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I've been recommending this book to friends recently and realized I never posted my review of it here. It's a mimetic/realistic fiction novel set in modern-day Bangalore, with two main plot threads: a guy who wants to expand his business honestly but faces the impossibility of doing so without bribing creeps, and a servant in his house who walks multiple figurative tightropes to maintain some sliver of personal autonomy and keep her son from falling in with creeps.

I'd previously read Sankaran's short story collection The Red Carpet, which I also recommend. (I picked it up in the Manhattan public library when I was looking for Dorothy Sayers and saw Sankaran's book near Sayers alphabetically. Most English-language Indian fiction isn't about Bangalore, so this is an ultra-specific YES YES SO RIGHT YES. Sankaran hooked me a few pages in by using the Kannada/English slang "one-thaara" ("a kind/type of"), which I'd never seen written down before. The title story is so sweet! I see [personal profile] rydra_wong also liked it and [ profile] glitter_femme liked it too.)

I loved The Hope Factory -- what a specifically Bangalore story, getting the texture of class, gender, and location so right. (I wonder whether the flashback chapter about one protagonist's day laborer past would work as a standalone story; it sure has a Crowning Moment of Awesome that I will remember for a long time.) I honestly do not know whether I should recommend this book to non-Indians or even desis who are not Karnatakan or Kannadiga, whether it will sparkle quite as bright to people who have never been to that particular dosa restaurant, who don't think "wait I think I have relatives in that square mile of Mysore." But if you're looking for an English-language novel set in modern-day Bangalore, spanning rich and poor, family and business and politics, check this out.
ext_939: Sheep wearing an eyepatch (skywardprodigal Cog Flowers)
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6, 7, & 8. Three poetry collections by Moniza Alvi: Carrying My Wife, A Bowl of Warm Air, and The Country At My Shoulder (all three collections are available together in an omnibus also called "Carrying My Wife"). I have to admit, out of about 150 poems, there were three that did anything for me. I mostly found the expression of content incomprehensible, possibly due to the author reaching for innovative imagery, and the aesthetics of form uninteresting, but she's a comparatively popular mainstream Establishment poet so my judgement is extremely questionable (and I haven't heard her read her own work live). There are two of the poems, which did speak to me, at my dw journal.

9. The Redbeck* Anthology of British South Asian Poetry, edited by Debjani Chatterjee, is a nearly 200 page collection with a wide variety of content and style, which I enjoyed. There are two example poems at my dw journal and a third example poem but, of course, three poems can't reflect the breadth (or depth) of this anthology.

* I keep misreading it as "Redneck". ::facepalm::

10. The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan didn't appeal to me visually as much as the previous Tan books I've perused but the gist, that it's more important to be happy than to fit in, is another good theme, especially for kids.

Note to tag wranglers: "british-asian" and/or "british-south-asian" is correct usage and, yes, some of the authors (and/or their subjects) are also caribbean / african / &c.

Tags: women writers, poetry, anthologies, asian, british-asian, pakistan, britain, british, caribbean, african, bangladesh, india, indian, indian-british, pakistani, bangladeshi, pakistani-british, bangladeshi-british, british-south-asian, asian-australian, australian, chinese-australian, picture books
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I swore I wouldn't get behind this year, and look at this. I'm already lagging. I suck at New Years resolutions.

#2: The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino (translated by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander)

The Devotion of Suspect X )

#3: Villain by Shuichi Yoshida (translated by Philip Gabriel)

Villain )

#4: The Other Side of Paradise: a Memoir by Staceyann Chin

The Other Side of Paradise )
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14. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Mistress of Spices

A sort-of fantasy novel about Tilo, a 'Mistress of Spices'- immortal, mystical women, trained in magic and secret knowledge, sent out into the world to help people. Tilo is sent to Oakland, California, where she slowly becomes personally involved in the lives of the people around her, and begins to reveal her own backstory.

This novel is very hard to describe, because it doesn't have much of a plot for most of its length. Instead, it's full of beautiful, poetic descriptions of spices and food, magic, Oakland and imaginary places like the Island where Mistresses are trained. Some parts are very realistic; others involve rampaging pirate queens or singing sea serpents. It took me a while to get into this book, because the beginning is very slow, but by the end I was in love. The language is incredibly evocative, and the resolution felt just right. I really grew to like the characters, particularly Tilo, who shows herself to be much more of a flawed human than any mystical fairy.

