Monday, 28 March 2011

In the Prophet’s Garden by Fatima M D’Oyen and Abdelkader Chachi

I went to buy a beginners Quranic Arabic lesson book for my youngest child and came across this book. It’s generous (almost A4) size and attractive cover encouraged me to take a look and the idea, introducing children to hadith, piqued my interest.

The book is divided by theme: faith, prayer, Ramadan, repentance, parents, manners, sins etc with an introduction about the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). There is also a small introduction to ahadith: what they are, their importance, their collation and the value of learning them.

The hadith in the book are written in Arabic and then in English. My children would not be able to read the Arabic well enough yet, but I felt it was good to have the Arabic next to the English for them to understand the relationship between the Arabic language which they are learning to read, but don’t yet understand and the English. My children regularly sit with me in halaqa’s or study circle’s, but the majority of these are in Urdu. So they understand some, but not all of what is said. It was gratifying to find the hadith translated into fairly simple English.

Most of the hadith are short and fairly simple to understand for children. We read a few together and then discussed what they required from us or were telling us:

Aishah (RA) relates: “I said: “Oh Messenger of Allah, I have two neighbours. Which of them should I give gifts to (first)”? He replied: “To the one whose door is nearer to yours”. (Bukhari)

Others required a little more explaining due either to the language or subject matter:

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Dua is the essence of worship.” (Tirmidhi)

There was only one Quranic verse in the book which I would not have read to the children, due o the questions I would most likely end up being asked:

The pilgrimage is to be held in the well-known months. Whoever intends to perform it at that time (should remember that) there must not be any sexual contact or improper behaviour, nor abuse, nor angry conversation while on the pilgrimage (al-Quran 2:197).

Aside from this though, I found the content accessible for my children, at a level where I could read to my sons (aged four and six) and at which my daughter could read through herself (at aged eight). I was definitely pleased to have purchased this book and will be sharing it with my children.

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Thursday, 24 March 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

When both Long-Suffering Sister and my sister-in-law (hmm...will have to think of a name for her too) recommended this book, I was very keen to try it. Both are so very different that if they both liked it, I assumed it must be good.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is written as a series of letters from the mother of a teenager who has carried out a Columbine-style shooting to her former husband. Eva is the mother of the Kevin of the title. She writes to his father to tell him about the aftermath of the shooting, the world’s reaction to it and how she has been dealing with it. She reflects on why she made the decision to have Kevin, her inability to bond with him and on the impact it had on their relationship.

I have to say, after the initial excitement, I got rather fed up of this book at first. I made numerous threats to Long Suffering Sister for encouraging me to read such a long-winded, boring book. In the end I had to take my words back.

Shriver effectively conjures up Eva through her letters – irritating, self-pitying, cynical, self-absorbed, navel-gazing way too much in the way of affluent people who have had an easy life and need to think up things to tell therapists they don’t need. You start off with this book, really not liking Eva very much. The book goes on in this vein for a very long time. I lost patience a number of times and was close to giving up on this book a number of times. I am glad I didn’t.

Eva’s letter also effectively describe an almost Damien-(from Omen)-like little boy who turns into a terrifying young man with almost no redeeming qualities. Every time there is some chance that Eva has gotten through to Kevin, he reverts to type as the hostile, manipulative teenager. There were times when he slightly less than convincing – Shriver’s take on the way Kevin dresses (everything tight and shrunken) jars with me - a minor thing, but one which felt wrong each time it was mentioned. Also, the fact that he is almost always so bad with no obvious reason, is hard to understand.

Shriver admits in the afterward of the book, that the character of Eva is partially an exploration of her own journey towards the decision not to have children. Another key theme is the old nature versus nurture debate – is Kevin born bad? Is Eva’s inability to bond with him the culprit? Is society at fault?

At times the book rambles all over the shop – Eva’s childhood and relationship with her husband, their marriage, her travels around the world, the impact of a child on her life, the multiple anxieties that come with being a parent, her thoughts on America, the world and just about everything. At times this feels like a real insight into her character, at other times you think, okay – just get on with it, when is something going to happen? The long, slow ratching up of tension and misery and the drip-drip nature of the way the letters reveal what has happened perhaps means that the ending of the book is all the more effective.

I found the pay off for my patience with the book in the last tenth of it. You know what is coming and yet the denouement is shocking and painful and leaves you reeling with more questions than answers about the cause of what happens.

