Good Books Lift You!

Good Books Lift You!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Review: The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life

The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life by Nick Lane
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book details important concepts around cell evolution addressing the most important question of all - how did complex life evolve? There are detailed discussions around why it is difficult, how it could have happened, what constraints had to be overcome and will life fare similarly in the rest of the universe. These are important questions and make for fascinating reading.

The material is obviously top-notch and also authoritative, and while it aims to be a book which everyone can read - it does not entirely achieve that goal - standing between being for serious scientists and the average reader. There are parts which are very detailed (almost as much as a biology textbook).

That said, it is an important book and provided me new insights about evolution in many areas. I had to read slowly and I reckon most average readers would need to do the same.

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Review: The Essential Jung: Selected Writings

The Essential Jung: Selected Writings The Essential Jung: Selected Writings by C.G. Jung
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you like Jung's theories on Collective Unconscious, Synchronicity and personality types you will like this book. He makes a genuine and good attempt at aligning religious and scientific thought.

This book is a collection of the most significant writings of Carl Jung with some introductory notes by Anthory Storr. This has turned out to be very satisfying read where all of Jung’s popular theories are discussed in detail in his own words.

There are descriptions of personality types – basic ones including intraverts and extraverts. There are further interesting descriptions on the properties of the soul/psyche. In the case of men, the soul has many properties one would consider feminine (since that is what is suppressed), while it is the reverse in women. Men inwardly feel while women inwardly reason – this he offers as a reason why men are driven to total hopelessness at times than women.

There are long and fascinating passages on the origin of evil. Another very good discussion item is on looking outward and inward - while there are many who look outward to seek God, there are others who see looking inward as a higher priority. A number of conceptual similarities and differences between Western and Eastern civilization is also discussed.

Expectedly, a good amount of space is devoted to his theories of the “Collective unconscious” and “Synchronicity” with examples from his life. While Freud’s diagnosis of personality (and also possibly Adler) is more simplistic, Jung’s approach takes a wide range of factors into play including personality, upbringing, surroundings, beliefs, etc.

Overall through much of his writing Jung seeks to establish a most needed link between religion and science. If Jung’s theories appeal to you, you will find this book to be a good read.

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Review: On Hitler's Mountain: Overcoming the Legacy of a Nazi Childhood

On Hitler's Mountain: Overcoming the Legacy of a Nazi Childhood On Hitler's Mountain: Overcoming the Legacy of a Nazi Childhood by Irmgard A. Hunt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book is an easy and natural read. It provides an honest view of one of the most painful periods in history. Irmgard does not over-analyse in the book on how the Nazi movement gained popular support, rather allowing the reader to form their opinions based on the events she describes. As I read through the book, I realize that this period in history still has lessons, not all of which has been learnt for good.

Irmgard Hunt was born in 1934, and hence was still in school during the war. The book starts with her describing her family starting from her grandparents. She describes her early childhood in good detail. It was the time when Hitler was at the height of his popularity. She has two younger sisters. As with most others, her parents were supporters as well. Her grandfather though was extremely critical and hated Hitler. Ironically he was a steadfast opponent most of his life, but briefly joined the Nazi party in 1944, a few months before the war ended since he was not getting any work (wood work) and thought this was the only way to avoid starvation.

As she grows up, Irmgard does what all others do - believe literally all that her teachers, parents, and others say. Those who have doubts are few (like her grandfather), and there is as she points out “the middle class curse of political passivity, fear of chaos, a wrongly placed trust in law and order”. National pride and patriotism, and the way they are understood by many do not help matters. Her family’s proudest moment during that time was when she sat on Hitler’s lap for a few seconds. With an organized program to tap into national pride, and systematically root out dissent, supporting the establishment was the popular mood.

