Surrender: Marylee MacDonald

Surrender is an engaging memoir set in times not too far back in time and yet so different from the present. Marylee tells us of her life as an adopted child, of living with an emotionally unavailable mother and an abusive father. Life turns full circle for Marylee when she gets pregnant at sixteen and has to put her baby up for adoption. It’s an eventful life indeed and Marylee does full justice writing about it. She does a particularly great job in painting a vivid picture of her surroundings and events happening around her. Her account of the time spent in the home for unwed mothers in Phoenix is particularly engrossing. It’s a book to savor.

The Midnight Library: Matt Haig

Matt Haig tells us a story with a message – live the life you have and stop regretting the lives you could have had. Nora Seed gets an opportunity to witness lives she could have lived and finds they all had their share of problems. While the concept is good and the message meaningful, the writing lets it down somewhat. Haig’s dialogs are ordinary and he repeats his message too many times like a self-help book. There are inconsistencies that are difficult to ignore. The concept of Nora entering a life and not knowing anything about it makes it inherently unfair for her to like and live that life. An interesting experiment nonetheless.

Read only if you really want to understand the message.

My Name is Red: Orhan Pamuk

A story set in the fifteenth-century Ottoman empire of miniaturists in Istanbul, ‘My Name is Red’ is an example of excellent storytelling. A notable feature was Pamuk’s portrayal of complex personalities. Shekure thinks something, says something else, now loves Black, now Hasan. A great job with creating intriguing, crafty, complex characters. The book ends on a high note too.

A must-read!

Room: Emma Donoghue

What a book! An amazing book told from the POV of five-year old who is born in captivity and has never seen the outside world. His mother has been kidnapped and detained by a savage. It starts dark and depressing but the POV of a five-year old makes it a little light. When they escape and make it to real world – it strikes the mother and the son very differently. Brilliant concept, brilliantly executed.

Don’t miss it.

Yemen – The Unknown Arabia: Tim Mackintosh-Smith

Tim Mackintosh-Smith has a deep love for Yemen and takes us on a journey to the country – both in the north (Sanaa) – and the South (Aden). He introduces the readers to the multiple tribes, communities and historically significant sites through his travels. And when I say he takes the readers on a journey, he does that effectively. The accounts, despite being commonplace, are so vivid and real that you end up with a good glimpse of the enigma Yemen is. The book is pre-civil war – so it largely keeps away from the politics and the conflict, but does a great job in introducing readers to Yemeni culture. At the end, Mackintosh-Smith leaves us at the rooftop of the house he lived in Sanaa, chewing qat and watching out the city and other rooftops hosting fellow qat-chewers.

Home Fire: Kamila Shamsie

Kamila Shamsie picks up a very important subject for ‘Home Fire’: radicalization of Muslim youth in Europe and wedge it has driven in the society. She handles the subject sensitively while spinning a tale that keeps the reader engaged. There is no over-the-top drama but still a convincing account of a young Londoner getting drawn to ISIS and how it upends an already-struggling family. The key characters shine in their own narratives and their respective truths speak to the reader. Despite the book being more than just the radicalization of youth, Shamsie boldly takes us to Raqqah briefly and gives us a snapshot of that world. The book’s only weak point, for me, was the ending. The whole scenario unfolding in Pakistan with the decaying body, the dust storm, and high drama somehow went against the texture of the book.

Beatrice and Virgil: Yann Martel

A major disappointment after ‘Life of Pi’. Beatrice and Virgil are a donkey and a monkey respectively, representing holocaust sufferers, that live on a shirt. A ex-Nazi is writing the story, and our protagonist gets consulted. Except for one portion (end-games for Gustav), that is deeply touching , and brings out the horrors of holocaust, the book is painfully slow and meandering.

The Vanishing Half: Brit Bennett

Bennett takes us to Mallard, a small town in Louisiana populated by light-skinned blacks who practice their own brand of racism; they look down on dark-skinned people. Desiree and Stella, the twin sisters, run away from the town and embark on astonishingly different journeys. It is an interesting story but what makes the book stand out is beautiful, lyrical, insightful writing. Bennett does a particularly great job capturing the subtlety and intensity of the multiple relationships in the book: between the twins, Desiree with her mother and her daughter, Jude and Reese, Stella with her daughter. It was wonderful just to admire such beautiful and wise words pour out on paper.