3 Travel Books to read in 2020

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Travel is the one thing that has come to a standstill in this pandemic. Most of us aren’t going anywhere, anytime soon and we will have to appease our wanderlust in other ways. The thing about travel books is that they can take you places, without ever leaving the comfort of your armchair.

There are 195 countries in the world, and it’s a sobering thought to realise that you may never even visit half of them. Sometimes, reading a good travel book can be as cathartic as the journey itself and almost as fulfilling. Moreover, even if you are travelling in the near future, the more you know about a place, the better you can understand its people and culture.

Here are three of my favourite travel books that fed my wanderlust and took me on a transformative journey.

# 1 Wild Horses of the Summer Sun

If you’re wondering why the book isn’t named, “Wild Horses of the Midnight Sun”, you wouldn’t be the only one. In her book, Tory Bilski invokes a sense of nostalgia for what is gone, but lingers on, because it was so impactful. Bilski is in her early 40s when she begins traveling to a horse farm in the north of Iceland, every summer, with a group of women. They are a motley mix of personalities that make for a good story. What begins as a road trip through Iceland with unknown women, becomes the start of an annual tradition, with the women coming back every June to ride horses together. In her words, “These were our tales, these were the times, these were the women, and this was the place.”

The trip affords an opportunity for Bilski to let go of daily stresses and bond with the wild horses under the midnight sun. Not every trip is perfect. Some are affected by the climate, others by conflict. But, she always looks forward to the trip. While the book is chock-full of captivating lore about Iceland, its people, history and horses, it is also a lyrical read. Her prosaic observations of others and modest tone draw you in and absorb you completely. While the love of horses occupies prime position, the book is about the renewal of spirit and the awakening of soul. Even if you’re not fascinated by horses and riding, it is still a lovely read. Like Bilsky writes, “At some point, you lose whatever it is that makes your heart beat wild. It doesn’t have to be a horse, or a particular country, but we all need our Iceland thing.” I sure do. And, possibly so do you.

#2 Hidden Places

If you’re less of a reading person and more of a visual one, this one may be for you. Hidden Places by Sarah Baxter is a tangle of words and illustrations. While only 25 places are showcased, they do justice to the book’s title in terms of both seclusion and appeal. She transports you to distant places, that you’ve probably never even heard of. Some of these are destinations are only accessible on foot; right from the safari in Kenya and the forested remains of the Mayan civilisation, to the phantom of Germany’s black forest.

The book isn’t just a collection of hidden places. It’s fraught with story-telling and gives you some food for thought. Why do we travel and explore? Why do we seek out new vistas and fresh challenges? The book inspires to scope out unusual places, rather than check off regular places on your bucket list. It is definitely for the intrepid traveller, looking to discover your own secret valleys, forgotten cities or deserted settlements. Or the ones in the book.

# The Lost Pianos of Siberia

There is something about Siberia. And journalist, Sophy Roberts captures it perfectly in The Lost Pianos of Siberia. The book belongs to the quest-travel genre and Roberts takes you along for the ride. In her quest for a piano, Roberts traverses through sealed walls, passes through snowscapes, ventures into deep forests and barges into lives and recollections. There are anecdotes of history, tied in with the memories of pianos and the people she encounters.

Rather than history, the book reads like an interesting series of chats with a guide that’s both gossipy and informative. Several times, she makes references to how you begin pursuing one thing, only to discover something completely different. While the book is hinged on the quest for a piano, it is more about Siberia; its snow, ice, tigers, the inhabitants and prisoners of the land. The photographs are simply breath-taking and there is definitely something immersive about her style. The thrill of her journey animates the book and it’s tough not to be allured by her infectious glee and excitement. The musicality of her words definitely matches up to the musicality of Siberia. Even if you don’t really care about pianos, this book will sing to you in all the ways that matter.

Jack Daniel’s : How the Brand progressed without changing

It takes space in bars, both, top-of-the-line and rudimentary. It’s a favourite among civilians and celebrities alike. You can toss it on-the-rocks or in a cocktail. Jack Daniel’s is now a household name, but this hasn’t always been the case. How well do you really know Jack? And, how has a brand that has remained true to its roots, found itself all over the world? More importantly, how has it managed to march ahead while staying grounded?

It has got Character

Jack Daniel’s, the whisky, is inseparable from the singular character of Jack Daniel, the man. While Jack may have been only 5 feet 2 inches tall, his personality far outsized his height. And it was this lofty personality that was dedicated to produce whisky which he took pride in selling and drinking. Only the most premium quality whiskey would do- at a premium price.

