The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma by Ratika Kapur

27293160Renuka Sharma is a dutiful wife, mother, and daughter-in-law holding the fort in a modest rental in Delhi while her husband tries to rack up savings in Dubai. Working as a receptionist and committed to finding a place for her family in the New Indian Dream of air-conditioned malls and high paid jobs at multi-nationals, life is going as planned until the day she strikes up a conversation with an uncommonly self-possessed stranger at a Metro station. Because while Mrs. Sharma may espouse traditional values, India is changing all around her, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world if she came out of her shell a little, would it?

Review:

The good:

  • We spend the entire book in Renuka’s head and it stays interesting.  Events are related after the fact, as if we’re a best friends and we’re discussing her life over tea.  The plot itself, character development, and short chapters make for a quick read.
  • The story is a look at what life is like in India today with context for those not familiar.  (~raises her hand~)  No info dumps, just helpful details perfectly placed.
  • I love that Kapur didn’t sanitize the English into something more British or American.  The Indian-ness (I’m inventing that word right now) of the language makes it sing.
  • A major theme is what it means to be a woman in a modernizing society and boy does it resonate.  Over the years Renuka has taken care of her own father, her husband, and her son, making her wonder:

But who will need me next? Who will I have to worry about next? Who else is standing in line waiting for my attention? I sometimes think that the head and heart that God gave me don’t actually belong to me, that even though they live inside me, I don’t actually own them.  Sometimes I just want to shout.  Give me back my head!  I want to say.  Give me back my heart!

The not-so-good:

  • I’m only barely on board with the ending.  The last line makes it and saves it.
  • A big theme is what it means to be a mother, which is something that doesn’t interest me personally.  That’s just me, though, so don’t let it keep you away if you like exploring motherhood in fiction.

All in all a solid enjoyable read, but it lacks the oomph to make it unforgettable.

Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan

Synopsis:

temporarypeoplebydeepakunnikrushnan-9781632061423In the United Arab Emirates, foreign nationals constitute over 80% of the population. Brought in to construct the towering monuments to wealth that bristle the skylines of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, this labor force works without the rights of citizenship, endures miserable living conditions, and is eventually required to leave the country. Until now, the humanitarian crisis of the so-called “guest workers” of the Gulf has barely been addressed in fiction. With his stunning, mind-altering book Temporary People, debut author Deepak Unnikrishnan delves into their histories, myths, struggles, and triumphs, and illuminates the ways in which temporary status affects psyches, families, memories, stories, and languages.

Deepak Unnikrishnan presents twenty-eight linked stories that careen from construction workers who shapeshift into luggage and escape a labor camp, to a woman who stitches back together the bodies of those who’ve fallen from buildings in progress, to a man who grows ideal workers designed to live twelve years and then perish—until they don’t, and found a rebel community in the desert. In this polyphony of voices, Unnikrishnan brilliantly maps a new, unruly global English, and in giving substance and identity to the anonymous workers of the Gulf, he highlights the disturbing ways in which “progress” on a global scale is bound up with dehumanization.

Review:

Until recently I thought I wasn’t a short story person.  I guess I was just reading the wrong ones, as I loved The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers last year and I love Temporary People. So what are the ingredients to a perfect-for-me collection?

  • A window onto an experience I’m not familiar with

The city flirted with these people, making all give and give up. The air was spiked; everyone wanted a taste.

Temporary People is about foreign laborers in Gulf states, working in places like Dubai.  Often they come for economic reasons, sending the money they make back home, but others start families and stay… until they’re forced to leave.

Unnikrishnan uses fantastic elements to get at the reality underpinning the guest worker experience.  The story Birds follows Anna Varghese, who tapes construction workers together after they fall from the buildings they’re working on.  When they hit the ground an arm skitters off in one direction, their spleen and eye in another, but they don’t die.  They simply wait for someone to come by at night and patch them together with glue, a needle, and some horsehair.

Anna had a superb track record for finding fallen men.  The woman must have been part-bloodhound.  She found everything, including teeth, bits of skin… the men were grateful to be fussed over like this.

…The fallen shared that when Anna reattached body parts, she spoke to them in her tongue, sometimes stroking their hair or chin… If she didn’t speak his language, she sang, poorly, but from the heart.  But even Anna lost people.

