My Review of HOUSE NUMBER 12 BLOCK NUMBER 3 by Sana Balagamwala

⭐⭐⭐⭐

This was such a simple yet deeply poignant read. The themes explored here are so timely and should be more talked about elsewhere. The book was written entirely from the point-of-view of the titular house, the one whose address is house number 12 block number 3. It’s something I’ve never read in a book before. The voice of the house was simple and minimalistic, aka no embellishments of literary terms or something like that. I enjoyed the point-of-view. I’m always up for something new and exciting. This story, while it was quiet and mostly uneventful, was set during a eventful time in Pakistan. With the political atmosphere so turbulent and chaotic in the background, the characters in the book face things that aren’t very turbulent in the worlds of fiction but they are if they happened in real life. Although the story is from the point-of-view of a house, the main characters are the family who live in it, especially the mother and the youngest child—the only daughter—of the family.

The book is set in Karachi from 1957 to 1988. At the beginning, the titular house was empty for a decade after its Hindu owners vacated it and departed for India. In 1957, a young Muslim businessman, Haji Rahmat, and his newly married wife, Zainab, arrive at the house. Pretty soon, the long vacant house is filled with their children and the staff. While the newly born country of Pakistan struggles to hold on to a stable government, the household of the house number 12 of block number 3 settles in a comfortable, familiar routine. As new scenarios are introduced to the political climate of Pakistan, new faces arrive in house number 12 too. We meet characters who have significant effects on the main ones. We meet background characters who, though not leave a significant effect, do color the situations for the readers. The House, the sentient sentry who witnesses things nobody else can see behind locked doors, silently observes and informs the reader. Nothing is stated explicitly but the House paints to the readers enough pictures to read between the lines and form a conclusion. While you read, like the House, you’ll feel like an omnipresent, omniscient narrator. If you’re up for this kind of narrative style, pick up this book.

I loved the main characters of the book, particularly Nadia and her mother, Zainab, who often locks horns and clashes with their opposing views. Zainab is old-fashioned and conservative while Nadia is more progressive and leftist leaning. Throughout the book, Zainab mostly fails to understand and support Nadia with her life choices and decisions. But the ending was so heartwarming and heart-wrenching at the same time. I loved how their relationship was so mercurial, multidimensional, and colorful, as most mother-daughter relationships are in real life. They are the only two characters in the book who develop palpable changes in their character arcs. The rest are mostly one dimensional, flat characters. I wish we had more history about the House’s origin and the previous owners, the Malhotras, why they sealed the door of the previous storage room, and their last days in the house. The supernatural angle felt unexplored too. It could’ve been so much more exciting if the author made the supposed jinn’s presence more in the story.

I couldn’t give it five stars because of some things. Firstly, the author spelled the capital of Bangladesh/East Pakistan as Dhaka, not Dacca, which, with the context of the timeline, isn’t historically accurate. Dhaka the spelling came to be in 1982/1983, imposed by President Hussain Mohammad Ershad. However, not including the flashbacks, the story was set during 1981 when the spelling Dacca was used. Given that the book is written in present tense, the story therefore isn’t one long reminiscence of the House decades later, rather the things were happening as they were happening. Furthermore, the author didn’t, in my eyes, properly narrated the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh. At first, I was ready to give her the benefit of the doubt that she was trying to present the House as an apolitical, anti-war entity, as a neutral presence and thus, tried to both-sides the war (even though genocide and rape aren’t a both-sides issue). However, in the author’s note, she mentions the history book by Sarmila Bose, whose accounts of the war have already been dismissed by the historians as faulty and inaccurate. Seeing Ms. Balagamwala seeking research help from such a flawed account of the war while plenty more historically accurate books exist is very disheartening as a Bengali. I wish she’d rather sought research help from the books by journalist Anthony Mascarenhas, whose account was the first one that showed the world the war crimes committed by the Pakistani army on the Bengalis. All these things made me deduct a star from my review and also soured my mind. Nevertheless, I’d recommend this book if you’re up for a realistic historical fiction from the point-of-view of a house and one that explores themes like childhood sexual assaults, traumas, stigmas around mental health in South Asia, and feminism.

Thank you, NetGalley and Hidden Shelf Publishing, for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

My Review of THE BASTARD OF ISTANBUL by Elif Shafak

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

It’s been months since I last reviewed a book on my blog that I did not receive as an eARC. My ADHD and autism have gotten worse ever since I self-diagnosed both of them (separately, ADHD first, autism later). But I couldn’t resist penning this review. I’ve found a gold mine with this book. A gold mine called books by Elif Shafak.

I’ve never read her books before. But I did hear about her. Readers of English fiction in Bangladesh are crazy about her writing and guess now I’ve joined their club. Before Elif Shafak, I recently finished reading my second book from another favorite Turkish author, Defne Suman. Riding on this wave, I decided to give Elif Shafak a try too. I asked for suggestions from her Bangladeshi fans/readers and they gave me so many recommendations. I picked up THE BASTARD OF ISTANBUL and was so engrossed in the book, I ended up finishing it in a frenzy only last night.

“Nationalism was no more than a replenishment of oppressors. Instead of being oppressed by someone of a different ethnicity, you ended up being oppressed by someone of your own.”

