Reviews: 5 fantastic books from April! (Mistry, Green, Denfeld, Jin, Gogol)

April was a rather quiet reading month with only five books, primarily because I was busy with the third draft of my manuscript, which is now complete and with my trusty beta-readers (yay!). By some stroke of luck, I enjoyed every single book I read, even if some of them took a while to complete—all of these have garnered at least a 4/5!

24. Rohinton Mistry – A Fine Balance (10 Apr)
25. John Green – The Fault in Our Stars (12 Apr)
26. Rene Denfeld – The Enchanted (15 Apr)
27. Ha Jin – In the Pond (18 Apr)
28. Nikolay Gogol – Dead Souls (Penguin Classics, trans. Robert A. Maguire) (3 May)

(Yes, the Gogol technically belongs to May, but I’m going to leave this month free for responses to my Ancient May-hem Reading Challenge.)

24. Rohinton Mistry – A Fine Balance (10 Apr)

24 - A Fine BalanceBlurb: Set in the mid-1970s in India, A Fine Balance tells the story of four unlikely people whose lives come together during a time of political turmoil soon after the government declares a “State of Internal Emergency”. Through days of bleakness and hope, their circumstances—and their fates—become inextricably linked in ways no one could have foreseen.

Written with compassion, humour and insight, A Fine Balance is a vivid, richly textured and powerful novel by one of the most gifted writers of our time.

Plot: What a stunning and intricately woven novel! So much happens in this (pretty large) book, and all of it was such a pleasure to read. Mistry beautifully weaves the numerous subplots into a dazzling patchwork quilt, where all the pieces have timely arrivals and fit perfectly. I loved how Mistry takes the time to go into the backstories of the four main characters to paint a comprehensive picture of their lives, which then opens up the understanding and acceptance of their current situation and behaviour. The novel contains a prevailing sense of the pure immenseness of life—the most unexpected things can happen, for better or for worse, but we humans are equipped with the resilience to carry on.

Characters: I honestly ended up liking every character in the book, not necessarily on a personal level, but definitely on the level of seeing them as flawed and believable human beings. Each and every character has a very strong set of motivations behind their actions, even if those factors aren’t clear-cut to either the character of the reader—I think that ambiguity adds to the novel’s beauty and brilliance, because Mistry understands people and has a uncanny ability to write about them.

Themes: Although I know very little about India’s social context immediately after the Independence and during the Emergency, I felt this novel vividly captures that fabric of that society (though, of course, I can’t comment on its “accuracy”). I think what stood out for me most was the secondary role of romantic love in the novel. Yes, there are some beautiful scenes of love, romance, and marriage, but they are only mere brushstrokes in the overall painting of life. The shift away from romantic love allows the development of other important relationships, such as those between friends and amongst family.

Language: Wonderfully written, and very easy to read. Unlike many other books set in non-Anglophone countries, Mistry doesn’t force the local languages and dialects into the narrative. As a result, the overall novel is engaging and accessible, while still maintaining a feeling of authenticity.

Overall: Okay, so I said in my “review” of Midnight’s Children that I’m not really into post-colonial Indian literature. And then I read A Fine Balance, and I’m more than happy to retract my previous statement. This novel just spoke to me in a way that few books manage to do, and I spent those ten days wishing I had more time to read because I simply wanted to gobble it up.

My only qualm was with the last three pages of the book—I found the ending for one of the four main characters very unsatisfying, and quite a cop-out. If not for that final event, I would’ve given this book a five out of five.

For those who like numbers: 4.7/5


25. John Green – The Fault in Our Stars (12 Apr)

I suppose I’m quite a latecomer here, as most of my reading friends have already come across Green’s latest novel. I don’t have much to say about it, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the novel (which I very much did)!

25 - The Fault in Our Stars Blurb: Despite the tumour-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.

Plot: The pacing is excellent, and the novel is full of little twists and turns that keep the story engaging. I suspected the direction of the book a little after meeting Augustus, but the revelation is very well-handled, and maintained my interest throughout.

Characters: All the characters were wonderful and believable, and I thought both Hazel and Augustus were brilliantly written. If we are to pick favourites, then mine would be Peter van Houten: an embittered drunk whose singular work of genius cannot offset his miserable life.

