Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Two Pound Tram by William Newton


Two Pound Tram by William Newton
First published in the UK by Bloomsbury in November 2003.

I registered my copy of this book at BookCrossing

Where to buy this book:

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How I got this book:
Swapped for on the book exchange shelves at Camping Sopalmo, Spain.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Wilfred and Duncan live in a large old house in Sussex, only ever see their parents on Wednesdays, and spend their days catching butterflies and dreaming of adventure. Then their mother elopes and their already distant father becomes hostile. So the brothers pack their camping equipment and run away from home. They already have a plan. They're going to London to buy a tram they have seen in an advertisement, and it costs two pounds...

Judging by other reviews on Amazon, this is a Marmite book that people either adore or don't get at all. Personally, I'm in the 'underwhelmed' camp! The story is an fanciful tale of two boys running away from home and buying an ancient horse-drawn tram with which they make their living. So far, so good, but I found the book so lacking in emotional detail and depth that the events described were unbelievable. The boys seem to easily float from one town to another and when crises do occur, there's always a helpful adult on hand to make everything OK again. I lost count of how many chickens the boys stole with no comeback at all! I did enjoy the local interest aspect as much of the story takes place in Worthing which I know quite well, but this wasn't enough to redeem the book.


Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by William Newton / Historical fiction / Books from England

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The Summer Of Secrets by Martina Reilly


The Summer Of Secrets by Martina Reilly
First published in the UK by Little, Brown Book Group in May 2008.

I registered my copy of this book at BookCrossing

Where to buy this book:

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How I got this book:
Swapped for on the book exchange shelf at Camping Navarrete, La Rioja, Spain

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hope Gleeson wants to go travelling, to escape her boring London life and plan a happier future. But the unthinkable happens - the plane taking her to sunnier climes experiences technical problems and crash lands. Hope is one of only seventeen people to survive, saved from death by the man sitting next to her.Hope wakes up in hospital with her best friends Adam and Julie at her side. They are taking her home to Ireland, they tell her, to recuperate. But home is the last place Hope wants to go - she has too many secrets to hide...

I was pleasantly surprised by The Summer Of Secrets having expected a lightweight chick-lit novel and ended up with something much deeper and, in places, darker. Whoever chose the cover art really isn't doing the book justice! The three friends, Hope, Julie and Adam, are well-written and nicely flawed (from a reader's point of view!). Hope's bickering with new neighbour Logan did become a little tiresome after a while making him seem flat by comparison. I liked the story's pace which kept me interested throughout and, although the ending is predictable, it is also satisfying.


Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Martina Reilly / Women's fiction / Books from Ireland

Monday, 16 October 2017

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolfe


Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolfe
First published in the UK by Hogarth Press in May 1925.

I registered my copy of this book at BookCrossing

Where to buy this book:

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How I got this book:
Swapped for at Camping Le Bois du Coderc, Perigord

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On a June morning in 1923, Clarissa Dalloway is preparing for a party and remembering her past. Elsewhere in London, Septimus Smith is suffering from shell-shock and on the brink of madness. Their days interweave and their lives converge as the party reaches its glittering climax. Here, Virginia Woolf perfected the interior monologue and the novel's lyricism and accessibility have made it one of her most popular works.

I put off reading Mrs Dalloway for months because I was somewhat underwhelmed by my previous Virginia Woolf book, The Waves. The two are very different though and, once I got started, I soon found myself engrossed in Mrs Dalloway's world. The story is written in a stream of consciousness style which takes readers deeply into the thoughts and emotions of its characters. Mrs Dalloway herself is a memorable creation and I loved seeing and experiencing Edwardian London through her eyes. Woolf's attention to detail allowed me to vividly picture streets, shops and parks, and the people therein.

Mrs Dalloway is set over the course of a single day, one in which three events threaten to completely change the lives of those involved with them, however the majority of the novel explores the innermost thoughts and memories of its characters. One man returns from India and is unsure of his place in London society, another man struggles to cope with with shell shock, and Mrs Dalloway puts the finishing touches to her party preparations. It doesn't sound like a promising read I know(!), but I think this is probably my favourite of Woolf's novels that I have read so far. Each character is completely believable and the snapshot of life felt natural. Even though the book only took a few hours to read, I became immersed in its world and felt quite bereft on finishing and leaving these people behind.


Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Virginia Woolf / Contemporary fiction / Books from England

Sunday, 15 October 2017

The Bordello Kid by Kendall Hanson


The Bordello Kid by Kendall Hanson
Published in America by Dixon-Price Publishing in August 2015.

Where to buy this book:

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How I got this book:
Received the ebook in return for signing up to the author's newsletter (not sure this offer is still running)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After Fat Jack Craft has been exiled from his mother's "boarding house," he must find a substitute lookout to protect the women who ply their trade for her. He discovers a tough young drifter, Farrell Gunn, who fits the bill, except for being shy and tongue-tied around women. When the drifter rescues a competing dove and convinces Jack's mother to take her in, the bordello discovers how dangerous the woman's past patrons can be. Can Farrell protect her, the other girls, and the boarding house, or will he be forced to flee for his life?

