Category Archives: South Asian American

Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood by Varsha Bajaj

Abby Spencer Goes to BollywoodOkay, so what are the chances?! Varsha Bajaj‘s exuberant debut middle grade novel begins with a food allergy that sends her teen protagonist, the titular Abby Spencer, to the ER with an anaphylactic reaction. Talk about eerily prescient – less than 12 hours later, I’m repeating Abby’s opening number, Benadryl shot “meant for the baby hippo,” ambulance, and all. Before old age kills me, overcautious doctors will, egads!

“‘No one in my family is allergic to coconut,’” Abby’s mother tells the ER staff. “‘What about Abby’s father?’” is, naturally, the next question the doctor asks. At 13, Abby has spent her life explaining “‘Families come in all shapes and sizes’” when kids voiced curiosity about her absent paternal parent. Sure, she’s wondered, but Abby’s ever-caring mother and doting maternal grandparents have been all the family she’s needed … until now.

That coconut allergy is reason enough to want to know more at least about her medical inheritance. Although her mother is ready with a few answers, the internet ends up providing far more: Abby’s father, who has changed his name since he was a college student in Dallas with her mother, turns out to be Bollywood’s most famous mega-star. After a few fraught phone calls and Skype sessions, Abby’s flying first-class to Mumbai, to a family she never even knew she had … not to mention more glamor and surprises than she could ever have imagined.

Bajaj occasionally tries too hard to make her teen tale contemporary, even as she mixes in Taylor Lautner and Simon Cowell with the 1960s Jetsons and a so-called “PBS voice,” all in a few pages. If nothing else, such references are more likely to unnecessarily date her modern fairy tale. That said, Bajaj carefully presents Abby’s unexpected journey to the other side of the world as quite the eye-opening experience. Mingling with the over-the-top fabulous are important glimmers of reality: the grinding personal price of fame, the paralyzing consequences of tradition, parental neglect however unintended, the extreme poverty amidst vast luxuries that teems throughout Mumbai.

Young readers in search of an international adventure will surely enjoy accompanying Abby on the page. Bajaj’s vivid descriptions of paneer and pooris should inspire repeated visits to an Indian kitchen. Place an order for takeout, then queue up Dhoom 1, 2, or 3. Although no one compares to my Aamir, I’m guessing Abby’s Dad is not unlike Hrithik Roshan: “Dhoom again and run away with me on a roller coaster ride, dhoom again and see your wildest dreams slowly come alive.” Dancing yet …?

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, Hapa, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American

King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Christiane Krömer

King for a DayWith the arrival of the spring festival in Lahore, Pakistan, no one is more excited than Malik who is ready for the upcoming kite-flying battles armed with Falcon. “‘How can you be king of Basant with only one kite?’” his sister teases. “‘Insha Allah, it will be fast enough,’” he happily insists.

Directing from his wheelchair on the family’s rooftop, Malik sends his brother “downwind so he can catch the kites I will set free.” His sister remains nearby, carefully following his instructions. Together, the children take on the bully next door, whose hurtful words and powerful kites are no match for Falcon. Once he’s defeated the enemy, Falcon continues to pluck kite after kite from the sky: “When they land, they’ll belong to whoever finds them. But at least they will have tasted freedom.”

Malik is not only king of Basant for his aerial prowess, but even more so for his earthbound kindness as he manages – anonymously! – to stop the tears of a little girl who becomes the bully’s next victim. Joyfully, he’s already planning for next year: “And tomorrow I will start designing a new kite … for next Basant when, Insha Allah, I will be king again.” By highlighting Malik’s many other strengths and talents, author Rukhsana Khan seamlessly presents a hero who is much more than his physical challenges: His patience and skill prove stronger than any bully’s cruelty and greed.