The later part of the book describes the difficulties of the war leading to severe economic troubles with obtaining a full meal for the family being difficult. Her father serving in the armed forces dies. Germany loses the war and her area is occupied by American forces. This is followed by revelations of the full extent of the crimes of the Nazi regime during the Nuremberg trials. Though there are mentions of crimes by occupying forces (considered natural), there are also tales of friendly forces who help the locals recoup their lives. A sense of confusion and disquiet hits people who find that they now have to question the beliefs they held. Subsequently, Irmgard Hunt moves to the US, many years after the war ends. Irmgard Hunt visits Germany after many years to see a nation changed, and free thinking youngsters trying to understand the past that was.

During the course of the book you will find important questions speak from its pages. It is not Irmgard Hunt who provides text book answers to these however, leaving you with the need to understand and analyse yourself.

There is this good passage towards the end of the book. “Could the US ever become a dictatorship?” asks Irmgard’s mother. “Never”, she replies, and tries to explain why, “This is the oldest democracy there is. Even in bad times there are open and fair elections and orderly transitions to any new government.” Her mother wonders “If there were a bad economic downturn or perhaps a war with the Soviets, Americans too might accept a leader who promised to save them and the fatherland. We did not know how fast Hitler would change everything once he was chancellor. But he did.”

There is also a good quote in the back cover of the book, “Compelling. I came away with a deeply disquieting sense of how easy it is to be swept along on a popular mood….how quickly the monstrous can become normal.” – Marina Lewycka, author of ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’.

The book offers a good first person perspective, and yes – certainly makes you think, as good books do.

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Review: Joy in the Morning

Joy in the Morning Joy in the Morning by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a PG Wodehouse classic with absolutely crazy sub-plots and whacky dialogue! It is Bertie Wooster again with his enterprising butler Jeeves.

Bertie was once engaged to Florence Craye and she finds him at a bookshop holding her book. This causes her to be overjoyed and see Bertie in a good light again. Lord Percy looks to Jeeves for advise to conduct a business meeting in discretion. Jeeves proposes Bertie rent a cottage Wee Nook which is in close proximity to Bumleigh Hall where Florence and her father Lord Percy & his Aunt Agatha stay. Bertie lands up at Wee Nook hoping to earn to good name from Lord Percy. He also finds out that Florence is now engaged to Stilton Cheesewright who is not exactly happy after hearing of Bertie’s past engagement. There are also Nobby and Bertie’s friend George Fittleworth wanting to be married, in the mix of things, to add to the crowd of madness.

There are various crazy sub-plots to follow including one in which Bertie is to insult Lord Percy with Nobby to emerge as the saviour. Florence and Stilton quarrel, and she declares her intent to get engaged to Bertie again. There is a fancy dress party ball with lots of confusion, and then all sorts of mix-ups.

Joy in the morning is sure to deliver smiles and laughs at any time of the day! Among his best books!

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Review: We Need to Talk about Kelvin: What Everyday Things Tell Us about the Universe

We Need to Talk about Kelvin: What Everyday Things Tell Us about the Universe We Need to Talk about Kelvin: What Everyday Things Tell Us about the Universe by Marcus Chown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“We Need To Talk About Kelvin” has a unique storytelling approach to covering some of the deepest concepts of the universe. It starts with an everyday observation - taking it to its logical conclusion with step by step reasoning.

A very good example is the view from the window out into the street during the night. You can see into the lighted shop opposite the window; and you can also see your own reflection partially in the window. This leads to the discussion of the quantum theory of light. The unpredictability associated with the probability of reflection. There are then deeper discussions on quantum theory, atoms and the universe.

There is a very interesting discussion on why the night sky is black (Oblers paradox). In a universe with millions of stars, why do we not see a more lighted sky? Marcus Chown mentions that as many as over 90% of astronomers get the reasoning wrong for this. This relates to the observable universe, speed of light, the finite age of the universe and its expansion. The reasoning leading up to the conclusion is very good. There is an easy, fast paced and fun style of narration which keeps you hooked till you read all of it.

Another starting point for a discussion is the amount of iron we find on Earth, ultimately leading to the conclusion of where and how it was condensed on Earth from. The discussion on how the sun is as hot as it is, is also fascinating. There were various theories and considerable work done on this before an acceptable reasoning was arrived. The section dealing with spin of sub-atomic particles like photons is an engrossing read as well.

