Category Archives: Authors

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells

All Systems Red Title: All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries
Author: Martha Wells
Publisher: Tor Books
ISBN: 978-0765397539
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 160
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

“All Systems Red” is such a brilliant novella that I wished it never ended, but it did and I was only too happy knowing there is a sequel which I can get to later. It is a space-thriller, a science-opera like nothing else you would have read before. At least I hadn’t earlier. Can a droid have emotions? Can robots think for themselves and be empathetic? Is that even possible? Martha Wells asks these questions in her first episode of The Murderbot Diaries (I love the name of the series by the way) and makes you think as a reader if something like this could be remotely possible in the near-future.

Our protagonist is SecUnit, an AI robot who is not only shy but also quite self-aware. The world is being run by corporates and everything needs to be approved by The Company. These androids belong to the Company and on a planet which is quite distant from ours, a team of scientists are conducting tests. SecUnit is a part of the unit that is conducting these tests. It hates humans and all it longs for is to be left alone. It also refers to itself as Murderbot (now you get the link?). And of course, a mission that isn’t theirs goes wrong and it is up to the scientists and Murderbot to work together to get to the truth.

I am overwhelmed by the writing of Wells. It doesn’t read as science fiction and it so does that you are confused what you are reading at some point, which to me is a great quality to have in a writer. The novella is also funny by the way, more so because of what Murderbot thinks and never says out loud. I found myself laughing in so many places and yet the pace of excitement never dies. The plot is tight and the conclusion doesn’t disappoint at all. Read it for sure! Get the second part as well. You would want to read it right after.

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My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent Title: My Absolute Darling
Author: Gabriel Tallent
Publisher: Fourth Estate, HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0008185220
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 432
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Once in a while, you read a book that makes you angry. Very angry. And you cannot help but cheer so madly and wildly for the underdog. The book takes over your life till you are done reading it and while it is hopeful (in small doses and so not enough), it also leaves you exhausted, frustrated and contemplative about the world you inhabit. “My Absolute Darling” by Gabriel Tallent is one such book and it is very hard to believe that it is only his debut.

“My Absolute Darling” is the kind of book that will in the most brutal manner stay with you long after you’ve finished it. It is one of those books that you wouldn’t even want to stay with you and yet it will. It is the dark “Lolita”. Nabokov’s “Lolita” looks like a bird in front of this one. The book is of the coming-of-age genre in the most raw, terrible manner. The one that no child must go through and perhaps the ones that do, mostly emerge to be the stronger ones. But as the blurb says, “Sometimes strength is not the same as courage” or “Sometimes leaving is not the only way to escape” – this book lives up to it in so many ways.

Julia (Turtle) Alveston is a survivor. She is all of fourteen and has grown-up isolated since the death of her mother. Her father, Martin, is tortured and believes that Julia is the best thing that has happened to him. So much so that he doesn’t want to let go of her. She is after all his, “absolute darling”. Turtle is physically, mentally and emotionally abused by her father. Turtle’s social existence is confined to her school, and sometimes meeting her grandfather, who she is most fond of. She doesn’t have friends. She is angry, miserable, and all she knows is how to survive and that her daddy loves her very much (she also deep down just wants to get away from all of this).

In all of this, Turtle meets Jacob, a high-school boy who reads, is funny and lives in a big clean house with his parents and sister. For once, Turtle feels some kind of normalcy in her life and starts forging friendships. But she now has to find a way to escape her old life and start anew. She wants to leave her “devoted” father. And thus begins the story of Turtle (almost more than halfway through the book). She becomes her own hero and I as a reader often found myself just hooting for her, cheering, interacting with her, wanting to hug her and tell her that it will all be okay, to reach out between the pages and scream at Martin, to perhaps even kill him.

The emotional complexities of this book are of another level. The setting of the book is the outdoors (woods along the Northern California Coast) – where Turtle lives with her father. This adds another layer of fierceness and subtext to the novel. Of how sometimes even though circumstances aren’t just about right, you can still seize what is yours if you want to. But this book thankfully, isn’t preachy. It is real. Sometimes too real.

