Amina Mazid is a woman living in Bangladesh, and at twenty-four, she is about to be married. Not to just anyone, though - Amina is going to move to Rochester, New York with her new husband George Stillman, whom she met on an online dating site. Amina is excited to build a future in a new country with her new husband, but she has unrevealed desires and hopes of which she tells George nothing. What Amina doesn’t know, though, is that George is harboring his own secrets that could tear their delicate marriage apart. The Legend of Pradeep Mathew W.G. Karunasena (also called Wije) is a sportswriter who has spent his life drinking his days away. Now, his doctor informs him that, unless he stops drinking, he will die soon. Instead of doing the responsible thing, Wije chooses to continue with this lifestyle and decides to make a documentary about the history of Sri Lankan cricket. He wants to focus on Pradeep Mathew, a cricketer that almost everyone else has forgotten about, but finds difficulty at every turn in his search for information. Who was Pradeep Mathew, and why do people not want his story told? Lovetorn Shalini is a teenager whose life has been upended: her father received a great job offer in the United States, and now she and her family are leaving India to settle in a new country. Shalini doesn’t know what to expect in America, but she knows things will be very different. In India, she lives in a house with all her aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents; she doesn’t know what it is like to be alone. What’s more, she has been promised since her third birthday to Vikram, the son of a family friend. She has known she is going to marry him her entire life and finds comfort in that stability. But now she has been torn away from the boy she loves, will Shalini be able to settle in America and enjoy her new experiences, or will her heart always be in India? India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India Akash Kapur was born in India, but has spent much of his life in the United States. In 2003, he decided to move his family back to India for good, excited about the transformation the country was undergoing. But what he found over the course of his years back in India weren’t what he expected: the modernity that India is pursuing comes at a high cost, and he wonders if the price was too much. American Dervish Hayat Shah is a Pakistani-American boy living with his parents. His parents’ relationship isn’t ideal, but the family gets by. That is, until Hayat’s mother’s best friend arrives from India. Mina changes everything in the Shah household. The atmosphere becomes softer, less difficult, and Mina teaches Hayat about Islam and the Qur’an. But as things begin to change, Hayat clings to Quranic teachings, and is forced to learn difficult lessons about what he is capable of. The World We Found In college, Laleh, Kavita, Nishta, and Armaiti were the closest of friends. They were young and idealistic, sharing political views and supporting each other in the knowledge that as individuals, they could change the world. Thirty years later, they have each settled into their own lives; Laleh is married to her college sweetheart Adish, while Kavita hides the fact that she is a lesbian from those closest to her. Nishta has disappeared from the group of friends with her Muslim husband Iqbal. But when Armaiti calls from the United States with the news that she has a brain tumor, the friends must come together once again, for the last time. Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi In his book, Steve Inskeep chronicles the rise of Karachi, Pakistan, what he terms an “instant city.” In 1941, before the Partition of India and Pakistan, Karachi was a city of just 350,000 people. Only seventy years later, its population is over thirty million. Inskeep discusses the history of this vibrant Pakistani city, focusing on what this rapid growth has meant for Karachi. The Whole Story of Half a Girl Sonia Nadhamuni’s life is changing drastically as she enters the sixth grade. Her father has lost his job and sunk into a depression, and her mother is working harder than ever to provide for her family. Sonia no longer can attend the prestigious private school she has loved her whole life. She is sent to a public school, leaving behind her friends and everything she knows, and she must find her place in this unfamiliar world. A Million Suns After the horrible events that led to the death of Eldest and the incapacitation of Orion, Elder has now assumed leadership of the Godspeed. But since taking the inhabitants of the ship off the drug that has kept them obedient, Elder’s leadership position is in jeopardy. What’s more, Amy is still having trouble fitting in aboard Godspeed, and her situation has become dangerous with the growing unrest. When Elder and Amy discover that there are yet more secrets to uncover about the Godspeed, her mission, and the “Plague”, they race to find this knowledge before it’s too late. Unsaid Though Helena has died, she is finding trouble letting go of the world she knew so well. As a veterinarian, she knew and loved many animals, but she can’t help but feel that her life was completely meaningless. As Helena follows her bereft husband, David, he must learn to live without his beloved wife, struggling with the legacy she left behind. The Thorn and the Blossom: A Two-Sided Love Story Evelyn Morgan is visiting Cornwall when she meets Brendan Thorne in a small village bookstore. They immediately forge a connection that spans many years and different continents in this unexpected love story. Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal When he was 29, Conor Grennan decided that he wanted to take a trip around the world for one year. But when he realized that sounded incredibly self-indulgent, he amended his plan: he would start off the trip in Nepal, helping orphan children for three months. After all, what sounds more selfless than working at orphanage? But when Grennan arrives in Nepal, he immediately realizes he is in over his head. What he is unaware of, though, is how much those three months and the twenty boys at Little Princes orphanage will change him. Untold Story In this “what if” novel, Ali tackles the question of Princess Diana of Wales, and specifically, what would have happened if she had faked her death? It’s now 10 years later, and “Lydia” has settled comfortably into her new life. She has friends and is a volunteer at the local animal shelter, and though she has some regrets, such as leaving her boys behind, she enjoys her quiet life in the American Midwest. But when a royal photographer happens to be in her small town, Lydia’s perfect life could come crashing down around her all over again. Saraswati’s Way Sonia Gandhi: An Extraordinary Life, an Indian Destiny The Good Muslim State of Wonder The Full Moon Bride Vanished An Atlas of Impossible Longing Karma Miss Timmins’ School for Girls The Way Things Look To Me The Immortals Bijou Roy Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity The Last Brother Radio Shangri-La (What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth) Haunting Jasmine Exit the Actress Karan Seth, a photographer working in Bombay, decides that he wants to capture the essence of the city through his pictures. He receives the difficult assignment of photographing Samar Arora, a famous pianist who is incredibly private. He becomes friends with Arora and through him, is exposed to an entirely new side of Bombay, one with darkness and secrets, but also the lightness of being and joy of life. Luka and the Fire of Life Luka and the Fire of Life is the story of Luka Khalifa, younger brother to Haroun of “Haroun and the Sea of Stories.” Luka is envious of Haroun, as he got to go on an adventure to Earth’s second moon in order to save their father’s storytelling abilities. Even though this happened before he was born, Luka is frustrated - when will he get to go on an adventure? Luka gets more than he bargained for, though, when his father Rashid Khalifa falls ill and it’s up to Luka to save him. Vastu-Science – Understanding Harmony The Emperor of All Maladies -- Review by Swapna Krishna Shadow Play Famed author Raj Chakraborti is missing, and the only thing there is to explain his disappearance is this manuscript, left for his editor. Told in alternating chapters that vary between an autobiography and a thriller that seems to be fictional, this is the tale of a man on the run, whether because he’s hunted or crazy is unclear. The Unexpected Son The Pleasure Seekers Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void Eating Animals Half Life Secret Daughter Letter to My Daughter 2 States Review By Hena Sharma The concept of a “mixed marriage” in the western world usually refers to a marriage between partners of different ethnic backgrounds or races. However, among most Indian-Americans, a mixed marriage can also easily refer to Indian couples from different parts of India itself (with differing regional languages), or different religions (Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Muslim, etc.), or different castes, or all of the above. Chetan Bhagat, an IITD/IIMA graduate and bestselling author, based his latest book, “2 States,” on his own experience of attending college, meeting a girl from a different Indian region than his own, and of their ensuing relationship, family troubles and resulting “mixed marriage.” Bhagat’s previous books have inspired movies, with the most recent one being the movie “3 Idiots,” based on his book, “Five Point Someone” that draws upon his IIT/IIM experiences. Hena Sharma is a software developer living in Cary, The Sari Shop Widow Review By Swapna Krishna I’ve really enjoyed Shobhan Bantwal’s books. Her novels “The Dowry Bride” and “The Forbidden Daughter” both dealt with controversial subjects in Indian society. They were engaging novels that I enjoyed reading, so when I heard she had another novel coming out, I couldn’t resist it. “The Sari Shop Widow” is llighter in tone than Bantwal’s previous books, but it’s as captivating. Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul Review by Hena Sharma Many people make New Year’s Resolutions to help motivate them into making positive changes in their lives. Sometimes all that is needed is a changed point-of-view to see a situation in a different light. Other times a breakthrough is needed in order to get out of a negative thought pattern and move forward. Bestselling author and motivational speaker Deepak Chopra’s books often challenge the reader to experience breakthroughs in thinking in order to improve quality of life. His latest book is no different in this regard. Chopra presents the concept that the human physical body is a constantly changing collection of cells, and that only by adding the element of our awareness, energy, or soul do we truly exist. Chopra has received numerous accolades as a motivational, spiritual speaker, but sometimes deciphering his message from his books can prove to be difficult, and sometimes confusing. NurtureShock Shanghai Girls Review by Hena Sharma Lisa See is an author that can portray the sights, smells, and sounds of a story with such compelling detail that the reader is pulled instantly into the scenes she paints with her words. Her latest novel, “Shanghai Girls,” follows the story of two sisters from China whose lives take them on a journey from an upper-class, comfortable life prior to the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 China, to interrogations at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco, then to living in Chinatown in the Hollywood area. Have a Little Faith The Second Opinion The Marriage Bureau for Rich People The Weight of Heaven By Hena Sharma “The Weight of Heaven,” by Thrity Umrigar is a gripping story about Frank and Ellie, an American couple trying to come to terms with the loss of their young son. The reader is immediately pulled into the couple’s pain of losing a child, but the story is not only about a family overcoming grief. The characters’ personal struggle, their relationship as a couple, and the impact on the community around them are the complex ideas that Umrigar weaves into a compelling story. Review by Samir Shukla The New Vegetarian Grill The New Vegetarian Grill is an updated version of Andrea Chesman’s much-loved book on grilling vegetarian meals. There are no photos of finished dishes, some may find that as a shortcoming of the book, but the lack of photos also leaves more room for recipes. And recipes galore, from kabobs to grilled deserts. The book features 250 recipes “flame-kissed” as the author puts it. There are many unusual combinations and grilling techniques presented here including quesadillas, grilled Portobello salad with Roquefort dressing, lentil-stuffed pita pockets with grilled onions, veggie fajitas with chipotle sour cream, white pizza with leeks and peppers, Tandoori-style vegetable kabobs, and grilled nectarines with Mascarpone Cream. You get the picture. This book is not only for vegetarians. Even meat grillers will find tasty ideas and recipes that can enhance their meals with numerous veggie options next time they fire up their grills. There are chapters on sandwiches, pizzas and flatbreads, appetizers, soups and kebabs as well as marinades, glazes, sauces, and desserts. It’s filled with a variety of easy dishes for gas grills, charcoal grills, or a simple campfire grill sizzling under an open sky. The expanded introductory chapter features helpful information on current equipment options such as pellet grills, grill pans, built-in grills, and indoor grilling machines. This new collection adds 50 new recipes along with improved techniques and equipment to the original edition. It’s simple. Open the book, find something you like, and fire up the grill.
Author: Nell Freudenberger
“The Newlyweds” is a beautifully depicted cross-cultural story of two very different people. The novel is told from Amina’s point of view, and her story is, in some ways, a very sad one. She is leaving everything she knows and loves in hopes that she will have a better future with George in America. But, at the same time, she doesn’t feel that she can truly confide in George. From the beginning, she wants her parents to come live with her and George in Rochester, yet she knows that George isn’t willing to invite them into their home permanently. This lack of communication is telling and characterizes the marriage for much of the novel.
It’s interesting when the main character isn’t necessarily the most sympathetic, which is the case in “The Newlyweds.” That’s not to say that Amina isn’t likeable, but that it’s George who many will likely feel for the most. The cultural differences between Amina and George are vast, yet it’s often him, rather than her, who is willing to bridge the gap. It brings up the question of compromise, which is so important in marriage and is relevant whether your marriage is cross-cultural or not. It also will provoke thoughts of what Amina might owe George - is she beholden to him for marrying her and providing her with a chance at a better life, or is that to be expected because he’s in love with her?
That being said, Amina is a woman that readers will fall in love with, despite her flaws, or rather, because of them. She is torn between what she wants and what George wants, what her culture dictates versus what might make her marriage a little better, a little easier. Her experiences in Rochester with a brand new culture make for a quintessential immigrant tale, and Amina’s thoughts about the process illustrate it beautifully.
Nell Freudenberger’s writing in “The Newlyweds” is poetic. She constructs her characters so carefully, with such art, that the reader comes to know them intimately by the end of the novel. It’s difficult to remember that Amina is part of Fredenberger’s imagination, rather than a woman living her life in Rochester, beyond the confines of the book.
This is a quiet novel that speaks in whispers, in hushed tones that contain incisive observations and profound thoughts. It’s not about explosive revelations or twists and turns; instead, it’s about subtlety. In fact, it’s difficult to understand exactly what the driving force of the novel is. In a less talented author’s hands, it could have easily been boring, dragging on for chapters where nothing happens. But Freudenberger makes this novel as compelling as any fast-paced thriller. Readers will race to discover what happens to Amina as she tries to find her way in the United States. Freudenberger has left the novel open-ended, and readers will clamor for a sequel as no one will be quite ready to let go of Amina and George when the last pages are finished.
Author: Shehan Karunatilaka
When I first heard about “The Legend of Pradeep Mathew,” I had no idea it was the same book that had been published as “Chinaman” in other countries (though the change of name is wise, especially for US audiences, yes?). “Chinaman” won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2012, and when it was awarded, I lamented that the book wasn’t available in the US. Now it is, and that made me even more excited to pick up “The Legend of Pradeep Mathew.” (And let me add that chinaman isn’t meant to be offensive - it’s the word used to describe a left-arm spinner in cricket.)
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a fan of cricket. It’s not my game; I don’t really understand the rules, as much as I’ve tried. Therefore, the fact that “The Legend of Pradeep Mathew” is about a cricket player gave me some pause; that is, until I started reading the book. I was instantly taken in by Karunatilaka’s unique writing style. It’s at once engaging, but never pretentious. The words flow easily and beautifully, but the prose is never so lofty as to lose the reader or abandon the story in favor of poetry. It’s a lovely balance, and makes for a great reading experience.
The novel is centered on Wije’s search for Pradeep Mathew. It’s clear from the beginning that someone or something is standing in Wije’s way. Time and again, he’s promised full funding if he drops his inquiries into Mathew, or he watches as people come forward with information about the cricketer and then disappear. This mystery is one of the driving forces in the story, and Karunatilaka does a wonderful job renewing and keeping it fresh over the course of the book.
“The Legend of Pradeep Mathew” isn’t necessarily written for cricket fans, as the narrator states:
“If you’ve never seen a cricket match; if you have and it has made you snore; if you can’t understand why anyone would watch, let alone obsess over this dull game, then this is the book for you.”
That being said, an understanding of the sport can only help while reading it. I’ll admit there were times I was completely lost, though Karunatilaka does an excellent job explaining as much as he can without being repetitive. He weaves in Sri Lankan history with the cricket, and this is where the novel really shines. It’s smart and well-written; readers will close the book with a newfound understanding of cricket and Sri Lankan history, politics, and the current issues the country faces.
In the end, “The Legend of Pradeep Mathew” is a genius of a book with a powerful twist at the end that will leave readers with dropped jaws. The novel is not exactly what you think of when you hear the term “South Asian literature”; it’s not tragic or heavy. In fact, it’s actually very funny, full of unique and well-developed primary and secondary characters that will stick with the reader long after the last pages are turned. It’s a story of real life, of love and obsession, of history and culture, and it’s an amazing thing to behold.
- Reviews by Swapna Krishna
Author: Kavita Daswani
Despite its “ripped from the headlines”-esque title, “Lovetorn” is actually a cute little book. Needless to say, she isn’t thrilled about leaving everything she knows. She has a good life in India - friends, family, and a boyfriend she knows she will marry one day. Why would she want to leave all that behind? As Shalini experiences growing pains and adjusts to life in the US, readers will really feel for her. I cringed at times on her behalf, with full knowledge what would happen when Shalini wore her best “frock” for her first day at school. Her introduction to America teenage society certainly isn’t easy, nor isn’t it a positive experience.
But soon, Shalini begins to adjust to her new life. She finds a best friends and a group with which to belong. All of a sudden, she begins to wonder about what she has taken for granted her entire life - should she marry Vikram? Is that the correct path for her? It’s heartbreaking to see such a young girl having to deal with such serious issues as marriage. While the certainty of how her future was going to turn out might have been a comfort to Shalini, it also means that she was denied the right to make such an important decision for herself. It’s not about the “right” path so much, but just that Shalini has the freedom to experience life and then decide for herself what is in her own best interest.
Daswani adds layers to “Lovetorn” through Shalini’s mother. To put it mildly, she doesn’t adjust to life in the US well, putting an even larger burden on her daughter’s shoulders. I have no doubt that many immigrants must deal with this difficult situation, so it’s gratifying that Daswani chose to include it. Depression is by no means an easy issue, and it’s only natural that being away from home and your support network would exacerbate it.
All in all, “Lovetorn” is a sweet, quick read about an appealing teenage girl. What I appreciated about Daswani’s treatment of the issues in this novel is that she doesn’t ram an agenda down the readers’ throat. She doesn’t try to say that either Indian or American culture is better, simply that it’s important to have the right to have your own experiences and choose your own destiny. Both American and Indian teenagers will find something to appreciate in this novel.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Akash Kapur
There have been many books and memoirs written about India’s changing state, its societal inequalities, and the potential the country has for growth. Many have examined the difficult social issues that India is facing, as well as its extreme poverty juxtaposed against the glittering cities it holds. The subject isn’t new, but it certainly is fascinating, and Akash Kapur gives it his own unique spin in “India Becoming.”
