Anita Amirrezvani’s previous novel “The Blood of Flowers” wove an intricate story of a female carpet-maker who must make her way in a strongly patriarchal world. The “Equal of the Sun” tells us of another strong woman, Princess Pari Khan Khanoom Safavi , the daughter of Iran’s king, Tahmasb Shah. Pari, contrary to the expected roles of women in those days, is very interested in politics and governance, and serves as a respected advisor to her father.
When the Shah dies without deciding upon an heir, the kingdom is thrown into chaos, and Pari tries as best as she can to keep the unruly courtiers and nobles in place until a Shah can be decided upon. Pari’s elder cousin, the hitherto exiled Prince Isma’il comes to power, but treats Pari as an outcaste, diminishing her powers and her stature in the royal court. When the new Shah’s lax governance and unjust rule of law become obvious for everyone to see, Pari attempts to remove him and install a more pliable ruler to the throne.
Pari was writing a letter on a wooden lap desk. She wore a blue short-sleeved silk robe covered with red brocade, belted with a white sash woven with bands of gold – a treasure itself – which she had tied into a thick, stylish knot at her waist. Her long black hair was loosely covered by a scarf printed with golden arabesques, topped with a ruby ornament that caught the light and drew my eye to her forehead, which was long, smooth and rounded as a pearl, as if her intelligence needed more room than most. People say that one’s future is inscribed on the forehead at birth – Pari’s forehead announced a future that was rich and storied.
The book is narrated by an eunuch, Javaher. Javaher’s father was a highly regarded accountant in the Shah’s employ, but was unjustly assassinated, Javaher believes, under false accusations of cheating. He thus longs to clear his father’s name, and for that reason gains employment in the Shah’s court, subsequently becoming Pari’s trusted servant.
Where “The Blood of Flowers” was a history of the common folk of Iran, “Equal of the Sun” is an expansive look at the royalty, and the lies, deceptions and subterfuge that form a part of the royal court. In both cases, the story centers around a strong female figure displaying great courage and ability, but born into a society where women are little more than male appendages, restricted to the harem. This book was engrossing. I knew where it was heading (thanks to Wikipedia) but even so could not put it down, owing to the author’s skillful depiction of the characters. Pari and Javaher are interesting, enigmatic characters brought to life in this intricate history lesson of a book.
I felt for Pari, powerful princess though she is. Amirrezvani manages to flesh out her precarious existence after her father’s death, striving to become just powerful enough; too little and she is of no consequence, and too much and she gains enemies. Women are facing this struggle even today in the workplace – how to be “womanly” and strong without being seen as “aggressive”. Jahaver also has a sympathetic tale to tell, and we listen of course, but the book is about Pari.
The prose is lush and vivid. The author describes people, their clothes and surroundings in great detail – we get a feel for the soft carpets underfoot, we admire the tapestries on the wall, and are treated to descriptions of the silks, jewelry, accoutrements and apartments and lives of the many women of the Shah’s court. There is some scattered poetry and many references to Ferdawsi’s Shahnameh.
This is a rich wonderfully detailed book, and an absolute pleasure to read. Highly recommended.
Instead of the bookish, intellectual characters that we see in diaspora stories, “The Caretaker” has as its protagonist a desi Jason Bourne like agent. Ranjit Singh is a Sardar (Sikh). He was a Captain in the Indian Army, an able and brave man in charge of a mission. When the mission goes awry and Ranjit is persona-non-grata he escapes to the US, where he is reduced to doing low-income manual labor to sustain his family. Having been at the mercy of a relative who uses Ranjit as a form of cheap labor, he has since come to Martha’s Vineyard where he does general landscaping and caretaking for the rich folk of the island.
One of his employers is Senator Neals, a man highly regarded in political circles. Neals’ wife Anna appears to be a forlorn woman laboring under a secret sorrow. When there is a breakin at the Neals’ home, and Ranjit curiously becomes the target, he is willy-nilly pulled into the mystery. The enemy isn’t pulling any punches, because it is not just Ranjit’s life at risk, but also that of his wife Preetam’s and their little daughter Shanti’s.
