Tuesday, November 23, 2021


Title: Wunderland
Author: Jennifer Cody Epstein
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Pages: 373
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


We meet Ava Fischer in 1989. She receives a carton that has upended her world. The carton arrives from Bremen in Germany and contains a package with the ashes of her dead mother, Ilse, and a bunch of unsent letters, addressed by Ilse to a woman called Renate Bauer.

Through the letters, Ava (and we) begin to piece the history of Ilse and Renate together.

Growing up as teenagers in 1933, Ilse von Fischer and her best friend, Renate Bauer, are inseparable. They share all their secrets about teenage crushes and love each other like sisters. It is a friendship that means everything to them.
But a terrible history is unfolding in the country, and life, as they know it, is going to be horribly transformed. Businesses owned by Jews are being boycotted and shut and the Nazi insistence on the perfect Aryan model is making itself felt.
Ilse joins the BDM, a group of German young women being trained in the ideology. She sinks deeper in her belief in the Reich. The friendship is severed totally from her side.

When Renate and her family are castigated and reviled as Jews, Renate learns to embrace her newfound identity, placing the two former best friends on opposite sides of a great divide.

Meanwhile, Ilse has her own secrets. There are many things Ava doesn’t know,. Why she was abandoned in an orphanage as a child, where Ilse was during those years, her father’s identity being the biggest mystery. Will the letters and the confessions in them finally bring the truth home to Ava?


The book is written in the 3rd person present tense point of view of Renate and Ilse from 1933 onwards.
We have all read accounts of the Holocaust and World War II, but the unique viewpoint of this work of historical fiction made the horrors of the Holocaust vividly real. The two young girls, on the cusp of adolescence, find their friendship and their beliefs sorely tested, their lives torn apart on account of a cruel betrayal of one friend by the other.

The research that must have gone into the writing of this book is incredible. We see the birth of hate and war, and the geopolitical tumult that led to the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic.

The chapters relating to the destruction of Jewish businesses were painful reading. They bring alive the mob mindset of the rioters, how they see themselves as patriots who are wreaking destruction in support of a greater cause.

The writing was beautiful. What were their final thoughts as they lay bleeding in the snow or mud?... Or had they realised by then that it was all nothing more than a vicious trick; a foolish fable concocted by a madman whose only legacy would be the rest of the world’s loathing and revulsion?in

Here's another:

Not just the camaraderie she felt within the crowd’s collective fury, but a thrill of shouting…at her mother’s generation… wide wall of silence and complicity as the world erupted in napalm, flame, and corruption.

Living in an India whose very Indianness and democratic values are in question, we have deadly parallels to the Nazi regime. We have a megalomaniac in power who is promising to restore the country to its past (read: mythological) glory, but is pushing us back in time. The regime is succeeding in its aim to polarise the country and demonise its minorities. Not unlike Hitler and what he did with the Jews.

In the characters of the Bauers and the von Fischers, I see how my own compatriots have been polarised, as if a line had been drawn separating the two.

Renate’s parents, a doctor and a professor, hate Hitler but Ilse’s parents believe in him, another similarity with the India of today. Ilse herself believes that being part of the BDM is her chance to be part of something bigger.

This was a beautiful novel, one that particularly resonated with me because of the times we live in. 

Friday, November 12, 2021


Title: The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan

Author: Rafia Zakaria

Publisher: Beacon Press

Pages: 265

My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


This book, with a tagline, An Intimate History of Pakistan, aims to catch one family, the Zakarias, at a moment that is both private and public. It is a moment that pertains to them as a nation, as well as at a deeply personal level.

On December 27, 2007, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, plunging Pakistan into turmoil and aggravating the chaos in the life of one family. On the same day, the author’s uncle, husband of her father’s sister, Aunt Amina, was rushed into surgery after suffering a sudden stroke. Uncle Sohail survives and Benazir dies. These two events alter the personal history of the Zakarias and the history of the nation respectively.

The assassination of Benazir is the opportunity for the hardliners in Pakistan to take charge, impacting the state of women’s rights in that country.

 But this is not the first time, the personal and the public have come together for the Zakarias. Much earlier in April 1986, Benazir Bhutto had returned to Karachi after a 7-year self-imposed exile, following the imposition of martial law by General Zia-Ul-Haq and the execution of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

 Parallelly, one morning in December 1986, Aunt Amina had rushed into the Zakaria home, her life in disarray, with the news that Sohail, frustrated with his wife’s inability to conceive, planned to take on a second wife, one of his colleagues, with whom he had fallen in love. It is the most ordinary of days that enclose tragedy within their sealed lips. Ironically, the second wife isn’t able to conceive either.

The author, a dangler on the edges of adult conversations, as all writers must be, guesses rightly that married women do not spend the night at their maternal home.
Sohail adds another floor to the house, moving his first wife upstairs, out of sight, where she becomes a pariah, spying on the happenings below. Aunt Amina is the Upstairs Wife. I felt her pain and sadness. In many ways, it is the pain of the deserving being cheated of their rights.

As one person dies and another survives, author Rafia wonders about the nature of prayer, how their prayers were granted but their fervent prayers, decades ago, that her aunt may conceive were denied.