Kapur’s memoir/travelogue/social and cultural commentary sets itself apart from other books because of his circumstances. Not only was he born in India, and thus had some sort of true frame of reference for the changes he was witnessing, but he settled in a smaller town, rather than in one of the bigger cities like Mumbai or Bangalore. As a result, it’s easier for him to see the difficult changes that India’s people, especially its rural workers and farmers, are facing. It’s a refreshing difference that he doesn’t focus on the cities, where it seems like everything is happening.
“India Becoming” is structured as a series of anecdotes about the people Kapur meets during his time in India. It’s through this prism that he analyzes the benefits and costs of modern-day India. His voice is steady, guiding the reader through the pages, so though the book’s overarching narrative thread is weak, he never loses the reader’s attention. His depiction of India is startling, though he doesn’t go for cheap shock value. Instead, he presents an honest, true depiction of India, with many weaknesses, but also some encouraging strengths.
There is so much talk about the promise of India and its bright future on the world stage, but it’s important to remember that potential for growth comes with costs. Kapur reminds the reader of this with his graceful prose. He is a wonderful storyteller and his depiction of “ordinary” Indians in a changing society is fascinating. Here’s hoping he follows up this book with another, as there is so much more story to tell.
Author: Ayad Akhtar
(Little, Brown and Company)
“American Dervish” is a novel of contradictions. There is so much beauty, hope, and love in this novel that it is spilling out of the pages, yet these feelings are tempered by the ugliness of narrow mindedness and racism. Hayat is an appealing young boy, bright and eager to learn. It’s clear that he has become somewhat lost in the struggles between his parents, so when Mina arrives and showers attention on him, its Hayat’s dream come true. He can’t help but develop a crush on her as they study the Qur’an, and through the book, he finds peace.
Akhtar captures the simultaneous beauty and ugliness of religion perfectly in “American Dervish.” He shows Islam as a religion of peace, something which can bring solace to an open soul. His portrayal of Islam is simple, yet gorgeous; through Akhtar’s prose, the religion’s appeal is completely understandable. Yet somehow, Akhtar also manages to show the reader the darker sides of Islam just as well. From the dangers that stem from a literal interpretation of the Qur’an to the closed-mindedness of some in Muslim communities, he does not shy away from these more difficult aspects. It’s incredibly well done, a nuanced portrait of a religion that, like any other, is subject to interpretation by its followers. However, even in the darkest points of the novel, the reader has Mina to remind them of Islam’s beauty and wonder.
The novel focuses on the effect that religion can have on a young, naïve mind through Hayat, and it’s not a pretty picture. Hayat becomes more difficult and misguided as the novel progresses. Because Akhtar took so much care in developing him, Hayat never loses the reader’s sympathy, but it’s difficult to watch him go down this path. It’s an excellent commentary on the interplay between strict religious beliefs and modern life, especially in a child.
Although the subject matter of “American Dervish” isn’t always the easiest to read - issues such as racism, adultery, and abuse permeate the novel - Akhtar’s prose lightens what would otherwise be a heavy burden. His gorgeous writing keeps the book from ever becoming too much and shows the reader the small joys of everyday life. I cannot say enough about how readable Akhtar’s prose is.
I feel like I have gone on and on about this book, yet barely scratched its surface. It’s difficult to describe exactly why this book is so good. The expert character development, relevant issues, amazing prose - they all come together to create something that is truly incredible.
- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Thrity Umrigar
“The World We Found” is a beautiful novel full of lingering hope and the despair of facing what life has become. When these women were in college, they lifted each other up when their country was trying to tear them down. They were closer than friends, perhaps even closer than family - they were comrades. Through the prism of these four women, Umrigar examines the complicated nature of female friendships. Despite everything they experienced, each still held something back from the others. It’s an amazingly nuanced and realistic portrayal of how women’s friendships work, and the loss and loneliness that results in not being able to fully share yourself with those closest to you.
One of the main themes running through “The World We Found” is that of religion. After Nishta married Iqbal, she disappeared into Muslim society, though she was originally Hindu. When Kavita and Laleh go looking for her, they are shocked at what they find; over the years, Iqbal has transformed from the genial man they knew into a cold and unyielding person who places his religion above all else and rigidly controls his wife’s actions. He could easily have been made a caricature of a fundamentalist Muslim, yet Umrigar doesn’t let the reader judge that easily. She takes the reader into Iqbal’s head and makes the reader see the horrible things he’s experienced and the small solace he finds in his religion. Just as many have judged all Muslims to be a certain way, Iqbal does the same of Hindus, assuming they disdain and disrespect him. It’s incredibly interesting to see stereotypes turned on their heads and is very thought provoking.
Umrigar gives each of these women - Nishta, Kavita, Armaiti, and Laleh - their own distinct personalities and voices. There are multiple narrators in this novel, and it could have easily become confusing, discerning who is telling the story at any given point. Yet Umrigar took such care with her characters, giving each of them a memorable personality, whether vibrant and brash like Laleh’s or subdued and repressed like Nishta’s, such that it’s easy to tell them apart. Umrigar thrusts the reader into these women’s heads as she reveals their deepest thoughts; they become friends, rather than mere characters on a page.
“The World We Found” also delves into turbulent periods of Indian history; the social and political unrest of the 1970s, as well as the Hindu-Muslim riots of the early ‘90s. The reader really gets a sense of the uncertainty of these time periods, especially through Iqbal’s eyes. While what he experiences could drive a person to the deepest depths of despair, the novel is never despondent. It deals with difficult issues, harsh realities of life, but it is not depressing or heavy. It is ultimately a beautiful, uplifting novel that tells us that even in the darkest times, there is always the light of friendship and love.
This is one of those books that could be discussed for days, as readers dissect the characters, situations, and issues presented within it. I’ve only scratched the surface with this review. As a result, it would make an excellent book club pick. Umrigar fans shouldn’t hesitate to pick this book up, but it has such broad appeal that I would recommend it to almost anyone. Whether you’re a fan of novels about women’s friendships, cultural fiction, current events, difficult religious issues, or are just looking for a book that has unfathomable depths along with a lot of heart, I can’t recommend “The World We Found” highly enough.
- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Steve Inskeep
(The Penguin Press)
Steve Inskeep uses Karachi as a lens for the “instant city,” a phenomenon that is occurring all over the world. With the rise of the urban, rural dwellers in third world countries are fleeing to cities in the hope of finding a better life. Instead, what they find is an overcrowded metropolis that cannot support the number of people that have flocked to it. Inadequate sewer systems, a lack of housing, and bad public transportation are just a few of the problems these instant cities, never given the chance to develop organically as other cities, face today.
Karachi is somewhat unique in the phenomenon of instant cities because it must also face religious and sectarian violence. Inskeep uses this, and specifically a bombing of a Shi’a religious event, as a prism to discuss the problems, both historical and modern, that plague Karachi. For example, many of the shop owners whose properties were destroyed wonder if the bombing wasn’t politically motivated, as a way to remove the shops in order to build lucrative high rise apartments. It’s an incredibly interesting discussion, and a good indication of the corruption present in the Pakistani political structure. Though that may not have been the real reason behind the destruction, it’s telling that the shop owners suspected it could be the cause.
Inskeep approaches the task as a journalist, using interviews and personal experiences in order to frame his narrative, and it works well to keep the reader engaged in the story. He puts a human face on the issues Karachi is facing, such that the reader becomes personally involved in the story he is trying to tell. However, the downside to this approach is that the reader doesn’t get a comprehensive and cohesive narrative of modern Karachi. Instead, it’s fragmented and a bit choppy, and Inskeep has a tendency to repeat himself.
Still, “Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi” is a book worth reading. Inskeep does a wonderful job illuminating the rise of the instant city and highlighting the problems they face. His writing style is clear and engaging; the narrative never becomes dry, and easily keeps the reader’s attention.
- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Veera Hiranandani
(Delacorte Books for Young Readers)
In “The Whole Story of Half a Girl,” we are introduced to Sonia Nadhamuni, a girl who thinks she is a half, rather than a whole. With an Indian father and a Jewish mother, Sonia feels like she is neither Indian, nor Jewish. She struggles to find some sort of identity while also trying to fit in at her new school. She wants to stay true to herself, but friends are also important to Sonia. But how does she know whether she’s betraying who she is in order to fit in if Sonia doesn’t really know herself in the first place?
Hiranandani portrays a confused and lost girl on the verge of adolescence, someone desperately seeking some sort of identity in the confused world she finds herself in.
Sonia is an endearing character, a well-written and fully realized young woman. Hiranandani did an admirable job fleshing her out; she is realistically flawed. While Sonia doesn’t always make the right choices, the reader can always understand why and sympathize with what she’s experiencing. Her troubles at home also contribute to Sonia’s confusion; she doesn’t know how to handle what is going on around her.
“The Whole Story of Half a Girl” is funny, engaging, and has a memorable protagonist in Sonia. The answers to her problems never come to her easily and are often realistically messy. It’s gratifying to watch Sonia grow up over the course of the book and really see her find an identity, and even moreso for her to realize that it’s okay to be half. Being half-Jewish and half-Indian might be confusing, but it’s something to embrace, and Hiranandani portrays that struggle for identity beautifully in her debut novel.
- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Beth Revis
This book left me torn. The first half of it is frustrating, to say the least. Amy continued to drive me batty, as she did in “Across the Universe,” but this time, Elder joined in as well. I had sympathy for him – he was trying to do the right thing by his people and to be a true leader – yet he shows his very tender age through his actions. He is incredibly naïve when it comes to leadership; though he has given the Godspeed’s inhabitants the gift of choice by taking them off Phydus, he still expects to automatically be their leader. He can’t understand why some of them aren’t happy with the situation. Again and again, he makes the wrong decisions, and while he is in a very difficult position, it’s clear he has no idea what he’s doing.
What’s more, one of my favorite things about “Across the Universe” – the fact that the romantic storyline was toned down – isn’t the case in “A Million Suns.” Elder struggles with his feelings for Amy while also trying to lead the ship. While I won’t say it’s annoying (thankfully, Revis still handles it well) it does turn up the teen angst quotient on the novel.
That said, I still enjoyed “A Million Suns” overall. Why? Because, about halfway through the book, the plot takes a huge leap with a revelation about the Godspeed, and it sprints towards the explosive and surprising ending. I was breathlessly reading through the twists and turns Revis threw at me, unable to predict where she would go next. The ending of the novel was not something I could have foreseen in a million years, and I absolutely loved that it ended up in a place so different than where it started. What’s more, Elder really comes into his own as a leader in the second half of the novel, and makes some incredibly difficult, but very mature, choices.
Despite my initial misgivings about “A Million Suns,” I’m happy I gave it a chance and didn’t just put it down out of frustration. Amy continues to be a source of annoyance, especially towards the end of the novel, but I really appreciate how the character of Elder has evolved. Additionally, Revis’ plot is really great, and I love the way she isn’t afraid to take risks with the storyline. She’s also a wonderful worldbuilder. While “A Million Suns” likely won’t be my favorite installment in this trilogy, I am still eagerly anticipating the final novel.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Neil Abramson
Though I’m not necessarily an animal person (I do love dogs, but also am not sure I want the responsibility of owning one right now), “Unsaid” was a book that appealed to me immediately. I first heard about it at the SIBA (Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance) Conference in 2011, when Abramson was on a panel. He mentioned that he wrote “Unsaid” for his wife, who is a veterinarian. She is haunted by the thought that, when she passes, she will have to face all the animals she kept alive too long because of a family’s need for them as well as the animals she put down too quickly. There was not a dry eye in the room as Abramson was speaking, and it convinced me I had to read this novel.
“Unsaid” is an impressive debut novel. The book revolves around David; his sense of grief and loss is palpable throughout the novel. His sadness at his wife’s death permeates the entire book. It’s clear that he has no idea what to do with himself now that Helena is gone. Abramson spends time patiently developing David’s character, making sure the reader gets to know him, and it pays off. The reader really comes to care about David and wants him to find a place of happiness now that Helena is gone.
The entire book is really a tribute to the power of animals, and how wonderful sharing your life with an animal (or multiple animals) can be. It’s here that I was afraid that “Unsaid” would be a bit cheesy or over-the-top, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Abramson beautifully displays the unconditional love of animals and how much it really can change a person.
Time and time again, I found myself holding back tears because of the real love displayed in this novel. I can’t really describe it without sounding like a bit of a fool, but trust me, it is amazing.
Towards the end, the novel changes from a quiet, contemplative read to a courtroom drama. I’ll admit, I didn’t love this transformation after it first happened, but as it progressed, I found myself engrossed in this new turn of events. Abramson’s pacing is excellent and he doesn’t resort to the clichés of the genre. It’s also gratifying to see how far David has come as a character in these scenes.
“Unsaid” was really a remarkable novel. I feel like I’m not even scratching the surface with this review. It’s difficult to do justice to its beauty and elegance. It’s a simple book with a lovely message - whether animal or human, we have a responsibility to those in our lives whom we love.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Theodora Goss
“The Thorn and the Blossom” is an incredibly unique book - it’s actually a two-sided novel. It comes in a beautiful case, and when you slip it out, it has a front and back cover like any other book. However, the binding is what makes this book so different. It’s an accordion format, with Evelyn’s story printed on one side and Brendan’s printed on the other. Readers can choose whose tale to start with, as each narrative is a version of the same story. I love thoughtfully constructed books, so this was a real treat for me. Admittedly the book isn’t the easiest to hold, but it’s not a long read, so it works well.
The plot of “The Thorn and the Blossom” is a bit thin, but it was a treat for me. Evelyn and Brendan are both medieval scholars studying “The Book of the Green Knight,” a variation on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I recently read. I loved this perfect timing. While it’s not necessary to be familiar with the Green Knight legend prior to reading this book, it gives the book an added depth and dimension for those who are. It’s a short book, so it will definitely keep your attention, but an intricate, plot-driven read it is not. Instead, it’s a simple and sweet novel.
Overall “The Thorn and the Blossom” was something different than the traditional books one usually reads. It’s not a book I’d choose to read electronically, as the charm of the book is in its unique construction. Without that, I think readers would be left wanting. With it, it’s a great choice for a gift for the book lover in your life.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Conor Grennan
I know a decent amount about South Asia. I’ve read a lot of books about the region, and have been lucky enough to visit there. One country in the area I don’t know a lot about, though, is Nepal. While I knew there had been a civil war in the country, I didn’t know who was fighting, nor was I aware of what they were fighting for. Therefore, I was very curious about “Little Princes” when I first heard about it. A moving story set against the backdrop of a war-torn country sounded like a valuable learning experience.
What I wasn’t prepared for, though, is how incredibly funny “Little Princes” was. Conor Grennan has an incredibly self-deprecating and warm sense of humor. He’s not afraid to make fun of himself, his ignorance, and his utter stupidity in thinking that a good reason for volunteering at an orphanage was to impress people. I absolutely loved his observations about Nepal. He manages to inject a sense of humor into even the hardest facets of life, yet he never makes fun of anyone but himself. It is clear he is incredibly respectful of Nepalis, their culture, and the Little Princes orphanage. While he might find humor in what is occurring around him, his laughter is never mean spirited.
Conor Grennan is also incredibly honest in this book. He does this monumental thing, giving so much of himself to those who have so little, yet he isn’t some otherworldly person of goodness. He has doubts and fears, frustrations that the people of Nepal leave it to foreigners to care for their children (because they have so little to give, but still a legitimate concern), a desire to return home to the conveniences of the United States. I loved how much of himself he shared with the reader, as I felt like I really understood his feelings and motivations.
Grennan also is prepared for the fact that readers will likely know next-to-nothing about Nepal, and includes the relevant history in order to educate them. I’ll admit I was shocked to discover that many Americans get Nepal and Tibet confused - it just shows how little a small country like Nepal might make the news in the US, even if they had a decade-long civil war. It was incredible to learn about the rich history of Nepal, as well as the heartbreaking results of the civil war. The war was still going on when Grennan traveled there, so the reader is really able to get a feel for the claustrophobic and paranoid nature of living in a war zone.
As much as I loved the history, culture, and the humor of Little Princes, it was the children that captured my heart. Grennan’s love for these kids knows no bounds; they climb all over him, beat him at games, and steal his laptop to watch bootleg Hindi movies. He remarks often on how resilient they are; though they have been taken from their parents, they are always smiling and laughing, eager for a joke or to play a game. They have experienced horrors no one should have to, yet they are still happy children. I absolutely loved learning about each one of them; Conor’s sincere brotherly love for them shines through every page of the book.
It’s what happens after Conor’s three month stint in Nepal that is remarkable, though. In the end, he feels a personal responsibility for the children. He easily could have left for a comfortable life in the US, but he couldn’t abandon Nepal. Not only does he return to the Little Princes orphanage, he begins his own project to travel into the most war-torn regions of Nepal and find the families of all the children, to reunite mothers and sons. I can’t describe how moving Conor’s journey is, how many times I teared up. Conor’s generosity moved me and also shamed me. It was an incredible thing he did, and continues to do with his organization, Next Generation Nepal.
I listened to Little Princes on audio, which was an excellent choice. The narrator is actually the author, Conor Grennan, which can often be a red flag with audios. Some authors just aren’t the best choice to narrate their work, but Grennan was incredible. His inflections delivered the humor of the book perfectly and his voice was warm and welcoming. The audio version is unabridged and runs almost 10 hours.
I cannot put into words how much I absolutely loved “Little Princes” and I feel like this review doesn’t even come close to doing justice to this book. It made me laugh out loud and moved me to tears. It made me want to help, at the same time I really felt like I was learning a lot about a country I don’t know much about. This is one of those books that you absolutely have to pick up and try, even if you’re not the biggest fan of non-fiction. It is an amazing journey, and I am so glad to have been along for the ride. -- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Monica Ali
When I first heard about the subject of Monica Ali’s novel “Untold Story,” I didn’t know what to think. After all, the “ripped from the headlines” subject matter seems out of character for her literary writing style. But I was very curious about this book, so I decided to read it, just to see what Ali’s imagination had to say about the princess.