In fairly simple language the book certainly simulates interest, prompting you to read more about the universe! Well worth a read and recommended. Marcus Chown’s enthusiasm about discussing the universe will carry you through the book very quickly.

Interestingly the other book of Marcus Chown which I read The Universe Next Door is unique in detailing very different non-mainstream theories (some make the head swim) about the universe (all put forward by scientists!).

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Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review: Initiation

Initiation Initiation by Elisabeth Haich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After I read the summary and some of the reviews it came across as similar to some of Brian Weiss' books. Since I like Brian Weiss' books, went ahead and got this. Initiation, however, is a deeply spiritual book with vivid descriptions of a time in Egypt when values and consciousness ruled. The descriptions of the capabilities and fundamentals of the Sons of God is exceptional including the pyramids (the science and purpose), lions drawing chariots, the spiritual exercises, telekinesis, concentration, and the trials leading to Elisabeth Haich's Initiation.

“Initiation” starts with Elisabeth Haich’s early childhood. She was always spiritually inclined, often going into deep thought. She also had broken recollections in dreams which she over time came to recognize as events from a past life. She is also once seen practising yoga like poses though she has received no instruction. There is a fleeting description of one past life where after a series of misfortunes she ends up as a beggar – meeting on the streets the person who has brought her to this state. The initial pages of the book are slow and you wish it would move faster.

This wish is soon granted as she recalls vividly her past life as the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt, and the niece of the High Priest Ptahhotep. This point onwards the book has sequences, descriptions and concepts unlike any other book I have read. The framework of past life recollection is similar to Brian Weiss’ books, but the similarity ends there. This book is deeply spiritual with vivid recollections of a time in Egypt where wisdom ruled. There are descriptions of two kinds of people – Sons of God who are highly conscious and evolved, while the Sons of Men find joy in material things (the gender is mainly one of practice in those times and there are daughters as well). This is the time when the Sons of God hold power. Initiation takes the Sons of God to the highest level of consciousness, which are facilitated as a series of exercises by Ptahhotep.

Many of the incidents described are very detailed and the words instantly draw mental images. There are very interesting and detailed descriptions of the pyramids –why they were built, and what they stand for. In her current life, Elisabeth meets and now recognizes many of the people who were close to her in the past life in Egypt. She is also able to speak with the soul of Ptahhotep, once she is able to master the ability to reach higher levels of consciousness.

If spirituality as a genre interests you, Initiation is a must read!

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Review: The Elephant Whisperer

The Elephant Whisperer The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I chanced upon a reference to the book “The Elephant Whisperer” by Lawrence Anthony (with Graham Spence) while reading an article on the internet. I found the summary interesting and later got the book. It has been a very fascinating and highly recommended read.

The story is about Lawrence Anthony and his experience with a herd of wild elephants. Lawrence owns the Thula Thula game reserve in South Africa. He gets a call one day asking if he is interested in having a herd of wild elephants. These elephants are notorious in breaking away from their sanctuaries and have been so far unmanageable. If he declines, the elephants would be shot. Keen to save the elephants, he accepts to receive them.

In preparation for receiving the elephants, an electrified fence is erected including inspection by forest authorities. The day the elephants arrive, they break out from the fence at night. A search was launched, and they were brought back to the reserve sedated. They make another attempt to escape, but Lawrence comes in front of them, talking to them in a soft tone. The matriarch Nana then backed off from the fence with the rest of the herd following her.

The story from then on is how he gradually wins the trust of the herd. Once the matriarch Nana trusts him, the rest of the herd follows. Over time, the herd multiplies and grows to double the number. There are also challenges from poachers in the vicinity.

There are also stories of their extraordinary intuition. Every time Lawrence returned from a visit somewhere, the elephants used to visit his house to welcome him back without fail. There is also one instance where his return was delayed, and the elephants went back and returned at the exact time he came back! As the elephants settle into their habitat, Lawrence gradually reduces his contact with them, allowing them to be in the wild. They also are at peace and do not mind visitors to the game reserve watching them.

