fiction

A textbook medical thriller

This is my review of Charlatans, by Robin Cook.

Back when I was thirteen or fourteen (it seems like it was an embarrassingly long time ago), I discovered Robin Cook in my local library. I had worked my way through all the children’s books that I had deemed readable, and was venturing into the adults’ section. Classics were a safe bet, Grisham was too dull, Brown was limited and Sheldon was just too… adult. Asimov was intimidating, but Cook was just right. Despite being science fiction, Robin Cook makes sure to explain things form first principles, in a way that even the barely teenaged me could understand. I devoured quite a few of his novels.

And then abruptly stopped. When I stumbled upon this book last month, I was surprised to find that it was relatively recent- published in late 2017. For some reason I’d assumed he’d stopped writing (just because I’d stopped reading his books?). Of course I had to pick it up.

And it was disappointing. The descriptions I just praised so highly? They’re often shoehorned into ‘everyday’ dialogue, making conversation unnatural and stilted. His heroes are often romanticized workaholics whose only character traits are ‘married to his job’ and ‘looks athletic despite working 120-hour weeks’. Even the redeeming quality of having a troubled past (girlfriend walked out on him, exacerbating workaholic tendencies) seems like it was added deliberately to cross Character Backstory/Development off a checklist.

Apart from these major complaints about the narrative style, the plot itself is reasonably well structured and fast paced. You’ll want to stick around until the end, partially because of a main character who is clearly more sinister than they seem at first glance. The last few pages have a twist that is shocking only because of the complete lack of foreshadowing- it’s certainly unexpected, but in a way that feels unfair!

Here are the specifics: Noah Rothauser has just started his last year of surgical residency at the Boston Memorial Hospital. As part of his new responsibilities, he must investigate three surgical deaths that occurred in a short span of time. The only link is the anaethesiologist on duty- Ava London. Noah is hesitant to place the blame on her at first, as she seems competent and confident (and she is hot). Later, though, he becomes suspicious that she is not who (and what) she claims to be… But is he already in too deep?

(cue dramatic music)

2/5 from me. Cook also manages to convey his distrust in social media, via more stilted textbook-y dialogue of course. Stay away unless, like me, you’re a fan of his work who is looking for a dose of nostalgia (pun intended)

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Anti Climax

This is my review of On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. I listened to the audiobook version of this, because technology. And also because it was read by the author.

This book is, first and foremost, about sex (or the lack thereof). If this makes you uncomfortable, then this probably isn’t the book for you. It’s not graphic, but, well, sex is the overall theme. The title of this review is a poorly attempt at a pun. I’m a fan of McEwan’s because Atonement is a beautiful book that also made a beautiful movie.

It’s 1962, and the story is set in England. Edward and Florence are a young couple on their honeymoon on Chesil Beach. There’s a flashback about their respective upbringings. Not unexpectedly, they are both from very different backgrounds but are very much in love. But when it comes to consummating their marriage, Florence is hesitant, almost repulsed. It’s implied that sexual repression was common back then, and that she may have been abused as a child. Edward is impatient and humiliated by her rejection. Their encounter ends, uh, unsuccessfully.

In the heat of the moment, they decide to annul their marriage. The book then summarizes the rest of their lives, from Edward’s point of view. They are both very successful in their respective careers, and start their own families. A sixty year old Edward realizes that by not fighting for their love, and by being impatient with Florence, he made one of the most important decisions in his life.

This was a slow paced and uneventful novel. There’s good character development, but I was not rooting for them to stay together- maybe just not invested in their story. This book probably has some nostalgia value for people who grew up in the place and time described. In that respect, it’s an interesting social study of how society shapes your perception of sex (which is, of course, a fundamental instinct for humans)

Despite the disappointment (ha-ha) of On Chesil Beach, I’ll still be hunting down McEwan’s other work. 2.5/5, do not read unless you are bored.

 

The Lives of Others

This is a review of The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee.

Neel Mukherjee has weaved a story of Bengal for three generations, around the lives of a family. In every line of the book, the various fissures and fractures in their relationships of the family members are brought out, and through it, the fractures within the society. The unspeakable words like “naxalite” are thrown in, along with mundane issues like family heirlooms. The normalcy and strangeness within, in this family, make the plot interesting, apart from also suggesting that there is a bigger game at play here.

