Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

It is 2002, a few months after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan. A Norwegian journalist, Asne Seierstad, stumbles across a bookshop in Kabul. After months out with the troops a conversation with the bookseller about topics other than the war is refreshing. Yet Asne finds herself drawn back to Sultan Khan, the bookseller who defied both the Soviets and the Taliban to save precious books. She resolves to write about his life and that of his family. Welcomed as a guest into his home Asne gets to view a unique picture of the rapidly changing world of both the men and the women of Afghanistan.

After reading the 'Kabul Beauty School' I was determined to read 'The Bookseller of Kabul' in the hope that it would be as equally enjoyable. I must admit it was a book that was hard to put down and I read it within 24 hours. In some ways I wasn't expecting this after noting on the frontispiece that it was a translation, and my most recent experience of a translation (see my review of Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog) had not been positive. It was definitely easy to read and despite the slightly odd format where events are strung together and it is difficult to grasp when these events take place.

The book is extremely different from that of the 'Kabul Beauty School'. Asne features very little in the book, recording events rather than participating for the most part. Instead members of the family take it in turns to share the lime light. Men and women both get their stories told, although I felt that perhaps slightly more women had their stories recounted than men. It is also set at a different time in the liberation of Afghanistan. While Deborah Rodriguez writes about her experiences in 2003, Asne is covering a period in early 2002 when the Taliban have only just been ousted. Life was almost as restricted as it had been under the Taliban as people were too afraid to defy their rule, despite the fact they could no longer punish them. Also, Asne lives with a large family unit whereas Deborah has her own living space and makes her own small family unit. The list of differences between the books is endless and I would definitely recommend the pair as a reading comparison project. How can two women write such different accounts of one city, one country, one culture?

I do think that I read these books in the right order. Whilst the 'Kabul Beauty School' infused me with hope that things will get better, are getting better, 'The Bookseller of |Kabul' was less hopeful. I felt that the author was being as impartial as possible but I felt so sorry for almost all the members of the family. The first wife ousted from her position of authority, the unmarried sisters who are treated no better than slaves, the eldest son who desired to study, meet women and to have a life beyond the four walls of the bookshop etc etc. Sultan Khan is the ultimate patriarch with laudable ideals for a better Afghanistan yet with boundless wrath and an unforgiving nature for any family members who step out of line or question his authority. He is a man constricted by tradition and culture. By the end of the book you do wonder what effect Asne had on the family (something you wonder even more after reading the epilogue). It is hard to see what hope there is and whether things will ever change in the country. You also find yourself wondering if change is always a good thing and what sacrifices should be made.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and although it was hard to sympathise with the majority of characters did find myself drawn to them and eager to learn their fate. They are real people with foibles as much as anyone. People with contradictions to their character, but who all ultimately are trying to improve their lot, in whatever small ways they can. I would recommend this to anyone who has read 'The Kabul Beauty School' or is interested in learning more about the customs, traditions and history of Afghanistan. I have no doubt I will be adding Asne's other book 'A Hundred and One Days' which cover her time in Baghdad to my reading list. I would love to continue reading books of this ilk, but perhaps about countries other than Afghanistan.

*5 stars*

If you are interested in books about life in Afghanistan, have you tried 'The Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez?

Anne of Greengables by L. M. Montgomery

Siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert decide that they can no longer manage their farm alone. The help they hired every year was always unreliable and they wanted something a bit more permanent. Hearing that one of their friends has adopted, they feel that adopting a boy and teaching him how to manage the farm will solve all their problems. Yet somehow there is a mistake and the Cuthbert's are sent 11 year old Anne. A day-dreamer who talks too much she soon manages to upset plenty of people. Yet as time passes Anne grows and learns to tame her wild imagination and her tongue and it is not long before people learn to love Anne of Green Gables.

When I was little my father recommended I should read this. For reasons I don't remember I ignored his advice. Perhaps I felt it was too 'girly' for me and too twee. For years I have avoided things like 'Little House on the Prairie' and any adult chick lit that I've seen in bookshops and libraries. So when the Book Club Forum made Anne of Green Gables their book to read for August I thought I would give it a try.

