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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

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A very relevant book to read given the current circumstances surrounding Kashmir. As usual, Roy spins magic with her prose and character development especially of the protagonist is brilliantly drawn out. An insightful read which will lead readers to question many freedoms that we take for granted.
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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is an incredibly difficult book to review, hence my long delay in doing so. While the story is chaotic, winding, and at times hard to follow, there are some characters and scenes that – a year after finishing the novel - are still fresh in my mind. There is no doubt that Roy is a masterful writer, she depicts India in such detail that the reader could believe themselves there, and her protagonists can take residence in your imagination after just a few short sentences – yet I am at a loss to explain what happens in this book. So much of the country’s history is covered in these pages that it seems too much to fit into one story. This is circumnavigated by telling it all from street-level, personal accounts, which, while making it more bite sized and accessible, also means some episodes feel rushed or incomplete. There were times Roy would give us a glimpse into a (usually harrowing) story introduced by a peripheral character, only for them to disappear into the heaving, noisy crowded streets and never be heard of again. But perhaps this is the reality of life, you get snapshots of the lives of others and that’s it. In a country with over 1 billion people this makes for a confusing patchwork of stories.

The gems that still burn brightly in my mind, like the hijras running across the bridge, or the lovers illicit meeting on a boat, remind me that I enjoyed a lot of this book, but the fact I am unable to give a synopsis reminds me of how lost I felt reading it at times. Definitely one for people who enjoy the journey more than the destination.
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I started reading this book several times but something always disrupted my reading, especially other books, TV shows etc. For some reason anything was more interesting than keep reading. This is very sad considering that The God of Small Things is one of my favourite books. I feel that I might have misjudged this book and maybe it is a hidden gem that will sparkle sometime in the future but at this date and time, I am sorry it's not for me.
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I’ve been putting off reviewing The Ministry of Utmost Happiness for ages – as despite my very best efforts to like this book, it just wasn’t for me!

Arundhati Roy is known for her political activism, and her views and opinions are made abundantly clear in her writing. Through the eyes of her characters, she paints a stark and vivid picture of India after the partition, the conflict in Kashmir and the rigid caste system against a backdrop of politics and religion.

Having a better  knowledge of key events in India’s history as well as important recent political figures would have been so helpful here, as I spent a LOT of the time looking references and background up on the internet.

This was the side of things I did somewhat enjoy, as I like  learning more about different cultures and histories. However, without some existing knowledge (internet based or otherwise!) of recent Indian politics, history and the key players, this book would have been impossible to make sense of.

The parts of this book that have stuck with me are the stories about the ordinary people, caught up in the atrocities and injustices that surround them with no hope of breaking free. From the villagers in the Kashmir to the people living on the street in Delhi, this is a recurring theme. There is a stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots. On the one hand, people are moving forward into the future, with technology and tourism and everything that goes with it, while for others this is hopelessly out of reach.

However, the book is long and meandering. It skips from place to place and time to time, sometimes narrating events from a distance and sometimes homing right in on the details of a particular character. Often the story veers off into a long and extended anecdote or political discussion. I personally found that it really difficult to follow the main thread of the story.

I also found it hard to relate to the characters. We’re told details about their lives but they didn’t come alive to me and it all felt quite detached. There are also so many characters, some of which seem to have nothing to do with the main story. I understand that all of this is intended to build a rich picture of India and the different people that live there, but I would have preferred to have more of a personal connection to the people around who the plot revolves.

Clearly Roy was trying to raise awareness of some really important issues, but for me the writing style felt heavy and dense. It felt like this was a book that was written to make a point, rather than to be enjoyable for readers. Each page felt like a bit of a slog to read and I had to force myself to keep picking it back up. I finished it with a sense of achievement and relief, but I couldn’t say that I enjoyed it.
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Roy’s first novel, God of Small Things, received both popular and critical acclaim – could she equal its success with her second book, twenty years on? The short answer is: almost. 