As the narrative interweaves the past and the present together, we read about the volatile events in Pakistani history as well as the less violent but still momentous events in Aunt Amina’s life. As history unfolds through the eyes of the author as a child, she comes of age, having deeply absorbed and understood the weaknesses, hopes and errors of a fledgling nation.

The family history is intertwined with social and political history. We see the births of the key members of the Zakaria family, from Abdulla, Rafia’s father, to Amina, her aunt, and the family’s immigration to the newly-born Pakistan. Slowly they begin to settle down, trying to live their lives against the backdrop of larger-than-life events such as the division of Pakistan’s West and East, and the wars against India.

Their hope of a better life among Muslims is scuttled as India-born immigrants are viewed with suspicion and hostility. Later as the country vigorously adopts Sharia law and gets increasingly Islamized, we read about how women often get short shrift, how the First Lady was instrumental in forging a law that a Pakistani Muslim man not be allowed to take a second wife without the permission of the first wife.

The events in the book happen in Karachi, in Pakistan, but they might as well have happened in India. The very first sentence tells us about the tendency to leave barred windows ajar, the sounds of children playing, hawkers advertising their wares, car horns blaring, exhaust fumes blending with cooking smells painting a picture of small town and big city life that would be perfectly at home anywhere in India. There were so many cultural resonances despite the different faiths and cultures.

I liked how in their innocence the kids agree that they never liked Uncle Sohail before, but now they hate him.

The writing is beautiful, conjuring up a world of images that is at once exotic and familiar. My mother’s wide smiling mouth gathered into an uncertain tightness, as if pulled by a drawstring.

A lane of houses all mismatched in height is described as The awkwardness of a group of mismatched cousins pushed together in a hurried family portrait. 

 Two of the four stars that I have awarded are for the beautiful prose.

But the lack of a cohesiveness that binds the parallel strains gets in the way of us feeling totally invested. The history of the nation and the family are presented simultaneously, but the connection between them is tenuous at best, and sometimes there is no connection at all.

(I read this book on Edelweiss. Thank you to the author, the publisher and Edelweiss.) 

Wednesday, November 03, 2021

Book Review: KNIFE EDGE

Title: Knife Edge (The Dark Power of Three #1)
Author: David Callinan
Publisher: Endeavour Venture
Pages: 379
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Ella Fallon is miserable, teased and belittled as an ugly bitch at Winfield, the college she has been admitted to on scholarship. A straight-A student, she believes she is ugly. The only friend she has is Ed Leeming, just as intelligent and just as reviled for his looks.

Both Ella and Ed are constantly humiliated by Scott Stockton, the scion of a wealthy man, who is the biggest donor to the college. Scott is manipulative, vicious and mean.

Thomas Startz is a cosmetic surgeon who runs an enterprise called Heaven’s Gate, where he surgically alters the looks and bodies of paying clients. The biggest proof of his skill is his sister, supermodel Holly Startz.

During the graduation race, Scott pushes Ed into the valley. He survives but is in a coma.

Ella’s path crosses with Thomas, who transforms her face, opening up her world. When both Ed and Ella become more beautiful than their wildest dreams could have hoped for, they begin to long for revenge. But where will the thirst for revenge lead them?

The book highlights the fear of aging and the desire to retain one’s beauty at all costs. The story show us how beauty opens doors for the characters while those with the slightest blemish are looked down upon in a world that worships perfection. It also raises questions on how far it is okay for science to play god.

The author is good at the descriptive and narrative bits. I got a sense of the landscape, the harsh desert, the massive topographical elements.

The writing was eclectic and vibrant in some places and totally uninspired in others. In one chapter, there was a mention of a “leering, sweating and bug-eyed face staring at her triumphantly through gritted, uneven and tobacco stained teeth.” How can a face stare through teeth?

Elsewhere, the narrator tells us, “For some, the pursuit of beauty conjured its own particular terror. For others, beauty was nothing but the beginning of terror.”

Revenge is a dish best served cold, is how the phrase goes, not taken cold as it is in this book.

Scott has the look of a man, we are told, who has just noticed the lion’s cage is open and the wind has changed direction.

In Chapter 5, we are told that the Rockports were not close as a family, but the surname is Stockton throughout the book, so I wasn’t sure what the Rockport name meant.

The name, Scott Stockton, twists the tongue and sounds like a caricature, which is what the guy is.

I wonder what kind of research the author must have done before writing this book. The effort has helped ground the book, despite the futuristic setting.

I found the presentation annoying. There were no connections between scenes or any indication at all that the scene was about to shift focus or perspective, making for an abrupt change.

While in Holly’s viewpoint, the author references Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, and I was excited at the possibilities this might suggest, but that thought turned out to be literal.

All in all, there was so much that was happening in the book. It felt a bit like the author had bitten off more than he could chew. The book felt as if it were all over the place, making the resolution appear weak. It’s also very coincidental that the two persons in a coma should both recover miraculously at the same time. These random coincidences reduced the credibility of the story.

(I read this book on NetGalley. Thank you to the author, the publisher and NetGalley.) 


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...