The Sitar – Rebecca Idris

The Sitar

Publication Date: June 23, 2012

Source: Amazon

Format: E-book

Pages: 194 pages

Summary: From the bowels of middle-class England, bona fide Brit Muslim lesbian Jaya Chakarbatti belies her mild-mannerisms and leads her group of Lassi Lesbians from their urban Midland terraced houses, to the smelly back alleys of London’s gay Soho, to seek out other Gaysians. Through the jungle of Bollywood drag queens, unrequited clumsy love, and stark choices between the Quran or The Pink Paper, the group of girls take a snap shot of modern, urban Britain amidst riots, religious tensions, and social discontent, before ending up somehow in the heat of sweaty, uncomfortably straight but shamelessly camp Bangladesh.

Short Version: I wasn’t sure from the summary that this was going to be “my kind of book”. Then I read it and discovered “my kind of book” is anything written with this level of beauty and passion.

Long Version: For the first time, I’m finding myself having to make a few disclaimers and explaining myself before I begin this review proper:

I don’t know the author. After I started reading and realised what a fantastic novel it is, I did track her down on Twitter to tell her, but that’s the only interaction I’ve had with her (though I’d love  to go for a drink with her and pick her brains.) The reason I’m saying this is because, snooping around Goodreads, I discovered that the reviews for The Sitar so far have been incredibly, unfairly negative. I was seriously shocked that others couldn’t see what I love in this. But as I’m not afraid to hate a book others love, I’m not afraid to love a book that others hate, and I don’t have any author’s-best-buddy motives for the review I’m trying to write here. The Amazon reviews are more positive, in any case.

I’m struggling a little with this review because, as other reviews do point out, this is a book focused more on the internal lives of British Asian girls Jaya Chakkarbatti and Kulsuma Begum than on external action. Any description of “what happens” is sort of beside the point of a book like this, and the things that do “happen” are mostly big fat spoilers.

No matter.

On its basic level, the book focuses on the girls and their contrasting experiences of being a three-times minority – Female, Asian, and gay. Jaya and Kulsuma, despite these things in common, have remarkably different experiences of the world. Early on, Kulsuma ponders their different situations:

When she [Jaya] was caught smoking hanging out of the bedroom window, Mr Chakkarbatti advised her to go to NHS Smoking Cessation meetings; he didn’t call the local maulvi shrieking about jinn possession or demons… words like ‘pregnant’ and ‘boyfriend’ probably weren’t rude words in her household.

But for all that, Kulsuma’s own father isn’t a one-dimensional stereotype either:

In his armchair at home he often felt bad for them [English people]; it must have been debilitating to only speak one language (even Shakespeare thought so! He remembered the Merchant of Venice, approved for the Bangladeshi curriculum for its socially acceptable stereotypes of Jews and cross-dressing.)

If I seem to be quoting a lot more than usual, it’s partly because I can’t do justice to Idris’s prose; it’s something that has to be read for yourself. Details shine among it like jewels. It envelops all five senses, as well as touching a sixth that I can’t really describe. But criticisms of its density and complexity are justified in some rare places where the language seems to choke on itself. I’ve read this sentence five times and still can’t make it out:

Apart from Jaya. She listened to things people spaces guts.

There are also moments that are genuinely funny, in a mild sort of way; Kulsuma reflects of a pansexual friend that “Shagufta’s sexuality was Disc Error”, and her father’s rants in the when-I-was-your-age-back-home vein are a nice bit of levity to what is, at its heart, a pretty melancholy tale of the things people do to fit in – and how even those things aren’t guaranteed to work.

But this is not just a tale about Kulsuma’s unrequited love for Jaya, or about the dilemma both girls face about “going straight” and marrying men to please their families. There’s Eleven, Jaya’s lover, a married woman with three children; Ruby Ansari Khan, a Pakistani girl who is perhaps more racist against Asian people than her white-supremacist lover Paul; and Asif and friends, marginalised boys who fancy themselves as terrorists in the making. They’re so incredibly dim-witted that you can genuinely feel sorry for them as you take in Idris’s point: terrorism is stupid, and terrorists are idiots.