Anjum is a ‘hijra’ (translated as hermaphodite, intersex, third gender or transgender); born with both male and female genitalia, she finally finds refuge in a graveyard, where she sets up a sanctuary among the dead. Tilo is a mysterious woman who fell in love with someone the ‘wrong side of the line’ in Kashmir. We follow their stories, and meet a grand cast of other traumatised misfits.

Primarily, however, this is a novel about India, and the brutal after-effects of the Partition, and what happens when you end up the ‘wrong side of the line’. When the British left India, they divided the country crudely, creating the (mainly Muslim) Pakistan and the (mainly Hindu) India, dividing families and communities, and exacerbating religious wars. In the intervening twenty years, Roy has been a political activist, so although the narrative simmers with rage, this is nuanced, rather than polemic. It ends with a note of hope and redemption in unexpected places. 

Though it is complex, meandering and, at times, hard work, there are pockets of prose that take your breath away, and the quality makes it worth persevering. Seventy years after Britain carved up India, this makes for powerful and timely reading.
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I found this book too difficult to get through and not very engaging.
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this has 'this is a worthy novel' written all over it - and I'm certain it's excellently written, and there are good characterisations; but I am spoiled and it's  leisurely pace and that thrumming sense of its being important simply distracted me - for the moment I am not as enthralled as everyone else has been.
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This was rather an odd novel for me, this was because of my understanding of it more than anything else.

It is a confusing tale to begin with but as I read on it 'sort of' made more sense.

I don't like the modern 'trend' of gender, non gender, I mean in my opinion we are either male or female. and this is what the central character is set on.  Anjum, born Aftab, is a hijra-- one who is neither masculine or feminine. 

so I have to say this was not a book for me unfortunately
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This is a very unusual book, with a cast of characters, mostly on the margins of life in India, covering a span of some 60 years. . The book is strange, the characters often a little odd, and yet the effect is sometimes heartwarming and almost lyrical, even if hard to follow who is who as the book jumps around in time and place.
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Try as I might I really could not get into this book and at almost fifty percent through I have decided to give up. The writing is indeed beautiful and complex but I'm the kind of person who needs a good story line to keep me interested.
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Oh how I fretted starting this novel so weighted with expectation! It took Arundhati Roy twenty years to write this second novel after the phenomenal success of her first Booker Prize-winning novel “The God of Small Things.” Add to that the fact that the author is an astute political campaigner and activist who writes extensively about Indian politics and society – which I know little about. Add to that the murmurings I’d heard about the novel’s complexity and someone who told me she had to put this novel down because, despite the beauty of the writing, the sheer extent of references was overwhelming. So I frequently picked up this book and ran my hand over the cover, read the back and put it back on my shelf. But two things finally prompted me to finally start reading “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”: it’s long listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize and a lovely booktuber named Annie at ‘Am I Write?’ offered to buddy read it with me. I’m so glad I was finally pushed to read it two months after its publication. While this novel is definitely a challenging read, it is also an intricately layered, surprising and wondrous depiction of a society in transition. And how glorious to find growing out of the story of this great civilization in turmoil a tender shoot of hope!

What surprised me the most since I’d avoided reading any reviews of this novel is that one of the central characters we’re introduced to at the beginning was born intersex. Anjum has both male and female genitals, but was raised as a boy. In her adolescence she leaves her family to live as a woman and joins a haveli filled with other intersex and trans people. They are a collective and family and become even more so when Anjum adopts an abandoned child named Zainab. When she takes this three-year old girl in: “Her body felt like a generous host instead of a battlefield.” It’s so beautiful and moving the way this individual whose family feel disgraced by her and who is scorned by the majority of society finds a way to pour her love into caring for someone instead of allowing herself to be crippled by being branded as a hijra outcast. However, we quickly learn that in her later years Anjum leaves her haveli called Khwabgah (the House of Dreams) to live in a graveyard where she gradually establishes a home for herself and eventually forms a community of individuals displaced by social conflict. She has a wonderfully unprejudiced view when taking people in stating: “I don’t care what you are… Muslim, Hindu, man, woman, this caste, that caste, or a camel’s arsehole.”

