Tag: Fiction

Reading Slump and Half of a Yellow Sun

Hello. I’m back. Or am I? Too soon to tell!

I’ve been facing the reading block from hell such that there is little else I think about these days. This time last year, I was on book # 31. Whereas, as of this moment, Half of a Yellow Sun was book # 4 for this year. I’m so disappointed in myself that I don’t even feel like counting the other three books. It’s like the gap in reading negates everything I’ve done.

My last review in 2016 was published on Dec 1st. Post that, all I was doing was trying to read. To be fair, I was even trying to live, so everything I did on a daily basis got lost in the effort of keeping myself alive. I confessed in a post last year that I read books to consciously keep the real world out. Therefore, not being able to read was doubly suffocating. Like a singer who woke up one day to find she’s lost her voice.

I tried my best to fix my reading problem – a candle of hope that if I read one book from start to finish, maybe, just maybe, other parts of my life would begin fixing themselves. We attach significance to certain actions in certain ways. In an effort to bring this to fruition, I joined a book club. It didn’t help with the reading, but it helped in other ways – it allowed me to revert to a side of me I had hidden for the last few years under a cloak of introversion. It was quite beneficial to my self esteem which had been on an all-time low. But with the reading, nah – I’d bring a new book with me each week, pretend to read a chapter, and then put it back on my shelf. Nothing stuck, nothing stayed.

6318821It was the same with Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The first time I brought it to the club, I didn’t even open it, as I was  too busy chitchatting with everyone else. Two weeks after that, while at home, I decided to start reading it on a whim. This isn’t my usual “book called out to me” phenomena that I keep talking about on this blog. This was just another attempt to kill the block. At first, it was as bad as ever – not the book, but my focus and concentration. I felt like a calf learning to walk and constantly failing. I’d read one sentence and dream of clouds for the next three paragraphs. I chided myself and a part of my brain became a stern parent to another part. Instead of giving up on the book, I’d go back and read those paragraphs that I’d missed. I vowed to not let the slump get better of me this time. Slow and steady (real slow cos it took me a month to read a book I would have finished in maybe four days before).

Adichie is someone I admire a lot for who she is. I’ve listened to her talks and interviews and I have immense respect for her. Last year, I read Purple Hibiscus and quite enjoyed it. The prose was simple, the story realistic, with characters that stayed in your mind even after you put the book down.

I decided to read Half of a Yellow Sun more out of my love for Adichie than anything else. I didn’t even read the blurb before signing up. And, forgive me for being so ignorant, but I learned about the Nigerian Civil War only after reading this book.

Set in the ’60s, the story does not follow a linear timeline. It starts with the early ’60s, then moves to late ’60s. we go back to the early ’60s where some important revelations are made, and we return to the late ’60s, in the middle of war and starvation and destruction. In the beginning, the characters seemed almost hopeful that the war would come. A fight, a hope for independence. The story is told through the POVs of the three central characters – Ugwu, Olanna, and Richard.

The story begins with Ugwu accepting a job as a houseboy for Odenigbo, a professor and an intellectual strongly in favor of creation of the new state, Biafra. Odenigbo entertains other intellectuals every evening, while Ugwu observes their mannerisms and tries to learn as much as he can.

Enter Olanna, the beautiful woman Odenigbo is in love with. She has decided to leave behind her hometown and rich parents and move to the university town with Odenigbo. Her arrival makes Ugwu uneasy at first; with her polished manners and refined language, Ugwu believes she is not right for his master, but soon his respect for her grows beyond his respect for Odenigbo. When Odenigbo’s mother hatches a plan against Olanna, it is Ugwu who tries his best to warn her.

Olanna has a sardonic twin sister, Kainene – the ignored one. The different treatment the two girls received from their parents has turned Kainene cynical and indifferent. She meets Richard, a shy English journalist at a party and the two soon become lovers. Even though Richard falls in love with her, he is too afraid to ever fully express his feelings. It is Igbo art that draws him to the country, but he stays to document the war.

In the beginning, the book gave off a Gone With The Wind vibe, as both have a war setting. There is also a tinge of The Kite Runner. However, Half of a Yellow Sun focuses more on the characters in the story than the war itself. The brutality of war has been captured to an extent, but not with the severity it demanded. The war serves as a backdrop, and is almost like an afterthought in the work as a whole – more time could have been devoted to show just how terrible it was (this is just my opinion). In this regard, I liked Purple Hibiscus better, as in that book, the setting is as important as the characters.