If you really don’t have the patience for such a long, rambling (475 page) book, then Jonathan Trigell’s Boy A is a comparable book (my review here) which is far shorter and based partially on the Jamie Bulgar murder case and also a good read.

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Friday, 18 March 2011

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Shadow of the Wind is the story of ten your old Daniel, son of a gentle bookseller in 1945 Barcelona – how many books have you come across set in 1945 Barcelona? Certainly had me intrigued.

On Daniel’s tenth birthday his father takes him to a secret library hidden underneath the city where he is allowed o choose one book. He chooses a little known title by a virtually unknown author – “The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax.

The book enchants him and the mystery of the author haunts him and over the years Daniel finds that he is not the only one interested in the book and that the story of the author’s life is far more intriguing and horrifying than he could imagine.

Set in post-Spanish civil war Barcelona, this book spans just about every genre you can think of – gothic horror, murder mystery, thriller, comedy and romance. It weaves a number of stories – from that of the loss of Daniels mother and the grief of his father, to those of the wonderfully colourful characters in their neighbourhood. Then there is Daniel’s love story (two of them actually), the mystery of Carax, the strange matter of the homeless man Daniel’s father employs – Fermin and a cast of interesting characters from all over Barcelona.

The book is translated very smoothly from the Spanish, without feeling that you have lost something or that it is stilted in any way. The characters in this book are a treat – General Franco’s brutal police men, Daniel’s gentle, dreamy father, the kind cross-dressing neighbourhood watchmaker, an abbey full of mischievous old people, and the wonderful Fermín Romero de Torres. The book is almost worth reading for this one character alone – wistful, frightened, flamboyant and very, very funny.

My only criticism would be that with so much happening in the book and the plot within the plot, the book was confusing in places and I had to back track a little to keep tabs on what was happening. Otherwise, this book was one I thoroughly enjoyed for it's colour, wit and intelligence and would recommend to others (the part with the nuns and mischievous old people alone is worth the read).

Kooky Little Sis has “The Prince of Mist” by the same author, so we will be swapping and I am on the lookout to the prequel to this book “The Angel's Game”.

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Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Book Finds

Our local Library had a book sale recently, so we picked up some good reads for about £5.

Little lady wasn't too impressed by the Maths dictionary and practice books, but was excited aboutt The Magical Mermaid, the Lady Grace mysteries and Enid Blyron's Famous Five. I picked Walk Two Moons for her, which Phillip Pullman's Spring-Heeled Jack.

Little Man decided he had to have a book called Bums , Mr Biff the Boxer by Allen Ahlberg from the Happy Families series I loved as a child and randomly one about plants

These were the ones I picked for myself (I had to give up when I realised I couldn't carry anymore). I have started Fingersmith by Sarah Walters and I am engrossed. I have also started Good Harbour by Anita Diamant and am not too crazy about it so far, will see, as her Red Tent is a book I enjoyed thoroughly.

I am excited about Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian, which was the first book by a Chinese writer to win the Nobel peace prize and the map of Love by Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif. I have heard about Yann Martel's Life of Pi, so have been curious and Stuart, A Life Backwards seems to have an interesting premise.

Plenty to keep us all happy then (okay, so maybe not Little Lady and the Maths Dictionary, but near enough).

Debt of Bones by Terry Goodkind

I love sci-fi, but tend to be very particular about the titles I choose. I find that the genre has a few instances of the most dazzling examples of fiction (Frank Herberts "Dune", John Wyndham's "The Chrysalids") and also a large amount of mundane, poorly written books.

I have been on the lookout for something new and different and thought I would try one of the authors whose books seemed prolific in the library. Terry Goodkind’s Debt of Bones had been singled out as a “quick choice” in the library – i.e. a god read and the fairly small size of the book made me think it would be an easy one to try as an introduction to the writer.

Debt of Bones is set in a fantasy world of wizards and sorceress’s who battle to safeguard their kingdom against invading forces. People flock to the wizards from all over the kingdom to ask for magical assistance to resolve their problems. One such person is Abby, a young woman whose village has been invaded and whose husband and daughter have been taken hostage by the enemy. She hopes that the greatest of the wizards, Zeddicus Zorander can help fight back against the invading armies and find her family. As the daughter of a sorceress, though lacking magic herself, she hopes that she can use a “debt of bones” between wizards and sorceress to convince Zedicus.

