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review 2017-05-30 03:08
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie

This is a strong work of literary fiction that didn’t strike any special chord with me. I’d tried unsuccessfully to read it several times in the past, but made another attempt this year and can report that it gathers steam as it goes, though it took me a couple hundred pages to start really enjoying it.

Midnight’s Children is part family saga, part magic realism, and all historical fiction, tracing the history of India in the 20th century (from British rule through the 1970s) as told through the eyes of Saleem Sinai, born at the moment of India’s independence and endowed with special gifts. It is a sweeping, ambitious sort of novel, and Rushdie of course seems to have had great fun with the language. Saleem can be a frustrating narrator, telling a story full of digressions and with grandiose ideas of his own importance (I tended to write this off as a character who believes he’s dying struggling to give meaning to his life and suffering, but that’s certainly not the only way to read it). But in the end I was swept up in the story and was glad to have read it, and one encounters a lot of Indian history along the way.

Overall, this is worth reading even if you struggle with the beginning. But if you’re looking for a giant work of Indian literary historical fiction, I’d still recommend A Suitable Boy first.

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review 2016-09-16 08:59
The Lives and the Times- Amit Verma

   First, please don’t be put off by some rather dubious reviews. Authors have no say over who reviews their work, whether they wish to flatter with stars or trash with their absence. I took the trouble to make contact and ask the author about what had happened. He had a book signing event on his own academic institutions campus. We can’t control our popularity. I admire Verma’s honesty, especially in this world where the honest authors have to compete against an overwhelming pile of deceit in the book marketing business. Some or all of these over egging reviews may not be on other popular reviewing sites, in which case this opening paragraph is of only obscure relevance. (I read on Amazon.com)
   This book is written with a very Indian voice, with a common rhythm of English spoken on the sub-continent. That style is exactly right for the book, however, a good edit to internationalise the sentence structure, and improve some word choices, is needed. There are also grammatical errors that distract from the flow.
   I would have preferred a title along the lines of ‘June’s Dream’. The prologue to the book seems to be misplaced. In my opinion, it adds nothing to the later folds of the story.
   I actually loved reading this book, feeling drawn to look at a class-based mind-set, a detachment from the less fortunate masses that pervades on the Indian sub-continent. I felt the harshness, the magic, the dust, the rural backwardness and the strange mix of modern and ancient that I associate with India. The bizarre dream of June allows for the development of so many elements of life, for some penetration satire, and for the surrealism that invades some many of our dreams. I sensed the deep frustrations that pervades those attempting to turn India into the truly modern country it should already be, but for the failures to unlock its potential. The story, the dream, breaths the rhythms of a billion people from a host of interlocking, connected but independently acting cultures, that generally put their own needs before those of the greater society. The biggest democracy in the world needs to be what on paper it should have rapidly become after 1947, a date which is already a long-lifetime in the past. Verma is an accomplished writer with a great story, but one rather let down by poor execution. I don’t know who edited the book, but I do know that they’ve done the author less than justice. Verma’s satirical humour is deserving of much better presentation.


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review 2016-08-20 17:20
The Thorn and the Blossom by Theodora Goss
The Thorn and the Blossom - Theodora Goss,Scott McKowen

Like most other readers, I was drawn to this little book by the format: an accordion book with the same story from two different perspectives printed on either side of the pages, so that you can start from either direction and get a different version. How cool is that? Answer: very cool.


The story is a well-written little romance that can be read in a sitting (each story has 36 pages of text). While the structure is traditional, the author’s writing makes it feel fresh, and I was drawn into Evelyn and Brendan’s love story. But I was happier with it after finishing the first story than after reading both, because Goss fails to take advantage of the dual-perspective format other than to add more texture to the life of the current viewpoint character. Brendan’s and Evelyn’s perspectives are very similar, and there are no big surprises waiting in either story that we don’t eventually find out in the other. When I read the same story from multiple perspectives I want revelations that make me look back at the prior account with new eyes. Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith is the gold standard for that sort of story, this one not so much. This book would make a good gift idea for the romantic book nerd in your life. But while I enjoyed the first story quite a bit, the addition of a second, only slightly altered version of the same thing seemed unnecessary.

