Saturday, 29 December 2018

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Browsing one lunch break from work at my local bookshop, I decided to ask one of the staff there for a recommendation. He pointed out a few books he liked but there was one he positively raved about.  He mentioned that The Name of the Wind was the best book he had ever read, he had read it eight time and had bought it in languages he couldn’t even read.  I internally laughed at his serious fan-girling over the book and decided to buy it.  A week or two later, my office book club met and discussed picking another book, I mentioned that The Name of the Wind had been recommended to me and we went with that (which was good because it saved me buying another book).

So you can imagine I had high hopes for this book.  The Name of the Wind is the first in a trilogy called the Kingkiller Chronicles. The story covers the first part of the life of Kvothe: bard, great warrior and magician, told by himself.  The story has a number of strands. The first of these is about Kvothe’s early life travelling with his family as part of a nomadic troupe.  We see his precociousness and introduction to magic and the tragedy that meets his family.  A second strand is about his will to survive in the world in harsh circumstances, another is about his introduction to the University where magic is taught and yet another about his quest to find out what happened to his family. A final element that runs through the book is how people feel unsafe and anxious in the present as stories of war and dangerous roads filter through to the little inn that Kvothe has retired to.

This book made me think of a cross between Harry Potter and the Poison Study series.  Kvothe is great fun as a protagonist – intelligent, kid, flawed, angry, mischievous and always finding himself in some trouble despite his best efforts to avoid it.  The story is mostly light-hearted, but often touches on more serious issues: The prejudice that Kvothe’s family and clan face as travelers, the trauma of losing his family, the extreme poverty and violence he faces once alone, the way poverty and desperation follow him to the university, even the vulnerability of women in a male world.

I am always interested in the way fantasy writers construct their worlds – from the maps at the front of the book, to the cities, clans and customs that make up a world.  Some writers get it right (Tolkien) and others leave you feeling not quite convinced. In this case, the across the span of the book I started to get a sense of he physical place and nations or groups that inhabit Kvothe’s world, but with gaps, for instance some elements of this world feel medieval and others more modern.  The puzzle didn’t fully fit together seamlessly, perhaps the next two books will rectify this. 

There has been some criticism about the female characters in the book lacking depth and realism.  I found female characters apart from Kvothe’s mother pretty much non-existent until he gets to the university. Once there, the other female students are bright and capable, mainly positive characters, although I agree they do lack depth a bit.  Oh, and they all seem to fancy the scrawny, teenage Kvothe quite a bit – I suppose that’s the authors prerogative though, to make the protagonist desirable.

I had so much fun reading this book, Kvothe is great fun and very down to earth, his story is fascinating, fast-paced and humorous. I liked how the narrative sets his admission that he sometimes exaggerated his greatness, started rumours about himself and his skill as a bard against the epic tale he tells, so that you often wonder how accurate some of the story is.

An enjoyable, interesting and absorbing read, I went to buy the second book after reading this and also a little side story to keep me occupied until the last in the trilogy is published.

Monday, 30 July 2018

Alice by Christina Henry

In a mental asylum there lives a young woman committed by her family.  The screams of the inmates echo around her and her daily life is by turns brutal and monotonous. Her name is Alice and she is not sure why she is there, except for various flashbacks: of someone assaulting her, of her stabbing someone, of someone menacing with long rabbit ears.  When the asylum catches fire, Alice has the chance of escape and finding out what happened to her and how she got there.

Alice is a curious take on the Alice in Wonderland story: dark, disturbing and strange.  The world created in this book is split into the New City where Alices family lives and the Old City where she runs to find answers.  The New City is prosperous, comfortable, orderly and no one asks too many questions about the world. The Old City is full of crime and brutality and no woman is safe.  Every neighbourhood of the Old City is ruled by gangs and thugs will grab any girl or woman they can to sell to the highest bidder. There is no law, no government and no help or justice.

The book features all the famous characters from the Lewis Carroll's famous original story: the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, the Walrus and the Caterpillar, but not in a guise that will be familiar to anyone.  The characters are cruel and unredeemable in their nastiness, murdering and pimping their way through the book.