“Untold Story” is a quiet novel. Most of the book is about Lydia’s rather mundane life, spending time with her friends, pondering her past and her painful memories. It is intensely character driven. Lydia isn’t the most likeable character - she can be very selfish and almost manic at times - but she has an aura of pain and vulnerability around her that is easy to sympathize with. It’s also clear how much she has grown as a person over the years. While at one point in her life, she needed the constant attention of the press, now she is content with her quiet life working with animals.
The drama of the book - the possibility that Lydia’s secret could be exposed to the world - isn’t actually all that dramatic. And that’s because this book really isn’t about the drama. Instead, it’s about the solace Lydia finds in the monotony of her everyday life. Monica Ali’s writing is gorgeous from beginning to end. The grace of her prose really illuminates the beauty in a quiet, well-lived life, especially for someone like Lydia who has had the misfortune to live the opposite.
I went into “Untold Story” expecting to dislike it, so I was really surprised that I really did enjoy it. It’s a beautiful piece of literary fiction, though I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to all readers. It’s easy to read; it can be slow at times, but that’s the point of the novel. The pace speeds up as the different storylines culminate, and as a result it would be easy to read this book in one or two sittings. -- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Monika Schroder
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Akash is a boy with a dream. Twelve years old, he lives on a farm in rural India, but he is lucky enough to be able to attend school.
Akash is a math whiz, and he wants to complete his education and break the cycle of poverty that surrounds his family. But when Akash’s father dies, his grandmother sends him out to work in order to pay the family debts. Will Akash lose the drive to succeed, or will he find a way to make his dreams come true?
In her middle grade novel, Monika Schroder takes a look at the difficult world that Indian rural youth must face. Akash is a bright boy with a lot of potential, but he has very few opportunities. In order to continue schooling, he must find a tutor to help him excel so that he can gain a scholarship. However, there is no money for a tutor; Akash’s family is poor, already in debt, and an education has never been a priority, especially not over the family’s well-being. Schroder deftly captures so many aspects of rural Indian poverty with this family portrait - the emphasis on family, rather than on the individual. Akash’s dreams and hopes are subordinate to his grandmother’s wishes for him; she doesn’t see an education as an advantage because it will not help them rise out of their debt in the short-term.
However, there is a double standard - Akash’s uncle is an alcoholic. Not only does he not contribute to the family, but he spends their money on his vices. Akash does not understand why he cannot pay a tutor to improve himself, but his uncle can throw money away.
“Saraswati’s Way” is a pitch-perfect commentary on the issues that plague modern day rural India. The fastest way to rise out of poverty is through education and investment in the futures of the young, yet in too many cases, the youth are considered a bargaining chip for the older generation. Of course, this is not the case everywhere, but many uneducated rural Indian citizens don’t understand the value of sending their children to school because the end benefit is not immediately realized. This makes this a great book to share with middle school aged children in the United States; it’s so easy to take the free public education system in this country (which definitely has its own flaws, to be sure) for granted, and it’s valuable for our children to learn what others their age are undergoing.
“Saraswati’s Way” is appropriate for a wide range of ages. The book has a hopeful note, though Schroder notes that most stories like Akash’s don’t have a happy ending. There are some run-ins with a drug dealer that parents might want to take note of, but overall this is a wonderful book for pre-teens and adults alike. It’s a well-written and fast paced story with a heartwarming main character that readers will root for from beginning to end.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Rani Singh
Sonia Gandhi, widow to Rajiv Gandhi and daughter-in-law to former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, has played a large role in Indian politics for the last forty years. Born and raised in Italy, she met and fell in love with Rajiv while studying at Cambridge. She adopted India as her country and has helped shape its politics since their marriage by supporting her mother-in-law, brother-in-law, and husband in their political careers. Now, she is watching her children rise to the forefront of Indian politics.
Sonia Gandhi is a fascinating woman whose life has been filled with tragedy. Since her marriage to Rajiv, she has dealt with the death of her brother-in-law, Sanjay, in an airplane crash. Her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi (daughter of one of the forefathers of modern India, Jawarhalal Nehru) died in Sonia’s arms at the hands of one of her bodyguards. Her husband, Rajiv, was assassinated just a few years later while campaigning. It would be enough to make any woman retreat into herself, but not Sonia.
In this biography, Rani Singh portrays Sonia as a quiet but confident woman. Very private, it’s difficult to really get to know Sonia, but Singh does an excellent job giving the reader an extended glimpse into her personality, and how her decisions have been shaped by her history. Upon arriving in India, Sonia wasn’t sure she wanted the very public life that goes hand in hand with being a Nehru-Gandhi. But she rose to the challenge admirably, and traveled further than anyone expected, becoming a well-respected politician in her own right, destined to shape the future of India.
So how did this marvelous transformation occur? Singh takes the reader back to Sonia’s early days and traces her life, talking with those who knew her the best. From her closest friends to fiercest political rivals, Singh looks at as many different sources as possible in order to create an unbiased and true picture of Sonia Gandhi. Though the end result is flattering for the most part, Singh is honest about Sonia’s flaws as well.
In order to discuss Sonia Gandhi, it is necessary to scrutinize the family she married into, and here is where this biography really excels. By placing Sonia’s life into the larger context of Indian politics, Singh shows what a true force she is. Singh also has some interesting insights into difficult periods of Indian history, from the true brains behind the Emergency to Indira Gandhi’s certainty that she was signing her death warrant by taking certain actions (and indeed, she was assassinated very soon afterwards). She portrays the still-controversial Indira Gandhi as a complex and astute woman, but one with major flaws and trust issues.
Whether you are looking for a biography of Sonia Gandhi or a brief and easily digestible history of the politics of modern India, “Sonia Gandhi” is a wonderful book to pick up.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Tahmima Anam
The year is 1984, and the Bangladeshi war for independence from Pakistan has been over for more than ten years. Bangladesh is an independent country which still hasn’t fully faced the difficult consequences of the war. Maya, a doctor, is returning home after years of being away. She finds that her brother Sohail has become a believer in a very traditional and strict version of Islam in order to atone for his crimes during the war. Sohail’s son, Zaid, is lost and confused, and it’s up to Maya to connect with the boy and try and do what is best for him.
“The Good Muslim” portrays a lost and confused nation trying to rise out of the ashes of a difficult and costly war, but unable to because they are stuck. The story Anam keeps returning to over the course of the novel is that of the women raped during the war by the enemy. While they have been proclaimed heroes by the government, they are shunned by their families and friends. They can no longer live normal lives in their communities and no one will help them. This clash between what is said, as opposed to what is practiced, is a major theme through the book.
Maya is an interesting character who is watching her beloved country fall apart around her. She has seen horrors as a doctor as she tries to help her people, and now she returns home and sees horrors of a different kind with her brother. He is completely lost to her, and she doesn’t know how to connect with him once again. Sohail is another casualty of war, even though he survived physically intact.
I do wish I had known that “The Good Muslim” was a sequel prior to reading it. Anam’s first book, “The Golden Age,” is apparently the first in a trilogy about Maya and Sohail, and it centers around their freedom fighting during the war. I would have loved to see the establishment of their characters so I could more fully comprehend them at this point. At times, I felt like I didn’t fully understand the message Anam was trying to send, and now I know why. I’d definitely recommend reading these books in order, as there were times I felt lost during my reading.
“The Good Muslim” is very bleak. Though there are the occasional moments of joy, the overall picture is a sad one. There is hope, underneath the surface, but it only breaks through momentarily before retreating again. Still, it is definitely worth reading. Anam presents a very interesting account of Bangladesh’s turbulent history, and since it’s a country most Westerners don’t know a lot about, it will teach you a lot. Additionally, through Sohail, Anam provides a glimpse into religious radicalism. I am interested in reading the next book in the trilogy when it releases, and in the meantime, I plan on going back and reading “The Golden Age” in order to fully understand the characters in this series.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Ann Patchett
Marina Singh is a researcher for a pharmaceutical company and is content with, if not fulfilled by, her life.
Her world is thrown into upheaval, though, when her colleague and friend, Anders Eckman, is killed in the Amazon jungle.
Anders had gone after Dr. Annick Swenson, a scientist researching a miracle drug but who has completely stopped communicating with the parent company funding her research.
Now, at the behest of Anders’ widow, Marina must go deep into the Amazon jungle to learn the truth behind Anders’ death.
“State of Wonder” is a gorgeously written and contemplative novel about overcoming self-doubt in order to find your place in the world. Marina Singh is crippled by a lack of professional self-esteem.
When she was a medical school resident, she made a mistake that shattered her confidence in herself as a doctor. Since then, she has pursued research, shunning patient work in favor of the impersonal work of pharmaceuticals. But when she is asked to confront Dr. Swenson, it brings all those doubts and fears back - after all, Annick was the attending physician on duty when Marina made her mistake.
Marina’s internal struggle is just one of the battles to be fought over the course of “State of Wonder.” Marina must fight against the side effects of Lariam, an anti-malarial medication that gives her nightmares and hallucinations. Dr. Swenson fights for her right to do her research without hindrance, while Marina must fight to make Dr. Swenson understand that there must be accountability.
The entire research team must fight against the dangers of the Amazon jungle.
Battle is a constant theme in this novel; each character must fight against the others, and sometimes the world around them, for what they think is right.
Patchett’s writing is atmospheric. She does an incredible job portraying the closeness of the Amazon jungle, ensuring that her readers can feel the humidity on their skin, can hear the buzzing of the insects, and can sense the danger the jungle presents. Her writing is thoughtful and makes this novel flow easily.
“State of Wonder” is not a novel to pick up if you’re looking for a quick, action-packed read. In fact, if this were any other writer, the plot might be considered a bit thin. However, Patchett fills the book with ethical issues and character exploration, and the result is a beautiful, wild, and utterly devastating novel on the nature of science and humanity.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Shobhan Bantwal
As an Indian who was born and raised in America, Soorya Giri has always looked down on the concept of arranged marriages. But now that she’s in her thirties, she can’t help but agree to her parents’ requests to set up meetings with prospective husbands; after all, she has never even been kissed before. Through her parents, Soorya meets Roger Vadepelli, a handsome, charming man, but she is sure he won’t be interested in her. But she gets more than she bargained for when, all of a sudden, she has more than one man vying for her affections, and she doesn’t know how to handle her newfound charms.
I’ve enjoyed Shobhan Bantwal’s previous novels (“The Forbidden Daughter,” “The Sari Shop Widow,” and “The Unexpected Son”) so I was excited to see she had tackled an entirely new subject in “The Full Moon Bride” - the experience of the first generation Americans, the children of immigrants.
Soorya was a very unique character. She was smart and capable, as evidenced by her job at a top New York City law firm for environmental law. But what surprised me about her was that she was over 30 and still living at home with her parents and no real explanation was given for that. Of course, it could be the incredibly high rent prices in New York, or that she didn’t feel like she had a need to move out - I just found that strange, though in the grand scheme of things, it’s not important.
What really struck me about Soorya, though, were her self esteem and body image issues. Being over 30 and never having been kissed properly, I understand how those nagging doubts could creep up on her, thinking something is wrong with her as a result. But she perceived herself as unattractive, and as a result, she could not imagine how anyone could possibly be attracted to her.
When Soorya finds herself with the attention of more than one man, it’s really interesting to see how she deals with it, as well as how, even in the face of such obvious attention, she still can’t see the beauty that others perceive.
I also enjoyed the discussion of arranged marriages in “The Full Moon Bride.” Being raised in the United States, Soorya’s immediate reaction is confusion and revulsion. But as she matures, she begins to consider it a possibility - after all, it worked out really well for her own parents.
Can anyone really be happy, marrying someone they barely know? Will love eventually come, as her parents assure her it will? These are interesting questions that no one really has the answers for, and Soorya isn’t sure she wants to take the risks in order to discover if arranged marriage might work for her.
I enjoyed this book, it had all the heart and wisdom I’ve come to expect from Shobhan Bantwal’s books, as well as the discussion of contemporary issues facing Indians today. I thought Soorya was an excellent character, frustrating at times, but I so enjoyed watching her grow and learn so much about herself and the world around her. This was a light, quick novel that fans of multicultural and women’s fiction definitely should pick up.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Sheela Chari
Eleven year old Neela loves playing the veena, an Indian musical instrument, though she has a lot of trouble playing in front of people. She is convinced that the veena her grandmother recently sent her from India has helped her with her stage fright and has actually made her a better player.
But when her veena goes missing, Neela must delve into the history of veenas and make unlikely allies in order to find her beloved veena.
“Vanished” is a novel aimed at middle grade readers with many relevant themes running through its center. Neela is caught between two cultures. Her parents are Indian, but she has been raised in America. She understands her parents’ desires for her, but she also has ambitions of her own. Neela struggles to reconcile the two, to find a way to be herself while also satisfying her parents. When the veena goes missing, Neela feels that she can’t trust her parents with the secrets she uncovers, and though her choice to remain quiet can be frustrating, it’s understandable.
Neela also is passionate about her veena and is determined to discover what has happened to it. Though her parents offer to buy her a new veena, Neela is determined to find the thief of her veena and get the instrument back. Along the way, Neela discovers interesting tidbits about the history of her veena, which is a wonderful opportunity for readers to learn something about this popular and ancient Indian instrument. The search for Neela’s veena mirrors the cultural conflict within Neela, and it’s great to see her embrace both sides of her heritage.
The mystery in “Vanished” is satisfying. As an adult reader, it was unrealistic at times, but I was able to let go of those doubts and just enjoy the story. Chari did a wonderful job keeping readers guessing while not making the plot overly complicated. This was a sweet, enjoyable, and completely surprising novel, and I recommend it to middle grade readers. Adult readers, however, will also enjoy this novel, especially if you are looking for a quick and easy read that incorporates cultural differences and an engaging mystery.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Anuradha Roy
“An Atlas of Impossible Longing” is a multigenerational novel spanning decades, following the course one family sets during the tumultuous early-to-mid twentieth century in India. The novel begins with Amulya and his mentally ill wife Kananbala, and their two sons, Nirmal and Kamal. As fortunes change and lives progress, the book moves onto the new generation, centering on Bakul, Nirmal’s daughter, and Mukunda, the orphan child Amulya chose to support.
I absolutely adore South Asian literature, but sometimes I have trouble taking it. While wonderfully composed, it can be very difficult to read. There is a sense of tragedy that seems to be inherent within the genre, centering on hardship, loss, and abuse. But there is also beauty in this world, along with the heartbreak, and that’s why I loved “The Atlas of Impossible Longing” - it’s amazingly written, finely wrought, and simple. It’s about the beauty and longing present in everyday life.
Roy is a talented writer; she is incredible at developing layered, nuanced characters effortlessly. Readers fall in love with the personas contained within this book without realizing it. Each person is distinct; sometimes it seems as though Roy is writing a biography rather than fiction because these people seem so real and vivid. Her prose is absolutely gorgeous, yet restrained. She doesn’t allow her words to overwhelm the story, nor does she rely on her prose to smooth out the rough parts of the plot. She recognizes that her language is a tool to deliver a story, and uses it like a master to accomplish that task.
There are many characters within “An Atlas of Impossible Longing,” but the reader will have no trouble telling them apart, thanks to Roy’s expert character development. My personal favorite was Mukunda; the reader gets to see him grow and change over the course of his life, to become his own man. After he is sent away for school, he longs for Songarh and the life and people he left behind. After he leaves school, his longing changes and fades, but it never completely leaves him. When circumstances force him to revisit Songarh and see Nirmal and Bakul again, he can no longer deny what he feels.
There is heartbreak and difficulty and sadness within the pages of “An Atlas of Impossible Longing”; after all, this is a book about life, and that’s part of it. But it’s handled so deftly and beautifully that it doesn’t drag the reader down. Indeed, Roy confronts many difficult topics within the pages of this book: caste, mental illness, and love in a culture of arranged marriages. It is incredibly realistic; there are no fairy tale endings. Instead, Roy creates a believable picture that is often bittersweet, but has its own beauty nonetheless.
This was a novel I absolutely adored from beginning to end. It never lost my interest, and just when I would think that the sadness was too much to bear, a ray of light would shine through. I loved the balance present in this novel, as well as the universal themes of love and longing. This is a book accessible to anyone who has felt love and loss.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Cathy Ostlere
Maya is just 15 years old when her Hindu mother dies, and she travels with her Sikh father from Canada to India with her ashes. When they arrive, they find the country in turmoil: the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, has just been assassinated by her Sikh guards. Hindus and Sikhs are rioting and killing each other, and no one is safe. When Maya and her father are separated, she finds herself alone in a foreign and frightening country, unsure of where she can turn for help.
The first thing I discovered about “Karma” by Cathy Ostlere (besides the fact that it was about India, which is why I wanted to read it in the first place) was that it was written in verse. And I will admit that little tidbit almost made me skip over the book; after all, I figured a novel in verse would be difficult to read, and that I wouldn’t connect with the main character at all. But because the book sounded so interesting, I decided to persevere, and I am incredibly glad I did; not only was this book fascinating, but all my preconceived notions were in error.
“Karma” is lyrical and deft, beautiful yet very easy to read. Despite the length, the novel flowed very smoothly and it was quick. I had no trouble understanding what was happening, nor did I have any difficulty connecting with Maya. In fact, she was the highlight of the novel for me.
Maya is half-Sikh and half-Hindu, and as a result, the conflict that is raging all around her between the two religious groups is mirroring what is happening within her. She doesn’t know where her loyalties lie or whom she can trust. Even her name, the very clue to her identity, is uncertain - is she Jiya, the “official” name that her father pressed upon her, or Maya, the name her mother wanted to give her that she identifies with? It is so eye opening to see what Maya feels inside reflected all around her with horrible violence.