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review 2016-06-06 01:48
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours - Helen Oyeyemi

This is a lovely book of short stories: they are often surreal and occasionally baffling, but nonetheless beautiful. Oyeyemi’s free-flowing imagination results in a wholly original collection of stories: one never knows what will happen next, or what byways the story might take us down before the end. Locks and keys are a recurring motif, but not the only commonality – six of the nine stories are set in contemporary England, and characters from earlier stories regularly reappear. This isn’t your grandmother’s England, though; most of the characters are people of color, and same-sex relationships abound (though the collection is not “about” race or sexuality). Anyway, the stories:


“Books and Roses”: This is a beautiful story, a fairy tale of sorts set in early-20th-century Spain. Its ending left me baffled at first (though it made more sense once I realized that Safiye was in Barcelona, the same city where Montse is employed).


“‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea”: After a false start, this turns out to be a story about the fallout from a pop star’s abuse of a prostitute, from the point-of-view of a teenage fan’s stepfather. I appreciated the examination of public reaction to violence against women, but it’s a little heavy-handed. (Or maybe I’m just not used to encountering YouTube comments in literature!)


“Is Your Blood As Red As This?”: An odd but entertaining tale set in a strange school of puppetry (with sentient puppets!). I enjoyed the characters, though the ending was confusing. It is easier to draw conclusions once we encounter some of the characters again in later stories. The POV switch from a human to a puppet halfway through is effective.


“Drownings”: A fairy tale about the fall of a despot; this is an excellent and very imaginative story.


“Presence”: A couple participates in a strange psychological experiment. This story didn’t do much for me: we know it’s an experiment all along, and I felt a more interesting tale could have been told with these characters.


“A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society”: Probably the most grounded of the stories, about a university women’s organization founded to protest the behavior of a men’s club. A fun story with a sweet ending.


“Dornicka and the St. Martin’s Day Goose”: An intriguing retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” set in the contemporary Czech Republic. This may be the only story with a straight white protagonist, but Oyeyemi creates a believable character in Dornicka, an older widow from the countryside.


“Freddy Barrandov Checks . . . In?”: A young man gets involved with his family’s creepy hotel. While it’s a well-written story, I was frustrated by the protagonist’s ready caving to requests that he do wrong. The ending is oddly abrupt.


“If a Book Is Locked. . . .”: A strong final entry, in which a mysterious new co-worker shakes up her office. Ordinarily I consider the second person something literary authors need to flush from their systems, but Oyeyemi’s writing is strong enough that this actually works.


Overall, I definitely enjoyed this collection. The writing is accomplished and the stories unique; though their subjects vary, they fit well together. I would read more from this author.

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review 2015-12-16 16:31
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake / Aimee Bender
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake - Aimee Bender

On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein, a girl at the periphery of schoolyard games and her distracted parents’ attention, bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the cake. She discovers this gift to her horror, for her mother—her cheerful, good-with-crafts, can-do mother—tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes a peril and a threat to Rose.

The curse her gift has bestowed is the secret knowledge all families keep hidden—her mother’s life outside the home, her father’s detachment, her brother’s clash with the world. Yet as Rose grows up she learns to harness her gift and becomes aware that there are secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.


So I guess this is magical realism? That concept seems kind of nebulous to me, but I think this book must qualify for it. Rose, at 9 years old, starts to taste the emotions of the person who prepared her food. This means cookies can suddenly taste like furious anger, when made by a bakery employee who hates his job. And it means that Rose is suddenly relying on metallic-tasting junk food to avoid knowing too much about those around her.


She certainly knows too much about her mother’s emotional life—as children we often feel strangely responsible for our parents’ feelings and Rose is no exception. She is burdened with too much knowledge too early in life. As a result, she becomes very observant, noticing things that others don’t. She is also a strange mix of very adult and very childlike—it’s like some part of her gets stuck at the nine-year-old point and unable to advance, while another part of her becomes a little old lady.


Somehow, she is also the lynch-pin between the various members of the family—the one who intuits everyone’s secrets and holds the family together despite those secrets, some strange, some mundane. The book is very much Rose’s journey—from shy child to successful-in-her-own-way adult.

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