In Praise of Hatred (CBR9 #50)

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One of the rewards of being the book club maven for the Cannonball Read is that I have to be on the lookout for books outside of my comfort zone. In my bio over there I describe myself as someone who reads everything, just some types of books more frequently than others. That applies to proper Literary Fiction as well. More often than not, I’m rolling around in the genres.

However, I try to give the people what they want and there were several requests for Non-Western Literature, which led me to a few weeks of research, several books for a vote, and our final choice of In Praise of Hatred. I do not vote for book club books unless there is a tie. But, this one stood out to me and I was hoping that it might be the choice. Now I wonder what magic blurb writers have that I was so thoroughly tricked.

Over 150 words into this review, I feel safe saying that I struggled with this book. I did not even finish it. I simply gave up somewhere around page 250. With that said, if there were any last minute Hail Mary passes accomplished by Khalifa I missed them. So take all you read with a grain of salt.

Throughout the book we are in the mind of an unnamed narrator, and I have a tough time with those types of narrators in general. I think it is because they often appear in stories structured without dialogue (which based on the article I read from the Guardian, Khaled Khalifa is a screenwriter known for his talent with dialogue – I feel betrayed!) . The other compounding influence is that to the best of my limited knowledge this novel is in first person present tense or first person stream of consciousness.  It bothers me, the repetitive nature of being told rather than being allowed to see, as we are limited to what the narrator is repeating to herself/the reader.

My other major complaint is that by the time I got to the end of the first section I was pretty well convinced that Khalifa was overly focused on the physicality of femaleness with no particular narrative driver. I am a lady person. I promise you I am way less in tune with my physical being than Khalifa would have you believe, nor would I describe it in the sort of overly flowery language that he utilizes. My biggest reminder is that my breasts are often in my way. Basically, my body is more annoyance than discovery and I don’t remember it being otherwise in my late teens. Which is why, I’m going to come right out and say it – is sexist writing. The level of preoccupation with the female form, even from a character displaying same sex attraction, negates the positives of this work.

That said, there are things I liked, and while the narrative arc didn’t pull me in, the inner life of our narrator did. One of the consistent refrains we hear from her is that she is full of hatred; it acts almost as an incantation for her to stabilize herself, to center herself once more in her body. I found this fascinating. We would hope, or expect a person to focus on a positive attribute, but it is so very often not the case. We focus on a negative (for me its frustration, my frustration pushes me through) and wallow in it.

I am glad at the end of the day that we decided to attempt this book. I feel strongly about reading banned books, and books that are told from points of view outside our own. I just wish it had meant more to me.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (with a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

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The Devourers (CBR9 #12)

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In my reading habits, I do not read too much fantasy. I have never been a fan of high fantasy, those works that are set in an alternate world. I struggled with The Hobbit for years before finally managing to get through the audiobook last year, for example. I do better with “low” fantasy, stories set in the recognizable world which include magical or mythological elements, which is where books like Daughter of Smoke and Bone work much better for me. The Devourers, Cannonball Read’s Fantasy book club pick, should fit into that niche as well, but it really felt genre-defying while I was reading. I described it as historical magical realism in the book club chat, which is something that falls into fantasy, like The Night Circus, which I love, but this book is also working with some larger themes that felt much more akin to lit fic.

The rest of this review is going to jump around a bunch, be warned.

The book has the structure as a story within a story. Our entrance into the larger world of werewolves/shapeshifters is Alok. Alok is a history professor out for the evening when he meets the character who will be known throughout most of the book as the Stranger. The Stranger introduces himself as half-werewolf, hypnotizes Alok with stories of his past, and in a promised second meeting convinces him to transcribe a translation of scrolls for him. The scrolls tell the stories of Fenrir, Gevaudin, and Cyrah.

All that to say that Alok’s first interaction with the stranger made me think the book was dumb. It was not, but its framing device is possibly the weakest part of the entire novel. The book was strongest during the Cyrah centered section in the middle, but the constant POV switching early in the book led me to do a lot of skimming. This, as well as some of the other weaknesses in this book feel like debut novel mistakes to me. Das was going to show us all his tricks up front, but instead it made the beginning of the book simultaneously dense and barren.

Fenrir and Gevaudin are the stories prominent shapeshifters, I felt Das positioned Fenrir both the poster boy for toxic masculinity and a complete denial of self-acceptance and knowledge. Unfortunately, I thought the structure was god-awful. The reader is presented the Alok section, and then Fenrir post rape, and then Fenrir pre rape just made for an unwelcome entry into the larger ideas of the narrative.

Das makes a big and interesting leap in his werewolf/shapeshift story by tying together several different mythologies into one larger myth. It works, but I feel like Das was dropping bread crumbs, or assuming more knowledge on his reader’s behalf than I actually had, which left a lot of unanswered questions and possibilities. The book comes in right around 300 pages, so there was room to expand into the mythos, and specifically spend more time on Cyrah from her own point of view. I wish Das was a little clearer, a little stronger in his world building.