Christiane Krömer, who “specializes in illustrating stories that feature cultures from around the world,” uses multi-layered, mixed-media collages to enhance Khan’s caring story: unexpected combinations of delicate embroidery and rougher textures add depth, carefully placed architectural specifics ground the narrative, while the depiction of a teeny-tiny black cat who is the sole witness to Malik’s secret thoughtfulness turns out to be the perfect ‘show-don’t-tell’ detail.

In the endnote “About Basant,” Canada-based Khan gives a cultural and historical overview of Basant in her birthcountry of Pakistan. She explains in the final paragraph how “kite flying and the celebration of Basant in Lahore were banned for safety reasons and for security concerns due to orthodox religious opposition.” According to a recent Pakistani media article, “Hundreds have died in Basant related accidents in the past decade”! Khan mentions that 2013 was supposed to bring a return of Basant to Lahore, but activities remained cancelled until this year. At least in Lahore, Basant officially returns February 21 until March 5, 2014. Here’s to the promise to lofty adventures ahead!

Click here to see Khan’s other titles on BookDragon.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Pakistani, Pakistani American, South Asian American

The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey

Sleeping DictionaryAfter 10 installments of her award-winning Rei Shimura mysteries, DC-area-based Sujata Massey goes historical with her latest Dictionary, published this summer after six years in the making. Dictionary marks the debut of a new series Massey intends, The Daughters of Bengal, each set in India. Given a choice between 500 pages in print or 16-plus hours stuck in the ears, choose the latter: Sneha Mathan’s crisp, enhancing narration adds both authenticity and depth.

From beloved daughter Pom (“our father … would sometimes say that a daughter’s life lengthened a father’s life and that for having three strong girls he might live to one hundred”), to freedom fighter Kamala (“‘you are too valuable to risk being arrested’”), to cherished wife and mother (“he held me as if the past had never happened”; “Your loving daughter, Kabita Zeenat Hazel Smith”), Dictionary follows the trajectory of a determined young woman through two of India’s most tumultuous decades when the sprawling country moves from colonial British rule to violently fractured independence.

Orphaned as a young girl in 1930 when a tidal wave destroys her West Bengal village, Pom is reborn as Sarah, a Christian servant at the girls-only Lockwood School. Alternatively abused and ignored, she tenaciously manages to learn more than the privileged British and Indian students. When she’s accused of a terrible crime, she barely escapes; before she reaches her intended destination of Calcutta, she mistakenly disembarks in the smaller city of Kharagpur where her new life as Miss Pamela keeps her trapped for too many years. By the time she finally arrives in Calcutta and becomes Kamala, she has more secrets than baggage. Her love of books – the only vestige of her truncated childhood – saves her again and again, especially in leading her new friends close enough to be family, fellow citizens committed to a greater cause, and even everlasting love.

Combining history, social commentary, espionage (Massey’s literary reputation thus far is based on thrillers, after all), and love-story-across-race-and-class-lines (British-born, Minnesota-raised Massey herself is hapa Indian and German), Dictionary is an intricate journey that occasionally lingers a bit too long (Kamala’s not-quite relationship with Pankaj), then suddenly speeds through rather too conveniently to its ending (no spoilers!). That said, learning the original meaning and history of the title alone was worth the read, especially as Massey adds her own literary layers. Besides, bumpy journeys can often be quite enlightening, detours and all.

Tidbit: Well, how interesting … look what Google pulled up: this no-relation-to-Massey’s-novel, celluloid Sleeping Dictionary features quite the high-power cast (Hugh Dancy as the dispatched English officer, Jessica Alba as the lowly local girl – I just have to cringe for so many reasons! – Brenda Blethyn, Bob Hoskins!). But it never went to the big screen, landing straight to video in 2003. Has anyone seen it?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Hapa, Indian, Indian African, South Asian, South Asian American

The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Abigail Halpin

Grand Plan to Fix EverythingYou could just start reading Uma Krishnaswami‘s recent middle grade cross-cultural adventure and thoroughly enjoy it, but why have only half the fun? To maximize the knowing giggles, make sure to start with Dini’s 2011 debut in The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. Then check out this engaging latest Problem.