This book is written as a brief prequel to The Sword of Truth Series. Readers of the series may have found many things in the book more recognisable that I did approaching it as a stand-alone book. I found that I wanted to know more about the kingdom, indeed the world the story is set in – something good sci-fi is amazing for. I wanted to know more about the mysterious enemy whose motive to invade is never explained in much detail either.

The story moved along quickly enough, but failed to engage me. The storyline verged on interesting, but the plot twists did not convince me – each time I found myself thinking – that would be too obvious, then found the obvious unfolding. The ending too, felt too neat and didn’t at all inspire me to pick up the main series.

On the other hand, there were some interesting premises, the idea of boundaries between worlds, the general populaces’ distrust of magic and the politics between wizards and kingdom, but each of these were touched on and not explored further perhaps due to the size of the book. The characters were likeable enough – the Zeddicus is intense, Abby appears slightly slow in catching on at each juncture, the rest are fairly forgettable.

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Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

Having previously read Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet (review here) and enjoyed them I was keen to try this science fiction novel by the same author.

The book is set in the far distant future on a planet called Winter, which as its name suggests is always cold. The people of Gethren, although human in appearance, have the distinct quality of being androgynous apart from the few days each month where they take on the qualities of either male or female and are able to procreate. This quality means that there has never been a war on the planet as the people are not both aggressive and organised enough (i.e. male enough) to wage war.

Genly Ai is a representative of the Ekumen, an alliance of over eighty planets across a number of galaxies. He is sent to Winter to convince its people of the existence of other planets and to invite them to join the Ekuman to share its knowledge and civilisation. There he finds he has become a pawn to the various political factions who are trying to use his existence, or deny it, in order to manipulate the populace. Despite the support of the Prime Minister of one Winter country (Karhide), he soon finds himself in danger and fleeing to another, Orgoreyn, where again he tries to convince the government to join the Ekumen.

This is not your usual sci-fi full of planets, light sabres, strange looking aliens and fantastical worlds. This is a sedate book, with people much like us in many ways and with traditions and customs which are recognisable. Almost more like a different country than a different planet. Sometimes this means that the book could feel a little meandering and slow in pace. In particular Genly’s many month journey over an ice glacier starts to get monotonous – after all how many different ways can you describe snow?

However, the book does provide a fascinating insight into the people and culture of Winter. In the Earthsea Quartet Le Guin managed to create a believable alternative world and in Winter she does so again although the world is completely different and unique again. The people’s physiology, traditions, history, government, politics, religions, customs, culture, modes of living and civilisation all come to life fully formed and real in their own way. The androgyny of the people of Winter impacts on all aspects of their life and Le Guin is consistent in the way she shows this – whether through people’s behaviour, the structure of Winter society or the way people react to Genly Ai – his one gender means that he appears to be a pervert to the people of Winter. Saying that, much of the time it did not feel as if I was reading a story about androgynes, but about men. This though might say more about my assumptions than about Le Guin’s ability to make the characters’ androgyny real.

Something else which stood out and bothered me throughout the book was the way characters misunderstood one another due to the difference in cultures. Genly learns the languages of Winter, but this turns out not to be enough. People he trusts try to kill him, and he is unable to understand the warnings coming from people trying to help him, who in turn cannot see why he will not take the hint. The book shows how what we value in one culture, means something so different in another. Genly is often self-effacing calling himself humble and lacking in knowledge. These things are prized in Winter civilisation – lacking in knowledge almost meaning a person is more spiritually aware, making Genly appear arrogant to people when he does not mean to be.

This book is a fascinating attempt at creating a complete culture, at once both recognisable through its similarities to us and alien, due to the lack of gender differentiation. Le Guin’s novel has been described as an attempt at feminist science fiction and when you see the difference not having two genders makes, you can see why. The fact that Genly is black and therefore darker than many Winter inhabitants, is not problematic in the way his being male is.

An interesting, thought-provoking, occasionally slow, but ultimately rewarding read.

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The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

I picked this book up at a summer boot fair and saved it for my winter stash when all I want to do is curl up in bed and read. So it being winter and grey and wet outside I thought this was as good a time as any to give it a try.

The book is set in Renaissance Florence, home to the greatest artists of the time. Every chapel and church is decorated with splendid art and every wealthy resident of the city wants to become a patron. As decadent and cultured as the city is, it is still a man’s world and a “decent” woman’s place is in the kitchen and bedroom, her sole aim to marry well and produce sons.

