Tag: Female Protagonist

The Mistress of Spices, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

“Ahuja’s wife has of course a name. Lalita. La-li-ta, three liquid syllables perfect-suited to her soft beauty. I would like to call her by it, but how can I while she thinks of herself only as a wife.”

Processed with VSCO with a5 preset

The Mistress of Spices is the story of Tilo, who was born in an Indian village, and bore a different name, before she discovered she had certain powers with which she could summon those she thought of. Unfortunately for her, she accidentally summons a group of pirates who abduct her. However, soon, with her talents, she turns the tables on them and becomes their queen. She then hears the about an island, where an old woman lives, and imparts the knowledge of spices to those who have the gift needed to communicate with the spices. Those who have this gift are known as Mistresses.

At the end of their training, each Mistress is given a new name and is sent to a different part of the world, where they are to help people with the power of the spices. Tilo chooses her own name, and against the wishes of the Old One, wishes to go to USA. She then wakes up in the body of an old woman, in an Indian store in Oakland. Her customers include various Indian immigrants trying to make a living in the States, and she figures what each of them needs before offering it to them.

I was enthralled in the beginning. The way Tilo sensed what everyone needed reminded me of Vianne from Joanne Harris’ Chocolat, and the way the spices were described to have healing powers reminded me of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate. So taken was I by these descriptions that I recommended the book to others even before finishing it. By the half way mark, however, I realized I’d spoken too soon.

The prose that seemed enchanting in the beginning quickly turns irritating. Nearly everything has been described with superlatives, hyperbole, similes and metaphors. The good prose wears off and begins to grate. This results in the work being overly wordy and bloated. By 3/4th of the book I just wanted it to end, because the themes that had interested me in the beginning had been abandoned in favor of the forbidden love affair between Tilo and Raven. The writing that had been so convincing began to fall flat, and I started questioning everything without finding satisfactory answers.

The ending was weak and seemed forced. There were so many other better ways it could have gone. I’m also left with a lot of unanswered questions, unmet conclusions. The Mistress of Spices takes too many themes, but in the end fails to do justice to any, because it focuses on the weakest link in the story. I’m almost sad to see so much potential wasted.

Goodreads | Amazon

 

Advertisements

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, by Meg Elison

22435466Um, no.
Just, no.
I should explain.

We start with a group of schoolboys making handwritten copies of the book of the unnamed midwife. Their teacher is old and pregnant, too old to be pregnant in fact. She tells them the book may cause them to fall sick because the contents are horribly disturbing, but they must perform the task assigned to them. Quite a lot of years have passed since the book was originally written. The boys excitedly start.

That was the prologue and that, honestly, was the most interesting part of this book. I really, really wanted to read more about that school and the era it was set in.

We then move to the actual story. It appears to be our time, give or take a few years. A disease of some kind has struck the population and it has wiped out 98% or so of it. It mainly affects women, more specifically pregnant women. Neither the mothers, nor the children survive this deadly disease. Our narrator, the unnamed midwife, gets affected too, and when she wakes up, she sees she’s the only one in the hospital. She doesn’t know how many days or months have passed. Stepping out of the place, she realizes the world has become very dangerous for women, given that the ratio of male to female is now 10:1, and in a world that’s descended to lawlessness, men have turned savage. In order to protect herself, she dresses up as a man and goes around the country trying to protect the women she finds.

TBOTUM, originally published in 2014, is a winner of the Philip K. Dick award. That aside, there were quite a few things about this book that bothered me. Why did the disease affect women more than men? It is described as an extinction event, so is it some “survival of the fittest” thing? If so, are women unfit to survive? Moving on. Let’s see now, this isn’t an original plot, is it? There have been several post apocalyptic stories – both books and movies – where either one group survives, or one woman survives (thereby battling the savage men) or one man survives (who battles zombies or some such). There are some themes in this book that most definitely should have been explored further. The bit in the prologue being one of them. Alas, the reader doesn’t get much. It’s a shame, really. Each of the chapters starts of with a journal entry written in a horrible font, followed by the story narrated in 3rd person. I would mark this book down for that font alone, to tell you the truth!

