Top Reader Reviews
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the second novel by Booker Prize winning author, Arundhati Roy. The story begins with Aftab, whose confusion about what he was found relief at the Khwabgah, among other hijra. He became Anjum, and eventually she ran the Jannat Guest House (in its highly unusual location), a refuge for the quirky, the oppressed, the different.
Integral to the tale is S. Tilottama, real and adopted daughter of Maryam Ipe. Tilo's story, and that of the three men who love her, is told not only by her, but by Dr Azad Bhartiya (fasting Free Indian), Biplab Desgupta (her ex-Intelligence Bureau landlord), and Musa Yeswi (elusive militant). Filling out the quirky cast are a paraven calling himself Saddam Hussain, Zainab the Bandicoot, Naga the journalist, a singing teacher, and an abandoned baby, to name just a few.
How all their lives intersect and how these lives are impacted upon by Government and policy, and in particular, the Kashmiri freedom struggles, is told using vignettes, anecdotes, loosely connected short stories, moral tales, memos, disjointed scraps, accounts that take detours and meander off on tangents. As with Rushdie, Seth and Mistry, this novel has that unmistakeable, essential Indian quality, in characters, in dialogue, in plot.
But here, moreso than in The God of Small Things, the fact that this is a novel by Arundhati Roy the social activist, is very much in evidence (as readers of her non-fiction works will attest) and thus includes illustrations of the many issues against which she rails. Some reviewers describe this novel as "preachy"; the causes are worthy, but readers may feel that is it is only a shade off being exactly that, and perhaps be forgiven for wishing that it was more novel, less moral tale.
Some of Roy's descriptive prose, as with in The God of Small Things, is staggeringly beautiful, poetic and profound: "They understood of course that it was a dirge for a fallen empire whose international borders had shrunk to a grimy ghetto circumscribed by the ruined walls of an old city. And yes, they realised that it was also a rueful comment on Mulaqat Ali's own straitened circumstances. What escaped them was that the couplet was a sly snack, a perfidious samosa, a warning wrapped in mourning, being offered with faux humility by an erudite man who had absolute faith in his listeners' ignorance of Udru, a language which, like most of those who spoke it, was gradually being ghettoized."
However, the vague and veiled references to certain personages, events and ideas which are, perhaps, obvious to those familiar with Indian current affairs, will go straight over the heads of other readers, the message will be lost or less than clear. There is humour, heartache, despair and hope, there is much cruelty but also abundant kindness, making it a moving and powerful read.
But in the hubris of an interim win, someone steps beyond the bounds of the decency that could be expected, and that whole promising future is thrown into jeopardy.
Backman's opening sentence tantalises the reader: "Late one evening towards the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barrelled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else's head and pulled the trigger." The mystery of who and how and why is gradually revealed, and involves some twists and a red herring or two, as well as a good dose of philosophising, quite a lot of social commentary and much ice hockey.
Backman is very skilled at the short vignette that describes his minor characters, and also certain important incidents in the lives of major characters. None of his characters is one-dimensional: all have flaws and most have a conscience; some disappoint and some surprise; many keep secrets and some act out of guilt or the hope to protect their loved ones from hurt.
In this tale, Backman touches on several topical themes: the behaviour of sporting team members off the field; peer pressure and bullying; "blame the victim" mentality; loyalty and responsibility; the tacit acceptance of the violence inherent in contact sport; and the sense of entitlement that often affects the privileged. Yes, there is a lot of Ice Hockey in this story, but it could actually be centred around any team sport in a remote town to the same effect. There is a very slow build-up to the climax, which may be frustrating for some readers, but patience is rewarded. Backman presents moral and ethical dilemmas in a realistic fashion, but is his formula wearing just a little thin? This is a very good read, but not a brilliant one.
The narrator Leia Birch Briggs is a successful writer/artist in the graphic novel industry who, after discovering some life changing news, decides that a visit to her grandmother in Birchville is long overdue. Things do not go quite as planned as her grandmother, suffering from a degenerative disease, has been displaying some unusually outrageous behaviour. Instead of announcing that she will be continuing the Birch's family lineage Leia finds herself taking care of her grandmother.
I loved the fun, quirkiness of Joshilyn Jackson's writing style, and depictions of her characters, all of whom have real presence, warm endearing qualities, and were totally believable. I especially loved the multi-sisterly connections, in particular the endearing relationship between the towns oldest residents, Leia's grandmother Miss Birchie and her lifelong friend and companion, Wattie.
Leia's relationships with her half-sister Rachel and thirteen year old niece Lavender are equally as compelling, as is the relationship between Violence and Violet, characters from Leia's comic novel whom she uses to mirror and work through, to an extent, her own disappointments and frustrations that life heaps on her.
