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Brainwashing.

Home Fire: A Novel - Kamila Shamsie

Well, I could have done without this being a contemporary reselling of Antigone, as I'm really not a fan of rehashing the old fables in modern form. Still, I was pretty much able to ignore the comparisons and take the story at face value - a tragic tale of fundamentalism and its disastrous effects on a family.

 

I read this because the author was attending our local Lit Fest, and I'm glad I did. It depicted the struggles of an immigrant family that, to all intents and purposes, had become British, yet their beliefs and values undermined their every move and influenced their beliefs.

 

The eldest member of the family, Isma, has been caring for her younger siblings since their mother died. Now that they are older, Isma finally has the opportunity to do something for herself; to accept an invitation to carry out research in America under a much respected mentor. However, she still worries about her younger sister, Aneeka, and Aneeka's twin brother, Parvais. Aneeka can be reckless and foolish, while Parvais has been missing, believed to be attempting to follow in his father's fanatical footsteps.

When Isma meets Eamon, son of the local MP, and sends him to her family with a package to post, she opens up a can of worms that has no lid.

The fall-out from this event is cataclysmic, as the characters spiral downwards into their own black holes, Isma tries desperately to hold the family together.

 

Definitely a powerful read, a book of our times.

 

Also read, by the same author: Burnt Shadows (5*)

 

Behind the scenes of a war.

The Baghdad Clock - Shahad Al Rawi

After a slow start, this became an interesting and revealing narrative about the effects of two Gulf wars and the attached sanctions, on the Iraqi civilian population. Narrated from the point of view of a young girl who grows up in a disintegrating Baghdad, it becomes clear just how insidious the sanctions were, effectively causing more destruction than the missiles.

 

The voice of the un-named narrator begins as that of a child, which initially had me concerned that this was going to be the writing style for the whole book. Thankfully, the narrator matures and with it her narrative voice. She introduces us to some of the characters of the village, the wacky, the sad and the ever hopeful. I will never forget the watch-marks bitten on the wrists of children by Uncle Shawkat, or his loyal pet dog, Biryad.

As the young girl and her friend Nadia grow into teenagers, they share their loves and loses, until the inevitable time when the black Chevrolet comes to the door and spirits them away with their families to a safer haven, one that will never truly be Home.

 

It's a raw commentary on the other side of war, the one that we didn't see from TV reports and newspapers. This is a book that should be widely read and now that it has been awarded the Edinburgh Book Festival's First Book Award, this will begin to happen.

 

Shahad Al Rawi spent her childhood in Baghdad, reaching secondary school before moving with her parents to Syria. I'm glad to say she then moved to Dubai, where I am looking forward to hearing her speak at our Literary Festival in March.

Book 1 of an ongoing series.

Dead Simple - Peter James

Although I listened to this as an abridged version, it had been well cut and was excellently narrated by William Gaminara, so I was barely aware that it was not the full book. I've never read anything by Peter James before, although I had heard him speak at a literary festival.

The plot itself was well suited to audio, as there was nothing too demanding or complex to concentrate on and I was happy having it playing in the background while I worked in the house.

 

I wonder whether the 'Simple' of the title might be considered politically incorrect these days, being as it refers to a young man of low intelligence, who finds a walkie talkie, yet fails to comprehend its importance; to him it is just a toy. In reality it holds the clue to the whereabouts of Michael Harrison, who has disappeared while out celebrating his stag night. Mark, his business partner and best man, seems to know more than he is letting on, while the fiance, Ashley Harper, is distraught, with the wedding just a few days away.

 

Detective Superintendent Grace leads the investigation. He is a likable enough detective, if a bit ineffective at times. His use of a medium towards the end did seem a bit of a cop-out. The fact that his wife had disappeared 10 years ago, though, was a good cliff-hanger for the future of the series.

 

I am vaguely familiar with Brighton and my Grandmother used to live in Hove, which added interest and I would certainly give the second book a try, preferably in audio format again.

The origins of Islam.

Mother of the Believers - Kamran Pasha

This was pretty much compulsory reading, considering that I live in the Middle East, and it was a book that has been on my shelves for quite a while. However, although it was interesting, it certainly wasn't un-putdownable - checking back I see that it has taken me over 2 months to read. It's quite a big book and I was moving house, but even so, that's a looong time.

