Tag Archives: book review

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

Wave details Sonali Deraniyagala’s experience of losing her family in a single instant, and her tug of war between remembering and forgetting in order to make sense of her world.  In 2004, Deraniyagala (an economist at the University of London), her husband Stephen Lissenburgh, and their two young sons aged seven and five visited her parents in Sri Lanka for their Christmas holidays. On Boxing Day, as they were preparing to leave their beachside hotel, the Indian Ocean tsunami struck, separating Deraniyagala from her family. She never saw them again.

(Sonali Deraniyagala’s husband Stephen and her sons Vikram and Malli. Picture from http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/09/tsunami-terrible-toll)

In the immediate aftermath of her loss, Deraniyagala plotted her strategy, deciding to wait till the bodies were found and then kill herself. Her relatives and friends watched over her, hiding all the kitchen knives, tapping on the bathroom door if she took a long time. She turned to alcohol and sleeping pills, getting drunk every evening, Googling ways to kill herself. She was wary of remembering, fearing she would slip up and think they were alive, but even the most fragmentary details—a flower, a dimple in a child’s cheek—brought them
back.  She stayed on in Sri Lanka for nearly two years; only in 2008, did she step into the family’s home in London.

Memoirs which channel pain into a teachable moment often make readers uneasy, but nothing is held up for the audience’s benefit in Wave, which is an intensely private chronicle of the author’s attempt to deal with her loss. This book is in essence a distillation of the truths and memories (voluntary and involuntary) that matter to Deraniyagala, and much of it is unbearably moving. “When I had them, they were my pride, and now that I’ve lost them, I am full of shame,” she says. There is no solution or end to her grief—the absences expand, and there’s a fresh sadness imagining her family in the now. If there’s any “lesson”, it’s the one learned by the author, who understands that she can never be true to herself if she distances herself from them, for it is the remembrance of things past that keeps her whole. This memoir-not-a-memoir is a record of her remembering, one that we’re privileged to read.

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And here’s an interview with Deraniyagala over at Hazlitt.

Recent reads and reviews

If we met during the Christmas holidays past, odds are I thrust a copy of Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon into your hands, and then held a cleaved sword over your head till you began to read. “But I don’t like fantasy,” some burbled. “You’ll read this,” I replied, “because it’s set in a fantasy Middle-East where the locals are the heroes rather than the villains, because the writing is kick-ass and because the world-building is delicious.  Because NPR called it The Lord of the Rings meets the Arab Spring. And because I’m interviewing Saladin Ahmed.”  That interview was published in the February issue of Bookslut; here’s an excerpt.

The novel features a fat old hero, and a warrior-priest swordsman who’s all of five feet tall… You subvert so many conventions about masculinity and heroism that dominate this genre. Did you have a particular agenda while planning the novel, or did it all flow organically from the plotting process?

I’m glad someone finally noticed that Raseed is short. That was very intentional, and few have remarked upon it! Yes, I had — that most dreaded of things! — an agenda: look at other (Other?) criteria for heroism and follow the sorts of heroes we don’t usually follow. But to me, that’s not mutually exclusive to flowing organically. A writer starts out writing with a set of suppositions and questions in her head — even if she is unaware of them. But as one writes, these, one hopes, shift and squirm a bit.

[...]

Writers don’t tell stories in a vacuum, however much we might wish to pretend otherwise. So what already-told stories are your stories re-inscribing, which ones are they countering? Since long before 9/11, US culture has been saturated with stories about Arabs and Muslims as villains, as fanatics, as worthless, as better dead than alive. So yes, I aim to tell different stories in my work, and Throne is a part of that effort, however cloaked in swash-and-buckle it may be. [...] in general, Throne very consciously aims to re-center the traditional western fantasy map, and to interrogate attendant cultural assumptions in the process. But, again, via monsters and magic rather than polemic.

Read the interview here, buy the book here, and visit Ahmed’s website here.