This book has almost everything I love about literary fiction. A multigenerational family saga stretching back to the Great war in the Ottoman empire. Written from the third person omniscient point-of-view which is rare in fiction but my absolute favorite point-of-view. Fabulism seeped so deeply into the story you cannot imagine it without its fantastically unexplainable elements. And then, at the end, left with a feeling of both poignancy and being moved by the depth of themes explored in this book. Elif Shafak was almost arrested for this book due to unapologetically and lengthily discussing the Armenian genocide, rape, forced conversion to Islam, and mass deportation in 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman empire. Although Turkey and its fervent nationalists still deny the genocide, a lot of countries around the world have acknowledged it and so do many Turkish intellectuals and general populace. The continuous denial from the Turkish officials to recognize, let alone apologize and repent for, the genocide is a deep, unhealed wound to the Armenian people in both Armenia and the diasporas around the world. I’m really in awe of Elif Shafak and her bravery and moral compass that inspired her and encouraged her to write such a brave, heart-wrenching novel that did not beat around the bush, rather said things directly and provocatively.

“The oppressor has no use for the past. The oppressed has nothing but the past.”

This book has so many quotable lines. As a Bangladeshi whose country experienced a genocide of three million, a war of nine months for freedom, rape of two hundred thousand women, and mass exodus of one hundred thousand refugees to India during 1971, I understand the Armenian people’s plight. Their wounds are relatable and heartbreaking. Our oppressor back then, West Pakistan (current day Pakistan) still hasn’t acknowledged, let alone apologize and repent for, the crimes they’ve committed to the people of then East Pakistan (current day Bangladesh). They either say we’re clinging to the past and exaggerating the number of the dead and making up the number of those raped, or they say we’re preaching nationalist, anti-Pakistani propaganda. It hurts when I hear it online. I can imagine how much it hurts for the Armenians too.

Now, I come to the story. It’s about two girls, one Turkish Muslim, the other Armenian American Catholic. By the end of the story you’ll learn their connections, but in the beginning it’ll feel like this was a story with its arms all over the place. It’ll jump back and forth between many points-of-view, timelines, and settings. One moment you’ll be inside the head of the clairvoyant Auntie Banu, then the next you’ll be inside the head of the rebellious, agnostic Auntie Zeliha. There are many POV and I loved reading all of them, though I must admit, my favorites were Armanoush because we’re a lot alike in personality, and Auntie Banu because of what her POV reveals to us and believe you me, it reveals a lot, a lot, a lot to the readers, things the characters might never learn.

Anyway, the two girls are Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian and Asya Kazançi. While they can’t be any more different than fire and ice, they’re a lot similar as well. Both have suffocatingly loving families whose love notches up to the point of obsession. Both have pasts they want to know but can’t bring themselves to face. They both have roots that stem from the same tree, whether it be the city of Istanbul or the bloody history its administration and fervent nationalists try to erase and/or deny.

“…some among the Armenians in the diaspora would never want the Turks to recognize the genocide. If they do so, they’ll pull the rug out from under our feet and take the strongest bond that unites us. Just like the Turks have been in the habit of denying their wrongdoing, the Armenians have been in the habit of savoring the cocoon of victimhood. Apparently, there are some old habits that need to be changed on both sides.”

I was thoroughly impressed by how Elif Shafak treated the theme: our past and moving on/holding on. She not only criticizes and rebukes her countrymen for trying to deny/erase/distance a shameful past of their ancestors, she also mildly criticizes the Armenians constant emphasis and clinging to their past (like many, many Bangladeshis as well). She doesn’t rebuke them per se, rather guides them to the disadvantages of holding rigidly on to the past. The past should not be forgotten, erased, denied existence, tried to distance itself, or act aloof about. But also the past should not be clung to, allowed to affect our present and future, and shape and mold every single thing in our lives. But as Tagore once said,

হে অতীত, তুমি ভুবনে ভুবনে
কাজ করে যাও গোপনে গোপনে

Meaning the past will always sneak into our lives no matter if we reject it, distance it, deny it, worship it, hand over our lives’ reins to it, or simply act aloof about it. Nobody, not even the people of the past, had any control over it. Nobody can change it. But we can, however, dictate what to do about it, how much say it can have over our lives and psyche, and how much we should celebrate/distance from it. Moving on is never easy, especially if the past is brutal, tormenting and its reminders are right in front of you every moment of your life. Knowledge of the past is both a wealth and a burden. But doing what you will with it decides what trajectory your life will take and how much influence it’ll have over it.

I heartily recommend this book to everyone, especially my own countrymen who are in charge of dictating which parts of our history’s narratives should be dominant and celebrated, and which ones aren’t. I cannot point out the shameful past events of my own country regarding the minorities here, without risking my life and those of my loved ones. But I will hope that one day, our nation and that of our past oppressors will acknowledge any past we’re ashamed to let our descendants know, and do the right thing with the knowledge.