Spring break in Swapnagiri, South India, has brought Dini and her father back Stateside for a visit home in the DC suburbs. And who else has traveled half-way around the world but Bollywood’s favorite sweetheart, Dolly Singh, and her own true love, Chickoo Uncle? In just a week, Dolly is scheduled to premiere her latest dazzling film at … wait for it … the Smithsonian Institution, naturally!

Before she’s even arrived at her hotel, the fabulous Dolly has managed to lose her passport, not to mention at least a few sparkly baubles. That’s just the beginning of the many challenges that include runaway elephants, caterers absconded by the White House, Chickoo Uncle’s tranquilized experience, a cantankerous chef with a botanical complex, and so much more. Somehow, Dini and her best friend Maddie must make sure that opening night will be a spectacular success. Besides, there’s nothing a rose petal milk shake can’t fix, right?

Krishnaswami’s perfectly-pitched, can-do, chatty prose is again enchantingly enhanced by Abigail Halpin‘s whimsical art. Here’s hoping the delightful duo is planning many more multi-culti capers to come!

Tidbit: So, Smithsonian groupies … can you say SALTAF with a pachydermatous twist?! SALTAF refers to the annual South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival which happened every fall at SI for almost a decade; let’s hope it gets reinstated in the near future, ahem! Wouldn’t you know, Uma Krishnaswami made her own Smithsonian debut at SALTAF 2005, which just happened that year to host the U.S. premiere of Deepa Mehta‘s stunning, Oscar-nominated film, Water! Inspirational history …? I’m just saying …

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, Indian American, South Asian American

The Caretaker by A.X. Ahmad

CaretakerFor you DC-area-locals who were wondering, debut novelist A.X. Ahmad is one of us … I tell you that, not to make stalking easy, but to share with you book group groupies that, according to Ahmad’s website, he just might be available to join your gathering “… if you live within driving distance of Washington, D.C.” Really, I’m just quoting!

Let me also say that should you decide to stalk … I mean request! … him at an upcoming meeting, your groupies will have much to discuss. Caretaker is full of Very Important Topics to deliberate and dissect, from post-9/11 profiling, to military cover-ups, itinerant illegal immigrant workers, racial and socioeconomic hierarchies, political elites, the Pakistan/India divide, the North Korean threat, not to mention the more mundane issues like infidelity, mental instability, and the overprivileged lives of the rich and famous – all reaching boiling point together in one blood-pressure cooker of a ride.

Ahmad’s peripatetic thriller moves back and forth between a disputed glacier border 20,000 feet up in the sky, down to an exclusive island getaway on the other side of the world. His protagonist is a former Sikh Indian Army Captain, Ranjit Singh, who is forced to flee his home country after a tragic military disaster, and eventually lands on the posh Martha’s Vineyard hoping to ride out the off-season with multiple caretaking jobs for owners of empty luxury homes.

Unable to afford to keep his family even in a disintegrating rental, Ranjit risks temporarily relocating to the waterfront estate of a Massachusetts Senator, just for a few days while he attempts to arrange alternative accommodations. The family’s plush enjoyment is interrupted when two men enter overnight, setting in motion a chain of runaway events from betrayal to deportation to murder. Guided by the ghost of a fellow Indian officer and assisted by a terminally ill American veteran, Ranjit’s survival depends on an antique doll, a computer-savvy relative-by-marriage, and an override alarm code of BLUESKY.

