Adulting in Wonderland

There are some books that one should read only as a child because they sit better with those who are still impressionable. Then there are stories that are written for children but can only truly be appreciated by adults. Alice in Wonderland is one such book. The first time I read it I was in kindergarten. Back then, I felt like it was a regular magical story about a young girl who has a colorful dream. Like every other kid who read it, I was fairly surprised and disappointed to find that it was just a dream. Reading it again as an adult, knowing how it ends, I am in love with the metaphors and the little nuggets of worldly wisdom disguised as childish humor.

Alice is the embodiment of childish innocence. In contrast, her sister, to whom she excitedly relates her dream in the end, is nearly an adult—and more somber for it. She ruefully acknowledges that Alice will grow up to be a woman and Wonderland will be tucked away in some corner of her mind.

In the backdrop of Alice’s innocent young mind, Carroll paints pictures from real life but in funny, quirky shapes and colors. On the outside it looks exactly like something a child would dream up. But to grown-up eyes, it seems wretchedly familiar. I’m not sure if Lewis Carroll intended for readers to find symbolism in this book. It’s possible he really was just writing it for a pre-teen audience and inadvertently put some satire in there. But a great book is like a mirror: you often find exactly what you wish to find in it.

As for me, I imagined the whole rabbit hole saga to be a metaphor for introspection. Alice falls so slowly down the famed rabbit hole that she can pick books off the walls, flip through them, and put them back. When she finally lands, she is in a long hallway with numerous doors that are all locked.

Falling forever and landing nowhere is exactly what an introspective spiral feels like.

Throughout the book Alice drinks potions and eats mushrooms and literally grows and shrinks countless times. It’s a dream, so of course, she doesn’t think it’s odd after a while. Several times she is induced by one or more of the many strange characters to ask herself, “Who am I?” This brilliant metaphor for an identity crisis and personal growth is so prominent, it makes you wonder why this book is not reclassified as “for all ages”.

The various characters created by Alice’s sleeping brain are fantastical but accurate depictions of the kinds of people we know in real life. There’s the Hatter and the Hare, deep thinkers who are misunderstood and branded as “mad.” The Mock Turtle (of mock turtle soup), whose greatest sorrow is that he has no sorrow. And of course, the Queen of Hearts, who likes to execute anyone who ever annoys her. The world has probably seen too many leaders like the Queen and misjudged too many revolutionary thinkers like the Hatter.

The best part of the novel is quite possibly the trial at the end. It is a satirical take on how justice is served, or is often not served, as the case is in our society. If people like the Queen had their way it would probably be “sentence first, verdict afterwards!” Underneath the surreal nonsense, it depicts how prejudice, unfair treatment of witnesses, and misrepresentation of facts are often a large part of court trials. Reading this chapter makes you think that Carroll was frustrated with the judicial system and thought it was a farce. The style in which it is written suggests that it was a cathartic exercise for himself.

Whether Carroll wanted adults to enjoy his book or not, he scattered enough of his brilliant thoughts and ideas about people and society all over the story to engage mature readers. Like all great classics, it is still relevant and has something for people in every stage of life.

Book Review

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Publisher: Orbit
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 448
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4.7/5 stars


Ages ago, the Empire was saved from the clutches of the tyrannical Alanga by the ancestors of the current ruler. But a new evil looms over the islands.

The emperor is slipping. He is leaving more and more administrative responsibilities with his constructs—magical automata created from parts of human and animal carcasses. These constructs can be programmed to follow any sequence of commands. But they are powered by bone shard magic.

Every year, young children of the islands are rounded up for the Tithing festivals. A small shard of bone is taken from each child’s skull and stored in the emperor’s vault. One day the shard might be used to power a construct. Then the owner of the shard will start to feel their life leaking out of them slowly until years later they die.

