In this post reviews of: Gary Kamiya’s Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco (Bloomsbury USA, 2013) and Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta: Two Years in the City (Knopf, 2013); Ji-Li Jiang’s Red Kite, Blue Kite (illustrated by Greg Ruth) (Disney Hyperion, 2013); Leila Rasheed’s Cinders & Sapphires (Disney Hyperion, 2013); Jaspreet Singh’s Helium (Bloomsbury USA, 2013); Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (Knopf, 2013); Nancy Yi Fan’s Swordbird (HarperCollins Children’s Division, 2007); Sherry Thomas’s The Burning Sky (Balzer & Bray, 2013); Malinda Lo’s Inheritance (Little Brown for Young Readers, 2013).
A Review of Gary Kamiya’s Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco (Bloomsbury USA, 2013) and Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta: Two Years in the City (Knopf, 2013)
At first, I was disappointed by the fact that Gary Kamiya’s part-memoir, part-history, part-cultural study—titled Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco—did not contain any photographs. I was sort of expecting it to, for whatever reason, and the only visuals that Kamiya’s creative nonfiction relies upon appear as sketches in the headings for each of the 49 chapters. But, I was soon won over by Kamiya’s relentlessly engaged narrative voice and how it comes to look into every nook and cranny to bring to life the City’s many textures and facets. Kamiya doesn’t stray from San Francisco’s long history and includes many citations from noted urban studies scholars and academics; when he discusses the mission system, for instance, it is with the heavy knowledge that the city is undoubtedly linked to the annihilation of American Indian populations. Other chapters are more whimsical in their topics; one focuses on the stairs located in Bernal Heights, another on the counterculture fervor that could be found at Baker Beach. The title is a fitting description of Kamiya’s ardor for the foggy City as rendered through 49 eclectic views.
Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta: Two Years in the City is certainly less tightly structured that Gary Kamiya’s work, but also stands as a kind of love letter to a city, rendered in part-memoir, part-history, part-cultural study that also does not contain any photographs. Here, I was less expectant of any pictures simply because the title did not seem to evoke that possibility. At the same time, for those who are expecting a more straightforward exploration of a man’s experiences living in one modernizing city, you will not exactly find that here. Chaudhuri is content with a more meditative style and you’ll find him ambling through the city, while providing detailed commentaries on the urbanscape’s historical and ethnographic backdrops. Whereas Kamiya’s creative nonfiction is more syncopated and kinetic, Chauduri’s depiction of Calcutta is more lush and descriptive. The occasionally meandering narrative is perfectly paralleled by the flaneur-esque quality of Chaudhuri’s urban movements. Chapters explore varied topics, including Calcutta’s colonial past, its cuisine (particularly its Chinese and Italian fare), its residents (a spirited chapter on a slightly eccentric upper crust couple known as the Mukherjees). At the heart of this tale is Chaudhuri’s understanding of the political radicalism that portended great things for the cities in its sixties and seventies, a youthful viewpoint that must evolve as Calcutta endures inevitable ebbs and flows.
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A Review of Ji-Li Jiang’s Red Kite, Blue Kite (illustrated by Greg Ruth) (Disney Hyperion, 2013).
I haven’t reviewed picture books in awhile, but the genre is always fun for me even as an adult reader for the simple fact of visually stunning drawings that always come with a textual narrative. It is, in some sense, a kind of comic book for me. Ji-Li Jiang is also author of a YA book entitled Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution. Like that memoir, Red Kite, Blue Kite takes its inspiration from the social context of the cultural revolution as well, but unlike the memoir-form, Jiang’s inspiration for this story is one based upon something told to her by a friend. As with other picture books that employ a strongly historical backdrop, Jiang provides a useful explanatory author’s note that engages some of her inspirations for the story. In this case, the story revolves around the family connection between a Chinese man, who is forced into hard labor during the cultural revolution, and his young son. Prior to the cultural revolution, they bond over flying kites; because they live in a crowded city, they must fly kites from rooftops. Later, when the young boy’s father is sent into hard labor, the kite becomes an emblem of their connection, which lasts until they are finally reunited. As with other picture books, closure is emphasized, but this particular story does not shy away from the darker undertones of the cultural revolution. The kites, given their colors (red and blue), seem to suggest a unification between east (communist) and west (capitalism). Young children may not fully understand the social contexts being invoked, but the larger themes will obviously resonate. Ruth has a nice semi-realistic style that works well with the narrative itself.