The time period is tragic yet important in India’s history, and it’s fascinating to see it through the eyes of a fifteen year old. While that kind of violence would be horrific at any age, to see it so young really changes Maya. She falls mute, unable to speak because she is so racked with guilt over what she’s seen. She thinks she no longer deserves to speak - she is already carrying guilt over her mother’s death, after all. Ostlere does an incredible job making the reader feel like they are part of the narrative, immersed in this place of horrifying violence. The reader only wants Maya to return home, to find a place of safety, yet it’s unclear where that could be because she seems to be pushed against her will wherever she turns.
“Karma” was a fascinating, eye-opening coming-of-age novel, and I am so glad I gave it a chance. I realize novels in verse don’t exactly excite most people, but I urge you to try this book. You may not connect with it, but it’s possible you might, and you’ll be rewarded with an absolutely incredible story and a heartbreakingly real main character.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Nayana Currimbhoy
Charulata Apte is the newest teacher at Miss Timmins’ School for Girls in Panchgani, a remote hill station in India. Shy, uncertain, and completely sheltered, Charu has always felt insecure because of the blot - a red birthmark that mars her face and has ruined her marriage prospects. Charu slowly begins to settle in at Miss Timmins and becomes friends with Moira Prince, a fellow teacher who introduces Charu to the many pleasures of life. As Charu spends more time with Moira, she begins to open up and accept herself as she is. But when Moira is found dead at the bottom of a cliff, Charu is forced to reevaluate her perceptions as she becomes determined to find out what happened to her friend.
“Miss Timmins’ School for Girls” is a book that wears many different hats. It’s a murder mystery and a portrait of India in the 1970’s, which was dealing with the same hippie, pot-smoking craze that the United States was. It’s a look inside a girl’s boarding school and a commentary on the caste/class/religious difference that plague India to this day. But most of all, it’s the coming of age story of Charulata Apte.
Charu captured my heart from the very first page of this novel. Just twenty years old, Charu is leaving home for the first time, and isn’t sure of herself or anything around her. All she does know is that she is ugly. Her perception of herself is centered on the blot and she can’t see past it, so she assumes that no one around her can either. When Moira, the glamorous rebel, seeks her out, Charu is overwhelmed by her attentions. Moira leads Charu into a life she never thought possible, one with love and happiness, where people see her for what she is, rather than the marks on her body.
But Charu is never completely certain of herself, even with Moira’s support. Her self-doubt threatens to overwhelm her, and it’s only after Moira’s death that Charu begins to see the strength within her. I absolutely loved this coming-of-age, the tension between Charu’s traditional, Brahmin upbringing and her desire to find love, from whomever is offering it. After Moira’s death, Charu begins to see herself in an entirely new light. Through her investigations, she finds a sense of certainty that she wasn’t sure she had.
It was Charu’s openness that I loved, her willingness to accept love in whatever form it took. Even now, the subject of homosexuality in India is a difficult one. I appreciated how much Charu learned about herself through her relationship with Moira. It gave her a place in the world, and a sense of belonging; it wasn’t about being with a woman or with a man, just about love.
The murder mystery in “Miss Timmins’ School for Girls” is very interesting, but this isn’t the type of novel to keep the reader on tenterhooks as they await the climax of the book. Instead, the plot unfolds slowly and sensuously as Charu comes into her own. This is a character-driven novel, rather than one driven forward by plot, and if you come into it expecting an on-the-edge-of-your-seat murder mystery, you may be disappointed. Instead, if you hope for a character driven book with a mystery twist (as I did), you’ll really enjoy and appreciate it.
Currimbhoy is a talented author, and has accomplished a great feat with her first novel. The characters are memorable, and she really brings India to life with her prose. I really enjoyed this book; I read it slowly, savoring it, rather than rushing through it, and that was the perfect way to experience it. It was a beautiful novel, and I know that Miss Charulata Apte will stay with me for a very long time, as she is a woman close to my heart.
-Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Roopa Farooki
(St. Martin’s Press)
After Asif’s mother dies, he moves home in order to take care of his sister, Yasmin. She has Asperger’s Syndrome, and even now at 19, she is unable to take care of herself. Asif is just 24, and he sees his life unfolding before him in a bleak, unending stretch, dominated by Yasmin’s routines and need for order. Meanwhile, Lila, the middle child, acts out, unable to feel comfortable in her own skin. When a documentary filmmaker asks to make a movie about Yasmin, it brings forth deeply held resentments and heartfelt anger, but will it also uncover love and hope?
Resentment is part of childhood and growing up. It’s part of being a sibling - you always think the grass is greener on the other side, that your sibling has it better. But what happens when that resentment is bottled inside, when you are responsible for your younger sibling and required to face it every minute of every day?
That’s the situation the reader finds Asif in at the beginning of “The Way Things Look To Me.” He has no hope for his life; he is held captive by Yasmin’ rigidity, by her inability to cope with change. At the same time, though, he doesn’t really blame Yasmin - while frustrating, her difficulty is a result of her condition.
No, Asif blames his mother for dying, for leaving him to care for Yasmin, for making him put his life aside for his youngest sister.
Lila, on the other hand, is the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Her resentment for Yasmin threatens to consume her. Growing up, she saw Yasmin stealing her mother’s attention away from her and Asif, so demanding and unrelenting. Yasmin got everything she wanted handed to her, and when Lila would point out the unfairness of this to those around her, they would highlight Yasmin’s Asperger’s. Lila doesn’t care about Yasmin or her condition, and isn’t about to get sucked into Yasmin’s drama and become like Asif.
These two perspectives on Yasmin’s Asperger’s were really fascinating. I’ll admit, though Lila’s attitude was atrocious and made me cringe at times, I also found her honesty refreshing. Lila was crass, yes, but she also made some very good points - it’s difficult to live with someone who is physically or mentally disabled. But I think what I found the most interesting was that it wasn’t Yasmin that Lila hated, but herself. She despised the horrible things that came out of her own mouth, and hated herself once she said them. It takes a lot for Lila to begin to realize that just because her mother paid more attention to Yasmin, didn’t mean she loved Yasmin more. Once Lila begins to understand this, she begins to come to terms with her own issues.
“The Way Things Look To Me” does have its share of challenges: the plot is murky at times and doesn’t seem to be heading in a clear direction. The “power of love” message is a little overwhelming, and it happens all too easily, especially for Lila. However, these issues didn’t prevent me from enjoying the story that Roopa Farooki had to tell, especially because these characters spoke to me on such a deep level. Additionally, the depiction of Asperger’s is very interesting, as Farooki gets the reader inside Yasmin’s head.
Just as in her previous novel, “Half Life,” The Way Things Look To Me’s strength lies in its characters. They are each so real, their pain so raw and edges so sharp, that readers will be drawn into each of their stories and will ache for them to find some sort of happiness.
- Review by Swapna Krishna
The Sweetness of Tears
Author: Nafisa Haji
(William Morrow Paperbacks)
Jo March was raised an evangelical Christian by her loving parents and has never questioned her place in their world. But after taking a high school biology course, Jo realizes something shocking: her eyes, and those of her twin brother, are brown, yet both her parents’ eyes are blue. According to Mendel and genetics, two blue-eyed parents cannot produce offspring with brown eyes. Before she leaves for college, Jo works up the nerve to ask her mother about her parentage, and her mother confesses that her biological father was a Pakistani man named Sadiq. Jo begins to delve into her past, first by trying to find Sadiq, but her search for identity gets swept away in the tragic events of 9/11.
Nafisa Haji approaches 9/11 and the Pakistani and Muslim identity from a very unique perspective in “The Sweetness of Tears:” that of an evangelical Christian family. While Jo isn’t a fundamentalist about her faith, she does ascribe to what her parents have taught her. As a result, it’s a world-shaking shock when she discovers that the man she has called her father all her life isn’t biologically related to her. At the same time, though, it makes her curious about her Pakistani heritage and desirous of exploring it further.
Jo is a bright, capable young woman who appeals to the reader from the very beginning of the story. Her confusion, and subsequent determination, is both understanding and inspiring. Because she is the first (and arguably primary) narrator in the novel, she has the reader’s sympathy from beginning to end.
The overall message of “The Sweetness of Tears” is one of peace and compassion. Haji takes all these people, from so many different backgrounds, and brings them together in a beautiful way. Though there are so many ways for the characters in this book to be divided, to turn against one another, they choose to celebrate the things that make them similar, that make them family. It’s a heartwarming theme that readers will appreciate, especially in these divisive times.
At the same time, Haji highlights difficult cultural, social, and political issues within her book. The treatment of prisoners by the United States during the War on Terror is a central topic of the book, as are women’s rights in the Muslim world. Haji deftly turns portions of this novel into a social commentary without becoming overly preachy, and as a result, it’s a wonderful chance to learn and broaden your horizons.
Haji accomplishes this by telling the story from multiple points of view, and here she isn’t quite as successful as the reader would hope. The stories become jumbled and muddled, and it’s easy to forget who the narrator is. The characters don’t have distinctive enough voices to be able to tell them apart just by tone or dialogue, and as a result, it can be frustrating at times. Additionally, the reader doesn’t have a real emotional connection to the characters, so the story can feel contrived, especially towards the end when everything is tied up in one neat little package.
Despite my issues with “The Sweetness of Tears,” Nafisa Haji is an author I’m going to keep my eye on. She has a lot to say about political, social, and cultural Pakistani-American relations. This book definitely had some rough spots, but I’m confident that Haji will smooth them out in future novels, as she is a talented writer.
--Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Amit Chaudhuri
Shyamji is a singer in 1980s Bombay who makes a living off the wealthy students to whom he gives voice lessons. The story centers on one of his pupils, Mallika, who has a beautiful voice, and her son, Nirmalaya, who forms a unique bond with Shyamji.
“The Immortals” is an interesting look at classical music in 1980s India. Specifically, classical music is the framework through which Chaudhuri discusses the change in culture in India during the time period. Where classical music was once revered, during the story, the reader can see how pop music is encroaching on its status, to the point where people don’t necessarily want to learn classical music anymore. Western culture is infecting Bombay, and the wealthy residents of the city welcome it with open arms. The entire book is a commentary on cultural change, whether through art, music, or philosophy.
Chaudhuri’s writing is breathtaking and readers are really in for a treat if they love gorgeous prose. His descriptions are incredibly vivid; the reader can visualize India when they close their eyes. I was very impressed with how truly Chaudhuri depicted Bombay of the 1980s, and how much he managed to convey through just his writing. His attention to detail is masterful, and as a result, this is a good pick for those interested in learning more about India in a time when its culture was transforming.
Though “The Immortals” centers and Shyamji and Mallika’s family, there are a lot of secondary characters that make appearances throughout the novel. As a result, the story can be really difficult to follow at times, and it takes some perseverance to fully grasp what is happening. Additionally, Chaudhuri uses Indian terms and colloquialisms without fully defining them. Though I was able to follow because I am familiar with the language and culture, it might be frustrating for someone new to books about India. As a result, while I do recommend this book for those who love novels about India, I wouldn’t start my literary travels through India with “The Immortals.”
Chaudhuri is a talented author, and I look forward to going back and reading his previous books. I did have some issues with “The Immortals,” but I was impressed by the author’s writing talent, and would love to see what else he’s done. This was an interesting look at the changing of a culture through the prism of classical music.
---Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Ronica Dhar
(St. Martin’s Press)
After the death of her father, Bijoya Roy (nicknamed “Bijou”) must fulfill his last rites and place his ashes on the Ganges River in India.
Though this is usually performed by the eldest son, because her father had only daughters, the duty falls to Bijou. She leaves her boyfriend in Washington, DC and travels with her family to India, feeling all the pressure and responsibility of being a dutiful daughter. Once there, Bijou meets some old friends of her father’s and realizes how much she didn’t even know him.
“Bijou Roy” is the story of a woman caught between two worlds - the comfort of her home in the United States, and this foreign world in India that her father belonged to. When she first arrives in India, she fights with everything she has against accepting what is around her. All she wants to do is hide in her grief, yet so much is being asked of her and expected of her. When she learns that there is more to her father than she knew, it makes Bijou feel even worse, that there was such an important part of him hidden from her. However, as she explores her father’s past through Naveen, the son of her father’s close friend, she begins to understand her father more than she ever did while he was alive.
A constant theme running through “Bijou Roy” is that of pressure. Bijou feels pressure from all sides - her boyfriend wanting to be there for her during this difficult time, but Bijou wanting space, her mother expecting her to complete the last rites of her father even though they aren’t traditional and she has no idea what to do, questions about her future, especially marriage - and she doesn’t know how to cope with all these people asking something of her. In some ways, she finds peace in her father’s past, even though what she uncovers disturbs her. There, she can just be herself, her father’s daughter, as she tries to understand the man she thought she knew and try to come to terms with his death.
By doing so, she begins to understand crucial things about herself and about the clash between tradition and modernity going on around her.
Much of Bijou Roy and Bijou’s father’s past has to do with the Naxalite movement in India. I know next to nothing about this movement going into the book, so it was nice to learn something about Indian history while reading this novel. Dhar does a solid job giving the reader a brief Indian history lesson, so it’s not necessary to have an intimate knowledge of the region before reading this book.
“Bijou Roy” was a beautiful story about the search for an identity in the midst of grief and loss. It’s wonderfully written; Dhar’s luminous prose really brings the character of Bijou to life. Bijou’s struggle to find a middle ground between what she wants and what she thinks is her duty is universal; as a result, the themes of this book will be accessible to many different backgrounds. This is a wonderful work of South Asian fiction, and I look forward to seeing what Ronica Dhar does next.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Sam Miller
(St. Martin’s Press)
In this book, Sam Miller, a BBC correspondent based in Delhi, walks around his beloved adopted city and relates stories and history, giving the reader a sense of the unique personality of this vast metropolis.
I absolutely love travel books, so when I first heard about “Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity,” I immediately knew I wanted to read it. I’ve visited Delhi just once, but it left a striking impression upon my brain, so I was eager to see whether what I remembered actually was the truth.
Delhi is a travelogue of the best kind. Miller’s passion is to walk, so he tackles the city by walking in circles, in order to ensure he doesn’t miss anything. He takes the reader by such famous landmarks as the Qutb Minar and the place where Mahatma Gandhi was killed, but also stops at the nameless ruins that have been forgotten by history.
Each section in the book includes a map so the reader can see exactly where different buildings and temples that Miller discusses are.
What I really enjoyed about “Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity,” though, is that Miller takes those beautiful, incredible ruins and structures and juxtaposes them against everyday life in the city. While he’s walking from one landmark to another, he might stop and have a conversation with a photographer trying to make a living by selling silly pictures. As a result, the reader gets a real sense of the dual nature of this city. Delhi is beautiful and majestic at the same time it is poor and its people are struggling.
Miller also gives the reader the modern history of the city and visits places that are rarely touched by tourism. Some of his experiences are funny, others are stomach wrenching. All are honest and told with a deft hand and experienced eye. Miller’s love for Delhi is clear on every page, even when he’s discussing difficult subjects that are usually swept under the rug.
I cannot recommend “Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity” highly enough. It’s well-written, fascinating, and Miller’s descriptions are such that the reader can hear the sounds of the bustling city. It’s a must for any armchair traveler, or anyone interested in learning more about India.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Nathacha Appanah
Raj is a boy living on the island of Mauritius with his two brothers, his mother, and his abusive father. After tragedy strikes, the family moves across the island, where Raj’s father finds work as a prison guard. Raj follows his father to the prison one day and makes eye contact with David, a young Jewish boy about his age. This meeting will have repercussions that will affect Raj for the rest of his life.
Books can do so much for us. They can broaden our worldview, educate us, and let us know about little pieces of history that we otherwise would never know. “The Last Brother” beautifully accomplishes all of these things, in a remarkably slim package through elegant and graceful prose. Going into this book, I had no idea that Jewish refugees were held against their will in Mauritius during World War II. I found the information contained within fascinating, but I was really captivated by Appanah’s prose and the heartbreaking story.
“The Last Brother” is actually a work in translation, so I have to give translator Geoffrey Strachan a lot of credit when it comes to the beauty of the prose. It’s clear and precise, spare yet unbelievably gorgeous. The lushness of the prose fits the majesty of the island, while at the same time its simple underlying nature perfectly captures the essence of Raj’s childhood.
Raj is an endearing protagonist, and the reader will ache for him as the story progresses. He wants to find love and a sense of belonging; his mother’s unconditional love for him cannot make up for his father’s abuse and hatred. The book jumps between the young Raj, and the old man he becomes, and it is so interesting to see the elder Raj desperately try to understand what happened when he was a boy, give it some meaning so it isn’t just senseless loss. It’s amazingly done and keeps the reader very emotionally invested in the story.
“The Last Brother” also manages to keep readers hooked from beginning to end. This might seem natural since the book is so short, but it can be a difficult thing to do, especially in a book with so much heartbreak as this. It may seem like this book is heavy and difficult to read, but it isn’t. Every time things seem to be getting to be too much, the author switches to something light-hearted, something a little easier on the soul to remind the reader (and Raj) of the small pleasures of life.
This book is a beautiful treatise on the need for love and the scars inflicted by loss. It’s a moving story, one that fans of literary and multicultural fiction will enjoy.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Lisa Napoli
In this memoir, Lisa Napoli recounts her move to Bhutan, a tiny country near India, in order to help run a brand new radio station. When I first heard about “Radio Shangri-La,” I knew I wanted to read it. Though I have heard of Bhutan, I know almost nothing about it. This book gave me the opportunity to learn something about a new place, while simultaneously enjoying a personal story. Additionally, the premise reminded me of “The Woman Who Fell From The Sky” by Jennifer Steil, a book I really loved about a woman moving to Yemen to help run a newspaper. I knew I was in for a treat with “Radio Shangri-La,” and I was right.
I absolutely loved Napoli’s observations about Bhutan. From the way of life, to the landscape, to the interesting people she meets, I drank up every detail Napoli had to offer about Bhutan. The country has a fascinating history, and it’s so interesting that life there has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. Now, though, the encroachments of modern technology such as television and radio have begun to change the culture. While the young people living in Bhutan want to be in touch with the rest of the world, they are losing their connection with their culture.
