10 page-turners for summer

From Cal Newport to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, this is an exhaustive list of new books across genres. (iStockphoto)
From Cal Newport to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, this is an exhaustive list of new books across genres. (iStockphoto)


As temperatures soar to record-breaking highs across India, Lounge brings you books from a range of genres to help you cool off during these oppressive weeks


Matthew Reilly’s latest spy thriller will titillate the minds of history nerds and science enthusiasts

Imagine growing up in Berlin, through the two world wars, with Albert Einstein as your neighbour and mentor? Hanna Fischer, the daredevil protagonist of Matthew Reilly’s new best-seller Mr Einstein’s Secretary, has this bittersweet legacy thrust upon her. Born to a German father and an American mother, Hanna is gifted with an insatiable appetite for science. With the rise of the SS and Hitler’s ascendancy, Hanna’s parents are brutally murdered, in separate incidents, while her twin sister Norma is left at an asylum for the mentally challenged. While Einstein helps Hanna flee to America from Berlin under siege from the Nazis, the young girl has to make a life for herself in the foreign land. She trains as a secretary, works in corporate America, and eventually becomes Einstein’s secretary for a while. Later, Hanna spends the war working as a secretary to Albert Speer and Martin Boorman, two of Hitler’s most important henchmen, but actually being a double agent for America. Although Reilly takes liberties with historical facts and liberally splashes colour to liven up his story, there is never a dull moment. The best part: this breathless spy thriller will make you want to go back to the original sources for a deeper understanding of what exactly happened. (Hachette, Rs.799)


Cal Newport’s latest book is a much-needed antidote to hustle culture and toxic productivity

Acclaimed author and computer science professor, best known for his theory of “deep work", Cal Newport has never been your assembly line self-help writer, even though his material tends to veer into that zone. Be it his approach to time management and productivity, or advocacy for digital minimalism and a world without emails, Newport has always arrived at his ideas through rigorous cognitive behavioural science, reporting, and a deep dive into historical trends. Slow Productivity is no different. Its central thesis is brilliantly counter-intuitive.

For us to be at our most productive, we need to embrace the first principles of working slowly—or, in other words, perpetual busyness doesn’t equal productivity. The idea isn’t radical or novel but Newport’s analysis of it, based on scores of interviews with lapsed busy-bees and drawing on figures from history, is fresh and thought provoking. If you work at a job where your main duty seems to be sitting at meetings all day, if you take pride in your split-second response time to emails and messages, if stretching your work week into unseemly hours validates your self-worth and, most of all, if you are burnt out but don’t know how to move out of this rut, this book may change your life. (Penguin Business, Rs.599)

The Gentleman from Peru, Aciman’s latest, leaves the reader with a peculiar aftertaste.
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The Gentleman from Peru, Aciman’s latest, leaves the reader with a peculiar aftertaste.


André Aciman’s latest novel mixes his luminous realist style with his interest in the otherworldly

André Aciman took a decade to achieve celebrity after his 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name was adapted for the screen by Luca Guadagnino in 2017. It led millions to his early work, such as the beautiful memoir Out of Egypt(1995). His novel Enigma Variations (2017), much superior to Call Me By Your Name to my mind, was critically acclaimed, too. Then something happened. Find Me, the sequel to Call Me By Your Name, felt like less a creature of Aciman’s vivid imagination than that of his publisher’s desire for a sequel to keep the cash registers ringing. Its plot was flimsy and the writing a tad too sentimental even for those who had wept copiously for Timothée Chalamet and Arnie Hammer in the movie. Now, The Gentleman from Peru, Aciman’s latest, leaves the reader with a peculiar aftertaste. Undeniably, there is ample evidence of his narrative genius, but it also feels as though Aciman is trespassing into a territory of mysticism and occult that readers associate with writers like Paulo Coelho. Fittingly, the story is set in summer, on an island on Italy’s Amalfi coast, where a group of American tourists are spending lazy days of hedonism—until the eponymous Peruvian gent arrives to spice up their lives. (Faber, Rs.599)

Also read: Ruskin Bond: The grand old man of Indian letters


Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, Ia Genberg’s haunting novel asks deep questions

Swedish writer Ia Genberg’s novel The Details, translated into English by Kira Jossefson, is a thing of beauty though, unlike John Keats’ claim, it isn’t a joy forever. The point of this short novel, in contrast, is to make us confront the people who have come into our lives and dropped off. They may be friends or lovers, who inspired such deep stirrings in our youthful hearts that we never imagined living without them. Even though our mature selves come to terms with these losses, do we ever completely stop loving the people who once meant so much to us?

