Book Review: Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan

27 May

Toss of a LemonGenre: Historical fiction, South Asian

Pub date: 2008

Source: Personal copy

Synopsis: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6602401-the-toss-of-a-lemon

Review

At over 600 pages, this slow-paced book that tells that story of one community and mainly one family is not for everyone. But it definitely was for me – I enjoyed it hugely. Part of the reason for that was perhaps the fact that a lot of it was rather familiar – the food, customs and family life portrayed here is in the late nineteenth century Brahmin community in Tamil Nadu. This is a story that my grandparents will be familiar with (and Padma Viswanathan was inspired by her family history).

Ten-year-old Sivakami is married off to Hanumarathnam (astrologer and healer) even though a problem in his horoscope predicts an early death. While the birth of their first child, Thangam (named for her gold colouring) is auspicious, the son’s birth time turns out to be inauspicious for the father’s life. Hanumarathnam draws up their astrological charts by asking the nurse to throw a lemon the moment the child’s head is seen. Hanumarathnam is a practical man and goes about training his wife and a devoted servant Muchami to handle the property. After his death, as per the dictates of religion and custom, young Sivakami withdraws from public life (not that women had a public role in any case). But she never stops doing her best for her children.

Sivakami’s brothers marry her daughter Thangam off rather carelessly. And when they determine that her son Vairum (named for his ice-cold diamond eyes) is only fit for the life of a priest, she rebels against custom. Moving back to her marital home, she takes control of her life and that of her son’s. The entire village seems enamoured of Thangam, who I found impossible to know or like. Vairum, on the other hand, has no friends in the Brahmin quarter, but is full of intelligence and a hurt and I felt like I could understand him. When Thangam’s husband proves that he is incapable of being responsible and taking care of his family, Sivakami again steps in and takes care of Thangam’s children.

Spanning three generations and umpteen characters, this is a family saga and also a socio-cultural chronicle. It is the story of a woman strong in her beliefs, one who dares to go against family and some traditions so that her son can have the best. This story is set against the larger backdrop of changing times -the World Wars, Independence, the anti-Brahmin movement in Tamil Nadu – breakdown of the rigid and unfair caste system, the end of the devadasi system.

Written for the Western reader, there are some things that were over-explained – customs and traditions that an Indian reader, especially a South Indian reader will be familiar with. This didn’t bother me too much though.

Verdict

I loved this slow tale set in a different time. Heavy and sad at times, hopeful at others, it tells the story of many things that have changed forever. While I loved it, I can absolutely see other readers being put off by the length, pace and ‘exotic’ elements.

Rating: 4*

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© Stargazerpuj and Stargazerpuj’s Book Blog, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Catch-up Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

22 May

I’m doing a series of catch-up review posts to try and make up for my year of not blogging. These are quick reviews of books I’ve read over 2012-2013.

The Snow ChildGenre: Literary fiction, Magic realism

Synopsis: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11250053-the-snow-child?from_search=true

Review

Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel is based on the Russian fairytale Snegurochka or the Snow Maiden, set in the bleak landscape of 1920s Alaska. Mabel and Jack have uprooted themselves from their lives and set up their homestead in a new land away from the sights and sounds of any children, to try and forget their grief over the loss of a stillborn child ten years ago.

Their hope for a fresh start hits a few stumbling blocks as they struggle for survival in this harsh land. And they find themselves drifting even further apart from each other, lost in their own pain. And winter is coming – a time when rations run low and the world turns white and unwelcoming. But when Jack and Mabel forget themselves for just a little while, they venture outside to build themselves a little snow child. The next day the snow child has melted but into their lives appears a fairylike young girl called Faina. She brings them joy and life, but also brings with her an air of magic and mystery. Is she the snow child come to life or a magical creature of the wild? Mabel has read the Snow Maiden as a young girl and keeps looking for clues to Faina’s real identity.

Mabel and Jack care for the young girl who visits them all winter. And they fear for her safety when she disappears in spring. And the myth of Persephone is stood on its head, for in the depths of winter the couple experience a spring in their hearts and wish for the biting cold winter through the spring and summer.

