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: the girls and we were liars

I read two books that revolved around teen girls last year, which is a subject completely outside my typical wheelhouse (even when I was a teen girl myself)!

The Girls by Emma Cline was getting a lot of rave reviews last summer, and despite the wretched title I was intrigued in the general plot: troubled girl becomes mixed up with the Manson family in its early days. I’m fascinated by this subject matter—cults, true crime, etc.—and I absolutely loved Helter Skelter when I read it in 2014, so The Girls definitely piqued my interest. While the writing was great, unfortunately the story itself didn’t live up to the hype for me. I wanted it to be more an insider’s viewpoint of a cult, more about the leader and how he brainwashes the girls into committing crimes, and it didn’t go into these things at all. The main character, Evie, was really an outsider throughout the book. It was a quick, easy summer read, though. I liked it but didn’t love it. [Read in August 2016.]

The other book about teens I read last year was We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. This came across in my audio recommendations and I recalled a lot of hype when it came out advertising a big twist, and I noticed it was short and I didn’t have anything else in my queue at that moment, so I gave it a try. Fans of YA literature would and probably do love this book, and the twist is decent enough (although I figured it out about halfway through). But this just proved to me once again that YA isn’t for me. I just cannot deal with all the teen drama and angst—I was hate-listening by the end. [Listened to audiobook in September 2016.]

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.

mini-reviews: underground girls, thousand splendid suns

Catching up on posting book reviews from what I read last year has been a lot of fun so far! Next on my list was The Underground Girls of Kabul, which I realized is a great companion piece to a book I just recently finished, A Thousand Splendid Suns. I learned a lot from both of these excellent books.

I listened to Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul on audio about a year ago on a road trip and found it riveting. Like many Americans, I’m sure, I had no idea about the practice of bacha posh, disguising daughters as sons because boys are more valued, in Afghanistan. Honestly I didn’t know much about Afghanistan culture in general before encountering this book. Nordberg profiles a handful of bacha posh women and girls, and how it has shaped their lives both personally and professionally. It is a fascinating account of gender norms as they relate to culture and society, as well as perceptions of temperament and opportunities (or lack thereof) in Afghanistan. The book also examines the complexities of gender identity and its value in global and historical contexts. It was a really worthwhile read I wholly recommend. [Listened to audiobook in March 2016.]

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini had been on my TBR for about five years! Splendid Suns is the story of two women, Miriam and Laila, whose lives intertwine when they become married to the same man—Miriam first and Laila, fifteen years younger than Miriam, a couple decades later. Hosseini’s writing positively aches; I felt so deeply for these women and the hardships they endured throughout their lives. Much like Underground GirlsSplendid Suns bring readers inside daily lives of women living in Afghanistan with its political unrest and societal rules. I wish the characters had been more fully realized (three-dimensional), and some of the “history lessons” peppered throughout were somewhat clunky, but overall it’s a heartrending story that deserves its enduring popularity. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

reading recap: september 2016

We’re almost through October all of a sudden! Time is a little weird for me here in Singapore, firstly because I’m on “temporary unlimited vacation” (code for job-free) right now, and secondly because the weather is such that it’s basically perpetually August. So I sort of feel like every day is an August Saturday, and it’s tough to make myself get on the computer these days when I have pretty much zero routine. But when I realized October is almost over, I figured I should put up my September books and try to get myself back on track! Here’s what I read in September:

sept-reading

  • My Life on the Road … Gloria Steinem
  • Station Eleven … Emily St. John Mandel
  • The Vegetarian … Han Kang
  • We Were Liars (audio) … E. Lockhart, read by Ariadne Meyers
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (audio) … Dee Brown, read by Grover Gardner
  • The Underground Railroad (ebook) … Colson Whitehead
  • Yes, Chef (audio) … Marcus Samuelsson, read by author

My two best reads of the month were Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Station Eleven. I’d been wanting to read Bury My Heart forever, maybe since high school, and it was just as devastating and infuriating as I knew it would be, but so important and one that every American should read. I bought Station Eleven almost right after it was first released, but kept putting it off—that whole thing where you’re worried a book won’t live up to the hype or expectations. But luckily it totally did live up to the hype (for me). I loved how it was a different look at society’s not only practical but also cultural needs after a collapse, and that the reader is shown the process of and reason for the collapse rather than just the aftermath (as in so many future-dystopia books I’ve read).

The Vegetarian was brief but interesting and strange, and I thought about it quite a long time after finishing. We Were Liars, also a brief read, was kind of predictable and reminded me (once AGAIN) that I should not pick up YA lit. But I do understand the appeal, no judgement here of those who love YA. I love a good food memoir, and Yes, Chef was enjoyable enough and he certainly has had a incredible life and career, even if I didn’t “click” with Samuelsson so much on a personal level like I did with other memiorists. Like I did with Gloria Steinem in My Life on the Road. I shamefully didn’t know much about her life before reading this book, and I really enjoyed “tagging along” on her travels and speaking engagements (so to speak). Her insight on the 2008 democratic race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was illuminating, especially at this moment eight years later.

And here’s my unpopular opinion of the month: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad didn’t really do it for me. While the subject matter is extremely important and timely even today, the characters fell flat and the plot felt disjointed for me. I’m the odd one out it seems, looks like the majority of readers were blown away, so don’t let my feelings stop you from reading it if it’s on your list.

October recap coming next week (on time!)
monthly recap image

we need new names

Onward with my ebook challenge! Book no. 4 is We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. Edited from Goodreads:

Darling is only ten years old, and yet she must navigate a fragile and violent world. In Zimbabwe, Darling and her friends steal guavas, try to get the baby out of young Chipo’s belly, and grasp at memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the school closed, before the fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad. But Darling has a chance to escape: she has an aunt in America. She travels to this new land in search of America’s famous abundance only to find that her options as an immigrant are perilously few.

I read through this quickly over a weekend, so it perhaps didn’t quite have the greatest impact on me?? The difficulties and suffering that do exist in this book just didn’t resonate with me as much as I would have expected. I had a little trouble with the vocabulary (neighborhoods in the Zimbabwe town called “Budapest” and “Paradise” tripped me up at first, stuff like that). It could be the short story vibe of this one—while not really a short story collection, many of the chapters could be stand-alone and overall it felt like several events linked together rather than one long narrative. That’s just me though, short stories aren’t exactly my thing. Still a good read, though, and I’m glad I finally got around to it.

Bulawayo’s characters feel very real, at least some of them do, and for sure Darling is a dynamic and interesting character. Darling, at just 10 years old, is opinionated and funny, with a toughness right off the bat that has you rooting for her all the way through the book, and you witness her growth in how her voice distinctively changes as a teenager in the States. The first half was raw and gritty and heartbreaking, but the second half, when Darling is older in America, really drives the points home of “different similarities” between coming of age in Africa vs. the United States. Despite the tragedy and horrors they faced in Zimbabwe as children, they are still hopeful and dream of better futures for themselves.

We Need New Names might have a few too many elements in it—immigration, culture shock, coming of age, world relations, poverty, etc.—but Bulawayo does tie them together in a meaningful, cohesive way, and creatively through the eyes of Darling.

We Need New Names is my fourth of twelve books read for my Ebook Challenge.

Read from June 19 to 22, 2015.