This is the author’s first book, and I have to say he does a fine job at this genre. The book is fast-paced and action-packed; there is always something happening. The narrative runs in two parallel tracks – one in the present, and the other in the past as seen from Ranjit’s point-of-view. The action is split between Ranjit’s mission at the India-Pakistan border, and chases in Boston and at Martha’s Vineyard.
Ranjit takes a deep breath and runs again, ducking into a side alley. It turns and twists, and soon he is completely disoriented, the blond man’s footfalls right behind him. Slowing to look over his shoulder, he skids on a patch of ice and his feet slip under him. He falls, and the blond man catches up. A fist jits out, knocking off Ranjit’s baseball cap, and fingers like talons sink deep into his topknot, grabbing his hair. The hard muzzle of a gun jams into the back of his neck.
“Enough of this bullshit.”
Descriptions are succinct, but give us a good flavor for the locales and the people. The plot is believable and most characters well-delineated. I wish that the Anna Neals angle (motives/backstory) had been better fleshed out, and Ranjit’s wife Preetam’s character had been better defined; she seemed curiously unable to adapt in spite of being a “city-girl”, Convent-school educated and well-versed in English.
Ranjit himself is a conflicted man, running away from a past life and trying to come to terms with his present. He is in a hard place and one cannot help but feel sympathy for him. This sympathy though, is tempered with distaste at his marital infidelity and apparent lack of remorse at his actions. He is a flawed hero, duty-bound to protecting his family and his distraught wife, but wanting companionship from another woman.
This book explores some immigrant issues like Ranjit’s wife’s inability to settle down, his issues with feeling like an outsider with his long beard and turban, and the general desperation of new-comers trying to come to terms with a very different culture. It was quite a novelty to read a book with a Sikh hero, each chapter prefaced with teachings from the Guru Granth Sahib (Holy Book of the Sikhs). “The Caretaker” works well as a thriller, and is worth the read. This book is the first in a trilogy, so I’m hoping that the author can tone down Ranjit’s character flaws so we can root for him strongly.
Zoe Harper, lowly Personal Assistant at Creed Constructions is in love with successful lawyer Dan Costi, and they will be marrying soon in a vast, lavish wedding ceremony orchestrated by Dan’s overbearing mother Marie. Zoe has been quelling her desires with respect to the wedding, and when it looks like she might have to do the same the rest of her life if she marries Dan, she breaks up with him. Now, sans wedding plans and boyfriend, Zoe decides that it’s time she took charge of her life goals. She also meets Angus Creed, the CEO of Creed Constructions, and when that chance meeting turns more than friendly, Zoe can’t quite decide whether her new-found goals encompass a relationship on the rebound.
As is obvious, this book falls firmly in chick-lit territory. Zoe is a low-level employee, and he is the CEO. She is escaping a bad relationship and he’s been unlucky in love, causing him to be wary of women in general. He is tall. And dark. “And he has these shoulders”. He can go from bare-footed guitar strummer to suited-up rabble-rouser very quickly. She is a quirky, fun sort of a person, with a strong sense of humor – I laughed at loud in places reading her thoughts.
Besides the obvious clichés, I liked this book – it is fluffy, and cute and surprisingly chaste. Which is not a bad thing by the way. After seeing people go gaga over books like “Fifty Shades of Grey” it is heartening to read a book which concentrates on developing the relationship as a strong friendship, between people who truly care about each other. I did like how the book took its time letting the characters get to know each other, although I will say that it got a tad bit placid at times.
The book is narrated via the first person, so we get to hear the story from Zoe’s point of view, which I really liked. The author develops her characters well – Zoe and Angus are pleasant, good people and I had no trouble in being vested in their well-being. I read this book pretty quickly and recommend it if you are looking for a quick, pleasant beach-read.
