Austenesque · stuff I read

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

43124133Summary from Goodreads:
A modern-day Muslim Pride and Prejudice for a new generation of love.

Ayesha Shamsi has a lot going on. Her dreams of being a poet have been set aside for a teaching job so she can pay off her debts to her wealthy uncle. She lives with her boisterous Muslim family and is always being reminded that her flighty younger cousin, Hafsa, is close to rejecting her one hundredth marriage proposal. Though Ayesha is lonely, she doesn’t want an arranged marriage. Then she meets Khalid who is just as smart and handsome as he is conservative and judgmental. She is irritatingly attracted to someone who looks down on her choices and dresses like he belongs in the seventh century.

Ayesha is torn between how she feels about the straightforward Khalid and the unsettling new gossip she hears about his family. Looking into the rumors, she finds she has to deal with not only what she discovers about Khalid, but also the truth she realizes about herself.

I’d been hearing about Ayesha at Last since it published in Canada last year – a Pride and Prejudice retelling set in a Toronto Muslim community.

SOLD. Where could I buy this? (Ugh, I had to wait until it got picked up in the US and then read a galley.)

Poet Ayesha (our Lizzie Bennet character) is working as a substitute high school teacher in order to repay her uncle for saving her family/paying for school after they were forced to emigrate to Canada when her reported father was killed in India. She gets roped into helping plan a youth meeting at the local Muslim community center, first to assist her cousin Hafsa (the Lydia character) and then to pretend to be Hafsa when Hafsa clearly has other (read: non-boring and more likely to lead to a financially lucrative marriage) things to do. Computer programmer Khalid (come through, Fitzwilliam Darcy) is under a lot of pressure – his father died recently, his overbearing mother is on his back about getting married, and he just got a bigoted new boss at his job who is concern-trolling his choices as a man who practices a somewhat more conservative form of Islam (she lived in Saudi Arabia for six months….qu’elle horreur). But he makes time to help with the planning committee and so he meets “Hafsa.”

Turns out they’ve also met before, at a poetry-slam. Khalid got dragged to it by his coworker, a much-less devout man determined to shake up Khalid’s more-rigid world-view. Ayesha is there – she’s kind-of dragged to it by a friend but it’s also one of the only creative outlets she has – and they immediately don’t like each other. Khalid is appalled at the mixing of the sexes, the availability of alcohol, and the fact that this Muslim woman would get up in front of an audience and recite poetry. Ayesha has already had her patience tested by “veil-chasers” and she doesn’t have time for a conservative guy who acts like women have only one place and that’s inside the home. She recites a poem clearly meant to provoke Khalid, the result of which is that he starts to admire her despite himself.

Now that the two of them are thrown together on this planning committee, Khalid starts to fall for “Hafsa” despite the fact that she isn’t a “good Muslim girl”. Ayesha tolerates him, and perhaps comes to see him as a possible friend…or more. But when Khalid’s mother gets wind of their friendship, and a specter from Khalid’s past returns, everything starts to go off the rails.

The first twenty pages aside (read at lunch before grocery shopping) I INHALED this this book. Jalaluddin very cleverly kept the bones of Austen’s masterpiece, and a few well-placed near-quotes, and used it to tell a fresh story about appearances, religious intolerance, and how a culture changes over time. I really liked how Jalaluddin allowed Khalid to re-examine how he practices Islam but he never loses his faith or throws it away; opening up his practice allows him to see that he was closed-off to those he could help, like his sister or his office-mate. Plot-wise, there aren’t too many changes from the original – “Lizzie” and “Darcy” meet, have mutual disdain, he starts to like her, there’s some rejection, they start over, then “Lydia” throws a spanner in the whole works – but the change of setting and culture puts a new spin on the whole. Oh, and when Khalid’s boss gets her comeuppance….I almost stood up on my chair and cheered. There’s even Ayesha’s Shakespeare-quoting, ex-professor Nana and sharp-eyed Nani (who gives an amazing roti cooking lesson) as stand-ins for our beloved Uncle and Aunt Gardiner. A must-read this summer.

Ayesha at Last is out today in the US, complete with that beautiful cover.

Dear FTC: I read a digitally from the publisher via Edelweiss and I have a copy of the paper book waiting for me to purchase at work.

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Austenesque · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev (The Rajes #1)

41154302Summary from Goodreads:
Award-winning author Sonali Dev launches a new series about the Rajes, an immigrant Indian family descended from royalty, who have built their lives in San Francisco…

It is a truth universally acknowledged that only in an overachieving Indian American family can a genius daughter be considered a black sheep.

