheppard, Poirot’s assistant in this case, make this an exceptionally killing thriller. 

5. The Nine Tailors – Dorothy L. Sayers (1934)
A thriller that hooks you from the very first page and doesn’t let you rest till you finish it, this is an enigmatic mystery featuring British detective Lord Peter Wimsey. A disfigured dead-body is found in a churchyard and Wimsey is called upon to investigate the case. This is perhaps the author’s most intriguing novel. Mysterious letters, theft of an emerald necklace 20 years ago, medieval church bells… all add to the thrill of this remarkable page-turner.

6. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier (1938)
A classic Gothic novel, Rebecca is a sensational thriller about a girl who marries Maxim, a wealthy widower. Maxim’s stunning first wife Rebecca, whom he loved deeply, had died in a boat accident. Through the course of story, the mystery unfolds and the girl discovers that Rebecca’s death was not merely an accident. A poignant, unforgettable tale of love, deceit, and crime. 

7. The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler (1939)
This classic Chandler murder-mystery stands out for its complex plot, immaculate investigation, and menacing wisecracks by the cynical detective Philip Marlowe. The story starts with General Sternwood seeking Marlowe’s assistance to investigate the gambling debts of his daughter. As the story unfolds, people are murdered in connection with the case and Marlowe realizes that there is much more than meets the eye. 

8.  Strangers on the Train – Patricia Highsmith (1950)
Highsmith takes you on an emotional roller-coaster with this psychological thriller about two men travelling in a train. This is a taut noir novel about an architect and a psychopath and their sinister plan of murder in exchange for murder.  Full of suspense and intriguing twists, Alfred Hitchcock made a film based on this gripping book in 1952. 

9.  Lamb to the Slaughter – Roald Dahl (1953)
While this is only a short story and not a novel, I couldn’t not mention this one -one of Dahl’s finest stories. This is the tale of the shocking murder of a police officer by his wife. The real suspense begins when Mary Maloney tries to cover up her crime and we see streaks of a cold-blooded, shrewd killer in her. Do not miss this one!  

This is again an all-time favourite, because no one weaves a mystery like Agatha Christie. As Miss Marple investigates the death of Mrs. Badcock, who died mysteriously while meeting her favourite film actress, a series of events lead her to Badcock’s youth. Connecting the dots backwards, the elderly detective unravels an appalling truth. The intricacy of the plot and the fascinating characterisation make this a classic whodunit. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Romancing the Rains...

What is it about the rains that makes a pluviophile's heart go a flutter?

Is it the first raindrop that lands on your head unawares till your fingers that were carelessly combing your unruly hair discover it prompting an impromptu giggle?

Is it the uncanny godliness of the fresh-earth smell that bowls you over?

Could it be the damp nose of your dog that feels drier but cooler and more lovable than usual?

Is it the shorty drizzle or the longish, plump droplets that travel faster than your shamelessly stark ogle and reach the ground?

Is it that heart-skips-a-beat feeling that brings back fond memories of your first brush with romance?

It could be a million things, or more.

I feel it is more about 'romancing the rains' rather than 'romancing in the rains'. It is like falling in love with the idea of love, not with a specific person. But then the person, even if imaginary, would be a welcome treat!

A perfect rainy day is one that allows you to laze in your den with your favorite murder-mystery, a hot cup of coffee, and your dog curled up next to you. You can listen to the sound of the rains and appreciate the magnificence from your window or balcony. And of course, you have a soulful 'raga' playing in the background. It could also be a 'ghazal' or a 'soft romantic' Arijit Singh number. Total bliss.

The perfect rainy day could also be one when you are by the sea -either at the beach or in a cafĂ©, gazing at the beauty unfolding in front of your eyes. All you do is appreciate what you witness and immerse yourself in that unrestrained love.

Ah well... a perfect rainy day could also be one which brings old friends or family together - a chance encounter perhaps.

As your mind wonders and wanders, enjoy romancing the rains :)

Thursday, June 30, 2016

How hard-hitting are betrayals?

No, I am not talking about betrayals in love. How often have you been cheated by friends? Or is that also ‘cool’ these days? Regardless of how we look at it, I am sure most of us have tasted deceit in friendship at least once in life. 
Sensible people don’t waste time thinking about it. They cut off the disloyal person from their life and move on. Sensitive people sulk, write blogs, and waste a lot of time before finally accepting the fact that they have been fooled.