Everything about Jack Daniel’s and its back story had character- The founder, the formula and the fact that the recipe hasn’t changed over the last hundred years and counting. Even the square shaped bottle design has remained the same, barring some minor tweaks. In the words of Laszlo Ravasz marketing director at Brown-Forman, “Why change what you believe to be the best?”

Shortage

Sales had increased so much that the distillery had reached its full production capacity. Supply overruled demand, which meant that Jack Daniel’s was sold only on allocation basis from the mid-50s to the mid- 70s. The scarcity in availability further drove up consumer’s demand for the brand. In fact, the brand didn’t stop advertising. It went on telling people what they couldn’t have, which raised the value perspective of the brand.

Its Connection with Music

The history of Jack Daniels is woven with music, right from the founder himself. He realised that music drew people together and in the 1890s, Jack formed a small town band with members from the community and called it the “Silver Coronet Band.”

Frank Sinatra was so enamoured with the brand that he called it “nectar of the Gods.” Sinatra would carry a bottle on all his foreign tours and take a sip before every concert. When he passed away, he was even buried with a bottle of Jack Daniels. Such was his love for the brand. Bruce Springsteen once wrote mentioning that he shared some Jack Daniels with Sinatra.

Musicians right from Jimmy Page, Keith Richards and Slash to Mick Jagger and Tom Petty have been photographed drinking Jack Daniels. Music is a big part of Jack’s DNA and is now tied in with the company’s marketing plans through sponsorship of music festivals and events.

Its Advertising Campaigns

Jack Daniel’s advertising campaigns have always been unique. Its longest running advertising campaign is ‘Postcards from Lynchburg’. It was first published in 1954 in Time magazine and then ran for four decades. It still appears in one place : The London Underground. The visuals comprise a black-and-white photo with copy about Jack Daniel’s, the founder, and the folks from the little town of Lynchburg, Tennessee, where the whiskey is produced. The creative director was Art Hancock, who was 27 years old at the time. Hancock, who was so smitten with the brand and Lynchburg, Tennessee stated, ‘We’re not selling a bottle of booze, we’re selling a place.’

The folksy appeal of the ‘Postcards from Lynchburg’ campaign made the campaign a runaway success. While Americans were dressing in suits, going to work in offices and taking the train, they still had a yearning for the outdoors, for a sense of community, for something that had authenticity. Here was a story that they could buy into. It was typically a tale of blue-collared workers in a small town, told to white-collared workers in a city. It was a brand built on the foundation of storytelling, authenticity and heritage.

The brand made a conscious decision to stay away from typical lifestyle advertising featuring colour photographs of men in a dinner jacket holding a glass of whiskey. In 1989, a New York Times article wrote, “Its advertising strategy will be 35 years old in October, and the latest black-and-white ad for the Tennessee whisky is not a whit different from the approach of the first one in 1954.’

Pricing Decision

Jack Daniel’s has always been priced at a premium. David Ogilvy also noted, “the high price makes me assume that Jack Daniels must be superior.’ This was by intention. Art Hancock was strict about avoiding discounts. Instead, the brand concentrated on developing some of the best advertising campaigns in the world.

While the brand has embraced music activations, events and digital media platforms, its storytelling has remained unchanged for the last century and a half. Jack Daniels values its customers and regards them as friends. And relationships, just like Jack Daniels, get more refined with time; even though they may stay just the same.

Voice from the Stone – Movie Review

The Synopsis

Verena (Emilia Clarke) is a youthful medical caretaker employed to support a mute young boy (Edward Dring) inside a confined castle in Tuscany. The more she watches the kid, the more Verena becomes persuaded that he has fallen under the influence of a powerful and supernatural entity caught within the estate’s walls, one that is by all accounts quickly lacing with her own life.

The Plot

Following the demise of his mother, Malvina, nine-year-old Jakob anticipates the appearance of another woman who, as indicated by the family’s legend, will fill in as his new maternal figure. After Jakob goes seven months without expressing a word, Verena, a nurse with impeccable credentials shows up at the family’s Tuscan manor to enable him to adapt to his grief. It appears that Jakob believes that his mother speaks to him through the stone walls. Verena devises various ways to demonstrate to him that the voice he hears is only in his mind.

The movie is reminiscent of classics like “Rebecca” and “The Turn of the Shrew.” It is set in the 50’s era and the mist, falling leaves, shadowy sepulcher and decaying statues create a visual spectacle of foreboding.

With no-nonsense clothes and an annoying smirk, Verena is depicted as a prim and proper nurse who is confident of her ability to help ailing children. Jakob hasn’t spoken ever since his mother passed away from a mysterious fever seven months ago. Verena initially fails to engage him and he keeps straying away from her. He runs off into the woods, ventures high up into the castle or perches himself atop tree tops. In between these games of hide-and-seek, Verena begins to believe that Jakob can indeed hear his mother through the walls.