And now all of that aside, what bothered me most was the pedestrian language. When I said the prologue was the most interesting part for me, what I meant is, that’s the one part that’s actually written well. It sets an atmosphere: a school (I imagined something like a monastery), a group of boys, books so old that their pages disintegrate if sunlight falls on them, a silver-haired pregnant teacher. The atmosphere this scene set was just superb. You enter the book with the expectations set by the beauty of the prologue. What you get, instead, is writing that makes you believe this was written for teens, by a teen. In fact, had it not been for all the violence and the gore, I would’ve called it post-apocalyptic YA. Talking about the violence itself, it’s presented like it’s merely there for shock value: “Oh the horror! Oh these men! Oh these rapes and these womb trades!” (If this reminds you of Mad Max, then let me tell you, me too, me too!) I don’t feel subjects as these should be utilized for shock value.

I read this book while in bed with a raging fever. At one point I had one of those fever-induced delirious dreams, in which I saw a few scenes from the book. I think I was the unnamed midwife in that dream, though I’m not entirely sure. That was, now that I think about it, kinda fun. Lesson: Fevers make overdone plotlines interesting!

Goodreads | Amazon

Note: I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley/47North. My review is honest and unbiased.

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.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson (Millennium Trilogy # 3)

“When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women and the men who enable it.”

7677839(See also, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson (Millennium Trilogy # 1))

Fiction must ring as true as non-fiction to the reader, just as non-fiction must be as engrossing as fiction.

This is a book that’s as cold, as precise, as categorical as if it were a true account of certain horrific events. Larsson’s writing reminds me of that of Frederick Forsyth and Ken Follett. Except that Larsson has a singular motive and it is crystal clear – to highlight crimes against women in every way possible.

Part 1 of the trilogy could be read as an independent book. As I stated in my review, I needed a bit of breathing space after reading it, because it was dark and brutal. I had no clue what was in store for me in the final book.

Book 2 and Book 3 are actually part 1 and 2 of the same story. We learn Lisbeth’s true history and uncover a massive government and secret service operation. We learn things that can never be un-learned.

The Millennium Trilogy Parts 2 & 3 is one of the most ambitious political thrillers I’ve read – which is saying a lot, since political thrillers are generally ambitious. In the hands of an author less skilled than Larsson, this subject matter would have injured itself. Not only that, Larsson gives a lot of back story to each character, no matter how unimportant. No other author could have accomplished that form of storytelling while not sounding boring. Larsson does so, and keeps the reader hooked. He makes the reader eager to listen, and he makes each character sound like someone you want to read about – no matter how insane or dull they are. Yes, I want to know what the characters are eating, wearing, just tell me (ordinarily, as is clear from my other reviews, I list this as a drawback)

The best part of this book is the snippet of history that precedes each major section of the book. Each snippet describes historical armies made up of only women soldiers. The author says how these rarely get documented or talked about. It was fascinating to read about the Libyan armies and the Amazons.

This is a story of abuse. If you thought Dragon Tattoo was graphic, this is a lot worse in terms of violence (and by “this”, I’m fusing Part 2 and Part 3 as one book). Are there completely unbelievable bits? Yes. But we’re back to the statement I made about less skilled authors not being able to carry it off. We hang on to every word. We believe every incredulity.

To give you a high level picture, I don’t think I have ever:

-Felt like I was on the roof of a bullet train, desperate to keep my balance (while enjoying that feeling)

Celebrated the death of one of the bad guys (or maybe I did, way back when Bellatrix Lestrange died. But that was a long time ago)

-Gasped audibly at an unexpected twist

-Screamed the following words at a page during a courtroom scene: BUTCHER THAT BASTARD!

I know those sound like hyperbolic statements that I am making impulsively. But wouldn’t you rather read the book and find out for yourself? It’s a whirlwind of a ride, I assure you.

As to why I have not summarized the story: the quote at the beginning of this post is the summary. Reading that quote made me feel like I was hearing it directly from the author. Like all his characters were put in this world, just so he could say that one line.

Oh, Mr. Larsson! You wonderful, brilliant man. Thank you!

My one regret remains that I’ve had these books since 2012, and only now did I read them.

Amazon | Goodreads

I have to put a note here about the translation: The book has been so flawlessly translated from the original by Steven Murray (pseudonym: Reg Keeland). Not once did I feel I was reading a translation or that something was lost or broken. Completely flawless!