Author: H.S. Norup
Publisher: Pushkin Children's Books
Release Date: September 24, 2020
Genre: Middle Grade/Fantasy
No. of Pages: 256
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Freja arrives in Singapore during the month of the hungry ghost, when old spirits are said to roam the streets and families must make offerings to appease their ancestors. She’s homesick for her Danish hometown and isn’t sure she fits in with the ‘happy family’ of her father, her step-mother and twin step-brothers.
As Freja tries to settle into her new life, a mysterious girl in a white dress starts to appear to her, seeming to beckon her on. Following this figure, Freja begins to unravel an old family mystery – one that must be solved before the month is over, to allow both girls to be freed from secrets long-buried.
Note: I’m reviewing this book as part of a blog tour conducted by the publisher. Many thanks to the author and publisher for providing me with an e-copy in exchange for an honest review.
I love middle grade books, I really do. Untethered by bothersome “adult” logic, most MG books I’ve read have shone through curious protagonists, simplified (not trivialized!) portrayal of complex topics, and unadulterated imagination. In that regard, The Hungry Ghost checked all boxes for me.
Trigger Warning: Mentions the death of a child.
What I Liked
This book follows Freja, a 12-year-old who arrives in Singapore to live with her father, step-mother and their toddler twin children. She had to leave behind her sick mother in Denmark and is supposed to start a new school and a new life with her new family. It sounds like a hellish situation even for an adult, so Freja handles it just about how you’d expect a kid to. Freja, who is an avid scout and a generally adventurous kid, holes up in her room, sulking.
Soon, she finds a girl in a white dress lurking in the backyard of their house and follows the girl into a spot of forest in the middle of the city. The forest cover turns out to be The Bukit Brown Cemetery (I later learned that it’s a real cemetery in Singapore and is believed to be the biggest Chinese graveyard outside China. Fascinating!)
On the surface, Singapore might look like a modern city, but it’s as if there’s a different world underneath the shiny varnish. A world populated by ghosts of the past.
Through Freja’s neighbor Jason and his very chinese grandmother, Freja learns that the girl who is been visiting her is a ghost and is probably here for the Hungry ghost festival, as it is the seventh month in the lunar calendar. Undaunted, Freja’s adventurous spirit (and frankly, her boredom😂) takes her through the Bukit Brown Cemetery again, intent on finding out who the girl is and why she keeps circling her father’s house. In the process, Freja has to confront her own guilt and grief about traumatic events from her past that are buried deeply in the corners of her memory.
The descriptions of the forest and what happens beyond a certain “important” banyan tree were richly imaginative and vivid. If you just closed your eyes, you could smell the petrichor. Or see the beautiful contrast of a blazing forest fire against the calm, cerulean sea at the back of your eyelids. I simply loved reading the parts where Freja travels to <redacted> with Ling, the ghost. Freja’s adventurous nature and endless curiosity pushes the story forward with ease. The element of mystery around finding out who Ling really is (before the Hungry Ghost festival ends) and what happened in Freja’s past kept me hooked till the end.
The best part of this book for me was how the story intertwined beautifully with the folklore around the Hungry Ghost festival. I’m hearing about it for the first time, and honestly I’m really fascinated. Like me, if you didn’t know: In Buddhist and Taoist cultures, they celebrate the Hungry Ghost festival in the seventh month of their lunar calendar. It is believed that the gates of the spirit world open in this month and ghosts roam the world of the living. The ghosts visit their living relatives seeking food and the families oblige with food and drink three times a day, to avoid the wrath of their ancestors. You can read more about the Hungry Ghost festival in this link. I found this very interesting because there is very similar tradition observed in Hinduism as well. It is ceaselessly amazing to me to learn how similar many Asian traditions turn out to be!
What I Didn’t Like
I don’t have any major complaints about the book but I did feel like, while Freja was a well-rounded protagonist, the other characters kind of fell flat. They didn’t have much of a character development or even scope in the story. Then again, I understand the book wasn’t long enough to squeeze in all of that.