Metaphors of men being seen as things comes up again and again.  In one story they’re literally grown in soil to fill the need for more labor.  It would be clumsy and blunt in the wrong hands but Unnikreishnan breathes life into each story, which brings me to my next ingredient.

  • A solid plot held together with inventive writing

Temporary People is written in English, but it’s not the sort you may have grown up with.  It’s a Global English – largely the same but bending in places to fit the needs of its speakers.

In the back [of the shop]… was what some customers sought him out for, a fone.  The device resembled a rotary phone, but it wasn’t a phone; it was a fone… the fone’s main purpose was teleportation.  A man could use the fone to talk to his wife, and as his wife cried softly into the neighbor’s phone, her husband would hover over her, like a giant bee, seeing his wife cry like that, feeling satisfied that his wife could cry like that, content that he could see her cry like that, even though she wouldn’t be able to see him, or even know that he was there, so close he could see the dirt on the back of her neck.

Unnikrishnan molds words to do his bidding and they sucked me in.  Once there the plot keeps things moving – I made sure I had time to finish each story as I knew I wouldn’t be able to put it down halfway.

  • A touch of something… different

Here, as you can tell from the above examples, it’s a touch of magical realism.  It bends reality like Global English molds the language, allowing us to get past the facts and come closer to truth.  Cockroaches wear clothes and walk on two legs.  A tongue jumps out of a mouth one day, crossing the road and leaving stray nouns in its wake.  An elevator is implicated in a crime.  It sounds fantastic when boiled down to one sentence like that, but it’s spun out in such a way that’s not jarring, just… well, magical.  Some stories share common links, making it easy to imagine the different settings as part of a cohesive whole.

The result is wonderful, and Unnikrishnan has earned a fan.  I can’t wait to see what he comes out with next.

…and if you know short story collections that have two or more of these ingredients tell me in the comments!  I’m always on the hunt for more :)

Thanks to Restless Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (Wayward Children #1)

25526296Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.

No matter the cost.

Review:

This book is the perfect way to get out of your brain and set aside the world for a time. It will only be a short while but oh, how wonderful it is.

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is for children who have slipped away into different worlds. Some went to fairy lands that are akin to Alice’s Wonderland. Others visited darker places, or weirder places, or places that weren’t happy to see them. For various reasons they have returned to the real world, and many would do anything to find that door out once again.

The story is short with a simple whodunit at its core. But, much like Palimpsest, I wasn’t here for the plot. The various words described are intriguing and I want to know more about them. The characters are simply drawn but still deep and flawed and human. I especially love how the main characters cover a full range of gender and sexual identities.

And the writing! Overall it’s not difficult, pitched at the lower end of YA with a few expletives thrown in, but McGuire pops in observations that make you gasp and say “Yes, this”.

Call it irony, if you like, but we spend so much time waiting for our boys to stray that they never have the opportunity. We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women.

Some are like life lessons:

We don’t teach you how to dwell. We also don’t teach you how to forget. We teach you how to move on.

So good. As much as I loved this book, though, there are some things I would change. First, I wish it were longer because 1) I’m greedy and 2) a subplot would have helped round out the narrative. The plot felt thin for a world this rich and well thought out. Second, the characters annoyed me with their obsession for categorizing the worlds they visited. The basic classification is interesting and helpful, but the characters’ preoccupation with it drove me nuts. Granted, this has parallels with the real world (pigeonholing, stereotyping) but still. Grah.

I’m excited to see that this is the first in a planned series – I can’t wait to return to McGuire’s world.

Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

31843383San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World’s Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer “authentic” experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet.

Six women find their lives as tangled with each other’s as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where magic, science, and art intersect.

Inspired by the pulps, film noir, and screwball comedy, Passing Strange is a story as unusual and complex as San Francisco itself.

Review (short version):

Guaranteed to be one of my top books of the year, if not number one.  I actually made myself put it down after a chapter or two each night so I wouldn’t finish too quickly.  Part of the joy is going in blind and I suggest you do the same, so if the blurb interests you go read it.  Now-ish. :)

Review (long version):

I’m going to say as much as I can while giving away as little as possible.  Characters live and breathe in a city that does the same.  The plot is wonderfully paced within an intriguing structure and the writing is as beautiful as it is unobtrusive.