Catriona Louise Bowskill (aka Connie) and her husband Christian, or Kit, live in beautiful Melrose Cottage in Little Holling, Silsford. Late one night, when Connie can’t sleep she decides to view homes on a real estate site. In one of the virtual home tours for 11 Bentley Grove, a home that she is familiar with because of past associations, she sees a woman prone in a pool of blood. Horrified at seeing this gruesome sight on a public website, she wakes her sleeping husband. But, when he views the home tour again, there is no dead woman; the home is as normal as can be.
Connie is a nervous self-doubter, given to worry and neuroses. She’s been seeing a homeopath Alice for this, and when she confides her aggravating experience in Alice, Alice advises her to go the police. Everyone thinks that Connie is delusional, and the late night hour and her tiredness have contributed to her morbid hallucination. Connie herself is beginning to think it too.
Am I going mad? Didn’t Anton hear any of what I said, about seeing a murdered woman lying in a pool of blood, and talking to a detective this morning? Why is no one telling him to shut up? Did nobody hear me? That none of them should have anything to say on the subject seems as impossible to me as what I saw on the laptop last night – impossible, yet real, unless I’ve lost my capacity to distinguish reality from its opposite.
The book is written in the first-person, so Connie is our unreliable narrator. She has been much put upon by her family; her parents are cold and petty in their disapproval, her sister’s behavior oozes jealousy, and Connie is berated, in an underhand fashion, for being careless and uncaring. Only her husband actually seems to care for her, love her, but Connie has her suspicions about him too. She is surrounded, it seems by antagonists, and her thoughts and fears are bounced back at her with malice.
This is an interesting setup for a story, when all we have to guide us through is Connie, and she isn’t too firm with her own opinions. The author develops this as an atmospheric psychological mystery, with deep dives into Connie’s psyche, her thoughts on her family and Kit, so much of the prose is written in a “stream-of-consciousness” kind of a way . Connie’s familial relationship is minutely described, reminding me of the description of Frank Mackey’s family in Tana French’s “Faithful Place”. The book’s characters are quirky, and possibly crazy – we aren’t sure though which of them are actually insane and which of them are just victims of circumstance.
There are also sub-stories here, which didn’t add any value – there is the Simon Waterhouse-Charlie Zailer angle, where we get to hear Charlie’s thoughts on marriage and attachment, and homeopath Alice’s strange attachment to Simon. We get to hear from unassuming Sam Kombothekra as he attempts to fill Simon’s shoes for a while, and investigate Connie’s mystery. If I have a bone to pick it would be that we get to hear the innermost thoughts of too many people, to the point where it begins to overwhelm the main story. I would have wished for better control of the main thread, and for better delineation between the parts that mattered and those that did not.
Overall, I enjoyed this book; it kept me engrossed and guessing. I am a big fan of Ms. Hannah’s poetry because of how astute it is in deciphering emotion. She brings this commendable quality to this book too; her colloquial prose winds around delicately in description. There are a few places in the book where transitions are abrupt and it took me a few paragraphs to make sense of the locale and the people involved in a particular event. But overall, this book works very well as a gripping, psychological mystery; I read all of it in one sitting, staying up till the wee hours of the morning to finish it.
This book is the story of two main protagonists – Anand K. Murthy who runs his own business, and Kamala, a housemaid who works in his home. Anand is the owner of Cauvery Auto, a small factory which manufactures pressed metal sheets for car parts. He is marries to Vidya and they have two kids. Kamala works at the Murthy home. Her overarching objective in life is to educate her young son Narayan so he can have a bright future, and for that she scrimps and saves.
Both Anand and Kamala, socially and financially in very different classes, face large life-changing problems. Anand’s business is doing well, for Cauvery Auto is courting a Japanese customer. If this deal goes through, Anand will need more land for Cauvery Auto’s expansion. However land is expensive, and scarcely available in the location Anand needs it. He resorts to help from a shady-looking “LandBroker” to smooth out the murky land acquisition process, but things don’t seem to be going well; he should have listened to his intuition.
