Book Review: Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor

“Age of Vice” by Deepti Kapoor is a sweeping epic of an India reaching toward the future while saddled with the shadows of its past. I’ve read a few chonkers lately that could have been 600 pages instead of 400 but not so with this book. Kapoor’s prose and characters had me hooked from the start.

This is the story of Sunny Wadia, a tragic anti-hero who’s a sort of Indian Gatsby, living under the thumb of his ultra-rich gangster father who runs a seedy chain of liquor stores. It’s also the story of a cast of characters that are all richly drawn, their motives and flaws vividly imagined. It’s his rise as a naive party boy who just wants his father’s love to his fall after he attains the one thing he’s ever wanted, for his father to understand he can be ruthless too.

There are no villains in this story, not really; no winners and losers, just a complicated portrait of pain and tragedy. This was an action-packed thriller but it was more characters and backdrop than defined plot.

Kapoor’s prose was my favorite part of the whole book. Haunting, lyrical, crisp and economical, she had me gutted from each chapter. This is a real tour de force, a gritty, glitzy epic that devastated me. Highly recommend.

Book Review: Tell Me How to Be by Neel Patel

I loved this book. “Tell Me How to Be” by Neel Patel is the kind of book that you need to read cover to cover to fully appreciate. It doesn’t have chapters, but it switches between the points of view of Akash Amin, an Indian-American struggling songwriter, alcoholic and closeted gay man, and his mother, Renu, a sharp-tongued strong mama with secrets of her own who’s upending her life to move to London after her husband’s death.

This is one of those books that’s very hard to read because of the realism; both Akash and his mother struggle with their shame and guilt, but over very different truths, and obsess over it over the span of a week in 300 pages. They talk to their loves who got away in the second person as they are narrating this difficult time – in Renu’s case, a man in London who came from the wrong religion and the wrong class; for Akash, his first love, a boyhood crush whose friendship ended disastrously.

I do admittedly get tired of reading queer angst and trauma narratives; I was happy to finally find gay characters not written by straight women, but sometimes it seems like the only things that get published traditionally are narratives over the shame of queerness before the eventual redemption arc. But I forgave this one because the shame was deeply connected to cultural influences. However, I want to read more queer joy – characters who just so happen to be queer, who might struggle and deal with homophobia and are messy people, but they get happy endings, too. I wish we had more narratives like that.

However, all in all, this was beautifully written, and the way mother and son come together and pull apart throughout the book is very lyrically done. I loved the author’s writing style, the depictions of race in America and abroad and even how race can be differently perceived even in cultures that are considered “marginalized communities.” For example, the Indian-American community is not a monolith of people who all think alike and come from similar backgrounds, as is so often popularly portrayed.

Highly recommended for fans of beautiful prose and marginalized characters authentically portrayed.

Book Review: House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson

I enjoyed The Year of The Witching on audio book, which I listened to after finding out about Alexis Henderson’s newest release, but I liked House of Hunger even better, although it had its issues.

I liked the main character, Marion Shaw, and found her plight of abusive brother and abusive workplace to seek a better life compelling, if derivative. Scrappy Marion doing whatever it takes to survive intrigued me. The universe Henderson created as a backdrop was also interesting, the democratic South with lots of poverty and income inequality versus the aristocratic North with its royal houses and debauchery. Marion answers an advertisement in the paper for a bloodmaid, which the south views as nothing more than whores but in the North are held with a creepy reverence. Marion, used to servanthood, views the role as a highly paid servant and jumps at the chance to leave Prane behind. I thought she should have questioned a lot of things more at the beginning; for a seasoned street thief she seems entirely too trusting and naive.

It turns out the source of the power of the North is blood in this fresh take on vampirism, where Northerners are human but not quite human with a hunger for blood. Marion is thrust into the world of bored Northerners with their lavish sex parties and becomes besotted with the Countess she is contracted to, the mysterious Lisavet with an odd blood disorder.

I felt the middle of the book really dragged, and Marion went from curiosity to obsession in too much of a lightswitch. It got bogged down in petty noble games and female infighting between the bloodmaids. Had the standard problem of the saggy middle where the author seems to have just lost the train of ideas. But the ending really picked up. I’ve read enough books classified as gothic horror that just weren’t scary, or the horrors in the book were just horrible things and there was no sense of dread or suspense. By the time the pace picks up, the dark twist on the romance between Lisavet and Marion and the whole bloodmaid operation is properly scary.

