Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Dove Flyer-Eli Amir

Dove Flyer-Eli Amir

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 532
gender: male
nationality: Iraq/Israel
year: 1992
novel in translation

An exploration of the Jewish community of Baghdad before their expulsion and resettlement in Israel in the 1950s.

Embarrassingly, I’ve recently realized that my nuanced understanding of the Middle East actually ends at about 2100BCE (Lagash/Gudea) and so I was almost completely unaware that there was a Jewish community in Baghdad. So this was a fascinating portrait of a community in transition that I had not actually expected. Amir explores the various tensions between the individual, the Jewish community, and the wider Arab majority-the ways they manifest and the various reactions/negotiations undertaken. My ignorance can perhaps be understood since the novel details the complete dismantle of the heritage-the complete erasure of the community. It’s tragic and too closely echoes what ISIS is doing in modern day Iraq. 
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The book itself was a slow to get into since there are just so many characters and unfamiliar geographies but midway through you have met everyone you will meet and you can relax into the atmospheric evocation of Baghdad. It helps that Kabi, the narrator, is genuinely likeable and so you end up caring about how he manages to work through this issue what home means.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Gifts of the State-ed. Adam Klein

Gifts of the State-Adam Klein


the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 175
gender: M&F
nationality: Afghanistan
year: 2013
short stories


A number of stories about every day life, supernatural myths, and things in between set in Afghanistan and written by Afghanis.

As with any book of short stories, there are those that stand out and those that fade into the background. Some of the writing is stilted but then again, these are written by non-writers in their third or fourth language in the midst of war. That alone lends weight to the narratives contained in the book but really, it was the surprising flow of the book from the excellent imagery of one author, to the strange but familiar plot of another. The prose is often spare, almost Hemingway spare, but the imagery is as vibrant as the mountains of Afghanistan. The stories are often heartbreaking, not always about war, but informed by the daily experience of the writers. The stories intelligently address gender, class, tradition, the city, and the countryside. This anthology is an invaluable antidote to the prevailing distancing media since most of the stories are character studies embedded in the lived experiences of these young Aghanis. You are learning about distinct personalities, the ones stuck in limbo, and striving forwards towards an unknowable tomorrow (followed by the ghosts of their history).

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Testing-Joelle Charbonneau

The Testing-Joelle Charbonneau


the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 336
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2013
novel, YA


After hoping that she would be chosen for the testing as a top student, Malencia learns that the testing is a horrible experience within her dystopian society.


Okay, so. I read a lot of YA dystopia and with the popularity of Hunger Games, many dystopia books have sprung up and invaded the book market. I try to read them with an open mind and thus enjoy many of them more than I probably should but every so once in awhile the implausibility really gets to me.
I’m afraid The Testing is one of those. So implausible I really could not get into it. Such a shame really. There was such good attention to world-building, you learn about the history-the seven stages of the collapse of civilization. And Malencia is actually not perfect or effortless (in every way at least). And there is quite some brutality in this novel-Malencia cannot cleverly avoid killing nor does she spend angsty page after page moaning about how she never wanted to kill (very Battle Royale in this lack of sidestepping the brutality). The ending was even skillfully done in my opinion-a rare feat indeed.


But the core tenant of the book? Goodness.


So in a society with dwindling population and a lack of skilled and intelligent people (due to the harshness of the post-apocalyptic world), they take the best and the brightest of each colony…


and kill most of them. The survivors get to go to university-sure they are the best of the best but let me repeat this, most of the best people in this society are killed off. Some of the colonies are left with no best students.


huh? Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. This goes beyond social Darwinism and becomes far too implausible in my opinion.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Someone Else's Skin-Sarah Hilary

Someone Else's Skin-Sarah Hilary

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 416
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2014
novel

A thriller about secrets and what it really means to be a victim. Detectives Marnie and Noah investigate a murder in a women’s shelter.


Oh, this is a hard one to review without spoilers. I often find thrillers to be fairly black and white. Even when characters are tested and seen to be the opposite of what they seem, it’s not to go into a grey nebulous, who can know territory but just a switch from hero to villain. Hilary does not take this easy way out. Every character is hiding secrets, from Marnie’s personal demons, to the ‘villain’s’ coping mechanisms, they are all opaque in a way which means that others project their own biases upon them. And that makes this novel very creepy and unsettling.

Hilary is an able character writer-she doesn’t require pages of prose to form her characters, instead they spring up within a paragraph feeling like people. This is particularly skilled since these characters are so oblique and changeable. The plotlines are very disparate at first to be honest, and you do spend half of the book feeling a bit adrift on a sea of details and plotlines but they get gathered together in the end in a way that doesn’t seem pat or contrived. Instead, these varied plotlines become more of a reflection of the characters themselves.

