To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: Jenny Han

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I enjoyed the Netflix movie (in large part due to the dreamy Noah Centineo), and when I was looking for a light book to read on a flight, I thought of this. Generally, I have found that the books that my favorite chick flick movies are based on are quite crappy, but this was a pleasant surprise.

Lara Jean Song Covey is a high schooler adjusting to change after her older sister Margot leaves for university – she is responsible for her younger sister Kitty, her feelings for Josh, Margot’s ex-boyfriend resurface, and she still isn’t comfortable driving. So when the hatbox containing her secret love letters vanishes, it makes her life topsy-turvy. Josh finds out, as does Peter Kavinsky, a boy she kissed in seventh grade and currently the ex of the high school queen. After she kisses Peter to escape from Josh, Peter suggests that they continue the lie that they are dating for a while, as it benefits both of them.

What I found surprising was how much the movie stayed true to the book. Generally, for YA chick flicks based on books, they take the kernel of the book and improvise on it, which makes the original book a bit disappointing. This book has its share of eye-rolling moments (Lara Jean’s activities to pass her time are too grade-schoolish), but the esssence of the story remains the same, and it gives more depth to the characters. Also, having a non-white protagonist was nice – I’ve barely seen that in high school YA novels. I wouldn’t recommend the book if you’ve watched the movie, but if you’re looking for a breezy high school romance, you wouldn’t do too bad with this.

The Broken Kingdoms: N K Jemisin

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Having enjoyed the first book in Jemisin’s debut trilogy, I was eager to pick up the next book, to learn more about the world, and see what happened to the characters.

Oree Shoth, a blind artist in the city of Shadows, has the gift of ‘seeing’ magic, a gift she hides to avoid undue attention. She takes in a stranger she finds in her trash, a man who doesn’t speak but has the gift of glowing in the morning sun. One day, Oree discovers a murdered godling in the city streets, and finds herself pursued by everyone – gods, godmen.

With her second novel, Jemisin moves into mature territory, both with her protagonist and the story, and I must say, I liked this novel better than A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. By bringing the plot from the sky to the ground, the characters become more relatable and likeable, and the story moves strongly from one beat to the next, revealing more about the world without becoming confusing. The romance also moves out of the teen drama category into something more mature. The book stands well on its own as well as a part of the trilogy, and I breezed through it in a couple of sittings. If I have a quibble, it’s that the book didn’t provide any motivation to pick up the third book in the series – its standalone self-contained nature might work against it.

A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: N K Jemisin

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Ever since I began working a corporate job, the number of single-sitting books I’ve read can be counted on one hand; maybe my attention span has reduced or I just don’t have the time (yeah yeah, I know it’s a poor excuse). But when I do, I have seen that two times out of three, it’s a fantasy book. There’s just something about well-written fantasy that captures my attention, more than any other category of book.

Yeine is mourning her mother’s death as she is appointed leader of Darre, a minor kingdom in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, ruled by the magical Arameri. So when she is invited by her estranged Grandfather to the floating city of Sky, the Arameri palace and named one of his heirs, she thinks it’s a chance to uncover the truth, but she soon realizes she is in over her head. She has to contend with powerful gods struggling under human subjugation, scheming heirs wanting to kill her off, the mystery of her mother’s death and the truth of who she really is.

This is a classic outsider-thrown-into-turbulent-times story, but Jemisin breathes fresh life into it, through the characters and the world-building. Yeine is the type of fantasy heroine I like best – smart, spunky, one who keeps the story going. There are secrets and political and personal intrigue, but not so much that you are lost, and the book coasts along at a brisk pace from scene to scene. The relationship between Yeine and Naharoth (one of the subjugated gods) had me rolling my eyes though, with all traits of an M&B romance, and the ending was not particularly surprising, but then I might have read a lot of fantasy. But, having struggled with finishing a lot of books in recent times, I’m always happy when a single-sitting book comes along and captures my interest like this one did.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Katherine Boo

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I don’t want to read about poverty and desperation, a friend said, when I told him of this book. I see so much of it every day, why would I fill my head also with words about it? Because when we see something every day, we become removed from it, like it’s a movie, but words have a way of making it relevant for you again.

