The Delayed Rays of a Star by Amanda Lee Koe

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The Delayed Rays of a Star by Amanda Lee Koe

Published by: Bloomsbury Publishing

Fiction: Historical Fiction, 400 pages

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Book summary:

When a photographer captures Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and Leni Riefenstahl in one frame at a party in Berlin in 1928, no one realizes the extent to which their lives will reflect the tumultuous decades that follow. Marlene crosses the Atlantic to find fame in Hollywood, the town that eats out of the palm of her hand till her wrinkles begin to show. After establishing her position as a filmmaker, Leni watches her fame turn to notoriety following the defeat of Nazi Germany. Nine and a half times out of ten films, the side characters played by Anna May must die so the white male lead can be returned to his white paramour on the screen. In the murky world these women navigate, their choices will be held up to the test of time. And the real question is, how much has anything changed?

This fierce and exquisite novel about womanhood, ambition, and art, played out against the shifting political tides of the twentieth century, introduces a mesmerizing new literary talent for our times.

About the author:

Amanda Lee Koe is the youngest winner of the Singapore Literature Prize for her first short story collection Ministry of Moral Panic which was also shortlisted for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s Internationaler Literaturpreis, and the Frankfurt Book Fair’s LiBeraturpreis. The working manuscript for her first novel, Delayed Rays of a Star , won the Henfield prize

My Review*

Thank you Bloomsbury India for this ARC. All opinions are my own.

This is historical fiction at its best with a real life photo of the enigmatic star Marlene Dietrich, the exotic Anna May Wong and an almost haughty Leni Riefenstahl taken at a party in Berlin in 1928 being the opening. The book follows the three pioneering divas: Marlene, a star who refused to be boxed in any category in terms of her sexual choices or her professional career choices; Anna Wong who is expected to play just two stereotypical Chinese tropes (the evil woman and the sacrificing Chinese woman) in Hollywood films and film director Leni Riefenstahl whose technical expertise in film making was overshadowed by her association and public praise of Hitler. The focus is on their lives, many of which are based on facts and their innermost thoughts, mostly fictional but also based on interviews and statements from the late 20s on to the very early 2000s by which time, only Riefenstahl is left alive.

The book is an ode to the craft of film making: its creative beauty and the struggles it entails, the politics and the star system, the stereotypes that cinema enforces and maintains, creative partnerships and studio decisions, the disdain and dispensability of actors after a certain age- all of this juxtaposed in the backdrop of the politically fraught era of the prelude to the rise of Hitler, the Second World War, the racial segregations that played out on screen where actors belonging to different races could not be portrayed having romantic or intimate relations.

I totally loved the way the narrative went back and forth in time and through the lives of the three women protagonists brought in fictional characters that are integral to the politics of the book: a maid and housekeeper who looks after Dietrich, someone who is a victim of sex trafficking and who gets refugee status later but who continues to face racial discrimination and token charity job hand outs and the man who comes into her life, of mixed race and who calls Dietrich as a dare set up by David Bowie to recite Rilke on the phone.

I had no idea about Anna May and Leni Riefenstahl and right after seeing the photo, had to look up on both of them and then comparing the way their real lives intersected as portrayed in the book: Dietrich and Anna May working on a film together after the Berlin party a film part that Riefenstahl was aiming for which went to Dietrich. The voices of all three are distinct but I enjoyed Riefenstahl’s cinematic views the most: fictional though it might be, her (fictional?) take down of Susan Sontag who was critical about her photography work on the Nubia tribes in Africa. The cinephile in me was laughing out loud at Leni’s reaction when she watched the final moments of the film Titanic –why couldn’t the wooden door fit both Jack and Rose in the ocean even as I was uncomfortable about her blind admiration of Hitler.

I would say, read this if you love historical fiction. Read it if you love films. Read it for the strong women who take life on the shins. Brilliant!

 

 

 

 

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

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The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Published by: Hachette India

Fiction: Psychological Thriller, 325 pages

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary:

Alicia Berenson’s life is seemingly perfect. A famous painter married to an in-demand fashion photographer, she lives in a grand house with big windows overlooking a park in one of London’s most desirable areas. One evening her husband Gabriel returns home late from a fashion shoot, and Alicia shoots him five times in the face, and then never speaks another word.