Napoli presents a very interesting quandary in the book. On one hand, people are attracted to Bhutan because life there is so simple, yet the people are so happy. In fact, the country makes it a point to measure the Gross National Happiness (instead of GDP or GNP, like most other countries). At the same time, though, the influx of foreign visitors is changing the country.
As a result, the people who crave the peace and happiness of Bhutan are changing it simply through their presence. There are a lot of discussions about this subject in the book, the balance between the need for modernization and the protection of culture.
While Napoli discusses her experiences trying to run the radio station in Bhutan, the focus isn’t on her job. Instead, it’s on her personal observations and experiences. While I did enjoy those aspects, I would have loved more information about the cultural difficulties she found in educating the Bhutanese about how to run their radio station. Napoli tends to skim over this, though it would have made the book richer had more of this information been included.
I loved the discussion about modernization in Bhutan - Napoli loved how preserved the culture was and yet she was helping to change that with the radio station. It really will give the reader a lot to think about, and since this is an easy read, it makes it perfect for book clubs.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Author: Anjali Banerjee
Jasmine Mistry is lost in her life. She has a high profile job in LA, but feels bereft by her divorce that happened almost a year earlier. When her beloved aunt contacts her and asks her to come manage her bookstore for a month, Jasmine agrees. But when Jasmine arrives and strange things begin to happen, she begins to wonder if those rumors of the bookstore being haunted actually might have some truth to them, as she opens up to the people around her and learns to love again.
I’ve enjoyed Anjali Banerjee’s previous novels - I’ve found them light, fun, and easy to read. Therefore, I was excited to pick up her newest book “Haunting Jasmine.” I thought Jasmine sounded like an interesting character and I was curious about the paranormal aspects of the book.
Jasmine isn’t the most appealing character at the beginning of the novel. She is prickly and so miserable that she can’t see any way out of it. She’s skeptical and can’t muster happiness for other people whose lives seem to be going better than her own. However, despite these difficulties, Jasmine is never an unlikeable character. Instead, she has the reader’s sympathy; she has lost faith in her life and herself, and is aimlessly wandering, unsure whether something better will ever come along.
As a reader, it’s heartwarming to see how much of a positive impact books have on her life.
The paranormal aspects of “Haunting Jasmine” are amusing and appealing, rather than scary. Though Jasmine refuses to acknowledge what is going on around her at the beginning, slowly she comes to understand why her aunt picked her as the bookstore’s caretaker. Admittedly, parts of this storyline are a bit cheesy, but I loved the power Jasmine had within herself when it came to books.
“Haunting Jasmine” is a sweet story of hope and love, and I really enjoyed reading it.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Read more book reviews on her blog at www.skrishnasbooks.com
Author: Priya Parmar
Ellen Gwyn is a working class girl living in London in the mid-to-late 1600s. She finds work selling oranges in front of the theater and is relieved - after all, her worst nightmare is to become a prostitute like her sister, Rose. Her dazzling wit and charm impress those at the theater, and it isn’t long before Nell is asked to work as a supporting actress. As her star rises farther than she ever thought it could, Nell catches the eye of the king, and all of London begins to wonder whether he might be interested in her.
I don’t know much about Ellen “Nell” Gwyn, except for the fact that she was a royal mistress of Charles II, so the prospect of learning more about her intrigued me. I have to admit, though, when I first started this novel, I was hesitant. It’s told in a diary format, which doesn’t usually appeal to me, and it took me awhile to really get into the narrative. I’m glad I stuck with it because I was rewarded with a delightful protagonist, wonderful historical details, and an entertaining glimpse into life at court and behind the scenes at the theater.
Nell was simply a wonderful heroine in “Exit the Actress.” She was spunky and smart, and I couldn’t help but love her. I really appreciated Parmar’s ability to write a sympathetic woman with a mind of her own. Nell walked a very fine line in this book, trying to maintain her reputation while also enjoying life and living every moment to the fullest. I thought she was very well crafted and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know her.
Priya Parmar is clearly a talented author, and she did a wonderful job with her debut novel. As I mentioned before, the novel is told in a diary format, and I was surprised at how well done it was, considering I don’t usually take to books written in this way. In between Nell’s entries are announcements, royal letters, and gossip columns, such that the reader receives a broad and varied view of what life was like at the time. Through Nell’s experiences, the reader gets to see both how the poor live, as well as the sumptuousness of court.
Parmar’s historical details are excellent, and it’s clear she
undertook a substantial amount of research before writing this story.
The glimpses the reader received of Charles II were also tantalizing. This novel takes place at a very interesting time in English history -Charles II’s father, Charles I, had been executed by Oliver Cromwell after the English Civil War. After an unsuccessful experiment with democracy, Charles II was restored and the monarchy continued. The reader can see that these experiences have really affected Charles II, but also that he hides it extremely well. I appreciated how the novel focused on Nell, yet still took the broader history into account.
“Exit the Actress” is a charming novel that I highly recommend to any fans of historical fiction. Though Nell is immediately loveable, it takes some time for the story to start, but I encourage readers to stick with the book. You’ll be rewarded with a wonderful story and a well-researched look into 17th century England.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Read more book reviews on her blog at www.skrishnasbooks.com
The Storyteller of Marrakesh
Author: Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya
(W.W. Norton & Co.)
Hassan, a storyteller working in Marrakesh’s famous Jemaa el Fna, tells his listeners about two foreigners who mysteriously disappeared from the Jemaa. But as he is telling his story, others jump in with contradicting information, and the entire group ends up working together in order to tell the story of these foreigners and tries to deduce what actually happened to them.
“The Storyteller of Marrakesh” uses the art of storytelling as a theme through the novel, as well as a mechanism to deliver the story. As different people tell their version of the story, the reader understands how personal prejudices and biases can alter perception.
Additionally, it is difficult to tell if someone has an agenda when telling the story - is someone trying to cast blame onto a particular person, or off themselves? It’s an interesting dynamic, with so many people telling this story, and it’s fascinating in some ways to see the juxtaposition of the stories. Bhattacharya does a wonderful job with both his reliable and unreliable narrators.
This technique also has a downside: the story has quite a bit of meandering. When different people play the role of the storyteller, they don’t just tell their version and then give the floor back to Hassan. Instead they talk about dreams, portents, their histories, and all kinds of randomness that doesn’t really apply to the story at hand. As a result, while the reader gets a great feel for the art of Middle Eastern storytelling, the novel itself drags and is very slow in parts.
The novel also has an interesting theme in the nature of truth. Each person tells their own truth, what they think they saw happen to the foreigners. However, these truths conflict wildly. How can they all be genuine? Roy-Bhattacharya delivers an eloquent tale about how
truth is actually more difficult to find than it seems on the surface. As Hassan delves into these various narratives, he has to search for the actual truth, because it seems that truth is relative.
“The Storyteller of Marrakesh” was an interesting novel, but it left me wanting in terms of its execution. I really liked the concept and the themes of the book, but it wandered so much that I considered abandoning it more than once. If you’re interested in a literary novel about storytelling or have a fascination with unreliable narrators, then definitely pick up this book, but otherwise it may not capture your attention.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Read more book reviews on her blog at www.skrishnasbooks.com
The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay
Author: Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi
(St. Martin’s Griffin)
“The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay” captured me from the very first page. Shanghvi’s beautiful writing takes the reader in, immersing them in the story that is to be told. His prose is melodic, gentle on the eyes. Even at the darkest times, the writing makes the story easy to drink in. Shanghvi creates an entire world for the reader, simply through his gorgeous prose.
The portrait of Bombay Shanghvi paints is an incredible one. Somehow, he captures the essence of this large city of contradictions. He shows the lifestyles of the rich and well-to-do, juxtaposing them against slum life. The reader sees the difficulties of life in modern day India, as the country is growing and changing. The values and culture are leaning towards the West, but of course, there is backlash and resentment within that shift. It’s a bustling, busy city; sights, smells, and sounds assault the senses, and somehow Shanghvi is able to translate this onslaught of sensation into words. He really delivers an amazing portrait of Bombay in this book.
It’s hard to really pinpoint the type of book “The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay” is. It’s a character exploration, a book of self-realizations, while also being a procedural book about how the Indian judicial system works. It’s a scathing social commentary, while also being a labor of love to an incredibly vibrant city. It tries to be so many things at once, which is usually a bad sign. But somehow, this book accomplishes every ambitious thing it sets out to do. It’s an incredibly engaging, and sometimes explosive, novel about living, loving, and dying.
The characters in “The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay” are all a bit lost within the huge city in which they live. They can’t find themselves until they find each other. Karan learns what it means to live through Samar and Zaira, a movie star friend of Samar’s. He learns the meaning of love, but also the heartbreak of death. He learns that friendship is a form of love, and can be just as powerful as romantic love. He internalizes some beautiful, though very difficult, lessons over the course of the novel. Though he makes some very poor decisions, the reader can’t help but love Karan, not despite his fallibility but because of it.
“The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay” is a beautiful, riveting piece of fiction. It shows us the tragedy of human life, while also extolling the beauty of friendship and love. It’s a commentary on the corruption of the Indian judicial system, while it also shows appreciation for the vibrancy of the city of Bombay.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Read more book reviews on her blog at www.skrishnasbooks.com
Author: Salman Rushdie
I thought Rushdie’s “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” was an adorable little novel, so it was with much anticipation and excitement that I picked up “Luka and the Fire of Life.” Once again, the reader is plunged into the World of Magic, hoping that Luka can act quickly enough to save his beloved father.
Though “Luka and the Fire of Life” is a sequel, it easily stands on its own two feet. The two novels do have common elements, but reading one is not necessary to understand the other. Rushdie gives the reader a quick summary of the events of “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” and as a result, you know all you need to going into the story. Still, though, I do recommend reading both books, if only because they are both adorable and have their own quirks and strengths. That being said, it is definitely not necessary to read them in order, though if you are going to read both, I’d strike down the more conventional path in order to avoid spoilers.
“Luka and the Fire of Life” actually has the feel of a video game. Luka gains and loses lives throughout his adventures, and the World of Magic has different levels he must get through before he can reach his final goal. There are even save points, so if Luka “dies,” he won’t have to repeat what he’s already done. As someone who enjoys the occasional video game, this really appealed to me. I thought it was incredibly creative to take something that is huge in popular culture and make it literary. As this book is easy to read and a lot of fun, I do wonder if that aspect will make it appeal to younger readers who are more likely to play games than read a book.
If you aren’t familiar with video games or don’t enjoy them, I don’t think that will preclude you from enjoying the novel. Just like “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” “Luka and the Fire of Life” is easy to read. It’s not laden down with literary devices and heavy prose; in other words, it’s a wonderful introduction to Rushdie’s writing. While Rushdie is an amazing author, his works can be very daunting, especially if you are unfamiliar with his writing style. Luka introduces the reader to his love of magical realism, but is short and will appeal to many different age groups.
The message of “Luka and the Fire of Life” is a wonderful one. The entire book is a bow to the amazing gift of storytelling and how powerful it can be. And Rushdie himself is a wonderful teller of stories, drawing the reader into a charming world. While this novel isn’t quite as hefty or deep as Rushdie’s other works, it’s a great reminder of why he’s such a celebrated author.
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Read more book reviews on her blog at www.skrishnasbooks.com
Author: Jalendu Vaidya
Creating harmony with surrounding of a house or any Vastu is very important in order to achieve happiness and prosperity. By balancing the different elements of nature, one will experience the positive energies that bring harmony in the life of that person. In his new book, “Vastu-Science: Understanding Harmony,” author Jalendu Vaidya provides an in-depth exploration of this ancient science implement to modern age construction and lifestyle to help anyone achieve harmony in life. He uses simple and easy to understand terminology throughout the book.
“Vastu-Science: Understanding Harmony” is a practical guidebook that simply explains the Vastu-Science for a typical residential house. Focused on the Western lifestyle and factors, this book combines the principles of Vastushastra (From India) and Feng Shui (from China) creating Vastu-Science.
This book analyzes the basic principles and shows applications of these ancient sciences to help modern structures to take maximum advantage of the natural energies and forces along with properly using spiritual controls.
The evaluation of Vastu-Science for a residential house is based on ninety major issues. Each issue is given valued scoring points. Then the property is evaluated and matched with the family that is supposed to or is already living in the house. This evaluation of independent issues and overall match score can help in deciding the ownership and also guide in modifying the weak issues. The scoring system is a very useful tool to compare various properties and understand the harmony between the house and the family. There is a bonus chapter regarding Vastu science for motels.
Vaidya is a civil engineer by profession. His hobby of studying and reading on a variety of subjects led him to come across Vastu-Shastra and Feng Shui. Over time he began to research the principles and factors of these two ancient sciences with the help of his earlier learning interest in astrology.
This guidebook for Vastu-Science practitioners and students allows for an easy understanding and application of ancient principles implemented for modern architecture.
More details can be found at www.hindusvision.com.
Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee
In this ambitious book, Siddhartha Mukherjee, a cancer specialist at Columbia University, takes on the daunting task of writing a biography of cancer. He takes the reader from the first mention of cancer, by ancient Egyptian physician Imhotep, and traces it through history. He chronicles different treatments and shows the reader how cancer, in its present incarnation, came to be.
I can’t imagine how difficult the process of writing a book like “The Emperor of all Maladies” must have been. But I know it must have been time consuming and frustrating because, having read it, I don’t even know how to begin to review it.
“The Emperor of All Maladies” is epic and expansive and has so many different facets. It’s a look at some of Mukherjee’s individual patients. It’s a glimpse into the life of researchers and doctors so desperate to save their patients’ lives that they’re willing to poison them, to increase the toxicity of their bodies to the breaking point. It’s a peek into the motivations of activists for cancer, the people who brought the disease out of the shadows and put the spotlight on it. These people raised money for the disease and helped the American public to understand how much of an epidemic cancer is. Above all, though, it’s the story of a murky, twisting, incomprehensible disease and its ability to defeat almost everything we have thrown at it thus far.
Mukherjee highlights the variable nature of cancer and how one word isn’t really able to capture the breadth of this disease. Different cancers respond to different treatments – doctors won’t use the same thing to treat leukemia (cancer of the blood) as they would use to fight breast cancer. Some cancers have high, encouraging five-year remission rates, while others are death sentences. It’s so difficult to use just one word to describe all these diseases. Mukherjee helps the reader to understand the nuances and insidiousness of cancer.
The author also takes the reader through different treatments for cancer, including some horrific ones. He delivers the information in a fascinating way, showing how treatments evolved and built upon previous discoveries. He also presents the difficulty of trial and error methods when lives are at stake, especially when researchers try out their ideas on human patients. And this is where the book shows some ray of light, where Mukherjee ensures that the reader knows all is not hopeless. There are some amazing discoveries within this book’s pages. Mukherjee chronicles the setbacks, yes, but also the wonderful advancements in medicine as scientists fight to find a cure for cancer.
Mukherjee’s patients give this epic story a human face. The reader learns about their situations (of course, their names have been changed to protect their privacy) and their prognoses. As the book progresses, so does the disease in these patients, as well as the course of their treatments.
The book doesn’t focus on them by any means, but through these few people, Mukherjee reminds the reader that cancer isn’t something “out there” to be studied – it’s affecting real people, right now.
I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of “The Emperor of All Maladies.” Mukherjee is a talented writer and he presents information, even when it is very technical and scientific, in an easily digestible way. This book is long, yet never for a second did it lose my interest. It’s not a book you want to read when you’re disengaged, but if you try, it will likely pull your brain into the story, making you think as you’re consuming the information Mukherjee presents.
When I started with “The Emperor of All Maladies,” I didn’t think that a biography of cancer was possible – it was just too big, with too much history. Yet Mukherjee accomplished his goal admirably and gracefully. This is a book that everyone should pick up, in order to understand this vicious disease and what has been, is being, and can be done to halt its rampage.
Read more book reviews on her blog at www.skrishnasbooks.com
Author: Rajorshi Chakraborti
I do not even know how to begin to review this book. The description above alone took me a ridiculous amount of time, just because I’m not entirely certain I know what this book is about. This was one of those books in which I constantly felt like I was missing something. I know there is more to understand, just out of my grasp, and if I read it again, I’d probably pick up much more. This was a book I felt like I muddled through, half blind.
This book has been described as “Kafka-esque” by the publisher, and I’d say that’s accurate. It’s twisted and confusing, with strange occurrences around every turn. There are two alternating stories, and while one seems like fiction and the other like non-fiction, it’s not entirely clear which is true. As a result, the reader must make their own deductions to try and understand what is happening.
And by giving the main character of the novel his own name, the author has successfully blurred the lines between fact and fiction. It really shows how talented an author Rajorshi Chakraborti is.
Though this novel is billed as a mystery and was put out by a mystery imprint, I wouldn’t really classify it as such. To me, it’s much more literary fiction with a mysterious twist. There are puzzles around every corner, and the overarching story is indeed a mystery, but the nature of the novel and devices used are so literary that I couldn’t see it as any other genre.
I realize this review is sketchy, and I apologize. I really feel like I need to do another close reading of this book in order to fully understand it and appreciate everything the author was trying to do.
I did like it enough to be willing to do that, though I don’t have much time for rereading these days. I do recommend this book for literary fiction readers who like a challenge – it’s an incredibly written and clever story, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for what Chakraborti does next. -- Review by Swapna Krishna
Moosewood Restaurant Cooking for Health
(Simon and Schuster)
Cookbooks are everywhere. Browse any bookstore or online booksellers and you’ll find cookbooks and recipe books galore. They cover all possible aspects of food and its preparation. Cookbooks geared toward a “healthy” lifestyle are also everywhere.
