The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

I’ve been putting off reviewing The Ministry of Utmost Happiness for ages – as despite my very best efforts to like this book, it just wasn’t for me!

Arundhati Roy is known for her political activism, and her views and opinions are made abundantly clear in her writing. Through the eyes of her characters, she paints a stark and vivid picture of India after the partition, the conflict in Kashmir and the rigid caste system against a backdrop of politics and religion.

Having a better  knowledge of key events in India’s history as well as important recent political figures would have been so helpful here, as I spent a LOT of the time looking references and background up on the internet.

This was the side of things I did somewhat enjoy, as I like  learning more about different cultures and histories. However, without some existing knowledge (internet based or otherwise!) of recent Indian politics, history and the key players, this book would have been impossible to make sense of.

The parts of this book that have stuck with me are the stories about the ordinary people, caught up in the atrocities and injustices that surround them with no hope of breaking free. From the villagers in the Kashmir to the people living on the street in Delhi, this is a recurring theme. There is a stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots. On the one hand, people are moving forward into the future, with technology and tourism and everything that goes with it, while for others this is hopelessly out of reach.

However, the book is long and meandering. It skips from place to place and time to time, sometimes narrating events from a distance and sometimes homing right in on the details of a particular character. Often the story veers off into a long and extended anecdote or political discussion. I personally found that it really difficult to follow the main thread of the story.

I also found it hard to relate to the characters. We’re told details about their lives but they didn’t come alive to me and it all felt quite detached. There are also so many characters, some of which seem to have nothing to do with the main story. I understand that all of this is intended to build a rich picture of India and the different people that live there, but I would have preferred to have more of a personal connection to the people around who the plot revolves.

Clearly Roy was trying to raise awareness of some really important issues, but for me the writing style felt heavy and dense. It felt like this was a book that was written to make a point, rather than to be enjoyable for readers. Each page felt like a bit of a slog to read and I had to force myself to keep picking it back up. I finished it with a sense of achievement and relief, but I couldn’t say that I enjoyed it.

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A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson

a god in ruinsThe story…

A God in Ruins tells the story of Teddy Todd – a World War II bomber pilot but also a husband, father and grandfather. Having come through the war alive despite all expectations, Teddy faces a new challenge – to live the normal life he never imagined he would have.

My thoughts…

A God In Ruins was maybe my favourite book that I read last year. It is a companion book to Life After Life, which I also loved, and focuses on one of the other members of the Todd family – Ursula’s younger brother Teddy and the life he goes on to lead.

While Life After Life played with the concept of how the smallest things can cause a ripple effect through the future, A God in Ruins plays with the concept of time itself. We’re catapulted backwards and forwards through Teddy’s life, from his childhood to his days in a nursing home. We live with him through his relationships with his wife, Nancy, his daughter, Viola, and his two grandchildren. We swing from past to present – hopping from memory to memory, from the day-to-day tasks and conversations to the major turning points that define his existence. All of this adds up to a picture of who he is, what he wants and how he changes. Continue reading

The Power – Naomi Alderman

The PowerThe story:
When teenage girls all over the world start developing the ability to give electric shocks, the men of the world immediately start to worry about how they can be controlled. When it’s revealed that they can also pass on this knowledge to older women, they start to panic. As more and more women discover ‘the power’ – societies all over the world start to fall apart and reform as something completely new.

My thoughts:
In this reality that Naomi Alderman has created, women dominate every aspect of society – from world politics to religion to the criminal underworld. Powerful older women can have their pick of eager young men hoping to impress them. Teenage boys are encouraged to carry rape alarms. Women form the backbone of elite military troops. For the first time, women are now inherently stronger than men, and this causes a huge upset on a deeper level. Continue reading

Top 5: My most anticipated summer reads

The Good Daughter
Author: Karin Slaughter
Publication date: 13 July

Amazon/Goodreads summary: Two girls are forced into the woods at gunpoint. One runs for her life. One is left behind…

Twenty-eight years ago, Charlotte and Samantha Quinn’s happy smalltown family life was torn apart by a terrifying attack on their family home. It left their mother dead. It left their father – Pikeville’s notorious defence attorney – devastated. And it left the family fractured beyond repair, consumed by secrets from that terrible night.

