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: 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.