Book Review: A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF HEAVEN, uniting saving a slum in Bangalore

A People’s History of Heaven
Mathangi Subramanian

When the city government sends bulldozers to raze the Bangalore slum nicknamed “Heaven,” a group of women resolves to save their home and physically blocks the equipment from moving forward. Five teenage girls, friends since childhood, decide to join their mothers in protecting their neighborhood.

Though the conflict with the city provides the overarching structure to the novel, the real stories in A People’s History of Heaven comes from the histories of the five girls: Banu, an enterprising engineer and artist who can build or repair anything; Deepa, whose parents decided to pull her out of school due to her visual impairment; Joy, a transgender academic whiz from a Christian family; Padma, a transplant from a rural area with a complicated family history; and Rukshana, a Muslim, who is beginning to understand her queer sexuality.

Heaven has been left to the women: men have for the most part abandoned them for alcohol, younger women, or death. The grandmothers, mothers, and daughters are enterprising entrepreneurs and savvy in their manipulation of government schemes—the only way they can survive in a quickly gentrifying city.

Though the girls face discrimination, hunger, and poverty, they are quick to warn readers not to pity them, in one case noting, “Poverty might make our lives ugly. But in Banu’s drawings, our survival is full of beauty.” Still, the novel is full of bifurcations: girls versus boys; children versus adults; rich versus poor. As one character explained to Padma, though, “You can’t understand other people’s stories if you don’t understand your own.”

In this book, the story is narrated by the quintet. I don’t remember reading a book with a collective narrator since The Virgin Suicides. While the books aren’t the same in any other ways, that underlying similarity gave me all the feels.

The New York Times criticized Heaven for being heavy-handed with the symbolism, and Kirkus Reviews thought the book might be better positioned as YA. Looking back, I can see why the reviewers made these observations, but I really did enjoy reading this book. It showed the realities of living in an urban slum in India while allowing the characters to be fully realized and empowered.

Have you read this book? What’s your favorite book set in India or Southeast Asia?

Throwback Thursday: EVE’S TATTOO

Eve’s Tattoo
Emily Prager

When Eve’s Tattoo by Emily Prager was published in the early 1990s, I was in college and it quickly became one of my favorite books.

On her fortieth birthday, Eve gets a tattoo reproducing a prisoner number from a Nazi concentration camp. Her family and friends are horrified, but to explain the tattoo, which she calls a living memorial, she tells each person a different story of the woman assigned the number 500123, a version of the story that will resonate with them.

As much as I adored the book, I haven’t reread it since for fear it won’t hold up to my memories. Additionally, I worry about cultural appropriation which was not something I considered at the time.

I’m not sure if I ever will read it because I want to preserve my memories. However, even looking back, I find the themes relating to storytelling and memory compelling. And the dedication—For the women who resist, and the women who don’t—remains one of my favorites.

Unfortunately, the book is out of print, so it’s only possible to get used copies.

Book Review: THE LAST WIDOW – after terrorists bomb an ATL parking structure, Sara Linton is kidnapped, and Will Trent will go through any obstacle to find her

Amelia with The Last Widow
Will Trent Book 9

Karin Slaughter

Dr. Michelle Spivey, a scientist with the Centers for Disease Control, is abducted on a summer afternoon while shopping with her daughter. Despite their best efforts, authorities are unable to uncover any clues to her whereabouts.

A month later, two explosions rock Atlanta near Emory University. As GBI Agent Will Trent and his girlfriend Dr. Sara Linton rush to the scene to provide assistance, they come upon a three-vehicle accident. Before either is able to completely comprehend the situation, Will is attacked and Sara taken. Sara’s mother, who arrives at the scene only to see Sara’s car depart with her and the kidnappers, blames Will.

Concussed and with internal injuries, Will nevertheless prevails upon his supervisor, Amanda, to let him go undercover to try to rescue Sara, and, possibly, Dr. Spivey. Meanwhile, his partner, Faith, engages in power plays with the FBI to gain information that will help in their investigation.

As Faith and Will pursue their separate inquiries, they realize their prey is ruthless, well-financed, and eager for bloodshed, leaving Sara more vulnerable the longer she is missing. As Will slips into his cover, the tendrils that keep him anchored fray.