I also was confused about what properties blood had that made it so special to Northerners. It felt like more of a fetish to me than anything that had truly special powers. The blood didn’t seem to give them any power or have any magical properties. The reason for taking the blood was never properly explained other than some random folk tale legend that didn’t really make much sense.

Other than that I enjoyed this book, despite its predictability and familiar tropes. If you love sapphic gothic you’ll be entertained.

Book Review: Sweetland by Dareth Pray

I’ve had such a spotty track record with indie novels this year, hit or miss and generally veering on the miss, that when I run across the gems I have to leave a review. I really enjoyed “Sweetland” by Dareth Pray, a gripping thriller about a CIA operative going deep undercover in a domestic terrorism plot.

I loved the author’s character development. Erin Stark was as promised, a badass spy woman from beginning to end. I liked the very plausible take of a highly organized crew of redneck militiamen and fringe far right groups annexing Tennessee and engaging in sex trafficking, infiltrating local sheriff’s offices and the far reaches of government along the way. It spoke to the times and a threat I think isn’t taken seriously enough. Though in the real life scenario I am not sure the government would have the means to fight back, but that’s the pessimist in me.

I could tell that the author had done her research or had some intelligence training and experience because the descriptions of intelligence work rang with authenticity, although the pacing got somewhat bogged down by granular detail on operational methods. I also enjoyed the use of present tense that put the reader into a more immediate sense of place with the action. In some of the present tense sections, however, there was some distracting tense switching inconsistencies that could have been better edited, but largely the author’s copy was well edited.

Overall, this was a fun, fast-paced ride. I usually expect glamorous international missions from spy thrillers and enjoyed instead the fresh take on a homegrown mission in the heartland. This author is definitely one to watch.

Book Review: The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling

It’s going to be hard for me to review this book without spoilers because the plot is a convoluted one with lots of twists and turns that you just have to read to enjoy, but I will try. “The Death of Jane Lawrence” by Caitlin Starling at first seems like it will be your typical Gothic novel full of tropes. I have very mixed feelings about it in the end for spoilery reasons. It’s got the spooky old house in the provincial countryside; it’s got a handsome, mysterious doctor with a woman locked in a cellar, reminiscent of Jane Eyre; it’s got a feisty heroine who thinks she knows what she wants and defies societal expectations.

But it’s different in that it is a dark-mirror alternate universe version of England in which after a war with this universe’s version of Russia, religion of all kinds basically becomes obsolete, even though people still practice the old religions of magic and witchcraft in secret. Jane is an orphan, raised by guardians, who doesn’t want to return to Camhurst, the scene of a pitched battle that brings up ugly memories. So she contrives a plan to marry the single doctor in town, Augustine Lawrence, a business arrangement, who turns out far more charming than she expected. He only has one rule – that she not return to Lindridge Hall at night.

Best-laid intentions go awry and she discovers the reasons for his secrets. At night at the crumbling old mansion, designed by magicians, the practical doctor is haunted by visions and supposed ghosts.

It is there that the plot takes a turn into the unique. Jane is a bookkeeper and a mathematician with a head for numbers; I thought it was interesting how she started thinking of magic spells like mathematical proofs. The universe that Starling created was fascinating and unique. The twist behind the ghosts-but-not-ghosts also surprised me and was quite inventive.

My mixed feelings come in because I found the prose annoyingly overwrought and emotional, which granted is a genre trope, but I don’t care for that writing style and voice. And Jane is painted as a practical woman with nerves of steel during her first bloody surgical operation, and then she falls to hysterics when she thinks the house might be haunted by the doctor’s dead wife; even her approach to magic is frantic, manic and not that of a sensible, practical person. I would have thought she would have been skeptical until pushed to believe otherwise but we were expected to believe that her character changed on the turn of a dime. As a result I didn’t care for the main character and I found her inconsistent and unreliable, which isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I found the characters poorly written.

However, the storytelling is excellent and the universe behind the story is richly imagined. A nice addition overall to the staid gothic canon currently on tap.

Book Review: The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

I fully admit this is one of those books that I splurged on the hardback edition because the cover is so beautiful. More than that, I’m also endlessly fascinated by Slavic and Russian folklore and history, and the tale of Baba Yaga. This is “The Witch and the Tsar” by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore, a very prescient historical fantasy by an ethnic Russian American author and lawyer.

I really enjoyed this one, mostly how the author was able to deftly weave the stories of the old pagan religion of Russia in with myths of witches and magic and the encroachment of the Orthodox Christian Church. This is told as the real story of Yaga, a half-goddess, half-mortal vedma, or witch, who prefers to think of herself as a healer who communes with animals, and her connection with Anastasia, the tsarina and wife of the tsar who would become Ivan the Terrible. But Ivan the Terrible is manipulated not by court politics but by forces older than any of the new Russia can possibly understand.