I quite related to the character of Olanna and her blind love for Odenigbo. There was a devotion in her love that I could understand in a way that I wish I didn’t. However, it is Kainene I looked up to. Her development as a character has been very well written. She is a perfect blend of strength, willfulness, and levelheadedness. I absolutely admired her (and wished I was more like her than her twin).

I’m yet to read Adichie’s other works of fiction (Americanah, The Thing Around Your Neck etc.), but I enjoyed the two I’ve read so far. Although I liked Purple Hibiscus more than Half of a Yellow Sun, I will still equally recommend both, the important reason being they’re not exactly comparable and are so different from each other, they could’ve been written by two different authors. That said, I will always remember the story of Half of a Yellow Sun. It is, after all, the first book I read in a bloody long and hard time.

Goodreads | Amazon

Paris for One and Other Stories, by Jojo Moyes

“Actually, I’ve had a large white wine. Which means I’m saying what I think.”
“Don’t you usually, then? Say what you think?”
“Never. Safer that way.”

cover105449-mediumJojo Moyes is a name I across all too frequently these days, after the massive success of her books Me Before You and After You. I’ve not read either of the two because at first I wasn’t too sure if I would be into them, given my experience with and opinions of popular romances (such as The Fault in Our Stars or The Notebook). Later, when I thought I might take a look, I learned the ending of the first book, so I didn’t think there was a point to going back. And you can’t read the second book if you haven’t read the first.

I’ve been in a reading slump for a while. This time last year, I had read over 12 books. This year, I’ve read 2 (and now 3). I thoroughly enjoyed Sarah Scribbles, and while Yiyun Li’s writing is nearly flawless, there’s only so much you can like a book while disagreeing vehemently with the writer’s views. The other books I picked up (for instance, The Stand and Lifting the Veil) were not what I needed at that point in time.

Paris for One and Other Stories came as a breath of fresh air during those times. I stay away from chick-lits, but this is one that surprised me. Like they say, it is all about feeding your needs.

Paris for One is the story of a girl who never took risks – she was always described as safe, stable, trustworthy etc., never bold. On a whim, she decides to take a trip to Paris with her boyfriend. She is stood up by the boyfriend, and ends up alone in Paris. She changes her mind about leaving, and decides to enjoy the city on her own.

There are eleven short stories in this collection, all with uplifting, positive endings. My favourite is the first and the longest story – the one I’ve talked about above. Two close contenders for the top position are Margot and The Christmas List.

Margot is the story of Em, who meets the titular character – a boisterous American lady – at an airport and learns something important. The Christmas List is about a harrowed housewife who is fed up of her demanding husband and mother in law. A conversation with a cab driver convinces her that she needs to turn her life around.

If you’re going through a dull time, and need something to lift you up, I think this book would just be perfect. It certainly helped me! I wanted this review to be posted on Valentine’s Day, but unfortunately, I couldn’t finish the book in time. Nevertheless, here it is. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.

Amazon | Goodreads

Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from Penguin UK-Michael Joseph/Netgalley. My review is honest and unbiased.

 

Shadow In The Mirror, by Deepti Menon

imagesShadow In The Mirror: A Thrilling Quest for Redemption is a book whose subtitle does not quite go with the plot. It starts with the suicide of a pregnant woman named Nita. Vinny, a journalist, who is covering the story receives a note that says Nita did not commit suicide, but was murdered.

I honestly believe this story would have been much better had the whole scene with the note been avoided. We are told in the first chapter that it was a murder, and because we know it, we identify the murderer just a few chapters later. If the reader was convinced that it was suicide throughout, and if the murder angle was revealed only at the end, the word “thrilling” in the subtitle would have been justified. In this case, there’s not so much as a twist as a blatantly obvious conclusion with regards to the identity of the murderer. There’s not a lot of redemption either – those who are mad stay mad and those who are sad stay sad. Those who are dead (thankfully) stay dead.

With that said, the most interesting character in this story overrun with too many characters is in fact the murderer. Not that she/he committed the murder, but her/his history, as revealed in the chapter set in 1962, Dark Icy Winter. That was one twist that I did not see coming, and was totally impressed with that storyline.

The language is simple, and therefore this was a breezy read.

Too breezy.