To begin with I did find the format and the story annoying and not my sort of thing. It was slow, the character of motor-mouth Anne annoyed me endlessly and I started skipping through chunks of her monologues. I also felt the story wasn't going anywhere and held very little in the way of excitement. It wasn't badly written per-se, just of it's time and directed towards children rather than adults. I decided to continue reading it though as it wasn't dire. I'm glad I did because the story does improve about half way through. You begin to realise that Anne's character is annoying on purpose and very well written by Montgomery. You find as the characters develop that Matthew is extremely shy around women (which perhaps explains why he never married) and that despite her fa├žade, Marilla does care about others. I did find it a little disconcerting that so much of the book is dedicated to Anne when she is 11/12 and then you start leaping very suddenly through time until by the end of the book she is 16/17.

I think perhaps in some ways I was too old to read this book and enjoy it fully. I suspect I may have enjoyed it more when I was younger. Having said that perhaps it is a book that requires a certain amount of patience, something I was lacking in my youth! If you're looking for thrills and adventure this isn't the book for you. However if you're looking for a gentle, undemanding book with happy stories mingled with the sad woes of ordinary life in late 19th/early 20th century Canada then this is the right book for you. I was left wanting to know what happens next, as I know Montgomery wrote a sequel. I will be putting that on my reading list but I want to read it some wet and windy weekend in Autumn/Winter when I can curl up with a mug of hot chocolate and read a book to warm the heart. Despite it's slow start I would recommend this to others.

*4 stars*

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Dumbledore is dead and Harry is now left to complete his work, finding the rest of the deadly Horcruxes and destroying them before Voldemort gets them. Yet he, Hermione and Ron must go into hiding as Voldemort has finally succeeded in gaining control of the Ministry of Magic. In a climate of fear and repression our heroes are the only ones who can possibly save the day. Can they complete Dumbledore's work and free the world from Voldemort's tyranny?

In this, the final installment of the Harry Potter series, all the loose ends of the previous books. Although it is not a book that can be described as breathtaking or the best thing I have ever read it was still a good read. It nicely brings the series to a close. There are some extremely sad moments and as widely publicised prior to release a couple of central characters do die. It is a much darker book than even the 'Half Blood Prince'. Parallels can be drawn between the reign of Voldemort and Nazi Germany in that those who oppose the regime must flee underground or suffer torture and imprisonment. Half bloods have to be registered and everyone has to prove if they are pure blood. There are also some really good moments where things fans have hoped for do happen. I won't spoil it by saying any more!

The action centres around Harry, Ron and Hermione as you might expect. Other characters do make appearances throughout the book, bringing a smile to the face of anyone who is a fan. Actions in previous books come back to help or haunt our characters and at the end there is a really good twist that reward some people's faith in a specific character. The storyline keeps mainly to finding the Horcruxes but the trio do find a second quest to undertake.

After the 'Half Blood Prince' I was building myself up to feeling disappointed about 'The Deathly Hallows'. However that was not the case. I found myself wanting to read it and enjoying several of the scenes, especially the one involving the radio. As said earlier, it wasn't 'the best book I have ever read' and to be honest it was very much for fans of the series rather than any newcomers. I think if anyone gave up reading earlier in the series they should try again because the end is worth getting to. There is a lot to get your head round in some respects (anyone who has read the book will know what I mean when I refer to the Deathly Hallows). If you have persevered with the books so far you're at least half way prepared. I do wonder if perhaps J K Rowling made it a bit too complex but some how it all works in the end. I suspect I will be re-reading this book when I reach a lull in my current reading list. As I don't often re-read books I think that says it all really!

*4 stars*

Saturday, August 11, 2007

An update

Hi everyone,

Well I'm slowly settling in so as you can see I've started reviewing again. I can only get access sporadically so I won't be psoting reviews as often as I would like but nevermind!