Alice’s character is both terrified of the situation she finds herself in and fuelled by the anger that erupts from her at witnessing the brutality that is visited on women and girls in the Old City. She grows in strength and courage throughout the book as she makes her way through the Old City, facing her tormentors and recovering her memories. One interesting element of the story is the idea of suppressed magic, with magicians being a thing of the past but magic surviving in strange places and in people.

Although the author spends some time revealing the back stories of the main characters as we move through the story, I would have loved to have found out how the Old City and New City came about and what the history of the banished magicians was in relation to the cities’ creation.  One of my favourite elements about fantasy and alternative worlds is the effort the author puts into their world-building and the detail and believability of this.  The dual world in Alice is believable but remains mysterious to the end of the book. 

Alice ends on an adventure as much as it brings another to a close.  I enjoyed the book and would probably read the next instalment. An entertaining, fast-paced if unchallenging read.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Zak and His Little Lies by J Samia Mair

Zak has been warned by his parents not to tell lies.  Any more fibs and he won’t be allowed to go to the park.  When faced with difficult situations, what will he do.  The book follows throughout his day as he finds himself at various junctions faced with a choice – tell the truth about a situation and face the consequences or lie and avoid getting into trouble.

On telling a lie he finds himself getting caught out, making his situation worse or backfiring and causing even bigger problems for him.  Eventually his sister gets the blame for his mischief and he has to decide whether he wants to own up or let her get into trouble.

The illustrations are simple and in muted colours with the focus on expressive faces.
The family portrayed in the book are a lovely, wholesome family with positive role models in the parents.  Zak is mischievous and at times very silly, he reminded me a little of my younger son.  My three and five-year-olds enjoyed having this book read to them, my 11 year old son whizzed through it himself, curious to see what it was about.

The book focuses on some beautiful hadith and ayah from the Quran about truthfulness including: “Nothing in the earth and in the heavens is hidden from Allah” (Quran 3:5), I liked that all of the Quran and hadith mentioned are summarised at the end of the book with sources.

An entertaining read, I hope that children pick up the message about truthfulness woven throughout the story.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Sleeping Beauty An Islamic Tale by Fawzia Gilani

I was sent this book by Kube Publishers to review and was intrigued by the idea and the front cover.  A princess in pink…hijab.  A snake which I don’t recall featuring in the original story and what could or could not be a prince holding a bottle of something and clearly not anywhere near to kissing the princess.

On reading the book to my little girls I had a lot of fun finding the original story replaced with all sorts of Islamic references.  The party at the birth of the princess is an aqiqah.  The guests are alim’s (Islamic scholars) who come to make dua for the baby.  The villain is called Count Lahab, named after a relative of the beloved Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu alaihi wasallam) that is not loved by Muslims.

I liked also that the book focusses on the good character of the princess who rejects all of the princes that come to ask for her hand in marriage in favour of an orphan boy of kind nature and good character.  The princess’s protector in the palace is a tall woman in green abayah with a bow and arrow, the happy ever after wedding is actually a walima.

As the story unfolds we find it is the princesses husband not a prince that must help her, we are reminded that cure is from Allah (SWT) not from anything else.

The illustrations are vivid, I liked most the illustrations of the princess herself, abaya, hijab and all and also the theme of pink roses running throughout. The book was a little long to read aloud in one go to the babies, maybe a better option to read over a few nights, certainly it would hold the interest of an older, independent reader.

An intriguing, fun story with some positive messages for little Muslims. I have seen Snow White and Cinderella by the same author and wouldn’t mind checking these out to see how the author has put an Islamic spin on them.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Yan’s Hajj, The Journey of a Lifetime by Fawzia Gilani

I like to keep an eye out for Islamic books for children for a number of reasons: increasing their Islamic knowledge, a means of normalising Islamic language, behaviours and dress, creating positive role models and teaching about good deeds.

Yan’sHajj falls into the last two categories.  Yan is a poor farmer who works hard to save money to go to Hajj.  Every time he sets out he finds someone on the way who is more in need of the money than himself and uses it to help.  Each time he saves the money, he is a little older and finds it a little harder to save enough.  By the end of the book he has helped build a school, helped build a masjid and rescued and raised an orphan.  By this time he is also too old to earn enough to ever get to Makkah to perform his hajj – will he ever get to the house of Allah (SWT)?

