Ahad, 12 Januari 2014

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

She Rises

Posted: 11 Jan 2014 08:00 AM PST

KATE Worsley comes with glowing credentials, having been mentored by Sarah Waters, so it's no real surprise that She Rises is a very accomplished and in places quite intoxicating first novel. It is set in what may be politely described as one of the less exciting places in England, out on the flat and rather featureless east coast. But in Worsley's hands, the seafaring town of Harwich positively hums with life, a vibrant and successful port with all the human aspiration and dross that centres of trade inevitably attract.

But, its latest recruitment is far from ready for the cut and thrust of the bustling streets of Harwich. Louise Fletcher is swept from a humdrum farm life where she is a dairy maid with few, if any, prospects. She is taken to Harwich by the rather dubious Captain Handley who wants a lady's maid for his daughter Rebecca. This is a moment at which the plot creaks a little: why would a young and ignorant dairy maid with no sophistication or skills be the choice of a man who is nothing if not a man of the world.

"He told me he had great regard for me. Had heard sound report of my character," says a breathless Louise to her turnip-pulling mother, but despite her mother's reservations, Louise is clearly about to set sail, albeit metaphorically, into another life.

Setting sail in a more literal sense is the book's other protagonist, Luke, introduced to us as Louise's brother. Brutally press-ganged into a life at sea, he is knocked about the head, shackled and forced to take the money that will effectively enslave him. If he refuses to take it, he will be beaten; if he runs away, he will be caught and hanged. The King's navy is not an appealing career path for a young man, and so it proves.

The stories of Luke and Louise run in tandem throughout the book until a final twist combines them more closely than initially appears possible. Perceptive readers may well see this denouement coming, but it still arrives with considerable impact even if not, perhaps, with the full shock effect that Worsley envisaged.

The main strength of She Rises, and what a pleasure it is to write these words, is the quality of the writing. Worsley has a gift for metaphor and an ability to bring scenes vividly to life. Nowhere is this truer than of her descriptions of Harwich, viewed by the country folk amongst whom she has hitherto lived as "a wicked place" peopled with sailors and their whores. Certainly, it opens Louise's eyes. "Warehouses three or even four storeys high, towered over me. The houses were rackety as a row of sties, for all that some had squeezed out a many-paned bow window here or pinned on a pair of painted columns to frame a drunken doorway. And the smell of the place! Tar and fish and beer and far worse." But Harwich is as exciting as it is daunting: "my heart quite frankly leapt even as my land bred spirit quailed."

Also daunting and exciting in equal parts is Louise's mistress – the beautiful, capricious and contradictory Rebecca Handley, a woman destined to marry above her but with none of the skills that might enable her to run a gentleman's household.

Louise, of course, does not have them either so the first few weeks of their relationship is troubled. That, however, soon gives way to a growing mutual dependence and affection until the two are inseparable.

Running parallel to this is Luke's experience on board ship and his relationship with his self-appointed mentor Nick. And just as Harwich is brought to life by Worsley's powers of description and eye for detail, so is life aboard ship. The brutality of the 'recruitment' process is matched by the brutality of life aboard, where floggings are commonplace, limbs frequently broken and sickness rampant. But despite everything that is thrown at him, Luke survives, negotiating his way through the perils of the sea as well as the perils of the relationships that embroil him.

She Rises has many strengths and Kate Worlsey clearly has a bright writing future ahead of her. I enjoyed it but with one or two reservations. For all the brilliance of the description, there are moments when the language feels worked at. This is in some ways a stupid reservation on my part because all good writing requires working at – but somewhere between there and Keats' dictum that the words "should come as naturally as the leaves to tree", there is a balance that I do not feel is always preserved here.

Perhaps, it is one of the few signs that this is a first novel. And my other slight reservation concerns the credibility of some events and characters which it would be unfair to detail here. But I am being picky.

I would give my back teeth to have written a first novel half as accomplished as this. She Rises is clearly destined to ensure that Kate Worsley does just that.

Karma Gone Bad: How I Learned To Love Mangos, Bollywood and Water Buffalo

Posted: 11 Jan 2014 08:00 AM PST

FOR most people, India represents excitement, exotic cuisine, historical monuments, ancient folklore, and, most of all, adventure. Most people would jump at the chance to go to India, what more live there for an extended period of time. However, Jenny Feldon is not most people.

In her travelogue/memoir, Karma Gone Bad: How I Learned To Love Mangos, Bollywood And Water Buffalo, Feldon makes no secret of the fact that she is Manhattanite through and through, and she never wanted to trade the dusty, traffic-congested and familiarity of New York for the dusty, traffic-congested and totally unknown Hyderabad, even if it is only for two years.

One day, Feldon's husband, Jay, informs her that his bosses have chosen him to set up a department of the corporation, nicknamed Region 10, in Hyderabad.