I have turned on the comment facility again so if anyone would like to add their comments about any of the books I've reviewed, please feel free to do so!

Can I also remind everyone that you can sign up for e-mail bulletins of reviews by signing up to the newsletter on the right hand side of the page. So far three of us have signed up and I'm pretty sure I've set it up so you can receive the whole review (not just a tid-bit) in your e-mails. Means you don't have to visit the blog so much to keep up with the reviews.

I've updated the A-Z listings so they're right now. Will sort out adding a list of top books reviewed as well to make it easier to find books to try.

If you're interested in what I'm likely to be reviewing in the near future I've got 'Ann of Green Gables' by L.M. Montgomery and 'To Kill or Cure' by Susanna Gregory on my pile. I have read the latest Harry Potter and will review that soon, along with the latest Ladie's Detective Agency book by Alexander McCall Smith, so lots to look forward to!

Keep reading :)

The Big Over Easy by Jasper FForde

Humpty Dumpty fell off a wall, but was it accident or perhaps something more sinister? An ex-convict, ladies man and millionaire philanthropist he has his fair share of enemies, including his ex-wife. DI Jack Spratt and his new assistant Mary Mary must get to the bottom of the case, and quick. The Nursery Crimes Division is the laughing stock of Reading Police force and some recent expensive cases that failed to bring convictions have got their superiors ready to shut them down. Can Spratt prove that for once his hunches are right? Can he prove Humpty was murdered, and not by the ex-wife who has conveniently died in a horrific accident at the biscuit factory. With time running out for Spratt and his misfits and an old rival trying to undermine the investigation will Spratt be on traffic duty next week?

I’ve heard lots and lots about Jasper Fforde in the past but it has taken me until now to pick up my first Jasper Fforde book. I have certainly not been disappointed. It was witty, clever, funny (not in the laugh out loud sense, more in a quiet smirk kind of way) and a good story. I didn’t see the ending coming, but it wasn’t totally unrealistic. Lots of twists and turns and red herrings just to keep you guessing. A well put together murder mystery which pokes fun at the publicity over quality of results culture we keep finding ourselves in. The clever allusions to nursery rhymes that fit in neatly to the book are well thought out. From Giorgia Porgia the legendary crime boss, to DI Jack Spratt himself who has an unfortunate habit of killing tall people.

There’s nothing negative I can really say about this book. Ok so it’s not laugh out loud funny but that’s because of the type of humour. It will certainly appeal to anyone looking for more than just a quick holiday read. It does make you think, but not too much. The pace is good and like all the best films, just when you think they’ve solved it they haven’t, but fortunately it doesn’t get boring like the end of Casino Royale (it’s not a positive thing to sit in the cinema and keep saying, isn’t this over yet???).

I would recommend this to everyone, its well worth a try! I’m looking forward to reading the next book, ‘The Fourth Bear’.

*5 stars*

Monday, August 06, 2007

An Ancient Evil by Paul Doherty

A group of pilgrims are making their way towards Canterbury. During the day they swap tales full of humour and morals, tales made famous by Geoffrey Chaucer. Yet at night they swap stories of a different nature. Tales of murder, horror and woe. At
night they compete to see who can tell the best dark story, for the winner shall receive a purse of silver. Thus begins Doherty's series 'The Canterbury Tales Mysteries'.

In this book we have the Knight's tale. A knight, a clerk and a blind nun work together to save Oxford from a grim spectre of the past. People are being brutally murdered, students are missing and there are fears that the living dead are abroad. Are the old stories of a mysterious cult who disguised themselves as members of the cloth to hide their deceit true? Did these men and women really commit such horrific crimes centuries before and could they have returned to reek revenge? what is certain is that the perpetrators must be found before they strike again.

Doherty is well known for his historical murder mysteries. These include the Hugh Corbett Mysteries and the Brother Athelstan series, not to mention series set in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Rome and the court of Alexander the Great. Therefore there are no worries to be had on historical accuracy. Medieval England is a period Doherty knows well and this shines through with his take on a well known horror story. What makes the book work is the gradual unveiling of the story to the reader and I have no wish to spoil that by giving too much away. Suffice to say by the end of this book most readers will be aware of the clues and homages to the original story.