But the book doesn’t just present things; it explores them. What would possess a girl to hate her own race so much that she would cheer on racial violence? Why would a girl with gentle, educated, loving parents prefer to marry a near-stranger against her sexual preferences, rather than just out herself as gay and live her own life in a so-called “free country”? And what would possess a group of boys to want to blow anyone up?

There are a lot of thoughts being thrown around in this book, but no clear answers – which I’m glad for. Clear answers would have insulted me as a reader.

On a personal level, the plight of Kulsuma Begum – one of life’s non-starters – hit me “straight in the feels”, as they say. I can relate to her much more than the uber-intellectual and slightly pretentious Jaya, with her idealism and her pretty theories about what life should be like. But then, Jaya’s life is largely inside her own mind – something I can also relate to.

This is not a fast or an easy read. It’s dense, it’s long, and it’s thoughtful. If you know what you’re getting into, I suggest jumping right in.

Readathon Masterpost

Rather than spamming the daylights out of people with update after update, I’ll just keep updating this post – keep checking over the next few hours if you’re interested in what I’m reading.

First up, some booky junk-food: “10 Cryptids That Might Really Exist.”

10 minutes to go!

🙂

Update, 12:12am: Entertaining fluff! Now reading: “Hunted Down: the Detective Stories of Charles Dickens”.

Update, 12:57am: Bloody hell, Dickens. Now reading “A Wireless Message”, by Ambrose Bierce…

Update, 1:09am: Quick and creepy. If you see a pattern here, yes, I’m concentrating on ghost stories and Victorian/Edwardian mysteries :p Next up: The Listener, by Algernon Blackwood.

Update, 9:58am: The Listener was a great story with a sort of lame ending. I then read EG Swain’s “Bone to his Bone”, Charles A Leale’s “Lincoln’s Last Hours”, “On the Brighton Road”, by Richard Middleton, and passed out about 3:30am. I’m back and reading “On Murder, Considered As One Of the Fine Arts”, by Thomas de Quincey.

How white is your reading world?

Interesting article in the Washington Post here.

My thoughts on this issue are kind of confused and probably rambly and a bit stupid. To answer my own question, though: I have no idea how white my reading world is at the moment, because I couldn’t care less. The writer’s resolve to only read racial minorities for a year is admirable in many ways, but it’s curiously focused and not for me.

When I pick up a book, I honestly don’t pay much attention to the author. I’ve read books by what I assumed were American authors, only to find out the author was British or from places further afield. I’ve read books I assumed were written by a woman, but were written by a man, and vice-versa. I’ve reviewed several books where I don’t actually know which gender the writer even is, and I don’t know what gender they identify as, either. If the book looks good, I’ll read it.

Death at the Manor – Celina Grace

Asharton

Publication Date: May 29, 2014

Source: Amazon

Format: E-book

Pages: 82 pages

Summary: It is 1929. Asharton Manor stands alone in the middle of a pine forest, once the place where ancient pagan ceremonies were undertaken in honour of the goddess Astarte. The Manor is one of the most beautiful stately homes in the West Country and seems like a palace to Joan Hart, newly arrived from London to take up a servant’s position as the head kitchen maid. Getting to grips with her new role and with her fellow workers, Joan is kept busy, but not too busy to notice that the glittering surface of life at the Manor might be hiding some dark secrets. The beautiful and wealthy mistress of the house, Delphine Denford, keeps falling ill but why? Confiding her thoughts to her friend and fellow housemaid, feisty Verity Hunter, Joan is unsure of what exactly is making her uneasy, but then Delphine Denford dies…

Armed only with their own good sense and quick thinking, Joan and Verity must pit their wits against a cunning murderer in order to bring them to justice.