Author Kendall Hanson contacted me on Twitter asking if I would be interested in reading and reviewing one of his Western novels in return for signing up to his e-mail newsletter. I usually ignore this genre completely so thought it might be fun to take a chance - new year, new genre, new author - and the serendipitous discovery paid off. I very much enjoyed reading The Bordello Kid.

Set primarily in the bars and brothels of small town Seven Rivers, The Bordello Kid has an expertly evoked atmosphere which reminded me of the great TV series Deadwood. I loved our first sighting of soon-to-be lead character Farr who is described walking into town haloed by the setting sun. Hanson takes time creating believably real characters which I appreciated as the novel itself isn't particularly long. Although, obviously, portraying a sexist society, Hanson is as convincing when writing female characters as male ones so our story is definitely more thought-out historical fiction than macho shoot-em-up tale. Having said that, there are violent scenes, not gratuitous, but shocking all the same.

The Bordello Kid is the first in a series of at least four novels (so far) so I was glad to find myself reading a complete story arc within the novel. Threads are left open for sequels but with a satisfying sense of closure. I was so impressed that I swiftly downloaded the second volume, The Saloon War at Seven Rivers, to my Kindle.


Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Kendall Hanson / Western fiction / Books from America

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Cutting Room Floor by Dawn Klehr + Giveaway


The Cutting Room Floor by Dawn Klehr
Published in America by Flux on the 8th October 2013.

Where to buy this book:

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Add The Cutting Room Floor to your Goodreads

Behind-the-scenes secrets could turn deadly for Desmond and Riley .

Life in the Heights has never been easy for seventeen-year-old Riley Frost, but when she’s publicly dumped and outed at the same time, she becomes an immediate social outcast at her high school. So Riley swears off romance and throws herself into solving the shocking murder of her favorite teacher, Ms. Dunn.

Riley turns to her best friend, budding filmmaker Desmond Brandt, for help. What she doesn’t know is that Dez has been secretly directing her life, blackmailing her friends, and hoping his manipulations will make her love him. When his schemes go too far, Dez’s web of lies threatens to destroy both of their lives.



Meet the author:
Dawn Klehr is the author of the young adult thrillers: The Cutting Room Floor and If You Wrong Us.

She began her career in TV news and though she’s been on both sides of the camera, she prefers to lurk behind the lens. Mostly, she loves to get lost in stories – in film, the theater, or on the page – and is a sucker for both the sinister and the sappy. She’s currently channeling her dark side as she works on her next book.
Dawn lives in the Twin Cities with her funny husband, adorable son, and naughty dog. 

Author links: 
Goodreads ~ Facebook ~ Website ~ Twitter

And now for the giveaway!
Open internationally until the 19th of October, the prize is 3x ebooks of Dawn's other YA thriller, IF YOU WRONG US with a Pumpkin Spice Latte (that will be in the form of a Starbucks e-gift card.)

a Rafflecopter giveaway




Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Dawn Klehr / Thrillers / Books from America

Friday, 13 October 2017

Money Power Love by Joss Sheldon


Money Power Love by Joss Sheldon
Self published in the UK on the 7th October 2017.

Where to buy this book:

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How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the author

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Born on three adjacent beds, a mere three seconds apart, our three heroes are united by nature but divided by nurture. As a result of their different upbringings, they spend their lives chasing three very different things: Money, power and love. This is a human story: A tale about people like ourselves, cajoled by the whimsy of circumstance, who find themselves performing the most beautiful acts as well as the most vulgar. This is a historical story: A tale set in the early 1800s, which shines a light on how bankers, with the power to create money out of nothing, were able to shape the world we live in today. And this is a love story: A tale about three men, who fall in love with the same woman, at the very same time…

Authors like Joss Sheldon are the reason I love indie published books! Every so often I discover a unique and exciting voice such as his, writing informative and thought-provoking novels that are also great fun to read. If you've followed my Literary Flits reviews for a while you might already have seen me singing the praises of Occupied and The Little Voice. Money Power Love is just as good.

Set in the dawn of the modern banking era, Money Power Love is historical fiction, but written in a modern style. We view our four main characters as they live their divergent lives, but I was always aware that I was watching from a 21st century perspective. Sheldon's detailed descriptions of the rural Lambeth Marsh village and other locations allowed me to clearly envisage scenes and I love his characterisations, especially of cameo roles and people met in passing. I could almost imagine the BBC period drama adaptation as I read.

Our three heroes, Mayer, Archibald and Hugo, each embody an aspect of the novel's title and, as such, are preternaturally obsessed with the pursuit of money, power or love. This is a cleverly worked device. The three men only exist to illustrate the history Sheldon wants to tell and elements of their lives are frequently implausible, yet I still empathised and understood their choices - even when I knew the outcome would lead to the mess of a world in which we live today! Money Power Love teaches the side of economic history that Western capitalism doesn't want to be widely understood. The novel shows how false the ubiquitous 'hard work equals success' mantra is and explains how easy it is to make money from nothing if you move in the right social circles. It's all about who you know and who believes they owe you a favour!