'The Almost Sisters' is an intriguing, story with a touch of a southern gothic feel, about the prejudices and complexities of bi-racial families, and relationships in the modern day 'Second South'; of multi-sisterhood bonds; and witnessing the heartbreaking slow deterioration and loss of a loved one to a degenerative disease. Even though it raises some serious issues it is gently done without becoming sentimental or preachy, and It is ultimately an uplifting story of family loyalty, love and forgiveness.
This is my first encounter with Joshilyn Jackson and one which felt destined to receive a 4 star rating until the ending which didn't quite work for me. However, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and am now looking forward to reading her earlier novels, in particular 'God's In Alabama'.
Highly recommended and would make a perfect book group choice and summer read.
Memorable scenes: Leia's drunken one night stand with 'African American Batman' from the Comic Convention...fabulously hilarious!
In her life there are few wonderful things; one of those is lying in the nearby meadow looking up at the stars and naming the constellations. Which is what Wavy is doing when Jesse Joe Kellen, a mechanic on an errand for her father, comes riding along on his 1956 Panhead. Seeing ths blond angel at the side of the road causes Kellen to skid, wreck the bike and injure himself in the process. Wavy overcomes her usual reserve to help him.
From this accidental meeting, an unlikely friendship develops between these two. With her family's lifestyle, Wavy is exposed to violence, drugs and indiscriminate sex, so she has learned to keep a low profile, to eschew attachment to possessions, to trust no one. But Kellen, despite his appearance, despite his criminal history, despite his age (he's thirteen years older than her), earns her trust. In fact, he's the only person in her life who cares enough to see her nourished, schooled and protected from harm. But when Wavy reaches her teens, and the relationship changes tenor, it attracts unwelcome attention with tragic consequences.
Greenwood uses multiple narrators to present her story, and these give many points of view, but from Kellen and Wavy's perspectives, the relationship can be seen as genuine and pure. Greenwood portrays her characters skilfully, and she conveys the sense of time and place and the prevalent social attitudes with consummate ease. Her descriptive prose is often exquisite. This is a tale that is likely to polarise readers, emotional and thought-provoking. A brilliant debut.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is the first novel by British author, Gail Honeyman. At thirty years of age, and despite her degree in Classics, Eleanor Oliphant has worked a mundane office job in By Design, a graphic design company in Glasgow for nine years. She has no friends and the people she works with find her strange. But her life is well organised: completely fine, in her opinion, needing nothing. Until, that is, she casts eyes on musician Johnnie Lomond.
Eleanor sets out to attract the love of her life, undergoing several preparatory procedures to ready herself for a potential encounter (waxing, hair, nails, make-up), as well as acquiring the electronic means to do some research on the object of her attention. She is distracted from her task by Raymond Gibbons, the firm's (rather slovenly) IT consultant, who ropes her into helping an old man who has fallen in the street. Eleanor is sure he's drunk but " Even alcoholics deserve help, I suppose, although they should get drunk at home, like I do, so that they don't cause anyone else any trouble. But then, not everyone is as sensible and considerate as me."
Honeyman gives the reader a moving tale that includes a good dose of humour. Eleanor is a complex character: socially inept but generally unaware of it, often remarking on the lack of manners that others display: "'You don't look like a social worker,' I said. She stared at me but said nothing. Not again! In every walk of life, I encounter people with underdeveloped social skills with alarming frequency. Why is it that client-facing jobs hold such allure for misanthropes "
Yet Eleanor is often insightful, although she can also be naïve: "After all, how hard could it be? If I could perform scansion on the Aeneid, if I could build a macro in an Excel spreadsheet, if I could spend the last nine birthdays and Christmases and New Year's Eves alone, then I'm sure I could manage to organize a delightful festive lunch for thirty people on a budget of ten pounds per capita"
Her literal interpretation of what people say often makes for laugh-out-loud moments, and her observations can be shrewd: "She had tried to steer me towards vertiginous heels again why are these people so incredibly keen on crippling their female customers? I began to wonder if cobblers and chiropractors had established fiendish cartel."
This brilliant debut novel touches on childhood neglect, physical cruelty and emotional abuse, as well as repressed memories and survivor guilt. It highlights the value of a skilled counsellor and the importance of care and understanding, friendship and love. Recommended!
The write up refers to his therapist as "ineffective". I think that the relationship between Edward and his therapist is much more complicated than that. He's annoyed by her seemingly simple/simplistic questions, but then he's also annoyed when he asks if an octopus is a fish and she says she believes it's a cephalopod. At that point, he seems to think she's smart, but in the wrong way.
Of course, it's very sad, but it ends on a hopeful note and, no matter what happens, Lily is always with Edward.
The Zookeeper's Wife is the eleventh book by American author, Diane Ackerman. It is non-fiction, but often reads like a novel, a plain narrative with spurts of lush descriptive prose, for example: "In a country under a death sentence, with seasonal cues like morning light or drifting constellations hidden behind shutters, time changed shape, lost some of its elasticity, and Antonina wrote that her days grew even more ephemeral and 'brittle, like soap bubbles breaking'"
It tells the story of Antonina Zabinska and her husband, Director of the Warsaw Zoo, Jan Zabinski. When Poland is occupied by the Nazis in 1939, the animals that aren't killed during bombing raids are stolen by Berlin zookeepers, and Jan and Antonina need something else to keep them busy. As the zoo cycles through different legitimate incarnations (pig farm, fur farm), the one business that is soon a constant, very much behind the scenes, is the concealment of Jews trying to escape the Ghetto and Nazi persecution.