Themes: The novel does a wonderful job dissecting what it means to live, love, and die, and does so in a way that doesn’t shy away from some gritty truths. Although it’s classified as Young Adult, the book is definitely for all ages.

Language: This is one of the book’s core strengths. I’ve read one other Green before (Paper Towns), and remembered it having a good tone. The Fault in Our Stars excels in this teenage vernacular, but does so without being obnoxious. I adored the intertextuality, especially the Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot. Huge chunks of “Prufrock”? Yes, please.

Overall: A truly satisfying read. I went into this without any prior knowledge (apart from the fact that it’s been quite commercially successful), and was met with a wonderful surprise.

For those who like numbers: 4.5/5


26. Rene Denfeld – The Enchanted (15 Apr)

My local independent bookshop (The Children’s Bookshop) runs an adult book club every month, and I decided to join. This was April’s pick.

26 - EnchantedBlurb: A prisoner sits on death row in a maximum security prison. His only escape from his harsh existence is through the words he dreams about, the world he conjures around him using the power of language. For the reality of his world is brutal and stark. He is not named, nor do we know his crime. But he listens. He listens to the story of York, the prisoner in the cell next to him whose execution date has been set. He hears the lady, an investigator who is piecing together York’s past. He watches as the lady falls in love with the priest and wonders if love is still possible here. He sees the corruption and the danger as tensions in “this enchanted place” build. And he waits. For even monsters have a story…

Plot: Very well done. The pacing, revelations, backstories, and various subplots are all handled very well. I didn’t find any element of the plot “surprising” per se, and the narrative ended just as I’d expected. The overall story was still very solid and engaging, and the conclusion very right for the story, even though it wasn’t entirely “satisfying” (though I’m not sure how any ending for this kind of book could be satisfying).

Characters: Most of the characters aren’t given names, and I loved that they still stayed with me despite this. Out of everyone in the book, my heart went out to the warden the most—he seems to be the only one who is “good” within the whole narrative. Everyone else is morally ambiguous—the lady, the fallen priest, the narrator—but each has a fantastic amount of depth and substance.

Themes: At the heart of this is the rotten core of humanity: those who cheat, steal, rape, and kill. But Denfeld passes no judgement on those people or on the question of capital punishment—hers is a very fine balancing act between telling it as it is and making it beautiful. No moral judgements, just endless questions and statements about morality.

Language: Breath-taking and surreal. I was fascinated by how the heightened artifice of the language serves as a direct contrast against the stark subject matter—it’s really quite chilling that the most depraved of humanity can be presented with such beauty, fluidity, and poetry.

Overall: Very harrowing and thought-provoking at times. I read this quite quickly because I had to finish it for the book club, but the beautiful language and the underlying tension kept me going without any difficulty. Not a book I’d usually pick off the shelf, so I’m really glad that the book club “made” me read it. I’m definitely keeping Rene Denfeld on my “to-watch” list—I’d love to see what other works of fiction she might produce in the future!

And in case you’re wondering, May’s book is Gabrielle Levin’s The Collected Works of A. J. Fikry.

For those who like numbers: 4/5


27. Ha Jin – In the Pond (18 Apr)

27 - In the Pond Blurb: Shao Bin is a factory fitter in a small Chinese town, a poor and unconnected man with a young wife and a small child, but also an accomplished artist and calligrapher. He’s worked at the plant for six years, so feels that this time his family will get an apartment in Worker’s Park, where his wife won’t have to walk two miles to wash their clothes. But the Party controls everything in the town, and again the apartments go to corrupt officials and their cronies. Outraged, Bin pens a series of satirical cartoons attacking them, and finds his trouble is only just beginning.

Plot: With so many twists and turns, the mounting consequences of Shao Bin’s actions were a delight to read. The pacing is very sharp, and keeps the narrative moving—there are no stagnancies, only the growing snowball effect after Shao Bin sends his first cartoon.

Characters: Shao Bin is just wonderful—you can feel and understand all his unhappiness. I loved the superiors, though—they are nasty pieces of work, but understandably so. Jin took on the task of making corrupt officials pitiable to his audience, and he succeeds in this wonderfully.