Sometimes it is difficult to find cohesive volumes that give useable information that also includes nutrition info and recipe variety. The folks at the Moosewood Restaurant (Ithaca, NY) and its collective of chefs have been publishing cooking books for many years. The chefs at the restaurant have been creating meat-free, organic-focused meals for many years. “Moosewood Restaurant Cooking for Health” is their 12th cookbook and it includes over 200 interesting, tasty and nutritious recipes.
Nutrition info included with each recipe is very useful and there are many sidebars talking about the ingredients. You’ll find appetizers, soups, dessert, main dishes, and fusion meals in easy to browse sections. For flavor lovers, there are many unusual combinations that may seem odd but work nicely when the dish is popped out of the oven or off the stove. Recipes include, an apricot orange twist smoothie; pineapple salsa with blueberries; sweet potato soup; apple and chipotle soup; vegetables in spicy lemongrass-tamarind sauce; and savory asparagus and mushroom bread pudding. Keep this book handy for family nights, quick weeknight meals or for those elaborate gatherings on the weekend or during the holidays. – Samir Shukla
Author: Shobhan Bantwal
Vinita Patil has been living in New Jersey with her husband Girish for the last 25 years. One day, she receives an anonymous letter in the mail saying that her son is dying of leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant. She is puzzled by this letter, as the only child she has is her daughter with Girish. But as she reflects on the letter, she realizes its implications if it’s true, and is caught in a tangled web of lies as she fights to save her son. I enjoy Bantwal’s talent at incorporating a suspenseful story with serious issues in today’s India, and this book was no exception. Vinita Patil is a wonderfully smart and strong woman. She often follows her heart rather than her head, but she’s not overly impulsive and really cares for the people around her. When she learns about her son, all she can think of is caring for him, trying to heal him. Her guilt at abandoning him and anger at those who lied to her are overwhelming – she couldn’t believe what had happened, even as she comes to realize he ended up with a much better life than she could have provided at such a young age.
The treatment of young, unmarried pregnant women in India is shocking. It is still an incredibly taboo subject in society and enough to ruin not only the girl’s prospects at ever having a good life, but often also her family’s. Additionally, I appreciated Bantwal’s take on the regional, cultural violence in India. She portrays the clash between Kannada and Marathi in Vinita’s hometown in India. The desire for cultural and linguistic supremacy has led to physical clashes between the groups.
Since India is still a young country, these violent movements are issues that Indians must face every day. “The Unexpected Son” was a suspenseful read that also illuminated aspects of Indian culture and society for the reader. Bantwal consistently writes entertaining cultural novels with unexpected twists, and this novel was no different. – Swapna Krishna (www.skrishnasbooks.com)
Author: Tishani Doshi
It’s 1968, and Babo Patel has decided to leave his home city of Madras for London. He soon sheds the hallmarks of his Jain heritage, choosing to eat meat and drink alcohol, and generally becomes Westernized. He meets Sian, a Welsh woman, and falls hopelessly in love with her. When Babo’s parents hear of this, they immediately summon Babo back home. Eventually they reconcile to the idea of a Welsh daughter-in-law, with the caveat that Babo and Sian must live in Madras for two years after their marriage. I’m always looking for new South Asian literature, so when I saw The Pleasure Seekers in Bloomsbury USA’s catalog, my curiosity was immediately piqued. Then I saw the endorsement quote on the cover – a blurb from Salman Rushdie. I didn’t even need to know what it was about. The South Asian setting and Salman Rushdie, my favorite author, were enough for me. I was completely mesmerized by Tishani Doshi’s ability to manipulate language. This book was beautifully written. I can’t tell you how many passages I marked, hoping to share with you in my review, in the end deciding I couldn’t choose among them.
Doshi’s descriptions are lush and beautiful. Whether she’s discussing a place, a person, or an emotion, she has the ability to convey so much through her prose. The reader can feel the emotions pulsing through her words and “The Pleasure Seekers” is worth reading simply for the sheer beauty of Doshi’s writing. A common theme running through the book is being away from your own country, in a foreign country with alien people and cultures. Doshi captures these feelings wonderfully, really showing the reader how strange the entire experience is. Even if you have never traveled to or lived in a foreign country, Doshi can make you understand the bereft excitement, those dueling forces that make you feel lost and found at the same time. The following quote describes Sian in Madras as she writes a letter home to her family. “I’m always a beginner here,” she wrote, trying to get to the heart of the melancholy that had set in ever since they’d taken up residence in Sylvan Lodge. “I am always beginning because I cannot surrender a part of myself. It’s difficult to explain. Everyone has been more than generous, more than patient, and yet, it’s a feeling of being marooned, of not having quite reached my final destination.”
“The Pleasure Seekers” was a wonderfully written look at one family over decades, through tumultuous events in Indian history. Though the plot does meander a bit towards the middle of the book, Doshi’s beautiful prose is a constant that ties the book together. This is Doshi’s first novel, though she has published a collection of poetry called “Countries of the Body.” – Swapna Krishna (www.skrishnasbooks.com)
Author: Mary Roach
(W.W. Norton & Co.)
Review by Swapna Krishna
When I first heard that Mary Roach was writing a book about space travel, I was at once intrigued and hesitant. On one hand, while I haven’t read anything by Mary Roach before, I’ve heard amazing things. I knew she’d give the subject the in-depth treatment it deserved and it would be an enjoyable read. Additionally, I was really happy to see that a book about space flight was getting mainstream attention, as most don’t. However, I was hesitant because I have read a lot about space flight – would it have any new information for me, or would I be disappointed by it?
In the end, I was really pleased with “Packing for Mars”. Roach takes on an almost entirely unexplored facet of space travel – its effect on the astronauts and people involved. She reviews the physical, emotional, and biological effects of space travel, from bathroom issues in zero g to the benefits and drawbacks of an all-liquid diet to the effect of space travel on bone density. The entire aim of the book is in the title – what will it take to get to Mars? If we send astronauts there, what shape will they be in when they arrive?
Roach is very witty. Admittedly, there were some pages that I skimmed because I can take only so much potty humor (literally), but generally her wit served to soften the information for the reader. Additionally, it’s clear that Roach did her research before writing “Packing for Mars.” There’s an entire chapter-by-chapter bibliography in the back of the book. While I do wish she had included more astronaut memoirs for the personal touch (after all, they are the people who went up there), she had the science part of the equation more than covered.
I really did find the science of this book fascinating. The information on what space flight does to human bone density was especially interesting, as my husband’s uncle is an astronaut and broke his hip after returning from a six month stint on the International Space Station. Doctors speculated it was because of his experiences in space; now I understand why. Additionally, her review of the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia was fresh and interesting. I really appreciated the time and effort she put into each of her chapters, and her enthusiasm was palpable.
Read more book reviews on her blog at www.skrishnasbooks.com
Climbing the Stairs
Author: Padma Venkatraman
Review by Swapna Krishna
Vidya is a fifteen year old girl living in Bombay during World War II. Her father, a doctor, is a supporter of the Indian independence movement and subscribes to Gandhi’s doctrine of ahimsa, or nonviolence. Vidya wants more for herself than the traditional role of an Indian woman. She fears marriage because she wants her freedom and to continue studying, rather than becoming a housewife. When tragedy strikes her family and their circumstances change drastically, Vidya is unsure whether she will ever find happiness.
I’d heard very good things about Padma Venkatraman’s “Climbing the Stairs,” and after reading it, I can completely understand why. Venkatraman seamlessly blends historical details with social commentary and an endearing main character, making this book both interesting and impossible to put down.
I simply loved the character of Vidya. I loved the way her mind worked, and how fiercely independent she was. She wanted more for herself and wasn’t content with what she was handed in life. She fought for what she believed in, but at the same time, she was cognizant that what she did affected others. I also appreciated how passionate she was. I really loved getting to know her in this novel; Venkatraman wrote Vidya with an expert hand.
Venkatraman deals with a lot of serious issues in “Climbing the Stairs,” but manages to refrain from making it a heavy, burdensome novel. From the plight of women in India to the discussions about the British treatment of Indian citizens, Venkatraman doesn’t shy away from the difficult parts of life back then. It is these issues that Vidya must grapple with and try to understand on a daily basis.
I also appreciated that Venkatraman highlighted the role of India during World War II. She exposes some little-known facts about India’s involvement and makes sure to make it a central part of the novel. As a result, the reader comes away feeling like they’ve learned something new.
“Climbing the Stairs” may be a short book, but it’s a powerful one. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute I spent reading this novel, and cannot wait to see what Venkatraman does next.
Read more book reviews on her blog at www.skrishnasbooks.com
Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
Review by Samir Shukla
“My decision not to eat animals is necessary for me, but it is also limited – and personal. It is a commitment made within the context of my life, not anyone else’s. And until sixty or so years ago, much of my reasoning wouldn’t have even been intelligible, because the industrial animal horticulture to which I’m responding hadn’t become dominant.”
The quote above pretty much summarizes author Joanathan Safran Foer’s mind opening book Eating Animals. This is Foer’s first non-fiction work, following his much read fictional bestsellers Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Eating Animals takes readers on a journey that shows the daily brutality animals face in industrial and factory slaughterhouses. Foer presents testimonies, his own investigations, visits to factory farms, and interviews to bring to light the state of commercial, large-scale animal slaughterhouses.
To his credit, Foer doesn’t preach or lecture, and as the opening quote indicates, he’s not interested pushing vegetarianism on a broad scale. Foer is simply bringing to light what most people don’t see or even think about when eating meat, dairy, or eggs. Foer has always been, in his words, and on again, off again vegetarian, and after researching this book, and especially after becoming a father, his personal convictions on forgoing meat completely solidified.
This book should be an eye opener for meat eaters. During the course of the storytelling, Foer dissects his own food choices over the years. This book is part investigative journalism, memoir, scientific discovery, detective work, and humor-laden philosophical tome. Foer tasks the reader to think about the food choices they make and how everything affects everything.
Eating Animals unshackles shuttered doors of factory farms and slaughterhouses, it persists in making the reader think and explore long-running food traditions and look deeper into the daily brutality required to bring a piece of meat to their lunch or dinner plate.
Author: Roopa Farooki
(St. Martin’s Press)
Review by Swapna Krishna
Aruna Ahmed is married, living in London with her husband Patrick Jones. She married him on impulse because she was trying to drown out her sorrows and forget about her past in Singapore. Aruna, however, realizes that she can’t run away from what she left behind forever and that she has to go back and confront the ghosts she thought she’d escaped from.
I’ve heard great things about Roopa Farooki, and actually own all of her books, but I’ve never read any of them. When I received a copy of Half Life for review from the publisher, I figured it was a good place to start.
Aruna is an incredibly written character that I absolutely loved. At the start of Half Life, she is so completely broken that it seems like nothing will make her whole again. Over the course of the book, the reader learns how she ended up this way, as well as witnesses her desperate attempts to find some sort of healing. Farooki wrote Aruna with such raw emotion, the reader can’t help but become fully involved in her life. She was a beautifully written character that was so flawed, yet so easy to really feel a connection with.
The funny thing is Aruna is not depicted as a great person. Most of what the reader sees of her is from flashbacks, when she’s already broken. This makes her seem like a mean and bitter person who doesn’t care about anyone else, however, it’s clear that there is a lot going on underneath the surface and that it’s all just Aruna trying to protect herself and keep people from getting to know her.
As a result, it doesn’t turn the reader off or make Aruna an unlikeable character.
Farooki does an excellent job tying the disparate threads of this story together. She provides some shocking twists, but ultimately, it’s Aruna’s story of finding herself that will capture the reader. I was utterly taken in by the beauty, pain, and brittle edges of this novel, and can only say that it certainly won’t be my last novel by Roopa Farooki.
Author: Shilpi Somaya-Gowda
Review by Swapna Krishna
I cannot put into words how much I loved Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s “Secret Daughter.” Gowda writes with such grace and wisdom, it is impossible to believe that this is her debut novel. Her prose is lyrical and beautiful, yet clear and precise. Her writing makes the book easy to read and keeps the heavy subjects discussed within its pages from being a weight on the reader.
When she gives birth to a daughter in a small village in India, Kavita is fearful for the fate of her baby. After all, her husband Jasu has made it clear that they need a son and cannot afford to raise a little girl. Desperate to protect her daughter from a cruel fate, she secretly takes her to Mumbai and leaves her at an orphanage, hoping that she may one day have a good life.
In San Diego, American doctor Somer is devastated by her inability to have children. She agrees to consider adoption from her husband Krishnan’s home country of India, and they end up bringing a beautiful one-year old girl into their family. As their daughter, Asha, grows, she begins to question her Indian heritage and origins, wanting to know more about the place and people she came from.
Gowda also does an excellent job making each major character in this novel a sympathetic one. Somer, Krishnan, Asha, Jasu, Kavita – all these people want different things. Sometimes, the desires of one character clash with the needs of another, yet Gowda manages to write in a manner the reader can sympathize with both characters at the same time. When Somer went to India and felt frustrated by the culture differences, I understood her pain at the same time I felt Krishnan’s anger that she wasn’t trying hard enough. It was an amazing feat, and it happens again and again over the course of “Secret Daughter.”
The discussion of the culture clash between America and India was very well done. Gowda focuses on how alien India can be for Americans, or even for Indians who aren’t used to the pace and style of life. She also beautifully describes the feelings of any person of Indian heritage learning about their home country. She put thoughts onto paper that I would never even have known how to put into words. She described exactly what was in my heart – the feeling that India is a country of opposites, a dichotomy. The pride one can feel in being from a country of such beauty with such richness of culture, coupled with the shame that, statistically, daughters are not valued as much as sons in India. When Asha learns about this fact for the first time in the novel, Gowda’s words brought tears to my eyes:
“‘We are a minority in this country. You know the birth rates are all bungled up in India, don’t you? We have something like nine hundred fifty girls born for every one thousand boys.’ Meena stares straight ahead. ‘Mother India does not love all her children equally, it seems.’” – Page 229
I loved all the stories discussed in this novel, but it was Asha’s search for a sense of identity that spoke to me the most. She had no sense of belonging at the beginning of the novel. Though she knew her parents loved her, she needed more than that to find her place in the world. I loved the realizations that she came to as the novel progressed – where her identity really was, what really mattered, and what the power of a mother’s love can do.
This book is a beautiful portrait of family, culture, and the importance of understanding your heritage, while also being a testament to the love of all our mothers. It doesn’t matter what culture or background you are – Gowda’s writing and compelling story will pull you in and not let you go until the last pages of the novel are turned.
Author: Indu Sundaresan
Review by Swapna Krishna
I have read everything Indu Sundaresan has published. From “The Twentieth Wife,” her beautifully written debut novel about Mughal India, to In the “Convent of Little Flowers,” her moving and insightful short story collection, every single piece of fiction she has published is simply incredible. Despite knowing this, I approached “Shadow Princess” with some hesitation – I absolutely loved the first two books in the series, “The Twentieth Wife” and “The Feast of Roses,” so my expectations were high.
To say the least, “Shadow Princess” blew my expectations out of the water. This book was amazing. Sundaresan shows her incredible skill at writing characters in this novel. The main character in the first two books, and the person with whom the reader’s sympathies lie, is Mehrunnisa, also known as Empress Nur Jahan. In “Shadow Princess,” however, the main characters are Mehrunnisa’s opponents, the people that the readers’ minds were set against in the first two novels. There is a generational gap between Mehrunnisa and Jahanara, the main character of “Shadow Princess,” but Mehrunnisa is still a very important character in the book, more for her legacy than anything else.
As a result of this turnaround, it’s easy to become concerned that this book might not be as magical as the previous two, that the characters might not be as sympathetic. And here is where Sundaresan displays her genius – she gives the reader the ability to fully identify with these characters, while not losing their sympathy for Mehrunnisa. It’s a delicate balance, yet it’s accomplished deftly and amazingly well.
It’s not necessary to read the first two books in the series before reading “Shadow Princess,” as Sundaresan does an excellent job at delivering the necessary information in order to establish the background of the story. Although I recommend reading “The Twentieth Wife” and “The Feast of Roses” because they are such rich and textured books.
The history in “Shadow Princess” is also enthralling. It’s about the building of the Taj Mahal, at least in part, which adds a certain mystique to the novel. Sundaresan handles very complicated and varied history with a beautiful simplicity. The book never becomes bogged down in details, yet she provides a vivid look at an amazing period in Indian history.
One Amazing Thing
Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Review by Swapna Krishna
A group of people are at an Indian passport and visa office in a city in the United States when there is an earthquake. Nine very different people are trapped inside the building. Unable to leave or get help, they must rely on one another for survival. Passing time, each telsl a story about themselves in order to reveal one amazing thing that has happened to them.
“One Amazing Thing” is a simple tale, a tribute to the different people that each of us are. There are nine characters in this book, nine stories to be told. Each is a unique story with its own lesson, but Divakaruni never hits the reader over the head with each moral. Instead, she subtly weaves them into her overall tale, conveying her messages beautifully and with grace.
This book deals with a lot of heavy issues, from racism to forced marriage (and many problems in between) but in a very deft way. Divakaruni never weighs down the story with tears or depression. Instead, each of these tales serves a healing purpose. Both the teller and the listeners are changed by the stories, softened and more understanding. It’s a real testament to the power of stories.
“One Amazing Thing” is a slip of a book and it would be a real ordeal for the reader to get to know each of these nine characters intimately. Instead, Divakaruni provides glimpses into each character’s life; the point isn’t to get to know these characters as much as it is to understand them and their motivations.
The best part about “One Amazing Thing” is each character’s story. They aren’t earth shatteringly dramatic stories. Instead, they’re simple tales, characteristic of real life. In that way, they’re very personal. I loved reading each of these stories because they revealed something very private about the storyteller.
“One Amazing Thing” was a very enjoyable novel and at its core is the humanity that each of us share, humanity that comes across through the story that each person tells. It’s a short novel and doesn’t take long to read, but it will leave you thinking long after the last pages are turned.
Swapna Krishna writes a book reviews blog.
