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.

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit

29633797In a timely follow-up to her national bestseller Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit offers indispensable commentary on women who refuse to be silenced, misogynistic violence, the fragile masculinity of the literary canon, the gender binary, the recent history of rape jokes, and much more.

In characteristic style, Solnit mixes humor, keen analysis, and powerful insight in these essays.

Review:

I read Men Explain Things to Me a month ago and I’m happy I was able to follow up so quickly with The Mother of All Questions.  It’s a continuation of Solnit’s previous essay collection with a thankfully more inclusive lens.

The standout essay is A Short History of Silence, about how women are forbidden or prevented from speaking and not heard when they do.  It’s a truth we hold in our hearts but avoid looking at too closely because man, it hurts.

Being unable to tell your story is a living death and sometimes a literal one.  If no one listens when you say your ex-husband is trying to kill you, if no one believes you when you say you are in pain, if no one hears you when when you say ‘help’, if you don’t dare say ‘help’, if you have been trained not to bother people by saying ‘help’.

My heart aches because I know this.  I’ve seen it, not only with myself and women but other marginalized groups.  Others say the stories are ‘unbelievable’, which as Solnit points out, “means those with power did not want to know, to hear, to believe, did not want them to have voices.”  I’m happy to see that she recognizes the different and varied challenges faced by people of color, those who are LGBTQ*, and others who were often overlooked in Men Explain Things to Me.  Solnit also explores what this hyper-masculine culture means for guys, punishing them for showing “soft” feelings and effectively blunting their emotional range as humans.

Jaw dropping and rage inducing facts abound – rape is the most common form of trauma, but PTSD research is directed at male veterans.  “Fight or flight” was largely studied in male rats and humans and women often employ a third, until now unrecognized, option.  One reason the gun homicide rate hasn’t risen is not because fewer people are getting shot, but because medicine is getting better at saving those who are.  In fact more people are getting shot.  And on and on.

Luckily Solnit also points out things we can all do.  Tell your story if you can, and listen and believe those who are telling you theirs.  If someone lobs a sexist inquiry your way reply, “Would you ask a man that question?”  Do the intellectual work to not see groups (Muslims, women, poor people, etc.) as monolith entities, for that is the road to believing you can attack any member for the entire group’s perceived sins.

Overall The Mother of All Questions is more nuanced and inclusive than its predecessor while still packing an eye opening gut punch.  Necessary for the times we live in and a hearty recommend.

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

Breathless by Beverly Jenkins (Old West #2)

30166205As manager of one of the finest hotels in Arizona Territory, Portia Carmichael has respect and stability—qualities sorely missing from her harsh childhood. She refuses to jeopardize that by hitching herself to the wrong man. Suitors are plentiful, but none of them has ever looked quite as tempting as the family friend who just rode into town…and none has looked at her with such intensity and heat.

Duchess. That’s the nickname Kent Randolph gave Portia when she was a young girl. Now she’s a stunning, intelligent woman—and Kent has learned his share of hard lessons. After drifting through the West, he’s learned the value of a place to settle down, and in Portia’s arms he’s found that and more. But convincing her to trust him with her heart, not just her passion, will be the greatest challenge he’s known—and one he intends to win…

Review:

After reading five of her books I’m realizing that Beverly Jenkins is a hit or meh author for me.  I don’t think I’ve rated anything below three stars but some leave me disappointed.  Sadly, this is one of them.  But first,

The good:

  • Historical romance with protagonists of color (here African American) is always always a good thing.  Love.
  • Portia doesn’t need a man.  In fact, due to her rough childhood, she thinks she’d be better without.  Ken respects her past and proves that he’s the right person for her.
  • Jenkins is well known for her history chops and she’s true to form here.  And how many books set in the Arizona territory can you name?  It’s interesting stuff.

The not-so-good:

  • Like in Night Hawk there isn’t a big bad or an overarching plot.  Events happen but don’t feel exciting as they should – this book has a body count, for goodness sake!  There should be some kind of tension.  But…
  • Problems are wrapped up quickly so incidents feel self-contained.  Okay, that’s over, next.  Wow, that was a problem for five pages, but it’s fixed now.  Next.  There’s not much of a middle or building anything to the narrative.
  • The characters aren’t nuanced and many are typecast.  Oh hey, the guy that sounds and dresses like an arse?  Turns out he’s an arse!  And the perfect lady that keeps things running like clockwork?  Well she knows exactly what she’s doing and her only imperfection is being so perfect. ~sigh~
  • Checkered pasts are put forth as faults and character development but they’re not, not really.  ‘He had sex with a married woman!’ Yes, but we learn that her husband was cheating on her and she was actually better off after the affair.  ‘He’s had sex with lots of women, gasp!’  And now he has mad skillz to pleasure the heroine, my dear.  ‘She is way too forward!’  So she may get exactly what she wants, what a shock.
  • I feel like Jenkins doesn’t trust the reader to remember what happened a few chapters before so she retells it laboriously.