Money Power Love is a novel of politics and economics, but don't be misled by that. It's is never dry, dull or boring. Lola particularly is great fun to spend time with and I kept reading pretty much non-stop as I couldn't bear to put the book aside! Another triumph for Joss Sheldon and a novel that I urge everyone to buy for at least one friend this Christmas!


Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Joss Sheldon / Historical fiction / Books from England

Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Beautiful Dead by Jun Prince + Giveaway


The Beautiful Dead: A Tale of K-Pop, Ghosts, and Nine-Tailed Fox Women by Jun Prince
Published in America by Apollo And Nyx Publishing on the 22nd September 2017

Where to buy this book:

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Add The Beautiful Dead to your Goodreads

Yubin knows she’s different than the other girls in the pop group SIITY. Yes, they all got sucked into the same machine, giving up schooling and signing ridiculously long contracts before anyone knew if they’d be successful, but that’s how pop stars are made in Korea. Yubin is supposed to be thankful for that, but she isn’t. She doesn’t even like the girls she performs with.

She’s more connected to her former schoolmate Jieun, even though all they ever do is text. Over the last two months, Jieun has become her confidant and best friend, connecting Yubin to the real world in a way she desperately needs. Now that SIITY is going to appear on the reality show The Incredible Race: Asia, Yubin will need that connection more than ever, which is why she’s devastated to discover Jieun has been dead five years and is actually haunting her.

If that weren’t enough, Yubin’s not the only SIITY member with issues. Rena’s father is emotionally abusive. Somi has a learning disability, and after a near death experience, Tae-eun becomes a nine-tailed fox woman. The only way they’ll survive the show, each other, and the supernatural currents buffeting them is to work together and win the hearts of their fans. Because if they don’t, they have nothing to go back to even if they survive what’s trying to kill them.



Meet the author:
Jun has lived in Asia for the better part of the last decade. During his years in Korea, he made a point of learning about and getting as close to the Korean entertainment industry as possible while writing his first novel "The Beautiful Dead." He enjoys telling stories about monstrous humans and humanized monsters. He has a MFA from the University of California: Riverside, graduated with a BA in English Cum Laude from the University of Washington Seattle, and attended Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea as an exchange student.


Author links: 
Goodreads ~ Facebook

And now for the giveaway!
Open internationally until the 19th of October, the prize is a signed copy of The Beautiful Dead.

a Rafflecopter giveaway




Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Jun Prince / Fantasy fiction / Books from America

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid


A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
First published in America by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in 1988.

My 1980s read for my 2017-18 Decade Challenge

I registered my copy of this book at BookCrossing

Where to buy this book:

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Wordery


How I got this book:
Bought from a Torquay charity shop

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A brilliant look at colonialism and its effects in Antigua--by the author of Annie John

"If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see. If you come by aeroplane, you will land at the V. C. Bird International Airport. Vere Cornwall (V. C.) Bird is the Prime Minister of Antigua. You may be the sort of tourist who would wonder why a Prime Minister would want an airport named after him--why not a school, why not a hospital, why not some great public monument. You are a tourist and you have not yet seen . . ."

So begins Jamaica Kincaid's expansive essay, which shows us what we have not yet seen of the ten-by-twelve-mile island in the British West Indies where she grew up. Lyrical, sardonic, and forthright by turns, in a Swiftian mode, A Small Place cannot help but amplify our vision of one small place and all that it signifies.

I wasn't prepared for the vitriolic anger of Kincaid's short book, A Small Place, or the sense of guilt on behalf of my country that it would engender. Antigua is one of many nations completely altered by a British empire presence and, as we learn from Kincaid, her people are still suffering the effects decades after their supposed independence. As readers of this essay we are taken on a tour of Antigua and are shown both the obvious tourists sites and the ruined unequal society hidden behind beautiful beaches. The perpetually under-repair library is a particularly effective metaphor. Kincaid contrasts Antiguan life for rich white and Middle Eastern immigrants against that of black Antiguans who are still unable to escape their slave and servant heritage regardless of how hard they may work. A Small Place is a powerful indictment of Empire and would be useful reading for present-day Brexiteers who seem to believe that Britain's greedy, selfish past is an era to which we should return.


Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Jamaica Kincaid / Politics / Books from Antigua

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Tale of a Boon's Wife by Fartumo Kusow


Tale of a Boon's Wife by Fartumo Kusow
First published in Canada by Second Story Press today, the 10th October 2017.

Where to buy this book:

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How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Despite her family’s threat to disown her, Idil, a young Somali woman, rejects her high Bliss status to marry Sidow, a poor Boon man. Her decision transforms her life, forcing her to face harsh and sometimes even deadly consequences for her defiance of a strict tribal hierarchy. Set in the fifteen-year period before Somalia’s 1991 Civil War, Idil’s journey is almost too hard to bear at times. Her determination to follow her heart and to pursue love over family and convention is a story that has been told across time and across cultures.

Tale Of A Boon's Wife is a very readable novel set in a wonderfully evoked Somalia. Author Fartumo Kusow has imagined an age-old tale of love across sociological divides and surrounds that narrative with rich details of Somali life culture. I loved Idil, our strong female protagonist, who defies established convention and the wills of both families in her determination to marry for love rather than social status. That the object of her love, Sidow, is of an untouchable clan of former slaves, Boons, does not deter Idil, but enrages her father and eldest brother.