The story is gripping. You cannot help but turn the pages and yet you don’t want to. Tallent takes you to the heart of darkness (multiple times) and leaves you hanging with what will happen next. He takes you through the maze in Turtle’s head – her confusion, her loss of expression, her self-doubt (always thinking she isn’t pretty and not worthy of anything good), self-loathing and finally being resilient to it all. There are times when words that need Turtle’s expression aren’t there and yet you know it all. The writing is that surreal and empathetic. The prose is measure, even though laborious at times, but it is worth it. Tallent has also referenced so many authors and books in this book, which to me was nothing short of brilliant and each reference made so much sense in the larger sense of the plot (I will list those down soon). There were technicalities with weapons which I didn’t get at all, but I let it go. The characters that Tallent creates are frighteningly real. Such an incident or series of incidents could be happening in your backyard and you wouldn’t know of it.

This one sentence stood out for me as an explanation for the entire book, however the entire book is peppered with so many of them: “Her moments of happiness occur right at the margin of the unbearable”.

Read this book only if you can stomach it. But read it. Make yourself stronger and read it. The prose demands to be read. The emotions most certainly do. Tallent is one author to watch out for. I loved reading this one.

A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, and Poetry by Grace Paley. Edited by Kevin Bowen and Nora Paley.

A Grace Paley Reader Title: A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, and Poetry
Author: Grace Paley
Edited by Kevin Bowen and Nora Paley
Publisher:Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN:978-0374165826
Genre: Anthology
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Grace Paley is one of those writers for which you to devote a lot of time and mind space. The reason I say this: the narrators and characters of her stories will not leave you. Her essays will haunt you long after you have finished reading them. Her verse will stay, whether you like it or not. To me, she is one of the finest I have read this year (I have of course read her works earlier as well – but scattered). I think this book also is the definite collection if you need an introduction to her work, before you move on to other books by her.

“A Grace Paley Reader” has a lot of omissions from her earlier works, but I guess as an editor they have to choose what to put and what to remove. Nonetheless, to me the span of her work mattered and this anthology touched on almost every genre in which she wrote. My favourite essays though are “A Midrash on Happiness” and also “Other People’s Children” which are very unsettling and yet so comforting – the paradox is hard to explain.

But then the sort of writer Grace Paley was, it is just very difficult to ignore her as a reader. “A Conversation with my Father” will tear you up in no time and you would wonder if a short story can do that, as it already has. Her economy of words, and at the same time the effortlessness of her prose keeps you stunned. Paley was also a feminist and that is reflective in her poems such as “Anti-Love Poem” or “Is There a Difference Between Men and Women” and my personal favourite “Letter to my Daughter”. She can do anything if you ask me and does in most of her work.

The introduction by George Saunders sums up her work beautifully in this one sentence: “Grace Paley will live in the minds of the readers she has moved, and in the minds of those she will yet move”. Need I say more after this?

 

Men without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami. Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

Title: Men Without Women: Stories
Author: Haruki Murakami
Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 9780451494627
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

When Murakami writes, you sit up and take notice. It happens to me every single time I pick up his books – he shocks me out of my existence, and takes me to a world of missing cats or women, jazz, elephants even, books – more so noir ones, and places where one loses their soul and don’t know how to get it back. His world is weird but I must also admit that it is pretty close to the one in which we live – only we don’t see it that clearly, whereas he has managed to and that’s why has the capacity to sweep us off our feet, every single time.

The same anticipation and excitement made me start his latest collection of stories (this means there is a novel coming up in 2018) “Men without Women” (inspired by Hemingway and thank God that’s where the inspiration ends). Well, let me be honest – as much as I love and adore Murakami’s writing, I wasn’t impressed initially. They all seemed to be the same kind of stories I had read in the past – about jazz, cats, women leaving men, etc. I thought it was the same but I was gladly mistaken when that perception changed as I finished the fourth story.

“What changed?” you might ask. Well, I think after the fourth story, at least to me, his stories made sense like they never had. The loneliness existed (but obviously) in each of them and there was this sense of ennui as well that loomed large, but there was something else that kept gnawing at me – something that I just cannot define. Was it my mid-life crisis (I just turned 34) that I saw being manifested in these stories? At some point, was it the realization of being lonely and perhaps abandoned by someone I love? What was it, that kept tugging at my heart relentlessly? Trust me, I tried very hard to find the answer within the pages of this collection of 7 stories (out of which I love four) that are vintage Murakami – and so be it if he has to write the way he does every single time, as long as people’s hearts and souls can relate to his written word.