Alicia’s refusal to talk, or give any kind of explanation, turns a domestic tragedy into something far grander, a mystery that captures the public imagination and casts Alicia into notoriety. The price of her art skyrockets, and she, the silent patient, is hidden away from the tabloids and spotlight at the Grove, a secure forensic unit in North London.

Theo Faber is a criminal psychotherapist who has waited a long time for the opportunity to work with Alicia. His determination to get her to talk and unravel the mystery of why she shot her husband takes him down a twisting path into his own motivations—a search for the truth that threatens to consume him

About the author:

Alex Michaelides is the writer of the film, The Devil You Know starring Rosamund Pike. He also co-wrote The Con is On starring Uma Thurman, Tim Roth, Parker Posey and Sofia Vergara. The Silent Patient is his debut novel.

 My Review:

I was intrigued by the buzz around this book and had to read it. And boy! Quite a compelling read, it kept me hooked and desperate to know where the story was going. The book alternates between the diary entry of an acclaimed artist Alicia Berenson, who is indicted for murdering her husband in an open-and-shut case and hasn’t spoken a word since and Theo Faber, a psychotherapist who narrates the story. Alicia has been institutionalized at the Grove mental health facility where Theo has joined for work with a fascinated belief that he can reach out to Alicia. Theo finds that Alicia is being medicated to a point that she will not react, much less speak and the reader is presented with an array of characters who might not want Alicia to speak at all. Theo is the only one who believes that he can make Alicia tell her side of the story for which he is prepared to bend a few rules at the Grove even as he struggles with how it triggers his own inadequacies in his life. The tense silences between Theo and Alicia are perfectly captured, as are the frustrations that Theo battles as he tries to reach out to the later. The plot narrative plays out like a film and the reader can almost see the events unfolding and holding you in its vice like grip.

I really did expect the author to have a psychotherapy background for he has brought in the process and elements of actual therapy processes and elements that make the narrative believable. Mental health in its various forms like psychosis, paranoia etc plays a huge role in the book – not just as a back drop but as elements in a majority of its protagonists. The quotes from well known psychotherapists (Freud, Jung and others) before each section of the book is something that readers need to give some attention to so you will not be gob smacked when the big twist plays it out. The clever turn to the Euripides Greek tragedy Alcestis (referenced right in the prologue) is where the plot holds the clue to what really happened and why.

If you love a lip smacking psychological thriller, I would ask you to read this one right away – you will not be disappointed!

 

#TheSilentPatient #HachetteIndia #Fiction #PsychologicalThriller #AlexMichaelides #ReadAlong

 

One Foot on the Ground: A Life Told Through the Body by Shanta Gokhale

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One Foot on the Ground: A Life Told Through the Body by Shanta Gokhale

Published by: Speaking Tiger

Non Fiction: Autobiography, 252 pages

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary:

In this unusual, extraordinary autobiography, Shanta Gokhale—writer, translator and one of India’s most illuminating cultural commentators—traces the arc of her life over eight decades through the progress of her body, as it grows, matures and begins to wind down. Starting with her birth in 1939—in philosophic silence, till the doctor’s slap on her bottom made her bawl—she recounts her childhood, youth and middle and old age in chapters built around the many elements and processes of the physical self: tonsils and adenoids, breasts and misaligned teeth; childbirth and fluctuating weight, cancer and bunions. And through these memories emerge others, less visible but just as defining: a carefree childhood growing up in a progressive Marathi household in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park; the pleasures, in adolescence, of badminton, Kathak and hairdressing; the warmth of friends and an almost love in cold England; finding and losing a mate—twice—and bringing up her children as a single parent; the great thrill of her first translation from Marathi into English; nursing her mother, dying of cancer, as she would a baby; surviving cancer herself, and writing her second novel through the recovery.

Told with effortless humour and candour, One Foot on the Ground is the story of a life full of happiness, heartbreak, wonder and acceptance. It will rank among the finest personal histories written in India.

About the author:

Shanta Gokhale is multi faceted – a newspaper columnist, writer, translator, theatre critic, screenplay writer, and part actor. She has received two Indian National Film Awards for her documentary scripts, Two Maharashtra state awards for literary creation for her novels, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award 2015 (for her overall contribution/scholarship for performing arts and the Ooty Literary Festival Lifetime Achievement Award.

My Review:*

Thank you Speaking Tiger for this review copy. All opinions are my own.