We follow Idil from her rich childhood environment - her father is an army general - to Sidow's impoverished Boon farm to city destitution during the vicious civil war. In this way Kusow shows her readers many aspects of Somalia. She also addresses issues of female subjection and cultural assumptions of male superiority. I sympathised immensely with Idil's mother who was desperate for her daughter to make the best of an unfair system, even as that same system let them both down.

I was impressed with Tale Of A Boon's Wife and look forward to reading more of Kusow's work on the strength of this novel. The book felt honest and authentic throughout and helped me to understand a violent and traumatic period in Somalia's past.


Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Fartumo Kusow / Women's fiction / Books from Somalia

Monday, 9 October 2017

A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler


A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler
First published in America by Alfred A Knopf in 1998.

I registered my copy of this book at BookCrossing

Where to buy this book:

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Amazon US

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How I got this book:
Swapped for on the book exchange shelves at Camping Sopalmo, Spain

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Barnaby Gaitlin has less in life than he once had. His ex-wife Natalie left him and their native Baltimore several years ago, taking their baby daughter Opal with her. He acquired an unalterably fixed position as the black sheep of the family. And this family isn't one where black sheep are tolerated. The Gaitlins are rich and worthy, supposedly guided by their own special angel to do the right thing...

I read this fascinating novel back in 2014 and, at the time I think it was only the second Anne Tyler book I had picked up. The storyline about the delinquent son of a rich American family who has reformed and found his place in the world, but still believes himself to be a failure because he doesn't meet up to his family's ideals was an interesting one to consider, especially as I hadn't encountered this issue in fiction before. Anne Tyler writes wonderfully believable dialogue and every one of her large cast of characters are real people, even those who might only appear for half a page. This makes them easy to understand and to empathise with even when I didn't agree with certain actions or opinions.

Tyler is resolutely one of my favourite authors and I'm glad that I still have several of her novels to discover and enjoy.


Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Anne Tyler / Contemporary fiction / Books from America

Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Running Man by Gilbert Tuhabonye


The Running Man by Gilbert Tuhabonye and Gary Brozek
First published in America by John Blake in April 2007. Also published under the title This Voice In My Heart.

My 2000s read for my 2017-18 Decade Challenge

I registered my copy of this book at BookCrossing

Where to buy this book:

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How I got this book:
Bought from a Torquay charity shop

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gilbert Tuhabonye is a survivor. As a high school student in the African nation of Burundi, his dreams were of becoming a champion runner and Olympic athlete. These dreams were cruelly interrupted when the centuries-old battle between the Hutu and the Tutsi tribes found its way to his school. Fuelled by hatred, the Hutus forced more than a hundred Tutsi children and teachers into a small room and used machetes to slash most of them to death. The unfortunate ones who survived were doused with gasoline and set on fire. Gilbert lay under the bodies of his smouldering classmates for an agonising and terrifying eight hours. During this terrible ordeal, when almost all hope was lost, there was one thing that gave this remarkable young man the strength to survive - God's voice, which told him he would live through this ordeal. Gilbert was the only survivor of this terrible atrocity and he thanks his enduring faith in God for his survival.

Today, Gilbert has re-built his life and is following his dream. He now lives in the USA and is a world-class athlete and running coach, using his survival instincts to spur him on in his goal to qualify for the 2008 Olympic summer games. This gripping and emotional book brings home not only the horror of the events that took place in Africa, but how, even after such trauma, an existence can be rebuilt and forgiveness can transform a life.

The first thing I think to say about this memoir is that it is not a book for the faint-hearted. Tuhabonye does go into graphic detail of the violence he witnessed and experienced inflicted on Tutsi students by Hutu men. Secondly, this isn't really a running memoir either. Tuhabonye is indeed a runner and now a successful running coach, but that is only one aspect of his life. For me, The Running Man is a richly detailed memoir of a Burundian childhood, one which gives insights into a disappearing way of life.

Expertly ghostwritten by Gary Brozek, I found The Running Man to be a compelling read from start to finish. Chapters about Tuhabonye's idyllic childhood, his determination to gain a good education, and the importance of his religious faith, are interspersed with horrific scenes of the later violence that would force him into exile from his country. This vivid contrast heightens both narratives. I know it is important to witness and to remember genocide in the hope that eventually humans will move beyond such indiscriminate hatred, however I don't think I could have stomached reading these scenes together as a whole chapter. Tuhabonye does explain the immediate triggers of the Burundian genocide and the historical cultural inequalities in which anger had simmered for generations. Still, there's a lot about humanity that I don't think I will ever truly understand.

If you can bear (or skim read) the violence, I would highly recommend this memoir. Tuhabonye has an engaging voice and isn't afraid to show himself in negatives as well as positives. I am glad to have read this memoir, especially with its ultimate message of hope even after such a tragedy.


Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Gilbert Tuhabonye / Biography and memoir / Books from Burundi

Saturday, 7 October 2017

The Prophet by Khalil Gibran + Free Book


The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
First published in America by Alfred A Knopf in 1923.

