Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Book Review: The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love

Following an astrological prediction gave to him at birth, the enamorated Pradyumma Kumar, alias PK, decided to leave behind his life in India and cycle as far as Sweden to meet his beloved Lotta, a hippy girl he shortly met in Delhi. This is just the end of a story, which has also a lot to say about the discriminatory caste-based system in India and PK's first hand encounters as an 'untouchable', the lowest caste according to the Hindu-imposed ideology. 
The stories about his isolation are coming up and again into the story - after a while I felt slightly annoyed by the repetition -, which has also an interesting travel-related dimension, as it features the passage through Afghanistan and Iran, on the way to Europe. It looks like an open world, welcoming hippies from all over the world mesmerized by the lights and miraculous visions of the Far East, a world that in the last 3 decades closed progressively until becoming hermetic to most of the free-minded Europeans. The book succeeds to portray very well the personality of PK, from his hard early university years of sleeping on the stone floors of the train station in Delhi, until his unique encounters with the liked of Indira Gandhi and the cream of the Indian society. Thanks to his artistic talent, he succeeds to undone his socially assigned status, showing to himself and the rest of the Indian society how unjust and ridiculous the religious limitations are. 
There is a little bit of everything in this book: sad stories of a situation that seems so overwhelming that only suicide looks like the only solution out; hope and delivery as he sees how the work of his hands brings him comfort and fame, one drawing at a time; hilarious situations as when he realized, a couple of days already into his biking adventure, that his final destination is Sweden, not Switzerland; resilience and courage to start a new life despite the obvious dramatic cultural, linguistic and personal challenges. 
This book can offer motivation and some travel writing insights and also an interesting historical background. Strongly recommended to anyone longing for far away 'exotic' destinations - warning: things in the mind mirror might be exagerately magnified - or trying to start over a new life in a new country.

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Monday, August 28, 2017

#Enshrine Blog Tour: Author Kay Bennson sharing her creative process story

Once again, I am honored and pleased to be part of another blog tour organised by Priya from Writerly Yours, featuring the debut novel of author Kay Bennson - Enshrine
Living in Northwestern Connecticut with her husband, Kay is a passionate professional writer and a competitive Irish dancer. Part of the blog tour, Kay kindly accepted to share with my readers the story of her creative process. 

Question to Kay Bennson: 'Where do you get your ideas from?'

People often ask me; "Where do you get your ideas from? I want to write a book, but I don't know where to start." My answer is to look to your dreams. In all the manuscripts I've completed, Enshrine included, it all started with a dream.

I remember that it was July 2014. I know this because when I woke up, I wrote down everything that I could remember on my phone. The dream wasn't gory or violent. but I could not get it out of my head. I was seeing the dream as if I was awake and through my own eyes, but I was in a foreign place. It was a bustling city, but it was ancient and unlike anything I'd ever seen. It was night time and I was terrified.

I was being pursued by soldiers. They were the henchmen of someone I never saw in the dream, but I knew he wanted me back at all costs. He was obsessed and manic and as I cowered out of sight I knew I would die before I let myself be found. I was ready to run when someone jumped out and offered me help. He knew how to get me home, but I had to trust him. We began to weave between buildings and people until we reached the ocean and we ran in. I woke up as we began to claw our way through the water.

When I woke up, I was stunned. Dreams fascinate me because while some people think they are meaningless, I truly believe there is something behind them and it might seem weird, but I'm impressed with what my mind can create. I almost see it as an accomplishment. When I have a nightmare about my old boss...not so much.

So where I'm going here is, while you may scratch you head or ask yourself why you dreamed about something bizarre, write it down. It could be something as simple as "Ex boyfriend is secretly half demon" or "Evil corporation takes over high school". As long as it helps you remember and you can come back to it later if something strikes you. You won't know until you try.

'What is the most challenging part of being a writer?'

Another question that people often ask me is what is the most challenging part of being a writer? There are many things that I could tell you, but I think I'm going to stick with the one that resonates with me the most.

Don't get so lost in pleasing everyone else, that you lose sight of why you wanted to write the story in the first place.