Rather than continuing to primarily focus on Anjum’s story (as I wished it did), the novel branches out to encompass a multiplicity of characters from many different parts of society. Roy introduces a dizzying array of people all connected with particular political movements, social clashes or devastating disasters. These centre largely around a location of vast protest called Jantar Mantar. In the centre of this vast amount of voices of dissent, a baby is abandoned and kidnapped. Who this baby is, where she came from, why she was left and what happened to her is gradually explained over a few hundred pages. But built around her story are the tales of people still caught within the repercussions of Partition, national/religious battles and especially the conflicts within Kashmir, the northernmost part of the Indian subcontinent. The novel mostly focuses on a group of people who knew each other in childhood and worked together in a theatrical production in their youth, but have gone on to take different sides in the political struggles. It charts their various romances, quests for revenge and how they’re helplessly drawn into conflicts that seem to have no end.

Something that really carried me along while reading this complex novel is the beauty and disarming nature of Roy’s prose. This is something that Annie (my read-along buddy) noted as well. There are frequently bizarre metaphors and descriptions which really caught my attention. For instance, there is an owl which is compared to a Japanese businessman. There’s also a character that is compared to the voice of Billie Holiday: “Not the woman so much as her voice.” At other points she has a disarming way of drawing the reader into the character's particular experience: “She could hear her hair growing. It sounded like something crumbling. A burnt thing crumbling. Coal. Toast.” These odd descriptions have a way of reaching across national and cultural boundaries to draw you into the intense dissociation from reality the character has in a moment of crisis. Roy also has an acute sense of the tragic ironies which frequently exist in this society such as an air-conditioned mortuary: “The city’s paupers who lay there in air-conditioned splendour had never experienced anything of the kind while they were alive.” The narrative frequently also serves as social commentary making observations about how it's always women and children who are oppressed and abused the most in class, religious and political warfare.

It's true, the novel’s story isn’t straightforward and it will reference a lot of things most Western readers probably won’t be familiar with. Even though I occasionally would look up terms or events, I largely resisted this temptation because I preferred to immerse myself the flow of the story and let certain things remain mysterious for the time being. Now, I can go read up more about them. But I got to a section of the novel where I think Roy really points out why she can’t write a straightforward story. This is from one character’s notebooks: “I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens there’s lots to write about. That can’t be done in Kashmir. It’s not sophisticated, what happens here. There’s too much blood for good literature.” I think Roy probably feels the same way. She is far too knowledgeable about everything that’s going on in India, its immense history and complicated politics to write a simple story. As such this novel probably isn’t what you’d classify as “good literature” in a traditional sense because the story goes all over the place. But at the same time, Roy revolutionizes the form of the book to fit all the multitude of things going on inside her head. And, after all, that’s what the novel is for – it keeps reinventing the form to suit the subject matter and the outlook of its author.

It takes dedication, patience and time to read this novel properly. But it encompasses a vast amount of heartfelt compassion for humanity that I'm immensely grateful for the journey it took me on.
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Having spoken to people about Roy’s new novel, I think I may have been the only reader to have utterly misunderstood the title.  In blissful ignorance I began reading, looking forward to a much needed cheerful novel.  There was nothing I would have welcomed more than a well-written tome on joy, gladness and good-will.  With this in mind, I must confess that the first chapter was a bit disconcerting:

She lived in the graveyard like a tree.  At dawn she saw the crows off and welcomed the bats home.  At dusk she did the opposite.  Between shifts she conferred with the ghosts of vultures that loomed in her high branches.  She felt the gentle grip of their talons like an ache in an amputated limb.  She gathered they weren’t altogether unhappy at having excused themselves and exited from the story.