Even though this was fiction, I found it endlessly fascinating how even in the 1500s, Russia’s history was dark, dystopian and dominated by bloodthirsty autocrats, carrying echoes of today. I liked how the author described Yaga’s magic; she described the old gods in a unique, non-tropey way, as if they are only real if you believe in them, and the belief and the memory of the people is fading. I liked how this was a woman-led fantasy in which the women were the ones in the story who really had the power and influence behind the scenes, while wrestling with their own demons.

I did not like how some of the narrative felt like a forced sequential rush of events instead of being present and immersed in Yaga’s world. It felt a bit like the author was stampeding to get from one phase of her life to the next, but there were some wonderful descriptions of gods and a conflicted love for Russia and the old ways that kept me riveted till the end.

Book Review: Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor’s Remote Control is a gorgeous novella of impeccable worldbuilding. In a future Ghana in which people are glued to their phones, robocops patrol streets, and autonomous vehicles mingle with foot traffic, a mysterious corporation called LifeGen controls technology behind the scenes. A young girl the people call the Adopted Angel of Death, also known as Sankofa, has the power to end life and destroy any technology she touches after a strange alien artifact lands on Earth near the girl’s beloved shea tree on her family’s farm.

Loved everything about this book. Okorafor painted Sankofa as a complex character, doomed to wander from town to town with nothing but her pride, making connections and only to ruin them in the most devastating ways. She’s shown brilliantly as a child with experience beyond her years, and yet still a child whose closest companion is a fox, who climbs trees and talks to cats, who is asked to wear a hijab because of the awful things she has seen and done.

The worldbuilding in such a short space was stunning. Sankofa is an anachronism in a highly technical world, and you get the idea that there is much more going on than meets the eye; but it still feels as if a novella length is enough to tell the story. Okorafor’s world is rich in imagination, detail and folklore, layers of ancient and modern tradition, and thrumming with the incredible speed at which a community can turn into a violent mob when faced with something that does not belong in their world but cannot be stopped.  

Book Review: The Final Strife by Saara El-Arifi

I’m back to doing book reviews on my blog! Took a long hiatus due to burnout, but I am taking a different approach with them. Here’s the most recent book I finished.

This book had me at epic fantasy with roots in Ghanian and Arabian folklore, and a sapphic enemies-to-lovers romance.

“The Final Strife” by Saara El-Arifi is Book 1 in a trilogy that centers on the main character Sylah. In this repressive empire on this dystopian world, people are divided into castes based on their blood. Embers, who have red blood, have the most power because they can do bloodwerk magic; using their blood to activate rune patterns. Dusters are second-class citizens and Ghostings are slaves who once rebelled against the ruling class and have been punished for centuries by their overseers dismembering their tongues and hands.

Sylah is one of the Stolen, Ember children kidnapped from their families, raised from infancy to compete in trials to choose new leaders; sleeper agents who will overthrow the government from the inside. But her people are killed and Sylah becomes a drug addict, hopeless and alone. Until she meets Anoor, the Duster raised in her place who needs help with training to compete in the trials.

The “revenge against the colonizer” trope has become so commonplace in fantasy now that frankly, I’m tired of it. There’s always some Chosen One who’s going to overthrow an evil empire. But I loved this book because the characters were complex and it didn’t go the way I expected. Loved the slow-burn romance and that Sylah’s bisexual. I also appreciated the way the author handled her drug addiction; it was sensitive without being trite.

Will definitely be reading more in this series.

Book Review: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

I had such mixed feelings about “Olga Dies Dreaming” by Xochitl Gonzalez. On the one hand, it’s a beautifully written book, with simply gorgeously crafted sentences, an interesting protagonist, and important insights into the Puerto Rican independence movement as well as the immigrant experience. On the other hand, I felt as if the plot was trying to do too much and grew muddled from the middle onwards. 

This is the story of Olga Acevedo, a wedding planner for wealthy clients who has reached a certain level of celebrity in her hometown of New York, appearing on morning shows giving lifestyle advice; and Pietro, her brother, a Congressman who’s done important work for his people but also made questionable ethical decisions. 

It is also a love letter to New York, the New York as second-generation Puerto Rican families experience it instead of the New York you most often see in movies and musicals. Through Olga’s eyes, I saw all the sights, smells, changes and joys of her neighborhood, a New York where you could still find yourself in a small town among a tight-knit community that stood by you no matter what. 