Read her reviews at skrishnasbooks.com
Author: George Bishop
Review by Hena Sharma
It is curious that the author was inspired to write this very tender, coming-of-age story during a camel excursion in Rajasthan. India, however, is not featured at all in the story and serves only as the catalyst for the author, George Bishop, to dream this compelling novel. The North Carolina educated author, who has spent many years teaching abroad in countries such as India, Turkey, and Japan, has written a heartfelt and honestly open story about a mother reaching out to her 15-year-old daughter. Bishop’s talent is even more evident in this story because it is about the heartbreak felt as a girl transforms into a young lady. Since the author happens to be a man, it might show that feelings during adolescence and middle-age are probably universal among males and females. Bishop has captured a believable essence of a mother who realizes that a generational divide is inevitable, even when you think you are the most understanding and open-minded. He also describes a daughter’s feelings as she navigates life during high school with simple, yet heart-breaking detail.
The story begins when teenager Liz storms off with her parents’ car after an argument with her mother, Laura. As Laura worries about Liz’s whereabouts, she laments at the lack of communication between them, and begins writing all of her thoughts in a letter. The process of pouring her feelings out onto paper calms the worried mother, and helps her share details of her own teenage years that she has yet been unable to share with Liz. Laura’s own story consists of high school life during the early 1970s, in a conservative family with strict expectations, and her teenage rebellion during the era of public protests. Laura writes about her first love, her parents’ disapproval, being sent away to boarding school, getting a tattoo, and the precious years in which she left her adolescence and innocence behind to become a young adult. The story describes her feelings as she deals with social peers in a high school, gets involved with an older boy, and becomes the source of gossip. The change in Laura’s thinking and the physical changes in the world around her as she transitions from being a freshman to a senior are well written.
The trials of teenage years, high school, and college days can be difficult for parents to face themselves, yet alone share their own experiences with their children. The line between sharing too many details and keeping some things private between parents and children can sometimes be very thin. Bishop walks that line very gingerly, and it seems clear that any parent would have difficulty sharing some of the details in the story with their own children. Bishop illustrates how Laura is able to spill her heart into the letter, as she longs to see her daughter come back home, and worries for her safety.
The engaging story of Laura’s American childhood with rebellion and maturity, joy and loss, keeps the reader engaged, whether you agree with Laura’s choices or not, and curious about the outcome. The honest storytelling by Bishop pulls the reader into the emotion of the story from the parent’s perspective as well as the teenager’s. The complicated feelings between mothers and daughters, and the pain of growing up too fast is captured in a beautifully written, simple, book.
Hena Sharma is a software developer living in Cary,
who enjoys blogging about the books she’s reading on her website “www.henasgoodbooks.com”
Author: Chetan Bhagat
(Rupa & Co.)
In “2 States,” Bhagat’s style is direct, straight to the point, and one in which he takes numerous liberties with stereotyping North and South Indians (both areas now representing his own family) making for a hilariously good read. Anyone having read Bhagat’s previous bestselling books such as, “One Night @ a Call Center, or “Five Point Someone,” knows that the author speaks to a contemporary Indian audience and does not hold back in his often blunt, yet honest, writing style. The college crowd, recently graduated, and those young-at-heart can relate to many of the issues, some of them controversial, that Bhagat raises in his stories. Bhagat is not afraid to speak out and write about social issues he sees happening among the new ‘upwardly mobile’ young adults of today’s India. Issues such as rebelling against religious upbringing, drug use, relationships prior to marriage, pressures of school, family, and society on today’s youth have caused controversies and will spark many interesting conversations.
The story, “2 States,” is about a boy, named Krish, who meets and falls in love with a girl, Ananya, in his Economics class in MBA school. The details of their lives at college and the sometimes shocking but outrageous anecdotes of college life, are mixed in with sensitivities of ancient customs, cultural norms and the timeless angst felt by young adults finding their way in the world. Bhagat’s characters, especially the descriptions of Krish’s parents and of his relationship with each, are developed well enough to get the reader to understand the nuances of the story. The relationships are not always simple, and we see Krish struggle with the complications in his life, especially as he wants to start a life of his own. Bhagat is keenly aware of the issues that divide Krish and Ananya’s respective families. Both sides hold stereotypical views about each other without first getting to know one another. Bhagat points out the differences and opinions in a funny and direct approach. Some of the blunt, one line, comments make the reader laugh out loud.
Bhagat succeeds in presenting the points of view from both sides of the drama. Krish’s character has qualities of rebelliousness mixed with a hunger for parental approval, which make his character all the more believable. Ananya is portrayed as a strong, intelligent, modern woman who knows how to get what she wants, yet has vulnerable aspects as well. Bhagat spares us from a typical melodramatic story by making it young and fresh with current issues faced by today’s youth, and by throwing in humor as much as possible.
Many Indian authors whose books I have recently read have been women. Bhagat brings a relevant, young, male voice to the mix. Bhagat’s “2 States” was a quick read that was fun, enjoyable, and something to read without a serious attitude.
who enjoys blogging about the books she’s reading on her website “www.henasgoodbooks.com”
Author Shobhan Bantwal
I absolutely loved the character of Anjali. She was smart and savvy, a real role model for younger women, especially Indian girls. Though she had a breakdown after her husband died, she rebuilt her life, pouring her energy into something productive. It was great to see her declare that her life was not over, even though her husband had died. Her vulnerability also intrigued me. I could feel her anguish at the prospect of losing her shop and her anger at the thought that outsiders might be coming in and taking it over. Bantwal did a fine job of developing Anjali and making her seem like a real person.
I also appreciated how modern the novel is. A lot of stories about Indians set in America tend to be fantasy stories in some ways – Indians residing in the United States, but living exactly as they would have if they had stayed in India. When you live in a foreign country, that culture will rub off on you. I liked that Bantwal incorporated both the traditional and the modern in this novel. For example, Anjali lives with her parents even though she is a thirty-seven year old widow, though there are also some practical reasons for that. Anjali also has a life of her own, however, one that she keeps secret from her parents. It’s a delicate balance that takes a deft hand to achieve, and Bantwal does it well.
The story of “The Sari Shop Widow” is a bit of a fairy tale, but in a good way. I loved how Rishi came in as a knight in shining armor in order to save the shop, but Anjali wasn’t having any of it. It really reinforced the idea that she is a modern woman and wanted to be saved through her own hard work, not rescued by some guy she doesn’t know. Though the story focuses much more on Anjali’s development rather than saving the store, I enjoyed reading about how they turned the shop around. More details of that would have been nice.
The Sari Shop Widow is a wonderful book for a lot of different audiences because it incorporates so many different genres. I highly recommend it.
Swapna Krishna writes a book reviews blog. Read her reviews at skrishnasbooks.com
Author Deepak Chopra
In his latest book, “Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul,” Chopra tries to simplify his message. The first section of the book tries to get the reader to accept a different way of viewing the physical body and the physical world itself. He suggests that the real purpose of the human body is to join the visible and invisible realms by expressing intelligence, creativity, truth, love, and beauty. By the visible realm he means the physical world, and by invisible realm he refers to that energy or higher power, or the concept of our soul that we cannot physically see or touch.
One fascinating idea that he presents is that our genes respond to our fears, relationships, habits, and environment. He shows that research is being done to show how positive lifestyle changes have been shown to alter genes associated with heart disease, inflammation, and even cancer. Practices such as Hatha Yoga, meditation, and social support of friends and family have already been seen as good preventative steps to take for good health. Now, Chopra shows that adopting these measures may stop or even reverse serious illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and high cholesterol, on a genetic level.
Chopra presents a new view for our physical world around us as well. He contends that a major complaint of most people of the modern world is a lack of time when that is really not the true problem. He suggests the real problem is that chaos and unpredictability throw your timing or rhythm off, and cause stress, disorder, confusion, accidents, sickness, and chaos in your life. The simple solution he suggests is to “make time your ally” by keeping regular hours, avoiding drastic changes in diet and activity, reducing distractions, and basically simplifying your life using his many suggestions. Each suggestion is very simply stated but could be difficult to implement, and therein lies the challenge. For example, he suggests that we should not multitask, but rather pay attention to one thing at a time, and focus on the moment. We are told to “put our house and finances in order, avoid high-risk situations, stay within your comfort zone, and become emotionally resilient.” Each one of those tasks can be a huge challenge but ultimately will lead to a less-hurried, more peaceful flow of energy in your life. Eventually, the goal is to “live your life as if you have all the time in the world.”
The second half of the book is the actual ‘self-help’ section that includes many practical ideas for a more fulfilling life. Chopra illustrates many of his points through people’s life stories. The major idea to ‘resurrect’ the soul seems to be to lead a life that is more in harmony with the world around you so that you are more at peace, and ultimately more happy. Some of the suggestions include getting out of bad habits, letting go of the notion of being ‘right’ all the time, being merciful, available, and generous so that your soul will evolve through you.
The book wraps up by presenting the ten steps to wholeness that connect your mind, body, and soul. The ideas are presented with great insight and encourage the reader to commit to a deeper awareness, focus on relationships instead of consumption, and to embrace every day as a new world. Many of Deepak Chopra’s books are meant to give advice on how to have a more peaceful and rewarding life. In this book his ideas are presented in a simple format.
Authors: Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman
Review by Hena Sharma
Could praising your child, and telling him he’s smart, actually hurt his self-esteem in a challenging situation instead of giving him confidence? According to the new book “NurtureShock,” the answer is yes, if you offer the wrong kind of praise. In their new book, Bronson and Merryman have composed a collection of mind-opening and thought-provoking ideas regarding child rearing, and presented psychological studies behind the new discoveries that are sure to grab your attention.
The authors present evidence to support the idea that over-praised kids could actually turn out to struggle with self-image when faced with difficult problems, and are more likely to consider cheating their way to maintain their “smart” label. Another interesting study regarding praise showed how mothers in Illinois interacted with their kids after a failure and how they starkly contrasted with the way mothers in Hong Kong dealt with the same situation. The remarkable difference in the two sets of kids’ performance after the interaction with their mothers was striking. The book offers advice on how and what to praise if you want a positive impact on your child.
The book provides research evidence on many other topics such as: how a difference of only one hour less sleep in a teenager can increase cases of depression, car accidents, obesity, and negatively impact their SAT scores. Other eye-opening ideas explored by the authors included: sibling rivalry, teaching kids about color and race, self-control, and how to play with others. All topics and research studies were very intriguing and make the reader think twice about inadvertently affecting children in a negative way without knowing it.
The authors show research suggesting that testing for “gifted” programs in kindergarten selects the wrong kids in 73 percent of the cases. Intelligence tests have always sparked controversy, especially when it comes to testing children. According to research, testing kids at such an early age in order to grant them admission to elite schools, or into limited enrollment “gifted and talented” programs, seems to be based on unreliable testing. The authors show that IQ testing in third grade or middle school produces a more accurate prediction regarding success in high school or beyond. It was a very interesting chapter and reflection on our current school programs and processes.
Another chapter dealt with research regarding babies and very young children who were exposed to “educational” videos and TV shows in hopes of increasing their intelligence. The parental motivation to do so seemed harmless enough. The videos, backed by educational experts, claimed to enhance the child’s experience, and therefore intellectual development, by including music, international languages, and colorful images. However, as indicated by the research conducted, reality seemed to contradict the claims of increase in language development, and in fact showed evidence of delaying development instead! The ideas behind this finding are fascinating, and full of surprising factual data.
One of the most compelling headlines in the book claimed that a teenager who argues with his parents is actually showing a sign of respect. Any parent of a teenager will surely want to read the studies behind this assertion. The topics challenge the obvious and traditional way of thinking. Parents generally try to do their best to navigate child rearing with what they know at the time. This book presents startling evidence to challenge many standard beliefs in our society. The topics presented and the supporting research studies are difficult to ignore, making this bestseller a worthwhile read.
Author: Lisa See
See writes the historical novel through the eyes of Pearl, the college-educated, multilingual older sister. The story describes Chinese cultural values and customs from Pearl’s perspective as the daughter of a seemingly wealthy businessman, and later as an immigrant to America. In Shanghai, the sisters live in a household complete with servants, a cook, a gardener, and a father with a tragic problem. The belief in Chinese astrology, herbal medicines, honoring ancestors, living as an extended family, and respecting the elders in the house were some of the cultural details that See utilized to show Chinese family life throughout the entire story, regardless of the continent on which Pearl lived. Pearl’s world shatters when the Japanese attack Shanghai and she witnesses the atrocities of war first-hand. The brutality of war, its aftermath, and the events leading to their escape portray the depth of Pearl’s pain in unforgettable detail, yet is without melodrama.
Throughout the story the relationship between the sisters and their lives after marriage in an extended family with their in-laws, is interesting to read and will be familiar to those from Eastern cultures, such as Indian, as both cultures share many similarities. The circumstances that lead them to America and the secrets that the sisters share will keep the reader engaged until the end of the story. The sibling rivalry with concurrent intense loyalty and love that the sisters have towards each other is very moving, and adds layers to the depth of the story.
See focuses on the feelings and experiences of both of the sisters, and other Chinese immigrants, legal and illegal, that try to adjust into a very different America that existed prior to World War II, and immediately after. The sacrifices that were made by Pearl and others to survive in America by adapting and trying to find their place in society, while still not being able to deny the pull of wanting to return someday to settle in China, even after spending decades in another country are feelings to which many immigrants can relate. See uses historical events unfolding in China and America after World War II to illustrate the conflicts between the views of the first and second generation immigrants. These universal feelings of generational discord, rebellion, and the development of social causes will be familiar to many readers. Pearl and her family lived in an America that feared communism, and everyone was suspicious of anyone with Asian features because it was difficult to distinguish between Chinese allies and Japanese enemies. See details the unrest and fear in the Chinese community during the time that Japanese internment camps were set up and arsonists set fires to Chinese shops.
Within the historical events taking place, the story of Pearl, her sister May, and their extended family is a very absorbing read. Readers and fans of See’s previous novel, “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” will not be disappointed. With “Shanghai Girls” See has delivered another beautifully written epic story that begs to be continued in a sequel.
Author: Mitch Albom
Review by Hena Sharma
Does the belief in a higher power fit into our modern world of technology, emails, and DNA mapping? Spirituality is a personal issue, rarely discussed among friends and co-workers, and a subject we are warned to avoid in order to keep the peace in mixed company. How ironic, that we avoid discussions regarding religion to keep the peace. Given all the controversy in the world today, I suppose we are afraid to approach this subject with those outside of our own religion, or to assume that a person has a spiritual belief at all.
Mitch Albom’s Have a Little Faith story does not preach a particular way of life, he simply describes his own journey, from being raised in a traditional Jewish congregation, walking away to a very successful writing career, marrying outside his religion (a Christian Arab), and then coming back to reconnect with the rabbi he has known from childhood. The story itself is an easy to read true story of his renewed relationship with his rabbi and a new relationship with an African American pastor, with the events unfolding during the current chaotic economic conditions. It is a book that encourages looking at ourselves as children of the world, and highlights the commonality of world religions, rather than the differences.
The book has Albom’s style and wit. I really enjoyed all of Albom’s previous books, especially the fictional bestseller For One More Day. Albom’s touching true story of his professor’s battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease in Tuesdays With Morrie was also a very gripping account of his own spiritual journey.
Albom’s books never preach in any single way and I did not believe that Have a Little Faith would be any different. It was a beautiful story, tenderly written, about Albom’s discovery that while he, “thought he was being asked a favor, instead was being given one.”
Albom is asked by his rabbi to deliver his eulogy, and Albom is stunned, however he accepts. The story starts with Albom’s journey into learning more personal details about his rabbi, whom he’s only known as a “Man of God,” a go-between to the higher power, and has somewhat been intimidated by his importance. Albom simultaneously describes a story of another clergy from New York, one with a very different past life and present in a crumbling church in Detroit. There are many moments in the book that make the reader pause, and reflect on the enormity of a simple sentence.
Albom has the gift of writing truly inspirational and moving words, in an easy to read real-life account that does not feel like a typical spiritual read. For example, what is the purpose, especially in our modern world, for ancient religious rituals? Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and most other major religions all partake in rituals. Do these rituals make sense? Albom gets a simple, yet profoundly meaningful, answer from his rabbi that will speak to all of us. Also, is it easier not to believe in a higher power at all? Albom’s writing does not claim to have the answer, yet describes one account of someone dealing with loss and not having faith to help them through their pain. Another gem of advice is the answer Albom receives when he asks his rabbi the secret to happiness. Again, a simple answer is given: be satisfied, be grateful. It’s wonderfully simple, yet many of us spend a lifetime without ever being satisfied or grateful.
The choice is ours; we can choose to live our lives the way we want. We may follow the path we were shown as children, or one that we discovered ourselves as adults, or are yet trying to find in our future. Albom’s book affirms that whatever path we do choose, a little faith can’t hurt. This was another quick read, and spiritually uplifting book by one of my favorite authors.
Author: Michael Palmer
(St. Martin’s Press)
Review by Hena Sharma
“The Second Opinion,” is a thrilling, medical mystery-drama, written by a doctor who is obviously a gifted writer. I had not read any of Palmer’s other novels and was not expecting the story to be as satisfying as it was. The story is about a famous internal medicine specialist, Petros Sperelakis, and his four highly intelligent children. Dimitri, the eldest, has an IQ of 180, yet is lost in his own world of computer games and software hacking. The twins, Niko and Selene, are both Harvard educated doctors. Thea, the youngest, also an internal medicine specialist, works with “Doctors Without Borders” in underprivileged countries.
The story describes the events after an accident leaves Petros in a comatose condition in the Boston hospital that he founded. Thea returns from an assignment in Africa and finds the situation surrounding her father’s condition a bit suspicious, and is determined to find out why. Events start to happen and the action filled story takes the reader on a ride filled with unexpected twists, suspense, medical explanations, neurological abnormalities, and family relationships.