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A Review of Leila Rasheed’s Cinders & Sapphires (Disney Hyperion, 2013).
I started reading Leila Rasheed’s Cinders & Sapphires during a particularly grueling time for me personally. It was just what I needed to get my mind out of a melancholic space. This novel is debut of the “At Somerton” series (with another slated for release in 2014) and focuses on an aristocratic family (the Averleys) who are suffering from financial woes during the early 20th century. For younger fans of Downton Abbey, this series is going to be the perfect venue to explore another variation on the mixture and the class between the elites and the domestics. The central perspective is given to Ava Averley, perhaps a slightly more modern-take on the Elizabeth Bennett-type; she believes in women’s suffrage, wants to study at Oxford and falls in love with a buddying young scholar named Ravi Sundaresan. Ravi, being of Indian ancestry, is of course not the ideal match for Ava, so she must keep this romantic intrigue a secret, but there are many other relationship complications to attend to. For instance, Ava’s father has remarried a woman by the name of Fiona, who hails from another upper crust family line (the Templetons). Ava has a new stepsister (the cruel Charlotte) and two stepbrothers (the queer William and the domestic-help loving Michael). Ava and her older sister Georgianna must deal with the new family dynamics, as they prepare to enter London society! Rasheed’s novel is a fun frolic and especially attuned to the political problematics of the period, with discussions concerning women’s liberation and postcolonial independence movements in India. For those who have enjoyed Y.S. Lee’s The Agency series out of Candlewick, this novel would be a natural and fitting reading choice.
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A Review of Jaspreet Singh’s Helium (Bloomsbury USA, 2013).
Jaspreet Singh’s third publication Helium (after Chef and Seventeen Tomatoes: Tales from Kashmir) is all about narrative un/reliability that surrounds a particularly traumatic event. The story is narrated by an individual named Raj who is a professor at Cornell and who returns to India in order to deal with his past. He visits a woman named Nelly, a library archivist, who was once married to Raj’s former professor who was killed in 1984 during a mob protest conceived under retaliatory attacks against Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi (perpetrated apparently by her Sikh body guards). Raj was present during the attacks and there is the suggestion that he might have done more to protect his professor and perhaps to save his life. In the period following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the government was necessarily imbricated and implicated in organized mobs against Sikhs; thus, Singh’s novel turns to this painful moment in time and one specific incident in order to explore the tangled nature of complicity and blame. Nelly’s own story is rife with tragedy: the death and disappearance of her own children, and then, the loss of her husband. Thus, Raj’s reunion with Nelly, even though Raj himself was a star student under that professor, is still a painful reminder of the past. Over the course of the novel, Singh makes sure to elaborate upon Raj’s flawed and multifaceted character, exploring Raj’s estranged relationship with his own family, and then the possibility that his own father may have been involved in the pogroms targeting Sikhs. Singh really makes wonderful use of first person narration, reveling in its impressionistic qualities. Interestingly enough, the novel is sort of constructed as a kind of collage, as there are photographs that appear periodically throughout the narrative. I’m not quite sure why they had to be included, but it does give off the sense that the narrative is a kind of fictionalized memoir or scrapbook and gives this work a unique texture. The use of this kind of reflective narrative voice is reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro and Chang-rae Lee.
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A Review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (Knopf, 2013).