Short Version: Captures the atmosphere and authentic little details of writers like Agatha Christie. However, the actual mystery is a little too straightforward to make this a compelling whodunit.

Long Version: Did I just put Celina Grace in the same category as the great Agatha Christie? I sure did. And I love Agatha Christie.

The real standout of this novel is the compelling narrator and the little details of life “in service” in the late 1920s. Grace must have seriously done her homework – that or she’s a time-traveller. I’m particularly caught up on details such as the lumpy mattresses in the maid’s bedroom, and one paragraph in which Joan describes clarifying soup with grease-proof paper. This book really feels authentic, as if it were actually written in the 1920s.

Joan Hart is a great character, one I was happy to stick with for the first-person narrative. There’s an admirable amount of retraint in her depiction : she’s genuinely plain-looking and genuinely of average intelligence, even if her friend Verity is a tad more glamorous. (As an aside, I flinched at Verity’s being described as ‘feisty’ in the production description. When was the last time you saw a male character described as ‘feisty’? A rant for another time).

In the confines of how short this work is, the pacing is mostly excellent. The first few pages are admittedly slow as we get little else but Joan gushing about her new employers, but that was soon over. Once Mrs Denford shows up dead, it becomes a page-turner.

The summary warns that this is a novella-length piece of around 20,000 words. The length of it isn’t exactly the problem – in fact, it made a great treat for a long read before bed. But what brought it down “one star” (if I used such a thing on this blog, which I don’t), is that the actual mystery side of it lacked a lot of, well, mystery.

The way in which Joan and Verity find out the identity of Delphine Denford’s murder is laid out step-by-step: they quickly and easily collect evidence (one crucial part of which Joan hides from the reader until the last moment), immediately draw correct conclusions from the evidence, go to the police, are instantly believed, and watch the guilty party arrested and taken away.

Fans of the whodunits of people like Agatha Christie will notice some crucial elements to a good case are missing – multiple suspects with multiple motives and mixed alibis, irrelevant or falsely incriminating evidence, a spanner thrown in the works that changes the course of the investigation (usually a second corpse showing up), etc. This plot is a straight road, with no real twists and turns. There is, to be fair, a minor mystery as to what shocking discovery the victim made just before death and how this led to her murder, but that was about it.

While I can’t lie and say the above didn’t take a fair chunk out of my reading enjoyment, there’s loads to like about the first in this series, particularly for devotees of parlour-game murder mysteries and Downton Abbey-like settings. A nice bed-time treat and worth a read.

The Ghosts of London – Amy Cross

The Ghosts of London

Date: June 1, 2014

Source: Amazon; can be found on the US and UK sites.

Format: E-book

Pages: 299 pages

Synopsis: Two sisters, lost in one of the world’s busiest and most dangerous cities…

After running away from home, Katie arrives in London and immediately tries to find her sister Rachel. Unfortunately, she soon finds herself in trouble, and a stranger’s helping hand might just make things worse.

Meanwhile, her sister Rachel keeps dying over and over again, while a mysterious man named Robinson tries to work out why the River Thames has suddenly been drained of all its water.  (Source: Amazon product description).

Short Version: Moody and evocative, but the plotting and structure are more than a little patchy.

Long Version:

Look at that gorgeous cover. LOOK AT IT. I want to marry that book cover. I’d pay money just for the cover.

Ahem.

I get a little excited about a good book cover.

I’ve never heard of this writer before, but the title, cover and premise of her novel all drew me in and I had to have a look. I’m glad I did, though I didn’t feel it was the best this book could be at all times.

The main thing that sticks out for me – this is beautifully evocative. Despite only having been once, I make no bones about my ongoing love-affair with London, one that’s been going on as far back as I can remember. I connected with Cross’s careful, loving prose about the city, particularly the main artery of the River Thames. The Thames becomes a character that the reader cares about, and the description of her being abused at the hands of a company building an unnecessary dam has genuine pathos. At one point, surveying the drained river, one character reflects that London now looks as if her heart had been ripped out.