Dr. Trisha Raje is San Francisco’s most acclaimed neurosurgeon. But that’s not enough for the Rajes, her influential immigrant family who’s achieved power by making its own non-negotiable rules:
· Never trust an outsider
· Never do anything to jeopardize your brother’s political aspirations
· And never, ever, defy your family
Trisha is guilty of breaking all three rules. But now she has a chance to redeem herself. So long as she doesn’t repeat old mistakes.

Up-and-coming chef DJ Caine has known people like Trisha before, people who judge him by his rough beginnings and place pedigree above character. He needs the lucrative job the Rajes offer, but he values his pride too much to indulge Trisha’s arrogance. And then he discovers that she’s the only surgeon who can save his sister’s life.

As the two clash, their assumptions crumble like the spun sugar on one of DJ’s stunning desserts. But before a future can be savored there’s a past to be reckoned with…
A family trying to build home in a new land.
A man who has never felt at home anywhere.
And a choice to be made between the two.

‘Tis a year of Austen re-tellings – Unmarriageable was out a little earlier this year (that I haven’t got to, yet, because I didn’t have a galley), Ayesha at Last is finally publishing States-side in June, an adaptation of Emma coming in August, and this month we have Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors.

In this version of Pride and Prejudice, we don’t have strict analogues for each original Austen character. Fitzwilliam Darcy is now Dr. Trisha Raje, a brilliant neurosurgeon and the younger child in a privileged Indian-American family. In undergrad she met and befriended Julia Wickham, who later almost destroyed the life and political career of Trisha’s brother Yash; Trisha has been on the outskirts of her family ever since. Feisty Lizzie is now DJ Caine (Darcy James, just to be tricky), a talented French-trained chef who moves to the Bay Area to support his sister Emma as she seeks treatment for a brain tumor that can only be removed by Trisha Raje. But removing the tumor will destroy Emma’s sight, the worst result for a visual artist. Trisha and DJ get off on the wrong foot at a Raje family ‘do he’s hired to cater and then Julia Wickham (in full hippie-white-lady-with-dreds mode) returns to town and lends an ear to Emma and DJ….

I had a little trouble getting into this book, which annoyed me as an Austen fan. I think it’s because Dev introduces SO MANY characters at once, so we’re trying to sort out who’s who and what they do and who has history, etc because it’s very expansive instead of insular. There are a lot of B-plots (Yash, older sister Nisha and her husband, Emma’s decision regarding surgery and her art, the cousin with visions who is the obvious Mary stand-in) that create a lot of extra stuff Trisha and DJ have to work around aside from the obvious “pride” and “prejudice” themes imported from the Austen original. But once I got past the first 40 pages (i.e. I put on my giant headphones in the airport terminal) and got a basic handle on who-was-who, I was able to sink right in. I really liked how Dev did a “remix” of the characters and shook everything up a bit (Julia Wickham is the only character who performs exactly the same function in this book as George Wickham does in the original).

There are two things I have issues with in this book. First, many characters in this book – Trisha first among them – violate HIPAA repeatedly and cavalierly. This is plainly irresponsible. Tangential to this is a lack of support from social work or patient advocacy for Emma (although this is what allows the Wickham character to get close to Emma and DJ, so plot bunny). Second, there is an explanation of what Julia Wickham did to Yash that draws from #metoo and gets part of it very wrong. [I’m going to do some minor spoiling – it’s not a secret that Original Wickham is a sexual predator and has a thing for teenagers so it stands to reason that Julia Wickham is a predator, too – but skip the rest of this paragraph if you want to stay un-spoiled.] Julia roofies Yash, among other things, and assaults him (this is the “incident” Trisha feels she is being punished for). When this is finally revealed to the reader, we are given the scene between Trisha and Yash talking it over from Trisha’s point-of-view – and Trisha thinks that if this came to light, that even if Yash was the victim it would set back progress women were making with #metoo (I’m paraphrasing). This is a misreading of #metoo – we don’t fight that fight just for women who are assaulted by men, but also for men assaulted by women, and so on. It’s a very tone-deaf couple of paragraphs.  Which is unfortunate because Sonali Dev gets so much of the classism, racism (DJ is biracial – Anglo-Indian and Rwandan – and he experiences racism from both his paternal family in London and from the police in the US), privilege, and misogyny right in setting her Pride and Prejudice in 2019 California.

But those things aside, I did like it a lot. An excellent vacation book to read in the airport/on the plane.

Appetite warning: This book will make you VERY hungry because DJ is an amazing chef. All food described in this book is drool-inducing.

Dear FTC: I had a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss but I also bought a paper copy after I came back from vacation.

mini-review · stuff I read · YA all the way

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman

36301029Summary from Goodreads:
Star-crossed lovers, meddling immortals, feigned identities, battles of wits, and dire warnings: these are the stuff of fairy tale, myth, and folklore that have drawn us in for centuries.

Fifteen bestselling and acclaimed authors reimagine the folklore and mythology of East and South Asia in short stories that are by turns enchanting, heartbreaking, romantic, and passionate.