 

The central character is Mohammed's first wife, Aisha, and the book goes beyond Mohammed's death to the caliphs who ruled after his passing, but during Aisha's lifetime. There is debate about how old Aisha was at the time of her marriage and it was the author's choice to take the youngest age, at just nine years old. I found, however, that her thoughts and conversation seemed more suited to an older person and this caused me some conflict in the earlier chapters.

Mohammed (pbuh), was an interesting character, more of a warrior than I had realised, but also a man of peace, with amazing negotiating skills. He held together a warring mix of tribes, against all odds, and gave generously of all he had, to the poor.

 

It is a shame that religions become warped to people's own ends. Islam teaches generosity and love, not the fanaticism that we see today. The early believers would turn in their graves if they could see what has happened since.

 

This was a book group read and I was fortunate to have some Muslim friends in my book group, who explained some of the narrative and put it into context within today's world.

I do think this is a book worth reading and although it took me a while, I don't regret the time spent. I am now much better informed about the origins of the Islamic faith and the history behind it.

A bit formulaic.

Judge & Jury - James Patterson, Andrew Gross

A friend kindly gave me her collection of audio CDs and so I promptly trundled my car down to the auto repair shop to get my CD player fixed. The first CD I chose had such low volume that I couldn't hear it in the car, but I'm glad to say my second choice was more successful. Most of the books were abridged, but this one was a complete novel, well narrated by Joe Mantegna, and although not earth shattering, it kept me entertained through several hours of driving.

 

The two main characters are Nick Pellisante, the detective responsible for bringing in mafia boss, Dominic Covello, and Andie, a member of the jury chosen to try him. Nick is an FBI agent who has been on Covello's heels for a large part of his career. Andie is a single mother and part-time actress, who really doesn't want to be on the jury at all.

Their paths cross at various times during the case, but their joint desire to see Covello brought to justice results in a satisfying denouement.

 

Initially this looked like being a court case-based fiction, but I'm glad to say that it broadened out into something a bit more interesting. My main problem with it was the structure of "build-up, emergency, solution", which seemed to be on repeat throughout the book. It got a bit irritating and predictable after a while.

 

I'd only read one Patterson book before, 1st To Die, but this felt similarly formulaic and I won't be rushing back to read another.

Numbers and song titles...

Brass in Pocket - Stephen Puleston

Having enjoyed Stephen Puleston's prequel, The Devil's Kitchen, I was looking forward to following Inspector Drake and his assistant, Ceren Waits, as they embark on a full length investigation. I was not disappointed at all, and Richard Elfyn again added a dimension, with the narration and his lovable Welsh accent. Some of these place names would have been massacred in my head, had I tried to read them.

 

The book starts with us in the murderer's shoes, as he stalks two police officers through the Welsh countryside and into the mountains. Drake is soon alerted to the murders of the two officers, and he and Ceren rush to the scene to find that they have been murdered by a crossbow, and traffic cones have been left in the shape of a number four. When a politician is murdered soon after, the suggestion is made that the number four is a prediction of the number of intended murders. Drake and Ceren are now under pressure to solve the crime before the target is reached.

As well as the numbers, the killer complicates the investigation by sending song lyrics after each murder. Surely this is a clue, but what does it signify?

 

An enjoyable listen that kept my interest. Atmospheric, with description of the Welsh countryside, but a little annoying when Drake's OCD is referred to repeatedly and his constant need to play Sudoku puzzles to calm his nerves, becomes irritating. Thankfully I don't have to live with him!

 

 

I've given up!

Milkman - Anna Burns
I should know by now that a book that wins the Man Booker prize is going to do nothing for me. With the exception of White Tiger, I have never enjoyed a Man Booker prize winner and Milkman was no exception. I was listening to an excellent reading by Bríd Brennan, complete with genuine Irish accent, but even this could not make up for the unnecessary verbosity of this book. Huge credit to the narrator for making it to the end, I abandoned ship at 23%.

Just as an example, here is a typical paragraph:
"Considering alone his avowals of devotion towards women, his mission of idolatry, his supreme glorification and deification and view that on earth in women was the life of things, the breadth of things, the cyclicality, essential nature, higher aspect, the best, most archetypal and utmost mystery of everything." 

And this was then followed by an endless discourse about whether or not the sky was actually blue?