In conclusion, The Hungry Ghost is an imaginative, cross-cultural delight of a story. Do pick it up if you’re looking for a quick but satisfying read!
Did you know about the Hungry Ghost festival? Is there a similar practice in your culture? Let’s talk!
Author: Veena Rao
Publisher: She Writes Press
Release Date: September 29, 2020
Genre: Contemporary/Literary Fiction
No. of Pages: 312
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Tara moves to the American South three years after her arranged marriage to tech executive Sanjay. Ignored and lonely, Tara finds herself regressing back to childhood memories that have scarred her for life. When she was eight, her parents had left her behind with her aging grandparents and a schizophrenic uncle in Mangalore, while taking her baby brother with them to make a new life for the family in Dubai.
Tara’s memories of abandonment and isolation mirror her present life of loneliness and escalating abuse at the hands of her husband. She accepts the help of kind-hearted American strangers to fight Sanjay, only to be pressured by her patriarchal family to make peace with her circumstances. Then, in a moment of truth, she discovers the importance of self-worth—a revelation that gives her the courage to break free, gently rebuild her life, and even risk being shunned by her community when she marries her childhood love, Cyrus Saldanha.
Life with Cyrus is beautiful, until old fears come knocking. Ultimately, Tara must face these fears to save her relationship with Cyrus—and to confront the victim-shaming society she was raised within.
I buddy read this book with my lovely friend Shruti, who blogs at This is Lit, and it was great to discuss the book with her because we felt the same way about a lot of things in the book. You can read Shruti’s review of Purple Lotushere.
Purple Lotus is an engrossing tale with themes of loss, love, the power of kindness, family values (specifically Indian), and believing in one’s self. It also briefly touches upon the topic of Schizophrenia and how (badly) our society handles mental illnesses. I read the whole book in under 10 hours (that’s like really fast for me 😂) because I could not put it down.
What I Liked
As you may have gathered from the blurb, Purple Lotus is about Tara, who is pressured by her parents into getting married to a stranger through an arranged match. At 28, it’s already too late for her, they say. Her parents are facing pressure from the community to marry their daughter off and the pressure falls onto Tara eventually, who gives in and marries Sanjay. Sanjay, however,is an asshole neglects to arrange for Tara to go live with him in the US, for three years with no explanation whatsoever. This is until he randomly emails her one day and Tara is expected to drop everything and run to him, because that’s what dutiful Indian wives do. There begins a traumatic and abusive marriage that’s made even more difficult by the expectations of a patriarchal society.
The whole concept of arranged marriage hit close to home for me. Too close for comfort, tbh. Purple Lotus perfectly captures the essence of how arranged marriages work in a patriarchal society and how it is often shrouded in pressure and shame, always on the woman’s side of the family. Always. I’m not saying arranged marriages are bad or they’re doomed, not at all. But it’s undeniable that the core concept of it is extremely patriarchal, casteist, and sexist in nature.
“You can take an Indian out of India, but you cannot take Victorian values out of an Indian.”
Tara’s anxieties and her inner turmoil came through effectively through the pages. She is not unfamiliar with neglect, thanks to her parents. But it hits her harder when marital neglect escalates to physical and emotional abuse. Even as her kind American friends encourage her to take the obvious course of action, she is conflicted about what her parents would say, what her community would say, etc. Predictably enough, her parents are dead against her getting a divorce and remind her often that it’s on her to make this marriage work. “Laying guilt came so naturally to Amma,” relates Tara at one juncture.
‘Real happiness lay in selflessness, in sacrifices, in putting family before oneself. A good woman sought a life of character and dignity, not wilful pursuit of her heart’
Tara’s mother to Tara.
In short, the onus of staying in a crumbling abusive marriage and upholding the “tradition” is on the woman and there is no other alternative available. After all that he did, Sanjay gets to walk away scot-free without so much as a peep; no accountability whatsoever. It’s infuriating and terrifying. What hit me hard was the fact Tara’s life is a mirror to many women’s lives in the current society. It’s the story of my friends, cousins, acquaintances, neighbors. It could well be mine tomorrow.