In such a world we find Alessandra, the youngest daughter of a rich textile merchant and his elegant wife. 15-year old Alessandra is enamoured by the art in the city around her and loves to paint and draw. As she grows older, her family deem these activities as unsuitable for a young woman, leading her to pursue her passion in secret.

Alessandra’s father is keen to seal his status as one of the venerable men of Florence by having the chapel in his courtyard painted with art. He brings home a shy young artist who has been brought up in a community of Abbots. The young man and Alessandra are immediately drawn to each other but find themselves in conflict due to their personalities: his shy aloofness and her abruptness and awkwardness.

Before long, Alessandra’s marriage is arranged to a handsome, cultured, older man – seemingly a wonderful match, but on her marriage night Alessandra finds things are not as they seem and life for her takes a strange twist. At the same time, Florence is under the spell of the fiery monk Savonarola and his followers who wish to purge Florence of its most powerful family, the Medici and of its decadence and bring about an era of severity and austerity. Savonarola barely gathers momentum, the wrath of the Pope threatening to come down on him, when the King of France marches on the city and there is further trouble for Alessandra and her family to content with.

The book is part history, part romance. The historical details are fascinating and the romance convincing if a little slow to get going. In between Alessandra’s romance and marriage and the turmoil of the city, there is a mystery thriller, with gory dead bodies turning up around the city throughout the book

This is an engaging and lively book wih a satisfying ending. The heroine is very human (if a little dense at times, but understandable considering the cloistered nature of woman’s lives at the time) and brings a street-level perspective to events that shape history. The story had me engrossed throughout and it’s sense of realism – the status of women, the treatment of slaves and the glimpses of poverty through the decadence made the book kept me interested.

A Tale of Four Dervishes by Mir Amman

This is a translation of the famous Urdu Bagh-o-Bahar, also known as Qissa-e-Chahar Darvesh which in turn is a translation of an earlier Persian story.

The book opens with a forward by Mir Amman, thanking the British for their assistance with the translation (this translation from “high” Urdu to common Urdu came about due to the College of Fort William attempting to translate many Urdu classics). The tone of the forward feels toadying and put me off almost straight away.

A Tale of Four Dervishes is the story of the king of Turkey, who on finding himself with no heir to his throne, leaves his palace in despair and wanders his kingdom. He soon comes across four dervishes sitting in seclusion outside of the King’s city and asks them why they are there.

What follow are the stories of the Princes of China, Persia and Yemen and a rich merchant. All have been brought to the edge of ruin and have come to the Turkey following a message from a mysterious stranger who promises them that they will have what they desire once they get to Turkey.

As each story unfolds (you know there is going to be a beautiful women in each one causing all of the trouble!) we are treated to a descriptions of the colourful and rich culture, food, manners and customs of the time. It also gave me some insight to how the borders between countries were so different in the past – the Muslim world stretches across so much of the world, that someone travelling from Turkey to China, or from Persia to India has enough in common to understand each other’s customs.

The novel also ventures into the unseen and even unreal: Jinn’s, fairies, magic and strange transformations. The novel’s style of dealing with romance also reminded me of a translation of Laila Majnoon, the great Persian romantic tragedy, I read and hated. Ridiculous, flamboyant professions of love, whereby silly young men see a woman once and fall in love with her beauty to the extent they lose their senses completely.

How often do you hear me say I hate a book? Well, this is another one I really did not like. Half way through I was ready to give up and asked a friend who is an Urdu Literature graduate what she thought of the book and she raved about it. With this, I persisted and still hated the book by the time I got to the end.

Perhaps these books lose something in translation; they were certainly popular in their native language. Perhaps the modern reader is more cynical and less open to the dramatic professions of love and loss, but this novel just did not capture my imagination.

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The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Phillip Pullman

I have adored some of Pullman’s other books; the His Dark Materials trilogy and the Sally Lockhart Quartet in particular, so choosing this book seemed a bit of a no-brainer. The Dark Materials books feel very critical of the church, and religion in general, and so this treatment of the story of Jesus (our Prophet Isa, AS) had me quite curious.