There was much scope to provide an understanding of life as a young girl during the time of the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland. The way women were treated, the boys' names that were or weren't acceptable, who was 'in' and who was 'beyond the pail', This book kind of suffuses this into the reader by osmosis, but by the same token, it was becoming more and more irritating and I do my reading for enjoyment; I was not enjoying the style of this book at all.

My first abandoned book this year :(

I've given up!

Milkman - Anna Burns
I should know by now that a book that wins the Man Booker prize is going to do nothing for me. With the exception of White Tiger, I have never enjoyed a Man Booker prize winner and Milkman was no exception. I was listening to an excellent reading by Bríd Brennan, complete with genuine Irish accent, but even this could not make up for the unnecessary verbosity of this book. Huge credit to the narrator for making it to the end, I abandoned ship at 23%.

Just as an example, here is a typical paragraph:
"Considering alone his avowals of devotion towards women, his mission of idolatry, his supreme glorification and deification and view that on earth in women was the life of things, the breadth of things, the cyclicality, essential nature, higher aspect, the best, most archetypal and utmost mystery of everything." 

And this was then followed by an endless discourse about whether or not the sky was actually blue?

There was much scope to provide an understanding of life as a young girl during the time of the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland. The way women were treated, the boys' names that were or weren't acceptable, who was 'in' and who was 'beyond the pail', This book kind of suffuses this into the reader by osmosis, but by the same token, it was becoming more and more irritating and I do my reading for enjoyment; I was not enjoying the style of this book at all.

My first abandoned book this year :(

I've given up!

Milkman - Anna Burns

I should know by now that a book that wins the Man Booker prize is going to do nothing for me. With the exception of White Tiger, I have never enjoyed a Man Booker prize winner and Milkman was no exception. I was listening to an excellent reading by Bríd Brennan, complete with genuine Irish accent, but even this could not make up for the unnecessary verbosity of this book. Huge credit to the narrator for making it to the end, I abandoned ship at 23%.

 

Just as an example, here is a typical paragraph:

"Considering alone his avowals of devotion towards women, his mission of idolatry, his supreme glorification and deification and view that on earth in women was the life of things, the breadth of things, the cyclicality, essential nature, higher aspect, the best, most archetypal and utmost mystery of everything." 

 

And this was then followed by an endless discourse about whether or not the sky was actually blue?

 

There was much scope to provide an understanding of life as a young girl during the time of the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland. The way women were treated, the boys' names that were or weren't acceptable, who was 'in' and who was 'beyond the pail', This book kind of suffuses this into the reader by osmosis, but by the same token, it was becoming more and more irritating and I do my reading for enjoyment; I was not enjoying the style of this book at all.

 

My first abandoned book this year :(

A rollicking romp.

Lost & Found (A Daisy Dunlop Mystery Book 2) - JL Simpson

This was fun! Certainly not the most in-depth book I've ever read, but an enjoyable romp with entertaining characters and brilliantly narrated by Diana Croft.

 

Daisy Dunlop is a nutty private investigator, along the lines of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum. She has teamed up with her husband's best mate, Solomon, to work on a case that involves a missing poodle. Suffice to say she is petrified by dogs.

The interaction between Daisy and Solomon forms a large part of the book, they are not involved with one another; Daisy is madly in love with her husband Paul, but they seem to manage to get into rather a lot of compromising situations.

 

Other characters are less detailed and some of those involved with the crime became rather a cast of thousands for me. The crime itself trundles along at a steady pace but then we suddenly get an overload of information which was rather confusing on audio as it's so difficult to rewind when driving etc. This aside, I enjoyed the narrative and the excellent narration and would certainly consider listening to the first book. Hopefully the third book will also be available on audio at a later date.

Warning: don't read the book blurb, it gives too much away.

My Not So Perfect Life - Sophie Kinsella

This was an unusual choice for our book group because it was more chick-lit than we usually read. It was picked because it covered the subject of social media and advertising, which is hugely topical right now.

 

Katie Brenner has finally nabbed her perfect job - at the very bottom of the advertising ladder. The salary is so low that she has to rent a room with no wardrobe space and stores her belongings in a hammock hanging over her bed. She has a long, stressful commute and spends her day doing repetitive tasks. Her Instagram page, however, paints a very different picture - drinks with friends and a trendy lifestyle in London.

 

Sophie Kinsella is guaranteed to take any situation and draw out the funny side of it, and this was no exception. I'm not a great fan of Chick-Lit as a genre, but if it's amusing, then all is forgiven. Ms Kinsella is one of a very few authors who can make me smile while reading and I did highlight quite a few passages.

