Tag Archives: book review

Book Review: Beyond The Beautiful Forevers, by Katharine Boo

Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Behind the Beautiful Forevers narrates the fate of three key families within this Mumbai slum, locked together in terrible and tragic circumstances. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting“ in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Fatima, neighbour, born with one leg and a bitter rival of Abdul’s family. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption, and seeks to intervene (and make) from the tragedies of every day.

I bought this book for my husband, at the time of its release, as he had lived and worked in Mumbai. I visited him there a few times, and had become charmed by India and its people. We took a slum tour, in Deravi, Mumbai’s largest slum, a morning that I will never forget. Reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers some years later adds a layer that is hard to accommodate. What left me, after this ‘responsible’ slum tour, was how much pride, hope and ‘place’ was exhibited in these communities. We saw plastic recyclers, tanneries, schools – and the dreaded public loos. We peered in the slum dwellings, and remarked on the beautifully turned out children. We saw mostly smiles. We saw the computer facility, funded by the tours. To coin a phrase, we left only footprints, as it was forbidden to take photographs. This was an experience, and not a zoo. So why has Boo’s book unsettled me? Boo’s book offers little hope, and little sense of community. Neighbours seek to out do each other, make money off each other, none more so than Asha. There is such little kindness in Boo’s account, and that sits at odds with the people we met in India.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a remarkable book. It is well-written, almost novel-like, with tension on every page. It is achingly sad, even more so as it is all true. This isn’t the creation of a novelist, making their darlings suffer. Boo spent three years living in Annawadi, aided by translators, to report on the lives of the people that feature in her book. It is an impressive project, boiled down to a highly engaging, if disturbing, read. I imagine that I will be thinking about it, haunted by it, long after shutting the book.

 

Book Review: Rising Ground by Philip Marsden

“Why do we react so strongly to certain places? Why do layers of mythology build up around particular features in the landscape? When Philip Marsden moved to a remote creekside farmhouse in Cornwall, the intensity of his response took him aback. It led him to begin exploring these questions, prompting a journey westwards to Land’s End through one of the most fascinating regions of Europe… Marsden reveals that the shape of the land lies not just at the heart of our history but of man’s perennial struggle to belong on this earth.”

I will state boldly, that Rising Ground is another book that I wish I had written. Philip Marsden is a gifted writer, with an ability to conjure up place from the page. He also manages to go beyond the sense of place, and in seeking the ‘spirit’ of it, he connects people to the landscape.

Cornwall is rich in history, and Marsden’s journey west towards Lands End, not taking the well-trodden paths, is fascinating and absorbing. It is a woven narrative with the renovation of the crumbled building his family have moved into, tucked away in old mine country, in the upper reaches of The Fal.

Rather like Robert MacFarlane, each place is a chapter, giving space for Marsden’s descriptions, research and pondering to breathe.  Even before the reader turns the first page of a chapter, Marsden tempts you in with an exploration of the origins of the name of the place – invoking its spirit. It is a journey the reader takes with him, as Marsden is generous with his own process and reflection.

As someone who has been curious about the world, inspired by a wonderful geography teacher in school, and then the subject of my first degree. I have been lucky enough to travel widely, but in coming to Cornwall, I too have found a gravity to place that I have not experienced anywhere else I’ve lived (and I’ve lived in a number of rural and city locations, with four years in the immediate post-Communist Poland). Perhaps his book speaks to me because of my wanderlust, my own curiosity and my joy at feeling home.

Marsden’s writing is sublime, better even than The Levelling Sea, with spine-tingling lines such as:

“There have been times writing this book, trying to reach the meaning of a place across the ages, when I have felt a shadow pass over my desk”

Rising Ground is a wonderful book, and Marsden makes me want to pull on my walking boots and wander the paths less travelled across Cornwall.

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by JK Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

In this latest instalment of the Harry Potter series, we roll the clock forwards to Harry and Ginny as parents of three children. The youngest, Albus Severus, is about to embark at Hogwarts School of wizardry.