After the enigmatic and mysterious beginning, the story moves back in time to explore the social position and plight of ‘hijra‘, a Hindu word readers are to discover for themselves can mean hermaphrodite, eunuch or transgender person.  This fascinating view of an outsider community is then interrupted when the ostensible protagonist gets caught up in a massacre against Hindus, and the subsequent reprisals against Muslims, when on her way to visit a shrine.  Before the reader has time to comprehend the full trauma of the events and their effects on the characters, the plot moves on yet again, into poverty, urbanisation, pollution, political corruption and the conflict in Kashmir.

My advice would be to avoid getting hung on up plot, or on remembering and keeping track of the immense cast of characters.  Not only is the phrase ‘Utmost Happiness’ in the title Orwellian in its ironic implications, the word ‘Ministry’ with its connotations of order and control is equally misleading.  The book is sprawling in the extreme, as new characters, plot-lines and tragedies intrude on each other, running off in all directions and frustrating any desire for coherence or logical progression.

And I suppose that’s the point.  This is a novel about huge regions and massive populations.  Rather than attempt to fit these within a traditional narrative structure, Roy instead invites her readers into the confusion.  Even the writing, including polemics, poetry, lyrical descriptions, mystical fairy-tale elements and a patchwork of documentary-style ‘non-fiction’ is uneven and disorienting.  Personally,  found it an admirable and ambitious, but ultimately overwhelming, reading experience.  It will certainly teach most readers quite a bit about the history, society and politics of the Indian sub-continent, though if you’re after a more straightforward account, I suspect Roy’s non-fiction over the last two decades is a better place to look.  Later on this year, we’ll see if ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ will join ‘The God of Small Things’ on the Man Booker awards list.  For the time being, it remains a challenging, brave and formidable addition to the canon of Great Indian Novels.
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When Aftab was born he was a hermaphrodite and on adulthood morphed into Anjum.  After living with other Hijra, Anjum finally sets up home in a cemetery and builds a community of waifs and strays like her.  Woven around this tale is the bigger story of pot-partition India and particularly the politics of Kashmir, that northern province and Islamic homeland disputed by India and Pakistan.

This is a huge novel which, in similar vein to Roy's debut 'The God of Small Things', manages to be both detailed in meticulous storytelling and vast in scope.  This is book which demands time spending on it and I think I will also need to re-read it to take in everything.  However Roy is a great writer and she is able to tell a magical tale yet get across those huge political statements that are so close to her heart and which have been her focus for the last twenty years.
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It took Arundhati Roy 20 years to publish a second novel and I can see why.
This is a very intricate, complex novel with multiple narratives and a large cast of characters. It is very political and for me I found this tough going as I know very little about India and politics there. I think if you have an understanding of this then it will make the book easier to read.
I can see why it is nominated for the Booker Prize and it at times reminded me 'Midnights Children' by Rushdie. 
The first half of the book I found tough going and was a hard slog. The second half did seem to pick up more.
If you are planning on reading then set aside a lot of time for it.
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For me this was a complicated book. I always thought it would be a challenge and I think that is because I have little knowledge of India. My determination was because  I thought the author had previously won the Booker Prize and this was only her second novel. The book is colourful and it is easy to imagine the characters and the scenes throughout the book. The politics comes through uneasily and with it possibly some understanding of modern India. There is also a dark side, a sad side to the book. I am glad I took the challenge on, as It is not a conventional novel. There are different threads, the main ones are those of Anjum, a transwoman and then Tilo a Kashmiri architect. The book is a 'big' book, not one to race through but one which gives you something to think about and it will leave an impression.
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Lunchtime’s Children

Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Penguin, London, 417pp

Mohsin Hamid, Exit West, Penguin, London, 226pp

The difficult second novel, rather like the difficult second album for bands, is a problem that obviously faces all writers. Most of them - JD Salinger perhaps excepted - seem to manage it with a reasonable amount of timeliness. But now we have Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, coming nowhere near close on the heels of 1997’s wildly popular The God of Small Things. 