 

I do think that the book blurb gives away far too much of the story and I'm glad I hadn't read it beforehand, or there would have been no surprises. Although it was somewhat predictable and didn't really provide much in-depth discussion, it was generally enjoyed by my book group as a light summer read. The big exception to this, however, were those involved in advertising, who categorically refused to accept the ending as in any way feasible.

 

My ratings:
Remember Me 4*
Shopaholic Ties the Knot 3.5*
Shopaholic and Baby 4*

Welcome back Brad!

Keeping Hope Alive - Dawn Kopman Whidden

Three bodies are discovered in the woods, two recent and one half a century old. The question is; who are they and how did they come to be there? Is there a connection between them?
Plus, of course, the traumatic opening chapter, with a girl trapped, bound and naked in the dark. The book's title hints as to who she might be, but we don't know for sure until later in the narrative.

I was happy to spend a few more hours in the company of Jean Whitley, Marty Keal, and Marty's fiance, Hope. It was also lovely to reconnect with Brad, the young boy who we met in the first book of the series. For the last four years he's been living in a correctional facility and his case has finally come before the court, requesting that he be released into the hands of his grandparents. Brad was a powerful character in the first book, but we'd heard little of him in the interim.

The resolution of the mystery cleverly combines all the characters into a complicated plot that I would never have guessed at. I had to listen to the explanation of the murders' motives a couple of times to really grasp it. I think this was complicated by the fact that people were sometimes referred to by first names and sometimes by surnames, a real challenge for my poor brain.

This is currently the last book in the series, though hopefully there will be more in the future. I found this to be the most violent of the four, probably because the target is a character who we have got to know and love through the preceding volumes. Again the narrator Amy Deuchler, does an excellent job; I forgot she was there at all.

I'm now looking forward to more episodes in the not too distant future. Marty and Hope have yet to get married and Gracie isn't going to stand by and wait too long for that to happen :)

Research into death.

Death Becomes Us - Pamela Skjolsvik, Arianne "Tex" Thompson

I'm glad to see that this book has a number of good reviews because it makes me feel better about being honest - I really did not enjoy this. Not, as you'd perhaps expect, because the subject matter was death, but because I felt as if it was just a rehash of the process the author went through to write her thesis on the subject. I did get a bit more involved about half way through when she contacted an inmate of death row, but the first half was definitely a struggle.

Ms Skjolsvik contacted funeral directors, embalmers and hospice workers. She spent idle hours at a fire station with the emergency crew, ready to go on a call out and she befriended a couple of prison inmates during the final weeks before their deaths. She also spoke to people who had lost family members, including children and then, randomly, attended the birth of her hairdresser's baby, knowing that the family had lost their first child to a choking accident.

My rating wasn't helped by the narration of my audiobook, which was jerky. The narrator kept pausing, as if looking for a word, and this drove me nuts.

One part of the book that I did find interesting was the author's battle with anxiety. Her interviews with the various subjects were not easy for her and she even went on a course to face her fears. Hopefully she benefited from the exercise, but in my opinion, making a book out of her thesis interviews was a step too far.

I should have connected with this book as I buried both my parents this summer, but it left me completely unmoved.

100 fantastic recipes.

Buddha Bowls  - Kelli Foster

I discovered Buddha bowls only about a year ago, when the cafe where we held our monthly book discussion added them to their menu. I was intrigued and gave them a go. Wow, it was like a salad flavour explosion!

So I was thrilled to find this well presented recipe book, full of inspiration to build a really healthy meal. The recipes are straight forward and easy to follow and I loved the extra suggestions, like cooking rice in tea for a flavour boost, or keeping herb off-cuts in the freezer to add to noodles while cooking.

The introduction succinctly describes Buddha bowls and runs through the type of foods they contain; how they are layered and an explanation of sauces and toppings.
There is also a useful chart giving guide-line cooking times and water quantities for most of the grains and noodles you might need to employ for your base.layer.