Framed by this question, The Details is narrated by a woman who, in the throes of a fever, starts to remember her passionate, yet skewed, relationship with Johanna, now a famous broadcaster. As the memories come tumbling in, we get a glimpse of the high noon of their love and its brutally abrupt end. This episode segues into three further portraits: of Niki, Alejandro and Brigitte. Each comes with its share of baggage—unruly tempers bursting forth as they nurture sordid secrets, young men and women in search of meaning, desperately clinging to each other, only to cut themselves loose from those ties. Genberg clinically dissects these relationships from the vantage point of her distance from the past—a method that deeply moves you, but also leaves a residue of discomfort, as you think back on similar losses in your own life. (Wildfire, Rs. 599)

In spite of some iffy reviews, we highly recommend this gem of a novella to immerse yourself in on a slow afternoon.
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In spite of some iffy reviews, we highly recommend this gem of a novella to immerse yourself in on a slow afternoon.


Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘lost novel’ is a testimony to his storyteller’s genius

Earlier this year, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s family, in collaboration with his long-time editor Cristóbal Pera and translator Anna McLean, published his “lost novel" Until Augustto mark his 97th birth anniversary. Marquez had planned to write a magnum opus of 600 pages, when he got waylaid by Memories of My Melancholy Whores(2005). Until August, imagined as a collection of short stories about the erotic adventures of a middle-aged woman, Anna Magdalena Bach, remained incomplete. In spite of some iffy reviews, we highly recommend this gem of a novella to immerse yourself in on a slow afternoon, fortified by the gentle hum of the air-conditioning and a glass of chilled lemonade. This novella is not only a testament to a literary genius’ last hurrah, it is also an example of the transformative power of editing. In the age of AI, when editors are being written off, Pera shows how poring over each word of a manuscript can stitch together an astonishing narrative of love and death, the two great themes that run through the finest works of Garcia Marquez.

Every year Anna Magdalena Bach returns to the island where her mother is buried to leave a bouquet at her grave. On this annual pilgrimage, she lets herself shed the tired identity of mother and wife, and enjoy a one night stand. The prose is limpid, flushed with the humidity of late summer, and despite its leanness, conveys a sense of a whole life lived, yet also not lived fully. Some secrets, we learn, are taken to the grave unbeknownst to even those closest to the person. (Viking, Rs. 599)


Najwa Zebian grapples with the most uncomfortable truth of life—the need to embrace change

Lebanese-Canadian author, activist and educationist Najwa Zebian rose to prominence during the covid-19 pandemic with her “instapoetry", where she wrote about the defining challenges faced by immigrant youth like her in their adopted countries. She documented her personal struggles in Welcome Home, an account of defying her conservative family’s wishes and choosing a life that felt authentic to her. The Only Constant extends this narrative by focusing on a specific aspect of Zebian’s long journey of self-discovery: her challenges with navigating change, both positive and negative.

As with most books straddling self-help and memoir, The Only Constant has its fair share of platitudes: “If you allow yourself to be ruled by other people’s acceptance of you, you’ll never move forward". Yet, the book has its moments, especially when Zebian is able to weave in her personal narrative or stories of real people who have worked their way through tough change. Her condemnation of gaslighting, for instance, hits the spot: “We let things get to a point where it’s not about what we want but about what we can no longer survive. While that’s effective motivation, it sets a dangerous standard." (Hachette, Rs.599)

Dream Machine by Appupen and Laurent Daudet will give you a reality check.
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Dream Machine by Appupen and Laurent Daudet will give you a reality check.


A powerful graphic novel that demystifies the myths, mysteries and potential of machine learning

If you are hyped about the next development in AI and machine learning, Dream Machine by Appupen and Laurent Daudet will give you a reality check. At the heart of the story, illustrated by Appupen, is Hugo, the CEO of an AI company called KLAI. When Hugo receives a lucrative offer from global tech behemoth REAL.E, aiming to transform the landscape of gaming, AI and employment, he is understandably thrilled. Even though REAL.E’s jaw-dropping deal to collaborate with KLAI comes with several strings attached, it promises to open new horizons of growth. When Hugo starts scratching the surface of REAL.E’s business model and its megalomaniac CEO’s aspirations for world domination, shocking truths begin to emerge about data mining, compromising the privacy of citizens, and the creation of algorithmic monsters trained on biases and prejudices that wreak havoc on democracy.