Highly recommended.
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13. Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East

I love travel books, and this is a fantastic one. Iyer visits several Asian countries (including India, China, Tibet, Burma, the Philippines, Bali, Thailand, Hong Kong, and probably a few more I'm forgetting) with the goal of seeing how they've been affected by Western pop culture and tourism. Iyer is quite good at describing places, and seems to have really made the effort to get to know local people and include their viewpoints.

This book is a bit out-of-date now (it was written in the early 80s), but to me that just added to the appeal. This is a China and Tibet newly opened to Westerners, a Hong Kong which is still a colony, Burma before it was Myanmar. So many of the places he visits no longer exist- at least, not as they did at the time- that it makes for an intriguing historical snapshot.

Iyer uses the 'Modern, Masculine West meets Traditional, Feminine East! However Will They Understand One Another?' trope a bit too much for my tastes, but you could easily skim those parts and focus on the descriptions of places and people, which are quite well-written. Recommended, and I'd love recs for other travel books, if you have a favorite!
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Despite the usual YA book-cover problem, I just bought a book with a young black woman on the cover, and she really is a character of color! The book is The Agency: A Spy in the House, by Y.S. Lee, and my further comments about the character's race are minor spoilers.

Read more... )

Overall, I liked the book. As the author says, having an academy for disadvantaged girls and a secret organization of women spies are good wish-fulfillment to combat the knowledge of the actual crummy roles available to women in the Victorian era, and if the romance wasn't all that believable the preponderance of female characters, their variety of relationships, and their story-driving agency outweighed that for me quite thoroughly.
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I'm way behind on posting here and, for various reasons, all but one of the following books are currently not in my possession - so these are pretty short reviews.

4. Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, Paper

The back made it sound wonderful: a scribe in central Asia searching for the perfect paper, while his town's location at a crossroads of travel and politics impacts upon his life. While it is about that, the execution is not as good as I'd hoped. A lot of time is given over to the Scribe's unhappy musings about his life and how he's just not capable of writing the perfect book. Events unfold sometimes slowly, sometimes offstage, with the overall effect of not particularly gripping me. Bahiyyih Nakhjavani's language is lovely in places and some of the characters are interesting, but I felt like the novel isn't quite as focused as it could have been: it muses, it tells, but it doesn't quite work. Certainly interesting, though, and I intend to re-read it sometime because I suspect there are layers to be found. Also there's a chronology of paper-related history at the back which is marvellous.

5. Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo & Erlinda Enriquez Panlilio, eds. Why I Travel and other essays by fourteen women

Now this was a find! It's a collection of travel essays by Filipina, with a section focusing on local destinations and another on international ones. A small section at the back considers the how of travel in particular; one my favourite essays is here, concerning how a wheelchair-bound woman has discovered that she shouldn't feel too limited by her situation, and she tells all about her adventures in a Moroccan souk on donkey-back and other experiences around the world, where the help of a few people has resulted in her having a fantastic time. The essays sometimes describe the places visited, sometimes dwell on personal history in that places (especially in the local section), and are almost all engaging and interesting.

6. Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Sightseeing

A collection of short stories by a Thai author. This means, crucially, that you're getting stories about Thailand as a complex and real place, not the magical land of golden temples and hookers often described by farang writers. Rattawut is concerned with the regular Thai person, not particularly wealthy, often in a perpetual balancing act just above poverty. He writes about a young boy's relationship with a Cambodian refugee whose now-dead father put all their wealth in her gold teeth; he writes about a young man whose mother is on the verge of going blind; he writes about a teenaged girl whose poor father is losing his cockfights to a rich bully, and the various consequences this has on their family; he writes about a wealthy teenaged boy dodging the draft while his poorer friend cannot; and so on. In some stories, the plot itself is not particularly innovative. The entire emotional arc of the draft-dodging story was predictable, for instance. But the way Rattawut writes allows you to really get into his characters' heads and understand their various decisions, so they are not distant or simple stories, and the Thailand he writes about is a difficult, interesting, complicated place. Definitely recommended, especially for readers of realist fiction or those interested in Thailand/SE Asia as depicted by a local.

7. Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red

Oh, My Name is Red, I did want to adore you. Those long beautiful passages on the nature of art and miniaturism and history are, in my opinion, worth the price of admission alone. (Especially if you, uh, got it for cheaps at an Indian pavement book stall.) Yet the characters are almost all un-captivating and parts of the plot progress strangely. A character is tortured and, within pages of the torture ending, decides that the man who gave the order is going to be his new mentor and father figure, and Pamuk spends the rest of the book telling us that they have a deep and meaningful bond. We're told a lot about characterisation in this book. I enjoyed reading about historic Istanbul (and I can't imagine the city under snow!) and, as I said, his tangents were divine, and parts of the murder plot were pretty interesting. Overall, though, a bit of a flawed package.

8. Githa Hariharan, When Dreams Travel

A novel about storytelling and storytellers, especially female, typically powerless ones. Hariharan takes the myth of Shahrzad and begins after it ended, with her sister Dunyazad returning to Shahrzad's palace to help her husband construct her tomb. Echoes of the Taj Mahal in its vast splendour and the Sultan's obsession and the consequences. Dunyazad and a scheming maidservant with a peculiarly hairy mole meet and share stories, including many of a hair-covered woman who was eventually ostracised by her community -- revolving around the possibility that Shahrzad escaped and they can too, from the entrapments of the old 1001 Night story and the present concerns of their lives. When Dreams Travel is a curious, meandering book, beautifully written.
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6. Paula Yoo, Good Enough

Patti is a Korean-American high school student who plays classical violin but has a secret obsession with boy band Jet Pack. Her parents expect her to study hard, go to her church youth group, and not date, but she's interested in new student Ben Wheeler, who teaches her about groups like the Clash and encourages her to apply to Julliard instead of HarvardYalePrinceton. I really enjoyed both Patti's problems and their resolution; it felt very true to me. Just as a personal note, I always love it when I find a well-written intelligent character, and Patti very much is. Many books will tell the reader that a character is smart, but it's rare for me to find one that can actually show it.

This isn't a deep book, but it's fun and engaging. It had some very funny parts, particularly the silly chapter titles (like "How to Make Your Korean Parents Happy") and spam recipes (which, uh, actually sounded really tasty, and I hate spam). A great read for when you want something light but enjoyable.
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What we have today is a selection of not very good reviews. Why? Because I'm moving into an apartment that's half the size of my current place. That means that some stuff has got to go. So I'd thought I'd do these reviews before I got rid of the books.

Shadow Family by Miyuki Miyabe )

Waiting for Rain by Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay )

All I Asking for is My Body by Milton Murayama )

Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan )
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This is another book I picked up in KL, as its back cover copy made it sound like an interesting novel about a woman who takes over a shipping business alongside stories of voyages around Malaysia.

It is occasionally about the first thing.

While, yes, Wefada Marwan is put in charge of her family's business after a succession of accidental deaths, the novel only shows her actually taking charge on pages 110-122 and 169-185, with a few smaller portions dedicated to her anxiety over the large responsibility. In those two chunks, she's shown to be a capable woman who patches up a bad family-business relationship and firmly tells a non-profitable arm of the company that they need to shape up.

The majority of the novel is about the various members of Wefada's family, by blood or by marriage: how they met, how they fell in love (her views on her second husband are followed, a chapter later, by his views on her, sometimes showing two halves of the same scene), how they died or found out about a death, how they suffered, how they dealt with business problems (Wefada narrates that her brother Waqeel made a mistake, and a chapter later there's a flashback to his decision-making leading up to that mistake, and towards the end there's a flashback to the involvement of her uncle). It's quite dull, especially the repetitiveness. Wefada is the only character that I really cared about, but even she's not especially compelling; I liked her uncle, too, but he only gets one scene. The "Stories of voyages in the brilliant era of the Malay-Muslim civilisation" mentioned on the back never materialise.