At first you think it is going to be a contemporary women’s novel or romance, with the single Olga unlucky in her love life and lost in her career journey. But then the plot complicates, converging on a backdrop of political intrigue. This is also the story of Olga and Pietro and their complicated relationship with their mother, who abandoned their family when they were teenagers to pursue independence for Puerto Rico at any cost and becomes radicalized toward the violent kind of revolution. We never actually meet their mother, except through passive-aggressive, manipulative letters that she sends them throughout their lives to let them know she’s still watching. 

I think in the end we were supposed to admire Blanca, the mother, and all the sacrifices that must be made for resistance and revolution, but I did not. I liked her the least out of everybody in the book. I found her to be an interesting villain, a character I hated for the way that she used everyone she encountered in order to further her own agenda; which, though a worthy cause, didn’t necessarily make her a good person. That’s the kind of villain I like, though, someone who’s not complicated simply because they’re sympathetic. 

I loved maybe the first half of the book, which I found joyous and prescient; and then I felt like it lost its thread and tried to do too much with too many themes. It became not just a book about Olga and Pietro and their awakening as people independent from their mother’s psychological tricks, but the Puerto Rican-American experience as a whole. I’m still giving it four stars because I did think it was well written even so, but I have some complicated feelings about this book. An intriguing debut to say the least. 

Book Review: Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee

Wow. The thrilling conclusion to the miraculous Green Bone Saga left me breathless till the very end, not wanting it to end and to find myself torn asunder from this incredible universe. Typically I am wary of fantasy series and have a bit of a stigma about trilogies; so often they are publishing’s way to make a commercial success of an idea that only has the stamina for one book. This was thankfully not the case with Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee, the third and final book of this gripping and adventure-filled Asian-inspired fantasy series. 

In this book, a 713-page whopper, we are once again thrust into the fortunes, tragedies and loves of the Kaul family, the leaders of the No Peak clan as it seeks to assert itself in the geopolitical tides beyond Kekon’s borders. A now familiar and well-loved cast of characters has become as familiar as a family we’ve grown up with, watching with awe as they earn our trust, respect and loyalty. Make no mistake, I’m a Green Bone loyalist. I am a complete and total nerd for this series. I’m not even a big fan of martial arts flicks or gangster movies and books, but this series is so much more than that. This series won my heart and makes me want to be green in the soul. 

In the third book we watch Anden find love, become a doctor, use his influence with the clan as a way to win international respect for jade medicine, and soar to even greater heights, all without using jade to become the killer he had once feared he’d become at age 18. We follow Shae as she finds love with her longtime advisor, gives birth to a daughter, and realizes that what makes jade special is not the gemstones themselves and their unique power, but the integrity of the warriors who wear them. We also see her grow the Weather Man’s office into a complex, powerful international enterprise. And finally there is Hilo, who started out as a hotheaded, reckless young Pillar and has since evolved into a compassionate leader who commands respect even from his enemies. 

That’s the core part of this family but then it has grown, to include Lan’s son Niko, Hilo’s children, and others. One of the things I really love about this series is its ability to make you care about even minor, unlikeable characters who have done despicable things. We meet Bero, for example, the jade-addicted youngster eager to throw his weight around, in the opening scene of the first book, and that thread is carried through to the final scene, but not in the way you would expect. Even cruel baruken gangsters (half-blood jade-wearing mobsters) spill the beans to protect their secret families. 

In this new world the clans must contend with geopolitical forces and encroaching modernity, like the radical terrorists of the Clanless Future Movement, who see the clans and the Green Bone way of life as obsolete. You see not only characters evolve, with the stakes raised ever higher until you’re clinging to the story with a torrent of emotions, but the clans themselves. 

Infusing an impressive cast of characters with such warmth takes great skill and sophistication. Then there is the Green Bone way of life itself. Foreigners see it as barbaric and outdated, but when you become immersed in it, when you follow everyone’s story arcs and the bold, immutable dignity with which they lead their lives, you realize that this is a way of life that is noble, and one worth preserving even as the irrepressible tide of modernity seeks to crush it. Like Shae, you realize that what makes No Peak rise above its enemies and secure its place on the world stage is not any special advantage other than family. It is a family filled with unconditional love for its disparate, unwanted, cast-aside parts, and these parts fit into a puzzle that propels No Peak, and jade itself, into a place of destiny. 

The clan is my blood, and the Pillar is its master, as the oath goes. I swear allegiance as a reader and a fan. 

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