Kamala is a young widow, with strained ties to her brother, so has no one to depend upon except herself. Her relatively stable life is upset when her landlord contemplates selling off the home to a property developer. Kamala must find an alternative home, or cough up a large sum of money to assure her continued use of the one room tenement. Her financial worries are accentuated by worries about her young son consorting with the wrong kind of people.
This book seemed pleasant reading from the outset, but as it progressed it gathered heft and conviction, resulting in a very satisfying read. The author develops her characters and their settings very well. Anand comes from humble roots; on one hand he has a father who disdains this want of “new money” and on the other he has Harry Chinappa, a blustery father-in-law given to pomp and show. Vidya too, is very influenced by societal trends, and her quick, changing personality now contrasts sorely with Anand’s calm stolid nature.
Kamala has always been poor. Her life has always been a struggle, the struggle to find a job, the struggle to get nutritious food for her son, the struggle to save him from the lowlife friends he consorts with, the struggle to save her meager earnings for Narayan’s future. While I felt for Anand’s predicament, Kamala’s story truly touched me. Ms. Sankaran narrates many details of Kamala’s life, and in those little details we see her sad plight. Putting body and soul together, after hours of hard work should not be this debilitating, but it is – in modern, shining India.
We hear of the travails of the poor via Kamala’s tale, but the rich have a different demon to fight. Anand is an honest, conscientious man, unwilling to pay bribes to get work done. Unfortunately, bribes are the necessary evil in getting any governmental work done. Politicians and corrupt officials, who must work for the people, are instead hand-in-glove to make their fortunes via bribes and kickbacks. A symbol of this hypocrisy is Vijayan, a much liked young politician whose unctuous party-men put no little pressure on businessmen like Anand to “contribute” to the party fund.
Anand had recently watched, mesmerized, a National Geographic television program about early American pioneers pressing into the hostile regions of their country – and had thoroughly identified with them. Like those pioneers, he had survived an unimaginably hostile world. A world where everything had to be fought for, every detail planned. Things that could go wrong, would. Things that shouldn’t go wrong, did. Add to that the Indian government, a strange, cavernous beast that lay hidden in grottoes and leaped out, tentacles flailing, suckers greedy for bribes.
The author touches on important struggles via Anand and Kamala’s stories, and creates a very believable picture of modern Indian society. It is divided into the haves-and-the have-nots; Kamala and Anand at the ends of a very deep chasm between the two. Society seems to be losing its moral moorings. Greed knows no bounds, and a culture of kowtowing to the rich and powerful, while treading upon the weak, seems to be very much the rage.
Sankaran’s writing is heartfelt. Her unfussy prose, descriptive detail and deft characterization make reading a pleasure. I enjoyed this book very much, and would highly recommend it.
Although my foray into audio-books started as an attempt to make my walks more interesting and to tempt me to go walking even, I have to say that I am hooked. And for that I credit the narrators. I’ve been lucky enough to listen to three of the best, Frederick Davidson in my first book, Nadia May in the second and Caroline Seymour in the third. I’m currently on a Jane Austen bender, having listened to Persuasion , Pride and Prejudice and “Sense and Sensibility”.
Nadia May narrated Persuasion. I haven’t read the print version of the book, so had no idea of the story. Austen writes long, long sentences with big words, in the polite and round-a-bout fashion that was the trend in those days. So it is sometimes hard to comprehend the entire thing unless you are really paying attention, which I’m then forced to do, so the purpose of being in the present and not letting the mind wander away and think of other things (home/kids/food/work/lists) is quite served. Mays has a soft-ish voice, which she easily moulds into a gruff tone for the male parts, and a clearer tone for those of the heroine. It makes for a very interesting and pleasant listening experience, and I’m quite drawn into the narrative.
