Tag: Contemporary Fiction

How To Be Good, by Nick Hornby

“What you don’t catch a glimpse of on your wedding day- because how could you?- is that some days you will hate your spouse, that you will look at him and regret ever exchanging a word with him, let alone a ring and bodily fluids.”

8577083How To Be Good begins with Dr Katie Carr in a parking lot asking her husband David for a divorce over the phone. She thinks this scenario would be highly unlikely if her life were a movie. But then she has had enough. David is selfish, whiny, and even his newspaper column is called The Angriest Man in Holloway. Katie has spent her life living carefully, trying to be a good doctor, a good person, a good mother. But now she’s gone and had an affair with Stephen, and she’s here in a parking lot asking David for a divorce. Over the phone.

For a lot of reasons, I loved this book. Acutely observant and precise, How To Be Good paints a very credible picture. Hornby’s writing is witty and even depressing scenes have been written in a darkly comic style. The splendid intricacy lies in how the characters seem deceptively simple, but are so realistic in their own way. As a reader, you want to take sides because that’s the kind of characters we’re used to. But you can’t, in this case. I was a little disappointed by Katie’s ultimate choice, but can’t say I was surprised. It only added to the story’s credibility.

My one issue with the book though (and this is a big one for me) is the ending. I hate open endings. I just hate them. I’ve read this far, at least give me closure, but no! Why do authors do this? Why do people like this? I know a lot of people who love open endings (please spare me the “but you can interpret it in so many ways, isn’t that bril?” No.) But they’re not for me. When I get to the end and it’s an “Open-for-all”, I know that the author probably had something in mind; no one decides to leave a story hanging that way, and I don’t want to form my own ideas – I want to know what that particular thought was in the author’s mind they wrote that particular ending. And not knowing drives me mad. Just mad.

What do you think of open endings? Yay/Nay?

Goodreads | Amazon

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Faithful, by Alice Hoffman

Never is a long time.

29432767Faithful is the story of once-popular, now-self-destructive Shelby Richmond. One fateful night, when she was seventeen, she and her best friend Helene go out for a drive. Their car crashes; Shelby survives with minor injuries, but Helene goes into a vegetative state. Traumatized and guilty, Shelby has a nervous breakdown and stops speaking altogether. She’s admitted to a psych ward, where she is raped by an orderly. This is when she gets the first of many postcards. It says, Say Something. And she does. She tells her mother about what’s happening and her mother gets her released from the hospital immediately.
Helene, on the other hand, is being revered as some sort of saint. Those who visit her claim they get cured of all illnesses and misfortunes if they touch her hand. Shelby does not believe in these miracles, but she is still suffering from guilt. Helene and Shelby both once had dreams and bright futures ahead of them. Helene’s lost hers, and Shelby gives up hers, choosing instead to waste her life away in her parents’ basement. She shaves her head, smokes pot, and watches TV shows she claims to hate. Her drug dealer is her old classmate, Ben Mink, with whom she walks to Helene’s house one night. Ben reveals to her that he’s going to the city to become a pharmacist and asks her to go with him. Two years have passed since the accident and Shelby decides to finally leave her hometown. She moves to the city with Ben, gets a job in a pet store, unexpectedly makes friends, and, most importantly, begins to save dogs in need of saving.

Admittedly, this book got off to a very slow and depressing start. It wasn’t just grim, because of the accident – it was very bleak. I disliked this bit of the story, but did not, at any point, feel like putting the book down. I might have, had it continued in that vein, but after Shelby decides to do something with her life, the story was, if not instantly, uplifted. I loved the characters in this book – especially Maravelle, Shelby’s friend from the pet store. I’m not a dog person, but the way Shelby rescues ill-treated dogs was heartwarming, and I found myself falling in love with all her dogs.

When Shelby starts receiving the postcards (Say Something, See Something, Save Something, etc.), I was reminded of Markus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger. But the main difference between the two is, Ed Kennedy receives aces in the mail to save other people; Shelby receives them to save herself. Her guilt and self pity nearly killed her, and even towards the end of the book, her self pity is highly palpable. On the night of the accident, Shelby believes she saw an angel and she believes it is the angel who is sending her the postcards. At other times, she is convinced it is Helene – though Helene is now incapable of doing any such thing.

Speaking of Helene, I felt the whole “miracle” angle was unnecessary. It contributed nothing to the story, and felt like it was forced into it to add a bit of magical realism to it. It was unconvincing, and a little annoying.