Themes: Communism in the truest sense of the word: doing everything together, and doing your bit and staying “in the pond” for the greater good of all involved. Shao Bin diverges from this acceptable norm, which is what brings calamity against him. But, at the end of the day, social harmony is still of utmost importance, and Jin resolves all these tensions wonderfully, while maintaining the sense of individualism as well as Shao Bin’s specific character flaws.

Language: Simple and very readable. Also extremely funny, especially when the novel takes on Shao Bin’s narrative voice. There are hilarious observations scattered throughout, written in sharp and witty prose.

Overall: A lovely little book that looks at a tiny portion of Chinese society in some depth. But the real genius of the novel is that Ha Jin explores this without placing the society as the Other, something that a lot of stories set in China struggle to do, regardless of whether they were written by “native” authors.

For those who like numbers: 4/5


28. Nikolay Gogol – Dead Souls (Penguin Classics, trans. Robert A. Maguire) (3 May)

I’ve had this book on my to-read list since Year 11, when I was at the height of my obsession with 19th Century Russia (mainly in relation to Tchaikovsky). Sure, it took me a decade to actually get around to it, but better late than never!

28 - Dead SoulsBlurb: Chichikov, a mysterious stranger, arrives in a provincial town and visits a succession of landowners to make each a strange offer. The proposes to buy the names of dead serfs still registered on the census, saving their owners from paying tax on them, and to use these “souls” as collateral to re-invent himself as a gentleman. In this ebullient masterpiece, Gogol created a grotesque gallery of human types, from the bear-like Sobakevich to the insubstantial fool Manilov, and, above all, the devilish con man Chichikov. Dead Souls, Russia’s first major novel, is one of the most unusual works of nineteenth-century fiction and a devastating satire on social hypocrisy.

Plot: This is a really difficult point to discuss because huge chunks of the manuscript are missing, and some parts of the narration become a little disjointed as a result. Although the basic plot of the novel is simple enough, the various landowners Chichikov meets and those meetings’ consequences provide some very engaging subplots. I particularly enjoyed the bargaining with Korobochka, a non-too-intelligent widow, as well as Tentetnikov’s entire subplot and backstory.

I found the first third or so a little difficult to get through, but the novel starts to pick up once it starts providing Chichikov’s backstory. With it, his motivations and underlying goals become much clearer, and the narrative more enjoyable. The ending gave me a bit to think about, especially since the novel drops off mid-sentence. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that—on the one hand, I want to know what happens, dammit, whereas on the other hand, the incompleteness gives a nice touch to the novel’s concerns with morality and the human soul, which is perhaps just as incomplete. Now, if only we could email Gogol and ask him whether the ending was intentional…

Characters: As with the plot, I found it difficult relating to the characters in the beginning, but this changed by the time Chichikov met his third or fourth landowner. I especially enjoyed Korobochka (perhaps because she brought forth a sad kind of humour to the whole situation), and Plyushkin gave me pause for thought. I also really loved the appearance of Mourazov at the novel’s end, and how he is one of the few good ones—his words and actions to and on behalf of Chichikov are reminders that not all humans possess depraved and destitute souls.

Themes: In a nutshell: everything bad and corrupt about Russian society. The novel drips with immorality, creating a pool of filth with barely a possibility for redemption. But some characters, few as they are, do offer the slightest glimmer of hope—and, in light of the context, they are refreshing and inspiring moments.

Language: Gogol’s is a very intrusive narrator, often pausing the narrative mid-scene on a whim, and digressing for quite a few pages. At first, I found this a little annoying—especially when the narrator refuses to reveal certain information, citing the reason of being physically unable to put pen to paper regarding those details—but this eventually grew on me as he provides stylistic justifications for his particular type of story-telling. By the time I reached the end, I was engrossed in the style of narration as well as the narrative itself.

Overall: I had hoped I would enjoy this novel (especially after a decade of anticipation!), and although the beginning was a little difficult, Gogol and I eventually got there at the end. I think I may have just needed some time to adjust to the narrative style, and if I ever re-read the book, I’ll probably get a lot more enjoyment out of it.

For those who like numbers: 4/5


 

Intrigued by any of these titles? Have a different opinion on a book you’ve also read? Let me know in the comments!

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