My Review of AT THE BREAKFAST TABLE by Defne Suman

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Cover by Matt Bray

(DISCLAIMER: SPOILERS BELOW)

Last year, I read my first Defne Suman book, her debut English translation, THE SILENCE OF SCHEHERAZADE. This book was so good, so great, full of so many twists and so much humanity and such tragedy and brutality. It haunts my mind still how much Scheherazade’s life had so many ups and downs, all happening in the ancient city of Smyrna, now Izmir. Smyrna, a city full of diversity in ethnicity, religion, culture, and language, became a tragic victim of nationalism and bigotry, ending with fire and blood in September, 1922. In that book, Ms. Suman brought to focus four different families (one Leventine, one Turkish, one Greek, and one Armenian) and how their fates are tied intricately.

In her latest translation, AT THE BREAKFAST TABLE, Ms. Suman focuses on one family, five generations. Spanning long before the Turkish war of independence and coming to a head during the summer of 2017, this new book is more about generational trauma, burdens both emotional and psychological, and the long-term effects on our psyche from these unhealed, unprocessed traumas. A big theme that ran through all five generations is holding on vs moving on. How holding on hurts and damages our lives, how letting go can help us heal and help those we love heal and find closure. Through this book, Ms. Suman shows us that letting go is one of the greatest acts of selfless love, to both our own self and to those we love.

The story is centered on the Saka family, whose famous artist matriarch, Shirin Saka, is going to become a centurion soon. To celebrate her birthday, the family gathers at the summerhouse on the island of Buyukada, not far from Istanbul. One of their close family friends, an investigative journalist named Burak Gokce, is also invited to interview the veteran artist and write a focus article on her life. But Shirin Saka, suffering from various geriatric problems, tends to lose thread, lose patience, and lose stamina whenever she sits for an interview. While Burak and the rest of the family try to persuade the centurion to reveal her secret past to the world, her lifelong servant and confidant, Sadik Usta, is reluctant to allow the secrets to come out. He’s unwilling and terrified to let the dangerous past ruin their seemingly idyllic present. He’s afraid of the repercussions. Meanwhile, the other three members present at the gathering, siblings Fikret Burut and Nur Gunney (grandchildren of Shirin Saka), and Fikret’s daughter, Celine Burut, have secrets of their own to hide and process. Both Fikret and Nur struggle to come to terms with their mother’s alcoholism that led her to an early grave, shattering their already dysfunctional family two decades ago. Their unprocessed loss makes them susceptible to unhealthy life choices, especially Nur. While Fikret desperately seeks the truth about his mysterious great grandfather, Nur chooses flightiness and emotional unavailability. She veers from one lover to another, with Burak being one constant she can’t let go. She refuses to commit to him, while he unhealthily pines after her for more than two decades. While Burak pines for Nur, Nur struggles to make work her marriage to her husband, Ufuk, as well as her writing career that’s stuck in a rut and her confusing emotions surrounding motherhood. Meanwhile, both Sadik Usta and Celine, like Burak, pine after people who aren’t emotionally available to them; Celine after Burak and Sadik Usta after Shirin Saka.

“As life marched on, so we accumulated more and more losses to mourn.”

The story occurs on one summer day while also stretching back to almost a hundred years. Through flashbacks and streams of consciousness of the four narrators (Burak, Celine, Sadik, and Nur), we find out more and more secrets of this dysfunctional family that pines for peace and happiness but is reluctant to do the hard work that requires them. Almost all the generations have one trauma regarding parental deaths; Shirin Saka witnesses her guilt ridden father commit suicide with a rifle at the breakfast table; Shirin’s daughter, Suhelya witnesses her own father die from a stroke at the dinner table; Nur and Fikret experience their alcoholic mother commit suicide from alcohol overdose one morning. Throughout the book, the reader is put through emotional turmoil alongside Celine, who now rightfully fears for her father’s life who goes missing a day before Shirin’s birthday.

I love that Ms. Suman once again brings to light crimes against the minorities in Asia Minor committed by the Turkish nationalists. Like in THE SILENCE OF SCHEHERAZADE, Ms. Suman brings forth another injustice buried under the dominant narrative of Turkish history but never forgotten from the mind of the victims’ descendants. We learn about the atrocities done to the Pontic Greeks who lived on the western Black Sea regions of Turkey. The forced expulsion and deportations left many Pontic Greeks homeless and bereft. Some chose to accept Islam in exchange for being allowed to stay in their homeland. Shirin Saka and Sadik Usta’s families were two such examples. This forced concealment of their real identity and background also forced upon them many cruel traumas and their painful effects. For as long as they lived and their descendants came to this world and experienced the same trauma, they didn’t know peace, feel true happiness. Forever in the maps of their psyche, they felt incomplete and broken. Through their stories, Ms. Suman brings to light some of the many atrocities committed by the Turkish nationalists before, during, and after the Turkish war of independence.

“Stories bring a person to life, give a person life. Without stories, we fade away.”

Now, onto my own feelings regarding this book. I love it. Although the back and forth flashbacks and streams of consciousness made it a little hard to stay on track, I ultimately loved this book. My favorite character was Nur. She’s selfish, needy, emotionally stunted, lonely, lost, and aching for love. Her desire to not be lonely leads her to many wrong decisions that genuinely hurt people, not even sparing her loved ones, yet her flaws made her more endearing to me. I love how messy and flawed yet human and vulnerable she is.