I used to be someone that worried about what other people thought of me. To be honest, I was terrified to have people read my writing because I didn't want them to tell me it was garbage. While I feel that I've gotten past that hurdle, I still find myself worrying about other people when I need to worry about myself. A great example of this is when I found out that my mother's friend wanted to by the book for her daughter and she wanted to know if it was appropriate. Enshrine is absolutely okay for Young Adult Readers, but I had started working on the sequel and was thinking about having two of my characters take their relationship to an intimate level. I was literally in a panic over what to do, to the point that I stopped working on the manuscript.  

I made a realization. A) That I needed a writing time out, and B) that I'm never going to please everyone out there. Some people might not mind the content of my books and others might not approve of what my characters do. Regardless of my readers choices and reactions, I can not control what they feel. Knowing that now is liberating, but man, it was a long time coming!

I know people won't like everything I do, (My own mother disliked how something went down in Enshrine) but at the end of the day, I write to make myself happy as well as others. I have learned that when you are happy with yourself nothing else matters and everything seems to fall into place, so I hope this advice can make you feel the same.

Titles and inter-titles belong to me. Photos from the archive of Kay Bennson

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Middle Grade Fantasy Review: The Girl of Ink&Stars

Set on the imaginary island of Joya, in an imaginary world, The Girl of Ink&Stars is a middle grade fantasy book recommended to curious and ready for adventure youngsters on the way to becoming teenagers. 
First and foremost, it not only has a dream-inducing cover - if you read my blog you might know already how interested I am in the cover of books as well, besides the writing of books -, but also has fine graphic inserts on the pages.
Daughter of a cartograph, Isabella is living on an island dominated by a heartless governor, whose daughter is her friend. When a girl school colleague of them is found lifeless, the monotonous life on the island is disrupted and the layers of magic and fantasy are invading the space, not always with benefic effects for the humans inhabitants. After the daughter of the governer herself disappears trying to bring light into the murder, after a fight with Isabella to whom she is trying to prove she is not 'roten', an expedition starts to find her, headed by the governor himself. The entire journey is unpredictable, with cruel episodes when the chance of survival seems to be impossible.
The book, aimed at readers between 10 and 14 years old, has elements typical for this genre, such as a moral challenge or the confrontation with death. The elements of dreams and fantasy are wrapping the story as cotton candy clouds, whose slow pace infuses the story with an outerwordly fragrance. 
However, I had a couple of issues with the book. For instance, I had more than once the feeling of deja-vu - or, deja-lu, to be precise, which for a beginner reader doesn't count maybe, but still would have expected more originality. Another critique is that if you are expecting a fast-pacing story you are in the wrong place. There are a lot of descriptions, most of them beautifully written, but they often overweight the chain of events as much as you can feel the narrative being caught somewhere between two sequences. Overall, I felt that the book has a bigger potential than achieved.
It is a recommended read for a long summer day, for poetry and fantasy loving kids.

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Book Review: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

I rarely read a book which is beautifully written, emotionally challenging - even draining - with complex characters but with the main story completely deceiving. 
The love story which started when Wavonna Quinn was eight years old with a man at least 17 years her senior might be break taboos, but in fact it is the weakest point of the entire story. The evolution of the romance is so predictable that sometimes I was tempted to skip the pages describing the details, convinced I was not supposed to miss anything. Except that actually I was missing the short rhythmic polishes sentences bringing the emotional turmoil of the characters into your life.
When there is so much emotional weight, and characters out of the normal world, the choice for a different kind of romance makes sense, but the romantic story as such should be more than your soap opera adventure next door. When everything fails and humanity fails too, the search for wonderful things makes sense, but it could rather be friendship or anything else but not that upside down grotesque relationship. It doesn't have to do with the underage sex, but with the way in which the reader is offered the story, like you really have to like it and consider it the best thing that can happen in the book. And it probably is, but not without encountering the risk of creating a stereotypical predictable story. It is so easy to ruin a book with the potential of being a good piece of literature.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, August 14, 2017