And with that, we come to the flaws: the plot is wafer thin. Too many characters running amok in the story, but almost nothing of substance. Nothing meaty. All their backstories felt rushed, and there was too much telling and absolutely no showing. Do not tell me again and again that a character has “always” been a certain way (friendly/moody/artistic/level-headed/business-minded/whathaveyou), show it to me! Given the number of characters in the book, a little more care could have been taken to turn it into a character study of sorts – jealousy, possessiveness, effect of aging etc. Alas, it was a wasted opportunity – only the murderer’s psyche was fully delved into.

Some characters added nothing to the plot, such Kavita’s maid or the whole Gautam angle.

The prose is covered with a thick layer of adjectives, adverbs, cliches, and dead idioms and metaphors. While in the beginning, every setting was described in purple, this reduced as the story progressed. There was, however, no shortage of extra adjectives. Even the cliches and idioms take away from the reading experience and you wish the style of writing could have been better.

The plot takes you from 1958 to 1994. I noticed some inconsistencies in the timelines that I can’t quite wrap my head around. If you look at the dates preceding the chapters, technically this should make sense. But if you close your eyes to the dates and read only the plot, you feel there are some things off. For example, Roma and Vinny were once classmates, so let’s assume they’re of the same age. In one chapter, Roma is said to be older than Nita: “Roma had been shrewd enough to realize the immense advantages of playing tag with a girl, who despite being slightly younger than her, would catapult her straight into the upper bracket of society.” On the other hand, towards the end, it is revealed that Vinny is younger than Nita. Also, in 1989, Roma has a teenage daughter who runs away and becomes a model – considerable amount of time should have passed between these events but there’s definitely a mismatch. And there are several instances where the story jumps in time, but the same does not translate on to the page (no extra line gaps/section breaks). One such instance is: “Vinny brought with her all the normal upheavals that a brand new baby does. . . late nights, erratic feeds, colic and the smell of vomit and Johnson’s baby powder everywhere. “Mummy!” trilled Vinny one day when she got back from kindergarten.” When did kindergarten happen out of the blue? We were talking about colic, weren’t we? You feel at times that the author’s thoughts are not being correctly conveyed through the writing.

On the whole, Shadow In The Mirror is OK. It’s not a new story, but it definitely takes a longer route to reach the usual destination. It’s fast-paced (albeit at the cost of character development) and it keeps the reader mildly curious. Read it if you want a break from heavy literature.

Goodreads | Amazon

PS: I received a PDF copy of the book from Readomania. My review is honest and unbiased.

Homesick for Another World, by Ottessa Moshfegh

29779229What a sick, twisted, perverted little book!

I will not rate this book. The writing is excellent. Since this is a collection of short stories, I cannot reveal much. But I will say this: rarely do I feel so affected by unpleasant situations in fiction.

Here’s the thing though. I nearly DNF’d this one – I put the book down so many times, because it just went from gross to worse. Only a faintly disgusted curiosity kept me going. Like I said, the writing is good. The stories though… You know when you first watched a movie like, say, (off the top of my head) Trainspotting (I haven’t read the book – only watched the movie adaptation) and you weren’t sure whether to keep watching or just stop, but you kept watching anyway? Reading this book was like that.

I have a habit of reading at mealtimes. If you’re like me, then let me warn you, reading this book during lunch may cause you to throw up.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s voice is powerful and her stories are well-rounded and articulate. But you do begin to wonder if a lot of it was just done for shock value. The stories reminded me of Carver’s works minus the annoying open endings. Moshfegh’s stories reach somewhat satisfying conclusions, thank goodness. You don’t feel “this is incomplete”. You just hold your hair back and hurl.

I’m conflicted about yet another thing: I want to recommend this book to people, but I also feel I shouldn’t because really, should I choose powerful writing over how disturbed this might make people feel?

If you decide to read it, let me know what you thought about it!

I also have a copy of Moshfegh’s Eileen, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker. I won’t lie – after reading her short stories, I don’t know if I have the courage to face a full-length novel by her.

Goodreads | Amazon

PS: I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley/Random House UK

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

The Sun is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon

Local Teen Trapped in Parental Vortex of Expectation and Disappointment

28763485Natasha Kingsley is about to be deported. Daniel is on his way to attend an interview to get into Yale, pursue medical studies and become a doctor. Their paths cross thanks to a series of coincidences. Although, no two people could be less alike – one is a science geek, who believes love is just chemicals in the brain and nothing more; the other is a dreamer and a poet (who has absolutely no interest in becoming a doctor). But now that their paths have crossed, how do they spend the one day they have got with each other? Is it just one day, or does Natasha somehow manage to stay in the country? Told from alternating POVs of the main characters, and punctuated by the histories of the sub-characters, we watch this light-hearted story unfold.