I can’t wait for more books from Ms. Suman in future. I was full-on screeching like a pterodactyl when the publisher reached out to me with an eARC of AT THE BREAKFAST TABLE. I love it, I love it!

Thank you, NetGalley and Head of Zeus, for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

My Review of DELE WEDS DESTINY by Tomi Obaro

⭐⭐⭐⭐

This is, I think, the first book I ever read where the titular characters make very little impact on the plot. Both Dele and Destiny get very little presence in the story and they’re quite passive in the overall storyline. Dele gets only one scene where he speaks, while Destiny gets a handful more scenes where she has dialogues but again, it’s only their wedding event that draws in the main three characters of the book; Destiny’s mother and her two best friends from their college days. Neither Dele nor Destiny impact these three women’s lives, much.

The story is divided into three parts, the first and the last parts set in Lagos in 2015, while the second part is set during 1983-1987, when the three main characters, Funmi, Enitan, and Zainab were college students and eventually best friends. The three friends come from vastly different backgrounds. Funmi originally hailed from a negligent family where her father was a cowardly womanizer and her stepmother a scheming woman. When we read the present day parts, Funmi is a rich housewife whose husband’s source of income is evidently corrupted. Funmi is Destiny’s mother and a stubborn, defiant woman who views her beauty and sexuality as weapons to wield and wield she does them expertly. Meanwhile, Enitan, the one who initially formed this trio of friends, is from a family of a single mother. She’s obviously a child out of wedlock which prompts her mother to become a devout Christian while suffocating her daughter with cloying love. In the present day sections, Enitan is a nurse who has separated from her white American husband for whom she once left Nigeria and eloped to America years ago. She’s in a passive-aggressive relationship with her liberal daughter who cannot stomach any injustice, be they occur in America or Nigeria. Lastly, Zainab is the only Muslim in this trio, a hijabi and an aspiring writer who was brought up by two stepmothers who love her like their own and in a household that was equally religious and secular. In the present day, Zainab is the mother of four sons and wife of Ahmed, who has suffered from multiple fatal strokes and begrudgingly accepts her role as his primary caregiver.

The three friends reunite, after years of separation, for Funmi’s only child’s wedding. Years of unprocessed traumas, griefs, losses, anger, and secrets threaten to tear apart the tenderly, carefully rebuilt friendship. As you turn the pages, you’ll learn more and more about how the three best friends come together, be there for one another’s most joyous and most painful moments, while committing acts that make them more human, acts like betrayal, heartbreak, separation, and unfairly hostile criticism. Though to me, most of the characters felt passive and reactive, given it’s a literary fiction, it’s an apt portrayal of how vulnerably helpless we are at the forces of the universe, the forces of life. The gritty, grim moments run parallel to the glitzy, glorious moments of joy because such is life. The author paints a realistic picture of contemporary Nigeria and America where division runs similarly yet differently. Racism, class differences, sexism, religion, patriarchy, female sexuality, and politics. You are immersed into both present day Nigeria where armed robbers forcefully stop buses in the middle of the road in the middle of the night to loot the helpless, unarmed passengers. You see contemporary Nigeria where the upper class splurge on weddings and engagements while the poor live dangerously on rickety huts erected on the banks of the Atlantic. You also see 1980s Nigeria where despotic rulers deprive the powerless with unfair laws. You see 1980s Nigeria filled with riots and bloody protests where unarmed students are mercilessly gunned down. With so much unrest simmering in the background, the main characters come together to celebrate and struggle with marriage, motherhood, friendship, and womanhood. Because that is life. It goes on no matter what happens to the grand scheme of the universe.

Thank you, NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton, for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

My Review of SOPHIE GO’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB by Roselle Lim

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I can’t believe I’ve read two consecutive five-star worthy books (the other book is The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke). This is something that rarely happens. I’ve been in both a reading slump and an autistic burnout for quite a long time now. So getting back both my reading mojo and two great books to read are great things that have happened to me recently.

Among the three Roselle Lim books I’ve read, this is my most favorite (Sorry, Vanessa and Natalie). This is a great read if you want heartfelt books about loneliness regardless of age, love both romantic and platonic, loving yourself, and deciding if love from others is worth destroying your dream and your love for your own self. This is a loose Snow White retelling set in Toronto about Sophie Go, a twentysomthing Chinese-Canadian matchmaker who’s just returned from Shanghai matchmaking school to set up her own business in the city. Despite the lack of support from her parents and oodles of controlling, abusive behavior from them, Sophie moves out of her parents’ house to a condominium where she meets seven septuagenarian Chinese-Canadian men who are looking for love, some hesitantly, some shyly, some eagerly, some begrudgingly. When her debut as a matchmaker is ruined by her cruel, demanding mother, Sophie suffers several setbacks that force her to concoct a plan to matchmake the seven septuagenarians, self-titled as the Old Ducks. With her ability to see the invisible red threads of love that all matchmakers possess, as well as her unending well of patience, compassion, and empathy, Sophie begins to matchmake the men. With their diverse range of backgrounds and personalities, Sophie experiences a love she never had: unconditional, pure, mutual, and caring. Despite not being related to them by blood, Sophie forms a found family of seven lonely men in the autumn years of their lives, who support her and challenge her equally as our loved ones should, as her best friend from Singapore, Yanmei, does constantly. Along the way, Sophie finds her Mr. Right, even if she struggles to reciprocate her obvious feelings for him due to years of trauma inflicted by her heartless mother and spineless father. Now, it’s up to Sophie to decide if choosing the easy, familiar path of yielding her dreams of matchmaking to her controlling mother is worth it, or should she venture into the unknown with seven Old Ducks guiding her and sheltering her out of the dark, scary woods.

