Book Notes June 2021

Book Notes June 2021

Couch on the Porch by Frederick Childe Hassam

1. A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

A juvenile novel set somewhere in India (I don’t think it’s ever made clear where the protagonist lives) with a first person narrative told as a series of lyric poems. Veda has been certain she has a vocation to dance since she was a little girl and saw a statue of Shiva in a temple. Her beloved grandmother supports her and so does her father, but her mother doesn’t understand and doesn’t want her to dance. But Veda dances competitively and wins a competition. And then is in a bus crash and loses her leg. She must learn to walk on a prosthetic leg… and eventually learn how to dance again. In the process she relearns the spiritual heart of Indian classical dance. Rejected by her first teacher after her accident, she later meets a teacher who helps her to love of dance as a spiritual act rather than dancing to compete. Bella remarked that she’d never read a book that got so deeply into the spirituality of a non-Christian character.

The poems are more like prose poems, they don’t really rhyme or use any poetic devices. But they are arranged on the page with a lot of white space which gives the prose a very restful and meditative quality. I didn’t think much of them as poems, but there was a certain intensification of the storytelling that they allowed. It is an interesting device I’ve seen a few times in junior fiction and I don’t love it, but it also doesn’t get in the way of reading the story, so I don’t strongly object either.

2. River of Smoke by Amitov Ghosh, Book Two in the Ibis Trilogy

Continuing the story that began in Sea of Poppies, this sequelcontinues the leadup to the Opium War, this novel takes place mainly in coastal China: Canton, Hong Kong, Macau. The plot focuses on the British and Indian merchants who smuggle opium into China negotiating with the Chinese government which wants to quash the opium trade. Bahram, an Indian Parsi merchant is one of the main characters. We met his illegitimate half-Chinese son Ah Fatt in the first novel; he was an opium addict and one of the convicts on the Ibis being transported to Mauritius. We also follow Neel the former Raja who was convicted and transported on the Ibis to Mauritius for forgery but who escaped. In an ironic twist, Neel is now working as Bahram’s secretary. Also in Canton is Robin Chinnery, a childhood friend of Paulette’s; he sends Paulette long and detailed and gosspiy letters from Canton where she cannot go herself.

There was so much to love about this book. It’s full of historical details and interesting characters. And a deeper understanding of the wounds caused by British colonialism, as told from the point of view of the colonized. Not a screed, but a story.

3. Flood of Fire by Amitov Ghosh Book Three in the Ibis Trilogy

In the third volume of the Ibis Trilogy war breaks out between the British East India Company and the Chinese. More of our cast of characters reunite, mainly in Macau and Hong Kong and on ships off the coast of China. Much of the first part of the novel concerns Shireen, the widow of Bahram, and her decision to go to China to visit her husband’s grave, meet his son, and secure the family fortune. Zachary begins an adulterous affair with Mrs Burnham, the wife of the rich opium merchant. They both travel to China as well. Honestly, I hated the whole seduction of Zachary by Mrs Bahram plot. It was far too sexually explicit and it made me hate Zachary’s character, who I’d previously liked. I did gain some sympathy for Mrs Bahram. There were some new characters introduced as well, including Deety’s brother, who is a sepoy serving with the East India Company’s army.

The trilogy ends before the war ends and it feels unfinished. There’s a frame narrative about how the author, who is supposedly just collecting Neel’s papers and transmitting his story, ran out of time. I suspect he’s never going to finish telling this story, which is a bit frustrating. The characters mostly have satisfying arcs, though again Zachary and Paulette… not a satisfying relationship after his long dalliance with Mrs Bahram.

4. Project Hail Mary Andy Weir

I really liked this story, told in the first person, of a man on a mission to save the world. As the novel opens the narrator doesn’t remember who he is or how he got where he is or what he’s doing. The novel unfolds alternating with flashes of memory that gradually fill in the jigsaw pieces of his identity and his past with a gripping narrative of adventure in the present day.

The dramatic tension, like that in Weir’s first novel, The Martian, hinges on our protagonist having to use his wits to solve problems. I love the way the dramatic tension of the narrative is always high but never feels manufactured or forced. Weir isn’t a puppeteer making his characters go through the motions; rather, the situations are real crises and real dilemmas that need ingenuity, and a bit of luck and help to solve. The crises occur mostly because of technical problems that arise because of the world in which the story unfolds or because of the personalities of the characters involved. Highly recommend.

5. The Watsons Go to Birmingham– 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Watson family consist of three children and a mother from the Alabama and a father from Michigan. There are occasional clashes of expectations. The narrator, Kenny, is the middle child. His older brother, Byron, is a bully and has gotten involved in the wrong company. Their parents are worried that he’s heading down the wrong path and so decide to take Kenny to stay with Granny Sands in Birmingham for the summer. So they load the family into the Brown Bomber for a drive from their home in Flint Michigan. I do not much like stories about bullying and the first half of the book almost lost me. But the second part becomes a travel narrative. And then things do turn around. There’s a crisis and I don’t want to spoil what happens. But the ending was solid. I loved the turn and I really liked what happened with the conflict between the brothers.

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