mini-reviews: heart’s invisible furies and child finder

I was really focused on non-fiction for a few months there this summer that I felt like I needed a good dose of fiction, and luckily for me there have been some fantastic new releases this year. Here are two that I listened to on audio last month:

Cyril Avery was born to a teenage mom in 1940s Ireland and adopted by a rich family who always let him know he wasn’t “really” one of them. John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a beautiful, engrossing story of a man’s life and his personal journey to uncover his identity and where and with whom he belongs. I’m always attracted to literature coming from and based in Ireland, and I’ve been wanting a great LGBTQ+ story lately too, so this book pleasantly scratched a few itches for me. I’ll be adding more of John Boyne’s books to my TBR list, for sure. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

I loved Rene Denfield‘s last book, The Enchanted, so I knew I had to read The Child Finder when it came out. Naomi, a private investigator with a troubled past, is searching for a girl named Madison, who disappeared a few years earlier. As the plot unfolds through alternating viewpoints, you learn about Naomi’s past and why she is uniquely qualified to be the titular Child Finder, and also about Madison’s experience. It’s very dark and disturbing subject matter—child abduction and all you can expect that goes along with that but it’s not graphic whatsoever—so it’s not necessarily for the faint of heart. But the writing is just as lovely as in The Enchanted, with elements of magical realism (but still heavy on the realism), use of characters’ imaginations, and an otherworldly quality that is emotional without being sappy. I didn’t dig the narrator so much, so I kind of wish I had read on paper, but despite that I did still get pulled in to the story. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

mini-reviews: brown girl dreaming, the hate u give

If you visit me here enough, you’ll know young adult lit is not really my jam. I have trouble with reading about teenage angst and melodrama, so I usually try to stay away from this genre. But in the last year I did end up listening to two good YA titles on audio:

Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming is the story of her childhood told in verse. I may have missed out on something in the audio, as I think seeing verse written down on paper can be powerful and give you pause as to what you’re reading, but I did enjoy the poetic performance on audio (read by the author). Her vignettes about growing up black in the 1960s–70s in New York and South Carolina give a special perspective on Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, conveyed in beautifully rendered, accessible way for all ages. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

In Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, 16-year-old Starr balances between two worlds: living in her poor neighborhood and attending her upscale prep school. One night she witnesses the murder of her unarmed friend Khalil by a policeman. Khalil’s killing makes national news, protesting and riots start, and Starr is the only one who can say what really happened that night. It’s a good book, perhaps just a little on the long side, but at times there were conversations and scenes where I think the overall theme of police brutality against black citizens ends up in the background behind a “black people vs. white people, us vs. them” debate. Racism IS real, rampant, and a national disgrace that needs to be fixed, absolutely. As a white person, this is a hard book to objectively review. I acknowledge I don’t face discrimination like this, I don’t live the black American experience, and I know I have ingrained negative biases I actively work hard abolish in my heart (which I expect to do every day the rest of my life). And absolutely I agree that black Americans are overwhelmingly the targets of the majority of racism (just look at our shameful, horrifying history), and police brutality and racism in general needs attention and solving. But… I don’t agree that some issues and conflicts during scenes in this particular book are quite so black and white (to use the idiom) as the author portrays. I enjoyed the fact that this YA isn’t all about feelings and romance, and really appreciated the important, timely subject matter of this story. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

mini-reviews: kill ’em and leave and metallica: back to the front

As a musician I always have my eye out for great books on music and other musicians, and two books I read this year on the subject did not disappoint.

I’ve had James McBride’s Kill ‘Em and Leave on my radar ever since it came out last year, and finally decided to get to it this month. It wasn’t a typical biography, and I would have liked more about Brown’s experiences touring and more from/about some of his personal relationships, but this is a great book outlining James Brown as a real man. McBride doesn’t sugarcoat Brown’s flaws, but drives the point home how Brown was a powerful influence on generations of Black Americans and musicians. There was more of McBride present than I expected (he complains about his own divorce as the impetus to taking on this writing project, for example), but it bothered me less as I got further into the book. [Listened to audiobook in Sept. 2017.]

I read Metallica: Back to the Front by Matt Taylor to get myself amped for Metallica’s January concert here in Singapore, which was amazing and just what I needed at that time. I waited in line for eight hours and got a spot right up front close to the stage. I moshed for the first time in probably 20 years (still got it!) and was sore for three days afterwards. Anyway! This book is definitely a must for die-hard (and probably even cursory) Metallica fans. It reads like an oral history from all the important players (the band, managers, engineers, road crew, family, friends) about the making of and tour for its seminal 1986 album Master of Puppets. It also serves as a poignant tribute to founding bassist Cliff Burton, who tragically died during the tour in a bus accident. The book itself is beautiful, with tons of gorgeous professional and candid photos. I loved it. [Read in January 2017.]

erotic stories for punjabi widows

Right after I moved to Singapore, I was browsing a bookstore and found a section of works by local authors, one of which was Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal. I bought it then, but of course I haven’t read it yet! A friend of mine here is a fan of Jaswal, and she picked up her latest book Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows and recently loaned it to me. Edited from the book jacket:

When Nikki takes a creative writing job at her local temple, she’s shocked to discover a group of barely literate women who have no interest in her ideas. These are women who have spent their lives in the shadows of fathers, brothers, and husbands, but whose inner lives are as rich and fruitful as their untold stories. As they begin to open up to each other about womanhood, sexuality, and the dark secrets within the community, Nikki realizes that the illicit nature of the class may place them all in danger. East meets West and tradition clashes with modernity in a thought-provoking, cross-cultural novel that might make you look again at the women in your life.