There are plenty of great turns of phrase like this – I’m particularly caught up in this description of a man who believes he has committed a murder:

As he reaches his front door, he pauses and looks over his shoulder, as if he expects something to be behind him.

The police?

A ghost?

A chorus of angels, pointing at him and screaming?

I’m impressed by Cross’s use of dialogue, not only to move the story along but to show character. Each of her characters has a distinct voice of their own, extending to things like one character punctuating almost every sentence with variations on “fuck” and another who seems to have no idea what “blatantly” means, but likes the sound of it.

The setting seems bleak to the point of being dystopian. When Katie first arrives in London she encounters a cold, uncaring sea of faces, most of whom outright ignore her pleas for help. (While this explains how she ends up in the dodgiest digs in London, it certainly wasn’t my own experience of London, where strangers went out of their way to help me if I started to look lost.) The characters seem to accept “terrorism” as a daily part of urban life, too; even random explosions are shrugged off as “terrorists” and largely ignored at first.

Cross’s intertwining plots (particularly the scenario of what you would find at the bottom of the Thames if it were drained) are strong enough that her prose serves the plot, and not the other way around. Her writing becomes almost invisible in places – in a good way – except for a section of the middle part of the book which, from its punctuation errors, seems to have been skipped in the editing process or edited by a different person to the rest.

The structure itself struck me as really strange, as if several separate volumes had been smooshed (that’s a word now :p) into the one package. There are several “prologues” in a row (one is pushing it, so far as I’m concerned) and multiple “epilogues”, the first of which happens 25% of the way through the book. The first-person narrative switches between sisters Katie and Rachel with sections baldly headed “Katie” or “Rachel”, some of which are only one or two pages long and which don’t seem to serve any purpose except to interrupt the other narrative. That’s a very subjective thing and not an error on Cross’s part, but it started to frustrate me very quickly.

As mentioned in the short version, the plotting of this is very hit and miss. Without spoiling key plot elements, some of the reveals were well-placed and made me gasp. In many other places, though, I felt like Cross was asking the reader to invest in too many “coincidences” to make her plot work. Katie decides to run away without even taking her mobile phone with her, with no money, no back-up plan and no common sense at all (it amazed me when it’s eventually revealed that Katie is supposed to be twenty-two years old. I once ran away when I was about six, and planned it better than Katie.) Rachel conveniently doesn’t check her emails, for no good reason, just when there is an urgent email waiting for her. A server is mysteriously down when it is desperately needed. In one sequence, another character uses every epithet under the sun instead of saying Rachel’s name – because using it would thwart a plot twist. A major character is killed off in one brief paragraph, as if it’s no big deal and not important to anyone. There are twists and turns galore, but they seem to rely increasingly on sheer dumb (un)luck. Added up, these become infuriating.

They generally tend to land on Katie. Again to service the plot, her characterisation bounces back and forth – she’s doey and wide-eyed, but then manages to kick someone in the face. No explanation as to how she learned this skill is forthcoming. She gains and loses personality traits and skills to service the plot. Rachel’s character is stronger and more consistent and her concern for Katie is touching, but then, she apparently abandoned her sister in an abusive household for years, attempting no contact with her at all. It strikes as a little odd that she abruptly switches gears from “can’t be bothered checking my emails” to “Katie is the centre of my universe.”

Despite these flaws, the book is still worth reading and for a few dollars, it won’t break your bank to do so.

The Imperial Banner – Nick Brown

Agents of Rome

Date: March 28, 2013

Source: Free copy from the author, in exchange for a fair review; copies may be bought at the US and UK Amazon sites.

Format: I read it as a paperback.

Pages: 430 pages

Synopsis: 

272 AD

The Roman Emperor Aurelian has defeated Queen Zenobia and crushed the Palmyran revolt.