On the Imperial Island, Lin, the emperor’s daughter, suffers from amnesia after an accident. She knows her father is failing to protect the people of the empire. She wants to become the next emperor and save the empire, but she must regain her memory before the emperor can trust her to be an effective ruler. Meanwhile, she has to wait and watch Bayan, the emperor’s foster son, get trained to be the heir.

Jovis, an infamous smuggler with a price on his head, is out on a boat after finding a clue that might lead him to his missing wife. He plans to search every island and every other boat in the Endless Sea till he finds her. But he inadvertently rescues a boy from a Tithing festival and finds himself the new face of hope for parents and guardians of young children.

On Nephilanu Island, Ranami and Phalue are struggling with their relationship. Ranami steps into a dangerous path to alleviate the condition of the people of the island; a path on which Phalue, as the governor’s daughter, cannot easily meet her. Phalue is empathetic but obtuse due to her privilege. She sincerely believes the tax and ownership rules imposed by her father on farmers are fair. But she is scared of losing the love of her life, so she decides to risk her position and her father’s trust by reluctantly joining Ranami in her mission.


As the first book in a trilogy, this post-adolescent fantasy novel is inviting and engaging. I found the concept of using bone shard magic to power constructs particularly fascinating because it sounded like an ancient form of artificial intelligence. The engravings on a bone shard determine the commands that the construct will follow. These engravings can be combined in different ways to form a more complex set of instructions. This is just like programming an AI agent!

The young adventurers in this story are all interesting in different ways. They have had a variety of experiences and each one has a unique skillset. Their names suggest their ethnicities also differ slightly, which is uncommon in a medieval-based fantasy novel.

The backdrop of the story is an empire on the verge of collapsing into anarchy. Against that, the dialogues on social justice and equality taking place in the story make it clear that the narrative has a strong inclination to democratic principles. The dynamics between the monarchy and the revolutionary element among the people will make the next two books interesting to read, especially if new forms of magic are introduced. It would also be interesting to meet new characters in the next book. I am looking forward to the sequel.

Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Magic and Mysticism

For everyone out there who learned to ask deep philosophical questions at the age of twelve or thirteen after reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I would like to impress upon all readers the great power of young adult fantasy novels to teach the juvenile mind about ethics and existentialism. I have not come across a history or political science textbook that has explained a tyrant’s psychology as well as Albus Dumbledore: “Voldemort himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!”

A frequent argument I have heard from skeptics is that fantasy books fill their readers’ heads with unrealistic nonsense (dead flies and bits of fluff), while the truth is that these stories deliver some of life’s most crucial lessons in the form of allegory.

When Dumbledore points out to Harry that not every prophecy in the Department of Mysteries has been fulfilled, he reminds us that our decisions, even at a microcosmic level, are what shape our future in the end. The entire arc of the prophecy is a caricature of how human beings have always tried to predict and control the future. But as every time travel movie has proven, attempting to change the past or the future always comes at a great price. Even though it is not realistically possible to change the past, we like to think that we can alter our future if we can predict it. But these attempts to change our fate are the very things that set us on the path that was predicted for us.

Many lessons can also be gleaned from these books that are delivered in simple, straightforward sentences. These are usually extraordinary characters talking about the ordinary aspects of their lives. “People find it far easier to forgive others for being wrong than being right,” is an example of a quote that rings with truth.

In addition to being a catalyst for philosophical discourse among youths, the fantasy genre constantly crosses paths with science. This is quite different from how science fiction presents science. While sci-fi books and movies try to depict what the advancement of technology based on current discoveries would look like, fantasy is more about staying true to the primordial laws of physics and chemistry—even in the world of magic.

As any Rick Riordan fan could tell you, The Kane Chronicles is easily the most existential of his works. Although these books echo some of the happy-go-lucky zaniness of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus series, the Egyptian pantheon comes off as more obscure than the Greek or Roman ones. For starters, the deities are not necessarily “good,” which challenges the established notion of an all-powerful entity being all-benevolent.