My interest in The Sun is Also a Star was piqued because it gave off a distinctly Eleanor & Park vibe when I read the blurb on Goodreads. Now that I’ve read it, I know I was wrong. Aside from the simple fact that both the male protagonists are Korean American, the two stories don’t have anything in common. I’m choosy about YA – either I enjoy the books tremendously or I’m left utterly cold. TSIAAS lies somewhere in between. Of course there were things that I would normally call out as issues – such as the instalove between the two characters, Daniel’s conviction that everything is rosy and poetic (it’s VERY unrealistic – he’s always dreaming!), the fact that despite being blatant opposites, in their individual narratives their voices are strikingly similar. I have to admit though that it’s a cute story. It’s not badly written; by that I mean, while I don’t believe anyone could fall in love with anyone in a day (love is a big word), I didn’t feel as cynical as to not enjoy the book either. It allowed me to suspend my disbelief and as far as books go, that’s not a terrible thing. It’s not a terrible thing at all. So I forgave the instalove and the dreaminess, and I closed my eyes and enjoyed it. Maybe you will too.

Mind you though, it is no Eleanor & Park. It’s a book that’ll get rid of reality for a few hours, in a complacently pleasant way (if that makes sense).

Note: I received an ARC from Netgalley/Penguin Random House Children’s Publisher. My review is honest and unbiased.

The Wolf Trial, by Neil Mackay

“If werewolves existed, Willie, I would have seen one by now.”

“You have not seen England, sir, and it exists.”

28486967I think for me, the most exciting part of the story was the fact that it is based on a true story. The Wolf Trial is the story of a sixteenth century serial killer, Peter Stumpp (Stumpf, in the book) – one of the first ever recorded accounts of a serial killer – who was believed to be a werewolf. When I learned this, I decided to read a little about the original Peter Stumpp before proceeding with the book. Terrible times, I tell you.

Neil Mackay has made a few minor changes to the story (for instance, in reality, Stumpp/Stumpf insisted that he was a werewolf acting under the orders of the devil), and his book follows a debate in which a lawyer and a priest (with the town being on the latter’s side) argue whether he is to be tried as a man or a werewolf. The lawyer, Paulus is a skeptic (see quote above) and an academic, whereas the priest, Fromme is a… well, a priest. The story is narrated by an 80-year old Willie, who was once Paulus’ assistance and who was present during the hunt and trial of Peter.

Mackay’s writing skills are noteworthy. I loved how atmospherically eerie this book was. The whole time I felt I was in some deep dark woods. It reminded me of the beginning of Dracula (if you recollect my review, that is the only part of Dracula that I enjoyed).

However, there are certain things that I did not like – such as the dialogue. The prologue made me think it was set in maybe early 1900s. Even in the rest of the book, the dialogue does not sit well with the image I have of the sixteenth century. Contrast this with, say, Murder at Cirey, which came out last year but is set in the eighteenth century. Perfect dialogues, and they add a lot to the atmosphere and the setting. Given that this book is already rich in terms of atmosphere, it would’ve truly benefited from better dialogue.

Another thing is, while it is understandable that a book about a serial killer will have a certain amount of violence (I mean, obviously!), in The Wolf Trial, the violence does not quite blend in. What I mean is, it feels like it has been added to give it some sensationalism, as if the author thought of going a little over-the-top because this is a book about a (gasp!) werewolf, so there has to be some OTT violence. I’ve read up about the man’s crimes – horrifying. Mindnumbingly so. All the more reason to present it more clinically than dramatically.

Last, and most importantly, while Mackay has great writing skills and a great story to tell, there is something a bit “un-thrilling” about this thriller. It was not a compelling read, and there were times when I had to fight the urge to skim or speed-read or simply put it down.

All things said, it is commendable that Mackay used an account of the world’s first (known) serial killer and weaved a story out of it – I would have never learned of Stumpp/Stumpf of Germany otherwise.

Goodreads | Amazon

Note: I received an ARC of this book from Freight Books/Netgalley. This review is honest and unbiased.