Aside from that one grouse, I thought that Faithful was a beautiful story of redemption and growth and forgiving oneself. I have wanted to read Alice Hoffman for a long time, but unfortunately, because of where I live perhaps, her books would either never be in stock or be ridiculously expensive because of import charges attached to them (the number of years I’ve been trying to get a copy of Practical Magic, I tell you!). Since I have never read her, I cannot compare Faithful to any other work of hers. But as someone who’s finally ventured into her world of literature, I felt warmly welcomed and left knowing for sure that I would return someday.

Goodreads

Note: I received an ARC from Netgalley. My review is honest and unbiased.

Every Day, by David Levithan

“Where do you want to go?” I ask again. “Tell me, truly, where you’d love to go.”
I don’t initially realize how much hinges on her answer. If she says, Let’s go to the mall, I will disconnect. If she says, Take me back to your house, I will disconnect. If she says, Actually, I don’t want to miss sixth period, I will disconnect. And I should disconnect. I should not be doing this.

But she says, “I want to go to the ocean. I want you to take me to the ocean.”

And I feel myself connecting.”

13262783May I say how much I hate Levithan right now. This man makes me break my book resolutions. And this man not only makes me read books from a genre I dislike (and scoff at), he makes me enjoy them. Worst of all, this man caused a conflict, nay, a war! Just look at this:

Brain: A genderless-bodyless entity that wakes up in a new human body each day. What a premise! This ought to be good.
Heart: Whatever, really.
Brain: Um… This is a love story.
Heart: *indistinct humming*
Brain: OK. Why am I reading this? This is YA. This is romance. Let’s close this and read something else.
Heart: Could you shut. Up. For. One. Minute?
Brain: Beg pardon?
Heart: SHUT UP.
Brain: …

.

Heart: Ohmygod, this is so beautiful, I have tears. I’m crying. This is… awww.
Brain: ???

Heart: *weeps* Oh, A. Oh, Rhiannon.
Brain: Blech. Oh, come on! “It’s the way you looked at me – it couldn’t have been anyone else.” Seriously? That is SO cheesy.
Heart: *sulks* Yeah, okay, just shush.
Brain: !!!

Heart: I have to make a phone call!
Brain: Dontdoanythingstupid!!!
Heart: NO, I really do!
Brain: This is NOT an Adele song!
Heart: Hang yourself, you stupid brain.

Brain: Why aren’t they explaining why A is this smoke entity person thing? Why is this happening? Are there others like this? Can it have feelings? What about the bodies it goes into, why don’t these people notice that entire days from their lives have just gone missing? This makes no sense!
Heart: Really, I couldn’t care less right now.

Brain: OK, that was a weak ending if I ever saw one.
Heart: So what if the ending wasn’t great. It couldn’t have ended any other way.
Brain: I’ll be the judge of that.
Heart: You jealous, emotionless, ROBOT!

*Heart walks off stage, leaving a trail of warm fuzzy feelings behind; brain, feeling useless, dejectedly plops down on a bed*

PS: I have to say though – only Levithan could have pulled this story off. Any other YA author would have turned it into a disaster. Do give it a read for the warm fuzzies. And keep your phone far, far away.

Goodreads | Amazon

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo

“Doesn’t his tongue feel cold?”

1533682Someday when I look back, I might think of 2013 as the year of horrible reading choices and good music. 2016, on the other hand… This year, I have come across books purely by chance and have unexpectedly and thoroughly enjoyed them. Touchwood.
One of these books is A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo, that I found on the Amazon Used Bookstore. On the surface, ACCEDL isn’t a wholly remarkable plot – girl meets boy (man twenty years her senior, in this case), a whirlwind romance, [SPOILER, AVERT YOUR EYES] a realization that they have no future together, and an eventual, quiet and resigned heartbreak. [SPOILER ENDS; CALM DOWN]

What sets ACCEDL apart is the way it examines the West through the eyes of a Chinese girl who can barely speak the language, and how this culture clash causes problems in her relationship with her English lover. And what makes ACCEDL wholly unique is the way in which it’s written – in deliberately bad English.

Books with poor grammar are tedious to read. But ACCEDL works. Whether it works because the reader knows the terrible grammar is a deliberate plot device (yes, it does add to the plot) or in spite of it, I will never know. What I do know is that it was a delightful little read – perfectly paced, flavored just so. Each chapter begins with the definition of a new word that the protagonist, Zhuang (Z for the westerners), has learnt, and how she learnt it. Funny at times (“In France, their fish is poisson, their bread is pain, and their pancake is crepe. Pain and poison and crap. That’s what they have every day.”), profound at others (“Love’, this English word: like other English words it has tense. ‘Loved’ or ‘will love’ or ‘have loved’. All these tenses mean Love is time-limited thing. Not infinite. It only exist in particular period of time. In Chinese, love is ‘爱’ (ai). It has no tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future.” ); the wit is balanced with poignancy. It is presented without unnecessary drama or loud colors, yet with a beauty specific to itself. As for the prose, it is a testament to the author’s skill that even with the poor grammar it is written in, it manages to evoke such vivid images and convey such precise thoughts. Consider the quote at the beginning of this post. Z meets a man who has lost several of his teeth. I was struck by how she thinks about his tongue feeling cold! It is funny, yet so clever.