That novel sold some six million copies around the world, and was translated into 18 languages. While most readers loved it, some, like me, found it fey and underwhelming, but there is no doubt that there is a huge weight of expectation on Roy’s glamorous shoulders. 

While Small Things was a closely-observed book focusing on personal and private losses, Roy’s second novel is deliberately much larger in scope, sometimes offputtingly so.

The book opens with a baby being born in Delhi: instead of a much-wanted boy, Anjum is a hermaphrodite, who eventually goes to live in a hijra (transsexual) community. After the Gujarat riots of 2002, she moves out and lives in a graveyard, where she gradually builds a number of rooms, and invites a community of similarly outcast individuals to share her space. This narrative then abruptly ends, a third of the way through the book.

We are then introduced to four architecture students, three men, and the wildly attractive S. Tillotama (‘S stands for S’, she helpfully tells them) whom they all fall in love with. Tillotama is the focus of this, much larger section, as it chronicles her involvement, to a greater or lesser degree, with the three men, a military intelligence spook, a corruptible journalist and a Kashmiri freedom fighter. 

Finally, Tillotama meets up with Anjum at her graveyard guesthouse, and everyone lives, cheerfully enough, amongst the cast of unnecessary caricatures.

At one point Roy starts sketching out crowds of characters we know we’re never going to meet again, and you have to wonder: what’s the point? Yes, we know that India is crammed with people who all have fascinating stories, but where is the authorial intent? We don’t need to hear every single one of the stories.

Roy, who has spent the years since Small Things as a committed left-wing political activist, is unsurprisingly acute on political issues, considering her large body of work as a polemicist. 

On Kashmir, from where I write, she is sensible enough to consider the options for the future: ‘’And after Azadi [freedom]? Has anyone thought? What will the majority do to the minority? Kashmiri Pandits have already gone. Only us Muslims remain. What will we do to each other? What will Salafis do to Barelvis? What will Sunnis do to Shias? They say they will go to Jannat more surely if they kill a Shia than if they kill a Hindu. What will be the fate of the Ladakhi Buddhists? Jammu Hindus? J&K is not just Kashmir. It’s Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. Has any separatist thought of this? The answer, as I can tell you, is a big “No”.’

And she can eschew the politics of the situation altogether. ‘…none of us who were fighting over it – Kashmiris, Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese (they have a piece of it too – Aksai Chin, which used to be part of the old Kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir), or for that matter Pahadis, Gujjars, Dogras, Pashtuns, Shins, Ladakhis, Baltis, Gilgitis, Purikis, Wakhis, Yashkuns, Tibetans, Mongols, Tartars, Mon, Khowars – none of us, whether saint or soldier, had a right to claim the truly heavenly beauty of that place for ourselves.’    

And on the ongoing, and mighty, Indian military presence in the region: ‘They don’t want the militancy to end. They don’t want to leave Kashmir. They are happy with the situation as it is. Everybody on all sides is making money on the bodies of young Kashmiris.’

Elsewhere, the brief life story of a Maoist insurgent who gives up her child to strangers is moving and well paced. And the glimpsed history of a man whose village was flooded by the construction of a dam is poetic and cogent. ‘In his dream his village still existed. It wasn’t at the bottom of a dam reservoir. Fish didn’t swim through his windows. Crocodiles didn’t knife through the branches of the Silk Cotton trees. Tourists didn’t go boating over his fields, leaving rainbow clouds of diesel in the sky.’

That these issues – peasant insurgencies, dam construction, Kashmiri independence – have all been the subject of Roy’s previous non-fiction works doesn’t lessen their importance: for Roy the personal is the political. And many other issues come crowding in: the Bhopal Disaster, modern Indian political demagoguery, sexism and the iniquities of the caste system amongst others. 