The book is not a taxing read and I confess to being quite engrossed whilst reading this. I avoid horror at all costs usually as I don't tend to enjoy the vampires, werewolves, zombies and scare tactics used. I also like to sleep soundly at night.
Nevertheless I found this book immensely enjoyable. I don't think it would appeal to horror fans though as even I didn't find this book too scary. The suspense was maintained till towards the end and all the murders were suitably gruesome. Yet perhaps it was the fact it was set in the 13th century that made me unable to see myself in that situation. Horror often works because we perceive the threats in the story as believable. A recent episode of Doctor Who had alien assassins who
disguised themselves as statues but who couldn't move if you looked directly at them. If you so much as blinked, they could move in the time your eyes were shut. What made it scary was that statues are all around us, and we don't think about them, so who knows which ones could be these aliens and sneak up on you when you blink? The setting of Doherty's book in the dim and distant past in situations that are alien to us in the present meant that the horror wasn't so apparent. I didn't feel as if I could possibly be in any danger.

If you have read other books by Doherty it is worth trying this series, especially as this is the first and sets up the premise of the series. I would also recommend it to those who enjoy historical crime fiction as something a little different to what they usually read, if they want to try something new. It's a sort of crime/horror combo, but as I've said before not a hugely terrifying story so good for those who are not big horror fans.

3 stars

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Eve of Saint Hyacinth by Kate Sedley

Roger the Chapman is back on the open road, leaving his six month old daughter with his mother in law. He decides to try his luck in London where the king is gathering his troops to invade France. There should be enough customers for his wares there. Then one night he happens to over hear a conversation he shouldn't have and it is not long before one of the two men he over hears is found dead. Despite his better judgment he stays in London and is swiftly entangled with Timothy Plumber, spy master for Duke Richard of Gloucester. There is a plot to murder the Duke and Roger finds himself engaged to uncover the assassin. Can Roger put his monastic schooling to good use and find out who would want Richard dead and why?

I quite enjoy picking up books in the 'Roger the Chapman' series. They're always a good light read, not too taxing but engaging enough to make you want to read them. I like the character of Roger very much, the fairly easy going, intelligent young man. He has his vices but in the grand scheme of things these are quite insignificant (he claims to be too apt to fall in love but quick to fall out of it for instance). He remains untainted by the intrigues he finds himself caught up in. Innocent but worldly wise at the same time. Its an odd combination but if you read the books you'll see what I mean.

Sedley has no problems conjuring up a believable world for Roger to inhabit. From what little I know of this period I do feel it is fairly accurate and I particularly like the early parts of the book where Roger is drifting around the Hampshire countryside selling his wares. I can very much believe that the women in the far out cottages and settlements might not see a pedlar for months. I also found her description of the sheep washing detailed and yet interesting, something which I don't think I would normally feel about sheep washing in general!

I also like the way in which Sedley is able to be accurate about the mundane as well as the political events of the 15th century. The problems between the Woodville family and the King's brothers is beautifully portrayed (I particularly like the moment when the Duke of Clarence insults the Queen at the banquet). In some ways its hard to believe a simple Chapman would be aware of the politics surrounding the war with France but his background in the church before he quit for a life on the road it seems possible he would know such things. Also being on the road he's apt to pick up gossip all over the country.

I did enjoy this book but it was 'ok' rather than something I would necessarily recommend to all my friends. It was good, but a bit gentle perhaps for some tastes. This particular installment was still accessible for those who have not read any of the series so far and is in fact a good introduction to Roger's character. So anyone who does fancy a
non-too-taxing medieval murder mystery to read then I would recommend this one.

*3 stars*

If you enjoyed this book you might also enjoy
*The Poisoned Chalice by Bernard Knight

Other books by Kate Sedley
*For King and Country