Tag Archives: Book reviews

Three books, three genres, three great reads

Les Miserables manga book coverLes Miserables – Manga classic

Gorgeous artwork for a classic story adapted into a Manga edition – what more could you ask for? If you’ve never read Les Miserables, or even if you have, you’ll love this book!

Beautiful, expressive character drawings, incredibly detailed scenery, and a true love for the original classic shine through on every page. Of course, not every facet of the classic could be explored in the Manga version, but if you’ve never read the original, chances are, after reading this, you’d want to run out and get your hands on Victor Hugo’s original classic. That, to my mind, is the biggest victory of this beautiful book.

Highly recommended!

Vanessa and Her Sister Priya ParmarVanessa & Her Sister – Priya Parmar

London, 1905: The city is alight with change, and the Stephen siblings are at the forefront. Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby, and Adrian are leaving behind their childhood home and taking a house in the leafy heart of avant-garde Bloomsbury. There they bring together a glittering circle of bright, outrageous artistic friends who will grow into legend and come to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. And at the center of this charmed circle are the devoted, gifted sisters: Vanessa, the painter, and Virginia, the writer. Each member of the group will go on to earn fame and success, but so far Vanessa Bell has never sold a painting. Virginia Woolf’s book review has just been turned down by The Times. Lytton Strachey has not published anything. E. M. Forster has finished his first novel but does not like the title. Leonard Woolf is still a civil servant in Ceylon, and John Maynard Keynes is looking for a job. Together, this sparkling coterie of artists and intellectuals throw away convention and embrace the wild freedom of being young, single bohemians in London.

The story unfolds through Vanessa’s diary entries, interspersed with postcards between Lytton and Leonard, painting a picture of a young Vanessa as she breaks away from stiff formality, embracing a bohemian, non-conformist way of living and entertaining. While she worries about not knowing how many people to prepare sandwiches for and experiencing a slight pang at breaking away from tradition, Virginia seems mostly caught up in her own madness, craving everyone’s attention and going to any lengths to get it.

But since the entire story is told from Vanessa’s point of view, none of the other characters are substantial enough – we see them primarily through her lens. Nor is her “diary” a particularly interesting read. Sure, there are times when she philosophizes a bit, or delves deeper into a problem, but it’s more like reading a chronicle of her daily activities – Julian (her son) was sick; she had to pack up her house and manage the finances even while traveling.

As individual vignettes, there is a lot of interesting detail about life in the early 1900s in London. But as an overall novel, it leaves something to be desired.

When Mystical Creatures Attack! By Kathleen Founds

When Mystical Creatures Attack! Kathleen FoundsThe book opens with essays from Ms. Laura Freedman’s high school English class. They’ve been asked to writes essays about how mystical creatures resolve the greatest sociopolitical problems of our time. And the responses – random, occasionally vague, unique, mysterious, eccentric, magical – set the tone for the rest of the book.

Students include Janice Gibbs, “a feral child with excessive eyeliner and an anti-authoritarian complex that would be interesting were it not so ill-informed,” and Cody Splunk, an aspiring writer working on a time machine. Following a nervous breakdown, Ms. Freedman corresponds with Janice and Cody from an insane asylum run on the capitalist model of cognitive-behavioral therapy, where inmates practice water aerobics to rebuild their Psychiatric Credit Scores.

The lives of the main cast of characters – Janice, Cody, Ms. Freedman – are revealed through class essays, journal prompts, letters, emails, therapeutic journal exercises, an advice column, television transcripts and a Methodist women’s fundraising cookbook.

It’s wholly original and utterly delightful. It has its laugh-out-loud moments and its serious ones; some random ramblings and some crazy teenage hormones. It’s deep and philosophical, profound, strangely moving, and irreverent all at once. Overall, it’s absolutely brilliant!

Highly, highly recommended!

{S} Book review: Servants of the Goddess by Catherine Rubin Kermorgant

From the back cover:

Servants of the Goddess weaves together the heartbreaking, yet paradoxically life affirming stories of five devadasis – Women, in the clutches of an ancient fertility cult, forced to serve the gods. Catherine Rubin Kermorgant sets out attempting to make a documentary film about the lives of present-day devadasis. Through her, we meet and get to know the devadasi women of Kalyana, a remote village in Karnataka. As they grow to trust Kermorgant and welcome her as an honorary sister, we hear their stories in their own words, stories of oppression and violence, but more importantly, of resistance and resilience. Kermorgant becomes a part of these stories and finds herself unwittingly enmeshed in a world of gender and caste bias which extends far beyond Kalyana, all the way to Paris, where the documentary is to be edited and produced. Servants of the Goddess is a testament to women’s strength and spirit and a remarkably astute analysis of gender and caste relations in today’s rural India.