Book review: The Accidental Apprentice, by Vikas Swarup

After the world-acclaimed Slumdog Millionaire, Vikar Swarup used the same background - the intricacies and often deceiving slums of the Indian life and society - creating a page turning novel with a bit of all: adventure, thriller, love, social meditation. 
Like in an average Bollywood movie, masks fell down, the hidden drama enfolds and there is not always a happy ending. Sapna Sinha, a young lady is randomly selected by an eccentric billionaire to be his next CEO if she passes 7 challenging tests aimed to reveal her leadership and human values. 
The ways in which the trials and challenges are described opens the eyes to the daily Indian realities, and this is one of the things that kept me reading the book until its very end. However, after a couple of 'tests', the pace slowed down and the stories became more than predictable. After all, not all Bollywood movies are equally entertaining.
At the end, after a long last trial, I felt a bit betrayed, as too much set-up completely damaged the good story, which at the end looks more as a succession of pranks than a novel. Hovewer, the portrayal of Sapna is very good and she is a character with depth, humar and an interesting personality. The kind of persons you might love to meet in the real life too.
Although I only give a modest 2-star to this book, those interested in Indian histories might find it interesting and entertaining, and Vikas Swarup definitely has something more to say on the literary front. 

Rating: 2 stars

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Book Review: Before We Visit the Goddess, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The stories between mothers and daughters are never easy to be told. The literary shape is only a polite way to create meanings and sometimes to offer excuses.
Three generations of women, two of them were born in India, are coming at age, longing for a sense of home and emotional belonging. Recently I was suggested that we, in fact, might replicate, more or less consciously, the family relations and patterns we already witnessed. I am not convinced it is like that - and I refuse to believe that things are so simple in life.
For the simplicity of the narrative, this story actually follows such an unrealistic pattern, but fortunately, the developments are less predictive. Through betrayal and abandonment - who else but your mother can forgive you for those - strive for independence and nostalgy when it is too late to say 'good bye' or 'I am sorry', the heroines of the novel are revealed in their emotional, although unusual emotional complexity.
Regardless if they lived in India all their life, left the country to never see it again or never had any direct connection with this culture, the longing for home is the red line painfully overpassing continents and failed relationships. Also stereotypically - especially when it comes from non-European cultures - the remedy for sadness and alienation is food, which predictably is savourously described - but not recipes though although at least for some puddings I wish they are as I am stereotypical enough myself too to be an easy pray of such culinary intermezzos.
Despite my relative disappointment with some literary approaches, I still enjoyed the book because recurrent or not, all of us we can find ourselves sometimes in episodes of mother-daughter relationships. After all, maybe life is simpler as we try to convince ourselves it is.

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Book Review: The Return by Hisham Matar

I knew more that Qaddafi was the clown-dictator of Libya and for different reasons I followed the 'opening' of the West to the Libyan (oil) regime, started by the then-EU member Great Britain. In various circumstances, the gossips about his excentricities as a human and the abuses of his sons were known at many levels of the international organisations, including those with a certain 'soft power' impact, but it was outrageous how the situation in this country was rather taken as a joke instead of seriously being considered as a reason to increase the pressure for democratization. As in the case of other dictators, it seemed that Qaddafi will most probably die peacefully in his tent.
The Return, by the American-born Libyan author - the first literary work I ever read associated to this country - Hisham Matar is the beautifully written story of his desperate search of over 2 decades of his father, Jaballa Matar, an anti-Qaddafi dissident kidnapped with the conivence of the Egyptian secret service and brought to Libya where he probably was murdered. 
Part of the book is dedicated to retell the story of Libya through the personal histories of his family members, starting with the grandfather who fought against the Italian occupation, and continuing with his uncles and cousins and father. If he would have lived in a 'normal' country, he would have been part of a political family, but instead, once back to Libya after most of his life spent in 'exile', he is searching for traces to re-create the last years and even moments of life of his father. In those moments, he is no more the journalist and the well-balanced and factual journalist, but a child searching for his memories, searching for his father and building the relationship with him again and again through the despair of knowing that despite all the political activism and desperate searches from the last years, he is dead and it is almost impossible to know about his end. 
The memory lane has ups and downs, it repeats itself, sometimes the same memory taking completely different shapes. The memory re-writes over and over again the past and the present. Those fragments of the memoir are directly personal, slow, reierative. More than once I couldn't wait for the factual information, also because I felt overwhelmed by the proximity and the impossibility to see a way out of the labyrinth. 
Those who grew up, even for a short while, under dictatorships can easily relate to the stories. Those who are reading it and never encountered other than democracy, might take notes and understand to praise their freedom gifts much better.

Rating: 4 stars