The Elephant Whisperer is a touching story of the amazing capabilities of elephants and the story of how humans can reach out to them. As you read the book, you are drawn to the identity and personality of each of the elephants. Lawrence notes that most of us are under the false belief that effective communication is the sole monopoly of humans. As also the belief that only we are capable of a wide range of emotions. Nothing is far from the truth. He also goes on to say how important preservation is, and not in cages. The best cage is an empty one!

Once I finished reading the book I searched the internet to see if there are more books by the author. I did find a couple and plan to read them including one on how he tries his best to save the animals in the Baghdad zoo during the gulf war.

I also found sadly that Lawrence expired of a heart attack in 2012. However read this and many other similar news items on the internet -> When Lawrence passed away, the elephants he rescued and nurtured came visting to his house to pay their last respects. They travelled several miles and came in two separate herds, and stayed there for two days solemnly in mourning. According to Anthony’s son, Dylan, both herds arrived at the Anthony family compound shortly after his death (their last visit was several months back).

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Review: Such a Long Journey

Such a Long Journey Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Such a Long Journey” is a story based in Mumbai around the time of war.

The main character is Gustad Noble, a temperamental family man with his wife Dilnavaz and three children. He is from the middle class and just about manages a decent living with his job. He has differences with his son Sohrab – he is totally disappointed he does not want to join the IIT despite getting through. Added to his problems are the poor health of his daughter Roshan, also causing Gustad’s wife to seek some psychic help in secrecy.

This is a colony of various colourful people who quarrel at times and yet lead a satisfying life. There is this interesting mentally challenged character Tehmul, Gustad has a soft corner for. Gustad has a close friend in Dinshawji at work, who has a wild temperament. There are stray political remarks made by the characters in the book (explaining the controversy surrounding the book).

A serious complication arises in the life of Gustad Noble when he receives a letter from Major Billimoria who earlier resided in the same colony and suddenly disappeared. What follows is a tale of political conspiracy with large sums of money involved.

The rich sketch of the book’s characters form the story line, and there is not much of a plot otherwise. For it’s colourful and many times eccentric characters, this book is well worth a read. I do wish Mistry had toned down the elaborate descriptions of the eating habits of the family.

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Review: Family Matters

Family Matters Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my second straight read of Rohinton Mistry after “Such a long journey”. The strength of his books is very clearly in the colourful build-up of the characters. They are so real that you start reading along, thinking how easily you could be in this situation yourself.

The story of Yezad, his wife Roxanna, their children, dependent father in law Nariman Vakeel, Nariman's step children Coomie and Jal. The book toggles between Nariman's life - the joys and pains, as also his having to marry someone other than the love of his life. There is a very tragic incident involving both his wife and love which is revealed much later in the book. At the present time, Nariman breaks his leg and ends up being bed ridden for a period. His step children Coomie and Jal struggle to take care of him, and he moves temporarily to his daughter Roxanna and family’s place.

As part of a lower middle class family, Yezad and Roxanna struggle to make ends meet, and with this the care required for Nariman falls on them.There are very touching incidents revealing what a very hard situation can do to good people. While Yezad toys with ways to somehow make some more money, the children feel obligated to chip in as well. As in “Such a long journey”, there are random musings by the characters in the story about Mumbai, its problems, the politics and everything else.

After periods of struggle, the characters settle to a kind of troubled peace where though financial worries subside to some extent, real peace of mind is still elusive.

Do not expect grand plots or twists. Instead though you will find real people and live their joy and sorrow, as you read. And for that - the book is certainly recommended.