Compiled by We Need Diverse Books’s Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman, the authors included in this exquisite collection are: Renée Ahdieh, Sona Charaipotra, Preeti Chhibber, Roshani Chokshi, Aliette de Bodard, Melissa de la Cruz, Julie Kagawa, Rahul Kanakia, Lori M. Lee, E. C. Myers, Cindy Pon, Aisha Saeed, Shveta Thakrar, and Alyssa Wong.

A mountain loses her heart. Two sisters transform into birds to escape captivity. A young man learns the true meaning of sacrifice. A young woman takes up her mother’s mantle and leads the dead to their final resting place.

From fantasy to science fiction to contemporary, from romance to tales of revenge, these stories will beguile readers from start to finish. For fans of Neil Gaiman’s Unnatural Creatures and Ameriie’s New York Times–bestselling Because You Love to Hate Me.

Do you like fantasy, mythology, and retellings? Do you like strong characters in your YA stories? You need A Thousand Beginnings and Endings! Such a great collection of Asian-mythology-inspired short stories from all different cultures written by YA fantasy writers at the top of their game. Out today! So much fun!

(Full disclosure: my friend Preeti has a story set at garba during Navratri, “Girls Who Twirl and Other Dangers,” in this collection and ngl, it’s my favorite ❤️)

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Austenesque · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

By the Book by Julia Sonneborn

35297218Summary from Goodreads:
An English professor struggling for tenure discovers that her ex-fiancé has just become the president of her college—and her new boss—in this whip-smart modern retelling of Jane Austen’s classic Persuasion.

Anne Corey is about to get schooled.

An English professor in California, she’s determined to score a position on the coveted tenure track at her college. All she’s got to do is get a book deal, snag a promotion, and boom! She’s in. But then Adam Martinez—her first love and ex-fiancé—shows up as the college’s new president.

Anne should be able to keep herself distracted. After all, she’s got a book to write, an aging father to take care of, and a new romance developing with the college’s insanely hot writer-in-residence. But no matter where she turns, there’s Adam, as smart and sexy as ever. As the school year advances and her long-buried feelings begin to resurface, Anne begins to wonder whether she just might get a second chance at love.

Funny, smart, and full of heart, this modern ode to Jane Austen’s classic explores what happens when we run into the demons of our past…and when they turn out not to be so bad, after all.

First of all: Persuasion is my absolute favorite Austen novel. Would pay good money to get Ciaran Hinds to read Wentworth’s letter aloud over and over (the movie fades Hinds’s and Amanda Root’s voice-overs back and forth and I’m not a fan of that, Hinds only please). Any Persuasion re-telling churned out of the Austen fan-fiction machine gets extra side-eye and skepticism from me.

Second: I have an extra-helping of skeptical for retellings that chain themselves to the original plot in lock-step. (There are retellings out there for Pride and Prejudice to which you can set your watch.) Some of the best retellings/modernizations/sequels take what they need from the bones of the story and jettison what no longer applies to twenty-first century novels.

By the Book was recommended to me by author (and bookseller) Sarah Prineas, so I decided to take a chance on it. In this setting, Anne Elliot, lonely, over-looked, middle daughter of a class-obsessed, cash-poor baronet, has been transformed into Anne Corey, an over-worked, under-appreciated English professor trying to get a tenure-track position at her liberal arts college Fairfax. Captain Wentworth, gallant naval captain rising through the ranks via his success in the Napoleonic Wars, is now Adam Martinez, a former undocumented child immigrant from Guatemala who has risen through the ranks of collegiate administration to become one of the youngest college presidents in the United States. He is Anne’s ultimate boss…and her ex-fiancé (Anne had got some less-than-stellar life advice from her advisor, Dr. Russell – cue Lady Russell – about not having a serious relationship in grad school). Entering from stage right is our Mr. Elliot – in this iteration rock star author Richard Forbes Chasen, very sexy, British, and successful, who has just taken the job of writer-in-residence at Fairfax (he gets to give a JFranz burn, and I laughed forever).

These are the bones of Austen’s original: a hero and heroine with a second-chance romance and a bit of a villain. And this is all that By the Book needs. It is a sweet and charming campus novel about a professor who is lonely and uncertain in their job prospects. It does not lock-step its plot to the original, so if you are very familiar with Persuasion (like me) you won’t quite guess the path to the denouement (y’all, if you can’t guess how this book generally ends you need to read more Austen and romance novels). Austen fans will enjoy all the little bits pulled out of Persuasion and used to flesh out the plot. Sonneborn even borrows a little bit of Wickham from Pride and Prejudice. But if you have never read Persuasion, you don’t need it to enjoy By the Book.