I don’t know if I would characterize myself as sensible or sensitive. Perhaps it depends on the person and your relationship with him/her. Some betrayals make you feel bad but you ignore them as they don’t matter. Others might leave you angry, upset, irritated, or shocked.

The worst kind of betrayal is that which comes from someone who has mastered the art of pretence. You will be ignorant of the skilful way the ‘friend’ will extract information from you and use it to suit their interests. While you trust the person in good faith, you will have no clue what they are up to behind your back!
The reveal will shock you and the puzzle will look impossible. When you see your friend enjoying the exact opposite things they swore to you they abhor, don’t be surprised. This is just the beginning. You will soon find them hanging out with the people they said were in their ‘hate’ list.
Then you need to stir your memory bank a bit so as to allow it to replay some incidents that had irked you when they had occurred. For instance, once upon a time, this person had relentlessly cajoled you to badmouth people they claimed they hated (the same people they have befriended now)! You thank God now that you had refused to utter anything negative back then.
If that is not enough, your so-called friend will try to sweet-talk you into something again, unaware that his/her true colours have been revealed to you. If you ignore, s/he will sever ties with you and make it look like you broke the bond!
Be patient. Your puzzle pieces will come together.
So, next time before you make the statement - “My friend XYZ can never do that,” think again. As the saying goes: “Never say never.”

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Challenges of Being 'One Book' Old!

Before my first book The Sinister Silence was published (my second isn’t out yet!), my goal was to ‘get published’. Like Arjuna who focused on the ‘bird's eye’ with single-minded resolve, my aim was to get ‘published’. It was a gruelling process and in one of my earlier blog posts, I recounted my journey from writer to author .

However like most first-time authors, I realized that once you are published, your challenge has only begun. Here's why!

1. Managing expectations – If people have liked your book, your next book must be even better. It is a writer’s responsibility to challenge herself to come up with a better second book. So, keep writing, come what may!
2. Managing distractions – Authors are tempted to google their names, check Amazon rankings every now and then, stay ‘social’ and connect with readers. This may get tiring after a while. Remember: A writer’s mind needs to be fresh so that new ideas can reside there.
3. Keeping up the momentum – A book launch or reading is not enough! You have to keep at it, generate interest among readers in multiple ways all the time!
4. Online visibility – Thanks to technology, people don’t just buy books from physical bookstores anymore. The online community is overflowing with activity – people buy online all the time. So staying visible online – real-time – becomes important. But a writer can’t always do that. You need to write - remember?
5. Book reviews – Getting a professional to review your book is another challenge. The number of authors getting published is increasing every day. Ditto with the number of reviewers. There is also the option of subscribing to 'review packages'. I am not comfortable paying money to get my book reviewed. But then, it works well for some authors, which is good. So those who don’t opt for ‘paid reviews’, don’t get XX number of reviews to showcase on social media. So, you have lost a certain percentage of audience there too!
6. Review on Goodreads – Unlike Amazon or Flipkart, the reviews listed at Goodreads are not necessarily from people who have purchased a book through an online store. Anyone with a Goodreads account can randomly rate/review a book. Someone may just dismiss your labour-of-love with a 'one rating' even if they haven't read it! So new authors - please don't lose sleep over reader ratings :). However, Goodreads is a nice place to be for those who love reading and enjoy maintaining reading lists.
7. Building your brand – Attending book-readings, talks, events etc. and interacting with people to increase your reader-base is important, especially if you are only a-book-old. If events are not possible offline, authors can also organize such events online. The challenge is that you will need to invest a lot of time from your daily schedule for such activities. Rome was not built in a day, you see!
8. Active blogging – is important to stay 'alive' in your reader’s mind. The curiosity around the book will die down a few months after the book release. To stay connected with your readers, you need to stay in touch through your writing.
9. Time management – This is crucial, especially if you already have a day job. To market your book, schedule promotions, and interact with readers while at your full-time job is no mean feat. Plan your time and time your plan. Set goals with deadlines. 
10. Writing your next book – This is THE most important thing to do if you want to live the life of an author. To seclude yourself and continue writing amid all the distractions, temptations, and book promotions is a tough call. Nevertheless, like Arjuna again – the focus should be unwavering. A writer needs to write - that's the core requirement. That is your true calling.

Good luck to all new, old, and aspiring writers! Cheers to your writing journey!