This is a book about the apocalypse, love, father-son conflict, ecology and the stars going out. Definitely one of the best science fiction novels written in recent times.

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson is a great science fiction novel and won the Hugo Award for Best Novel last year.

It is a story about friends growing up together as the world suddenly changes and the stars disappear. It turns out that the Earth is enclosed in a time warp so that time outside is moving much much faster than on Earth. But if time is moving so much faster, the Sun might become a red giant soon and everything (and everyone) on Earth would be dead; that’s the apocalyptic part. Then there’s conflict between a father and a son and a love story.

Overall, it has a very well fleshed out plot line and good character development.

It is definitely worth reading.

The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857

This is a great book about Bahadur Shah Zafar, Delhi and the events of 1857. It makes everything come alive. If you are interested in Indian history, it’s a must read.

The Last Mughal is about the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. It mainly covers the events of the Mutiny (or War of Independence) of 1857 as seen in Delhi.

The 1857 war of independence was basically a mutiny of Indian soldiers in the Bengal Army of East India Company. Almost all of the Bengal Army rebelled and a lot of them ended up in Delhi, nominally under the flag of the last Mughal emperor. Bahadur Shah Zafar wasn’t at all eager for the rebellion, but he did give them his blessing when the rebels came to Delhi. Interestingly, most of the soldiers were high caste Hindus from the eastern Hindi belt and not the so-called martial races of India (an idea which probably came later). The British retook India with the help of Punjabi Sikhs and Muslims, Pathans and Gurkhas etc. (here come the “martial races”) and then came the massacres and the hangings. Ironically, the British blamed Muslims for the rebellion when actually it had the support of both Muslims and Hindus.

William Dalrymple is a good writer and the book is a fun read. He creates an image of Delhi in 1857 in your mind and The Last Mughal is worth reading just for that.

For a more detailed and academic review, read Chapati Mystery where there is a great discussion in the comments too. And William Dalrymple replies to that discussion.

Dark Star

This is an interesting novel about espionage and history on the eve of World War II seen from the perspective of a Pravda journalist and spy.

Dark Star by Alan Furst is a great spy novel about a Soviet (Polish Jewish) journalist in Western Europe who gets involved in espionage.

Pravda foreign correspondent Andre Szara starts out by doing small spying tasks for the NKVD until his whole life is taken over by espionage. Then he gets involved in trying to save Jewish lives by trading some German information with the British.

It is a good spy and historical novel and a fun read. I enjoyed it very much.

Religion Explained

This is one of the best books I have read. It explains the origins of religious thought based on how our mind works. Highly recommended.

Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought by Pascal Boyer is a great book about a very interesting topic.

It is a book about why most humans are religious. Pascal Boyer takes an evolutionary and cognitive psychology approach to the problem. The discussion in this book about how our mind works was fascinating enough by itself. As a parent, I found the description of how children think and how their thoughts develop as they grow to be the most interesting parts of the book.

Overall, Pascal Boyer explains the development of religious thought in humans in an easily accessible way that a casual reader can understand as well. Therefore, I would recommend this book to everyone who is interested in religion and/or cognitive sciences. I must thank Razib for suggesting this book to me and making my thinking about religion so much more coherent.

Here is an article Why is Religion Natural? by Boyer that gives a flavor of the book.

Other interesting works on this topic are:

I must note here that religion being natural does not necessarily mean that religion is true.

The Third Chimpanzee

This is a good, though somewhat dated, book about the rise of Homo Sapiens. While eminently readable and full of interesting information, I found the focus on nuclear or environmental holocaust to be a hindrance.

The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal by Jared Diamond is an interesting book.

I found out about Jared Diamond when Captain Arrrgh lent me his Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies many moons ago. I loved that book. So I was expecting something great here too.

The Third Chimpanzee is about human history and how we developed the way we did. It talks about sexuality and sexual selection, language, art, agriculture, drugs, and conquest. In many ways it is a very similar book to Nick Wade’s Before the Dawn. In fact, I should have read The Third Chimpanzee first since it was written more than a dozen years ago.

The first half of the book is a good exposition of several human traits and accomplishments and efforts to trace their origin. However, late in the book, Jared Diamond turns pessimistic. As he says in the theme for the book:

How the human species changed, within a short time, from just another species of big mammal to a world conquerer; and how we acquired the capacity to reverse all that progress overnight.

This last part is what worries Diamond and what makes the book so pessimistic in tone as he discusses world conquest, genocide and the environment. His last chapter titled “The Second Cloud” is about what he terms the environmental holocaust and the epilogue is titled “Nothing Learned, and Everything Forgotten?”

While I share some of these concerns with Diamond, I am a technophile and somewhat of an optimist. Also, I think The Third Chimpanzee would have been a much better book without this focus on future catastrophes.

At Canaan’s Edge : America in the King Years, 1965-68

This is the last book on the trilogy about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement by Taylor Branch. The whole trilogy is a must-read.

At Canaan’s Edge is the last book in Taylor Branch’s trilogy about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. I read Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire some time ago.

At Canaan’s Edge covers the years the Voting rights movement in Selma, Alabama in 1965 to King’s assassination in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. It also covers the Vietnam War and the protests against it during that timeframe.

The book is very engrossing and the history of that era very turbulent. It starts on the high note of the passage of Voting Rights Act but then things become more difficult when Dr. King tries to work for the betterment of African Americans in the north. Also, the nonviolence of the times covered by the previous two books is overtaken here by riots all over the US.

Reading this whole series, I was amazed at the very human but still heroic people who made so much progress on the civil rights front in a decade. One can see how far they have gone but at the same time I could sense that there was still a lot left to be done and that was the difficult task of changing social attitudes.

Taylor Branch is a great author and he knits together a great history in this trilogy. Despite the length of these books, they never bore you. He is also good at presenting an unvarnished picture of the real world, where the heroes are flawed like regular human beings.

I would highly recommend the trilogy to anyone interested in United States history or the Civil Rights Movement.

Before the Dawn

This is a good book by Nick Wade which covers human prehistory as seen mostly from the study of genetics.

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors is a book about human prehistory by New York Times Science section reporter Nicholas Wade.

This book explores human history from the development of speech to agriculture and settlements. Its focus is mainly on genetic information.

I liked the book as it is full of lots of interesting information about human prehistory. As a science reporter, Nick Wade is also good at writing science stories and hence keeps it interesting and accessible for the layman.

If I have any issue with Before the Dawn, it is that it should be thought of more as a series of articles than a book with a continuous flow through the chapters. Also, at a few places, it felt like the author was describing some current research which might or might not pan out in the way it is described. However, that is always a trade-off in such a book, whether to focus on the state of the art (which might be rejected later on) or write only about widely accepted ideas (which reduces the appeal of the book).

Overall, it is a book worth reading if you are interested in discovering about humanity’s origins and development.