Faridun’s Banner, hallowed battle standard of the Persian Empire, has fallen into Roman hands and is to be returned to the Persians as part of a historic peace treaty. But on the eve of the signing the banner goes missing.

Recalled to Syria, imperial agent Cassius Corbulo is charged with recovering the flag. Accompanied by his faithful servant Simo and ex-gladiator bodyguard Indavara, Cassius must journey across the dangerous wastes of Syria to the equally perilous streets of Antioch. He and his companions face ruthless brigands, mysterious cults, merciless assassins and intrigue at every turn.

(Source: Amazon product description.)

Short Version: Gripping from beginning to end, with an emphasis on memorable, relatable characters.

Longer Version: This is the second in the “Agents of Rome” series by Nick Brown, and I haven’t read the first. I’m going to, though, and it didn’t really spoil my reading of this one, which is fantastic and brilliant (I was up until 2:30am reading it last night. That kind of fantastic and brilliant.)

Disclaimer: I am interested in ancient history to begin with and have done a few university subjects on Roman history, so I brought a little pre-existing understanding of the world and culture the story takes place in. If you don’t, Brown gives you ample help in that respect – a map, an afterword (this is particularly fascinating, as he accounts for what elements of his story are fact and what are fictional story-building), and an utterly confident style that explains much along the way and leaves you trusting the narrative completely.

Characters are the most important element in fiction to me, so I’ll discuss those first – if I don’t care about the characters in a piece, it doesn’t matter how much I like the rest of the story. The primary characters come down to three men, as outlined in the summary above. Each are drawn with a deft hand, and they’re people I care about and ones I want to see prosper in their adventures. Brown’s characters are entirely human and wonderfully flawed, particularly our main character Cassius, a young man who struggles between the arrogance of his youth and position, and a genuinely humble and kind spirit (after making a mockery of Indavara’s apparent ignorance, he backtracks and admits his own sword-play is an embarrassment.)

Although quite taken by Cassius, I have to admit my favourite remains the enigmatic ex-Gladiator Indavara. I have a feeling he has a lot of very interesting secrets (most strong, silent types in fiction do!) Looking forward to seeing what Brown does with him later in the series.

Did I say ‘gladiator’? Yes, I did. Very early in the book there is a fantastic sequence in which Indavara is forced into the arena to fight first another gladiator and then a bear. The entire thing is practically humming with energy. If you want to know how to write an action scene well, just read this one over and over again.

One thing I struggle with in historical novels is that too often, the writer goes for a stilted, archaic kind of dialogue that leaves me cold toward the characters in particular and the book in general. Here I was amazed and delighted at the dialogue, which bounces naturally without coming across as overtly “modern” either:

“I had a dream last night,” Indavara answered, his brow knotted.

“Congratulations.”

“There were animals in it.”

“Thrilling.”

Cassius knew where this was going; Indavara struck him as just the type to ascribe dire consequences to his nocturnal imaginings.

“Let me guess – owls.”

“How did you know?”

Cassius rolled his eyes. “You dreamed of owls so there’ll be storms on our journey. Nonsense. Maybe there will, maybe there won’t. Your dreams have nothing to do with it. It’s the will of the Gods or whatever else controls these things. My aunt won’t travel for a month if she dreams of moving statues. But she’s a silly old woman. What’s your excuse?”

My only (extremely slight) qualm with this book was the one significant female character, Lady Antonia. Since this takes place in an extremely male-oriented society I’m neither surprised nor offended at the lack of women characters, but the interlude in which Cassius is thrown together with Antonia to gather information at a banquet seemed a little out of left field. While she does strike our Cassius as a MILF and basically offers him sex, she’s also shown to be clever and brave and adventurous, and I hope to see a little more of her in future books (and not just as Cassius’s sexual partner. Though, that too. There’s a conversation between Indavara and Cassius about each man’s “upper limit when it comes to women” that is laugh-out-loud hilarious.)