But at times the sermonising becomes too ponderous. ‘Normality in our part of the world…’ and we wait for something profound … ‘is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence.’ It seems to promise much, but then falls into something much more quotidian than might be expected. 

The achronological nature of the narrative, the mixture of straight prose, alongside diary entries, bits of poetry, depositions, lists and letters and texts, makes it into either a fascinating patchwork, or frustratingly incoherent, depending on your point of view.  

It is an important book, and deservedly so, but it doesn’t really tell you much in the end. Roy’s God of Small Things is the bestselling novel ever written by an Indian still living in India, and, as such, this new book will be taken seriously around the world. Whether it deserves to be is another matter.

Another novel from the Indian subcontinent is Mohsin Hamid’s 
Exit West, the much speedier follow up to his wonderful The Reluctant Fundamentalist. 

Exit West opens in an unnamed city in the Middle East, with a young professional couple, Sayeed and Nadia, tentatively starting a relationship. As their feelings for each other grow, the city is besieged by rebels, and their lives become increasingly difficult.

Eventually, they flee their homes, and make it to the Greek island of Mykonos, and thence to Vienna, London and finally Marin in California, where they finally separate, friendly but tired of each other. The method of refugees moving from one place to another, so much in the news nowadays, is curiously elided by a piece of magical realist sleight of hand, which may come across as irritating.  

At times the book seems a little unsure of what it’s supposed to be: a searing satire on refugeehood, a dystopian tract on nativist impulses in society, or a simple parable on love and crisis.

And this lack of authorial purpose is reflected in the words. The opening, in a city without a name, in an unnamed country, makes it read like a myth. Later, in London, Hamid practically gives you the postcode of the house where Sayeed and Nadia live. This discontinuity of focus serves only to heighten a feeling of a lack of assurance on Hamid’s part.

And the text is clotted with negatives, lines like ‘at least not yet openly at war …’ ‘he had a beard, not a full beard …’ and ‘Sometimes, rarely, but not never…’ occur in the first three paragraphs, which seem not to add to the flow of the book. 

And the book is studded with longeurs. ‘She stood naked, as she had been born ...’ Well, really? Born naked? I’d never have guessed. Or ‘In the late afternoon, Saeed went to the top of the hill, and Nadia went to the top of the hill, and there they gazed out over the island, and out to sea, and he stood beside where she stood, and she stood beside where he stood, and the wind tugged and pushed at their hair, and they looked around at each other, but they did not see each other, for she went up before him, and he went up after her, and they were each at the crest of the hill only briefly, and at different times.’

And the big pay-off: “we are all migrants through time” –seems a little half-hearted, and perhaps emblematic of a novel that turns out to offer less than you might have expected from a writer of Hamid’s stature.

The novel against which all writers in English from the Indian subcontinent must measure themselves is, of course, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which is by some margin, the best fiction ever written on this dazzling, crowded and enthralling part of the world and the people who exist there. Neither Arundhati Roy nor Mohsin Hamid have got there yet.

1,455 words
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This is a fascinating, beautifully written book of many parts.  Roy's use of language, particularly in the first third is gorgeous, like her character's use of Urdu.
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I can both acknowledge and deny the power of this book. It is a novel without a story. It is a story without a narrative. It is about everything and focused on nothing. And not knowing this sooner formed much of my early discontent with a novel that defied its own noun's traditions at every possible junction.

Beautiful penmanship trumps all, for me. And yet in a book that seemed the very definition of what that means, I found it hard to appreciate when there was no substance to back up what it was detailing. I found this lack of, well, tradition I guess, almost infuriating. It was like this book was written with water for ink and the the reader is encouraged to squint their eyes and detect whatever details they can from it and formulate this into a semblance of an original, complete thing. Some can be excited with the innovation and cleverness of this and others, like myself, will end up merely overwhelmed with wet fingertips.
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Wrote a review for Wasafiri, linked below.
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So very sorry, couldn't get into this book. Not sure what it was trying to be or do.
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