Riordan cloaks the duality of life in the story of the Duat—the endless river which is like a second skin beneath the world that we perceive. All mortals exist in both worlds, simultaneously. This is a graceful ode to the scientific theory that matter can exist as both particles and waves (proposed by Louis de Broglie in 1924). Furthermore, there is Ma’at and Isfet, order and chaos, two inexorable forces that perfectly balance each other, coinciding with Newton’s third law of motion.

But the finest point of this series is when Sadie learns that there are conflicting stories about how the gods came to be and did what they did. For example, in one story, Isis and Osiris are siblings, while in the other, they are husband and wife. This is actually true for mythical stories in most cultures, because they began as folklore and were created by different people whose names cannot be found anymore.

But Riordan explains it in a way that does not break the illusion of the magical world he has created. In this universe, the Egyptian gods need mortal hosts to operate on the earth. Depending on the relationship between these hosts, the gods’ relationships change. As Iskandar says, “The gods do not think of relationships the way we humans do. Their hosts are merely like changes of clothes. This is why the ancient stories seem so mixed up. Sometimes the gods are described as married, or siblings, or parent and child, depending on their hosts.” This theory gracefully maintains the illusion of fantasy while also respecting the different views held by experts in this field.

It is in stories like this that magic and science blend into what was taught ages ago by ancient philosophers and what is now called mysticism. After all, modern technology may appear to be magical to someone who is not acquainted with the engineering behind it, as shown by The Wizard of Oz. Maybe, what we think of as magic is simply advanced science in another universe.

Book Review

Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Thriller, Fantasy
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars


The stage is set in pre-second-world-war New York with an oracle, an assassin, and an underworld gang about to lose its alpha—all thriving in a be-bop jazz bar, brazenly ignoring the Prohibition. Phyllis Green, blessed with saints’ hands, is mob boss Victor Dernov’s executioner. Known to some as Victor’s angel, and to most as Victor’s knife, she goes by Phyllis LeBlanc in downtown Manhattan, meting out mob justice with her holster of knives.

That is until she meets Dev. Playing judge, jury, and executioner turns out to be a lot more complicated when she falls in love. Devajyoti Patil, bartender at The Pelican, is also blessed with saints’ hands – he can detect threats on a single touch. But unlike Phyllis, he does not use them to throw knives. Just when Phyllis believes she can act on her promise to Dev of never killing again, she is given a task that forces her to go back on her word.

Someone is killing people with “the hands” and leaving the corpses behind with bleeding stumps and clear signs of having involved them in some form of dark ritual. It’s obvious—they’re trying to steal the power of these hands. Victor’s lieutenant, Red Man, tells Phyllis that the murderer is Trent Sullivan, and that she must take him out.

Having grown up in an all-Black neighborhood, Phyllis has spent her whole adult life trying to pretend that she’s not. Owing to her lighter skin, she passes scrutiny in most segregated places in 1930s New York. She has even taken care to change her name, so no one can trace her back to her old neighborhood—it’s how she has survived. But a decade after she executes Sullivan, and Dev leaves her for it, she finds that her heritage is about to be revealed, and that, suddenly, her life depends on her proving her whiteness.

A lot of factors wrestle for priority as Dev returns unexpectedly to her life as she’s simultaneously given a new assignment. Not to mention, the draft creeps up and starts upending the lives of everyone she holds dear.


The struggles of people of color before World War II that changed society in many irreversible ways are depicted in sincere detail in this book. Skin trumps economic status as Phyllis, Dev, and their friends find themselves increasingly vulnerable as they try to get away from the criminal element that has protected them so far.

It is really promising to find that BIPOC literature is finally making its way into the limelight. The story is set at a time when very few would think to write a novel with a black woman and an Indian man as the lead duo. Hopefully, we are at a time when we can look back at these immortal years from a different perspective than we are used to.

Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Perfect Imperfections

If Sense and Sensibility were a twenty-first century novel, Marianne would be the heroine, not Elinor. There is no way a woman with perfect composure who never offends anybody would take the spotlight. Marianne always speaks her mind, sometimes to the degree of incivility. She wears her heart on her sleeve and gets it broken. This brings a drastic change in her personality as she adopts discretion for the first time in her life. Elinor, whose perspective we have the most access to, and can therefore be considered the primary character, is politically correct from the beginning. She is fully functional when she’s down in the dumps and low-key patronizes her sister for indulging in a mourning period.

Granted, it’s Jane Austen. But even Thomas Hardy with his candid, earthy writing could not do worse than Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd, whose only fault is that she dares to run a farm without consulting a man. She is punished for it by being put through a series of toxic relationships that break her spirit and rob her of her independence until, spoiler alert, she finally submits to the man she spurns in the first chapter.

Many of our revered classics—The Picture of Dorian Gray, Anna Karenina and The Great Gatsby for example—were highly controversial when they were first published and received mixed reviews. It had a lot to do with the fact that the main characters sinned repeatedly without obvious remorse, and that readers of that time could not stomach the acres of moral grey area that these fictional worlds presented. One could say that they were ahead of their time, like most great works of art. They paved the way for eminent writers of our time to create realistic characters with quirks, vulnerabilities, and impulses.

It’s more than just the artistic cliche of romanticizing pain. I think society became more accepting of imperfection as time went by—or at least less ashamed of it. We finally admit that we relate well to flawed characters because they give us hope that we too can experience amazing, extraordinary things, battered and dented as we are. The last thing the modern reader wants is a morally unscrupulous hero or heroine. What we want is to witness growth.

4 Modern Movies Adapted from Classics

Some stories are evergreen. They are told and retold in new ways, through new media. They are as relevant today as they ever were. Four of the most popular movie adaptations of well-known classics are listed below.

CluelessJane Austen’s Emma is about the eponymous heroine’s knack for matchmaking and keen eye for finding the perfect partner for everyone but herself. In its 1995 adaptation, Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone, Cher is a poised teenager who is on the top rung of the social ladder in her high school, like Emma Woodhouse is in her village, Highbury. Having made two successful matches, Cher and her best friend Dionne (played by Stacey Dash) decide to take the newly arrived Tai Frasier (Brittany Murphy) under their wing. All goes well until Cher misreads a situation and Tai gets her heart broken. The resident cupid of Bronson Alcott High School makes a few surprising discoveries about her own feelings and, for the first time in her perfectly organized life, loses her composure.

10 Things I Hate About YouThis is adapted from the Shakespearean comedy, The Taming of the Shrew. Julia Stiles plays Kat Stratford, the present-day version of the infamous Katherina. The movie gives her a much deeper personality than the original. She is headstrong, cynical, and independent in a generally “unfeminine” way, which, of course, makes her undesirable to most men—especially in contrast with her affable sister, Bianca (Larisa Oleynik). But Kat is far from a shrew, and the movie deserves credit for voicing her opinions and not stuffing her into the “difficult women” drawer. Patrick, played by the legendary Heath Ledger, is a refreshing upgrade from Petruchio as he makes no attempt to “tame” Kat. It’s a delight to watch the two find their way into each other’s hearts.

Bridget Jones’ DiaryThe movie is based on a novel of the same name by Helen Fielding, which is inspired by the beloved classic Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Bridget Jones, played by Renee Zellweger, is the modern-day reincarnation of Elizabeth Bennet, with the same characteristic wit and tendency to get herself into awkward situations from which she needs to be extricated by her friends, who are her lifeline for surviving single life in London. Much like the Bennets, Bridget’s family, especially her mother, never fails to mortify her in public gatherings. Love seems a baffling mystery as Bridget trudges through heartbreak and disappointment and finds resonance in unexpected places.