Our heroines live the best life they can despite the homophobia and racism and other miasmas that hang over San Francisco in 1940.  They struggle, but they are not defined by that struggle.  They aren’t damaged or any less themselves.  These women do what they can, do what they must, and above all, persist.

I know I haven’t done the book justice so… go.  Read it.  An enthusiastic, wholehearted recommend.

Thanks to Tor and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

For Real by Alexis Hall

25376011Laurence Dalziel is worn down and washed up, and for him, the BDSM scene is all played out. Six years on from his last relationship, he’s pushing forty and tired of going through the motions of submission.

Then he meets Toby Finch. Nineteen years old. Fearless, fierce, and vulnerable. Everything Laurie can’t remember being.

Toby doesn’t know who he wants to be or what he wants to do. But he knows, with all the certainty of youth, that he wants Laurie. He wants him on his knees. He wants to make him hurt, he wants to make him beg, he wants to make him fall in love.

The problem is, while Laurie will surrender his body, he won’t surrender his heart. Because Toby is too young, too intense, too easy to hurt. And what they have—no matter how right it feels—can’t last. It can’t mean anything.

It can’t be real.

Gaaaaah this book is wonderful and I’m thrilled to see it won a RITA for its awesomeness.

The good:

  • I love flipped tropes and this one is particularly delicious.  While most BDSM romances have a hunky alpha dom here Laurie, the sub, is the one with age and muscles on his side.  Toby is young, scrawny, and inexperienced so no one takes him seriously as a dominant but he convinces Laurie to give him a shot.
  • Similarly, it’s refreshing to have being penetrated separated from being the sub.  Universe – more of this, please!
  • The characters are masterfully drawn and realized.  They are flawed but it’s subtle, no unnecessary “oooo I wonder what his awful secret is!” angst.  We learn more about the heroes as the story goes on and each detail reinforces what we already know.
  • The large age difference is addressed and dealt with well.  It ends up being the largest sticking point of the relationship which rings true for me.
  • Chapters are told from each hero’s perspective and they could not be more different.  Laurie sound like the older, educated gentleman that he is, and Toby’s point of view is more casual and slang-filled.  The difference carries over into their speech so the whole book feels more unified than I was expecting with different POVs.
  • Laurie is a doctor and my (partially trained) eye didn’t find any medical weirdness or errors.  This is more rare than you would think.
  • The story is plain ol’ good.  I loved watching the couple fall in love and swallowed chapters in greedy gulps.

The only not-so-good things I can think of are nitpicks and not even worth mentioning.  If you like BDSM romance, or gay romance, or just plain ol’ romance For Real is a wonderful read.

Rogue Magic by Kit Brisby

32714776While trapped in a stalled subway train on his morning commute, PR rep Byron Cole flirts with Levi, a young waiter with adorable curls. But Byron’s hopes for romance crash and burn when Levi saves him from a brutal explosion—with outlawed magic.

When Levi is imprisoned, Byron begins to question everything he’s ever believed. How can magic be evil when Levi used it to save dozens of lives? So Byron hatches a plan to save Levi that will cost him his job and probably his life. If he doesn’t pull it off, Levi will be put to death.

Byron must convince Levi to trust him, to trust his own magic, and to fight against the hatred that’s forced him to hide his true nature his entire life. The more Levi opens up, the harder Byron falls. And the more they have to lose.

Ooo boy, is this book timely.  In a world very much like our own magic is a real thing.  Not everyone can use it, and those who can are forced to register with the government and are vilified by the public.  (See that? Yup.)

Bryon works for the company that confines mages and believes the party line until he meets Levi, who saves his life with a well placed magical shield.  Bryon wrapping his brain around this new information is one of my favorite parts of the book.  We watch him struggle with long held beliefs, do his best to open his mind, and become friends with people he formerly would have brushed aside.  The process takes time and feels right.

Brisby’s New York is delightfully rooted in the reality of our own, and I appreciate that the medical details are (to my knowledge) accurate.  The friendships are especially satisfying, maybe even more than the insta-romance that pops up.