After initial descriptions of the time before occupation, the bulk of the story tells of the Guests that passed through the Zabinski's Villa, both human and animal, with all their quirks, traits and oddities. Sometimes the text does get a bit bogged down in details (insect collections, sculpture, extinct species and back breeding), but the ingenuity of these brave people is amazing, and their generosity is truly uplifting. As an officer in the Home Army, and very active in the Resistance, Jan is often absent an it is up to Antonina to keep things running smoothly, and facilitate the passage of some three hundred people to safety.
"In prewar days, the villa had harboured more exotic animals, including a pair of baby otters, but the Zabinksis continued their tradition of people and animals coexisting under one roof, over and over welcoming stray animals into their lives and an already stressed household. Zookeepers by disposition, not fate, even in wartime with food scarce, they needed to remain among animals for life to feel true "
Ackerman's extensive research is apparent on every page, as well as in the 21 pages of notes on the chapters, the 7-page bibliography and the comprehensive index. She portrays Jan as cool under pressure, demanding and critical, while Antonina comes across as clever and intuitive, but they are hard to connect with, perhaps because Ackerman had to base her tale on diaries and notes. It will be interesting to see what Hollywood does with this tale. A fascinating true story.
The 'voices' have their own individual style of narrative:
Mary, a young girl sailing with her parents and her new husband from England to the Colonies uses her journal to document her anguished thoughts as an outlet for her frustrations and feelings of increasing despair and isolation. So touching and exquisitely written this was by far the most compelling narrative for me;
A Texas inmate writes his (confessional) memoirs for his part in the story;
Chat transcripts of a young girl's internet conversations are used as evidence in the inmate's trial;
We hear the sad, deeply moving private and individual thoughts of a couple who are drifting ever farther apart, but remaining ever closer together; again these narratives were highly emotive and deeply moving.
Alan Turing writes letters voicing his concerns about a friend to the mother, ultimately divulging his own intimate thoughts, inner turmoils and dilemmas, again sensitive, touching and beautifully composed.
The narrators 'speak' because they have a need to be heard and understood, but they do not necessarily 'speak' to whom they really should, nor are their voices necessarily heard by their intended listener. Their private intimate divulgences may also be read out of context, misinterpreted or manipulated and used against them or people connected to them in some way by an unintended listener. Therefore, not speaking and being misunderstood becomes a common thread in this complex tale.
These totally random stories, and characters initially appear to be unconnected, however as you read on, fragments that interconnect the voices and threads begin to come together making sense as the story unravels.
I savoured and devoured this book in equal measures and genuinely didn't want it to end. Louisa Hall is a master in the art of painting vivid imagery with the written word. With stunning, sumptuous and beautiful balletic prose, I absolutely adored this novel.
Powerfully written in its complexity, and diverse in narrative style, Speak is sheer brilliance in its construction and delivery. Fans of David Mitchell's 'Cloud Atlas', Emily St. John Mandel's 'Station Eleven' and Erin Morgenstern's 'The Night Circus' should seek this one out as a 'must read'.
It is unfathomable to believe that 'Speak' is only the second novel from the author. I'll definitely read more from Louisa Hall and will have to contain my excitement until her next book is published.
At the commencement of each chapter there are ornithological terms of reference which cleverly shadow Meri's experiences within the chapter they refer to. The writing style is gently paced, and intelligent, with beautifully constructed sentences and phrases such as,"I watched the first snowfall begin as a light, dry powder and morph into those luscious, fat, lazy flakes that sashay downward and accumulate into weighty drifts." I fell immediately under the authors spell of words and eagerly devoured the pages of the book. In another poignantly beautifully written scene where the crows say farewell to one of their own, I cried as the loss and feeling of loneliness was utterly palpable and I truly believed I understood how Meri was feeling at that particular stage of her life.
The Atomic Weight of Love is primarily a love story written and voiced by Meri about the ever changing, evolving love she feels for Alden, and then in her 40's of her love for a much younger man. I found it in turns to be heartbreaking, and infuriating due to the out dated attitudes of the times, but above all an uplifting read. There is a bittersweet quality to the story and at times it simply broke my heart.
Elizabeth Church's debut novel is an exquisite poignant tale of loyalty, trust and knowing when to let go. I truly hope there's a lot more to come from her as a writer. I'd recommend it for readers who love beautifully written literary historical fiction that will make them question their own sacrifices and accomplishments. I would also suggest it for book group readers as the multitude of topics raised throughout the book could generate some lively discussion.