The story of a naive, homesick girl who finds love, and also learns to live on her own. Do grab a copy and let me know how you like it!

Goodreads | Amazon

Em and The Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto

There’s so much in your head that you can’t bear any distractions, you want to pay attention, careful attention, otherwise everything is going to explode.

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I am not quiet about the books that I like. I talk about them. To whoever’s willing to listen. But I’m reviewing Em and The Big Hoom really late. Why? Because I was still trying to gather my thoughts around its beauty.

While I regularly shout out book recommendations from here, I sometimes share them on goodreads with selected people. On rare occasions, I write a personal note with my recommendation, because I want people to know that I’m not just clicking a button. I genuinely want to know what they thought about a particular book. I want them to know that they crossed my mind while I was reading this book – whatever the reason may be.

In the case of Em and The Big Hoom, I recommended it to only one friend. Not because I did not want others to read it. In fact, most others already had. I sent it to my friend because he is often hard pressed for time, and is therefore choosy about the books he invests his time in. I recommend to him only those that I believe he would enjoy, and those whom I want to discuss with him, during the few and far occasions that we meet or speak. At that moment, I wanted my recommendation to be exclusive, and thus Em and The Big Hoom went only to him. I decided to write a note. That is when it struck me.

I cannot describe in words how beautiful this piece of literature is. If I’m recommending it to others, I can’t help but turn into a bumbling idiot, unable to convince people that if you read one book this year, or this decade, let it be this one.

2016 has been a good year for me where books are concerned. Forget that my own depression has resurfaced, or that I have decided to stop updating my other blog. At least, I have good books to keep me company through this. I have discovered and read some great books this year. I’ve learned something from each; each had its own merits, and its own beauty. Out of all those wonderful books, Em stands out with its simplicity. It is a profound book, yet utterly unpretentious. It deals with truth. No glory, no gilded-frame of self-pity, but stark truth. The reality of living with a depressed parent. The lightheartedness of that parent narrating to the children the story of how she met their father. The fear of living with a parent always on the verge of suicide.

The book is so fabulously effortless to read. But as Pinto himself describes,

I have discovered since that such effortlessness is not easy to achieve and its weightlessness is in direct proportion to the effort put in.

Pinto’s prose isn’t the musical kind like Zusak’s or the slow, glide-into style of Lahiri’s or the heavy, engrave-this-into-your-memory style of Rushdie’s. It is a class apart. It stands its own, with its head held high (and rightfully so) in a scenario where simplicity is often confused with stupidity. There is no dumbing down for the reader here, much like Em never talked down to her children, however young they were. This here is a book that tells us a story directly to the reader, considering the reader as an equal who can understand the issues of this dysfunctional family, but one who does not offer false sympathy.

Em has no time for these falsehoods.

Goodreads | Amazon

This is a book I will read again. And again. And again.

 

I Wrote This For You, by Iain S. Thomas

“I need you to understand something. I wrote this for you. I wrote this for you and only you. Everyone else who reads it, doesn’t get it. They may think they get it, but they don’t. This is the sign you’ve been looking for. You were meant to read these words.”

sreesha-divakaran-iain-thomas-pleasefindthis-wrote-this-for-you

When you read an intense, packed book like the last one I reviewed, you want to read something that makes you feel you’re flying through it to even it out. I wanted something short enough that I could read it within a few hours, yet something that gave me something to chew. I was, in particular, looking for something like The Lover’s Dictionary. Unique, short, yet not “silly”. I picked up another Levithan from my collection, but it didn’t quite stick. I may go back for it another day. Instead, I found I Wrote This For You, by Iain S. Thomas (who goes by the name pleasefindthis on GR and his blog).

I Wrote This For You is a collection of photographs (by Jon Ellis) and quotes/poems/aphorisms/observations. It begins with the quote above. It is interesting to note that each person who reads it will interpret it in his or her own way. As for me, while some of it did not resonate with me on a personal level, this is one book in which I went furiously highlighting a sentence or passage on nearly every page, especially in the first half. I felt like it was an intimate conversation between two people and I was an observer. Detached, but not eavesdropping. Like I had every right to be there, yet it was not a story to call my own.

There were some passages though, that I desperately wished were part of my own story – words I wanted hear, but never did, perhaps. Words I wanted to say but never found the courage to.

