Plot: 4/5 Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5
Smita Agarwal is an Indian-American gender issues journalist who works hard to maintain her objectivity. Despite being Indian by birth, India is the one country she refuses to cover due to a long ago personal trauma that she has never really confronted. When a close friend is hospitalized and begs her to cover an important Indian story for her, Smita has no choice but to comply. The story is a tough one: a woman (Meena) whose husband was set on fire in an honor killing by her brothers is now bringing the case back to trial despite knowing that the outcome will not really help her in any way.
While the emotionally ridden story of the honor killing and precipitating events fills the pages, the real story is about the impact on Smita and Mohan — a well-to-do Indian man who took a vacation in order to help as her driver and translator — neither of whom are prepared for the ugliness they find.
This was a hard book for me to read. It’s written in a dramatic style that left me feeling constantly angry, frustrated, and hopeless (I am an emotional sponge type reader so these things hit me hard). The characters of Smita and Mohan were well-drawn — it was easy to identify and resonate with them as their reactions were similar to what mine would have been. The characters of Meena, her brothers, her mother-in-law, and her husband were more two-dimensional as though the author was trying to make sense of how uneducated villagers conduct their lives. It’s so alien to me that I couldn’t really “get” it, but let’s face it — it would be difficult for me to get it given my own, very different, background.
Good storyline — I like the way the author showed many good and non-abusive men in contrast to these utterly oppressive village men. At the same time she did a great job of showing how Mohan lived with an upper-caste and male oriented privilege and not even be aware of the advantages this conferred upon him. Also some wonderful descriptions of scenery and culture.
Worth reading but for me it became a “daytime only” book because it really put me in a depressed state that was not conducive to sleep.
Thank you to Algonquin and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 11th, 2021.
Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5
Book two in the Captain Sam Wyndham series. Sam is a white Scotland Yard Calcutta police import with a pesky Opium habit. In this book he investigates the murder of the forward thinking heir of Sambalpore — one of the Indian “native states” not formally part of British India. Accompanied by his trusty (and well-educated and far more sympathetic character) sidekick Surrender-not, they unravel the knots of displeasure that might have led to this murder (and a few others as well).
These books always include a lot of interesting history and culture focussed on lesser known parts of what after all is a huge and populous country. It’s always just enough to get me to look up additional detail. Most interesting to me in this one — the whole concept of the “native states” and the Council of Princes the Viceroy was trying to put together; Lord Jagannath, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu; and the use of elephants as a means of execution. There are also many references to the spoken and unspoken rules regarding the roles and interactions between different castes, ethnicities, and colors.
The writing is good — very crisp and clear — and I like the characters. My only complaint might be that I honestly don’t see the point of his even having an opium addiction. It doesn’t really play into the stories at all, and he doesn’t (thankfully) make stupid mistakes because of it. I believe it is to make him more human but really the story would be exactly the same without it.
Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5
A family drama steeped in a colorful Punjabi travelogue.
The three Shergill sisters reluctantly make a summer pilgrimage to India to fulfill their mother’s dying request. Plodding through an extensive and detailed itinerary, each is simultaneously dealing with a personal crisis she is unwilling to share with the others. Hyper-responsible Rajni is reeling from the discovery that her 18-year old son has vowed to marry a woman twice his age; Wild Jezmeen is suspended from her role as DisasterTube host due to an unfortunate interaction with a highly sensitive Arowana fish (the fish didn’t make it); and Shirina, who arranged her own marriage to a traditional Indian man and his controlling mother, has a particularly distressing secret mission for the trip.
Good writing with some interesting and topical social commentary. I consider it chick-lit — disasters are all successfully avoided and it willingly supplies the mandatory happy ending. The family is Sikh and there was some information on Sikh heritage, practices, and monuments, though not as much as I would have liked. It did spur a quick Wikipedia check which I found useful and interesting.
Many of the story threads address different issues faced by women in this region of India and traditional Sikh communities around the world. These affect the story in multiple ways, though primarily from the outside (our heroines are second generation British immigrants with little identification with their Indian heritage).
Overall an interesting read.