Murakami’s characters are mysterious, enigmatic, call them what you might but they are just human – like you and I. The only difference is that their vulnerabilities are to be peeled – layer by layer – they don’t show it. So it could be Kino right out of a bad marriage, who opens a bar and emerges himself in it, only to understand his purpose. Or for that matter it could be the story of a successful plastic surgeon who hopelessly falls in love with a married woman (with whom and many others he has a clockwork arrangement of meeting and fucking and nothing else) and is doomed because he cannot have her. Murakami’s characters and his worlds are hidden and yet once in a while you get some glimpses of it to help you navigate through the writing, which to me is superlative.

The story that stood out most particularly for me was “Samsa in Love” – a tribute to Kafka, where Gregor Samsa woke up to find that he is human (loved the irony there) and how there is some sort of dystopian world at large outside his house, which he is unaware of, till a lady who deals with making locks makes him aware of it. This is Prague by the way – one of the few times I have read a Murakami story set outside of Japan. The pace at which this story moved – extremely fast and at the same time, leaves you with this unsettling feeling. I think most of his stories do that. They jolt you from your reverie and you don’t even realize that it has happened long after till you mull over it.

A lot of people have also criticized this collection by calling it sexist. Have they even read this collection of stories? To my mind, there is nothing sexist about it – it is if anything about empowered women who know better than men – a lot better if you ask me. They are not vague about their decision-making, nor are they women who need men – in fact it is the other way around – in all these 7 stories it is the men who want women so badly, that they might just do anything to have them in their lives. The translation by Philip Gabriel (who to my mind has translated most of Murakami’s works) and Ted Goossen shines – you can sense everything that Murakami might want to say (maybe I felt it because I have read a lot of his work?) and nothing seems to be lost to the reader.

From a recently widowed actor in the story “Drive My Car” to a teenager who has no ambition whatsoever and wants his girlfriend to date other men in “Yesterday”, Murakami’s men are there everywhere. Some of them lead lives that are content. Some that aren’t. Some who glide through life not wanting to upset the order of things and some who will challenge everything laid out for them. But they are around for sure. We just need to see them with the right set of eyes.

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo. Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes

Iza's Ballad Title: Iza’s Ballad
Author: Magda Szabo
Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1681370347
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I haven’t read too many books about mothers and daughters. I am sure there a lot of them out there but I haven’t been able to cover that territory the way I have been wanting to. Every relationship when it comes to a parent gets a little complex. There are always disagreements for sure, but we don’t realize when it leads to becoming a dysfunctional relationship from an accommodating one. It happens too fast, too soon. Families are like that I suppose and a lot of writers have written and continue to write about it. I was floored by Szabo’s earlier work “The Door” – again the relationship between two women, so I knew what I was getting into and boy was I not disappointed by it!

“Iza’s Ballad” is about Ettie – the old mother from an older world. Her daughter Iza as expected is from the modern world, with thoughts that are not aligned to those of her mother’s. Ettie is recently widowed and goes to live with Iza (who is now a doctor) in Budapest. Ettie was born and brought up without a formal education and came from a poor background. However, she ensured her daughter was well-educated and did not want for anything. Her husband Vince was a magistrate and Iza has taken after him. Ettie cannot get used to Iza’s way of living. Iza on the other hand has stopped being answerable to anyone. The traditional and the modern clash just as they did in “The Door”.

Szabo’s writing is not easy. It takes some time to get into but the translation by George Szirtes is spot on to the last detail. The reason I say this without knowing a word of Hungarian is the nuances, metaphors and folk references aren’t lost at all on the English reader. To me that is some good enough criteria of a great translation. Also, being a man he gets the intricacies of a mother-daughter relationship beautifully and only too accurately.

The concept is universal and hence almost every reader can relate to it. Szabo doesn’t waste her words and that is quite evident. In fact, in so many places, she doesn’t try too hard telling the reader, but just shows and leaves and that’s how a good book should be. “Iza’s Ballad” is an emotional ride and yet restrained – balancing the old and the new, the relationship dynamics and above all love and its transformation.