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Review: The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The sense of an ending is a different kind of book and that is to it's credit. The story is recounted by Tony who is now a grandfather and his memory cannot be totally relied on. The story primarily revolves around a bunch of people who meet when Tony is in college - his friend Adrian, and his former girlfriend Veronica. After Tony breaks up with Veronica, she goes around with Adrian. Adrian later commits suicide. At the time of her death, Veronica's mother leaves Tony a sum of money and Adrian's diary in her will. Veronica holds the diary back from Tony. While Tony connects with Veronica to obtain Adrian's diary - he recollects & relives the past while he also stiches together the events in their lives since they stopped meeting long time back.

The book is interesting but I found it unsatisfying. It is left for you to speculate and tie up the ends. As such there is no right sequence (as the discussions at will indicate) since the narrator is declared unreliable and with the characters being sketchy - the motivation for the actions they undertake is unclear.

Leaving a story open to such wide speculation is no different in my mind to throwing a bunch of colours on a canvas and asking viewers to speculate what the resultant picture could be.....

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Review: Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam M. Grant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Adam Grant’s first book “Give and Take” was much talked about, and “Originals” was one of the most anticipated books of the year. It has a foreword by Sheryl Sandberg abstracting reasons on why the book should be read.

Originals is an easy read and quite meaningful as well. While it is backed by decent research, it is not preachy and rather has pointers with stories.

Let us say you visit a new and exotic place where you have never been before. The trip has been so fascinating and adventurous that you decide to tell stories of the visit to others – the location, the people, the events…..Well, that is the tone Adam Grant takes through most of the book. It is liberally sprinkled with interesting stories of organizations, people, research, and never gets into being preachy. This makes it an easy read and also the fact that it does introduce substantial amount of new material some of which is quite counter intuitive to popular perception.

Originals is about some of the principles fueling innovation. There are stories around a theme discussing how others went about what they did and how they were successful.

There are a few points which are counter-intuitive and hence make for interesting reading - the aspect of procrastination being good for creativity, first movers not really having a great advantage, aspects of parenting etc.

Where the book scores is in its message that originality need not be a preserve of a few. It can be cultivated with the right approach. Overall, a good read.

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Review: Doomsday Book

Doomsday Book Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Doomsday Book is different. The story is about Kivrin - an historian who goes to the past (14 th century) from the current (2054). An error in time travel lands her a few year later than intended - right at the time when plague is raging across Europe.

A kind family shelters her and she gets to be close to them including their two children. You read on to find the plague taking a deadly toll. While getting back preys on her mind, she is determined to do what she can - with the advantage of her knowledge from the future of that time.

Worth a read if you want to try something different, but be ready for very realistic depictions of one of the most difficult periods for humanity. There are sections of the book in the later part which are depressing. The characterizations are very good, and care has been taken to make the read feel very alive and authentic (including special attention to the language).

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Review: The Sialkot Saga

The Sialkot Saga The Sialkot Saga by Ashwin Sanghi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the story of Arvind and Arbaaz - both unscrupulous businessmen (though of different kinds). Their paths cross unwittingly and results in some hostility. There is a touch of Kane & Abel as their children fall in love with each other while studying in the US. There is an ancient treatment with origins in Sialkot which binds them, and it is left to their children to realize it.

In the some lives of Arvind and Arbaaz there are some incidents sprinkled here and there which have references to known political leaders of the BJP and Congress.

The background and flashes to the Sialkot secret is interesting and makes sense towards the end. The origins could probably have been dealt with in some more detail.

Overall a recommended read - the numerous incidents in the lives of Arvind and Arbaaz add pace to the book.

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Review: 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works by Dan Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the story of Dan Harris's self development. His need for thinking over how he was living his life was prompted by a few panic attacks on live television (he works with ABC Broadcasting). As he seeks medical help, he realizes what his habit of drug abuse and competitive lifestyle is doing to him. He next reads Eckhart Tolle's "A New Earth" and also meets him for an interview. While interested in what Eckhart Tolle tells him, he regards his views as incomplete with no techniques for being “here and now” which Tolle advocates. He next meets Deepak Chopra and finds him unimpressive as well. He is even more forthright in condemning "The Secret" film as being simplistic, incorrect and of little value. He goes on to dismiss most of the “Self Help” industry as hardly worth even a mention – primarily cooking up incomplete and ineffective theories and dishing them out to a gullible and desperate people.