What I love about this book is how it tackles the topic of toxic parents/blood families. It’s a favorite theme of mine and I rarely hate a book with this theme. You can say it’s my kryptonite like Asian candy is to Sophie. She’s patient, understanding, and compassionate. And her parents capitulate these traits in her as well as the notion of filial piety found among Asian parents, particularly among East Asian parents. It was disheartening and blood-boiling to see Sophie wilting and withering under her mother’s unending, expensive desires. I’m glad she chose the higher path in the end, when she chose herself.

Thank you, NetGalley and Berkeley Publishing Group, for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

My Review of THE SCAPEGRACERS (SCAPEGRACERS #1) by Hannah Abigail Clarke

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Cover art by Anka Lavriv
Cover design by Dana Li

You know how there are romance books so good, you’re left sad at the end because it’s not you experiencing those romantic things happening to the characters? Well, THE SCAPEGRACERS is exactly this kind of book for me but with female friendship and sisterhood. Most reviewers called it edgy and angry and feminist and vice versa. But to me, it was wholesome and endearing. It’s soft and warm and beautiful to behold, with an edgy, raw, sharp, feral packaging like the girls wear too when it comes to their personalities. You’ll think, like the girls are perceived, that THE SCAPEGRACERS is an edgy feminist tale like Jennifer’s Body (one of the epigraphs in this book is a dialogue from that movie). But once you, like Sideways Pike to the three popular girls, tear down the walls and get to read the book and learn what it’s about, you’ll fall in love with it but platonically.

The story starts when teen witch Sideways Pike is hired by three popular girls in her school, called the unholy trinity for their total disregard for patriarchy and the norms it places upon women and girls. They want her to perform magic in their pre-halloween party. When the magic brings Sideways closer to the girls than she ever anticipated, a budding friendship grows. Daisy Brink, feral and beautiful; Lila Yates, sweet and beautiful; and last but never the least, Jing Gao, the unofficial leader of the unholy trinity, grumpy and beautiful. Together, the four of them discover magic books and their demons, covens, witch finders and their unsavory history with witches, sigils, specter, and lots more. Sideways introduces the unholy trinity to the world of witches, while the unholy trinity helps her find a girlfriend.

What I love the most about this book and what’s so unique about it is Sideways’ voice. Truly, it’s unlike any character voice I’ve ever read any books in. With innovative similes and metaphors, it’s raw, emo, and edgy. I’m so used to the usual character voices that it took me some pages in the beginning to get used to hers but once I did? I devoured it. The chapter titles are funny and weird. The interactions between the characters are sometimes adorable, sometimes hilarious, but most times fun to read. Sideways got the most adorable dads in the world, especially Julian.

And in case you wanna know more about the girls (author approved):

Lila Yates:
Looks like a cinnamon roll, is a cinnamon roll.

Sideways:
Looks like can kill you, actually a cinnamon roll.

Daisy:
Looks like a cinnamon roll, can actually kill you.

Jing:
Looks like can kill you, can actually kill you.

Thank you, NetGalley and Erewhon Books, for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

My Review of THE JASMINE THRONE (THE BURNING KINGDOM #1) by Tasha Suri

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Cover design by Lauren Panepinto
Cover illustration by Micah Epstein

THAT WAS TOTALLY EPIC!!!

Trust me when I say this. THE JASMINE THRONE is such an epic, epic fantasy, the first book in The Burning Kingdom trilogy. It was one of the bestest epic fantasies I’ve ever read. I’m not exaggerating. It truly was glorious, solid, and mind-blowingly larger-than-life. If you loved Indian epic movies like the Baahubali series, and books such as THE TIGER AT MIDNIGHT by Swati Teerdhala, HUNTED BY THE SKY by Tanaz Bhathena, THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN by Roshani Chokshi, and THE BOOKS OF AMBHA duology by the same author as THE JASMINE THRONE, you’ll love this new series too. It’s epic, it’s sapphic, it’s full of magic and politics.

The story is set in Parijatdvipa, an empire divided into five city states: Ahiranya, Alor, Dwarali, Saketa, and Srugna, with the capital city, Harsinghar in the middle like the center of a flower. But the story mainly happens in Ahiranya, particularly in Hiranaprastha, the capital of Ahiranya, with some last chapters happening in Srugna. The two protagonists are Priya, an Ahiranyi maidservant (and ex priestess), and Malini, the Parijati Princess. Malini is the Parijati emperor’s sister and his prisoner, sent to the defunct, ruined temple of Hiranaprastha, the Hirana, where years ago, the temple elders and children were burned alive at the hands of the emperor’s soldiers due to the elders and children’s monstrous yaksa powers. Princess Malini spends her day imprisoned inside the temple building, sentient and mercurial. Priya is one of the maids who climbs to the temple weekly with other maids to maintain the building. Once they meet, passions both romantic and selfish erupt inside them. Together—and apart—the two women of powerful blood running through them wield weapons of their own, be they magical and catastrophic, or political and courtly intrigue.