My 1920s read for my 2017-18 Decade Challenge

Where to buy this book:

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Amazon UK FREE

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How I got this book:
Downloaded the ebook from Amazon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

'The prophet, Almustafa, has lived in the foreign city of Orphalese for 12 years and is about to board a ship which will carry him home. He is stopped by a group of people, with whom he discusses topics such as life and the human condition. The book is divided into chapters dealing with love, marriage, children, giving, eating and drinking, work, joy and sorrow, houses, clothes, buying and selling, crime and punishment, laws, freedom, reason and passion, pain, self-knowledge, teaching, friendship, talking, time, good and evil, prayer, pleasure, beauty, religion, and death.

Translated into forty languages and never out of print since its 1923 publication, The Prophet is one of those books that I 'should' have read years ago. I'm not sure if I would have appreciated it so much in my twenties though as I do in my forties. Gibran's name has cropped up relatively frequently in other novels I have read over the past couple of years so I thought it was time to give his writing a try. To be honest, I expected to be underwhelmed, reading as if this was a school-chosen book. I did not expect his words and ideas to be so easily accessible, to feel how relevant this book is to my own life, or to enjoy the gorgeous prose and imagery so much.

The Prophet is essentially a religious book so, as an atheist, I made assumptions before the first page. In reality, while Gibran assumes the existence of God, he does not hammer home any particular faith as 'the true way', but rather addresses various aspects of life - love, work, marriage, food - and has his Prophet offer ideas regarding simple and humane ways of living in harmony with our communities. The simple question and answer structure is concise and effective. I am happy that I will now have a much greater level of understanding when I see Gibran's name dropped elsewhere and I found much food for thought in his philosophy. I can quite see why The Prophet has such widespread appeal. It's a beautiful book.


Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Khalil Gibran / Philosophy / Books from Lebanon

Friday, 6 October 2017

The Last Suttee by Madhu Bazaz Wangu + Giveaway


The Last Suttee by Madhu Bazaz Wangu
Self-published in America in August 2017.

Where to buy this book:

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How I got this book:
Received a review copy via Beck Valley Book Tours

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"You must come at once if you want to stop the suttee from happening again...” This phone message summons Kumud Kuthiyala back to Neela Nagar, the blue town of her youth, and the shackled life she thought she had left behind forever...

As a nine-year-old, Kumud witnessed the brutal and horrifying suttee ritual when her beloved aunt immolated herself on the burning pyre of her dead husband. Years later, Kumud summoned the courage to escape the isolated and primitive town of her youth to start a new life in Ambayu, a metropolitan city. She began as office help at Save Girls Soul Orphanage Center and progressed to become its director. At SGSO Center, she becomes a warrior for women’s education and equal rights. She teaches young women to protect themselves from outmoded practices and rituals that victimize women.

Then a phone call informs Kumud that the suttee of a sixteen-year-old is inevitable. She has vowed that she will never let it happen again. Still haunted by her aunt’s suttee, she leaves everything behind, including her love, Shekhar Roy, to end the barbaric custom that scarred her for life, and to save the young bride from committing suttee.

As Kumud travels back to the town of her youth, long-buried memories resurface and force her to remember the life from which she fled. The town that greets her is full of contradictions. It has electricity and clean water, and a new school is open to low castes, yet superstition and prejudice abound. How can she convince the town that their centuries-old tradition is cruel and barbaric, that a widowed young woman deserves the right to live? Can she change the minds of the townspeople and the Five Elders before it’s too late?

"A stunning story of one woman’s struggle to stop the ritual of suttee. The novel weaves centuries old traditions with the stark march toward twenty-first century. It progresses with surprising plot twists, a ticking clock, and stubborn and powerful antagonist who challenges the protagonist, Kumud, to stand up to the orthodox and close-minded community"  - Bestselling author, Kathleen Shoop 

Read an excerpt HERE

What most impressed me about The Last Suttee was the volume of research that the author must have done prior to writing her novel. Authenticity streams from the pages and I now feel that I have a good understanding of not just the suttee ritual itself, but its religious and historic significance. That the ritual still has even the tiniest place in the modern world seems, of course, an incredible idea, but an entirely plausible one especially in the context of this novel.

Wangu tells her story through a series of strong characters linked by their relationships to our heroine Kumud. My main criticism of The Last Suttee would be that conversations between characters do not always feel natural and people launch into extended speeches at the drop of a hat. Their actions however are always convincing and I found it depressingly easy to understand how the young widow at the centre of the furore had been brainwashed into believing not only that she had no choice in her fate, but that suttee really was the right action to take.

Basic women's rights are a strong theme throughout this book and Wangu puts forward her arguments for emancipation over tradition without being overly preachy. I always felt characters voiced their own opinions rather than just repeating their author's words. After a gentle start, the pace and tension both build excitingly so I would almost call this a thriller by the end! There is consistently a great sense of place too. India came alive for me and I am happy to have had the opportunity to experience this thoughtful novel.