    Kent told him what he thought to be Parnell’s motive. “When Rhine introduced me as the new foreman, Parnell said Mr. Blanchard had promised him the job.  Rhine told him his mind was made up, so Parnell spit tobacco juice at Rhine’s boots.  I had to teach some manners, then made him pack up and leave.”

    All that hearsay for an event I remember as clear as day.  It makes for tedious reading.

  • Similarly,

    He kissed Eddy on her forehead, which Portia found endearing, and they left.

    I find it endearing too, even if it’s not pointed out to me. Gah.

  • Finally, I never really believed in the romance.  Kent is nice, Portia is nice, and they have a couple of nice times together.  Lust is there, for sure, but love?  I don’t buy it.

That’s a lot of griping, I know, but Breathless is still a decent read. I like the heroine for the next book of the series so I’ll be looking forward to that despite ~waves hand around~ this.

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.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

18528190In her comic, scathing essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” Rebecca Solnit took on what often goes wrong in conversations between men and women. She wrote about men who wrongly assume they know things and wrongly assume women don’t, about why this arises, and how this aspect of the gender wars works, airing some of her own hilariously awful encounters.

She ends on a serious note— because the ultimate problem is the silencing of women who have something to say, including those saying things like, “He’s trying to kill me!”

This book features that now-classic essay with six perfect complements, including an examination of the great feminist writer Virginia Woolf ’s embrace of mystery, of not knowing, of doubt and ambiguity, a highly original inquiry into marriage equality, and a terrifying survey of the scope of contemporary violence against women.

Review:

This is one of those books that I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while and I’m glad I did. I didn’t care for Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost but these essays are a stylistic world apart.

It’s Feminism 201 for those newer to the movement but everyone will get something from it. Personally it reminded me that it’s important to flip the narrative and look at issues from the opposite angle. If there is a rape at a college the women are told to protect themselves – don’t go out alone, don’t walk at night.

Some pranksters put up a poster announcing another remedy, that all men be excluded from campus after dark. It was an equally logical solution, but men were shocked at being asked to disappear, to lose their freedom to move and participate, all because of the violence of one man.

Similarly,

…of sixty-two mass shootings in the United States in three decades, only one was by a woman, because when you say lone gunman, everyone talks about loners and guns but not about men—and by the way, nearly two-thirds of all women killed by guns are killed by their partner or ex-partner.

Feminism past is connected to feminism present, and we are reminded that we will need the movement far into the future. The message can be troubling and infuriating but there’s also a healthy dose of optimism.

I made a ton of highlights and had my mind pleasantly stretched, but I would have liked to see intersectionality discussed more. Women of color, trans women, and others face more awfulness than white, cis women and it deserves to be acknowledged and examined.

But that’s my only complaint. Men Explain Things to Me is a quick read that will stick with me for a long time.

Idol by Kristen Callihan (VIP #1)

30288788I found Killian drunk and sprawled out on my lawn like some lost prince. With the face of a god and the arrogance to match, the pest won’t leave. Sexy, charming, and just a little bit dirty, he’s slowly wearing me down, making me crave more.

He could be mine if I dare to claim him. Problem is, the world thinks he’s theirs. How do you keep an idol when everyone is intent on taking him away?

As lead singer for the biggest rock band in the world, I lived a life of dreams. It all fell apart with one fateful decision. Now everything is in shambles.

Until Liberty. She’s grouchy, a recluse —and kind of cute. Scratch that. When I get my hands on her, she is scorching hot and more addictive than all the fans who’ve screamed my name.

The world is clamoring for me to get back on stage, but I’m not willing to leave her. I’ve got to find a way to coax the hermit from her shell and keep her with me. Because, with Libby, everything has changed. Everything.

Review:

Just what I needed, right when I needed it.

The good:

  • This novel is comforting, which I wasn’t expecting from a rock star novel.  Both leads are getting over something that happened earlier in the novel and they help each other through it with friendship and a healthy dose of comfort food.
  • I love the characters as people.  The cast list is small so we really get to know the minor characters, and every now and then a nugget of casually dropped information hints at awesomeness in future books.

    Suddenly I remember that the press has called Jax a devil in an angel’s body, and Killian an angel disguised as the devil.

  • There are some nice insights, too.

    I’m comfortable, but I don’t feel sexy.  That’s the thing no one ever tells you.  Sexy can be both a weapon and a wall of defense.

  • Liberty is unabashedly feminist and calls people on their bullshit – it’s glorious.
  • The sexual tension starts right away but is kept in check for a long time.  Feel the slow burn.  Love the slow burn.
  • We see what Killian’s celebrity means to Liberty, and how it could totally derail the relationship if they let it.  It may be a “fantasy” romance but reality still checks in.
  • The band is getting back together and the changes this time around are explored and embraced.
  • …which is a long-winded way to say awesome characterization all around.

