Friday, 24 June 2016

The Girl with All the Gifts by Mike Carey

I came across some rave reviews for this book online, so decided to treat myself to it. I am a big fan of any kind of post-apocalyptic literature. I love the creation of a possible future world, whether positive or negative and the various scenarios played out in the new world and how humanity deals with them.

Zombie books I am less keen on. There seems to be a lot of the samey shuffling around, groaning and eating people and I don’t have much of a stomach for gore. Occasionally there is something different, like World War Z (detailed and intelligent) or Warm Bodies (funny and not too bogged down by endless boring zombie chases). I would put The Girl with All the Gifts into that something different category.

The Girl with All the Gifts
 is set in a future world which has been overrun and destroyed by a virus that causes people to turn into zombies (or “hungries”). Melanie is a very intelligent little girl that lives on an army base somewhere in England. Every day she is taken from a locked room, strapped to a wheelchair with a gun pointed at her head and taken to a classroom to join other children strapped in wheelchairs. They are taught about the world by various teachers including her favourite Miss Justineau. It is difficult to give an idea of what the book is about without giving too much away and spoiling the suspense. Certainly when I ordered the book, I knew every little and on reading it I enjoyed the story unfolding layer by layer.

It takes the book some time to reveal why the children are kept in this way and what the purpose of the base is. Throughout this part of the book we get to know Melanie – her genius level intelligence, coupled with ignorance about the world outside the base and her innocent questioning of what is going on around her.

Whereas the first part of the book cranks up the tension with its slow reveal and fascinating premise, the second part of the book changes gear. It is faster in pace, but I was somewhat less engrossed as the trajectory of the next part of the story felt a little bit more like familiar ground. Towards the last third, the book slows down and the intrigue and revelations start rolling again. I found myself hooked at the end again and reading the last part of the book when I was supposed to be getting ready for work so that I could find some resolution for the characters and the situation they find themselves in.

This book is elevated from the usual groaning and gore of this genre by its beautiful writing – we get to see the world from the perspective of someone who has only read about trees, butterflies and birds and then gets to see them for the first time with completely fresh eyes. The novel also does something else which zombie books don’t tend to do, which is to explore the human condition and relationships: guilt, despair, hope and the love between Melanie and her beloved Miss Justineau.

The book makes an intelligent and believable attempt at including the science around the Zombies and what has happened to Melanie and the other children like her without getting bogged down by it too much. I liked also that the book is set in England including locations in London which are certainly given a complete, rather terrifying, makeover for the future. The glimpses into the near past and how the government reacted to the virus are haunting and the hints about what might have happened to them are haunting and one of the things that stayed with me at the end of the book.

This was probably one of the best books I have read this year. I think the writer takes a genre that can be treated quite superficially with a focus on gore and gives it heart and depth through the journey that Melanie is taken on. Rather than a simple blood-fest it becomes a thoughtful commentary on love, humanity and evil, still with lots of gross bits of course.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Behind Picket Fences by Hend Hegazi

Hend Hegazi’s second book is a departure from her debut novel in many ways. Her first novel focussed on a significant issue and how the characters affected dealt with the fallout of it. We act as witnesses to the protagonist’s journey and desire resolution for her. In her second book, we are invited into the kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms of a host of characters living in one street. Hegazi creates their lives and their problems in front of us and takes us along with them as their lives are changed over a period of time.

Behind Picket Fences is the story of four couples and their very different lives: Faris and Sidra are the affluent young couple struggling with childlessness. Porter and Summer are the company executive and the bohemian artist dealing with her anxiety and feelings of being not being listened to. Hasan and May are a loving Muslim couple dealing with the impact of illness on their own and their children’s lives. Morgan and Mariam are the loving couple with small children whose financial problems begin to threaten their marriage. Each struggles with their own problems behind closed doors, appearing happy and successful to the outside world. 

Hegazi manages you to make you care about each of the characters and what happens to them. She lays bare their inner thoughts and creates interactions between the couples that feel truthful. The first thing I noticed about this book is how the writer’s writing style has matured and improved from her first novel. The prose flows over the pages, but most of all the conversation feels so natural and true to life. 

Whereas the first book made a point of how the protagonist relied on her faith to get through the trauma of what she suffers, in this book faith comes up in more subtle ways, for both the Muslims and non-Muslims. We see the need for faith in difficult times, but also the questioning of faith and the finding of faith when life feels unbearable.

We witness some of the characters change and evolve and I think Hegazi achieved this in a realistic way. We see the impact of the young stay at home mum finding work both on her husband and herself and how this affects their seemingly perfect marriage. The break down of the marriage is painful to witness and the conversations and inner dialogue of the characters at different points is believable and uncomfortably like watching someone you know self-destruct.

Key to the story arcs in this novel is how lack of honest communication can destroy our relationships or nurture them – whether through feeling unappreciated, through feeling outside of your comfort zone in your marriage or whether this is through hiding the pain that you feel. 

We come to care about the characters and hope that things will work out for them, when they don’t, Hegazi portrays this to devastating affect. When I read this book, never in a million years did I think I would feel so much for the characters that I literally cried at one point. The book ends as with real life without all of the characters stories tied up in into neat happy endings, we are left wanting to know more about where their journeys will take them. 

I didn’t think I would enjoy this book as it is not the type of book that I usually pick up, but I found it immensely readable and also very relatable. I also liked Hegazi’s gentle portrayal of a Muslim family, real and likeable without feeling preachy. I think everyone will be able to relate to some of the characters in this book or identify with their experiences on some level.  