Twenty-eight years later, and Charlie has followed in her father’s footsteps to become a lawyer herself – the archetypal good daughter. But when violence comes to Pikeville again – and a shocking tragedy leaves the whole town traumatised – Charlie is plunged into a nightmare. Not only is she the first witness on the scene, but it’s a case which can’t help triggering the terrible memories she’s spent so long trying to suppress. Because the shocking truth about the crime which destroyed her family nearly thirty years ago won’t stay buried for ever…

Why I’m looking forward to it: Karin Slaughter is one of my go-to crime writers and one of the few that I auto-buy. She’s great at writing gripping stories with plot twists that I don’t see coming.

The Word is Murder
Author: Anthony Horowitz
Publication date: 24 August

Amazon/Goodreads summary: A wealthy woman strangled six hours after she’s arranged her own funeral. A very private detective uncovering secrets but hiding his own. A reluctant author drawn into a story he can’t control. What do they have in common?

(So far, so enigmatic! But then I saw this blurb on Horowitz’s website…)

Summary from Horowitz’s website: It’s been two years since Injustice aired and Detective Daniel Hawthorne needs cash. Having gotten himself fired from his job at the Metropolitan police, Hawthorne decides to approach Anthony Horowitz. He’s investigating a bizarre and complex murder and he wants Anthony to write a book about it, a bestselling book of course, with a 50/50 split. The only catch is they need to solve the crime.

But award winning crime writer Anthony Horowitz has never been busier in his life. He’s working on Foyle’s War and writing his first Sherlock Holmes novel. He has a life of his own and doesn’t really want to be involved with a man he finds challenging to say the least. And yet he finds himself fascinated by the case and the downright difficult detective with the brilliant, analytical mind. Would it be really such a crazy idea for Anthony to become the Watson to his Holmes? The Hastings to his Poirot? Should he stick to writing about murder? Or should he help investigate?

Why I’m looking forward to it: This sounds really interesting – Anthony Horowitz has actually written himself into this novel as a character. I recently read and really enjoyed Magpie Murders, which featured a book within a book, and this seems like it will be equally unique. I’m hoping that this latest novel lives up to my high expectations!

The Readymade Thief
Author: Augustus Rose
Publication date: 10 August

Amazon/Goodreads summary: Lee Cuddy is seventeen years old and on the run, alone on the streets of Philadelphia. A fugitive with no money, no home and nowhere to go, Lee finds refuge in a deserted building known as the Crystal Castle. But the Castle conceals a sinister agenda, one master-minded by a society of fanatical men set on decoding a series of powerful secrets hidden in plain sight. And they believe Lee holds the key to it all.

Aided by Tomi, a mysterious young hacker, Lee escapes into the unmapped corners of the city. But the deeper she goes underground, the more tightly she finds herself bound in the strange web of the men she’s trying to elude. Aware that the lives of those she cares for are in increasing danger, it is only when Lee steps from the shadows to confront who is chasing her that she discovers what they’re really after, and why.

Why I’m looking forward to it: I haven’t read a good thriller in ages. I also love a conspiracy plot. This sounds like a cross between I Am Pilgrim and The Da Vinci Code, and a perfect summer read.

The Music Shop
Author: Rachel Joyce
Publication date: 13 July

Amazon/Goodreads summary: 1988. Frank owns a music shop. It is jam-packed with records of every speed, size and genre. Classical, jazz, punk – as long as it’s vinyl he sells it. Day after day Frank finds his customers the music they need.