Written in a conversational tone, Shanta Gokhale’ autobiography covers her rich life of 78 years in a succinct and almost amusing tone filled with wit that makes the reader desperate for more. The writing of a memoir through memories and association with one’s body and physiology is an interesting style and forges an intimate bond with the reader making one look at how one’s body and its various functions play milestones in our life that we really don’t register. Gokhale’s progressive parents give her and her older sibling the will and wings to be her own person but as happens with most children in India, her body falls prey to the probing hands of two people at close proximity to her family.

When one has lived through a progressive path crisscrossing an eclectic and creative sphere; when the person in question is Shanta Gokhale who is counted as one of India’s most prolific in the writing scenario, the readers goes in wanting more tidbits: more insights, more history, more anecdotes, some controversies. This memoir does not tread into this realm but stays firmly on course as a lively recant of some aspects of the author’s life.

This is not to say Gokhale has skimmed through her repertoire of life recollections or hidden them away from us: her reflections on the shame and ‘honour’ attached to the female body and the Indian social commentary over one’s skin complexion is perceptive and holds true to this day for a majority. The skin colour fixation in India is further extended to how skin colour is looked at by various people she comes to contact with at University in England. The references to popular and contemporary literature tells us that the author continues to be a voracious reader who engages with new discoveries.

 

I loved the author’s dispassionate look at the vagaries of life: illness, old age, the end of relationships and how each takes its toll on one’s mind and body. This is a memoir I wanted more of.

 

 

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

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Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Published by: Pan Macmillan

Fiction: Retelling, 466 pages

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Book summary on Goodreads:

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s too kind-hearted to collect his debts. They face poverty, until Miryem hardens her own heart and takes up his work in their village. Her success creates rumours she can turn silver into gold, which attract the fairy king of winter himself. He sets her an impossible challenge – and if she fails, she’ll die. Yet if she triumphs, it may mean a fate worse than death. And in her desperate efforts to succeed, Miryem unwittingly spins a web which draws in the unhappy daughter of a lord.

Irina’s father schemes to wed her to the tsar – he will pay any price to achieve this goal. However, the dashing tsar is not what he seems. And the secret he hides threatens to consume the lands of mortals and winter alike. Torn between deadly choices, Miryem and Irina embark on a quest. It’s one that will take them to the limits of sacrifice, power and love.

About the author:

Naomi Novik is a history buff with a particular interest in the Napoleonic era and a fondness for the work of Patrick O’Brian and Jane Austen. She is the Nebula Award Winner for her novel ‘Uprooted’. She is also the author of the acclaimed Temeraire series.

My Review*

*Thank you Pan Macmillan India for sending me a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver is an enthralling read with the character arcs of its main protagonists being fleshed off well and a narrative that keeps the pages turning: Miryem who becomes a strong and relentless moneylender when she sees people forgetting the dues to her father, but who discovers empathy and goodness in other people through the course of the story; Irina, daughter of a duke who has barely acknowledged his daughter except as marriage material for the Tsar; Wanda whose father only wants to trade her in return for drinks and who along with her two brothers lives under the shadow of beatings.

The premise is definitely the story of the German fairy tale of Miryem and Rumpelstiltskin but the setting is changed to a Russian backdrop where the dread and terror of winter is personified by the King Of Winter for whom, his people’s interest comes first even if it is at the cost of mortal people. The traditional portrayal of evil in fairy tales is given an interesting twist through the characters of the Winter King and Mirnatius, the Tsar who is consumed by an evil demon.

The face offs between Miryem and the Winter King on one hand and Irina and Mirnatius start off with the women being on the back foot and seemingly without any agency. Both women are ‘imprisoned’ but use their wisdom and faith to regain lost ground. When the two women cross paths and this is what comes off from that sisterhood:

So the fairy silver brought you a monster of fire for a husband, and me a monster of ice. We should put them in a room together and let them make us both widows.”

They find ways of fighting off the men and being the better ones over them but also acknowledge the failings of the two male leads as humane.

I sensed the subtle use of other popular fairy tales in this one: the manner in which Miryem convinces the Winter King to answer three questions asked by her every day made me think immediately of the tell a story everyday device in the One Thousand and One Nights also known as The Arabian Nights. The references to Baba Yaga and the Russian setting of the story is there too but nothing about this book is something the reader can predict: not the way Wanda and her brothers becomes integral to the story line, not the way the two main women characters first cow down, then fight and then resolve issues. I would say, read this and tell others to read too! Much recommended.