She’s the ManAlso adapted from a Shakespearean comedy, Twelfth Night, this hilarious movie features Amanda Bynes as Viola who, after a humiliating fight with her boyfriend on the soccer field at school, goes to her brother Sebastian’s (James Kirk) private school, disguised as him, to cover for Sebastian while he goes to London to play music, his true passion. Viola, posing as Sebastian, gets an attractive new roommate in the form of Duke (played by Channing Tatum), and rises to become the star soccer player of the school with Duke’s help. Amidst a few secret crushes and a lot of confusion resulting from Viola hastily switching between her aliases, the day of the game against her old school arrives.

The Heroines of Olympus

In 2005, Rick Riordan had the brilliant idea to write about a fantastical universe where ancient Greek mythical characters are “alive and kicking.” However, the gods have adapted to the growth of civilization and developed some new characteristics: Dionysus, god of wine, is on withdrawal and drinks nothing but Diet Coke. He is unhappily in charge of a summer camp for demigods, children of gods and mortals. Mount Olympus, home of the gods, is perched atop the Empire State Building (invisible to mortal eyes), which, of course, means that the entrance to the Underworld, land of the dead, is in L.A.

Growing up as a Riordan fan, I developed a keen interest in Greek and Egyptian mythology. But, as enraptured as I was with his three series—Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Heroes of Olympus (a spin-off of PJO) and The Kane Chronicles—I couldn’t help but notice a pattern in his character sketches that really bothered me.

No one can deny that Riordan has created some very powerful female characters. He places fierce warriors like Annabeth Chase and Clarisse La Rue on the frontline in battle scenes. His depiction of Artemis, goddess of the moon, and her immortal troupe of maiden hunters (who have swapped their tunics for camo pants and combat boots) is bordering on reverent. But he also, maybe inadvertently, puts down several female characters who are traditionally more feminine—Aphrodite, goddess of love, is portrayed as an affected diva who likes to meddle in people’s love lives. Most of her demigod children are vain and have skills that are of little use to Camp Half-Blood, and their cabin is described as “decorated like a Barbie house” where “supermodels go to die.” The final insult comes in the form of her daughter, Piper McLean, who is revolted to find out her godly parentage.

This demonization of femininity is not unique to Riordan. Many male authors find the need to create heroines who are unmistakably “tomboyish,” and who despise all things pale pink or frilly. Although the intent behind this is to empower these characters and, consecutively, the preadolescent girls who idolize them, it is inherently sexist because it assumes that femininity is weak. I can’t stress enough how damaging a message like this is to a young girl’s psyche—finding your identity as a teenager is confusing enough as it is. Adding to it, characters like Piper McLean, who has a huge “not-like-other-girls” complex, shame young girls with naturally feminine tastes. It also suggests to young boys that women who don’t show outward toughness somehow deserve less respect and are, therefore, at the mercy of the men in their world.

To Riordan’s credit, however, the vilification seems to reach its peak with Piper. Sadie Kane, who first appeared in 2010 in The Red Pyramid, the first book in The Kane Chronicles series, is more realistic. At twelve, she is moody, chews a lot of gum and wears combat boots. But she also wears a chic dress and light makeup to her school dance. She is much closer to the idea of a real adolescent girl than most of the heroines in the other two series because her personality grows and changes substantially through the series. More importantly, she’s respectful of other people’s tastes, even when they don’t match her own.

Despite giving the impression that they were all initially built from the same mold, Riordan’s heroines are inspirational to say the least. In the world of Greek mythology, which is the definition of a patriarchy, the idea of female heroes who go on quests with their male peers as equals is a novelty that the heroes take in their stride. The three series also address issues like racism and homophobia, which is rare for young adult fiction published around the same time. As a loyal reader who stuck with Annabeth and Sadie and their respective gangs till the very end, I hope to see more strong women with diverse personalities on the pages of Riordan’s future books.

3 Books You Should Read before You’re Thirteen

Whether or not you’re a nostalgic person, you will never forget your favorite books growing up. Your taste in literature may change, along with your reading habits, but the books you read when you’re young are imprinted in your brain forever. Here are a couple books I read and re-read through middle school, along with one I wish I had read before my teenage years.