Then into his life walks Ilse Brauchmann. Ilse asks Frank to teach her about music. His instinct is to turn and run. And yet he is drawn to this strangely still, mysterious woman with her pea-green coat and her eyes as black as vinyl. But Ilse is not what she seems. And Frank has old wounds that threaten to re-open and a past he will never leave behind…

Why I’m looking forward to it: I loved The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and while I wasn’t as keen on Perfect, I still think the Rachel Joyce is a really talented author. She has a real skill in creating characters and settings that leap off the page. This sounds like it could be a really interesting story and I’m excited to read it.

The Last Tudor
Author: Philippa Gregory
Publication date: 8 August

Amazon/Goodreads summary: Jane Grey was Queen of England for nine days. Using her position as cousin to the deceased king, her father and his conspirators put her on the throne ahead of the king’s half-sister Mary, who quickly mustered an army, claimed her crown and locked Jane in the Tower. When Jane refused to betray her Protestant faith, Mary sent her to the executioner’s block. There Jane turned her father’s greedy, failed grab for power into her own brave and tragic martyrdom.

‘Learn you to die’ is the advice that Jane gives in a letter to her younger sister Katherine, who has no intention of dying. She intends to enjoy her beauty and her youth and find love. But her lineage makes her a threat to the insecure and infertile Queen Mary and, when Mary dies, to her sister Queen Elizabeth, who will never allow Katherine to marry and produce a potential royal heir before she does.  So when Katherine’s secret marriage is revealed by her pregnancy, she too must go to the Tower.

‘Farewell, my sister,’ writes Katherine to the youngest Grey sister, Mary. A beautiful dwarf, disregarded by the court, Mary finds it easy to keep secrets, especially her own, while avoiding Elizabeth’s suspicious glare. After watching her sisters defy the queen, Mary is aware of her own perilous position as a possible heir to the throne. But she is determined to command her own destiny and be the last Tudor to risk her life in matching wits with her ruthless and unforgiving cousin Elizabeth.

Why I’m looking forward to it: Philippa Gregory is a guilty pleasure of mine. I’m a history graduate who wrote her dissertation on the evolution of the Royal Family – and I’ve always been fascinated by this turbulent period of history. I also love how Gregory’s books always give us a unique (and female) perspective on historical events.

What are your most anticipated summer releases? Did any of mine make your list?

House of Names – Colm Tóibín

House of NamesThe story:

Agamemnon, believing he is acting out the wishes of the gods, sacrifices his eldest daughter for success on the battlefield on the eve of her wedding day. His wife, Clytemnestra, cannot forgive such a betrayal, and silently seething, plots his downfall. Her actions force her down a dark path and her choices have far-reaching consequences for her, her remaining children and their kingdom.

My thoughts…

This is a retelling of a classic Greek tragedy, full of scheming, revenge and murder. I must admit that I haven’t read the original text. While I’d heard of a couple of the key players, I didn’t know the story, so have nothing to directly compare this to.

As events unfold, all of the characters find themselves stuck in a cycle that seems impossible to break. With each crime committed or action taken, there’s another character waiting in the wings to demand payback or retribution.

Although this is set in ancient Greece, there are themes running through this book that are entirely relatable to the present day – such as Clytemnestra’s loss of faith, her grief and her feelings of abandonment by a higher power after a tragic loss. Revenge and the idea of ‘an eye for an eye’ also still resonates. Although the actions of Clytemnestra and those around her are extreme and melodramatic, the motivations behind them are understandable in the context, if not forgivable.

Despite the high emotions that the characters must feel, the writing style feels quite distant and detached. Clytemnestra is the only one that I felt any real attachment too. Her emotions shine through and I wish we’d had more from her point of view. Her actions reverberate through the palace, affecting everyone around her. This includes her daughter Electra, who brims with silent fury. Electra eventually becomes what she despises – another example of how without change, everything comes round in a circle and no progress is made.

Orestes was an interesting character. He’s continually being pushed in various directions by other characters, such as Leander and Electra, but never fully included. His sense of isolation is echoed in the rest of the novel – everyone has their own secrets and motivations and they’re not willing to share them. The result is a general feeling of mistrust and suspicion, summing up the pervading overall feel of this book.