Also, Das works identity throughout the novel and there’s an interesting concept to a second self creating a hermaphroditic nature, but then why default Male? That’s where Das lost me, and even being presented with a shifter who defaulted female did not solve my issues since she (like a lot of how Cyrah was treated) was focused entirely on her ability to mother/nourish. There could have been more here.

The werewolves used their non-humanness as a shield, as a way to protect themselves from any identity attributes that don’t fit into the accepted. Throughout the novel the very behaviors and emotions they are disavowing as human as the ones they are demonstrating. I also was struck by Gevaudin’s struggle with keeping true to his second self’s nature, but his obvious care and affection for others, which should have been something that didn’t happen. Gevaudin presents his arguments against Fenrir as “love is stupid and humans are stupid”. But, Gevaudin is in love with Fenrir and then forms a years long close emotional bond with Cyrah. But again, Das doesn’t completely follow through.

I would like to take a moment and sing the praises of Cyrah: she was amazing. Initially I was concerned that Das would blow the landing on a character first introduced by her rapist, but she’s complicated and angry, hard and fragile. The character overcame my low expectations. Cyrah’s honest appraisal of her situation, both in the micro of the rape and the macro of her life situation made her a fantastic character. Unfortunately, I just don’t think the book served her well. The reader doesn’t get to read more about her and how her friendship with Gevaudin developed after Fenrir leaves for the final time. How did she end up becoming this sort of jungle goddess? Why did her life need to end the way that it did, and what point was there in taking that much strength and power into one being?

Finally, at the end when Alok starts exploring his own gender fluidity I was left more confused than anything else.  Perhaps I simply missed the signposts that Das had laid in, I had assumed that his bisexuality was enough for his fiancée and family to shun him, but apparently, I was supposed to see this coming. Again, I think Das tried too many things, all good ideas, but he just couldn’t balance it properly He needed more pages to do all the things he was attempting. However, I don’t know that I wanted to read more pages.

I think the best parts of the book are when the various main characters -across the multiple timelines- are ruminating on what their lives mean. Cyrah is vested neither in dying or in staying alive, based on her life experiences. Fenrir and Gevaudin are struggling with staying within the stereotypes of their werewolfness. Alok and the stranger are finding their own ways to survive, and Alok is working through the fluidity of his wants and needs. This is all so interesting.

3.5, rounded down.

 

 

The Count of Monte Cristo (CBR8 #76)

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I have already said many words about The Count of Monte Cristo, since it entered our lives as the final of the four #CannonBookClub choices for 2016. It was a great idea I had, pick 6 books, three male authors and three female, all predating 1920 which had film adaptations, so we could honor our Pajiban roots, and I could easily check a Read Harder Task off the list (I needed to compare and contrast a book with its movie, you see).

Thank you, my fellow book clubbers, because I don’t think I would ever have willingly picked this one up. As it was, knowing my work schedule and family obligations (my sister got married!) I went abridged since I knew I wasn’t going to have as much time as this book probably really needed and deserved. I also had the back pocket win of my friend and yours, crystalclear having voted for this one and deciding to do her INTENSE and awe inspiring review as a backup.  

Here’s a secret for you: I really love the story that Dumas is trying to tell with Edmond Dantes. While the revenge plots are fun, interesting, and intricate they really aren’t why I continued reading past the Paris purgatory. While I was watching the 1975 Richard Chamberlin version, Abbe Faria says in a voice over “vengeance belongs to the Lord”, and that he hopes Edmond will turn away from his Arya-like list before it destroys him. This to me was the true heart of this work: what is the cost of forsaking that which matters in the world? The great emotional removal of the Count, his single focus on vengeance, is the destruction of Edmond. Villefort, in his decision to put his own position before the life of another dooms himself. Everyone is made to pay for their turning away from the moral right. Was the Count ethical in his actions, yes. Was he moral? I still don’t know.

This book is dense, and lush, and there is something for everyone. You can take a twirl through the discussion post, or visit other people’s reviews. I hope if you decided to tackle this one you review it, even if you don’t finish. I wasn’t kidding when I said there was plenty to unpack.

I have to say, that I have now read the book (abridged), and watched three movie versions of this story. I am convinced that the story in the book is the best, and that the closest version, which was truest to the overarching narrative, was the 1975 version. You know, in case you were wondering. 🙂

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Venetia (CBR8 #41)

With our book club this year I have added the personal goal of reading the runner up choices as well. I figured if it sounded interesting enough to a gaggle of Cannonballers to earn their vote, surely it deserves my reading attention as well. First up on that quest is Venetia one of the runners up to The Bollywood Bride.