What Katy DidSarah Chauncey Woolsey. In college, Sarah Chauncey Woolsey wrote this charming novel under the pen name of Susan Coolidge. It follows Katy Carr, a twelve-year-old daydreamer, into adolescence. As the oldest of six children who lost their mother years ago, she is constantly expected to set an example to her younger siblings, which she often fails to do, but not for lack of enthusiasm. She is reminded of this frequently by her father, Dr. Carr, and Aunt Izzie, a strict disciplinarian who has been raising the children since their mother died. Aunt Izzie’s general disapproval of her only adds to Katy’s disappointment at being “all legs and elbows, and angles and joints.”

Among the many relationships that the book explores, a notable one is the strong bond between Katy and her sister Clover, second oldest of the Carr siblings. Shy, soft-spoken Clover complements Katy’s wild, whimsical nature. Katy doesn’t know exactly what she wants to do when she grows up, but she’s sure it will be something marvelous, and Clover faithfully agrees. Through the countless escapades, Katy grows on you with her wit and artlessness. It is a heartwarming story filled with colorful characters with interesting turns in the plot.

Black BeautyAnna Sewell. This famous autobiography of a horse personifies a handsome black stallion with a white star on his forehead. He begins at his dewy days as a foal on a farm. After he is broken in, he is bought by the village squire. Here he meets a few other horses, some of whom, he realizes, have not been as well-treated as he has. As he grows older, he moves from the countryside to the city, and has a diverse experience at the hands of several owners with varying temperaments. There are instances of animal cruelty in the book that give you the victim’s perspective on the subject.

The theme of empathy towards animals and their reciprocation to it is prominent throughout the book. When Black Beauty describes how uncomfortable it is to wear a bit, and how his first owner takes great care to make sure his breaking in is as comfortable as it can get, his affection for the farmer becomes prominent. Later, he grows to love his first ever groom, John. Black Beauty is the first popular novel to change the way we look at animal welfare, and is a classic for all ages.

Anne of Green GablesL.M. Montgomery. The novel is set in the picturesque, fictional town of Avonlea where life is uneventful until the Cuthberts decide to adopt a boy from an orphanage to help around the farm. Matthew and his sister, Marilla Cuthbert, live in Green Gables, a house on the edge of the woods. When Matthew goes to receive the boy at the station, he is in for a surprise. A fortunate miscommunication brings Anne to Green Gables, which her extraordinarily imaginative mind transforms into something out of a fairy tale—something she frequently does with places and things. The only thing she can’t seem to improve with imagination is her red hair, which she hates.

Through many adventures and misadventures with her “bosom friend,” Diana Barry, and other assorted characters over the course of four years, Anne becomes irreplaceable in the hearts of her family and friends in Avonlea. Although Anne sounds mature for her age when she speaks, mostly because she uses long words, her naeïvete appears every now and then when she gets into scrapes, or when she tries to deal with the awkwardness of entering adolescence. Reading this book is a luxurious experience, full of eloquent descriptions of the most mundane things transformed into something exotic and beautiful through Anne’s eyes.

Book Review

The Cheapest Nights: A Collection of Short Stories by Yusuf Idris, Translated by Wadida Wassef

Publisher: Penguin Classics
Genre: Short stories, satire
Pages: 181
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Published in Egypt in 1954, this collection of short stories captures glimpses of the lives of the Egyptian lower class, most of them based in Cairo. This compilation, which is to be published on June 9, includes a few stories from Idris’s other collections as well. Here, I’ve shared my thoughts on the three stories I found the most remarkable.


The Dregs of the City —It all begins when Judge Abdallah loses his wristwatch. Being a textbook introvert and a man of routine, this minor inconvenience sends him into an introspective spiral where he contemplates his social awkwardness and general lack of success with women. But, he must find a wife before he is thirty-five (few aspects of his life are left unscheduled), so he doesn’t give up.