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I reviewed a couple of books for Herizons which I though I’d mention on the blog. Lilian Nattel’s Web of Angels is an unflinching yet compassionate exploration of Disassociative Identity Disorder (better known as multiple personality disorder).  Nattel never sensationalizes the condition, and the plot unwinds very delicately. The protagonist Sharon is a Toronto wife and mother who has successfully concealed her condition for decades, but when a young pregnant girl in the neighborhood commits suicide, she decides to take action, even at the cost of revealing her DID. “And it all seemed so ordinary except it wasn’t” observes a character, and this line serves as a fine precis of the novel.  Nattel demands that we re-evaluate our conception of normal–whether applied to ourselves, our near ones or our society–and the results are unsettling, to say the least.

http://www.cbc.ca/books/webofangels.jpg

(you) set me on fire by Mariko Tamaki nails the miserable angsty insecurity that most teens wear like a second skin. Allison Lee opts to attend St. Joseph’s College because no one from her high school will be there–she was picked on in school, had a messy love affair with a fellow student Anne, accidentally set herself on fire twice, and now bears burn scars running from her hairline to her shoulder; re-inventing herself in college is a seductive idea. But then she meets the beautiful, crazy Shar, and their relationship soon turns abusive. Allison’s voice is remarkably wise and funny and she has a finely-calibrated bullshit detector for society’s strictures, but she’s so spectacularly misguided in her relationship choices that you want to leap into this book howling “WTF are you doing!” There’s an enviable alignment of authenticity and skill in Tamaki’s new book; this is stuff of classics.

http://www.penguin.ca/static/covers/all/7/3/9780143180937H.jpg

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And now, for some exciting literary happenings, aka a nude author calendar. Twelve Canadian authors will display their beautiful…minds for a 2014 calendar, whose proceeds will go to PEN Canada (an organization that supports freedom of expression). The calendar is produced by Bare it for Books, and the line-up includes  Farzana Doctor, Miranda Hill, Terry Fallis,  and Yann Martel, who I hope will pose with a tiger covering his bits.

The Traitor and The Tunnel by Y.S.Lee (Agency Series #3)

The Agency novels rank amongst my favorite YA works of all-time, and so I’m  hugely chuffed that I got a review copy of Lee’s latest novel way before the scheduled North American release, so I could review it for the Hong-Kong based Asian Review of Books.  Oh, the sweet life of a reviewer.  I’m also utterly delighted that  the Kingston-based Lee *just* won the 2011 Canadian Children’s Literature Award for these books.

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The Traitor and the Tunnel is the third installment of Canadian author Y. S. Lee’s Agatha Award-nominated YA series The Agency, which features Mary Quinn, a teen detective for a Victorian-era secret spy agency staffed and run by women. The latest novel replicates the successful formula of its predecessors—Mary is assigned a minor case, which turns out to harbor myriad complications that involve her family secrets, and a run-in with the “better than handsome” James Easton. What’s not to like?

Mary is now posing as a housemaid to investigate a rash of thefts of trinkets and ornaments—in Buckingham Palace. She soon eavesdrops her way into a maze of royal secrets, including a nasty scandal surrounding the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward (Bertie to his family). While carousing with a titled friend at an opium den, Bertie set in motion (or at least witnessed) events that led to his friend’s murder by a Chinese sailor. The kicker: the sailor accused of murder shares Mary’s last name, and just might be her long-lost father. Mary has always kept her mixed-race heritage a secret, choosing to pass as black Irish, but she must now decide where her loyalties lie.

It takes a certain confidence for a writer (even one like Lee, with a PhD in Victorian literature and culture) to assign Queen Victoria and the future Edward VII major roles in a YA novel, and I’m happy to report that Lee succeeds brilliantly in bringing them to life—they are interesting people first and historical figures next. This book made research the Prince of Wales (on Wikipedia) where I discovered that he opposed votes for women, smoked twelve cigars a day, laid the cornerstone for Parliament Hill in Ottawa—and that his long list of mistresses included Winston Churchill’s mother. This history business is more interesting than I’d thought.

And what about James Easton, you ask, whom we last saw in The Body at the Tower, tut-tutting over Mary’s unsuitable childhood? Well, James has seen the error of assuming he’s CEO of the Moral Universe and begs Mary’s forgiveness by page 71, so we can like him again. James’s engineering firm has just been awarded a secret contract to repair the sewers of Buckingham Palace. When Mary finds a mysterious tunnel that’s not in James’s maps, the two must work together to figure out the purpose of a tunnel that leads nowhere. Will their third adventure together finally lead, you know, to romance? (Incidentally, well-aware that three coincidental run-ins are a tad much, Lee sets the stage for a more organic partnership for the couple in the future.)