The more potent these tools, the more they are able to influence the outcomes of elections and perpetuate hate-mongering. Thankfully, nihilism isn’t the be-all and end-all of the story. Hugo’s final decision offers a silver lining, bolstered by the support of a small but dedicated community of scientists and researchers advocating ethical use of AI. Perhaps technophobia, tempered by a healthy dose of scepticism, isn’t a bad thing at all. (Contxt, Rs. 599)

Also read: Ranjan Adiga's ‘Leech & Other Stories’: The world in a grain of sand


Gripping stories that explore the aftermath of Bangladesh’s War of Independence

Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is a new star on the firmament of English writing from the subcontinent. His debut collection, The Hippo Girl and Other Stories, bristles with a primal energy, segueing into horrific scenes of cruelty and outbursts of uncontained violence.

Ashrafi follows an august line of writers, such as Selina Hossain or Akhtaruzzaman Elias, who have captured the devastations of Bangladesh’s liberation war, in prose and poetry as well as in English and Bengali. The uniqueness of these stories come not just from revisiting the ravages of the past but also from observing their lingering impact on the present. Hippos, stately but strange presences, are ubiquitous in the stories, which are linked only tenuously. These animals are hangovers from the colonial days, brought into the country by the British, now strewn around like relics. Their interactions with humans are fraught, at times erupt in violence, and these creatures also forge bonds with, and between, people.

Ashrafi’s stories hold up a mirror to Bangladesh’s present, where tensions of class, gender and ethnicity collide every day. The roots of these conflicts go back to ancient enmities built during the tumultuous days of the war. Some of the best stories in the volume centre on the lives of women and the youth of contemporary Bangladesh, each opening up new worlds of emotion. (Hachette, Rs. 399)

In the book, Raghavan explores the intersections among the lives and ideologies of towering figures like Asaf Ali, Sarojini Naidu, Syud Hossain, Syed Mahmud and Aruna Asaf Ali.
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In the book, Raghavan explores the intersections among the lives and ideologies of towering figures like Asaf Ali, Sarojini Naidu, Syud Hossain, Syed Mahmud and Aruna Asaf Ali.


A luminous account of friendships and differences that blossomed around the fight for independence

Biographies of historical figures, especially if they have made significant contributions for the greater good, are easy to write. There are archival and traditional sources galore to refer to, and it’s easier to create a focused narrative on a singular personality—even tempting to slide into hagiography. T.C.A. Raghavan eschews these short-cuts in Circles of Freedom: Friendship, Love and Loyalty in the Indian National Struggle. In the broadest sense, this book could have been a biography of Asaf Ali, activist, lawyer and the first Indian ambassador to the US, but Raghavan takes the complex, rewarding route of interweaving other lives into his narrative.

No one is an island, especially when it comes to driving revolutions, though history, especially Indian colonial history, is prone to creating cults of hero-worship. In contrast, Raghavan explores the intersections among the lives and ideologies of towering figures like Asaf Ali, Sarojini Naidu, Syud Hossain, Syed Mahmud and Aruna Asaf Ali. The result is a richly humane, informative and illuminating story of friendships forged, forsaken, and some recovered, during one of the most critical phases of India’s history. Written with a flair for storytelling, substantiated by solid historical research, Circles of Freedom is not only an unusual book but also an urgent read for our times, when inter-religious marriage and the public perception of Islamic culture remain simmering issues. (Juggernaut, Rs.799.)

Also read: The radical honesty of 'Sister Midnight'


A deeply reported narrative of the human costs of AI and emerging technology on modern societies

Madhumita Murgia’s Code Dependent: Living in the Shadow of AIisn’t just another book about the next big tech that Silicon Valley is incubating. It’s not about a dystopian takeover by the robots leading to a next-level War of the Worlds either. Rather, shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction 2024, this book is about the potential for humans to exploit other humans by exerting insidious control over their behaviour through technology. In one of the most arresting scenes, early in the book, Murgia goes to Kenya to report on AI as a driver of employment. Inside a building run by a tech service centre, she encounters rows of young men who spend their days training driverless cars to navigate obstacles. The magic that unfolds in Silicon Valley is enabled by agents stewing in dingy offices in Nairobi, working for a fraction of the salary that Silicon Valley tech executives earn.

As Murgia shows, the future is already here, where AI and other emerging technologies are making crucial decisions about healthcare, education and human rights affecting communities across the world. The weaker the community, the more closely its subsistence will be at the mercy of tech. It opens up a rabbit hole into the workings of cheap labour, individual and state surveillance, and much more that eludes our ordinary cognition. (Macmillan, Rs.699.)

Somak Ghoshal is a writer based in Delhi.

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