There was a lot I liked about this book. It’s a little bit fluffy (not usually my jam) and took me a little while toget into, but at around the one-third mark it hit a stride for me when the characters started feeling more distinct. It has a lot of things going on, but each theme is necessary to creating this world for the reader: race, age, community, family, friendship, personal autonomy, traditional versus modern lifestyle, and how these all relate, involve, and effect women within Erotic Stories‘s setting: the Sikh community in Southall, London. I loved the titular widows—they were sassy and fun and I enjoyed seeing their bonding and empowerment by the end.

My minor criticisms would involve spoilers, so I’ll refrain here, but I will say they didn’t dampen my overall enjoyment of the book. Erotic Stories succeeds for me in that it opened up a new cultural perspective on feminism in a part of the world and with a group of people to which I new. I appreciated the loan and I look forward to getting around to Sugarbread eventually!

Read in September 2017.

a fine balance (audio)

I’m not sure why, but I felt like re-reading A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry recently. It was available on audio at my library—one of the best ways to re-read a book! From Goodreads:

With a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recall the work of Charles Dickens, this magnificent novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India.

The time is 1975. The place is an unnamed city by the sea. The government has just declared a State of Emergency, in whose upheavals four strangers—a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village—will be thrust together, forced to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future.

As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state.

I first read A Fine Balance in 2012, and absolutely loved it. This book has stayed with me since then and I’m sure I’ll revisit it again in the future. Aside from noting the excellent narration by John Lee on this audiobook version, I’m not sure I have much more to add to my 2012 review, although I think I’d be more casual with my language in a blog post these days:

This book is dark. The characters are destitute, piteous… yet not without hope, not entirely humorless. There are moments of tragicomedy, moments of beauty, moments of love. The four protagonists’ relationships are truly moving and wonderful by the end. You feel so deeply for them—going through so many trying hardships—I was distressed and terrified for them during several scenes. The characters face the inexplicably unjust events in their lives with dignity and courage, though.

Mistry’s prose is delicate and polished, visually and emotionally evocative, and left me breathless at the end. The scope of A Fine Balance is staggering and broad, but the stories of the characters are intimate and complex. At times while reading I found myself thinking a scene here or there, or seemingly random minor characters were perhaps unnecessary, but everything is needed and comes together by the book’s conclusion. Not one thing is superfluous.

While not a pleasant or light read, A Fine Balance is important for its portrait of political/socioeconomic austerity and the depth and substance of the human spirit. The characters became very real for me, and I thought about this story for days after finishing. It is a heartrending, beautiful work and I will definitely follow this author.

It was as good the second time through. I remembered most of it, but I still enjoyed experiencing this story again. I only regret I haven’t read any more by Mistry! I still have a copy of Family Matters on my shelf, waiting to be read.

Listened to audiobook in August 2017.

book club: parable of the sower and bitch planet

This week, my friend Anthony and I held another meeting (online) of our Best Friends International Book Club! I have so much fun reading and discussing books with him. Anthony put it sweetly in a comment on my Instagram:

You encourage me to think deeper and wider with each selection, and I love how this keeps us connected—with each other and the world around us! 😍 [link]

That’s how I feel about him and our club! It means a lot to me to stay connected to my beloved Kansas City family. And although we’re in different countries and drinking different beverages when we have our book club Skype dates, we actually do stay on topic! Mostly! We keep it loose as far as timing our meetings go; we chat when we’re both done with the books and when we’re available.

First, we read Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler. It was the first Butler book for either of us. In 2025, society is descending into a chaotic collapse. Headstrong teenager Lauren’s family is killed and her home is destroyed, so she and a few neighbors journey north to a rumored safe haven. Along the way they encounter dangers and new people, and Lauren reveals her plans for a new religion. Lauren also has a condition called “hyperempathy,” which allows her to physically feel the pain of others. I was struck by how prescient and insightful Butler was in her description of this near-future America: privatization, climate change, gender and race issues, religion, the opioid crisis, and more. It’s an important addition to the science fiction genre for these reasons, plus being written by a woman of color. Unfortunately, the book didn’t entirely live up to the hype and rave reviews for me. The religion aspect turned me off, as did the hyperempathy. I always have trouble with epistolary novels, too—Sower is basically Lauren’s diary. I’d rather be shown the action than be told about it after the fact. I think this may actually be a YA book, too, which are usually hard for me to get into. I was interested in the The Road-like journey the crew takes north, though. I wonder if I would have liked Sower better if the religion and hyperempathy had been cut? These parts bothered Anthony less, but overall he felt the same. We decided this first book in Butler’s Earthseed series was enough for us. But! I’m not writing off Butler entirely; I’m looking forward to reading Kindred one day. [Read ebook in May 2017.]

Bitch Planet, Book One by DeConnick and De Landro was our second pick for this discussion. In another near-future dystopia, if women don’t comply with the behavioral and beauty expectations placed upon them by the patriarchal leadership, they are arrested and sent away from Earth to a prison planet. The plot (so far) involves the “non-compliant” women being forced to compete in an all-male game called Megaton in order to “spice up” the event, and there’s corruption in the government and prison, etc. I love how in-your-face this graphic novel is, and how the women are non-apologetic and kick-ass. I’m really interested in seeing where this is going. I do wish there was more backstory, and I felt it drag when the focus shifted to men on Earth just talking about Bitch Planet. Otherwise, I think Bitch Planet has a great premise and is an excellent, creative way to get readers thinking and talking about intersectional feminism, the prison industrial complex, sexism, societal expectations of women, and more. Anthony felt the same way, so we chose Bitch Planet, Book Two for our next discussion. He also mentioned the best part: the hilarious fake ads at the end of each issue! [Read in May 2017.]

Our next choices for BFIBC are Bitch Planet, Book Two, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Chris Hayes’s A Colony in a Nation. I’m excited!