The Traitor and the Tunnel is the most overtly feminist of Lee’s books thus far, exploring a wide range of women’s roles from Queen Victoria (arguably the most powerful person on the planet at that time) to an infinitely helpless domestic servant, and in each instance, Lee makes a strong case for financial independence as the key to a woman’s freedom. Mary truly comes into her own in this book as a courageous, principled woman, and Lee gives her some great lines—for instance in this scene when one of the Palace equerries attempts to molest her.

He wanted her [Mary] to struggle.

He wanted her to cry, to beg, to be terrified.

He hadn’t the first clue with whom he was dealing.

“You stupid little boy,” she said in a clear, acidic voice. “What d’you think Bertie’s going to say when I tell him what you’re trying to do?”

Instantly he went still.

[…] “You’ll lose your post of course. But there’ll also be the cost of paying me off. Do you have that sort of ready money? And there’s the scandal: you’ll have to explain things to your father. D’you really want to tell him that your entire family lost favour with the future king, all because you couldn’t keep your mitts off a parlour-maid?”

The Agency series is very deliberately constructed around the political and cultural climate of the era, and this book tackles the subject of Asians living in Victorian Britain. Whilst generations of Chinese peacefully made their homes in London, recent political events have led to attacks on their persons as well as their business interests, and Mary wonder whether Queen Victoria will be quite as concerned with justice when the man charged with murder is Chinese.

And as always, Lee injects her story with a wealth of information about the period, from the kind of cakes served at tea-time at Buckingham Palace (ooh, butterfly buns sound good) to the “flushers” who work in the royal sewers. The richness of detail, the intelligent writing, the intricate plots, and superbly-drawn characters elevate this series miles above most YA offerings on the shelves today; I’m delighted to hear this trilogy now has a fourth installment in store for its many devotees.

END

Spoilerish whine, not part of the original review: The only place where Lee didn’t quite carry me along was in the dissention between the founders of the Agency. The two owners, Anne and Felicity, disagree on whether to expand (and dilute the original vision), or to stay small but faithful to the dream of a woman-only organization, and ask Mary to choose whom she’d like to follow. (Typically, she finds a third way; this is Mary Quinn we’re talking about, Queen of the Daring Initiative.) I wish, though, that we knew more about the founders–they remain shadowy right till the end, and their split is thus largely academic as it is shorn of any personal history about the two women, which would have made their disagreement truly meaningful to the reader. I can’t help but wonder about the genesis of The Agency, and given the way this book ends,  I don’t think we’re going to learn much more. Sooooo…how about a prequel, Ying? And I bet the ever-multiplying horde of devotees will second my plea.

Green Books Campaign: Can’tLit

This review is part of the Green Books campaign. Today 200 bloggers take a stand to support books printed in an eco-friendly manner by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper. By turning a spotlight on books printed using eco- friendly paper, we hope to raise the awareness of book buyers and encourage everyone to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books.

The campaign is organized for the second time by Eco-Libris, a green company working to make reading more sustainable. We invite you to join the discussion on “green” books and support books printed in an eco-friendly manner! A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on Eco-Libris website.

Can’tLit: Fearless Fiction from Broken Pencil Magazine by Richard Rosenbaum, ed.

ECW Press, 2009

Printed on FSC-certified paper, Ancient Forest Friendly Paper


I was an admirer of Canadian Literature (CanLit) long before I came to Canada, counting Clara Callan, Unless, A Fine Balance, and about a hundred other Canadian books amongst my favorites. Back then, I didn’t think of these novels as particularly Canadian; if asked what they had in common, I’d have said: their desire to probe delicately at the stuff of our daily lives, to reveal small truths with wry humor, and to write measured, gentlemanly prose that never sought to dazzle, but worked hard at staying in the background.

Since moving to Canada (from England), my access to CanLit has broadened, but my initial perception of Canadian writing hasn’t altered materially. Inevitably, when I’ve looked for edgy work, I’ve always looked outside the country. Canadian writing is notable for many things, but not for unconventional writing eager to take risks.  The very qualities that appeal sometimes seem to limit it–CanLit can seem to willfully circumscribe itself by an unwonted insistence on gravitas and sedateness. Of course there are exceptions (the wonderful and woefully under-appreciated Elyse Friedman comes to mind), but in general, avant-garde writing appears to have few champions in this country.