In the book, Yan’s good deeds came back to help him on his way in one last attempt at this special journey of a lifetime, which has actually taken a lifetime.

This is a clearly written book, with the goodness of Yan and his love of Allah (SWT) evident on every page.  The drawings are simple, but I enjoyed seeing how Yan aged through each event in the book.

What stood out though was the beautiful message of the book.  I loved how Yan put the needs of others before himself at every turn. He loved Allah (SWT) and longed to visit his house, but he could not see others in difficulty and walk away to the extent that he was ready to sacrifice his precious dream to helps others.

This is probably one of the best children’s books I have come across.  The story is wonderful and I choked up as I read it to my children, struggling to keep my voice level by the time I got to the end.  It’s one I would read to my little ones again and again.  I know there are good people like Yan in this world and I hope that this book inspires my children to be amongst them. 

Friday, 9 March 2018

Its Jummah! by Najia Rastgar and Lyazzat Mukhangaliyeva

Growing up Friday was always a special day in my home.  There were particular rituals and actions  for the day – My dad dressed in pure white salwar kameez for Jummah (Friday), the house scented with his attar and any new clothes we bought were saved for Friday for their first wear.  I have tried to replicate this feeling of a special day of the week with my children.  

It’s Jummah! is a board book for babies that tries to share a few Sunnah and etiquettes of Friday for Muslims. It is the first in a series of books by the authors that’s aims to combine Islamic knowledge and pre-Montessori education (like shapes, colours, fruits and vegetables, etc.), so babies can learn them both at the same time.

The book uses very simple language and beautiful high-contrast illustrations for smaller children. I really liked that it helps us to introduce Islam to smaller children with easy instructions for Friday like having a bath, cutting our nails, wearing our best clothes and reciting Quran.

My little girls enjoyed the book, it is aimed at slightly smaller children than my three and five year olds but it was a nice little resource for me to teach them about the sunnaan of Friday and to test them by asking questions.

The writers say they plan to translate the books into Urdu, Kazakh, Russian, Arabic, Bengali, and other languages in futures, I think these would make nice little books to get started with teaching little ones another language.  I look forward to see what else come forth from this series.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

The Muslims by Zanib Miah

When my older children were quite small, I used to buy them books with an Islamic theme, not necessary just instructional, but often something to motivate and inspire: colourful picture books with stories from the lives of the Prophets (peace be upon them) and the Sahabah (companions of the Prophet - may Allah be pleased with them).

As they have gotten older they have lost interest a little for more mainstream books which perhaps they find a little more entertaining.  Both of my boys are fans of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, Zanib Miah’s The Muslims is in a similar style.

The book follows our loveable, cheeky but slightly disaster-prone young protagonist Omar, as he introduces us to his very likeable family and moves to a new school.  The book is funny, but not always fun.  Omar gets into plenty of escapades, but unlike the light-heartedness of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Muslims touches gently on deeper themes of how children cope with change, in this case with an imaginary dragon that grows and shrinks as his worries do.  The book also deals with bullying, in this case because Omar is a Muslim.

In an interviewpublished late last year on Happy Muslim Mama, Zanib Miah described how she wrote her book The Muslims in response to the surge of faith-based bullying as, reported by Child Line and the NSPCC.

Interestingly it also touches on how children pick up on the worries from things happening around them – for instance, his fear that all Muslims and Asians could have to leave the country.  This was something I have had conversations about with my children in the past after Brexit and other events that they have picked up on.

This makes the book sound very heavy for a child, but in fact these things are dealt with, with a very light touch.  The book is written from a child’s point of view with illustrations that are almost comic-like.

My favourite parts were those that included the neighbour who started off calling the family “The Muslims” (hence the name of the book) and eventually is won around enough to invite herself to their iftar meals and join in the countdown to Biryani (where she feeds Omar alcoholic chocolates)

I like that the book weaves Omar’s faith into his daily life in the way Islam does in real life for Muslims.  Sometimes this centres on their daily routine, like the way they celebrate Ramadan and Eid and sometimes through his actions, in the way he makes dua (supplication) when he is in trouble.

And the important verdict?  Both my boys utterly loved this book and both said they would read more instalments if they could get them.