Well, I absolutely adored Unaccustomed Earth and so my expectations for Lahiri’s fourth effort, The Lowland, were perhaps unfairly high. Nevertheless, this novel is one of the best reads, at least in my opinion of 2013. After reading Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta, I had already learned a little bit about the Naxalites and the development of that particular political arena in Calcutta; the rise of the Naxalites appears in tandem with the rise of Communism as a larger global political platform, of course. Lahiri’s novel starts out with two boys, Subhash and Udayan, who grow up and take very different paths in life. Subhash decides to move to the United States to pursue a secondary degree, while Udayan gets caught up in the Naxalite fervor sweeping Calcutta. Udayan will eventually marry a woman named Gauri; she is pregnant with his child when he is killed for being involved in subversive activities. In the wake of Udayan’s death, Subhash returns to Calcutta; he decides that the best course of action is to marry Gauri, take her to the United States, and raise Gauri and Udayan’s child as his own. Gauri, perceiving this route as the only way to any sort of future, assents. By 100 pages in, Lahiri has already set in motion a number of different and complicated familial dynamics. Udayan’s death reverberates through the entire family of course; Subhash’s parents are destroyed by that event and when Subhash and Gauri leave India, there is nothing left for their parents. They slowly disintegrate. While Subhash vainly believes that Gauri will eventually love him, Gauri herself realizes that her love for Udayan was not enough, that Udayan’s political gamesmanship was as much of their relationship as anything else. Subhash will come to love the child, Bela, that he raises as though he were the actual father. Gauri, for her part, wants little to do with motherhood, and begins taking classes in philosophy at the local college. This latter arc leads to the fissures that will later define their American lives. Lahiri’s novel is carefully paced; even the most cataclysmic moments are weaved in with a kind of finesse that makes the reading experience unfold effortlessly. Soon, you’re well into the narrative and you’ll drift into these lives, enraptured by Lahiri’s ability to bring these characters to life.
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A Review of Nancy Yi Fan’s Swordbird (HarperCollins Children’s Division, 2007).
Nancy Yi Fan’s Swordbird is part of a trilogy that also includes Sword Quest and Sword Mountain. I was interested in reading this title for the backstory. Apparently, the author was only ten when she began writing Swordbird and it was published when she was 14 years old. The novel was inspired by the events of 9/11 and the author’s intention to create a message promoting peace over violent conflict. The story revolves around the growing tensions among groups of woodland birds. The cardinals and the blue jays are involved in a misunderstanding that is leading to conflict between them. They do not realize that a third party is involved: Turnatt, who seekins to construct a malevolent fortress with the labor extracted from slavebirds, is the entity behind the madness and mischief. It is exceedingly impressive that a writer so young was able to create this story; Fan should be especially lauded for her creative use of names and the general structural framework of the story itself, which also includes excerpts from mystical and heretical texts. It is a speculative fiction in which birds can speak and the titular Swordbird may appear to enact swift justice in a method akin to a kind of Christ-figure. The narrative’s rhetoric concerning pacifism may come off a little bit too tidy for older readers, but I have no doubts the novel would engage its target audience (8-12 years old).
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A Review of Sherry Thomas’s The Burning Sky (Balzer & Bray, 2013).