All this leads to the book I’m writing about: Can’tLit, an anthology showcasing some of the best fiction published in Broken Pencil, a journal devoted to independent arts. The title is an unequivocal statement that the literary climate of Canada does not encourage edgy experimental writing. Hal Niedzviecki, fiction editor of Broken Pencil, writes in his foreword that the magazine publishes “only the most desperate writing, only the stuff that got kicked out of the house before limping over to our office with no place else to go. […] These stories are outcasts. They don’t fit into traditional CanLit…” And assistant fiction editor Richard Rosenbaum says, “You may have noticed that the writing we tend to prize most highly here [in Canada...] is the cold, dull, pastoral, stuff. Little girls growing up in small towns or old women dying in them. The stuff written by people named Margaret.” He adds that “there is a need for [] sharp, offensive urban fiction, for all that all-around weird shit, in the otherwise mostly bland and soulless field of the Canadian literary scene.”

Despite the hyperbole (OTT!), despite Rosenbaum’s low regard for the Margarets  (I wept over The Stone Angel, not being forced to read it in high school and all), I’m sympathetic to his cause. The raison d’etre for this book in essence is CanLit’s insiderism, its refusal to acknowledge or legitimize writing and writers who aren’t easy to label.  Let me stick my neck out and say it: I agree that it is pretty tough for an outsider to break into the Canadian publishing scene, for the gate-keepers of CanLit sometimes appear to welcome new blood only if it matches their type. The notable exception is small presses and progressive magazines, most of  which genuinely encourage new writers and new writing. And with this campaign, I now know of another such venue–the very cool ECW Press, which published this book.

The obvious issue with reviewing a book like Can’tLit is that an excess of edge can be fatal to one’s reading pleasure, like a repast consisting solely of amuse bouches. I got around that problem by reading no more than three stories a day. The pieces vary in widely in length–some two hundred words, and some ten times that. And even as they vary in length, they vary in quality. Neidzviecki warns in his foreword that a few of the stories “might even be badly written”, and he is spot-on. Inasmuch as this assessment depends more heavily than usual on the reviewer’s personal taste, some of the pieces simply try too hard, like a teenager who swears because he thinks it’s shocking. Dude, an overuse of Caps Lock and references to sex don’t make a piece edgy.

But there are some stunners here; the editors of Canada’s finest lit. mags. were apparently  afflicted with collective myopia. There’s “Gynecomastia”, a story about a flat-chested girl acquiring a boyfriend with man-boobs. “Sickness” is memorable as much for its compassion as its perfect execution. There’s  “Natural Selection”, about a relationship featuring eccentric but uneasily familiar characters. There’s angst in these stories, but there’s playfulness too, and the writers are obviously beckoning to the readers to join in the game. Can’tLit makes it clear that there is no dearth of Canadian writers willing to push the boundaries of what words can do. Broken Pencil and ECW Press: for championing the weird, the uncomfortable, the unknown, and the obscure, and all on green paper, I want to buy you a large alcoholic beverage each. Tell me when and where.

END

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon had me at ni hao (thanks, Kai Lan!)

Young Minli, who lives on a poor farm with her mother and father, resolves to find the Old Man on the Moon to ask how she can change her family’s fortune. The Old Man, you see,  is the Guardian of the Book of Fortune, and can answer any question in the world. So Minli sets off to find Never-Ending Mountain to see the Old Man, and along the way, has all sorts of adventures–meeting talking goldfish, selfish monkeys, and a very special dragon who accompanies her on her quest.

Meanwhile, Minli’s parents embark on a different sort of journey, as they endeavor to better fathom their daughter’s actions. A lovely, organic symmetry develops between the tale of Minli and that of her parents, resulting in a deeply satisfying ending.

Lin incorporates several Chinese myths and  folktales into her narrative, and I was surprised to see some that I’d always thought of as Indian tales.  The monkey who refuses to let go the treasure in his fist even at the cost of losing his freedom–surely I’d read that in an Amar Chitra Katha sometime? There must be interesting scholarship out there on the shared roots  of such primordial stories… Meanwhile, I’ll chalk up yet another area of ignorance and move on, to another story that made me uncomplicatedly happy. I’d  last read about the mean shopkeeper, the beggar and a magic peach tree in Grade 3 or so, in my Radiant Reader textbook at Mater Dei Convent school, New Delhi, and I’d forgotten it till now. There’s strong magic about re-discovered tales that work in their second life;  Lin’s telling evoked not just my memory of the story, but of childhood itself,  a time when fables reassured us that life would reward virtue.  If books are still in currency five hundred years from now, Where the Mountain… will be around.