About the author
An author, artist, world-traveler and the founder of the Mindful Writers Group, Madhu Bazaz Wangu was a professor of arts and religions of India before becoming a full time writer. She has a doctorate in the Phenomenology of Religions from the University of Pittsburgh and a post-doctoral fellowship from the Harvard University. For twenty-five years, she taught at the University of Pittsburgh and Chatham College in Pennsylvania, Wellesley and Wheaton Colleges in Massachusetts, and Rhode Island College.

In 1997, Dr. Wangu voyaged around the world with students and faculty members from various American Universities for the Semester-at-Sea program. She loved the experience so much that each year she has been revisiting places of historical significance in different countries, observing the cultures, meeting the people and enjoying their cuisine.

In 2010, she founded the Mindful Writers Group, and in 2015 started a second one. She encourages writers of all levels and genres to delve deeper in their work by body-mind-heart meditation. Her CD, Meditations for Mindful Writers was released in 2011. She guides writers in meditation and writing marathons. Twice each year, Mindful Writers Groups gather for writing retreats. There, surrounded by nature, they practice sitting and walking meditations in-between long writing sessions.

Madhu B. Wangu has published numerous essays and four books on Hindu and Buddhist goddesses and Indian religions. She has held five one-person art exhibitions in India and US. Her collection, Chance Meetings: Stories About Cross-Cultural Collisions and Compassion, was published in 2015 and her debut novel, The Immigrant Wife: Her Spiritual Journey, in 2016. Currently, she is writing her second novel, The Last Suttee and a guidebook for mindful writing.

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Why I Wrote the Novel, THE LAST SUTTEE
On the morning of September 5, 1987, I was going through the Hillman Library card catalogue at the University of Pittsburgh when a friend stopped by. She told me something I would never forget. She said that an eighteen-year-old Indian woman, named Roop Kanwar, had immolated herself on the pyre of her dead husband. I was dumbfounded. Suttee in the twentieth century? It couldn’t be. But The New York Times confirmed the news. The ritual, known as suttee, was witnessed by the townspeople and thousands more came to see it from nearby villages and towns. When the news was leaked the following day, the town was swarmed for days by Indian and international journalists. I was stunned and speechless, my legs laden with lead. At that frozen moment, the seed for this book was planted.

The kernel stayed dormant, but the incident continued to sear like a wound at the back of my mind. The distress was raw, but I was not yet emotionally ready to write about what had happened and how it had affected me. In the ensuing years, I trawled libraries, bookstores, and the Internet, learning about the history of suttee and the cultural and religious traditions in which it is rooted. I studied records of the shrines dedicated to women who had committed suttee. I read the history and mythology of the namesake goddess, spelled Sati. Critically and carefully I analyzed the photographs of Sati temples and studied the engravings, drawings, and paintings of the goddess Sati and the suttee ritual that had been made by British, European, and Indian artists and travelers.

Suttee is a centuries-old Hindu ritual. This ancient belief still persists in some remote corners in India. The belief is if a widow cremates herself with her dead husband, the couple will live in heaven as they did on earth. Furthermore, such a sacrifice guarantees a place in heaven for seven generations for both sides of the family.

The ritual is rooted in the myths of two goddesses: Sati, Shiva’s wife, and Sita, Rama’s wife. Here are summaries of the myths:

Goddess Sati is the daughter of the high priest Daksha. Shiva, the world renouncer, is so awed by her yogic skills and asceticism that he grants her a boon. Sati asks to marry him. He agrees. Daksha dislikes Shiva. He finds Shiva unconventional and unkempt. Despite her father’s opposition Sati marries Shiva and they live in his mountain abode in Himalayas. 

Daksha plans a great sacrifice. He invites all the important divine beings, except Shiva. Sati feels disgraced by the way in which her father has treated her husband. On the day of the great sacrifice, she throws herself in the fire pit meant for the sacrifice. And burns herself to death. When Shiva discovers what has happened to his wife, he is outraged. He pulls out Sati’s half-burnt body, holds it on his shoulders, and in anguish and lamentations whirls around the world. 


Goddess Sita is an ideal Hindu wife. Her husband, Rama, is the center of her life. His welfare, reputation, and wishes are most important to her. One day, the demon king Ravana abducts her and takes her to his golden palace. He lies to her that he has killed Rama. Sita is horrified. She moans and tells him that it must have been her fault that her husband was killed. She warns Ravana she could burn him to ashes with the fire of her chastity, but she won’t because she did not have her husband’s permission. 


In the end, Rama defeats Ravana and brings Sita home. There he severely tests her loyalty because she has spent days under the control of another man. Sita is shocked at such an accusation. She protests her innocence. She says she has remained wholly devoted and completely faithful to him. Rama persists. 


Grieved by his false accusation, Sita asks for a funeral pyre to prove her innocence. A pyre is built, and Sita stands atop it with hands folded. Agni, the god of fire, refuses to harm her because she is innocent and pure. She returns to Rama unscathed. Yet he banishes her to a forest. 