The not-so-good:

  • The plot is highly predictable. There’s also some time jumps in the last quarter that feel too short for all the stuff that happens.
  • The sense of place is lacking, with Callihan leaning on famous locales so we fill in the details ourselves.

Idol is a big, warm hug of a romance when I needed exactly that.  Brava.

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.

What Patients Say, What Doctors Hear by Danielle Ofri

32820244Despite modern medicine’s infatuation with high-tech gadgetry, the single most powerful diagnostic tool is the doctor-patient conversation, which can uncover the lion’s share of illnesses. However, what patients say and what doctors hear are often two vastly different things.

Patients, anxious to convey their symptoms, feel an urgency to “make their case” to their doctors. Doctors, under pressure to be efficient, multitask while patients speak and often miss the key elements. Add in stereotypes, unconscious bias, conflicting agendas, and the fear of lawsuits and the risk of misdiagnosis and medical errors multiplies dangerously.

Though the gulf between what patients say and what doctors hear is often wide, Dr. Danielle Ofri proves that it doesn’t have to be. Through the powerfully resonant human stories that Ofri is celebrated for, she explores the high-stakes world of doctor-patient communication that we all must navigate. Reporting on the latest research studies and interviewing scholars, doctors, and patients, Ofri reveals how better communication can lead to better health for all of us.

Review:

I’m a Japanese⇔English medical interpreter so when I saw the title of Ofri’s latest book I cheered.  Doctor-patient communication – she’s talking about my life!

Medical conversations are examined from all sides.  Is it better to let a complaining patient get their whole litany out at once, or should each point be addressed as it comes up?  Can the placebo affect be utilized in conversation?  How can stereotypes be overcome?  Is it ever okay to lie to a patient?

Each topic is covered with both anecdotes based on Ofri’s patients (vignettes!) and research studies.  All kinds of strategies to improve communication are covered, from how to listen actively to when disclosing personal details is a good idea. I especially like how the studies are dissected journal club style, with weaknesses pointed out along with the strengths.  For example, one study found that doctors that scored low on an empathy test had patients with worse outcomes, but:

Maybe the low-empathy doctors had dismal hygiene and the resulting BO was too distracting for the patients to pay attention to their diabetes.  Maybe the offices of the high-empathy doctors offered cloth gowns rather than paper gowns, so their patients weren’t experiencing frostbite and thus better able to hear what the doctor was saying.  You never know what the confounding factors might be…

As an interpreter I enjoyed the stories and insight but didn’t come away with many pearls I can use myself.  It’s part of the job – I speak other people’s words and can’t outright change the direction of the conversation.  I did pick up some tips, though, particularly how using different wording can change how information is received.

What Patients Say, What Doctors Hear is a trove of information for healthcare professionals, who can expect to learn practice-changing pearls, and frequent patients will appreciate the peek into their doctor’s head. If you are not one of those two groups, though, you may want to start with a different Ofri book.

Thanks to Beacon Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Twilight Phantasies by Maggie Shayne (Wings in the Night #1)

25582667In two centuries of living death, vampire Eric Marquand had learned to live with the cruel fate that had condemned him to walk forever in shadow, forever alone. Then he found the woman he knew was meant for him—and understood that to possess her was to destroy her.

Against all reason, Tamara Dey saw clearly that her destiny was eternally entwined with Eric’s and that she must not only accept but welcome the terror and splendor of the vampire’s kiss. She trembled at the thought of spending eternity in his arms, but was her trembling born of desire…or fear?

This book was originally published in 1993 so I was ready to give it all kids of leeway.  In the first 60% the heroine lacks agency but other lovely things are going on.  The vampire hero is the protective sort and is looking out for her.  His best vampire friend is an interesting character in his own right.  There’s an “I knew you before I met you” thing.  I’m in need of a comfort read, I was able to forgive.

But then my brain got scrambled.  Tamara gets a flat while driving home and the car doesn’t have a spare.  She is assaulted while walking to the nearest gas station, but Eric arrives in time to save her.  He then piles her into the car and drives home.

…on three tires?! I reread the scene to make sure I wasn’t missing anything and I have no idea how it worked.  Ditto her being able to put on a fancy vintage dress that laces up the back all by herself even though she needed help the first time.  Brain. Broken.

Then there’s general wtf-ery.  Tamara is 26 years old, a grown ass woman, and still lives her legal guardian.   She even says it like that.  “I can appreciate why you’re so angry with my guardian… he may be an ass, Marquand, but I love him dearly.”  Oh, and trigger warnings for assault, attempted rape, and heaps of gaslighting.  Gaaaaah.

I’m obviously not a fan… but would try another book by the author, no problem.  The first half of the book was enjoyable, even with the Old Skool issues, and I’d like to see if her more recent stuff is less objectionable.  Have you read any Maggie Shayne?  Are all of her books like this?

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.