It’s a story of a joint family that’s not as happily joint, or as rich as it portrays itself to be. The family’s history is traced through flashbacks throughout the book. It’s interesting to piece together the motives and aspirations of each of the members (and servants). The older son’s son is high on Marx, the younger son’s son is high on Math, the youngest son can’t seem to be anything but a creep who gropes at women in crowded places. Sometimes, it seemed, some of the characters, though they shared the same roof, had nothing to do with each other. Was this by design, or did the author get so into the minds of the characters that he didn’t pay too much attention to the fibre between them?

I’d have enjoyed it much more had the plot thickened, rather than tilted and changed color often; like a TV Serial. Though, the family dynamics is often placed in the framework of politics (naxalism, capitalism, and other -isms). But for the beautiful language and the style of writing, I would have passed up on finishing the book.

If you’re in search of Indian writers to reckon with, try not to miss Neel Mukherjee. But don’t sweat it.

3/5.

Glitz and Glamour in Singapore

Today’s review is of the book Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan.

As an urban desi, reading Chetan Bhagat is relateable. Terrible, and a waste of time, but relateable. If only because the mothers are as dramatic as my own and the grammar as vernacular as mine.

Having said that, it’s simultaneously several worlds away from me: supernatural occurrences, romance with professors’ daughters, abusive Army dads… They exist, somewhere, but aren’t representative of Indian society as a whole. I think this is probably how Singaporeans feel about Crazy Rich Asians.

Rachel Chu is a Chinese-American professor at NYU. Her boyfriend, Nick, invites her to Singapore to attend his friend’s wedding, and meet his family.

What Nick fails to mention is that his friend, Colin, is the most eligible bachelor in Singapore and is marrying a fashion icon; his (Nick’s) family is one of the richest in the country and he is the sole heir; and that his mother is controlling and disapproves of his relationship with a Chinese girl of humble origins. Shenangians ensue.

There are several subplots, and they serve to highlight certain aspects of this particular section of Singaporean society- an obsession with wealth and status, a need to maintain family appearances, and difficulties being accepted by the wealthy and influential families when you are not wealthy and influential yourself. There’s a lot of name dropping and money counting, but the family dynamics should be familiar to most- Aunties gonna Aunty, right?

This gets a 3/5 from me for being as substantial and healthy as a large piece of cotton candy.

Edgy Children’s Fantasy

Poor, neglected blog.

Well, here’s a good one to make up for months of emptiness.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman.

Have you read the Chronicles of Narnia? It’s a children’s storybook series in which four children in WWII-era Britain find their way into a magical kingdom with talking animals. And subsequently become rulers of the kingdom and have many adventures. I used to love those stories! It was only recently that I found out that the stories are thinly veiled Christian allegories -who would have expected that giant lion to be a representation of Jesus?- and it’s a little strange to be seeing the series in a new light.[*]

Anyhow, The Magicians features a magical land called Fillory that is reminiscent of Narnia (probably not a coincidence). The protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is an oddball young man from New York, who has grown up reading and loving the Fillory series. After high school, he gains admission to the poorly-named Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, which he promptly joins because “it’s exclusive”.

Brakebills is the antithesis of Hogwarts. Students are overworked and put through multiple traumatic experiences for the sake of education. And they indulge in copious amounts of casual sex, bullying, and unhealthy competition. Despite this  (or perhaps because of this?) they are successful in learning the intricacies of magic.

Jaded and worldly-wise, Quentin and his fellow graduates move to NYC to pursue a life of irresponsible hedonism. When an ex-classmate reveals that Fillory is real, they decide to travel there. They don’t find what they expected though, and an epic battle ensues.

There are several plot points that seem to be poking fun at the original Narnia series, and these inside jokes made the book worth the read. For instance, the difference in the passage of time between the real world and Fillory means that the Kids wind up there in the dead of winter, but by the time they come back armed with warm clothing, it’s summer again. Unlike the knowledgeable talking animals of Narnia, the animals of Fillory don’t seem to have overcome their natural instincts- a talking bear seems more willing to discuss honey than the politics of the land.

Reviews of this book seemed largely critical of Quentin’s personality, and the negative cast this gives to the narrative. He’s immune to the joys of boarding school, because he gets caught up in academic competition. He fails to be awestruck by Fillory, the land of his childhood dreams, because he is consumed by jealousy and heartbreak after losing his girlfriend. I think, though, that this was part of the author’s mockery of children’s fantasy- they so often forget that the characters are teenagers, and more importantly, human. They have personalities and emotions beyond just being awestruck by magic and being heroic.