You can buy the book on Amazon here, learn more about her writing here and on her Facebook page here.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

The Sun Shall Soon Shine by Adejoke Ajibade- Bakare

When I was approached by the author, Adejoke Ajibade- Bakare to review her book of poetry, I was a little nonplussed. I love books, especially straightforward and fast paced prose, but poetry is another matter. I am never sure if I am missing something, a metaphor of some kind or an allusion to some deeper truth that the poet is revealing. I rarely read poetry, although I do love the poetry of the Sufi Abdullah Shah Qadri, Maya Angelou, Grace Nichols and the great Pakistani poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, but I did not feel qualified to comment. Then I came to the conclusion that I don’t have to judge the structure or technique of the poems, but I can describe how it makes me feel and what it evokes for me. 

The book opens with a poem about a poor mother whose children are hungry, one line stood out: “Necks extended, a plea to the steel pot”, as the children look to the empty pot for food. This poem reminded me a little Maya Angelou’s style of writing and set the tone of the book for me. 

The book is split into five sections, along broad themes, the first “Womb Tales” is around the theme of women and motherhood. I enjoyed these lines from the poem Aye (meaning Life): 

Up and about 
The adogan 
Cracking sparks of fire 
As the ogi dances 
To the rhythms set by blind hands 

I really liked the use of Yoruba words, I love that at the bottom of each page, there is an explanation of each word that is not in English. The poem gives a glimpse into a busy morning on a normal day, the poem gives a sense of a life that is not easy (“battered feet”, “blind hands”), but at the same time gives a feeling of energy and busyness (“Splish splosh into the amo”, “Cracking sparks of fire”, “busy hands”). 

The poems in this section talk of pregnancy, birth, motherhood, and loss alluding to miscarriage. There is a loving and benign father figure that appears through some of them. Often the tone is melancholy occasionally there is a glimmer of hope. In reflection of the private nature of these themes, the poems are often not clear, but allude to events in a subtle way. 

In the section called Childhood Dreams, the tone changes to a more upbeat one. “My Emmanuel” stands out with its lovely description of a young man: 

Strong arms 
Fast legs 
Broad smile 
Grinning ear to ear 
A handshake 
To show gratitude 
A hug 
To show love 

The sentences are short, clear and full of energy. The kind of poem I would love to dedicate to a beloved son. 

The section called Woes of a Nation again feels different: with more wide-ranging themes such as patriotism (Woes of a Nation: “And is there for all to celebrate, The celebration of Nigeria Anew.”), these poems have a lyrical, epic feel. Some of the poems are inspired by national tragedies such as a plane crash or the kidnapping of young boys and girls by Boko Haram, making them feel quite poignant. Others mention the land and earth, war and poverty: 

A scenery of fear, poverty and destruction 
Earth shattering sounds 
Hitting hard, sinking deep 
Like hot rocks 
Splashing blood

The last lines (from the poem “Aleppo”) make a powerful impression and invoke strong images. Many others, remind us that we should not lose hope in Allah (SWT) and that tomorrow is a new day full of hope. My favourite poem in this section was Arise Naija, for the way it ends with a call to the people to rise and claim their land. 

The poems in the part called Soul Talk are about self-reflection and self-love. They are spiritual in nature and touch on the relationship with Allah (SWT), many of them try to inspire and motivate us to use out limited time well. Some of them spoke more deeply to me than others, I suspect this will be largely a result of where the reader is in their own journey and what resonates. 

The last section, Life’s Palaver, speaks of how we get caught up in everyday troubles, of work and missed opportunity: 

Sooner I should I have come 
Much sooner, I should have come 
The fish waits not for the fisherman 
The fisherman that is yet to come 
(From the Fisherman) 

Some of the poems describe the hustle and bustle of every day life (The Alms Seeker, Far Gosford Street, the Street that Never Sleeps), with descriptions of noisy traffic and the smell of food from restaurants, most often the narrator watching it all go by. A number of the poems in this section are about children and childhood (Golden Child, The Prince and the Pauper, Lost Time Not Found). These touch on the way children are affected by poverty or parents that are too busy for them. 

I had my reservations, but I came to enjoy reading the poetry in the concise and accessible book, I enjoyed getting a flavour of Nigerian life and I was moved by the tributes to the people of the country who have been beset by tragedy.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Bargain Book Haul for January 2016

It has been quite some time since I found a good thrifty haul (like this, this, this or this amazing craft haul), especially as the boot fairs I enjoy so much don't start until near the end of March. So instead I made do with a trip to my local charity shop to hang out by the book shelves and see if anyhting caught my fancy.

I found a few treats for myself and the children and came away happy.

The books below were £1 each and two of them: Social Butterfly by Moni Mohsin and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston were ones on my reading list. The Leapfrog Leappad toy was discovered by Litte Man for Darling. It usually costs about £25 with the books for about £8, this one cost £3 with the batteries included. I am a big fan of this brand and she has really been enjoying playing with it.

The rainbow box sets below caght my eye immediatey and turned out to be Coaching Academy training DVD's (costing £3 per set).  I have long had an interest in coaching, so if I can make the time to sit through these, insh'Allah I hope they will benefit me personally and also help to determine if this something I want to pursue in the future.

The little set of books was new and nice for Darling and Baby to share.  I usually avoid ornaments or anything that is slightly chintzy or has no function, but this little bowl of fruit caught my eye and just enchanted me as I love miniatures.  The fruit is made of stoneand I can't tell if it is dyed in some way or the marble is coloured.  I have found a few similar on the internet (Etsy, eBay and antique shops) variously described as vintage Italian alabaster, onyx marble or dyed quartz carved fruit and selling for anything from £15 to £50. This little set cost £3.

I was quite happy with my finds and I am thoroughly enjoying the Social Butterfly book, this should keep me happy until the boot fairs start again.