In conclusion?

While I didn’t dislike this book, I can’t say that it really provoked any strong emotions in me either way. It was quite an interesting read though, and I did enjoy learning more about the Greek myths.

The Ice – Laline Paull

The IceThe story: In the near future, the polar ice caps are melting, the transpolar shipping route is being heavily utilised and individuals and countries are jostling for power and control. When a cruise ship searching for an increasingly rare glimpse of the elusive polar bears travels into the restricted waters of the Midgard Lodge, they get more than they bargained for when a calving glacier reveals the preserved body of a man.

The Midgard Lodge is a private retreat run by businessman Sean Cawson, and the body discovered is that of his long-time friend, business partner, and ex-Greenpeace activist Tom Harding. The discovery of Tom’s body starts an inquest into the events that led to his death, led by his friends and family, while Sean also faces an internal struggle that is increasingly difficult to contain.

My thoughts: Much of the novel focuses on Sean’s character development. At the beginning of the novel, he is presented as a selfish opportunist taking advantage of the people around him for his own personal and monetary gain. I feel like as we got to know him more we were supposed to see that there was more to his character, but for me this never really happened. I couldn’t connect with him as a character. He wasn’t likeable and I struggled to see his redeeming features.  I think as a character though, he was written really well and came across as totally believable.

The environmental message is one that is impossible to escape from. At the end of the book, I wasn’t thinking about the characters or their stories, I was thinking about the trans-polar route, global warming and capitalism – and the future of the world as we know it. There are two conflicting viewpoints set out here – those who can see the damage that is being done to the environment and want to slow it or stop it as best they can, versus those who can see that change is coming no matter what and believe they may as well be at the forefront of progress.

The descriptions of the Arctic from the early polar explorers talking about the hostility of the natural landscape, which precede each chapter, are sharply contrasted against commercialisation and modernity. There’s a real sense that the natural world as we know it is shrinking and dying, to be replaced by luxury hotels and convenient mod-cons.

This conflict is brought to life through Sean and Tom’s personal story. Although I thought this was handled a bit heavy-handedly at some points, it is a valid and valuable debate and it certainly made an impression.

Pacing was a bit of an issue in this book for me. I felt it really took some time to really get going. Until I got to around 50%, I was struggling to find a compelling reason to pick it back up. After this, the story does really pick up the pace, but if I hadn’t received a copy of The Ice for review, it might have taken me a while to get through it. Having finished it though, I’m glad I persevered. It was a really insightful and thought provoking read.

The problems with updating Shakespeare: Vinegar Girl

I recently read Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, which is based on The Taming of the Shrew and part of a series of books that aim to bring Shakespeare plays into the modern age. It lead me to think about whether Shakespeare can ever be truly updated, or if our values are just too different.

The Taming of the Shrew is widely considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, due to how women and gender roles are portrayed, and while this plot may have appealed to the Elizabethans, it doesn’t immediately seem like it’s one that would translate to a modern audience.

Before writing this review, I also read the original text of The Taming of the Shrew. Essentially, the story involves a father marrying off his outspoken elder daughter, Katerina, to the first man that comes along, Petruchio. Interested only interested in her dowry at first, Petruchio, often described as a ‘madman’, then resolves to ‘tame’ Katerina. He proceeds to give her a taste of her own medicine by bullying and berating her at every turn, until she agrees to submit to him in every way – even believing that the sun is the moon if he says that it’s so. She then gives a long final speech about wifely duty and obedience. I’m sure there are more complex ways to interpret this play, but I won’t go into them here.

How does Vinegar Girl compare?

The basic premise of Vinegar Girl is very similar to The Taming of the Shrew. Kate lives at home looking after her father and younger sister. She’s happy on her own without a man and can sometimes be a bit spiky and rude. Pyotr needs a green card so he can stay on as a lab assistant to Kate’s father, and the two men come up with the perfect solution – Pyotr should marry Kate. Kate is horrified, but her objections are eventually worn down and agrees to give it a go. Continue reading