There are 13 sauce recipes, alongside suggestions for recipes in which these sauces are used - useful if you want to make a sauce your chosen starting point. I particularly recommend the peanut sauce but I'm itching to try the roasted red pepper sauce too.
Next come 18 breakfast bowl recipes, from Maple-Vanilla Overnight Oat Bowls (Pg 34) to Spinach and Mushroom Pesto breakfast Bowls (Pg 44). There are even some slow cooker recipes for those who like a ready-cooked hot breakfast.
Then there are 16 fish and seafood recipes, which I skimmed over as I'm vegetarian, ditto the 15 chicken and turkey bowls and the 14 beef and lamb bowls. I can come back to these at a later date, as I'm sure I can use ideas and adjust recipes from this section too.
I skipped to the 29 vegetarian recipes, which were so hard to choose between - should I make Thai Coconut Curry Bowls (Pg 131 ), Turmeric-roasted Vegetable Bowls (Pg 153 ), or Butternut Squash and Kale Bowls (Pg 126). No, but wait, what about Lentil and Roasted Tomatillo Bowls (Pg 127)?? I am spoiled for choice!
Finally, if you still have space, there are 10 fruit bowl recipes, for desert.

Plenty of vegan recipes or gluten-free options are provided, and suggestions as to how other recipes can be adapted for dietary restrictions.
My one disappointment with this fabulous book is that not all the recipes are illustrated. This is actually quite a big minus and should have resulted in me giving it 4 stars, but overall, I was so impressed by the variety here that I decided to overlook this huge omission and go with a 5 star rating.

Up until now I've been sourcing my Buddha bowl recipes from the internet, but from now in, this will be my go-to collection. I can't imagine I'll need anything else.

Summer on the New Hampshire coast.

Body Surfing - Anita Shreve

I originally read this book back in 2010 and only gave it 3 stars. Then a friend recently gave me an abridged audio version and so I decided to give it another go. The shortened version was more enjoyable and I gave it 4 stars this time around, maybe I was just in the mood for it - or maybe the full version lost my attention somehow.

 

Sydney is only 29, but has already been divorced from one husband and bereaved from a second. While she reassess her life, she takes on the job of coaching Julie, the not-so-academic daughter of Mark and Anna Edwards. They are spending their summer at the beach house - quite a mansion to be just a summer home - and Julie needs help to get her through her final year at school.

Everything seems fine until Julie's two older brothers, Ben and Jeff, join the family for their summer vacation. Jeff is involved with Victoria, a local girl he's known from childhood, and an announcement is expected. Ben is single. The presence of Sydney rather upturns the apple-cart and events proceed from there.

 

As others have commented, there was rather too much description of what characters are wearing, which doesn't really add anything for me and starts to irritate after a while. Otherwise, the characters were well drawn, even in the abridged version, and I'd completely forgotten the ending, which helped.

 

I didn't purposely set out to read all four books in the Fortune's Rocks quartet, in fact, I didn't originally realise that they were connected. I did, however, start to wonder whether the house on the New Hampshire coast that each of the novels revolved around was in some way connected; it seemed it was sharing its history with us through each of the novels. I love the reappearance of characters or features from previous works, so this was a bonus for me.

 

Fortunes Rocks Quartet (my ratings)

Fortune's Rocks (5 stars)

The Pilot's Wife (5 stars)

Sea Glass (5 stars)

Body Surfing (3, 4 stars)

Teaching in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Kurdish Bike - Alesa Lightbourne

I really enjoyed this audio version of The Kurdish Bike, a novel based on the author's experiences as an expat teacher in Iraqi Kurdistan.

 

 

The main character, Theresa, is an older, mature teacher, who has been through a messy divorce and decides to up-sticks to somewhere completely new to her. To have an adventure and escape from old memories. The job in Northern Iraq looks like the perfect opportunity.

Once in Kurdistan, she goes against protocol and buys a bike, then uses it to go into the village and meet some of the locals. She is adopted into a Kurdish family and we enjoy all their trials and tribulations alongside Theresa.

 

For me this worked extremely well as a way of introducing various issues, such as female circumcision, the rights of women and the recent history of the area.

 

The school was an eye-opener, I suspect there is a similar school near me, where all children are on the same page of the same book on any given day, irrespective of their level of ability or even whether they have had a teacher for the last term.

 

The book was narrated by the author and she did a great job - except there are a few places where she stumbles, which is something that I never hear with professional narrators. On the plus side, she does the 'asides' perfectly and I suspect these might have annoyed me in the written version as I'm not a fan of aside comments.

Hopefully she will correct these issues in the near future.

 

I am genuinely hoping that Theresa will go back to the village for another year of teaching - at the end of the novel she was offered an opportunity...will she take it??