If you choose to be aurally thrilled, the inimitable Sam Dastor will keep you running for hours (almost 11, to be more accurate). Dastor’s previous suspenseful experiences – he also voices Delhi-based Tarquin Hall‘s fabulous Vish Puri series – expertly enhances Ahmad’s prose. Hopefully Dastor’s reading days are not fully committed; Ahmad’s website also reveals that Caretaker is the “first in a trilogy,” an enticing promise of more chills and thrills ahead.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri‘s (The Interpreter of Maladies) unparalleled ability to transform the smallest moments into whole lives pinnacles in this extraordinary story of two brothers – so close that one is “the other side” of the other – coming of age in the political tumult of 1960s India. They are separated as adults, with Subhash, the elder, choosing an academic career in the United States and the more daring Udayan remaining in Calcutta, committed to correcting the inequities of his country. Udayan’s political participation will haunt four generations, from his parents, who renounce the future, to his wife and his brother, who attempt to protect it, to the daughter and granddaughter who will never know him.

Verdict: Lahiri is remarkable, achieving multi-layered meaning in an act as simple as “banging the edge of the lid three or four times with a spoon, to break the seal”; this, her second novel and fourth title, is deservedly one of this year’s most anticipated books. Banal words of praise simply won’t do justice – perhaps what is needed is a three-word directive: just read it.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, August 15, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Grandma and the Great Gourd: A Bengali Folktale by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, illustrated by Susy Pilgrim Waters + Author Interview


When I recently caught up with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, she was in one of her rare lull periods at home in Houston, Texas, having finished almost three solid months of book touring for her latest novel, Oleander Girl. Like her latest protagonist, Korobi Roy, a young woman from Kolkata who crisscrosses the United States on a personal quest, Divakaruni, too, took to planes, trains, and automobiles, from one coast to another and back again to reconnect with her readers.

“It’s great to be home,” she confesses, “although I’m getting very little done.” She has less than a month left before classes start again – she teaches writing at the University of Houston – and has started “just a little” that waiting next novel. She’s recently gone digital, tinkering with a new personal website, which she proudly “overhauled” completely on her own. Her two college-age sons are home for the summer, so for a few more weeks, they get most of her attention – and her home cooking!

Since she published her first collection of poems, Black Candle, in 1991, Divakaruni has managed a near annual output across multiple platforms, from poetry, to short stories (Arranged Marriage, The Unknown Errors of Our Lives), to middle-grade titles (Neela: Victory Song and the three-volume Brotherhood of the Conch trilogy), and her best-known, bestselling medium, adult novels including The Mistress of Spices, Queen of Dreams, and One Amazing Thing. A novel and short story have been transformed for the stage, while two other novels and another short story have had film debuts. In the latest glitterati film news, her penultimate novel, One Amazing Thing, just got optioned by Hollywood.

Earlier this year in March, Divakaruni added her first children’s picture book to her growing oeuvre: Grandma and the Great Gourd: A Bengali Folktale, based on a favorite story her beloved grandfather shared in her youth, now vibrantly illustrated collage-style by artist Susy Pilgrim Waters. As celebratory as Divakaruni is, the timing of the book’s publication remains bittersweet for the whole family: Juno, the beloved family dog who has been Divakaruni’s personal muse for years – “when I am mired in writer’s block, I rub her belly” – passed away a few months ago. Juno herself “inspired” Divakaruni to write this clever rendition of Grandma, about an audacious grandmother who braves the dangerous jungles to visit her daughter and grandchildren, protected from afar by her beloved canine companions. “‘What’s life without a little adventure?’” Grandma muses; clearly she’s channeling some of Divakaruni’s far-reaching energy.

That “can-do” attitude is clearly displayed in Divakaruni’s seventh adult novel, Oleander Girl. Korobi, who was protected, coddled, and carefully raised by her traditional grandparents since she lost both her parents at birth, decides, at just nineteen, she will venture beyond everything she has ever known in order to find out who she really is. Her grandfather has suddenly died, but his death finally frees Korobi – and her hesitant grandmother – to discover the truth about Korobi’s parents and their long-buried relationship. Although Korobi is engaged to one of Kolkata’s most eligible young men, she realizes she cannot enter marriage without having a better understanding of her Indian future, which is only possible by discovering her American past. The question looms: when she returns home, if she returns home, who will she be to the people who love her most?