“I read what you leave in public spaces. The songs you reference. The quotes you quote. I know it’s about me. I can feel you thinking of me. I want to tell you that I know and admit that I feel the same. But I can’t.”

There are quotes like that that hit you hard.

Now, given the fact that I went looking for something like The Lover’s Dictionary, a comparison of some sort is natural, though unfair. I liked Levithan’s book for its uniqueness, and its layers. The fact that it had a story that you had to piece together like a puzzle. I Wrote This For You is honest, insightful, observant and almost makes your scars bleed. But it reads like a blog, not a book. That put me off a little bit. There’s no real connection between the chapters, though you can try hard to find some, or even fool yourself into believing there is, but they are all separate pieces. If it weren’t for that, I’d put both on the same level. A good read, nevertheless. Made my weekend!

Goodreads | Amazon

 

 

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson (Millennium Trilogy # 1)

“She was perfectly content as long as people left her in peace. Unfortunately society was not very smart or understanding.”

Publishers advised Joanne “Jo” Rowling to use two initials instead of her real name because theysreesha-divakaran-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo feared boys wouldn’t read a book written by a woman.

More recently, and closer home, someone I know refused to read The Girl On The Train just because it was written by a woman. This is someone who usually holds my book recommendations in high regard.

These snippets tell you a little about the world we live in, don’t they? But how are they relevant to the book I’m reviewing today? Because nearly every person who recommended The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to me is male. The exact same book, same plot, same words could have been written by a female author, and these same people might have very well dismissed it as a rant. Why? Because this book comes down hard on crimes against women. It does so in the sharpest, yet most chilling way possible.

The original Swedish title of this book, when translated to English, reads “Men Who Hate Women”. At first glance, that might sound like an outrageous, MRA title, because a book generally favours those mentioned in the title, or so we’re conditioned to believe. For instance, if a book is titled “Men Who Made History” or some such, you’d automatically assume the book is a favourable commentary on the lives of these men. However, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (or Men Who Hate Women) contains some of the angriest, most violent commentary against misogyny and hate crimes. Let’s discuss the story, shall we?

Summary: On his 82nd birthday, Henrik Vanger, former CEO of the Vanger Corporation, receives a framed flower, Leptospermum (Myrtaceae) rubinette. It is revealed that he has been receiving these for years, always on his birthday. He is convinced that the murderer of his niece is sending them to him to taunt him, as she once gave him the same flower before her disappearance and suspected demise in 1966. He has been obsessed about her disappearance ever since.

Mikael Blomkvist, a famous journalist and founder of the Millennium magazine is convicted of libel against Hans Erik Wennerstrom, a rich crook against whom Millennium did an expose of sorts (I kept imagining Trump) but were unable to provide evidence. He co-founded the magazine with Erika Berger, a former classmate and occasional lover. Post discussions with her, he steps down from Millennium’s board.

During this time, Henrik’s lawyer has asked for an investigation to be performed on Blomkvist, because he wants to hire him to solve the mystery of his niece’s disappearance. The investigation is performed by the other protagonist of this story, Lisbeth Salander, a twenty-four year old hacker with a terribly troubled past.

Blomkvist, albeit reluctantly at first, accepts Henrik’s assignment. After a certain course of events, Blomkvist decides to meet Salander when he finds out she is the one who performed an investigation on him. He also discovers she has hacked into his laptop. Soon after, they become partners and try to solve the case together. They unearth several skeletons in the Vanger closet, and compile a list of murders and hate crimes against women that took place around the same time Harriet Vanger disappeared (give or take a decade). Do they solve the mystery? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

In short, this 465 page book has everything – half of the Vangers were Nazis, the remaining half were torturers of all other kinds imaginable. Nearly all the women have been subjected to domestic violence, rape, every crime possible, and yet, most of them emerged stronger (not a spoiler) (also, the book is divided into 4 parts, and each part gives you a statistic about violence against women). There’s politics, journalism and an intriguing financial crime drama. And of course, the whodunit plot that holds the whole thing together. It’s all intertwined into a seamless fabric.

That said, the book isn’t without its faults – some of the things seemed too convenient (for example, Blomkvist became famous on the basis of a hunch he had about some bank robbers). In some places, Larsson seemed to be trying too hard to push the point of strong women (to go back to how this review began, Blomkvist reads only novels by women authors). Not that this is a bad thing, but it sounds like he’s gone beyond driving home a point, that he just wants it drilled into people’s heads (why am I complaining? From a purely literary standpoint, of course). While I loved how all the various plot points closed, I felt Salander’s bit was a little cliched. But this one’s just me.

Overall, I give this book a 4.5 and recommend it to everyone. Be warned though, there is some disturbing content, and some scenes of brutality.

Goodreads | Amazon

PS: This review only covers the first book of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.