*clears throat* anyyyyway, back to the book review. I really liked how the author handled the portrayal of Tara’s parents. The monumental role they play in the tiniest decisions Tara has to make in her life for herself, the way Tara’s mother guilt trips her and resorts to victim shaming every time she tries to steer away from the tried and tested Indian way of life, and so on. The narrative switches between Tara’s childhood and her present in a way it gives a complete picture of Tara’s life so far; it makes it easier to understand and empathize with her. In fact, looking back now, Tara feels like an old friend rather than a character in a book.
I liked how the author makes Tara confront a difficult question a lot of us with stifling Indian parents have had at some point our lives.
“A lifelong feeling, entrenched in her gut, morphed into a question as it twisted its way up—had she taken her parents’ love for granted, been needlessly merciless toward amma and cold toward Daddy for most of her life?”
However, the book does not offer any further wisdom on the topic. I guess the author wasn’t any wiser on the topic than I am. 😐
A ward’s ability to silently bear toxicity from their parents gets branded as “filial piety”; it’s revered and everyone is expected to conform to the unfair standards. As individuals, one should have the freedom to recognize toxic traits in our loved ones and be able to call them out whether or not they affect us. This sounds simple enough in theory but it’s far more cumbersome to put to practice, especially when the said loved ones are your own parents. We can only hope to break free from the toxic cycle and be better people. I think Tara succeeds in that regard. She rises up, challenges the very community that put her down and earns their respect. As protagonists go, Tara is a strong character, one whom you’d want to root for all the way.
Here are a couple of favorite quotes from the book:
“To the modern-day keepers of our traditions, I ask: Why is it always the woman who is instructed to try harder to win over her husband, to adjust, to stay silent, to make peace with the injustices she faces? When things go wrong, why can’t she turn to her family? If she finally decides to stand up for herself, why does her family not stand with her? Why is the victim victimised even further? Why are no questions asked of the perpetrator?”
“The monster is not the perpetrator alone. The ones who breed him, the ones who victimize the victim—the relatives and neighbors and town people who judge unfairly—they are monsters too.”
What I Didn’t Like
There were pacing issues in the second half of the book, I felt like it noticeably slowed down after 70% or so. Maybe because there were a lot of happenings crammed in there, the narrative’s focus shifted from Tara’s thought process and went on to “tell” the reader what was happening. It was slow but not to an extent it got unreadable. One of this book’s undeniable strengths is that it’s very readable.
Okay, so there were a couple of other things that didn’t sit right with me. I’ll explain in detail below:
First, the treatment of the only Muslim character in the book. Zeenat only appears sparingly in the scenes where Tara’s perspective switches to her past, but every time she does, she says mean things to Tara, making Tara uncomfortable. Tara is also strictly forbidden by her grandfather from playing with the“rickshaw wallah’s” daughter. Zeenat’s character is not given any scope for growth nor does she have any personality other than being a mean, jealous child. Whatever redemption (if it can be called that) she gets, later on, is more for Tara’s benefit than Zeenat’s. The scene goes on to showcase Tara’s magnanimity, tying up another loose end from her childhood.
The problem here is, through Zeenat’s character, the author injects the thinly-veiled Islamophobia and the casual classism that is commonplace in upper-caste Hindu families into the narrative; so far so good. but THEN, she plays to the stereotypes and makes the only token Muslim character mean. My question is, why make the character Muslim at all, what was the purpose? It felt unnecessary and very avoidable to me.
I should clarify here that I’m not Muslim myself, it just stood out to me so I had to talk about it. I’m aware that this book was written years ago but it’s releasing in 2020. A contemporary book that’s attempting to mirror the current society’s problems has the responsibility to be self-aware and be cognizant of the socio-political climate in which its readers are going to be reading it. Why give in to stereotypes when you can easily make it positive? Especially since it’s fiction and there are no limits to scope and imagination.