The first thing I must know about Oleander Girl is how you chose the name – Anuradha Roy – for Korobi’s mother? A real-life Anuradha Roy wrote An Atlas of Impossible Longing and The Folded Earth. Is your character’s name mere coincidence?
It’s a coincidence. It’s a fairly common name in Kolkata – I had several friends in school who were Anuradhas! And Roy, too, is a very old name, which goes back a century at least.

When we talked almost a decade ago about Queen of Dreams, it was your favorite among your novels. You’ve had several titles since. Do you feel the same? I know choosing a favorite is something akin to naming a favorite child, so I’m asking as delicately as possible…
Yes, it’s tricky to choose a favorite. But right now it is Oleander Girl, because I gave myself some new challenges in this novel and was pleased at how they turned out. For one, I wanted a book that captured the pulsating heart of contemporary Kolkata, caught between the old and the new, and this was a challenge because although I visit regularly, I haven’t lived in Kolkata in thirty years. The other thing I wanted to do is to showcase multiple narrators of different genders. The main narrator (in first person) is Korobi, the heroine who goes on a journey across the world in search of a secret that will transform her. But I was particularly pleased at how the male voices – especially that of Asif, the chauffeur, turned out. It allowed me to weave together the complex class interactions that are such a big part of Indian society.  [... click here for more]

Author interviewFeature: “An Interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni,”, August 2013

Readers: Children, Adult

Published: 2013

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A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Fine BalanceReading four novels, each set in a major Indian city, one after another over a single week or so, has made the stories feel as if they might overlap, dovetail, conflate, creating quite the enriching literary experience. In the midst of A Fine Balance, I also read (oh so blessedly because it was assigned for review) Jhumpa Lahiri’s upcoming The Lowland, then continued with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Oleander Girl (interview upcoming) on the page, and Jeet Thayil’s Narcoplis (finally!) stuck in the ears. Both Lowland and Oleander happen mostly in Calcutta; Balance is centered on an unnamed city not unlike Bombay, which is where Narcoplis is setRead together, the four titles formed a quatrain that intently examines the last half-century of Indian political, socioeconomic, and even literary history.

But I’ve digressed (again …). Back to Mistry’s “City by the Sea,” where four lonely souls create an unlikely family-of-sorts when circumstances eventually gather them under a single shared roof, in spite of the political, social, and religious boundaries working relentlessly to keep them separately isolated. India in the 1970s is in the midst of violent upheaval, in a state of emergency declared by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Dina Dalal, whose apartment will finally become a home, has been a widow exponentially longer than she was a wife. With her eyesight failing and her options diminishing as she enters middle age, she welcomes a college student, Maneck Kohlah, the son of a childhood schoolfriend, as a paying guest. He arrives on Dina’s doorstep at the same time as Ishvar and Omprakash Darji, uncle-and-nephew tailors who have come in answer to her employment request.

Dina and Maneck are Parsi, of ‘good’ families with long histories, whose lives are forced to change rapidly as their country metamorphosizes around them. Since her father’s sudden death when she was a young child, Dina has tried to escape her conservative older brother’s demanding control. Maneck, a beloved only child, mistakes his parents’ desire to ensure him a future of multiple choices (in spite of his father’s ironic unwillingness to change even to save the family’s business) for rejection and abandonment. Ishvar and Omprakash, both born of the Untouchable caste, are the only survivors in their Hindu family of a heinous religiously-fueled purging, and attempt to find new lives in the big city.

The ‘fine balance’ of these four lives – with a vivid cast of many others around them – are revealed over 600 intimate pages (or 24.5 hours stuck in the ears as read by John Lee who, as Orhan Pamuk’s usual narrator, takes a couple of hours to get used to here, I must admit). That said, please do not let those numbers deter or distract you in any way … once begun, you’ll quickly realize that you’ll want nothing more than to go through such committed lengths in order to finally (bittersweetly) finish.