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Where the Mountain meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Genre: Children’s lit. (7 years and over IMO)

Come, Before Evening Falls by Manjul Bajaj

Come, Before Evening Falls takes place in the village of Kaala Saand in Punjab in 1910, and features characters belong to the Jat(t) community, an agrarian sect with a long tradition of working in the armed forces. I was agreeably surprised by this novel setting—most contemporary Indian writing in English is remorselessly urban, as is media reportage; it’s all too easy to forget that seven in every 10 Indians live in a village. Bajaj writes about the period knowledgeably and with affection, and the book gives a real feel for village life a century ago. I’ve learnt a recipe for a poultice involving charred garlic in mustard oil on a half-baked roti, and I also now know how to make a cowpat; let my knowledge never require translation into action, Lord.  Seriously: Bajaj has done some impressive research, and this reader is the richer for it.

Of course, none of this would count if the story didn’t grab me.

Jugni is eighteen, beautiful, and possessed of a calm good sense that flies in the face of her feelings for Raakha, the new school teacher. For Raakha is the bastard son of a second wife, landless and poor, while Jugni is rooted deep in her prosperous family and community. But the deadest fly in this rustic stew is gotra, the Hindu custom of assigning patrilineal clans at birth. Those with the same gotra, like Jugni and Raakha, are considered siblings, even if there isn’t a single shared ancestor over the past twenty generations. (Yes, it’s whack, especially considering the culture welcomes  other consanguineous marriages.)  But gotra laws were considered immutable, and the village would view Jugni and Raakha’s love as incest. Will this relationship die unrealized, caught in a stasis between love and honor? Not if the headstrong Raakha has his way.

Bajaj’s touch is painterly when describing the minutiae of her characters’ lives; when the canvas broadens to include, say, riffs on the British government, or the nature of human kind, she’s much less assured. But there’s some top quality writing here, and the author’s passion and sincerity shine right through, invigorating potential clichés at every turn. The burden of family honor has traditionally (and unreasonably) been placed upon womenfolk in such narratives, but Bajaj subverts that notion; Jugni realizes that honor isn’t gendered, but is simply “what we each owed our own deepest soul.” Jugni and Raakha are utterly convincing, strongly defined and beautifully fleshed in, and Jugni in particular is charming, child-like yet possessed of a surprising maturity. And oh, the secondary characters aren’t half-bad either.

Now for the (minor) bad stuff. I had two issues with this book. One, Bajaj isn’t as disciplined in describing Raakha’s romantic feelings as she is with Jugni’s, so some of the writing (in his POV) veers into romance novel territory. “He had tried his damndest to stay out of her way, to let it not come to this, but the further he had tried to retreat, the clearer her voice had grown in his head.” And on Jugni’s eyes: “If he could just sit and gaze into them uninterrupted he would be redeemed.” Ooogh.

My other nit is with this book is the mixing of Punjabi and English. (Wait, it’s not the nit you expect.) Now, the characters obviously speak in Punjabi, and, equally obviously, Bajaj is trying to impart the flavor of the language in her writing. All good; I don’t mind Punjabi words peppering the text though I don’t speak the language, and I don’t even have a problem with the Hinglish (Pinglish?)spoken by the characters. “I’ll buy you sliver toe-rings at the mela [fair], I promise, and I’ll always steal the best ambis [young mangoes] for you,” says a young cousin. But then, I came across “According to the boys, Tau [uncle] was only satthyao-ing…” The last word makes a gerund of the Hindi word Satthya, meaning to go senile, by adding the English “ing”. Now, this portmanteau word is very clearly Bajaj speaking, for none of the boys could coin such a word–they wouldn’t know how to. The intrusive authorial voice all but broke the spell of the book for me; I saw the author sitting with a Macbook at a Barista typing that line. Get me back to Kaala Saand village and the cowpats, I cried, and Bajaj did, but it was a close thing. As I said earlier, it’s just a nit, but this work is otherwise so strong that the nits might as well be clothed in neon. Please change this when the book goes into reprint, please, please.

UPDATE: A note from the author informs me that the “satthyao-ing” is gone from the second edition.  And that the book is now available on Kindle:  http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007VXRT3K  Buy it, y’all!