Albus is the main character, and the Cursed Child narrates his struggles living in the shadow of his famous father. He is not a great wizard, or a particularly enthusiastic one. His best friend is Scorpious Malfoy, son of Harry’s arch-enemy Draco Malfoy. The Cursed Child tells the bumbling antics of these two, with Albus wanting to make an impact, and trying to undo a great harm that involved his dad, with Scorpious up for the adventure. They try to right the wrong of Cedric Diggory’s death. This involves time travel via a Time Tuner to unexpected consequences, as the meddling of time brings Voldemort back from the dead.

Unlike the other Harry Potter books, the Cursed Child is a play. I should begin that I loved the entire Harry Potter series, re-reading all six volumes before JK Rowling released The Deathly Hallows. I forgave her this long book that could have been edited back, for her story-telling and rounding of different threads of plot and character. I didn’t re-read any Potter books for this one, and didn’t even read it immediately on release. If anyone wants to re-read, I would point them to reading The Goblet of Fire, as the Tri-Wizard Tournament is drawn on to develop the plot.

That it was a play didn’t spoil the enjoyment for me, in fact, it was a kind of novelty given the books I’ve read in the last few years. If anything, it made me wish I’d seen it in the west end – but perhaps it will tour, and reach Cornwall…

The plot is cleverly crafted, referencing the Tri-Wizard Tournament in which Harry competed as a young wizard, but it is the themes that touched me most. There is the angst of adolescence, but the antagonist to Albus is his father. It is a neat exploration of the theme of father-son relationships, with orphan Harry having no role model of his own, as he stumbles to reach out to his youngest son.

For any Potterphile this instalment is glorious, and one to devour in one sitting. Ice cream in the intermission optional.

Book Review: Precious and Grace, by Alexander McCall Smith

Another in the series of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, which sees Mma Remotswe and Mma Makutsi solving mysteries in the bosom of Botswana. This is the 17th in the series, and is as predictable and as comforting as a pot of roobush tea.

The characters are the same, and are as you left them. The same kinds of things happen. It is not exciting reading, but it is engaging. It the literary equivalent of putting your feet up and hearing from old friends.

Of course there are problems to solve, a white van to be driven. Rich fruit cake to be eaten at the Orphanage. There is a certain rhythm that McCall Smith takes the reader through. And yet, despite its predictability, I am charmed by the books, the happenings, and the loose plot anchored by the characters we love. What endures is the themes. This one is forgiveness. Beautifully executed by McCall Smith, which remains long after the book is closed. Charming and rewarding. What else is there, at one level? It is like being kissed by the Botswanan sun. No bad thing.

Book Review: The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah

From Kristin Hannah’s website (as I couldn’t fathom, again, how to describe it. Lazy me).

FRANCE, 1939
In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.
Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.

This book was a gift. A mother and daughter, both who’d adored and were moved to tears by The Nightingale. We shared a love of All The Light They Cannot See, The Night Circus, both spectacular books in their own rights. The Nightingale was a shadow in comparison. In truth, I nearly abandoned it. The writing strangled me, in a cliched, sycophantic noose. In the dilemma of whether to continue, or not. I sought out some reviews – the readership split. Some glowing, some disparaging.

In April, I took a five hour train ride to London; this might be the space to get me over the hump, the desire to throw the book against the wall. Several reasons, Kristin Hannah is a successful novelist, she makes income from her work. This was slush in places. A better edit, and a better discipline in writing. That irked me. In the early pages of the book, I could have photocopied a page, and edited the hell out of it – superlative, cliche, over-writing. It smacks of early draft writing in places. And then the crux of historical novel writing, credibility. Lazy Americanisms in the European setting, when in WWII, this was not influence (that really came later). Language that rubbed, like sand between damp toes. Sooner or later, it’s going to blister.

And yet, I went back to it. The story was one that needed to be told, the female heroes of the French Resistance, quietly going about their work. Hannah has a good story, this reader had to work, patiently, for it to be revealed. Her characters, moved her plot along, yes. Some were better defined than others, but the relationships let the story down. A perfect husband, sent to war. Sisters, one feral one good. A bad father. A mother died too soon. A kind Nazi. A sadist Nazi. A rugged lover who dared not to love. These were all a bit ‘flat’. No one that I really cared about as the story developed, And yet, at the close, as the threads of the past and the present knotted together, I was moved. The story shone through.