Jakob’s father, Klaus, seems to have issues of his own. He is a sculptor and his cold behavior and steely visage doesn’t make things easy. I felt like you could only get a hint of his character and it wasn’t developed enough to be interesting. The focus was mainly on Verena. His appearances in the first half are mainly to express a mild concern for Jakob or to relate how living cats were once cemented inside the mansion’s walls. Verena also stumbles upon Lilia, a mature grey haired woman, dressed in black, who makes her feel welcome, while recounting some of the family’s history.

Meanwhile, Malvina’s (Jakob’s mother) enduring presence – in her pictures, clothes and piano- begin to make an impression on Verena. It’s only a matter of time before she begins dressing in Malvina’s clothes, poses for Klaus and develops a sexual attraction for him, that appears to be mutual. The only problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any romantic tension or sexual chemistry between them before this. While it doesn’t look forced, it does come as something of a surprise. You never quite know whether Klaus sees her as an extension of his wife, or as Verena, herself. Verena, on the other hand, seems quite willing to take up the space left by his dead wife, both as Klaus’ partner and Jakob’s guardian.

The best aspect about the movie is the evocative ambience created through impeccable cinematography. The picturesque castle and its vicinity swim with a ghostly atmosphere- from its running waters, to its high turrets and the stone-grey family crypt.

The ending doesn’t come to boiling point, as it could have done. It merely simmers on slow burn as you realize the whole movie right up until the end has done much of the same.

My Honest Opinion

The movie was better than I expected it to be, and Emilia Clarke’s performance as Verena is thoughtful and convincing. She goes from a demure nanny to ravishing woman quite persuasively. Klaus as the father doesn’t have much of a role and as such is not as compelling. Jakob is silent for all of the movie but does make an impact with his obstinate demeanor. Lillia’s character invokes a lot of curiosity and I felt as an actress, she was the most competent of the lot.

The story isn’t all that original, but does keep you guessing. The star of the movie is the chilly visuals that envelop the castle and its environs. While the build-up seems labored, there’s always the sense that it is propelling towards a climactic end. However, that doesn’t happen. Instead it slow-waltzes to a final scene, that is as open to interpretation as the whole movie itself. Does Emilia Clarke have mental health issues? Is this just a story of two people finding comfort in one another? Are the supernatural happenings a figment of their imaginations? This is one movie where the answers will possibly throw up even more questions.

Murder Mystery- Movie Review

The Summary

NYC cop (Adam Sandler) finally takes his wife (Jennifer Aniston) on a long awaited trip to Europe. It is their fifteenth wedding anniversary. A fortuitous meeting on the flight gets them on a luxury yacht belonging to an extremely wealthy and old person Malcolm Quince. They are the only strangers amidst family members. The old man is murdered just before he attempts to change his will. They become prime suspects and attempt to clear their names by solving the mystery.

The Review

The bar isn’t very high, but this Adam Sandler starrer is possibly one of his better movies. He reunites with Jennifer Anniston, his co-star in Just Go With it. They have an easy-going, light chemistry that is believable and entertaining at the same time. This is a feel-good movie, even though both the mystery and comedy are passable. And, hardly anyone is complaining.

The thing is Murder Mystery seems to know exactly from the get-go just how frivolous it is, and is happy about it anyway. As Nick (Adam) and Audrey (Jennifer) Spitz- he’s a cop, she’s a hairdresser. On the flight, Audrey sneaks into first class and meets Cavendish, a viscount who quite spontaneously invites them to join him on the family’s luxury yacht owned by his tetchy old billionaire uncle Malcolm Quince.

On the boat, they are introduced to a motley group of potential suspects : an actress, a one-eyed colonel, a Russian guard, a race-car driver, a Maharajah, Malcolm’s son and his much-younger new bride. After Malcolm Quince is murdered, other guests begin dropping like flies. While Audrey is quite thrilled that the trip is turning out to be like one of her favorite mystery novels, Nick just wants to unwind and stick his face into some shrimp treats.

Unfortunately, they are soon regarded as prime suspects by Inspector de la Croix, the chain-smoking French policeman. They set out to clear their names and solve the mystery by seeking out the real murderer.

What keeps Murder Mystery from going under, is the fun factor. And there’s no dearth of that in the film. You have the couple negotiating a perilous ledge outside their hotel and then hiding under a bed during a romantic encounter. There’s Sandler’s goofy humor and one-liners, and Anniston’s perky rejoinders and keen interest in the case.

Murder Mystery feels like a game of Cluedo, with an intimate gathering, a parlor setting, a weapon and a murder to be solved. Any movie titled “Murder Mystery” will clearly strike a chord with Christie fans. As such, the movie ends with an explicit ode to Agatha Christie.