I’m not sure if listening to this one via audiobook caused me to not realize how much I was enjoying the story (weird word choice and craft issues can definitely stand out while listening, some things just sound wrong) but when I went about recounting the story to crystalclear I realized how much I loved the main characters of the titular Venetia and her paramour Lord Damerel. These characters are grown-ups with defined personalities, intelligence, senses of humors, and histories. All the things which make us love romance leads.

Let’s unpack them a little: first we have Damerel: an older confirmed rake who doesn’t care much about anything any longer. Or at least he thinks he doesn’t, but underneath there’s a kind man which his growing friendship with Venetia brings out. He starts out intending to seduce her—but respect for her and her brother soon make him realize that he can’t do that. Which leads to a moral conundrum for Damerel: his life has been so reprehensible that he’s no longer accepted in society (his two elderly aunts are trying to find an appropriately on the shelf/desperate wife to help make him respectable enough that they can make him their heir instead of his fop of a cousin), and marrying a sweet younger lady like Venetia would make people despise him even more. Which brings us back around to Venetia – witty, resourceful and not easily fazed by events that would make most ladies throw up their hands in despair (seriously, her brother sends home a pregnant wife and terrible nuisance of a mother-in-law that Venetia is told nothing about and she moves smoothly along like things like this happen all the time to ladies used to running the family estate in their brother’s absence). She’s 25 years old–just about on the shelf by Regency standards. Because her father was a damaged soul, Venetia has spent her entire life in a small town with a very limited circle of friends and acquaintances, but she’s nevertheless well-read and socially adept, if rather innocent in the ways of the world, at least according to everyone else. She knows what she does not know and thinks that’s fine enough.

It’s charming to watch Venetia’s developing relationship with Damerel, they trade all manner of inside jokes (usually literary quotes and allusions that went over my head a bit) and they just understand each other. Their relationship is in turns witty and heart-wrenching since these are two characters who likely shouldn’t end up together on paper, but you as the reader are rooting for them in a major way since the other two men attempting to win Venetia’s heart made me want to punch them through the page and even Venetia is *this close* to rolling her eyes and hitting them with rolled up newspaper. There was also way more smolder than you might expect from a romance written in the 1950s in the style of Austen. Heyer never gives you anything more than a kiss, but that doesn’t stop her from making heat rising off the pages when these two are together.

This book is definitely worth the read.

Doomsday Book (CBR8 #34)

This review will be the definition of spoiler free, come see us over at the Cannonball Read June 1 to talk details.

I am, as they say, perplexed by this book. It was like a roller coaster ride. At the beginning, I felt like this:

There was a great wide world of story ahead and it was all for me. Historians! In the near future! Using the scientific method and time travel!

But then, I spent a lot of time waiting for thins to start happening.

And that was not the most pleasant experience, really. I went the audio route for this one, since I knew I would be under a bit of a time crunch and I could listen at 1.25-1.5 speed depending and that would help. It did, but listening to all the pieces be set up on the board while knowing that there was still 20+ hours of audio left me wondering what all the fuss was about, because you good people had already started rolling in the 4 and 5 star reviews.

And then things got going, and I understood.

There are so many layers, so much context, so much world building built it that you have to wait, and then you start to have fun, but there’s also that moment when the doom is coming (which by the way the blurb for the book spoiled for me, not that it isn’t telegraphed a mile away) that I actively stopped reading because I didn’t want to read what I knew was about to happen. It was too much, both for the characters and for me.

This book lives and dies by its characters, and they are good. I look forward to hearing what everyone has to think.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Bollywood Bride (CBR8 #12)

Well, it wasn’t the best of books. It wasn’t the worst of books. It is definitely somewhere in the middle. I am not going to do an in depth review of The Bollywood Bride by Sonali Dev since we are going to be having a group discussion on March 1 for the Cannonball Book Club Reads Romance and I want to save topics to talk about then. But Let’s do a quick rundown of what I liked and what I thought were some of the problems of this work.

Pros (a non-exhaustive list):

  • Absolutely anything to do with the Aunties and the wedding.
  • Descriptive language of the Indian culture and traditions which populate the vast majority of the book.
  • The pacing of the second half of the book.

Cons (a similarly skimmed list):

  • A lack of consistent characterization, especially in the first half of the book.
  • The beginning of this book is overworked, there is too much everything. Too much drama, too much backstory, too much angst, too many weird flashbacks.
  • Adoption is totally a thing! You don’t have to have biological children if you don’t want to, but you do have to talk about it.
  • The characters don’t TALK to each other. They have feelings and emotions near each other.
  • Schtupping does not equal communicating, even in a romance novel.

And I think that is the crux of my concerns with this book: there isn’t enough dialogue, or witty banter, or any of the fun things that help make romance novels so enjoyable. Dev is definitely heading in a good direction with her craft and the kinds of stories she wants to tell, but the “early days” of her writing are clearly visible. Show, don’t tell, and I’ll become a loyal reader.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.