The narrative describes Abdallah’s misadventures with women in a jesting, almost O Henry-esque tone until it takes a sudden turn and we meet the dark side of the man that polite society knows as Judge Abdallah—a morally bankrupt person with no shortage of enthusiasm in judging others for faults in character, especially women. The story depicts in unapologetic detail the carnal urge to abuse one’s power that lurks in the best of us, and the pain of living with oneself after it’s been done.

Did You Have to Turn on the Light, Li-Li? —A priest forgets to end the morning prayer and leaves rows of men bowed in prostration for a long time. This is eventually written off as a joke and added to the annals of the neighborhood. But the narrative reveals the real reason behind the Imam’s lapse.

It goes back to when a young Sheikh Abdel Al is appointed as the Imam of the mosque in Al Batiniyya, where the people are generally intoxicated on opium and hashish throughout the day and go to bed at dawn, when he calls for prayer. But his real test appears in the form of temptation: a woman. When we covet something that we have no right to, we tend to blame ourselves less than we blame the thing itself. The story stealthily underlines that.

Having remained chaste and above impulses all his life, he sees her as the devil incarnate, even as he is drawn to her. Suddenly, he is very aware of his mortal flesh with all its weaknesses. He prays for divine intervention so that he may remain worthy of his position. His deliverance comes in a wave of poetic irony.

The Errand —In his youth, El Shabrawi traversed the length and breadth of Cairo as a city cop. But in recent years, he has been stationed out of town and he would give his life—his words—to go back to the city, if only for an hour. As luck would have it, a woman of unstable mental disposition is brought into the police station one day by her relatives and the need arises for a chaperone to take her to the asylum in Cairo. Predictably, El Shabrawi volunteers and, as no one else does, is given the responsibility of Zebeida.

But, it turns out that it is a little difficult to enjoy all the city has to offer with a woman in tow who is screaming and struggling to get away at every step. El Shabrawi is pushed to his limits as his patience is tested and as he dashes from one government building to another, caught in a web of bureaucracy. His release comes in an unexpected way. When it does, he is taken aback by his own feelings and subsequent actions. It is a story of human compassion written at a time when the subject of mental illness was treated with little sensitivity.


A writer who lived in a time and society of strict moral codes, Idris’s writing is bold yet eloquent. He doesn’t hold back in his dressing-down of the entitled, privileged man, or the underprivileged man, for that matter, and shines a clear light on the oppression of the women they lord over. His stories signify that he acknowledged and despised the hypocrisy of a society that held different standards, always, for men and women, for the powerful and the subjugated.

Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Book Review

Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir by Jean Guerrero

Publisher: One World
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 320
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 5/5 stars


Sometimes, the only way to find yourself is to go back to your roots. In Crux, Jean Guerrero travels back four generations to understand her father, Marco Antonio, who has been absent most of her adolescence. She starts with her mother, Jeannette, and paternal grandmother, Abuelita Carolina, and proceeds to climb further up the family tree.

Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Marco sees sinister shadows that pursue him around the world when he tries to escape them by leaving his family behind.

Jean is shaped both by her mother’s unwavering dependability and her father’s desertion. She searches for answers in Mexico, her father’s birthplace, a country that holds as much enigma for her as an adult as it terrified her as a child.

Through a series of life-changing experiences, she finds herself at the edge of an age-old chasm and preparing for the crossing: the crossing across country borders, the crossing into lunacy, the crossing between life and death—amalgamated into one flickering fence.


Stretching as far back as the Spanish invasion of Mexico, it is a memoir that reads like a novel owing to the poetic symmetry of the events and characters. Guerrero captures quite a few of her unique experiences in this book along with an element of mysticism—presented with a commendably unbiased view.

Crux is clearly a product of meticulous research and a highly perceptive mind. It uses interviews and historic documents among others as its sources. The compilation of these into a coherent narrative could not have been easy, as first-hand accounts of the family’s lives in or before the early twentieth century were hard to come by. It is a fascinating read and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in human psychology and/or ancient philosophy.

Thanks to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.