Book Review: A People’s History of Heaven

A People’s History of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian

A politically driven graffiti artist. A transgender Christian convert. A blind girl who loves to dance. A queer daughter of a hijabi union leader. These are some of the young women who live in a Bangalore slum known as Heaven, young women whom readers will come to love in the moving, atmospheric, and deeply inspiring debut, A People’s History of Heaven.

Welcome to Heaven, a thirty-year-old slum hidden between brand-new high-rise apartment buildings and technology incubators in contemporary Bangalore, one of India’s fastest-growing cities. In Heaven, you will come to know a community made up almost entirely of women, mothers and daughters who have been abandoned by their men when no male heir was produced. Living hand-to-mouth and constantly struggling against the city government who wants to bulldoze their homes and build yet more glass high-rises, these women, young and old, gladly support one another, sharing whatever they can.

A People’s History of Heaven centers on five best friends, girls who go to school together, a diverse group who love and accept one another unconditionally, pulling one another through crises and providing emotional, physical, and financial support. Together they wage war on the bulldozers that would bury their homes, and, ultimately, on the city that does not care what happens to them.

This is a story about geography, history, and strength, about love and friendship, about fighting for the people and places we love–even if no one else knows they exist. Elegant, poetic, bursting with color, Mathangi Subramanian’s novel is a moving and celebratory story of girls on the cusp of adulthood who find joy just in the basic act of living.

Review:
This book took me by storm and I was immediately pulled into the world of these 5 young women living in a slum in Bangalore called Heaven. This is the story of these 5 girls: what their lives are like, what their home life is like, their expectations and how it’s different for men and boys, what it means to them to get an education, how they take care of each other and their community, what it is not to fit in, friendship, and acceptance.
The book goes back in time to describe how each girl got to where is is, what her challenges are — from being blind, transgender, gay, having fathers who leave — and what she dreams for herself as the bulldozers in the current day hover over their homes threatening to plow them over. It is also the story of their mothers and even grandmothers because all of these stories are intertwined. There are a lot of characters in this book, but I found it wasn’t overly difficult to keep track of them because they each had their own personality fleshed out so well.
This is a richly and wonderfully told story. The words and images that Subramanian conjures up are vivid, startling, and wonderful. There were some sentences that stopped me in my tracks and I had to read them over.
However, the flip side is that the writing was hard for me sometimes because it was so full of sentence fragments. They were not used sparingly for effect, but were used all the time. I imagine that it is simply the author’s style, but I found it halted the flow of the book. If this doesn’t bother you or you can get past it, then I would definitely recommend this book. It is an honest and important portrayal of the women and girls in Heaven.
Thank you to Netgalley and Algonquin Books for a review copy of this book.
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Book Review: How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

How to Stop Time

by Matt Haig, illustrated by Chris Riddell

“The first rule is that you don’t fall in love, ‘ he said… ‘There are other rules too, but that is the main one. No falling in love. No staying in love. No daydreaming of love. If you stick to this you will just about be okay.'”

A love story across the ages – and for the ages – about a man lost in time, the woman who could save him, and the lifetimes it can take to learn how to live

Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he’s been alive for centuries. Tom has lived history–performing with Shakespeare, exploring the high seas with Captain Cook, and sharing cocktails with Fitzgerald. Now, he just wants an ordinary life.

So Tom moves back to London, his old home, to become a high school history teacher–the perfect job for someone who has witnessed the city’s history first hand. Better yet, a captivating French teacher at his school seems fascinated by him. But the Albatross Society, the secretive group which protects people like Tom, has one rule: never fall in love. As painful memories of his past and the erratic behavior of the Society’s watchful leader threaten to derail his new life and romance, the one thing he can’t have just happens to be the one thing that might save him. Tom will have to decide once and for all whether to remain stuck in the past, or finally begin living in the present.

How to Stop Time is a bighearted, wildly original novel about losing and finding yourself, the inevitability of change, and how with enough time to learn, we just might find happiness.

Review:
How to Stop Time is one of those cozy weekend reads full of interesting storytelling and thoughtful takes on love and life. This, combined with the amazing illustrations by Chris Riddell, make the book a real treat (I bought the illustrated version — well worth it!).

 

I love how Haig uses the character of Tom, a man who ages extremely slowly, to explore themes about what it means to really live and the value of love, things like the difference between existing and living, and is it worth loving someone if you will inevitably watch them age and die while you don’t. These are great questions to explore and Haig does it in a way that doesn’t seem “heavy”.

 

Tom was an interesting character — he’d seen amazing things and met influential people in his long life, but he lived in fear of being exposed and this influenced his every action and thought. The one criticism I have of this book is that sometimes Tom gets a bit dragged down in his thoughts and fears and it slows the book down and feels repetitive at times.

 

However, the ending more than made up for this and I would recommend this book for a thoughtful read, complete with historic adventures.

 

And, something new, here’s my review turned into a video! I’d love to know what you think.

 

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Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned — from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren — an enigmatic artist and single mother — who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town–and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.

Review:

Little Fires Everywhere is an interesting book full of dichotomies and symbolism around fires and starting over.

The story is set in the planned, manicured, and carefully regulated community of Shaker Heights where the Richardson family lives. They follow the rules and have a lovely, upper class suburban life, especially the mother, Elena.

Elena rents an apartment she owns to Mia and Pearl — and Mia is Elena’s polar opposite: an artistic, single mom rebel whose possessions fit in her car.

These two families are juxtaposed very well in this book, neither one quite understanding, and are rather suspicious of, the other. It’s easy to be drawn to the bohemian Mia and her carefree ways, though there were times when she annoyed me, especially when it came to her daughter’s needs. On the other hand, Elena was harder to like, but I did feel for her and her self-imposed need to do everything “right.” How each of these women mothers is scrutinized and neither is perfect, though it could be argued they are each doing the best that they can.

This leads the book to exploring nearly every aspect of what makes a mother and how to become a mother — pregnancy, miscarriage and infertility, adoption, abortion, surrogacy, virgin birth, kidnapping, …

Overall, I did enjoy this book, though it is a bit on the slow side, opting more to explore the characters and the themes rather than having lots of action.

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