My Honest Opinion

I’m not a big fan of Adam Sandler. So, though the trailer and the title intrigued me, I was still skeptical. But in this movie, he seems to have grown out of his man-child persona and is completely relatable as a middle-aged husband, trying to make the most of his vacation. Aniston of course, takes the movie up several notches with a bright and spright performance.

The disappointment comes in the form of supporting actors who seem overly theatric and animated. The Maharajah’s performance in particular was an embarrassment and quite frankly, grated on my nerves. After the first few minutes of his introduction, I was kind of hoping he would be the first to drop dead.

Overall, Murder Mystery was an entertaining watch. It’s fun enough that you don’t even care too much about the big reveal at the end. Its mild comedy, partial suspense and likeable leads, will not grab you by the eye-balls but may hold your attention enough to keep you smiling until the end.

Say it with Words: Why the Right words count in Advertising

Nobody reads words anymore. How many times have you heard that? From clients to art directors who look at text like the wicked witch from the West. But, you need to factor in three basic truths. We somehow have a lot less time these days. Our attention span is even shorter. And copywriters sometimes simply don’t have the discipline to keep copy short and direct.

That said, words matter. Words tell your brand’s story. They fortify the connection between your brand and the consumer. And lastly, they tell your customers what they need to know.

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Remember the story of the blind man and the copywriter. An old man was sitting at a busy street during peak time, begging for money with a tin cup. He had a cardboard sign that said, “Blind- Please help.” But people passed by and he wasn’t getting any money. A copywriter saw his sign, walked up to him, turned the cardboard sheet over, and re-wrote the sign. Things changed almost immediately. People began dropping in money, and soon the cup was overflowing. The old man was baffled and finally asked a stranger what was written on the sign. The sign said, “It’s a beautiful day. You can see it. I can’t. “

Lines may seem dispensable. But as the story illustrates, they have the power to change consumer behavior. Copy and slogans in particular are infamously tough to write. The challenge is to convey the most about the product with the least number of words. The skill is in the economy, making every word count.

Take the case of Nike : Wieden + Kennedy was roped in to execute Nike’s very first television campaign. They were looking for a tagline that would target people interested in all kinds of sport.

Dan Wieden, the founder, found inspiration from the most implausible of circumstances. “Let’s do it” were the final words uttered by murderer Gary Gilmore to the firing squad before he was executed. Both Nike and the agency were not happy with it initially, but athletes and even casual wearers were deeply engaged and inspired. Nike then incorporated it as part of its global branding. As a statement, “Just do it” represents the sports brand perfectly. It is forceful, powerful and as lean and mean as the athletes that appear in its ads.

Apple’s “Think Different” marked a change in many ways for Apple. When Steve Jobs, returned to the company in 1996, the company was in trouble and there were rumors that it was on its last legs. While Jobs was waiting to release a new stream of products, he also wanted a campaign that would remind people why the brand was still great.

Though the genesis of the slogan remains questionable, it is widely regarded that Craig Tanimoto, an art director at TBWAChiat Day came up with the line, “Think Different” as an antithesis to IBM’s “ThinkIBM.” Thus, some taglines are to be looked at in relativity, instead of independently and provoke emotional rather than rational decisions.

Think Different played a significant role in unifying customers, staff and stakeholders when the company was going through a very tough time. It restated the aspirational value of the brand. More importantly, it showed that Apple had its mojo back with Jobs back in control.

When choosing to craft copy or slogans, language also matters immensely. What is the language that people think in? The association between language and emotions should also be considered. French is the language of love. Italian is the language of music. Adapting a tagline in a foreign language may seem like suicide but it worked famously for Audi, when the brand launched a UK ad campaign in the early 80s.

The words “Vorsprung Durch Technik” were chosen by John Hegarty, BBH founder and creative director. He had seen it on an old piece of publicity when he took a tour of the Audi factory in Germany. The idea was to hammer Audi’s heritage as a German brand, with an association of precision and engineering. In spite of contradictory opinions thrown up by research, the slogan was successful almost immediately. People came in to dealers asking to see ‘that vorsprung.’ When Boris Becker was losing Wimbledon, the media would say ‘Boris needs a bit more vorsprung.’ So it became a part of the language people were using.

The interesting thing is that people never knew exactly what it meant. They tried guessing. According to Hegarty, there isn’t actually a word for ‘vorsprung’ in English. Its literal meaning is ‘leaping ahead with technology.’ People sort of got ‘vorsprung’ which sounded like spring and it was easy to guess that ‘technik’ was technology. What mattered was it was German, which people regarded as a hugely positive quality for a car brand.