The book is set in Annawadi, a slum near Mumbai airport, and follows a cast of slum-dwellers – Abdul, a teenage garbage sorter looking to make enough money to move out of the slum; Asha, a kindergarten teacher looking to become the first female slumlord of Annawadi; Manju, Asha’s daughter who looking to get a college degree and escape marriage to a soldier from her village; Sunil, a skinny scavenger looking to make it by. When Fatima, a one-legged neighbor of Abdul sets herself on fire and falsely accuses Abdul of being the cause, his life is thrown into a tailspin, while the 2008 Mumbai attacks affect the lives of other residents in unanticipated ways.

I travel past the airport slums every other week, but it was only on reading this book that I began looking outside my air-conditioned car and into the shanties that lined the busy road. Boo writes with empathy for all the characters, be it the hapless Abdul or the scheming Asha, and the empathy seeps into you as well.  The Beautiful Forevers are one of the many fancy high-rise complexes coming up in Mumbai that builders promise will bring Paris or London or New York to Mumbai, but Boo exposes the shit behind the shine.

“Even the person who lives like a dog still has a kind of life.”

The book is a very uncomfortable read, especially the parts which describe the life of the scavengers and the conditions of the slum, located beside a sewage lake. At points, I felt it delve into poverty porn realm, such as where the slum-dwellers eat rats and frogs when they have no money to buy food, but then I realized that she’s reporting facts, gory as they are. It’s Indian tendency to be angry at Westerners writing about Indian poverty, but the fact remains that someone has to write about it, about the hundreds of slum murders and suicides that are reported in police books as “illness”, about the desperation of young women in slums who want to have a life better than being married or a mistress at fifteen, of stench and filth and homes no larger than packing cartons. Maybe we need a Westerner to write about these things, because we Indians have become indifferent to it all. For most of us (yes, I too am part of Indifferent India), poverty is something we turn up our windows to so that it doesn’t seep into our homes and our cars; maybe the sharp words can make it more alive for us

 

The Good Girls Revolt: Lynn Povich

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Have you ever watched a TV show or a movie based on a book, and found the screen adaptation full of flaws, yet been intrigued enough by the kernel that it’s based on, so as to want to read the book? That happened to me with Girlboss, and that’s what happened with this book as well.

Late 1960s in the US were a time of awakening, on multiple fronts – civil rights, women’s rights, counterculture and all that. Print publications published stories about all these awakenings, but were dozing worse than Rip Van Winkle. Women were hired as researchers and never made it as writers or editors, even when they had demonstrated the chops time and again. In fact, publications like Newsweek claimed that it was a newsmagazine tradition to not have women writers. The women of Newsweek seethed, and came together to slapp the first sex discrimination at workplace lawsuit on the Newsweek management, on the same day that Newsweek published a cover story on the women’s rights movement.

The book begins in the present, with three Newsweek women writers feeling that despite all the reported advancement of women in the workplace, they still fell behind the men. They dig and learn about the lawsuit 50 years ago, and how the women of Newsweek learned that the division they had taken for granted – women would be researchers and men editors or writers – was actually illegal. It’s a powerful story of a group of women standing up and fighting for their rights, and a consciousness-raising moment for the entire industry, as women working in publications from Readers Digest to The New York Times followed suit and began suing against sex discrimination.

What I found most interesting was the fact that most of these women understood that they were fighting for their careers, but also for a cause bigger than their own careers. In fact, other than the author, no other woman became a senior editor at Newsweek, but none regretted participating in the lawsuit. What is also interesting is how some women, including the publisher Katherine Graham, struggled to overcome their own prejudices in how they believed women should act in the workplace. Graham reportedly never supported the women and usually dismissed their demands as inconsequential, though she later went through some consciousness-raising of her own, courtesy her friendship with the feminist icon Gloria Steinem. The book left me with a question: how will the Me Too movement be viewed 50 years hence? Would it be a consciousness-raising movement, leading to visible change in how women are treated, or would it just be a trend that will run its course?