A month since I read it, and I’m still not sure whether to recommend it or not. That’s clever in its own right.

Book Review: Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea tells the story of the island republic of Nollop, situated off the coast of South Carolina. Named after its native son Nevin Nollop, the creator of the typist’s pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”  Ella Minnow Pea, an 18-year-old laundress is the book’s heroine and principal narrator. Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolary novel, unfolding through the correspondence among Ella, her cousin Tassie Purcy, and various other characters, along with dictats from Nollop’s governing High Island Council.

Ella Minnow Pea is a political satire and observation of state control. One July evening a tile falls from the monument that commemorates Nollop’s iconic sentence. In panic, the Council’s members convene to determine the purpose. They decide that the fall of the tile clearly represents the great Nollop’s posthumous wishes, and since the tile in question bears the letter ‘Z’ it must follow that Nollop wants that letter removed from the island’s speech and writing. The Council issues a ban, threatening violators with flogging, the stocks, or permanent exile. At first Ella believes that the loss of ‘Z’ will be only a minor inconvenience, she soon realises that the ban has terrible consequences. These become increasingly evident as more tiles fall  with more letters taken out of circulation. Communication becomes all but impossible, island life has come to a standstill, and many citizens have been exiled. In the end only Ella is left to break the Council’s stranglehold, with a deadline fast looming.

Ella Minnow Pea is a clever book, and a real indulgence in the English language. Told entirely in letters, Dunn creates a literary feat, as language becomes more and more restricted. At one level, it’s a ridiculous tale, with paper-thin characters (who are awfully nice), and a single premise of a plot. There are some tensions, romance and reconciliation, but ultimately the engine of the novel is the ludicrous notion that governance is based on tiles falling from a statue. Its genius was enough for this lover of language.

This book isn’t for everyone, but I delighted in it. Towards the end of the book, only the letters LNMOP remain. A laughable delight in the phonetics of the central heroine, Ella Minnow Pea. Bloody genius.

 

 

Book Review: Ties, by Domenico Starnone (translated by Jhumpa Lahiri

Ties is a story of a marriage. Like many marriages, this one has been subject to strain, to attrition, to the burden of routine. Yet it has survived intact. Or so things appear….

Ties is a clever, classy book. There is an introduction by the book’s translator, Lahiri, which is perfectly placed. I was in two minds whether to read it, before or after. Both would work, but I am glad that I read it before, as an introduction. Lahiri talks about the language and the choices in using words in translation. It introduces a couple of metaphors, containers, that I may not have held so readily.

Ties is almost a perfect book – because it is clever, and because it is an everyday occurrence; marriages falter. The structure lends to its cleverness. Ties is told in three books, by three narrators. The first book reads as a series of angry letters written by Vanda (the wife) to her straying husband (Aldo), revealing the abandonment felt by her and their children from the choices that he made. The second book is Aldo in old age, recounting a trip to the sea and the events that unfold when they return. The third book is narrated by the children, and both reflects and judges their parents and them as their children.

This is a character led story, of course, because it is about a marriage. Through the observations Vanda, Aldo, and then the children, the layers are both put on and stripped off Starnone’s people. It is so clever. There is also a plot, a mystery that emerges in Book Two, resolved in Book Three (no spoilers). It ties into the family. This also makes it clever.

Starnone’s themes are bold. Betrayal, infidelity, domestic abuse (control), loss, ageing.. and family ties. Those emotional ties that bind us. Starnone’s writing is uncluttered, with a directness in the character’s voices that appealed, and lent to a sense of intimacy in reading the book. It really was like eavesdropping in the anatomy of a marriage, witnessing how the dissection of words and actions leads to messy, unexpected consequences.

This is a short novel, at 150 pages, but it punches well above its weight. Outstanding.