My view:

Servants of the Goddess by Catherine Rubin KermorgantFor some reason, I thought that the cult of devadasis was over. I was wrong. Through this eye-opening book, Kermorgant draws the readers’ attention to devadasis and their plight.

Forced into the tradition due to poverty, kept there due to their superstitious beliefs, devadasis have largely been pushed out of temples except during traditional pujas and ceremonies. They’re forced into a life of prostitution, plying their bodies either in their village or in red light districts in Mumbai and Delhi. And every year, thousands of girls are dedicated to the system, a majority of them by their own families.

The book shows us glimpses of their life and their beliefs, but it falls somewhat short.

I tend to compare any book of this nature with Mayank Austin Soofi’s absolutely brilliant Nobody Can Love You More: Life in Delhi’s Red Light District. He creates an emotional connect with the people who populate his pages – right from the prostitutes to the pimp – without moralizing or philosophizing. And this is exactly what Kermorgant’s book lacks. It reads more like an essay on “this is why I could not present my documentary the way I wanted to – the reason: an Indian partner who could not overcome his prejudice against untouchables and devadasis.” And so, she portrays herself and only one of her translators as sympathetic to the devadasi cause, while everyone else was blinkered and blinded by their own prejudices. And while that may be true, her constant lament against them takes away from the hard-hitting story that this could have been.

The sad thing is that there are kernels of hard-hitting writing throughout, but they get lost in her larger narrative of the documentary shooting and editing process. Had she focused on the devadasis, telling us about their lives and their stories, the book would have had a much more profound impact.

Having said that, I would still recommend this book – just go into it knowing that there are hiccups to the tale.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher, but the review and opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review: The Hunt for Kohinoor by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar

Art historian Mehrunisa is back. This time, the fight is more personal – finding the Kohinoor (a set of documents that will help India to avert a major terrorist attack) is the only way she can be reunited with her father, a man she thought was dead. Thrust into the high pressure world of espionage, where no one is as they seem, Mehrunisa finds herself in Pakistan, trying to hunt down the Kohinoor.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Babur Khan – a hard-lined jihadi who enforces strict Sharia laws and promises to get rid of the Poppy pashas and infidel Americans –is also hunting for the Kohinoor to ensure that India doesn’t get its hands on the document.
Also thrown into the mix is the CIA, who are also after the Kohinoor as it could help them in the war against terror.
Against these formidable opponents, will Mehrunisa be able to find the Kohinoor in time? And if she does, will she be able to get it to the RAW commanders in time?
Someshwar delivers another fast-paced, edge-of-the-seat thriller with some interesting history, Pashtun culture, and a bit of geo-politics thrown in. I have only one complaint with the book – the American side of the story wasn’t developed at all. The agonizing of the American station chief and the tension she built up as the American spy was to fly out from Afghanistan wasn’t followed up in the rest of the novel. The American spy makes a fleeting appearance in Pakistan – and the station chief gets a passing mention towards the middle of the novel. In an otherwise well-plotted story, this was the biggest lose end. Despite this, it is an interesting read, and I will be looking forward to Mehrunisa’s next adventure!

Book review: Bellman & Black by Dianne Setterfield

Bellman & Black - Dianne SettOn a day like any other, young William Bellman boasts that he can hit a rook sitting on a branch a great distance away. His friends aren’t so sure that he can. Determined to prove them wrong, William loosens a stone from his catapult. It finds it mark. The young rook resting on the branch is killed instantly. Though William feels sad at the time, the event is soon forgotten.

The rook is comfortable pretty much anywhere. He goes where he pleases and, when he pleases, he comes back. Laughing…There are numerous collective nouns for rooks. In some parts people say a parliament of rooks.

Life goes on. William grows up into a fine young man. He leads a charmed life – he has a job he loves at his uncle’s mill, a wife and children he adores, his business is thriving and everything he touches turns to gold. But slowly, people around him start to die. And at each funeral he is startled to see a strange man in black, smiling nonchalantly at him. Soon, death comes closer to home, claiming his wife and most of his children. Driven to despair, unhinged by grief, William is determined to end his own misery.

Now some great hand had peeled back the kind surface of that fairy-tale world and shown him the chasm beneath his feet.