The book is part of the Canongate Myths series which has a number of well-known authors re-telling famous stories. I previously read The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood’s irreverent retelling of part of the Odysseus story and enjoyed it, so had good expectations of this book.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ tells the story of two twin brothers Jesus and Christ, born in mysterious circumstances that never become quite clear. The boys live in Nazareth with their carpenter father and mother Mary. Christ appears precocious for a child, well-versed in the Jewish faith and rabbinical law and with high expectations from his mother for the man he will become. Jesus is closer to his father and more like an ordinary boy – mischievous and often rebellious. As they grow older, Jesus begins to preach to all those who will listen about returning to the roots of faith and observing Gods law whilst railing against organised religion. He soon attracts a faithful following and comes into conflicts with the men of the synagogue and the Romans. Christ, his early brilliance now overshadowed by Jesus’ passionate preaching, takes it upon himself to start recording what Jesus is saying. He is approached by a mysterious stranger who encourages him in his endeavour and suggests he embellishes and revises his written account in order to show his brother in the best light. The mysterious stranger also reminds Christ of the need for a church to help the people understand the word of God.

The novel picks out events in Jesus’s life – the Sermon on the Mount, the meeting with Mary Magdelane, the chasing of the money-changers out of the temple and retells them

Pullman supposedly split the story into that of two characters to highlight the conflicting ways Jesus seems to be portrayed in the New Testament. A plot device that almost works, but not quite. I never felt that I truly go to the heart of either character. Jesus remains an enigma until almost the end of the book when Pullman’s treatment of him and his internal dialogue with God left me almost bereft. On the other hand we are given much more insight into the tortured personality of Christ, but again, I left him at the end of the book feeling depressed and as if his was a life with so much potential never exploited.

In all this is a well-written book as you would expect from Pullman. It is a fairly concise and easy read. But this book has neither the excitement and fast pace of previous books, nor the unexpected plot twists. At the same time, for me the book felt purposely provocative and left me with more questions than any enlightenment it offered.

Book Review: Margaret Atwood - The Penelopiad

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The Japanese Lover by Rani Manicka

Rani Manika’s debut novel, The Rice Mother is one of my favourite books with its somewhat epic feel, fascinating characters, engrossing story and beautiful imagery. Her second book, Touching Earth, left me disappointed despite interesting characters, due to its depressing and somewhat cynical feel. I liked the first book enough though, to be hopeful about this third book from the author.

Like The Rice Mother, this book charts the journey of a young woman travelling to Malaysia to marry a man she does not know. Parvathi is a young Sri Lankan girl, raised in poverty and isolation by her father who hopes to marry her to a rich man. He manages this by showing a marriage broker a picture of a different girl and arranging her marriage to the older, immensely rich Kasu Marimuthu living in Malaysia. On seeing the dark, unsophisticated Parvathi, Kasu realises he has been tricked and threatens to send her straight back to India. Taking pity, he allows her to stay, and what follows are many years of loveless marriage and two children who threaten to bring nothing but further unhappiness.

World War Two breaks out as a miserable Kasu dies from alcoholism and the invading Japanese take over Kasu’s palatial mansion. Parvathi becomes a “comfort woman” for the Japanese General Hattori who now lives in her house, initially to protect her beautiful daughter, but when given the choice to escape, she chooses to stay with Hattori, finding she has fallen in love with him. With the end of the war, he is forced to leave with the promise he will return.

The blurb really captured my attention, but the book itself left me a little lost. The book tries to be epic in the way The Rice Mother manages and fails. It tries to explain the cosmic order of things – love, destiny, death, eternal, beings of light (or something like that, I lost track) but just sounds all new-agey and silly (well to me anyway). Manicka draws the characters in a way that you come to sympathise deeply for them and root for them despite their myriad flaws, and yet their unwillingness to fight for themselves and their love, to blindly accept fate, is frustrating.

The book takes us through the Indian experience in Malaysia over the course of almost a hundred years; through Colonial rule, World War Two, independence, civil unrest and finally the attempt of Indian-origin Malaysian’s to reassert their identity and self-respect. Given the scale, this could have been an epic novel, but falls short, dwelling too often on the sadness of the characters.

This is still an enjoyable and interesting novel, but the long passages discussing the purpose of life and death went on a bit and at times you felt like you were being lectured. Similarly, where the novel touches on social and political issues it can feel heavy-handed – for instance the discussion at the end about our how light-skin is preferred in some cultures and how we need to learn to love our brown-ness almost felt like one of those turn-to-camera moments you get in films where the actor suddenly starts talking to the audience.

Not in the league of The Rice Mother and depressing in parts, but still interesting with characters who I felt for deeply and a story that moves along at a reasonable pace.

Book Review: Rani Manicka – Touching Earth