Alongside Priya and Malini’s point-of-views, you’ll also come across many supporting characters who provide their own perspectives as well as events out of both Priya and Malini’s reach. There’s Bhumika, Ahiranya’s regent’s meek, softhearted (or is she?) wife. I absolutely adore her. She’s my most favorite character in this book, the most levelheaded, sane, and judicious person in this book. Then there’s Ashok, a zealous Ahiranyi rebel who’ll stoop to any level to free his country from the imperial reign. I also like Prince Rao, a secretive prince of Alor who’s on a secret mission in Hiranaprastha. There’s Vikram, Ahiranya’s regent and a few more characters. None of them are unimportant. Even the few characters who appear only once as the POV character in chapters are full of realistic, human traits.

What I love about THE JASMINE THRONE is how widespread the world is. In many fantasies, the world is stagnated inside one city or region, from the POV of one character. Here, we get characters of all personalities and backgrounds. They all have their good and bad sides. Nobody is a goody-goody person. They want to be free. They want to survive. They want to wield powers. They want to control things. Who among us never wanted those? Not only that, I love how rich and deeply thought out the cultures are. A lot of fantasy authors base their make-believe cultures on real world ones. However, although the cultures of THE JASMINE THRONE bear resemblances to the many diverse cultures in India, you’ll not find their real-life cultural counterparts, if there are any. The three main religions, the Ahiranyi yaksa, the Nameless God of Alor and Srugna, and the five mothers of Parijatdvipa, they all bear resemblances and differences with real world religions. It’s very fascinating to a fantasy nerd like me who loves to observe such things (and glean pleasure from it).

I love the parallel between Priya and Malini. They both are feral women who are forced to hide their desires, be it romantic and sexual, or about power and thus monstrously selfish. Priya’s power is visible, hence her strength is more physical and palpable. Malini’s power is mental and psychological. She’s a master manipulator of the mind, while Priya is a master manipulator of the flora and the earth. They’ve both suffered terribly at the hands of people they loved and trusted. Fire ravaged their early lives: while Priya escaped from the burning of her temple family, Malini escaped from the pyre her brother built where he burned her best friends. Both have brothers who are zealots in nature: Priya’s brother will commit violence of any kind to anyone to wrest the freedom of Ahiranya, while Malini’s brother will commit violence of any kind to anyone to spread the claws of his control over the empire. Both men use their own religions to do this, while both women struggle with their powers and try their best to retain their humanity while the world tries to make monsters out of them. This parallel was so beautifully poetic and epic… And I didn’t even mention the swoonworthy romantic scenes between the two women.

Thank you, NetGalley and Little, Brown Book Group UK (Orbit), for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

Blog Tour: THE DAUGHTER OF DOCTOR MOREAU by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Cover by Faceout Studio

I never read HG Wells and I have no intention to read his books either. You do not need to read the original book, The Island of Doctor Moreau, to understand The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. This is a reimagining superior than the original book, featuring eugenics, body horror, colonialism, racism, colorism, sexism, and religion. Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a master at amping up the tension before finally paying us off with emotionally and thematically charged climaxes. Like her previous books, this one starts slow. Not much happens until you hit the 75% mark. But things are slowly hyped up and foreshadowed. Ms. Moreno-Garcia hints at things to come and hides them in plain sight until she reveals them all in one scene. You’ll be left like “oh yes, that was shown” and still be gobsmacked at how come you didn’t see it coming.

The story is set in late 19th century Mexico. In the isolated estate of Yaxaktun, French vivisectionist, Dr. Moreau, lives with his biracial daughter, Carlota, their only maid, Ramona, and the newly appointed English alcoholic mayordomo, Montgomery Laughton who’s on a mission to run from his troubled past. Dr. Moreau’s patron is a Mexican haciendado, Hernando Lizalde. The story begins when Mr. Lizalde brings Montgomery to Yaxaktun and shows him around. The latter comes to learn about Dr. Moreau’s experimental hybrid creatures, intended to supply workers for Mr. Lizalde’s sugarcane plantations across the country. However, as time goes by, Mr. Lizalde grows frustrated at Dr. Moreau’s lack of intended results. Soon, his son, Eduardo Lizalde, visits Yaxaktun with his fanatically religious cousin, Isidro. Sexual and romantic passion erupts between Eduardo and Carlota, earning approval from Dr. Moreau, jealousy from Montgomery, and hatred from Isidro. Things go from bad to worse as time goes by and passions begin to pile up until they too erupt. Violence and passion rear their ugly heads. Who will be the victor? What will be the cost of victory?

I’ve always been awed at Ms Moreno-Garcia’s writing. Sometimes by her plot structure, sometimes by her atmospheric writing, sometimes by the way she masterfully builds tension before the payoff. She writes mature, sophisticated stories full of realistic characters who will surely face reality and go through a painful journey of awakening, or are already a cynic in life whose views are challenged but remain steadfast once the story ends. No matter their age or race, they feel human and flawed. They’re not the paragons of virtues or the most vicious villains. They’re antiheroes capable of evoking both pity and disgust in the readers. You’ll root for them, both to win and to lose. The duality and the cerebral qualities of her books are what drew me in.