Next, there was a throwaway comment about Tara’s caste made by her mom. She says to Tara “you belong to the warrior caste, so hold your high.” Tara absently wonders if her amma had gotten it wrong, maybe she was “actually at the bottom of the caste pyramid.” She also hastens to add that she “had no casteist bone in her body”
It doesn’t end there; a few chapters later, Tara uses a casteist slur pariah casually while talking about herself. Now, I know that that word has become a common synonym to outcast and I may not have thought much of it if it wasn’t established pretty strongly that Tara was an upper-caste woman. It just…didn’t feel right to me. These issues could have been fixed easily with minor changes with the help of a sensitivity reader. The book would have been an uncontested 5 star read for me too.
All of this might sound extremely nit-picky but the central theme of Purple Lotus revolves around the empowerment of women and breaking taboos. There are all sorts of taboos to be broken in the modern Indian society and it doesn’t do well to break only the ones that suit one’s purpose. These are my opinions as a reader, please feel free to let me know if you disagree with me, I’d love to have a chat!!
I would have thought perhaps I’m overreacting about these issues but I’m glad I got to discuss my views with my reading buddy Shruti, who shared very similar opinions on this regard. Another reason for you to check out her beautifully nuanced review.
Overall, Purple Lotus is a rich story with beautiful writing and an absorbing pace; the characters are rounded, real, and relatable. I think the author did justice to the themes the story committed itself to. Save for the minor niggles, the book flows gorgeously. I would definitely recommend Purple Lotus if you’re looking for a heartfelt story that you can lose yourself into.
Thanks to the author and She Writes Press for allowing me to read an advanced copy of this book via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review.
If you got this far, thanks a bunch for reading my rambly review! If you got this far by simply scrolling, why bruh? please read my review🥺
Does this book sound like something you might enjoy? have you read it already? Let’s discuss in the comments!
Readers, slayers and friends, we meet again 😀 If you haven’t read my full review of Star Daughter, please click the link to do so. As part of the Hear Our Voices Blog Tour, I’m also doing a Review in 5 GIFs! *ta-da* I’m making this a separate post because my review post is already too long.💀
In the beginning of the book, Sheetal goes to a family event where she’s accosted by all the desi aunties and uncles who want to know her “future plans” so they can flaunt how their ward has one-upped Sheetal already. One thing you must know about desi aunties is that they have the eyesight of a hawk. They’re always sniffing around for tea. A bit like this:
Can you not feel Sheetal’s exasperation? 😂 Especially when you’re there just for the food!
Sheetal’s Nakshatra family may be royals but the way they put on airs and expect you to be the obedient child is more about desi manners than you’d expect.
Family or not, you need to be this way to the elders all the time🤐 No, you can’t argue. Where are your manners, beta?
Painfully accurate Desi representation aside, strong relationships are one of this book’s greatest strengths. I absolutely loved the friendship between Sheetal and Minal. They’re what you call #goals.
Thakrar’s prose brought out such a beautiful imagery that I totally imagined the Celestial Court in the Svargalok to look straight out of a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film set. Grand. Majestic. Shimmering. Too much to take in with just two eyes.
I keep talking about the controlling tendencies of a desi family so you can imagine how I loved it when Sheetal saw a chance to turn the tables on her family and she took it. I can imagine how her transformation must have left her family shook! The very thought amuses me to no end.😂
Like I’ve mentioned in my original review, I didn’t really care for the romance in this book. In fact, every time Dev spoke, my face was exactly like this:
When I see something beautiful, my Desi af self’s kneejerk reaction would be to remove nazar (ward off evil eye), so despite feeling lukewarm about some parts of the book, I can summarize my reaction for Star Daughter with one gif.
(I know I said this is a review in 5 gifs but looks like I may have gone a liiittle overboard once I started gif-hunting. sorry about that.🙈)
Thanks for reading and I hope you check out the book! If you’ve already read the book, let’s discuss in the comments! 😊