There are many different mediums to a campaign : print, television, outdoor, electronic. But what is the common thread that runs through it all? You can wax eloquent about style, consistency in colors, fonts, layouts and backgrounds. But this appeals to only one sense : the visual sense. But what people truly relate to is the emotional sense. And that can be achieved only by using the right words.

If your brand or your client’s brand hasn’t found its voice yet, it could be because its words are still muffled pieces of ambiguity. In the words of Rudyard Kipling, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” Choose yours wisely.

Fisherman’s Wharf- Cavelossim Goa – Restaurant Review

Fisherman’s Wharf, South Goa

On one of the drizzly days this August, thoughts turned to some good Goan cuisine and fresh seafood. It’s been a while since I’ve ventured outdoors while the pandemic rages on. But there’s only so long you can stay inside. So, with a silent prayer and fingers crossed, we made our way to Fisherman’s Wharf, Cavelossim, South Goa.

This is our first restaurant in more than three months. We’ve been here twice before and both times were amazing. The weight of expectation can be a horrible thing. And ours were high.

With most restaurants shut and erratic these days, I called to check if the restaurant was open, and was pleasantly surprised to hear that it was.

If you’re located in any place but South Goa, the restaurant is a little far and away, but well worth the drive.

We parked and entered, to witness a full service staff well-masked, an automated sanitiser and a footfall that was obliterated. It was just as well, because we were hoping for some peace and quiet.

As far as the view and ambience goes, Fisherman’s Wharf trumps them all, with its riverside seating, gentle breezes and a quiet lull that can be felt more in the afternoon than in the night. We’ve been to this place pre-lockdown and the nightly ambience is a little more pulsing and upbeat.

There’s an appealing brick-lined moodiness, the air scented with the lake, and the seats positioned to overlook some trawlers in the distance. So far, so lovely. There isn’t enough time to wax lyrical about the ambience or I could go on for days.

You’re instantly reminded of the current times we live in, when you see QR code based menus. And of course, that’s the safest thing these days. A quick scan of the menu gave us a hint of all the lovely dishes we’ve had in the past including Devil prawns- prawns wrapped in bacon and Goan fried chicken-diced chicken pieces fried in house-special Goan masala. +

Our choice – Chicken Cafreal and Rawa fried prawns. This is all about the pleasures of letting good ingredients talk for themselves. Nothing much could distract us from sinking our teeth into the juicy chicken cafreal : simple almost primal pleasure. A pedestrian Goan dish made genius : bracing and tasteful at the same time.

The poie bread was gorgeous – they had only two and boy, were we lucky?

The Rawa fried prawns with sauce, were a sight for sore eyes, fried into plump-crispiness, delicately salty and served with a side of recheado tasting house spice. Utterly simple, completely sumptuous.

There was only one disappointment. The restaurant doesn’t serve drinks at this time on account of government regulations. But enterprising diners that we are, we found a wine store in the vicinity and were soon up to our eyes in a Sula red slurping it down like pop.

The service and staff were extremely gracious and thankfully safe and cautious. The little details haven’t been overlooked that send you on your way smothered in smiles. They even let us ramble onto the gorgeous open deck that has breath-taking views of the river, mangroves and the mountains in the distance.

It was strange. It was such a leisurely afternoon, yet we felt time couldn’t have ticked along faster. And somewhat surprisingly, the place measured up grandly to our previous visits.

Never have we trudged so warily to a destination during this pandemic, only to exit so starry-eyed and blissful. No wonder it continues to be one of Goa’s most lusted spots. Not to mention its most romantic. And for a short while, everything seemed to be sane in this otherwise crazy time.

Why everyone is obsessed with Music in Advertising

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One thing is certain. One component that’s worth its weight in gold when it comes to advertising is the music. Music is emotion in the form of sound. The right piece of music can carry the ad or magnify its impact. So, just how important is it?

Brands are created out of stories. Brands commence with the product or the service but how people perceive and resonate with them are constructed out of stories : their source, who the owners are, the mission and vision. And these can be communicated in plenty of ways. A film is one medium and of course, soundtrack occupies prime importance. So, music becomes incredibly impactful when it’s an element of the message that helps build the brand.

It doesn’t change the narrative of the ad, but it could change its meaning. Music is a sheer emotional medium. It probably has little meaning, save for the emotional response it invokes. A story on the other hand has to make sense and have a structure. In music, the tune has a connect to your heart and its something you feel at a deeper level.

As James Stephens says, “what the heart feels today the head will know tomorrow”. Simply put, we imbibe information through the heart- and that’s right where music pierces us. That’s why it’s so compelling.