4/5 from me. Read this if you like dark, bleak stories and also children’s fantasy. This is probably a strange niche.

 

 

[*] Edit to add: Read an article that mentioned another interpretation of the Narnia-verse. You may remember that the series ends with the Pevensies (and Eustace and Jill and the kids from The Magician’s Nephew), sans Susan, dying in a railway accident and winding up in Narnia permanently. This apparently means that they got to go to Heaven when they died, but Susan did not, because she did not believe in Je-Aslan (AsJesus? As-us? Jes-Lan?) any more.

 

weekend reads

I’ve often noticed that my reading tastes vary based on the intellectual demands of Real Life. Now that I have an adult job complete with crazy bosses and unreasonable expectations, my poor brain finds itself unable to cope with the demands of Literature. (In contrast, I read Sophie’s World– while taking notes- during the winter vacation of my first year in college)

It’s been particularly crazy of late (I notice I’ve been saying that for months. Hmm) and chick-lit is what I’ve turned to in these desperate times. SD already reviewed The Rosie Project, so I’ll review its sequel, The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion.

Unlike SD, I liked The Rosie Project enough that I picked up its sequel immediately after finishing it. And I wasn’t disappointed. It’s cartoon-y and crude, complete with stereotypes and random fistfights, but it’s entertaining enough.

At the end of The Rosie Project, clueless Don Tillman and the edgy Rosie got together. Now they’re married, and have relocated to NYC for no apparent reason. And guess what, Rosie is pregnant!

The serious themes of this series are overshadowed by silly comedy. Why does Rosie stop taking her birth control without informing her husband? Why does Don have panic attacks and descend into alcoholism when he finds out he’s going to be a father? Also, it is heavily implied that Don has Asperger’s, but this is played off for jokes.

But who cares, because this book is funny in a way that The Big Bang Theory will never be. Consider this quote (in my own words, because Google failed me): “Success! I had rebooted her relationship. Unfortunately, Rosie had rebooted in safe mode. She had some questions.”

4/5 for geeky jokes. I may need to examine why I related so much to Don.

Hi I’m back

This is my review of Turtles All The Way Down by John Green.

Will I ever outgrow YA? It looks like I finally am. Teenaged protagonists are finally starting to sound whiny and self-obsessed, as opposed to misunderstood and mature.

This protagonist, Aza, has a legitimate reason for being self-obsessed, though. She has obsessive-compulsive disorder, an ailment that Green suffers from himself. He does an incredible job of painting a picture of this illness. Initially, Aza just seems quirky. Later, she seems anxious and neurotic. It’s only later that her OCD is revealed as the life-threatening disease it really is. Worried about germs and an infected cut? Ok. Drinking hand sanitizer to get rid of gut bacteria? Not so ok.

All this is the backdrop to a mystery of sorts (Or is the mystery the backdrop? Aza’s obsession tends to take over her life) and a realistic, kind-of-sort-of teen romance. I could definitely relate to random philosophical conversations (It’s turtles all the way down!) between almost-strangers when life gets too difficult to handle.

3.5/5 from me for a solid YA entertainer that provides some food for thought while still being very readable. It’s not particularly memorable, but worth a couple of hours.

Who makes bestsellers best-selling?

Long time no review. So long, in fact, that WordPress updated its UI.

This is my review of Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. As the title of this blogpost suggests, it’s a pretty popular recent novel (released 2014). After seeing it name-dropped everywhere, I Googled it and found some excerpts. It seemed like an interesting light read, so here we are.

It is the story of a teenaged girl, Lydia Lee, who goes missing one day in her hometown in Ohio. We’re told almost immediately that she is dead, and we follow her family as they come to terms with the loss and the secrets that are revealed. In typical thriller style, the narrative has flashbacks interleaved with the current events (that is, the police investigation and her parents’ grief). Her parents have their own backstories- their inter-racial marriage triggered them both to leave their dreams by the wayside and dedicate themselves to average, small-town life. Lydia bore the burden of these failures, apparently, and this shaped her personality and brief life.

My first impression- interesting, light read- was correct.  The narrative touches on several themes- interracial relationships, “tiger parents”, peer pressure, homosexuality. It is reasonably good at keeping the reader interested, though this could be attributed to the short length and not the narrative (this took me just a couple of hours to read!).

But apart from these positives, I honestly couldn’t find the appeal of this book.