I did find the characters' faith (Islam) interesting, in the way it affects their decisions and plays an integral role in their lives - largely, I suspect, because I rarely read books about Muslim characters. Especially attention-grabbing is the integration of Islamic practices into economics, as championed by Wefada - Islamic law forbidding interest came up a lot - but this, frustratingly, is usually skimmed over. The rest of the economics (and there's a fair bit of it) is basic, high school level stuff, that I enjoyed only in the way it reminded me of things I already knew. The people discussing it are a renowned Professor and successful businessmen, so the simplicity of their crowd-pleasing arguments is a bit ridiculous. The only other bits I liked were snippets of Malaysian boat-building history and the page about Wefada's belief that Alexander the Great visited Malaysia. The rest, I found boring.

On a line level, the book is riddled with typos, especially concerning the placement of speech-marks, and there are no breaks when the scene jumps across time and country and character-focus.

And, come the end of the novel, I realised it doesn't even possess a narrative arc. Through jumping about, it's shown Wefada just begin to take over the company, alongside various other characters' histories and relationships (and it explains a couple of family mysteries, but only for the reader's benefit; Wefada never learns the truth), and ends without even resolving whether a certain character has just died. (Perhaps the final pages are a metaphor for his survival, perhaps we're meant to assume he died because people on ships captured by pirates are often shot - who knows!) It's as if the author was told, You have x pages to fill, and on getting close to the final page, panicked, wrote in some waffle about the soul of the titular ship, and that was that.
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I'm actually going to start logging and reviewing these, albeit sporadically - I'm travelling now and will be unemployed on my return, so I doubt I'll get to 50 in the next 12 months. On the other hand, I'm travelling through Asia so the books I buy are reasonably often by POC and some will be less known. I'll go back and review some recently read ones, too, as I want to pimp them.

I heard of Shirley Lim's Princess Shawl, a children's book set in Singapore and historical Malaysia, from Nurul Huda's article, "The Heroic Journey in Shirley Lim’s Princess Shawl" published recently in Cabinet des Fees, and soon afterwards I visited Malaysia so looked out for it in KL's bookstores.

The book cover description:
Mei Li inherits a shawl from a grand-aunt she doesn't know, which whisks her to historical times and places. Before she turns ten in two weeks, she must rescue the Chinese princess, Li Po, from the barren island where the wicked bomoh has exiled her. Mei Li meets women in Singapore, Cameron Highlands and Malacca who teach her about courage, running, trust and skills such as cooking, nursing, and climbing mountains. With the help of a magic hairpin, of special rouge and of water that can bring you home, she succeeds in uniting the Princess with the brace Sultan Mansur.

It's hard for me to review this because I don't read books aimed at such young children. The plot moved quickly, without the kind of depth and consideration I prefer, but that's intentional. I had a lot of fun reading it, though. Mei Li is a brave, determined heroine - while adult gifts and lessons are essential to her success, her own achievements are equally essential and impressive. The historical periods she passes through are not especially fleshed out, but the focus is more on Mei Li's interactions with her ancestors. These are quite interesting. Nenek talks to her about the arts of Nyonya (Straits-born Chinese) women. The Buddhist abbess Poh Li has turned her temple into a hospital and treats Malay, Chinese, Arab, Dutch and Portuguese battle-injured indiscriminately, and requires Mei Li to help. My major disappointment was the encounter with the bomoh, which lacked the degree of confrontation I'd have liked. I also found the depiction of true love quite silly.

I suspect I'd have really enjoyed this book as a girl, back when my age was also a single number, and definitely recommend it for anyone with kids at that kind of age (or those who, unlike me, don't mostly stick to adult-targeted lit). It's got adventure, time travel to interesting places, and a brave girl-heroine. Annoyingly, I think it's going to be hard to acquire outside Malaysia and Singapore (or SE Asian countries with a Kinokuniya). It's published by Maya Press, ISBN 978-983-2737-43-8.
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47. Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others

A book of science fiction short stories, but in focusing on more actual science (math, physics, linguistics) and less space ships and laser guns. In a lot of Chiang's stories, a scientific principle or observation becomes a metaphor for something about life: the possibility (or impossibility) of dividing by zero is about a relationship; the angle at which light hits water is about free will and motherhood; lesions in the brain are about the concept of beauty. My favorite two stories are 'The Tower of Babylon' (BRONZE AGE SCIENCE FICTION OMG), which takes the concept of the tower of Babel and looks at what it would be like it people could actually build a tower to heaven, and 'Understand', which is a bit like 'Flowers for Algernon' with a twist: a regular guy becomes incredibly smart due to medical intervention. It's extremely rare to find well-written smart characters, but Chiang does it beautifully. There are several stories where Chiang takes seriously past scientific paradigms, like in 'The Tower of Babylon', which assumes that there actually are a celestial spheres, or another story about Victorian theories of evolution and reproduction.