Palmer describes Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism, and how Thea is able to live and function despite being diagnosed with it. The insight into the thoughts of a person who has Asperger’s is expertly written and explored. The story contains a great deal of medical details and activities in and around a hospital. Every expert description was entirely believable and yet not tedious. I was reminded of a non-fiction book called “Complications” by Atul Gawande, whose account of being a doctor and his very real human feelings among all the technicalities of hospital life was similarly engrossing without the thriller aspect. Palmer’s fictional story progresses at action-film speed where you never know what to expect next. I enjoyed the switching back and forth between the different story lines and the way Palmer brings them neatly together.
The story pulls the reader in with issues of having a parent on life-support and each child’s differing opinions on how to handle it, plus the suspense involved in solving the mystery. Issues of sibling rivalry, parent-child relationships, and unspoken feelings are common among all families, regardless of age or education level. Palmer intertwines these emotions in an engrossing thriller that is difficult to put down.
Hena Sharma is a software developer living in Cary, who enjoys blogging about the books she’s reading on her website www.henasgoodbooks.com.
By Farahad Zama
By Hena Sharma
“The Marriage Bureau for Rich People,” is an easy to read and an interesting story about a retired teacher, Mr. Ali, who opens a matrimonial agency to keep himself busy. It takes place in the coastal Indian city of Visakhapatnam (the author’s birth city), in the state of Andhra Pradesh. What struck me about this story was the way Zama portrayed a truly multicultural, harmonious co-existence among people of different religions. The author did not assume that the reader was familiar with local, or cultural norms and took care to explain or detail them whenever possible, such as the offering of water to guests, or the details of Muslim and Hindu wedding rituals.
It was apparent that the author drew upon his background in developing his characters, as they were very believable, and the descriptions of local temples very realistic. At first, the idea of a marriage bureau might seem very “old world,” but the individual stories illustrated universal, timeless emotions. The wealthy doctor, salesman, and divorcee were each seeking to find a life partner, and sought out Mr. Ali’s help. I enjoyed the different aspects and similarities of their stories. The idea of personal ads is not a new one, but some western readers may be surprised at the bluntness of matrimonial ads. In India, matchmaking for marriage is a huge business. There are very successful websites solely for this purpose. It was interesting to see Mr. Ali start his business without a list of clients, computer, or employees and turn it into a success.
Mrs. Ali is glad at first to finally have something that occupies Mr. Ali during the days, but then wishes there wasn’t such a disruption to her day due to her husband’s home-based operation. Mr. and Mrs. Ali’s son Rehman is an unmarried engineer who leads protests against the government in support of villagers and farmers. Zama weaves in Rehman’s story of social conscience and responsibility in the face of mass corporate growth in Indian cities. However, this is not a political book, and the story does not preach.
The story is also centered on Mr. Ali’s assistant Aruna, an unmarried Hindu Brahmin girl from a very simple, modest upbringing, who needed to abandon her Master’s degree in order to financially help her family. The story is simple, yet not overly sweet. Zama shows how communities of all faiths share the common values of love, duty, honor, and family. The most interesting, and refreshing aspect of this story is to read about regular neighbors of all different faiths, interacting and really co-existing together as a community while maintaining their culture. The story shows how caste and religion while important when selecting suitable marriage partners, become only personal qualities when looked at in terms of a larger community. This is a good, clean, funny, and uplifting story to read. It was nice to read such a novel for a change!
Author: Thrity Umrigar
Frank and Ellie carry their grief to India when Frank accepts a job posting there, and hope that the change will help them heal. Frank is tortured by his loss, and blames his wife’s carelessness as contributing to their son’s death. After moving to India, Frank becomes obsessed with his servant’s young son Ramesh. The story describes how Frank, desperate to fill a void, uses Ramesh as a replacement for his own son.
Meanwhile, his wife Ellie allows this obsession to continue, thinking it will heal Frank somehow, and gives in to Frank’s ideas of always including Ramesh whenever possible in their own personal lives. I found this to be a bit unbelievable. Ellie is an educated therapist by profession and at some point would have stopped Frank’s unhealthy behavior and asked him to seek help!
Ramesh’s parents, Prakash and Edna, and their feelings towards their employer’s interest in their son were well explored. Prakash resented the intrusion of a strange American man taking such interest in his son, providing things he could only dream about, and slowly pulling him away. Edna welcomed the attention her son received, and saw this as a way to give Ramesh a bright future that she and Prakash could never provide. Prakash, Edna, and Ramesh were very believable characters, with very believable feelings. Just as Umrigar did in her novel “The Space Between Us,“ she made the reader connect emotionally with characters of different socioeconomic classes on a human level.
Ellie becomes involved in charity work, helping the local women and children, and is well liked by all. She also seems to adjust to India and is much better at moving forward with her grief. Frank’s character seemed to be spiraling deeper into his obsession. It was also unusual when Frank and Ellie would take the boy with them during special occasions, especially holidays, leaving Prakash and Edna behind. Wouldn’t it have been easier to take Ramesh’s family together? Here again I thought that Ellie should have convinced her delusional husband Frank to do so, and found it a bit unsettling.
Frank’s inability to cope becomes a growing snowball, and the reader can feel the tension in the story increasing. The interactions between Frank, his workers, and his wife take a backseat to his obsession with Ramesh. This was very compelling, and I found it easy to become engrossed in the storyline, despite my disagreement with some parts. The characters, their inner turmoil, and complexities were eloquently developed. I didn’t mind that some choices didn’t seem to fit because the story flowed well and kept me wanting to see what would happen next.
There were some unexpected twists in the plot when the couple deals with the locals, befriends a professional Indian couple, and Frank tries to run a business in India. Umrigar touched on topics of multinational corporations and their impact on the local people and environment, plus the corruption and abuse of power. The characters and their struggle stay with you long after you finish reading the book. This was a very well written story and I highly recommend it.
People Place Culture History
India is booming. The ancient lands are being paved with modern highways. These roads, the new infrastructure, are yet another thread, winding around the countryside, leading the country into the global economic arena and political influence. Over a billion people populate this noisy democracy while its countless cultural inflections, languages, lifestyles, religions and ethnicities remain intact. India: People Place Culture History is a fantastic hardcover book shedding light on the vast history and cultures of India. The landscape of India ranges from the Himalayas in the north to the deserts of the west, the lush tropical forests of the south and northeast to fertile lands in between. India’s personalities are as varied. The book is loaded with wonderful photographs that give a sense of place that is India with the ancient and the new. The historical and religious primers are concise and presented in a balanced and literate manner. The editors obviously have a love of India and the book is a showcase of that admiration. Besides the photos the book also features hundreds of original full-color illustrations. The book is the result of a labor of love that has bloomed and belongs in all home libraries. There’s also a short travel section featured for contemporary explorers. The interesting aspect is that the writers and editors interview everyday Indians to get a pulse on their daily lives and sense of pace. India is an ancient and living civilization that can confound casual observers. This book helps make sense of some of the joyous madness that is India. The text and narrative are insightful and concise and thought-provoking. This book is on the spot in revealing and showcasing the melting pot that is India, a land that has absorbed so many outside influences while remaining unique. The marvelous photos alone are worth the price.
(Harvard Common Press)
Amina Mazid is a woman living in Bangladesh, and at twenty-four, she is about to be married. Not to just anyone, though - Amina is going to move to Rochester, New York with her new husband George Stillman, whom she met on an online dating site. Amina is excited to build a future in a new country with her new husband, but she has unrevealed desires and hopes of which she tells George nothing. What Amina doesn’t know, though, is that George is harboring his own secrets that could tear their delicate marriage apart.
The Legend of Pradeep Mathew
W.G. Karunasena (also called Wije) is a sportswriter who has spent his life drinking his days away. Now, his doctor informs him that, unless he stops drinking, he will die soon. Instead of doing the responsible thing, Wije chooses to continue with this lifestyle and decides to make a documentary about the history of Sri Lankan cricket. He wants to focus on Pradeep Mathew, a cricketer that almost everyone else has forgotten about, but finds difficulty at every turn in his search for information. Who was Pradeep Mathew, and why do people not want his story told?
Shalini is a teenager whose life has been upended: her father received a great job offer in the United States, and now she and her family are leaving India to settle in a new country. Shalini doesn’t know what to expect in America, but she knows things will be very different. In India, she lives in a house with all her aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents; she doesn’t know what it is like to be alone. What’s more, she has been promised since her third birthday to Vikram, the son of a family friend. She has known she is going to marry him her entire life and finds comfort in that stability. But now she has been torn away from the boy she loves, will Shalini be able to settle in America and enjoy her new experiences, or will her heart always be in India?
India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India
Akash Kapur was born in India, but has spent much of his life in the United States. In 2003, he decided to move his family back to India for good, excited about the transformation the country was undergoing. But what he found over the course of his years back in India weren’t what he expected: the modernity that India is pursuing comes at a high cost, and he wonders if the price was too much.
Hayat Shah is a Pakistani-American boy living with his parents. His parents’ relationship isn’t ideal, but the family gets by. That is, until Hayat’s mother’s best friend arrives from India. Mina changes everything in the Shah household. The atmosphere becomes softer, less difficult, and Mina teaches Hayat about Islam and the Qur’an. But as things begin to change, Hayat clings to Quranic teachings, and is forced to learn difficult lessons about what he is capable of.
The World We Found
In college, Laleh, Kavita, Nishta, and Armaiti were the closest of friends. They were young and idealistic, sharing political views and supporting each other in the knowledge that as individuals, they could change the world. Thirty years later, they have each settled into their own lives; Laleh is married to her college sweetheart Adish, while Kavita hides the fact that she is a lesbian from those closest to her. Nishta has disappeared from the group of friends with her Muslim husband Iqbal. But when Armaiti calls from the United States with the news that she has a brain tumor, the friends must come together once again, for the last time.
Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi
In his book, Steve Inskeep chronicles the rise of Karachi, Pakistan, what he terms an “instant city.” In 1941, before the Partition of India and Pakistan, Karachi was a city of just 350,000 people. Only seventy years later, its population is over thirty million. Inskeep discusses the history of this vibrant Pakistani city, focusing on what this rapid growth has meant for Karachi.
The Whole Story of Half a Girl
Sonia Nadhamuni’s life is changing drastically as she enters the sixth grade. Her father has lost his job and sunk into a depression, and her mother is working harder than ever to provide for her family. Sonia no longer can attend the prestigious private school she has loved her whole life. She is sent to a public school, leaving behind her friends and everything she knows, and she must find her place in this unfamiliar world.
A Million Suns
After the horrible events that led to the death of Eldest and the incapacitation of Orion, Elder has now assumed leadership of the Godspeed. But since taking the inhabitants of the ship off the drug that has kept them obedient, Elder’s leadership position is in jeopardy. What’s more, Amy is still having trouble fitting in aboard Godspeed, and her situation has become dangerous with the growing unrest. When Elder and Amy discover that there are yet more secrets to uncover about the Godspeed, her mission, and the “Plague”, they race to find this knowledge before it’s too late.
Though Helena has died, she is finding trouble letting go of the world she knew so well. As a veterinarian, she knew and loved many animals, but she can’t help but feel that her life was completely meaningless. As Helena follows her bereft husband, David, he must learn to live without his beloved wife, struggling with the legacy she left behind.
The Thorn and the Blossom: A Two-Sided Love Story
Evelyn Morgan is visiting Cornwall when she meets Brendan Thorne in a small village bookstore. They immediately forge a connection that spans many years and different continents in this unexpected love story.
Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal
When he was 29, Conor Grennan decided that he wanted to take a trip around the world for one year. But when he realized that sounded incredibly self-indulgent, he amended his plan: he would start off the trip in Nepal, helping orphan children for three months. After all, what sounds more selfless than working at orphanage? But when Grennan arrives in Nepal, he immediately realizes he is in over his head. What he is unaware of, though, is how much those three months and the twenty boys at Little Princes orphanage will change him.
In this “what if” novel, Ali tackles the question of Princess Diana of Wales, and specifically, what would have happened if she had faked her death? It’s now 10 years later, and “Lydia” has settled comfortably into her new life. She has friends and is a volunteer at the local animal shelter, and though she has some regrets, such as leaving her boys behind, she enjoys her quiet life in the American Midwest. But when a royal photographer happens to be in her small town, Lydia’s perfect life could come crashing down around her all over again.
Sonia Gandhi: An Extraordinary Life, an Indian Destiny
The Good Muslim
State of Wonder
The Full Moon Bride
An Atlas of Impossible Longing
Miss Timmins’ School for Girls
The Way Things Look To Me
Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity
The Last Brother
Radio Shangri-La (What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth)
Exit the Actress
Karan Seth, a photographer working in Bombay, decides that he wants to capture the essence of the city through his pictures. He receives the difficult assignment of photographing Samar Arora, a famous pianist who is incredibly private. He becomes friends with Arora and through him, is exposed to an entirely new side of Bombay, one with darkness and secrets, but also the lightness of being and joy of life.
Luka and the Fire of Life
Luka and the Fire of Life is the story of Luka Khalifa, younger brother to Haroun of “Haroun and the Sea of Stories.” Luka is envious of Haroun, as he got to go on an adventure to Earth’s second moon in order to save their father’s storytelling abilities. Even though this happened before he was born, Luka is frustrated - when will he get to go on an adventure? Luka gets more than he bargained for, though, when his father Rashid Khalifa falls ill and it’s up to Luka to save him.
Vastu-Science – Understanding Harmony
The Emperor of All Maladies
-- Review by Swapna Krishna
Famed author Raj Chakraborti is missing, and the only thing there is to explain his disappearance is this manuscript, left for his editor. Told in alternating chapters that vary between an autobiography and a thriller that seems to be fictional, this is the tale of a man on the run, whether because he’s hunted or crazy is unclear.
The Unexpected Son
The Pleasure Seekers
Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
Letter to My Daughter
Review By Hena Sharma
The concept of a “mixed marriage” in the western world usually refers to a marriage between partners of different ethnic backgrounds or races. However, among most Indian-Americans, a mixed marriage can also easily refer to Indian couples from different parts of India itself (with differing regional languages), or different religions (Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Muslim, etc.), or different castes, or all of the above. Chetan Bhagat, an IITD/IIMA graduate and bestselling author, based his latest book, “2 States,” on his own experience of attending college, meeting a girl from a different Indian region than his own, and of their ensuing relationship, family troubles and resulting “mixed marriage.” Bhagat’s previous books have inspired movies, with the most recent one being the movie “3 Idiots,” based on his book, “Five Point Someone” that draws upon his IIT/IIM experiences.
Hena Sharma is a software developer living in Cary,
The Sari Shop Widow
Review By Swapna Krishna
I’ve really enjoyed Shobhan Bantwal’s books. Her novels “The Dowry Bride” and “The Forbidden Daughter” both dealt with controversial subjects in Indian society. They were engaging novels that I enjoyed reading, so when I heard she had another novel coming out, I couldn’t resist it. “The Sari Shop Widow” is llighter in tone than Bantwal’s previous books, but it’s as captivating.
Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul
Review by Hena Sharma
Many people make New Year’s Resolutions to help motivate them into making positive changes in their lives. Sometimes all that is needed is a changed point-of-view to see a situation in a different light. Other times a breakthrough is needed in order to get out of a negative thought pattern and move forward. Bestselling author and motivational speaker Deepak Chopra’s books often challenge the reader to experience breakthroughs in thinking in order to improve quality of life. His latest book is no different in this regard. Chopra presents the concept that the human physical body is a constantly changing collection of cells, and that only by adding the element of our awareness, energy, or soul do we truly exist. Chopra has received numerous accolades as a motivational, spiritual speaker, but sometimes deciphering his message from his books can prove to be difficult, and sometimes confusing.
Review by Hena Sharma
Lisa See is an author that can portray the sights, smells, and sounds of a story with such compelling detail that the reader is pulled instantly into the scenes she paints with her words. Her latest novel, “Shanghai Girls,” follows the story of two sisters from China whose lives take them on a journey from an upper-class, comfortable life prior to the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 China, to interrogations at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco, then to living in Chinatown in the Hollywood area.
Have a Little Faith
The Second Opinion
The Marriage Bureau for Rich People
The Weight of Heaven
By Hena Sharma
“The Weight of Heaven,” by Thrity Umrigar is a gripping story about Frank and Ellie, an American couple trying to come to terms with the loss of their young son. The reader is immediately pulled into the couple’s pain of losing a child, but the story is not only about a family overcoming grief. The characters’ personal struggle, their relationship as a couple, and the impact on the community around them are the complex ideas that Umrigar weaves into a compelling story.
Review by Samir Shukla
The New Vegetarian Grill
The New Vegetarian Grill is an updated version of Andrea Chesman’s much-loved book on grilling vegetarian meals. There are no photos of finished dishes, some may find that as a shortcoming of the book, but the lack of photos also leaves more room for recipes. And recipes galore, from kabobs to grilled deserts. The book features 250 recipes “flame-kissed” as the author puts it. There are many unusual combinations and grilling techniques presented here including quesadillas, grilled Portobello salad with Roquefort dressing, lentil-stuffed pita pockets with grilled onions, veggie fajitas with chipotle sour cream, white pizza with leeks and peppers, Tandoori-style vegetable kabobs, and grilled nectarines with Mascarpone Cream. You get the picture. This book is not only for vegetarians. Even meat grillers will find tasty ideas and recipes that can enhance their meals with numerous veggie options next time they fire up their grills. There are chapters on sandwiches, pizzas and flatbreads, appetizers, soups and kebabs as well as marinades, glazes, sauces, and desserts. It’s filled with a variety of easy dishes for gas grills, charcoal grills, or a simple campfire grill sizzling under an open sky. The expanded introductory chapter features helpful information on current equipment options such as pellet grills, grill pans, built-in grills, and indoor grilling machines. This new collection adds 50 new recipes along with improved techniques and equipment to the original edition. It’s simple. Open the book, find something you like, and fire up the grill.