Anne is our protagonist throughout this book. We feel all her indecision, uncertainty, and frustration at being a single woman trying to get some respect and job security in a really, really tight job market (there is a rejection letter for her book that almost made me punch my iPad). And maybe also find a boyfriend because loneliness is the worst sometimes. I had a good chuckle every time Anne and her work-husband, Henry James-teaching professor Larry, had to deal with their tone-deaf department chair because lack of insight in administrators is a real thing. Speaking of Larry, I really liked his character. He’s an adaptation of Captain Bennick, the grief-stricken, poetry-obsessed friend of Wentworth. As Anne’s best friend, Larry is a hopelessly romantic gay man who becomes embroiled in an illicit affair with the hottest actor of the moment who is starring in an obvious Twilight-esque teen movie where Jane Eyre is a vampire (it’s hilarious, I’m not kidding). He’s always got a good quip, some timely text emojis, and an unironic love of a terrible mash-up movie (based on an uneven genre mash-up novel) even while stating he doesn’t read novels published after 1920 (see also: I laughed forever at this, too). I felt so much for him at the end of this book.

I’ve been reading some reviews of By the Book that don’t quite feel the romance or tension between Anne and Adam. This may be a fair criticism. Anne and Adam don’t spend a lot of time together (especially alone) in the book, particularly compared to genre romance novels so expectations may not be met on the page. But, in my opinion, this makes sense in the end especially given that Adam is the college president where Anne is very much his subordinate; no one with even half of Adam or Anne’s intelligence would jeopardize their academic career to get a leg up with the boss. This goes triple for women and people of color, which Anne and Adam are. Adam also makes a nice speech at one point that brings up plot-specific reasons for not trying to get with Anne once he’s at Fairfax, which I won’t spoil here. In addition, this separation between characters is exactly what happens in Persuasion. The only person who flirts with Anne Elliot is Mr. Elliot, making everyone, including Wentworth, believe that those two will marry.

I really enjoyed By the Book. I was pleasantly surprised by how deftly the update in plot was handled and I loved the warm-fuzzy feeling I got while reading (I love second-chance romances in general). I think this is also a good entry in the “campus novel” genre, because I recognized a lot of real-world things that happen on college campuses (raise your hand if you’ve ever been “volunteered” for institutional fundraising drives?). A definite recommend.

Comment: I do not like the US cover. It says “charming novel about young love set in a bookshop in the French countryside” not “campus novel about tenure-track professors at a liberal arts college within driving distance of Beverly Hills/Los Angeles.” Does anyone even ride a bicycle in this book? (There’s a motorcycle, but I don’t remember a bicycle.)

By the Book will be available on February 6.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss after someone whose taste I trust told me they thought I might like it. I’ll probably buy a paper copy to put with the Austen collection.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

33621427Summary from Goodreads:
Isma is free. After years of watching out for her younger siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she’s accepted an invitation from a mentor in America that allows her to resume a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream, to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew. When he resurfaces half a globe away, Isma’s worst fears are confirmed.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Son of a powerful political figure, he has his own birthright to live up to—or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Suddenly, two families’ fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined, in this searing novel that asks: What sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

Home Fire is the first Shamsie book I’ve managed to finish, which is a shame because I love her actual sentences. She’s always lost me when she jumps settings/characters from one time point to another – I just lose interest. This novel is much more intimate, more compressed so I didn’t feel like I was starting over with each section. I wished I had more of the story from Isma’s point-of-view, though, because I found her perspective most interesting: she is the good daughter, the “good immigrant,” the one who raised her siblings, did everything right, got herself to graduate school in the US.  Her earnestness contrasts so much with the suspicion which all Muslims, especially those with familial ties to jihadists, etc., are viewed. It is a heart-breaking story about fanaticism on both sides of the terrorism divide, the hard-liners who create policies that condemn those who step out of line no matter which side of the divide you wish to escape or repent of. The last 20 pages or so are superb.

Shamsie borrowed the frame of Sophocles’s Antigone for her characters to rail against.  Now, don’t worry.  You don’t need to have read the play to understand what’s going on. I vaguely remembered Antigone from the Oedipus cycle and had no trouble with the plot of Home Fire. I did, however, read through the play after reading the novel and Shamsie did a wonderful modernization/retelling; the character parallels are very deftly done. I wouldn’t recommend the reverse, reading the play first if you haven’t already, since I think that might spoil a plot point or two.

Comment specific to the Man Booker 2017 longlist: this is the 3rd of the 13 longlisted books I’ve read, the other two being The Underground Railroad and Lincoln in the Bardo. While I liked this one a great deal, the other two destroyed me while I was reading them (one with raw power of truth through fiction, the other with exquisite rendering of language and setting). I’ve got the other long-listers on my reading list but Home Fire is in a runner-up position for me.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss (the Sophocles I already owned).