May also narrated “Sense and Sensibilty”, another classic which I have not read, but know of via the film based on the book. Listening to the book is giving me a better look into the characters in the film, the film never having the leisure to go into such depths of detail. Quite a lovely listen! The film was not bad either – it stars Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. Here is a trailer:
Unhappy Alba Ashby is drawn toward a house on the street. At the doorstep, she is admitted into the house by the proprietor Peggy Abbot. The house is a magical healing home for women. Sad, unhappy women are drawn here, can live here for a maximum of 99 nights, during which the house supports them back up with the help of mystic favors, choice notes and helpful advice from the many (now dead) ladies who exist here in spirit.
The house has other residents besides Alba. There’s Greer, a waitress who wishes to be an actress, and then there is Carmen, a Portugese singer who has a dangerous secret in her past. The grandmotherly proprietress Peggy herself is a much older woman who has remained in the house many years, foregoing the pleasures of a full life for the duties towards the house and women in general, but now is sorely tempted to leave it all for the love of her life. As time progresses, each woman must face her own demons, and with some help, arrive at a resolution.
When I read the teaser for the book, it seemed natural to want to pick it up. However I have to say that this one didn’t meet my expectations; in fact I had a hard time finishing it. The book has a slow pace. Events in the book are narrated by the characters, by means of recollections or thoughts, so they feel passive. The characters themselves I found weepy and whiny and full of the “mystical spirituality” that practical engineers like myself may never aspire to. I had little patience with Greer especially, but Alba, because of her vastly difficult circumstances and relatively small age, had my sympathy. While the author describes events and happenings well, the character’s “voices” seemed very similar, there was little to tell their characters, except for their different circumstances/physical appearance.
The house itself is magical, so it is invisible to most people; only women in trouble who need help can see it. The house can, sort-of read minds, and conjure up what you are looking for at the right moment; Greer’s room for example is full of a magical wardrobe, while Alba suddenly finds scores of books materialize in hers. Notes with pithy proverbs and quotes drop out of the ceiling, ghosts appear in the sink, and much-dead writers and feminists (Agatha Christie, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Daphne du Maurier to name a few) spout apt advice from their wall-hung photographs. Indeed, I value instinct and intuition (and sixth sense) as much as the next person, but books of this genre make me squeamish; they seem to add to the “no math, just mysticism please” image of women.
I do believe that all of us have our troubles and need help, support and a little respite at some point in our lives, so I really liked the book’s concept of a healing, all-knowing, omnipotent sanctuary. I just wish that this heart-warming concept had been bolstered up with more substance. I found no similarity to the Jasper Fforde books (as was touted), except that they are fantasy just as bits of this are. This book, is in essence, of the same genre as Chitra Divakaruni’s “Mistress of Spices” or Laura Esquivel’s “Like Water like Chocolate”, so if you liked those books you will probably like this one too.
I read a bunch of books in 2012, but here are three of the best:
- Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker : You’d think that sci-fi and coming-of-age genres wouldn’t mix very well, but they do. The book is based on a scientific phenomena – the shifting of the earth’s rotation – a phenomena that has disastrous consequences for humanity and particularly for our young and vulnerable heroine Julia. I adored this book; it was lyrical and engrossing and totally sucked me in. It is hard to believe that this is Walker’s first book. If you haven’t read this book, go do so now!
- Dog Stars by Peter Heller : I’m not caught in a rut, but this second book of my choice is also a sci-fi book, this time of a dystopian future. The apocalypse has occurred and nearly everyone has died off , and all that is left of humanity are a few stragglers here and there, safeguarding what is theirs by might. Beautifully written, this is an atmospheric novel of suspense, friendship and love, and what we have left when we think we have nothing.
- The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal : Set in Egypt, this mystery novel features Makana, a Sudanese policeman who’s escaping his past and finding refuge on an awama – a houseboat – on the Nile. Hired to find a missing soccer star by the most powerful man in Cairo, Makana is hot in pursuit until he stumbles across an unholy nexus between some unsavory, influential people. This was a gorgeous literary mystery with strong threads of the socio-political and cultural; I was glad to have read it.