Sati and Sita are faithful and chaste wives, and they are devoted to their husbands. The lives of these goddesses are defined by their husbands. Although their dedication and chastity are exemplary, they pay a heavy price for being wives. In both myths, fire plays an important role. Whereas Sati voluntarily kills herself, Sita is saved by Agni. Their god/husbands are alive when the women jump into the sacrificial pit or on the funeral pyre. But ordinary women’s lives are no myths. When a woman is forced into being a suttee, neither her husband nor the god of fire will save her.

The suttee ritual was outlawed by British Raj in 1829. The ritual was described as “heinous rite” when cases surfaced about widows being tied to their husband’s pyre even after being intoxicated with bhang or opium. Many reports of widows escaping and being rescued by strangers were also recorded. Still, more than a century later, scattered instances of the custom have been reported, such as Savitri Soni’s in 1973 and Charan Shah’s in 1999.

The most notorious and controversial case, however, was of Roop Kanwar. Indian people either publicly defended Roop’s action or declared that she had been murdered. Following the outcry that followed Roop Kanwar’s suttee, the government of India enacted the Rajasthan Sati Prevention Ordinance on October 1, 1987. The law makes it not only illegal to commit suttee but also illegal to glorify the ritual or coerce a woman to commit suttee. Glorification includes erecting a shrine to honor the dead woman or converting the place where immolation took place into a pilgrimage site. Derivation of any income from such activities is also banned. The law makes no distinction between a passive observer and an active promoter. Everyone is held equally guilty.

The seed for writing a book inspired by Roop Kanwar’s suttee finally sprouted in November 2009, when I wrote its first draft as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a nonprofit internet organization that supports writers in an effort to complete the initial draft of a novel in one month.

It would take me seven more years to finalize the draft.

The story continued to incubate. I developed the characters, sketched the settings, wrote the narrative and dialogue. But to birth a healthy novel and bring it to life, I had to experience the environment in which Roop Kanwar was born, lived, and died. I needed to converse with the people who allowed it to happen. I wanted to know the antagonist and protagonist’s viewpoints.

I visited India for a month in 2013 for that purpose. I went to the small towns of Deorala, where Roop Kanwar committed suttee, and Jhunjhunu, home of an imposing marble temple dedicated to faithful women who sacrifice their young lives immediately after their husbands’ deaths. The visit stirred feelings of remorse and wonder. Why did people celebrate sacrificial death? How does blind faith hide behind the stunning structure? Domestic and temple architecture, middle and high schools, ancient mansions with bedroom walls made of mirror-mosaics (some now converted to five-star hotels) were breathtakingly beautiful. The local flora and fauna were intriguing, and men and women’s attire colorful. I fell in love with the place. But I wasn’t there as a tourist. I was there to fulfill a quest, to do something about an event that jolted the core of my being.

Meeting with the people of Deorala opened my mind to the fact that a community’s worldview can be so different from my own. Yet my sorrow and awe about Roop Kanwar and my feelings about other widows like her were not alleviated by talking to Roop’s father-in-law, her brother-in-law and his wife, or their neighbors. Nor did I blame them after visiting her neglected and unkempt suttee site. However, the visit helped me better understand the point of view of the town residents. A magnificent temple dedicated to the goddess Sati, which locals honor and regard highly, further clarified their worldview.

My interview with Roop Kanwar’s father-in-law took place in the verandah outside the room where Roop lived with her husband. This was the room where she dressed herself in bridal attire and decked herself in jewelry before following her husband’s dead body to the cremation site. The room has been turned into a shrine, and Roop has become an ishtadevi, a manifestation of Narayani Satimata, a local goddess higher in the pantheon of the thousands of village goddesses of India.

When I asked to go to where Roop performed suttee, her father-in-law declined to walk along, but he did ask other men to take me there. I treaded the path that evidently Roop Kanwar, most probably intoxicated with bhang, walked with the help of two women. They followed her husband’s litter, which four male relatives carried. I was told a lamenting crowd of men, women, and children followed the dead body and Roop as they headed toward her husband’s funeral pyre.

Facing the desolate ground where the ritual had taken place twenty-six years earlier, I shed tears of pain for an eighteen-year-old who didn’t know better, and who no one came to rescue.

The characters in this novel are fictional, but the setting is historic. Writing it does not feel like redemption, for I still ache for the women of the world who are engulfed in outmoded traditions, who are uneducated and dependent. Women with so much potential to offer their families, their communities, and, most importantly, to themselves.

Undoubtedly, the world over, women have made tremendous progress. Yet, the path to elevating women’s social status has many roadblocks, and the process is slow. I sincerely hope The Last Suttee not only helps remove a block or two but also adds substance to the process of change.


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Thursday, 5 October 2017

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa


Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
First published in Japanese in Japan in 1998. English language translation by Stephen Snyder published by Picador in 2013.

One of my WorldReads from Japan

I registered my copy of this book at BookCrossing

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How I got this book:
Swapped for at Camping Ria Formosa, Cabanas de Tavira, Portugal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A woman goes into a bakery to buy a strawberry cream tart. The place is immaculate but there is no one serving so she waits. Another customer comes in. The woman tells the new arrival that she is buying her son a treat for his birthday. Every year she buys him his favourite cake; even though he died in an accident when he was six years old.