Brands have successfully used music to drive messages and inspire a change in consumer behavior. Take for instance the “Da Da Ding” campaign by Nike. In July 2016, Weiden and Kennedy kicked off its Nike Just Do It campaign, not with a commercial but with a music- video- turned- cult- favourite Da Da Ding, set in India. Directed by French director Francois Rousselet and set to upbeat music by Gener8ion, featuring American rapper Gizzle, it is a celebration of India’s female athletes across football, running, training, basketball and cricket.

The reason why Da Da Ding worked so well, was because there was already a story : a clarion call to women to pursue their sporty dreams. But more importantly, the story had a rhythm to it. And the music captured that rhythm and enhanced it.

Another commercial that was immensely successful was the the Levi’s® “Circles” ad released in 2017. Named by YouTube as one of the ten most watched ads of 2017, it was set to the song “Makeba” by artist Jain. The enticing pop beat and African rhythms accentuated by sprightly vocals, was so catchy, that it remained the top Shazamed ad for many weeks running in the UK.

Levi’s® has always been a brand that celebrates unity, and with “Circles”, it sent out a message of inclusivity and diversity through dance that traverses countries and cultures. The thing is Levi’s® is a trendsetter. Whatever song it uses, becomes stylish. The brand has always invested in music and used it as an advantage to make style statements.

Many times it’s hard to get a client to invest in music for the ad spot. It’s because most of them view communication as a science more than art. They are of the opinion that there should be a specific formula that would guarantee results. And you can tell them that based on your experience, it would work but you can’t give them ROI figures in advances. So, even if the track is likely to be a hit, it is certainly not a soft sell where a lot of clients are concerned.

So, how important is music to brands? While I’d like to say that it’s the most important thing, this may not be the relevant answer. There’s a danger in developing an identifiable sonic identity. Simply because, there is a clash between identifying the brand and being surprised by it. For instance, the Coca Cola mnemonic is recognizable but some would say it suffers from a lack of surprise value.

So, how do brands look at a piece of music and know that it will be magic? It needs to answer two questions : Is it the right culture fit? and Is it daring enough? The piece has to tap into people’s culture, how they live and behave. And it should say something, original and novel, something unexpected. Like Johnny Depp said, “Music touches us emotionally, where words alone can’t.” If done in the right spirit, music can possibly add magic to brands more than all the words in the world.

3 Thriller Books to read in 2020

Sometimes you want to escape into a romantic novel and at others, you want to lose yourself in an edge-of-the-seat thriller or whodunit. I love reading psychological thrillers, where complicated characters, altering perspectives and high drama plots keep you riveted until the end.

Fortunately, there are so many thriller books making their way onto the bestseller list, right from classic deception stories to family drama and supernatural twists, that we’re now spoiled for choice. So, if you’re looking for a dark tale to possess your imagination, you may want to check out three of my favorites this year.

#1. Girl in the Rearview Mirror

With twists and turns all through, Kelsey Rae Dimberg’s debut novel is a mix of power, politics and privilege. Philip and Marina Martin are a well-respected couple with a four year old daughter Amabel. Finn is recruited as a nanny to care for Amabel and is quite taken with the family and the wealthy house. She dotes on little Amabel. Philip is the son of a Senator and is viewed as the next candidate for a Senate seat. However, behind the respectable family public image, lurk dark secrets. Philip and Marina have them. And Finn has some of her own. But secrets don’t stay concealed for long. When a strange woman approaches Finn claiming she needs to talk to Philip, it takes Finn down a rabbit-hole of tragedy, a death and long buried secrets. She begins to investigate, pokes at doors that are best left shut, and puts her life in danger.

The author resorts to bread-crumbing to keep the reader engrossed until the last page. And it works pretty well. I couldn’t stop turning the pages. The book is a fast-paced read and everything comes together in the last few pages. The ending comes as a surprise but all-in-all a great book for psychological thriller junkies like me.

#2 The Curator

The Curator is the third book in the amazing Washington Poe series from M. W. Craven. It’s Christmas and when a woman opens a Secret Santa gift in her office, the last thing she’s expecting is severed fingers to fall out. Meanwhile, severed fingers turn up elsewhere: in front of a Cumbrian church and on a meat counter in a food hall. A division of the National Crime Agency is asked to investigate and they dispatch a team comprising  DI Stephanie Flynn, DS Washington Poe and civilian analyst Tilly Bradshaw. It appears to be a serial killer at play and he leaves a cryptic message at each crime scene, which baffles the investigators. They attempt to find a connection between the three crimes, but all they find are differences. Another twist comes through an FBI agent who is obsessed with a killer called the Curator.