The Last Widow has point of view chapters from Will, Sara, and Faith, and besides the prologue and epilogue, takes place just over three days. The same events overlap, and at times it can be humorous to see how different characters view the same situation. Other times, the overlap shows an information imbalance which can be heartrending.

The Will Trent books are my favorite from Karin Slaughter, and I highly enjoyed this addition to the series. In addition to a timely mystery and fast-paced plot, Will and Sara’s relationship gets attention without the devious machinations of Angie Polaski, Will’s ex-wife. My one complaint is that the primary antagonist in the book might have too many pathologies. Still, that didn’t impact my pleasure from the book. I count Slaughter among my top five mystery writers. The Last Widow is a must for her fans, but I think any mystery lovers will enjoy it, and it’s easy to dive in without having read any other Will Trent books.

Book Review: REFUGEE, the harrowing journeys of three young asylum seekers

Alan Gratz

Forced by life-or-death circumstances to flee home at a moment’s notice, the young protagonists of Refugee by Alan Gratz illustrate the journeys of asylum seekers in three periods of history. In 1938, Josef, a Jewish boy, boards the MS St. Louis for Cuba hoping for freedom for persecution. Isabel, her family, and her next-door neighbors, in 1994 board a handmade raft to Miami from Cuba after her father took part in a demonstration against Fidel Castro. Mahmoud and his family leave his beloved city of Aleppo, in ruins after six years of civil war, in 2014, after their apartment building is destroyed by a missile. Despite being separated by decades, the families are interconnected in surprising ways.

Though each has a unique voyage, similarities run through the pilgrimages. They all experience danger; watch as their families separate, sometimes permanently, witness death; and take on adult roles even though they are only twelve or thirteen. The book also shows how living besieged and then as refugees can affect people differently. Additionally, the reader can find interesting symbolic parallels such as the role of dictators and how they are displayed visually in each society.

These are heady and difficult issues, but Gratz presents them in an age-appropriate way. Especially at the beginning of the book, he provides a lot of context about the leaders in power in Germany, Cuba, and Syria, and the conditions that create refugees. While there is a lot of loss and sorrow in the book, it ends on a hopeful note.

I would recommend this book to any guardians who want their children to learn more about the refugee crisis. It’s also a book that promotes empathy with people of other cultures and backgrounds. Adults, too, can learn from the story.

Book Review: THE SNAKES, the traps may be set but who is the prey?

The Snakes
Sadie Jones

Relative newlyweds Bea and Dan are superficially happy in a small apartment in London, she a psychotherapist and he an estate agent. Bea, who came from a wealthy family, accepts no financial support from them. Dan, however, child of a black mother and absent white father and who grew up in poverty, hates his job and wants to return to his passion: painting. Dan, often described as the most handsome man in the room, surprised some of his friends when he paired up with the “frumpy” Bea.

Dan’s patience with his meaningless job comes to an end, and Bea suggests a three-month holiday through Europe. Bea has kept Dan away from her family, but she wants to stop in France and see her brother Alex, an addict who has been in and out of rehab but who is now clean and managing a hotel.

When they arrive at Hotel Paligny, however, they learn “clean” is relative and the decrepit hotel is less of an ongoing concern than a major stalled project. Even worse, for Bea, her parents, Griff and Liv, arrive for a visit. With them comes an air of entitlement and a level of access Dan has never before experienced. He doesn’t understand Bea’s ardency against them—but he also doesn’t know the childhood secrets Bea has locked away.

What starts as a family drama spins into a mystery when a character suddenly dies, and then the narrative shifts into horror for the dénouement. As a result, I never fully got my bearings when reading this novel, and the writing style, which I can best describe as staccato, kept me at a distance instead of drawing me in. That might very well be the point, as Bea had many mechanisms for putting layers between her and others, in which case it makes for clever writing but not necessarily enjoyable reading.

On the one hand, this novel explores how parents’ sins corrupt their children. Sadie Jones herself, talking to NPR, gave another perspective: “It’s a book about chaos and the surprise terrible things that happen that we can’t foresee …” In any case, this is book that is rich in symbolism (snakes!) and ideas and so intellectually stimulating, but not a book I would pick up for its entertainment value.