Sherry Thomas’s debut in the paranormal/ fantasy/ urban/ romance/ young adult fiction is The Burning Sky, which follows two main characters: Prince Titus and Iolanthe Seabourne. Thomas is also the author of a number of critically acclaimed romance novels that I have not read (Private Arrangements, Delicious etc). The Burning Sky is part of intended trilogy, apparently the chosen serial form for these kinds of works (and an academic paper probably waiting to happen: why must it be the trilogy besides the fact of making more money?). In the first installment, Iolanthe Seaborne ignores the grave warnings offered to her by her mentor, Master Haywood, an aging man who seems to have lost the support of his local community. Iolanthe decides to repair a light elixir that Haywood destroys in the hopes that she will still get to be a part of a marriage ceremony, but the only way to restore the elixir is to use lightning. Iolanthe being an elemental mage of the third order, common but not rare, is able to call forth lightning, but ends up producing a lightning bolt that almost kills her. This event also ends up calling the attentions of Prince Titus, a major figure in the kingdom of Atlantis, as well as the Inquisitor, a fearsome woman who is a sort of supernatural detective, seeking to root out any possible subversive influences that may be brewing in the region. Cast above the opening fray is someone called Bane, a malevolent mage who holds dominion over all. The production of lighting marks Iolanthe as a mage far more powerful than her third order; indeed we come to discover that Haywood knew all along that Iolanthe held such talents and that her talents would mark her for a perilous maturation. Once Prince Titus gets involved, he is able to whisk her away to another land: that of London, where she cross-dresses and passes as a young schoolmate (alias: Archer Fairfax) of Prince Titus. Indeed, there is but the slightest barrier between these worlds, but it is clear that no one on the human side really has much or any knowledge of this other more fantastical realm. Once the Inquisitor is in pursuit of Iolanthe, the novel moves to a narrative of pursuit. Thus, Prince Titus and Iolanthe must train in order to fend off the coming battle. Iolanthe eventually makes a blood oath (that she at first regrets) with the Prince so that she may eventually free Haywood, who is imprisoned, and part of the oath requires her to try to take down the aforementioned Bane, even if it might mean death for both of them. For his part, the Prince is driven to this quest by the visions of her mother, a powerful seer, who foretells his eventual downfall and early demise. Will the Prince be able to avoid this tragic fate? Will Iolanthe and the Prince come to work as allies rather than enemies? Thomas’s novel answers most questions and sets up some others by the thrilling conclusion. She weaves together some historical elements (set in India’s colonial period, thus not entirely abstracting real world contexts) with the fantasy genre (wyverns and dragons appear) to create a lush fictional world sure to captivate, especially for those looking for something on the more whimsical side.
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A Review of Malinda Lo’s Inheritance (Little Brown for Young Readers, 2013).
Malinda Lo’s Inheritance completes the two book series (following Adaptation) involving Reese Holloway and David Li, as they must contend with the truth of their biological makeup (Lo is also author of Ash and Huntress). For those of you who are not yet spoiled and would like to remain unspoiled, do not read further from this point.
My earlier review of Adaptation did not reveal the major plot point involving the fact that our protagonists were brought back from the brink of death due to the intervention of an alien species known as the Imria. Fusing human DNA with alien DNA, the Imria were able to also introduce new capabilities within Reese and David that ultimately presented the possibility of new evolutionary pathways. In any case, this novel treads similar ground in relation to many of the alien invasion storylines in other works: are the aliens friends or foe? Lo’s unique intervention appears to be in exploring how alien-ness becomes a useful trope to play off against racial and sexual difference. As we come to discover, Reese is not entirely over her feelings for Amber, the Imrian who seemed to betrayed her at the first novel’s conclusion. At the same time, Reese is dating David, so her emotions for Amber present her with a romantic conundrum. Who should Reese date? Complicating matters is the fact that Reese and David have both developed super-powers related to a kind of communal telepathic and empathic consciousness: that is, they are able to discern the feelings of one another in a way that seems akin to the Vulcan mind meld. Thus, David intimately understands that Reese is conflicted, a fact which creates considerable romantic tension and sustains the central romance triange. Lo’s world-building requires her to give much background to the Imrians, who do have many unique characteristics. For instance, they fully embrace various forms of polyamory and further still, offer much more gender fluidity in their culture. Lo’s point here is obviously related to the possibilities that alien species provide her as an imaginary community that scripts more inclusive social formations. The novel seems occasionally weighed down by the need to draw out the romantic tension, but a very action-packed finish brings Inheritance back on track. The Imrians as a species are fascinating enough that you can’t help but have hoped for a third novel that explored alien terrains and human-Imrian diplomatic relationships. Let’s hope that Lo eventually returns to this storyline in order to make it into the trilogy is already so prevalent as the chosen serial form of young adult fictions.
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