I loved the book for many reasons. One of them being the dynamic between the three investigators, Flynn, Poe and Bradshaw. It’s respectful and supportive, and was refreshing in that it didn’t use the internal conflict angle to push the plot forward. As the investigation picks up pace, the twists and turns come in quick with an online dare slant. The author also utilizes the beauty of the Lake and Sharps area to draw in readers. The finale was definitely nail-biting and there is also a fair dose of action on the sands of Morecombe Bay and its islands. If crime thrillers are your thing, then The Curator is the one for you.

#3 Three Perfect Liars

Laura returns to work at Morris and Wood after her maternity leave, but the woman, Mia, who was hired as her substitute isn’t planning on going anywhere. On the contrary, she endeavors to make herself indispensable to all at work, except Laura. Laura feels blindsided as she attempts to balance work and life with a newborn. Mia has her secrets and if people knew why she was so keen to hold on to the job, they wouldn’t want her to stay. On the other hand, there’s Janie, who gave up everything to support her husband and his agency. She has her own secret to protect and will do just about anything to keep it concealed. Then, someone sets fire to the Morris and Wood building. But Who?

The story is unique, had a flow to it and hooked me from the start. With excellent writing and relatable characters, the format of the story draws you in competently. In the weeks leading up to the fire, there are chapters that present the three women’s viewpoints, helping you identify with their characters and emotions. The present day detective interviews are interspersed with these chapters making for a more intriguing read. Three Perfect Liars was downright engrossing, a slow-burn story and quite stimulating. While the ending may not be everybody’s cup of tea, the prose and the plot itself is immersing enough to keep you going till the end.

La la Land : A Romantic movie for the Unromantic

What does romance mean to you? Is it a relationship that comes full circle, closes the loop and ends up as a happily-ever-after? Is it unrequited love? Is it an affair where love never ends, but lives on even after the relationship has ended? If you’re sick of the regular romantic movies, where a happy ending is precluded at the start of the movie, then La La Land may be just that breath of fresh air you need to inhale.

The movie is a visual spectacle and a musical escape. The stars shine brighter than those in the sky. The songs are melodious and haunting. And the camera transports you to another world where dreams come true amidst love that lasts and relationships that don’t.

Meet Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone). Mia is a struggling actress, working in a local coffee shop. She goes out with her friends to a party, after missing a call back from her most recent audition. After her friends split, she enters a restaurant and comes across Sebastian playing the piano. They have a somewhat awkward encounter as Sebastian is annoyed after getting fired from his job at the restaurant. The two run into each other again, months later, and over time they begin dating and fall intensely in love. However, they have their share of conflicts as they pursue their respective dreams: Sebastian as a jazz artist and Mia as an actress. They also guilt-trip each other into aiming higher to fulfill their aspirations. Their relationship ultimately falls to the wayside as a result of dueling ambitions.

“I’ll always love you.”

Mia tells Sebastian as they decide to part ways to pursue their respective careers. Sebastian responds with a calm “You know I’ll always love you too.” And then they go their separate ways.

Given my romantic inclinations, I was rooting for Sebastian and Mia all along. Why couldn’t they make things work? It’s not like they both wanted to be actors. But La La Land does have a point : Can two mega stars co-exist peacefully in a relationship?

Fast forward a few years, and it is revealed that Mia is married to someone else, has a child and is a successful actress. Sebastian, on the other hand, has fulfilled his ambition of owning a jazz club. The two cross paths when Mia and her husband wander into Sebastian’s club, pulled in by the music that they hear while strolling.

Sebastian is playing the piano. They catch each other’s eyes, share one last longing look and then Mia departs with her husband.

The ending is bittersweet as you watch the lead actors part ways once again after a brief encounter.

The final look

The movie ends and you are left with your own mixed emotions. While the cinematography and music is definitely par excellence, the love story was genuine and realistic. It showed two young people with stars in their eyes and love in their hearts, pursuing their own big dreams at cost of their relationship. There isn’t a tidy ending. But then love and romance, even in real life, is hardly neat and tidy. Like the Director quips, “To me, if you’re telling a story about love, love has to be bigger than the characters.”

In the movie, love is the third character and lives on even after the couple separate. Even though the relationship may be over for all intents and purposes, love endures and that’s sort of the great thing about the movie.

 However, it does seem that there are no regrets at all. Both get what they want and you realize that perhaps their greater love was the one that they had for their dreams.

The film wins because it makes its audience fall in love with Mia and Sebastian and then gives you a gentle jolt as love is relegated to the backburner when faced with daily obstacles. Mia and Sebastian may not have got their happy ending, but they took comfort from knowing they would always love each other – and in their words, “always have Paris.”

Refusing to weigh in on the clash between romantic nostalgia and practical realism, La La Land is the perfect romantic movie for the unromantic. And for the romantic too, if you don’t mind a generous dose of reality.