From this beginning Yoko Ogawa weaves a dark and beautiful narrative that pulls together a seemingly disconnected cast of characters. In the tradition of classical Japanese poetic collections, the stories in Revenge are linked through recurring images and motifs, as each story follows on from the one before while simultaneously introducing new characters and themes. Filled with breathtaking images, Ogawa provides us with a slice of life that is resplendent in its chaos, enthralling in its passion and chilling in its cruelty.

There is nothing excessive or extraneous in Ogawa's writing. Every word is precise, restrained and elegant yet she manages to conjure up memorably haunting and gruesome images out of initially everyday situations. I love the interlinking of the eleven stories which, in several cases, hinged on a seemingly insignificant detail - a deceased hamster for example. There is much sadness and poignancy to this book but Ogawa's imagination and gift for communication is wonderful and I would definitely read her full-length novels on the strength of these stories.


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Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith


The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith
First published in the UK by Grand Central Publishing in April 2009.

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Borrowed from my OH

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Soviet Union, 1956: Stalin is dead. With his passing, a violent regime is beginning to fracture - leaving behind a society where the police are the criminals, and the criminals are innocent. The catalyst comes when a secret manifesto composed by Stalin's successor Khrushchev is distributed to the entire nation. Its message: Stalin was a tyrant and a murderer. Its promise: The Soviet Union will transform. But there are forces at work that are unable to forgive or forget Stalin's tyranny so easily, that demand revenge of the most appalling nature.

Meanwhile, former MGB officer Leo Demidov is facing his own turmoil. The two young girls he and his wife Raisa adopted have yet to forgive him for his involvement in the murder of their parents. They are not alone. Now that the truth is out, Leo, Raisa and their family are in grave danger from someone with a grudge against Leo. Someone transformed beyond recognition into the perfect model of vengeance.

This is the 2nd in the Leo Demidov trilogy. I read them in the order 1, 3, 2 which didn't really spoil any of the over-arc for me as purely by the existence of the 3rd book, I knew Leo would live through this one!

Secret Speech refers to a speech made by Krushchev denouncing Stalin's regime which led to the beginnings of change in Soviet Russia. Much of the novel focuses on how this affected those who had been involved at 'ground level', at one point a character states that more Russians were guilty than innocent. An interesting look at this period of Soviet history because, although much of the thriller storyline is outlandish, the historical detail of suspicion, gulags and the Hungarian uprising is believable and real.


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Tuesday, 3 October 2017

The Diving-Bell And The Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby


The Diving-Bell And The Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
First published in French as Le Scaphandre et le papillon by Robert Laffont in 1997. English language translation by Jeremy Leggatt published by Fourth Estate in 1997.

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Bought at the MASH charity shop in Torquay, Devon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

'Locked-in syndrome: paralysed from head to toe, the patient, his mind intact, is imprisoned inside his own body, unable to speak or move. In my case, blinking my left eyelid is my only means of communication.'

In December 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor-in-chief of French 'Elle' and the father of two young children, suffered a massive stroke and found himself paralysed and speechless, but entirely conscious, trapped by what doctors call 'locked-in syndrome'. Using his only functioning muscle - his left eyelid - he began dictating this remarkable story, painstakingly spelling it out letter by letter. His book offers a haunting, harrowing look inside the cruel prison of locked-in syndrome, but it is also a triumph of the human spirit.

To say that this is a beautiful, an incredible, a moving memoir is completely true, but doesn't come close to doing the book justice. On the one hand we have memories full of life, colour and detail. One the other I was always painfully aware of the extreme conditions under which Bauby wrote. He brings his predicament vividly to life and manages to allow readers into his world. We see his hospital room and the beach to which his wheelchair can just about be pushed, potholes permitting. We experience his joy at seeing his children and his exhaustion after they leave. And Bauby never descends into self-pity or despair.

The Diving-Bell And The Butterfly was made into a film which I watched not too many years ago. The film is good, certainly, and portrays Bauby's life well, but reading the memoir was a far more intense experience for me. I felt as though he was speaking directly to me - which in a way he was. Trying to imagine that situation of having your mind completely alive and active while the only muscle you still control is one eyelid is enough. Living that situation while still retaining a sense of humour and not going completely mad would be beyond me.


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Monday, 2 October 2017

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut


Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
First published in America in 1963. HarperAudio edition, narrated by Tony Roberts, published in 2007.

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Bought the audiobook from Audible

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cat's Cradle is Kurt Vonnegut's satirical commentary on modern man and his madness. An apocalyptic tale of this planet's ultimate fate, it features a dwarf as the protagonist; a complete, original theology created by a calypso singer; and a vision of the future that is at once blackly fatalistic and hilariously funny. A book that left an indelible mark on an entire generation of readers, Cat's Cradle is one of this century's most important works...and Vonnegut at his very best.

I'm sure that there's still more layers to this novel that passed me by, but I enjoyed its wicked humour and sharp observations of human behaviour. The storyline is wonderfully outlandish and I would be interested to know if the science of Ice Nine is even feasible? However, it is the calypsos of the Bokononist faith that I think will be the most memorable for me. The astute comments on religion, power, learning and life are so true.


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