I really enjoyed Hilary’s skill and though I hope her next one is not about domestic violence, I’d probably read it anyway.

An Officer and a Spy-Robert Harris

An Officer and a Spy-Robert Harris

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 429
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2014
novel

Based upon the Dreyfus affair, an infamous miscarriage of justice in fin de secle France. After having hunted down a spy, an investigator, Picquart, gets promoted to the head of the Statistical Unit. Unfortunately, he was unaware of the politics and machinations that were going on in the corrupt heart of his country’s intelligence bureau. Of course, once he asks questions, things go awry.

I have no idea, still, how much of this historical fiction tale is real. Because it is told in a way that it feels like you’re reading narrative non-fiction. There is nothing that seems unbelievable in the way Harris presents this story-nor in the prose nor in the plot. Amazing work. His attention to detail really forms the background to the story-the details of the daily work of an intelligence bureau as well as the little details that signal power within a hierarchy are all as richly drawn as the characterization. The pacing is immediate and that forces you to emphasize with the frustration as Picquart tries valiantly to correct the misdeeds of his government. And I think the prose was excellent-Picquart comes across as principled and meticulous as you’d expect a top-notch inspector to be which makes the whole awful mess more stark. I came to really like Picquart as a person-intelligent and curious-but Harris doesn’t neglect the character development of the ‘villians’ of the story either. The anti-semitism can be hard to read through but Harris carries you through.

I also enjoy how Harris never really forgets the modern world in which he is writing. He clearly seeks to the universal-many of his aphorisms and introspection apply to both the 19th century and the 21st. So in this way, he really keys into the strength of a historian-the application of previous events to the understanding/enrichment of today.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Lost Sisterhood-Anne Fortier

Lost Sisterhood-Anne Fortier

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 585
gender: F
nationality: Denmark
year: 2014
novel

There are two threads to this novel-a retelling of the Amazon myths from the point of view of the queen, Myrina and that of a modern day scholar following her story.

It’s definitely a trend for me that if it is a book told with two threads-a modern day heroine trying to find out what happened in the past and the past heroine, I’m going to infinitely enjoy the past arc far more than the modern arc. Lost Sisterhood was no exception. Perhaps it’s just that I am a professional archaeologist and I spend most of my time attempting to trace the lives of people living 12000 years ago and therefore I lack romanticism in this regard but I’m much more drawn to the romanticism that is the retelling of the past.

So that’s out of the way, let me tell you about how much I enjoyed Fortier’s interpretation of the Amazon legends. They are a group that has earned mythological status without any actual proper evidence and so they’re a group well suited for literary retelling as feminist movements. Myrina is a real human being with good character development, she begins as a victim and fights as a queen-one with faults and strengths. Her story arc is full of adventure and properly epic grey areas-no one is a full ally but no one is a total enemy. The Trojan War is retold, not like the black and white mythologies we know but as a murky, dirty conflict (though, at times, a bit like trying to follow the news on current conflicts). Plus, her love interest? Fascinating. These are the sections of the book I raced through, enjoying the theme of strong women in hard positions. (As an aside: the historical/mythological references are actually quite good in my opinion-Fortier is definitely following one of the major theories about the Amazons but she definitely plays with it, adding aspects of some of the other theories floating around academia/conspiracists.)

The modern day arc wasn’t bad but it lacked the spark of the Bronze Age arc. As usual, I have problems accepting Diana Morgan’s academic credentials for the situation she ended up in. Maybe I don’t know enough philologists (who am I kidding?) but it was like, really? These are the decisions she’s making? Her use of her contacts to find out more information seems careless and rude and so I felt less sympathy (once again, perhaps I am just taking this too personally, if someone lost my storeroom key, there would be blood. Theirs, not mine. I don’t care if your laptop was stolen and you were hit over the head or whathaveyou and that’s why it’s missing.). This was also the section where the somewhat heavy prose style of Fortier kind of slowed me down and the pacing wasn’t as captivating. The love interest was what kept this section more interesting as it was relatively fun...until they got together. Luckily that took a bit of time so there was plenty of enjoyment.

If you stick with this book though, the overall lasting impression is one of “that was worth it” mostly due to the excellent retelling of the Amazon tales.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

My Biggest Lie-Luke Brown

My Biggest Lie-Luke Brown

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 288
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2014
novel

A literary agent finds his whole life in tatters and runs away to Argentina.





Well, I don’t regret reading it but it felt a little like something I didn’t really want to do? It was all so melodramatic and so silly in terms of plot that I really didn’t particularly care. The prose was so polished that I ended up finishing it anyway but I didn’t really find it funny in a way that really made me feel amused. It wasn’t really for me despite the general well written nature of both plot and character I guess.