Comparison of The Alchemist and The Secret

Those who have read both books may argue that they are very different in terms of writing style, premise and tenets. Yet, after reading them I did feel there was a common thread of thought. Let’s take a look at the summaries.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The book follows the story of Santiago, a shepherd who has a recurring dream. Believing it to be prophetic, he embarks on a journey to Egypt to learn the meaning of life. In the course of his travels, he comes across many characters, including an “Alchemist”, who help hims understand his true purpose and teaches him lessons about accomplishing his dreams. Santiago’s journey takes him to Egypt, in search of his “treasure.” However, in the end, Santiago is faced with the revelation that the “treasure” he was seeking was in the place where he began his journey. The main message is, “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.”

The Secret by Rhonda Byrne

The secret is a self-help book that reiterates that you have the ability to be whatever you dream of being. So basically, you are what you think. The main premise of the book is that the universe operates based on the law of attraction, and you can create your dream life by using this knowledge to your advantage. The book teaches you how positive thinking can help you get the best results in relationships, career, finances and health. So, positive thoughts attract desired situations and circumstances. Conversely, negative thoughts attract bad situations and stressful circumstances.

Comparison of The Secret and The Alchemist

I read The Alchemist when I was in high school and The Secret maybe around six years ago. The Alchemist is written in story format wherein the central idea of the book is conveyed using allegories and metaphors. As a high school student, it was fun to delve deep into the idealistic meanings and messages of the book.

On the other hand, The Secret is written as a guide book. Each chapter has specific instructions and is peppered with a few anecdotes along the way.

Messages from The Alchemist

In terms of takeaways, The Alchemist has several core messages interwoven into the fabric of the story and its characters. Some of the main messages are :

  • There is only one way to learn – through action” – This is self-explanatory
  • When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it” – In other words, trust in your dream and don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking it’s impossible.
  •  “Wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure” –  Your heart is a treasure trove and when you meditate, pray and be silent- you’ll find the answers you seek.
  • ” It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting” – Keep dreaming and visualising the things that you desire. Your request reaches the Universe and as long as you stay in a place of gratitude your dreams will come true.

Messages from The Secret

The Secret has similar messages but uses different words to convey them. The main messages from the secret may be summed up as under :

  • The Universe operates on the law of attraction – This is the main law that governs the working of the Universe. You are what you think, you get what you think about most.
  • There are three steps to creating the life you want – Ask-Believe-Receive. Ask for what you want, believe that it is yours and get into the receptive mode to receive it.
  • Let go of resistance and realise that you are in control of your life – The secret to life is understanding that you’re one with the universe, and you’re in harmony with everyone else and not in competition. There’s no limit to abundance and there’s plenty to go around for everyone.

Similarities :

There were several points of similarity between the two books. Both extolled the virtues of practicing gratitude and counting your blessings daily.

“The simple things are also the most extra-ordinary things and only the wise can see them.”- The Alchemist

“Gratitude will shift you to a higher frequency and you will attract much better things.” – The Secret

A lot of emphasis is laid on dreaming and visualising in the books in order to turn aspirations into reality.

“I’m like everyone else – I see the world in terms of what I would like to see happen, not what actually does.” – The Alchemist

“Your thoughts become things. Everyone has the power to visualize.” – The Secret

Both books encourage you have unrealistic and larger than life expectations. If people chose to accept things as they are, some of the greatest innovations and inventions would never have been possible.

The underlying message in each of the books is that when you want something, and believe that you will receive it, The Universe will somehow make it available to you.

“When you focus your thoughts on something you want and you hold that focus, you are in that moment summoning what you want with the mightiest power in the Universe.” – The Secret

When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it” -The Alchemist

The Differences :

While I didn’t find many dissimilarities between the books, there was one glaring difference. The Alchemist was action-centric whereas The Secret was more thought-centric. The Alchemist encourages making decisions and taking action through a process of growth, change and evolution. On the other hand, The Secret seems to endorse visualization and thinking more than acting and doing. Moreover, while The Alchemist recognizes the possibility of failure and the importance of bouncing back, The Secret’s supposition is based on preventing failure even before it occurs merely by controlling your thoughts and focussing on the positives.

To conclude, I enjoyed both books for very different reasons. I would veer slightly in favour of The Alchemist, mainly because its story was told so endearingly and its many allegorical references made for a stimulating read. Perhaps, it has to do with the fact that I read it first at a transitional phase of my life. The Secret is definitely a powerful book and can’t be ignored. If you like self help books, that aren’t stories and immediately get to the heart of the matter, then this is the book for you. All said and done, both books are inspiring and empowering and if read in the right spirit, can change your life.