Despite the historical setting, this is in many ways a detective novel and follows the tried-and-true detective formula: our main detective is thrown together with an investigative partner they don’t appreciate (and one they do), and travels about looking for clues. As the clues come together and the list of suspects narrows, the once-leisurely storytelling amps up into an action-packed, deeply satisfying denouement… and then, being a series, we get the slightest hint of what’s in store next for our third-century hero and his cohorts.

For my part, can’t wait.

Reviewing and Challenging Your Prejudices

Can I get in a blog post in the fifty minutes I have borrowing my parents’ computer? I’ll give it a go.

I read this article in the Irish Times today. I encourage you to read it in full, but the part I’m particularly interested in is this claim, made straight out of the gate:

What do we mean when we say that we loved book A, couldn’t get along with book B or despised book C? Not much beyond confirming that book A chimed perfectly with our personal prejudices, book B chafed against those prejudices and book C was cast aside not lightly but with great force, as Dorothy Parker recommended.

A challenging idea for all of us who presume to be reviewers – when I say I don’t like a book, do I really just mean that I am prejudiced against the subject matter or themes in it? That the book didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear?

I can only write for myself on this one, but in a word?

No.

I try not to spend time reading books I don’t like – the world is too big and life is too short for it. So to tackle this question fairly, I really did have to sit down and think hard to myself about the books I’ve encountered that I haven’t liked.

If I were to keep track of the books I’ve ditched and outlined clear reasons why (and I don’t generally get that analytical), the biggest reason I’d find for abandoning a book is not my being offended. It’s my being bored.

By all means shock me, offend me, challenge my prejudices, make me cry or scream or throw the book in horror, but please, writers, don’t bore me.

But when I think about whether I’ve abandoned a book for the crime of chafing my personal preferences, two series in particular do, reluctantly, come to mind: Twilight and its odd progeny, Fifty Shades of Grey.

At first I thought: well, the article is right. I loathe both series, and I’d be lying if it was purely about the writing in each (which I think is ordinary-to-bad, don’t get me wrong.) I’m also dismayed that both present an abusive relationship as Pure Love and a manipulative, abusive, creepy man-brat as Ideal Husband Material. I’m ideologically opposed to that.

But then, the biggest problem I have is not really that Edward and Christian are abusive tools, and that Bella and Ana tolerate their mistreatment because the man mistreating them is OMG DREAMY.

It’s that in each case, the writer has told me that Edward or Christian is dreamy, and shown me someone who is repulsive. They’ve told me Bella and Ana are bookish, intelligent, interesting heroines. Then they’ve shown them being doormats who don’t know the difference between Rosalind in As You Like It and Rosaline in Romeo and Juliet.

And that’s bad writing.

I’m currently reading, as aforementioned, Nick Brown’s wonderful The Imperial Banner. When the hard copy arrived in the post I, giddy as a kid, posted a photo of it on my Facebook with many a squee. A friend of mine commented to the effect of “Cool – but not really your genre, is it?”

I have to admit that I was kind of floored. Sure, my first love is the Crime and Mystery genre, but this friend knew well enough that firstly, I’m a history buff and secondly, I’m a pretty omnivorous reader, as they go. Moi? Turn down any free copy of a well-written book?

“Anything that isn’t erotica is my genre,” I found myself responding.

I admit to having deep reservations about “Chick lit” too, but Erotica really does remain the only genre I deliberately avoid reading, and one I’d not even attempt to fairly review. I see that as fairness to the writer – it isn’t their fault if the entire genre they write in just doesn’t square with my personality. Otherwise, I’m game. And as people keep giving me books that I would maybe have missed on my own out of sheer lack of opportunity, and I’m more-often-than-not loving these books, I’m becoming more and more open-minded as a reader.

I have more to write on this topic, but no time to do it in. As I’m dragged kicking and screaming away from the computer and packed off home, though, let me say this: Like Mark Twain, I have absolutely no love for Jane Austen’s work. But I’d sure as hell read it if I were earning a salary for doing so.