Thank you, NetGalley and Quercus Books, Jo Fletcher Books, for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

My Review of WATERSONG by Clarissa Goenawan

⭐⭐⭐

(DISCLAIMER: HEAVY SPOILERS BELOW)

This is the lowest I’ve ever rated any Clarissa Goenawan book and it breaks my heart but I should honestly review her book. She’s still an all-time favorite author of mine and maybe I expected too much. After all, overhyping anything can lead to disappointment. Unfortunately, this came true for her third book.

On the whole, WATERSONG is a brilliant literary fiction about letting go of your past and moving on. This is the running theme of all of Clarissa’s books. Troubled, dark pasts that the characters are trying to move on. In her first two books, RAINBIRDS and THE PERFECT WORLD OF MIWAKO SUMIDA, the protagonists and some of the other characters have some troubled pasts, or experienced something traumatic at the beginning of the book and cannot move on easily. In WATERSONG, Clarissa showed us the dark side of being unable to move on and clinging to your past. Unlike Ren Ishida and Ryusei Yanagi, Shouji Arai does not find closure, nor does he move on and begin anew. It might seem muddy at first, but he dies in the end.

The story begins when college grad but recently unemployed Shouji Arai is hired by her live-in girlfriend, Youko Sasaki’s bosses as an ear prostitute. Basically, Shouji and Youko sit down with a client and listen to them say whatever the client wants to share. They aren’t allowed to offer condolences, advice, or questions unless the client specifically asks for it. Their job is to listen to their influential, powerful clients vent to them. Whatever they hear, they are strictly prohibited from speaking about it to anyone, even to their better halves. When Shouji’s first client, the wife of a powerful local politician, reveals to him the physically abusive nature of her husband, Shouji is approached by a sketchy reporter to reveal this to the public. Before he can do anything, Shouji learns his life is in danger, as well as Youko’s. They are eventually split up and Shouji goes into hiding with help from his cop uncle. He flees to Tokyo from Akakawa and starts a new job as a journalist. He continues looking for Youko who’s vanished without a trace, until someone threatens his life over multiple phone calls. Shouji reluctantly stops looking for her.

After years of being unable to move on, he meets with an old classmate at a reunion who almost barges into his life. Liyun, a Singaporean student in Japan, is everything Youko isn’t: lively, fun-loving, caring, and understanding. To everyone else, Liyun clearly harbors romantic feelings for Shouji. Unfortunately, Shouji still pines for Youko. Heartbroken over his rejection despite her relentless pursuit, Liyun gives up on him and moves on. Eventually, Shouji finds the politician’s wife, Mizuki, and helps her move on from her own dark past.

Alas, he doesn’t move on from his own. The sinister shadow of a dark past lingers around him, an impenetrable wall nobody, not even Shouji himself, can break down. At last, he tracks down Youko and persists in convincing her to give themselves one more chance. But unbeknownst to him, a similarly sinister shadow is all around Youko too. Shouji finds out, while bound and drowned, that a colleague from the shady job he and Youko had in Akakawa is her long lost father. Many of the murders across the book occurred in his hands. His reasoning? He wants to protect Youko, his illegitimate daughter who doesn’t even know he’s her father, from “problematic” men. Shouji eventually dies from drowning, despite being an excellent swimmer. In the epilogue, we find out the dark past that had been casting an ominous presence in his life. A painful memory he blocked from his head and remembered upon death.

I feel so bad for Shouji. My heart breaks for him. He helped Mizuki move on from her past but couldn’t move on from his own. I’m glad that Liyun and Mizuki were able to move on from their traumatic pasts and find happiness. Too bad Shouji and Youko, more unfortunate than Keiko Ishida and Miwako Sumida had been, couldn’t do that. While Shouji drowns because of chasing one past and running from another, Youko will forever be haunted by a past she doesn’t even know about and will forever be traumatized by this past’s tyrannical control over her future. I’m pretty sure Mr. Satou had killed Liyun’s brother, who was Youko’s boyfriend once. After all, his signature killing method is drowning his victims. Given that he killed both the Madam of the tearoom and Mr. Kazuhiro Katou and got away with them, he’s capable of anything. He’s the actual problematic man in Youko’s life and unfortunately for her, she’ll never find happiness because of his twisted perception of what her happiness should be. I wished so much for Shouji to give up on Youko and move on, or they finally find each other and begin anew. My hopes were dashed and my heart was broken. The biggest innocent victim out of all the characters was Shouji’s mother, who lost her only son. She always feared for his life and they came true: he did die by drowning.