He next reads the work of Dr Mark Epstein based on advice from his wife on Buddhist practices with focus on meditation which interests him. He meets Mark and over time their families become good friends. He goes on to a retreat which changes his outlook to life. He builds on the gains from the retreat incrementally – all the time reading more and introducing more aspects in his meditation practice. His meeting with the Dalai Lama is one such turning point where the Dalai Lama explains the concept of compassion for others – even on a purely selfish note you need to do good for others since it is very good for you ultimately!

As he makes significant progress in turning around his life, he still has many questions for which he often turns to Mark. One of these is the concern that turning to meditation might make him less competitive as it conjures up images of monks and robed people who seem to be removed from the real world. Over time he realizes that none of this is a call to give up right and appropriate action. As he brings in the principles of compassion with meditation in his life, he finds his relationships as well his work situation getting a lot better.

Associated with ABC, he takes the lead in researching and broadcasting stories on Mindfulness. During the course of his research, he finds that a large number of leading corporates have already incorporated Mindfulness training as part of their employee development initiatives. While they have branded their programs separately with a secularized program without the need for religious chanting, the basic principles remain the same. There is now a large body of research indicating that such practices actually rewire the brain with major benefits.

This is a book which is unpretentious and very conversational. I loved reading it and can relate to it based on personal experiences as well. However, his being dismissive of Tolle and Deepak Chopra does not feel right especially based on his limited interaction. In fact while he read Tolle's book, he reads nothing of Deepak Chopra, instead basing his opinion on his reading of his personality and commercial success. As he points out in the book, he is wrong on numerous occasions on his analysis of people. There is also inadequate material on alternative meditation techniques and experiences of others besides himself though he alludes to it in the afterword (including practices derived from Hinduism). That said, his overall conclusions ring true and he is certainly right about most of the literature we regard as “Self Help”.

In today's age, this is an excellent book to read. It brings to the mainstream questions and issues most working people have – the search for purpose, stress, and relationships. It also brings to the fore another important point – the wisdom of the ages dismissed by the waves of modernity, and deserving another look. You may just find that the secret to a right life was known long ago – hidden away in classics and practices which nobody bothers to look at any more. 

He discusses the problems in making such practices mainstream. In fact when he first tells people he has taken up meditation they look at him strangely. This is because such practices with origins in Eastern philosophies are associated with either robed monks or hippies. He decides a better way is to say that he has started a practice which has made him 10% happier. 

Overall, a book I strongly recommend you read. If it helps you seek a practice of your own, you might just find that it could certainly make you more than 10% happier.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review: The Devil You Know

The Devil You Know The Devil You Know by Louise Bagshawe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A brutal crime fuelled by greed sees two parents killed, but their triplets (girls) survive quite by chance and luck helped a little by the dying mother. The criminal ensures they are separated and the crime is camouflaged as an accident.

While Rose Fiorello and Poppy Allen grow up in Australia, Daisy Markham grows up in London. Their interests are different – but the zeal to succeed in their respective professional areas is common to them.

Rose Fiorello enters the real estate business, and is also driven by a hatred for Rothstein Realty. She quickly finds the right contacts, and her imagination and foresight ensures she is successful very quickly.

Poppy Allen wants to be a rock star, but later realizes she is better off managing bands. After some time she launches her own management firm.

Daisy Markham has her insecurities, but finds her niche in writing novels, becoming a bestselling author.

All three are very successful, and all of them find love. It is quite by chance that they meet, and as it turns out, they have strikingly similar looks. A desire to dig into the past seizes them.

The book does very well in establishing the personalities of Rose, Poppy and Daisy. A large part of the book deals with how they become successful and is interesting reading, though a little too long. The section devoted to covering how the three go about tracing their past is accorded very little space towards the end of the book and could have been much better.

Overall, certainly a recommended read.

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