The world building is good early on but, like the plot, it loses steam. I would have liked more info about the history of mage suppression or theories on where the magic comes from and why only some people can use it. A lot gets swept under the rug with ‘it’s outlawed, so we don’t know’ which works in the beginning but gets frustrating as the story goes on. In a similar vein the ending left me with some unanswered questions as well as doubts that everything could have changed so quickly.  And if you like your allegory subtle this is anything but.

Still, I enjoyed Rogue Magic.  A diverse, escapist urban fantasy that manages to both address and take my mind off of current events?  I’m here for that.

Thanks to Riptide Publishing and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

The Phantom Lover by Elizabeth Mansfield

24444922Fiery young “Nell” Belden went to Thorndene Castle to escape a lover, not to find one. She was bound by the strict conventions of England’s Regency to a man she could never love, then bound by the ties of passion to a man she could never marry! For at Thorndene, she discovered a new and startling love, a love that was as intense as it was doomed…

“You must leave Thorndene!” said the ghost. Then he added, more gently, “I come to warn you, not to harm you. I may never touch you, any more than a shadow may..”

“What does that signify?” Nell asked. “Since you are dead, you can have no need or inclination to touch me anyway.”

“You can’t know much about men-or ghosts-or how delightful you look in that nightdress, if you believe that,” he said with disturbing sincerity.

Nell blushed and pulled the bedclothes over her. For a long moment, neither of them spoke. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the ghostly figure was gone…

Review:

After seeing the 1979 publication date I was afraid this book would be full of literal bodice ripping and alpha-holes and old skool awfulness.  But in fact it’s a lovely Regency romance with a feminist heroine and a good share of laughs.

The good:

  • Nell is a strong character that has her head on straight.  She calls people out on their bullshit and is determined to only marry for love.
  • The hero appearing as a “ghost” is fun device that is executed well.  There’s nothing domineering about Henry, a genuinely nice guy.
  • While there’s a ballroom scene most of the action takes place away from society, allowing for a comfortingly small cast of characters.  Everyone is fleshed out, from the housekeeper’s family to the suitor from hell.
  • The whole book is just silly in a good way.  Great aunt (or is it grandma?) Amelia is always good for a laugh and the action never gets too heavy or dour.  Escapist romance for the win!

The not-so-good:

  • The relationship between the hero and heroine’s families is a little convoluted and I’m still not sure I can explain it.
  • The ending is rushed and only half-earned.

All in all a welcome diversion that reads quickly and leaves you smiling.

Urban Shaman by C.E. Murphy (Walker Papers #1)

6545916Joanne Walker has three days to learn to use her shamanic powers and save the world from the unleashed Wild Hunt.

No worries. No pressure. Never mind the lack of sleep, the perplexing new talent for healing herself from fatal wounds, or the cryptic, talking coyote who appears in her dreams.

And if all that’s not bad enough, in the three years Joanne’s been a cop, she’s never seen a dead body—but she’s just come across her second in three days.

It’s been a bitch of a week.

And it isn’t over yet.

Review:

I love urban fantasy but have gotten away from it, so I thought this book would be a great reintroduction. Sadly, not so much.

The good:

  • I like Joanne as a heroine. She’s a bit out of the ordinary – tall and imposing, a combination of Irish and Native American blood. She’s strong and has a point of view and doesn’t apologize for doing what she thinks is right.
  • The fantasy framework is a mix of Celtic and indigenous influences that I haven’t seen put together before.
  • Representation is good all around, with the first cross-dressing cop I’ve run across in fiction. Neat.

The not-so-good:

  • The secondary characters are underdeveloped and sometimes defy common sense. A random cabbie that gives her a ride from the airport quickly becomes her sidekick. Other people rotate in and out of the story so quickly you’re not sure if they’re important or plot enablers.
  • While our protagonist is a woman I had to sit here for several minutes before I could think of another woman who wasn’t a victim or dead. Eep.
  • The action goes off into dream land or spiritual space a lot. Nothing wrong with that in general, but it’s a space without apparent rules, rhyme, or reason. It’s hard to convince me of stakes or danger when a deus ex machina could literally pop out of the sky to save our heroine.
  • The writing isn’t the best and I found myself skimming more and more as the book went on.