He stumbles to his wife’s fresh grave, but there, waiting for him, is the mysterious stranger in black, who has a business proposition for him – a mysterious business called Bellman & Black.

As William goes about single-mindedly setting the business up from scratch, he can’t seem to remember the actual deal that he struck with Black. That’s a niggling worry that stays with him, one he cannot fully resolve because the mysterious Black doesn’t show himself again. Who is Black? What is the nature of the agreement they entered into? How much of the profit from this business should he set aside for Black? These are the questions that torment William – questions to which he has no answer until the very end.

Overall, I thought it was an interesting book, but it had its problems.

On the plus side, it is a very well-written book. Setterfield vividly brings Victorian England and the rural country side alive with her prose. Her attention to detail, especially in the running of the mill, is par excellence – though at times it does feel slightly academic and slows the story down somewhat.
The two main protagonists – William and the rook – are dealt with beautifully. William’s character isn’t likable, but he is admirable for his single-minded devotion to his work, his business acumen and his attention to each and every detail that goes into the running of his businesses. Setterfield also includes some interesting mythologies and observations about rooks, and offers readers a whole bunch of superstitions and stories about them through the ages.
Some of the prose is hauntingly beautiful, like this passage that deals with the loss of William’s mother:

His mother was dead: he had seen the body; yet this knowledge refused to find  a settled place in his mind. It came and went, surprised him every time he chanced upon it, and there were a million reasons not to believe it. His mother was dead, but look: here were her clothes and here her teacups, here her Sunday hat on the shelf over the coat hook. His mother was dead, but hark: the garden gate! Any moment now she would come through the door.

And, since this is, after all, a ghost story, there’s an air of menace and tension throughout the book. But it isn’t your regular ghost story, because there isn’t really a “haunting”, not in the traditional manner. The haunting is in the message, in the issues that Setterfield tackles – the meaning of life and death, of what’s important and what isn’t, of dealing with love, with loss, with work, with rest. There’s a lot to think about here.

But William resisted solitude as he resisted leisure. On the surface he was all ebullience and activity. Inside, hidden even from himself, he proceeded through life as though he had learned the ground beneath his feet was minced and at any step his footing might give way beneath him.

The biggest problem with the book, though, is that it drags, and it’s a tad boring. All that observation to detail in the day-to-day running of the mill tends to get quite academic; Black doesn’t properly enter the scene until the second part of the story; the key events described in the blurb – the bargain with Black and the creation of Bellman & Black – take place only in the second half of the book, and even then, there isn’t much action. Setterfiled does build up some promising scenarios, when she could have taken the story forward dramatically, but they all just fizzle off.

This is a novel that would probably have done much better as a short story or novella. Overall, it isn’t a terrible book – indeed, it has its moments – but I wouldn’t recommend it to lovers of ghost stories or gothic fiction. Fans of literary fiction could give it a try.

Book review: The Good Little Ceylonese Girl by Ashok Ferrey

The Good Little Ceylonese Girl Ashok FerreyAshok Ferrey’s The Good Little Ceylonese Girl is a collection of short stories about Sri Lankans living in the country and abroad. This slim 193 page volume has 17 stories, all of them really quite short, presenting readers with little vignettes and fragments of his characters’ lives.

The poignant Dust is the story of Father Cruz and his fight with his parishioners, who want their donations used to beautify the church, whereas all he wants is to use the money to help the needy.

The toungue-in-check Maleeshya is a short account of how the editor of a high-flying society magazine arm twists those desperate for a mention in her magazine to conform to her vision of a marriage and even death.

Pig shows some of the similarities between Indian and Sri Lankan culture. It is the story of two childhood sweethearts Lalitha and Ruwan who grew up together but were married off to different people. They continued to meet clandestinely over the years. But when the time came for them to be able to get back together, Ruwan backed out because he realized, after 19 years of cheating on his wife, that Lalitha and he had changed:

“19 years. For two days every year we have been actor and actress in this well-rehearsed play with this well-known ending; but our real selves have moved on, only a fraction each year maybe, but we’re actually quite far apart now, aren’t we…”

Each story is a masterpiece. Some end quite well. Some leave you wondering what happened next. All of them collectively paint a cohesive picture of a changing Sri Lanka and a diaspora of Sri Lankans living abroad who are still holding on to old values, not realizing how things have changed at home.

Heartily recommend if you like reading South East Asian writers or want a glimpse into a different culture.

Disclaimer: I received the book from the publisher, but the review and opinions expressed are my own.