By the way, if you’ve read and remembered most things from Clarissa Goenawan’s last books, you’ll find plenty of minor characters returning, such as Jin Fujiwara (the rich playboy of Waseda University), Hidetoshi Oda (the detective in Akakawa whom Ren meets once), Sachiko Hayami (Miwako’s hot friend who dated Jin), Izumi (the caretaker of the dilapidated building in Akakawa where Ren temporarily stayed), and Mrs. Katsuragi (the elegant hotelier from Akakawa). Another branch of the stony, stern, powerful Katou family makes an appearance. Also, the three things Ren, Ryusei, and Shouji have in common are, a) they all knew and were friends with Jin, b) they’ve gone to Akakawa once in their lives, and, c) never got to be with the women they loved. In fact, Shouji and Youko were the couple Izumi briefly mentioned to Ren in RAINBIRDS, the one where the girl lived with her boyfriend, something which wasn’t allowed by the landlord but Izumi allowed it because what the landlord doesn’t know can’t hurt. Anyway, I hope we’ll see Jin as the protagonist/narrator of his own book later. He’s been consistently present in every Clarissa book. I’d also love to know what happens to Youko in future, because more than Shouji, I’m heartbroken and worried about her.

Anyway, I decided to give WATERSONG three stars because the ending didn’t satisfy me. I might up the rating in future but for now, it’s three stars. It’s just not for me right now.

Looking forward to Clarissa’s next book.

My Review of VELVET WAS THE NIGHT by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Cover design and illustration: Faceout Studio/Tim Green, based on images © Getty Images, © Shutterstock, © Alamy, and © iStock

I firmly believe Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a chameleon. Not only does she dabble in many different genres, she can mold her writing style to the demands of the genres easily. You won’t find repetitions in her writing style of one book to another. MEXICAN GOTHIC is atmospheric. THE BEAUTIFUL ONES is lyrical and romantic. UNTAMED SHORE is taut with tension. VELVET WAS THE NIGHT is a slow-burn with a banging finale. The more I read her books, the more I’m in awe of her talent. She dares to venture into new, untapped genres and shows prowess there as if she’d been writing in that genre for years. Like the aforementioned books I’ve read, VELVET WAS THE NIGHT proved her talent too.

VELVET WAS THE NIGHT is a historical noir set in the 1970s Mexico during the regime of Luis Echeverría. The story revolves around two people from different walks of life. One of them is a 21 year old thug, El Elvis. The other is a 30 year old office secretary, Maite Jaramillo. The plot centers on Elvis and Maite, separately, looking for Maite’s neighbor, Leonora. Maite wants to find Leonora, so that Leonora can take her cat back (whom Maite has been minding while Leonora is on a vacation) and get paid for cat-sitting. Meanwhile, Elvis wants to find her because Leonora got some important photos that can expose the crimes of president Echeverría as well as the entire Mexican government being in cahoots with the CIA and being the masterminds of the attack during the Corpus Christi Day march on June 10, 1971. While they’re at it, we come to know Maite and Elvis personally, two people from vastly different backgrounds but having much in common. They’re two lonely, bitter, miserable-in-their-jobs music aficionados who would go to any length to not be lonely and bitter and miserable. They find solace in music, romantic comic books (Maite), and word-of-the-day practices (Elvis).

Many readers found Maite unlikeable but not me. She’s not like other noir heroines aka not a femme fatale. She’s a plain Jane, a Debbie downer, and an office secretary. She’s cynical, self-deprecative, petty, bitter, sexually frustrated, and above all, lonely. She judges and casts snide remarks at prettier women because the world sees her as an ugly woman and therefore, treats her badly. You can’t blame her for her misery. It’s easy to judge people, like Maite judges others. But if you’ve been in her shoes, stuck at a dead-end life where nobody loves her and cares about her, not even her mother and her sister, will definitely make you bitter, unhappy, petty, cynical, and self-deprecative. In the end, Maite doesn’t change in this area. What does change in her story is that she stops idolizing the beautiful, suave people in her life and realizing they’re worse at their cores than she is. She doesn’t stop being bitter, petty, miserable, judgmental, and jealous because her life doesn’t change much for the better. She’s still stuck in her dead-end job and still lonely in her life. But she at least stops fawning over handsome men who turn out to be selfish, cowardly assholes who’d turn their eyes on other men physically assaulting her and pissing at the violence. She has a flat arc and flat arc protagonists are often mistaken for flat characters. Maite is unlikeable with her kleptomania and internalized misogyny. But she’s an interesting character who defies the genre expectations of the female protagonists and becomes a very realistic character who can be anyone in our real life.

“Some people are made to be lonely.”

On the other hand, Elvis is also bitter and lonely. But unlike Maite who channels her frustration at pretty people with rich lives, he channels them at his opponents. They’re his punching bags. He gets to curse out loud and punch people and shoot at them, unlike Maite. Not saying that’s a healthier option, but it creates less bitter internal monologues unlike Maite. His frustration is more at real life in general. How the rich and the privileged get to live better lives, longer lives, perfect lives. Meanwhile, Elvis, being a runaway delinquent from rural Mexico, has to make his ends meet by beating up people and being beaten back, stalking, breaking into someone’s apartments, and spying on everything and everyone. He’s basically his boss’s dog. Like Maite, he too doesn’t face much change in life at the end. But like Maite, he too stops idolizing his boss, who seems perfect to him on the outside but is a rotten piece of shit who doesn’t hesitate to beat women for his end goals. Elvis stops looking up to him and copying him and obeying him. He ends up with no riches and no privileges. But he ends up with a better conscience than his boss could say.

Thank you, NetGalley and Quercus Books, Jo Fletcher Books, for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.