The story pulses with ethereal beauty, loss and yearning. Mabel is convinced that their Faina is a magical being and tries her best to be a mother to the waifish girl. But in every version of the Snow Maiden, the child melts or evaporates, and throughout the story, we fear that Faina will also meet the same fate. While the reader might want to solve the mystery of the girl’s origin, we are for the most part quite satisfied to let the story take us along where it will. Real, imagined, magical snow girl or feral wild child; the story continues on the edge of fantasy and reality. But somewhere along the way it does lose some of its hold and the magic begins to fade a little.

As the years pass, the couple lose Faina more and more – to the wilderness, to her love and her child. And we leave Jack and Mabel almost exactly where we found them, but with a bittersweet feeling in their hearts as they watch the child of their snow child playing in the snow.

Verdict

Sad, dark and sometimes desolate, The Snow Child is ultimately a hopeful story and will appeal greatly to those familiar with Russian folktales, readers who enjoy magic realism and anyone who loves a magical story of hope and possibilities.

Rating: 4*

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© Stargazerpuj and Stargazerpuj’s Book Blog, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Catch-up Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

19 May

I’m doing a series of catch-up review posts to try and make up for my year of not blogging. These are quick reviews of books I’ve read over 2012-2013.

Night CircusGenre: Literary fiction, fantasy

Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9361589-the-night-circus?from_search=true

Review

Magic is the at the heart of this story which is also about an intense contest between two duelling magicians. Set in the late nineteenth century, this is the story of a mysterious circus that only opens at night. Every act is carefully chosen and meticulously presented. In this Circus of Dreams (Le Cirque des Rêves) Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair have been magically bound to fight to the death. Each has been trained in a different school of magic from the time they were children and must best the other by creating and maintaining the most beautiful and complex shows. This is a book with great visual appeal and the author takes her time setting the stage and to bring to life each new attraction in the circus.

Celia and Marco are helped in this enterprise by a fascinating cast of characters. The tattooed contortionist, the rich, eccentric proprietor, the mysterious Mr. A. H—, the twins-Poppet and Widget… We also get to know the rêveurs, led by the biggest fan of the circus – Friedrick Thiessen – who follow the circus from city to city – dressed in black with one item of red.

And while the romance between the two protagonists plays an important part in the book, that is not the reason I loved it and it’s not what has stayed with me.

This book is not for the impatient reader who doesn’t want to live in someone else’s imagination. But if you can let go and just enjoy this magical place, you will love The Night Circus.

Verdict

My review just doesn’t do the book justice. The most magical book I’ve read in a long time. Fans of literary fantasy will love The Night Circus.

Rating: 5*

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© Stargazerpuj and Stargazerpuj’s Book Blog, 2011-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Quick Review: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

4 Mar

The Last RunawayGenre: Literary fiction, historical fiction

Publisher: HarperCollins UK (HarperFiction/Blue Door)

Pub date: Jan 14 2013

Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis

Honor Bright, sails from England with her sister Grace to find some escape from her heartache. On the way to their new life in America, Grace falls ills and dies, leaving Honor all alone in a strange new land. Now dependent on her sister’s fiance to take care of her, Honor must learn a new way of life.

But life in Ohio in the 1850s is not easy. The landscape is vast and open, the weather is hot and Ohio is part of the Underground Railway. While the Quakers oppose slavery in theory, they dare not defy the law and help the slaves escapade. Honor has to come to terms with this contrast between her beliefs and the reality of life in the midst of all this.

Review

I just read Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring earlier this year, so when I got the chance to read this review copy, I wanted to give it a try. I enjoyed Girl with a Pearl Earring since I love artistic historical fiction (that’s a genre I just made up) but it didn’t make as much of an impact as I expected. I have to say that The Last Runaway was much the same.

Honor’s story is compelling, and the backdrop of frontier America, the Quaker and the Underground Railway combined with the beautiful art of quilting were all engaging elements of the story. But Honor herself didn’t shine too bright for me. Her travails as a young woman alone in a strange new land immediately won my sympathy, but the story moved along rather slowly. She is also a hard character to take for a long time. The character that I liked the most was Belle, the milliner. She was a strong, unconventional woman who lived her life the way she wanted.

On the whole, I liked The Last Runaway, but it’s not one of those stories that stayed/will stay with me.

Verdict

An enjoyable, slow read with a lot of description on the art of quilting.

Rating: 3.5*

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