Readers: Adult

Published: 1996


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American

The Magic of Saida by M.G. Vassanji

Magic of SaidaPoisoned and hallucinating, a Canadian doctor lies in a hospital in the remote town of Kilwa in Tanzania. A stranger happens to hear a few brief details of the man’s outrageous story, and decides to introduce himself to this doctor with an Indian name – Kamal Punja – but an African appearance. From that chance encounter unravels a fantastical tale that covers multiple generations and continents … and begs an answer to the question, “Do you believe in magic?”

Kamal is the only child of an African woman whose Indian husband disappeared from their lives. His favorite childhood playmate is a young girl named Saida whose ancestors include a poet and warrior, a traitor and patriot in whose lives reflect the violent, tumultuous history of a repeatedly colonized land. At 11, Kamal is suddenly, wrenchingly separated from his mother and everything familiar when he’s sent to live with a paternal uncle in the capital city of Dar es Salaam. There he learns to be Indian first, eliding his African origins. That he never forgives his mother for what he considers betrayal and abandonment remains a disturbing, haunting element throughout.

Kamal grows into an educated young man of relative privilege, sent to university in neighboring Uganda, and yet he never loses sight of Saida’s presence so far away, certain that they will one day be united. Caught in the latest political upheavals overtaking his country and continent, Kamal lands in Canada where he becomes a successful doctor. Now solidly in middle age with a highly successful practice, married with two grown (completely Westernized) children, Kamal’s longing for his past brings him ‘home’ to Kilwa, desperately in search of answers about his beloved Saida.

M.G. Vassanji, who has twice won Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize (the inaugural 1994 award for The Book of Secrets, and again in 2003 for The In-Between World of Vikram Lall – my personal favorite), surely draws on personal experience: born in Africa of Indian descent and Canada-domiciled, “If pressed, Vassanji considers himself African Asian Canadian,” his biography states on his personal website. “[A]ttempts to pigeonhole him along communal (religious) or other lines, however, he considers narrow-minded, malicious, and oppressive,” his biography also warns!

As much as Saida is a sweeping epic, it also proves to be a clever allegory of returning to the past to catch a glimpse of alternate versions of the present: had Kamal stayed in Kilwa, he could have been Lateef; had he pursued a literary degree, he could have been Martin; had he been trapped in some sort of colonial service, he could have been Markham; had he chosen to become a local doctor, he could have been (the ironically named) Dr. Engineer. The many ‘what-if’s of his life beg the ultimate question, who might have Saida been had she lived the life Kamal once promised her …?

Tidbit: If you’ve read The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker, you might be struck by some uncanny similarities – I certainly was! Saida is the better-written novel; Heartbeats arrived Stateside last year with a decade-plus of international bestseller status … choices, choices.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, African, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Indian African, South Asian American

On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman

As in Ru Freeman’s absorbing 2009 debut, A Disobedient Girl, the intricate lives of young children also take center stage in this latest work. In 1979, the titular Sal Mal Lane is a cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Sri Lanka’s largest city and former capital, Colombo. The Herath family’s arrival with four young children – Suren the musician, Rashmi the singer, Nihil the cricketer, and baby Devi the favored – reshuffles friendships and alliances along the lane.

Beyond the safety of this quiet enclave, the rest of the country is at an impasse: ethnic, religious, and political differences stir among a population long plagued by divisions and colonizations. War looms, and tragedy proves inevitable: “Everyone who lived on Sal Mal Lane was implicated in what happened … while this story is about small people, we must consider the fact that their history is long and accord them, too, a story equal to their past.”

Verdict: Dates and events ground the novel specifically in Sri Lanka, but the universal narrative of family remains borderless. As witness and storyteller, Freeman never falters, revealing “what happened” with clarity and resolve in prose both lingering and breathtaking. The result is simply stupendous.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, June 1, 2013

Tidbit: To find out more about both book and author, check out my interview with Freeman in the May 2013 issue of Bookslut.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, South Asian, South Asian American, Sri Lankan, Sri Lankan American