So while my love for urban fantasy has been rekindled I don’t think I’ll be exploring it with this series.

Wicked Beat by Olivia Cunning (Sinners on Tour #4)

Synopsis:

12710096From the moment he lays eyes on Sinners’ new front of house soundboard operator, drummer Eric Sticks knows he has to make Rebekah his. Unfortunately, she’s too busy trying to seduce guitarist Trey Mills to pay him much attention.

Rebekah never planned to fall for the tall, goofy drummer with the weird sense of humor and a heart the size of the galaxy. But Eric makes her laugh and his constant attention makes her feel sexy and irresistible–exactly what she needs after the things her last lover said to her.

A woman who gives as much as she takes, Rebekah makes Eric feel like a total stud–exactly what he needs after surviving a decade of watching the incredibly talented members of Sinners from the wings.

Review:

Opening this book I knew what I was getting into – lots of sex with some plot to hold things together. So that instalove in the beginning? Mostly forgiven. The predictable monkey business? Overlooked.

Like in the other book in this series I’ve read a woman finds a way to get close to the band via a tour-related gig, she drools, he’s cool, and they get it on.  Okay.  Eric has an… issue… that they need to get over as a couple that adds some interest and conflict.

But in the middle there’s heaps of angst, piled on in layers. Someone’s in the closet, someone else is dealing with mental illness, somebody else has family issues, yet someone else is recovering from nearly dying… hmmm, I feel like I’m forgetting something. Oh, the arranged marriage neither party wants! It was way too much for me, and almost convenient in its utter wrongness.  That situation that looks like it’s going to go badly?  It’s even worse than you feared. Grah.

Recurring characters have several books’ worth of characterization behind them but the secondary characters were unsatisfying and poorly developed, almost caricatures of archetypes – the kind dad, the coworker looking for revenge, the overbearing mother.  There’s a description of a medical condition that I’m not happy with but don’t know enough about to rail at properly. Grah.

There is also a hint of a menage that never really happens. It looks like it got put in book five instead so I’ll give that one a go, but Wicked Beat was too ARGH to be enjoyable.

Lotus by Lijia Zhang

31204038Surviving by her wits alone, Lotus charges headlong into the neon lights of Shenzhen, determined to pull herself out of the gutter and decide her own path. She’s different than the other streetwalkers—reserved, even defiant, Lotus holds her secrets behind her red smile.

The new millennium should’ve brought her better luck, but for now she leads a double life, wiring the money home to her family and claiming she earns her wages waiting tables. Her striking eyes catch the attention of many, but Lotus weighs her options between becoming the concubine of a savvy migrant worker or a professional girlfriend to a rich and powerful playboy. Or she may choose the kind and decent Hu Binbing, a photojournalist reporting on China’s underground sex trade—who has a hidden past of his own. She knows that fortunes can shift with the toss of a coin and, in the end, she may make a choice that leads her on a different journey entirely.

Review:

I enjoyed Lotus but it wasn’t love at first sight.  I had a hard time getting into the prose – Zhang’s writing style isn’t experimental or dramatic, but it took a while to align the way my mind moves with her words.  Once I did I found myself drawn into the story of Lotus, a prostitute inspired by the secret life of the author’s grandmother, and photojournalist Bing.

The style is simple and belies the well-laid out plot and deep characterization at work.  We meet characters as whole people and learn more about their back story and motivations as the chapters go by.  Later information never invalidates a previous action but adds depth and nuance. Over time the characters, including minors ones, become even more real. They change and grow due to later events, pulling us through without the need for a gripping A through B to C plot.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a plot.  We watch as Lotus makes her way in the world, trying to find the best path among many lousy options.  How can she find herself, then be true that person?  Who is her ally, and who is better left behind?  Bing has choices of his own tied up with money and love, as well as a past that won’t let him go.

I was worried that the ending would be overly sad or maudlin but Zhang crafts a satisfying conclusion that took me by surprise while being true to all the characterization that leads up to it.  Lotus is interesting for its craft and story and is great for those looking for something grounded yet out of the ordinary.

Thanks to Henry Holt & Company and NetGalley for providing a review copy.