While it is a good career move for Jay, it puts Feldon in two states of mind. On the one hand, she'd have to give up her career in New York, but on the other hand, she'd be going to the birth country of yoga (Feldon practises yoga religiously), she'd be an expat housewife, and she'd be able to write about her many adventures in India on her blog.

However, in reality, India was not how Feldon had imagined.

The first days and weeks saw Feldon making numerous cultural faux pas and experiencing India head-on, such as leaving the house without rupees but armed with an American Express card, which she tries to buy coffee with; trying to get herself understood with the locals in various shops; screaming with fright upon taking her first rickshaw ride; getting closely acquainted with a toilet bowl, post-Indian meal in a restaurant.

Though Feldon puts a humorous spin on her situation, she is also transparent in informing her readers that she did not adapt very well to both expat life and Hyderabad.

Being lonely and a combination of fear, irritation and frustration of being in India led Feldon down a path of depression, resulting in her becoming viciously cruel towards Jay and a tad irritating to her readers.

Feldon's constant whinging about how awful life in India is must have irritated Jay as well, as towards the end of the second part of the book, he sends her back to New York. He also uttered the word "divorce", which predictably changes Feldon's attitude towards India. With a new resolve to become a better wife and not run India down continually, Feldon finally gives in and hires staff to assist with maintaining a household finds a friend in Anjali, a fan of Feldon's blog; she re-starts yoga; tries her first ever mango; does a bit of volunteer work; and even takes part in a Bollywood-style dance with an orphanage where she volunteered.

Though Karma Gone Bad is an interesting read about life in India as seen through the eyes of a New Yorker, the bulk of it comes across as one long list of complaints about everything that is wrong with India.

This is a shame as, by the third part of the book, Feldon had started to explore more of India, describing the various monuments she visited with detail, such as her visit to the Taj Mahal.

Despite the negatives, Karma Gone Bad is an easy read – Feldon has the gift to draw her readers in. And despite her complaints, readers will root for Feldon and her attempts at trying to fit into a new culture and environment.

The verdict for Karma Gone Bad: Serious travellers (backpackers with no qualms about eating by the side of the road) best avoid this book; armchair travellers with a secret guilty pleasure of easy reading laced with bits of chick-lit and some psychology will be pleased with this offering.

As The Heart Bones Break

Posted: 11 Jan 2014 08:00 AM PST

AS The Heart Bones Break is a novel of dualities and battles, of national and communal conflict echoed in the personal.

The story of a Vietnamese immigrant to America, torn by loyalty to the country he left behind, mirrors the fractures in the land of his birth.

These include the post-World War II conflict that divided North and South Vietnam, and the various classes of Vietnamese society shaped by invading cultures from the Chinese to the French.

The protagonist, Thong, is appropriately born out of a forced sexual encounter during the bloody and confusing battles between independence-minded Viet Minh guerillas and the French government re-established after Japan's defeat in World War II.

His biological father is away at war, so he is brought up instead by a civil servant, and ultimately shaped by a third father figure in the person of a charming spy.

As Thong grows into adulthood, one conflict in the country gives way to another.

The French are replaced by Americans, who are then assailed by the Viet Cong. Thong somehow survives, emigrates to America, and there builds a career as an aerospace engineer. His high-society Vietnamese-American bride picks away at his determination to keep the past hidden, ultimately unveiling the truth, including why he kept so many things secret.

Audrey Chin sets herself a complex task with her second novel, that of telling a story which many Vietnamese – by her own admission – would rather not articulate. It is the story of those who survived the multiple conflicts that rocked Vietnam from the 1940s to the 1980s, so many that they only come clear in a helpful appendix which sets out a concise history of the country.

Reading it enlarges one's appreciation of all Thong and his compatriots survived.

The story is riveting and effortlessly draws readers into Thong's life and times.

The use of the second person is no hindrance and even enhances the intimacy of the narrative.

More confusing is the unnecessarily large cast of characters, who then fail to receive their dues.

Much is devoted in the first 50 pages to setting up the characters of Thong's biological and adopted fathers, who represent the two political forces in the country.

They are then relegated to the sidelines, with their roles in Thong's upbringing ignored in favour of the third symbolic "father", the spy.

Women such as Thong's wife Nina, and former lover Julia, not to mention his biological mother, are mostly devices to move the plot forward, and therefore seem to exist as mere vessels for the men in their lives. This may be addressed in the sequel the author is currently working on, which will focus on Nina's story.

Where this book undoubtedly scores is in prose that is descriptive and intimate without being cloying. English renderings of Vietnamese terms are woven in seamlessly and lyrically. Chin's clear vision of Vietnam's mid-20th century past is as fascinating and full-blooded as Thong's own character. I look forward to reading more stories from her perspective. – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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