Firstly, Ng has turned the Asian Tiger Parent and inter-racial marriage stereotypes on their heads by having an Asian father and a white mother, with the mother being the pushy parent. In reality, the opposite is much more common- Asian mother, white father, and the Asian parent is the task master. Apparently the author herself is in an inter-racial marriage, so it seems odd that she chose to write about a different dynamic- is it because of her own baggage? The LGBT subplot also seemed a bit insensitive, and seemed like it was shoehorned in as a plot twist.

Secondly, every single character in this book is extremely unlikeable. Maybe I’m naive, but I like to believe that when people do wrong things, it’s because they either justify it to themselves or because they don’t really stop to consider what they’re doing. The people in this book are downright awful to each other for no particular reason, and on occasion stop being awful, again for no particular reason.

Overall, 2/5 just for its sheer readability. I read it in two sittings, and it suited my fried attention span perfectly.

“Don’t pointless things have a place, too, in this far-from-perfect world?”

After the failed attempt at reading a Nobel laureate, I turned to the work of another author who was in the running- Haruki Murakami. I’ve been a fan of his for a while now, for his very readable, yet insightful, urban fiction.

Sputnik Sweetheart was published over a decade after Norwegian Wood, but has a very similar feel. I read the English translation by Peter Gabriel. It did not disappoint- classic Murakami through and through.

If you’re familiar with his work, you’ll recognize the tropes- Manic Pixie Dream Girl, average but well-meaning and hard-working male protagonist, some weird sex and supernatural occurrences. Luckily no cats here. What I liked about it was the simple, straightforward storyline, and a relatively believable supernatural event that could easily be ascribed to a variety of commonplace (and not-so-commonplace) causes. It’s open-ended without being a letdown.

K is a 25-year-old Japanese schoolteacher. He is infatuated with his best friend Sumire, who is an aspiring writer. Sumire behaves and dresses eccentrically, to channel the feel of Kerouac. One day, she falls in love with an older woman called Miu. She begins to work for Miu’s business and travel with her, taking on a more adult and responsible lifestyle. Out of the blue, Sumire goes missing in Greece and K receives a panicked summons from Miu. Mysteries are solved and more are revealed.

A quote I particularly liked:  “Don’t pointless things have a place, too, in this far-from-perfect world? Remove everything pointless from an imperfect life, and it’d lose even its imperfection.”

One complaint, though, was that the English translation seemed clunky at times. As a non-American native speaker, some blatant old-fashioned Americanisms really stood out and broke my immersion. I understand that many Japanese idioms may not translate well, but using a literal translation or replacing it with plain phrasing would be a better way to convey the true spirit of the book.

It’s odd, to me, how Murakami’s male heroes are always the romantic ‘victims’: either they wallow in unconditional love, or they are loners, or they cannot impress the object of their affection. In literature written by women, men are always heartless or absent and heroines are strung along and left heartbroken. A good reason to branch out and make sure I read work by authors from all walks of life.

3.5/5, from me. Don’t hesitate to read it if you like the Murakami style, the story is tame enough for me to recommend this book unconditionally.

Nostalgia in a book

I’ve been laid up with a recurring infection that has put me behind on my reviews. Not to mention my reading, though that has been on the back burner for years now.

This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki is an award-winning graphic novel published as recently as 2015. Rose is twelve, and is spending the summer in her family’s cottage in Awago with her parents. She is reunited with her younger friend Windy for a couple of months of swimming and midday candy.

But twelve is that awkward age when one is old enough to notice adult things happening, but still too young to understand them. Rose’s mother is behaving strangely, and her parents are arguing. She notices an older boy, and toys with the idea of ‘like liking’ him. She watches an older girl struggle with a difficult decision.

All the events are very relatable, and the illustrations are lovely. It’s just the extreme awkwardness that put me off this book. I basically walked (hopped?) around with my foot in my mouth during my teens, and it’s still a struggle to not be a self-obsessed, pretentious a**hat. But Rose is really awful at saying the right thing, or being perceptive. She accidentally insults Windy (who’s the adopted child of lesbians) multiple times, slut-shames a girl with no guilt, and has no sympathy for an upset family member. It’s a bit cringeworthy.

All in all, this is a very realistic depiction of an uneventful summer through the eyes of a girl who has just begun to grow up. It’s a short read, and I would recommend it if you are a female who likes graphic novels. 2/5 from me.