I really enjoyed these stories. I'm not a big fan of science-fiction in general, but Chiang's style is just awesome.
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44. Jeniffer 8. Lee, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

A pop non-fiction book covering pretty much every possible topic related to Chinese food in America. There are chapters on the origins of American-Chinese dishes (fortune cookies, chop suey, General Tso's chicken), a history of Chinese immigration to America, the risks taken by deliverymen (including a horrifying story of a deliveryman who got trapped in an elevator for several days, which I took the opportunity to retell when I was briefly stuck in an elevator myself last week, possibly terrifying the people stuck with me), the story of a family who buys a Chinese restaurant, people who have won the lottery using numbers from fortune cookies, and others. I think my favorite chapter was the one where Lee sets out to find the best Chinese restaurant in the world, outside of China itself.

Overall, this is a light, fun read. I have no idea how the book actually originated, but it reads a lot like Lee (who is a journalist) found some vaguely-related articles and reworked them into a book. Which is not necessarily a flaw; it makes for a very breezy book, which is sometimes what I'm in the mood for.
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38. Malinda Lo, Ash

A YA novel retelling the Cinderella story, but with a twist: Cinderella falls in love with a woman instead of Prince Charming. I've been excited for this book ever since I first heard about it: retelling of a fairy tale! Chinese-American author! YA lesbians! I love all these things. Also, the book has an absolutely gorgeous cover.

I'd somehow gotten the impression that this was the Chinese version of Cinderella, and so was a bit disappointed to find that instead the setting is a fairly generic Medieval-ish Europe. However, Lo does do some very interesting things with the setting, particularly in changing the Fairy Godmother to an elf (and not a nice elf, the Tam Lin and changelings and Childe Rowland kind of elf). Ash's relationship with the elves and magic- constantly drawn in but never quite able to entirely leave our world- was well-written and fascinating. I also really liked the repeated use of telling fairy tales as a way for characters to communicate.

I do wish that there had been more about Ash's relationship with Kaisa, but for what little there was, it was extremely well-written, subtle but vivid. There's not much detail given of people's reactions to the relationship, but it appears to be set in one of those worlds were being gay or lesbian is unremarkable. Certainly, there's no mention of a backlash to them, and Ash doesn't go through any sort of sexual identity crisis. I also wish the book had been longer! There was a lot more about these characters and world that I would have liked to know. But overall, very recommended.
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36. Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country. Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker.

A classic novel of Japanese literature, this book was cited as one of the reasons the author won the Noble Prize for Literature in 1968. The plot concerns a small hot-spring town in the mountains. A rich, lazy young man comes to visit several times over the course of a year or two, carrying on a relationship with a local geisha who is in love with him. The book has lots of very beautiful descriptions of landscapes- mountains in snow, fall leaves on the trees, bugs dying against a window in the summer; the translator even compares the novel to haiku- but not much plot. There are a lot of conversations where no one quite says what they mean, and most of the important developments take place in the subtext. That's interesting in some ways, but it's also very distancing, and I never felt very attached to the characters. On the other hand, this is a very short book, so if you want to try out a famous Japanese novel, it's definitely an easy read.
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# 46 Oliver Chin, The Year of the Ox: Tales from the Chinese Zodiac (2008)

I like the whole idea of a series of children's books telling stories about the Chinese zodiac. I'm going to look for some others in my library.

This one is about the patient, hard working, big hearted Ox and her adventures with her little friend.

The illustrations are done by Miah Alcorn and the whole feel is of a 1960s Hanna Barbara cartoon, with bug eyed characters and a very stylised, plain background.


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