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text 2017-03-31 23:45
Love in a not so foreign land...
A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini is a consummate story-teller and following the impact of his first novel - 'The Kite Runner' - his second was always likely to be awaited with bated breath. But, while there are plenty of examples of seminal music albums that have disappointing follow-ups, or movie sequels that never quite reach the highpoint of the original, in this book Hosseini cements his reputation as a genuinely gifted writer.


Once again set in Afghanistan, this story focuses on the respective journeys of two women - Mariam and Laila - and the dissection of the book into four parts helpfully describes their individual experiences, before interweaving their lives within the context of war-locked Kabul and a hinterland dominated by armed factions. Seen through the eyes of these women, this book also offers a powerful critique of a social structure, which layers disadvantage based on gender, wealth, religion, tribe, marriage,birth, language, disability, etc. The domestic violence, which they experience at the hands of their husband (Rasheed), is brutal and possible in the absence of protection for the vulnerable and a paternalistic culture which seems to regard women and children as chattels. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, the antidote to such systematic hardship proved to be the indomitable human spirit and the innate capacity for reciprocal love.


Almost in spite of the dire consequences of the soviet invasion and the transition to the equally destructive Taliban rule and its subsequent demise, the period covered by the book, Hosseini has managed to extricate a wonderfully uplifting tale of love in diverse forms. Positive and negative attachments to parents, the powerful but not universal instinct to protect children, as well as the strength of selfless romantic love, as distinct from pragmatic survival mechanisms, conjures up some challenging moral dilemmas for the reader. Moreover, the sisterly bonding of Mariam and Laila in an unspoken connection of damaged souls is arguably the most touching of all.


Amid the physical war damage and emotional carnage, the author nonetheless manages to eke out a testament to human resilience and deep-rooted optimism. However, it is the strength and resolve of the central female characters that offer most pride in the human virtues on show. My favourite quote from the book follows the mourning of Laila's brothers, when the character perceives a hierarchy in her mother's affections, "....Mammy's heart was like a pallid beach where Laila's footprints would forever wash away beneath the waves of sorrow that swelled and crashed.Swelled and crashed." In the final analysis, Laila's courage was every bit as worthy of her mother's reverence.


On reflection, I believe one of the most engaging factors for the reader steeped in western culture is the apparent difference in certain values, most notably in respect of women (though notably feminists would argue there is still a way to go), but also, reassuringly, common humane principles that derive from the respective civilizations. The 'otherness' is a seductive curiosity, however, it should not be overstated, for as Hosseini demonstrates, our aspirations are remarkably similar.

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review 2016-08-23 00:33
Book Review: The Shaihen Heritage Trilogy (Cloak of Magic/Staff of Power/Spirit of Shehaios) by S.A Rule

I'm reviewing the whole trilogy rather than each book separately because I think I'd end up repeating myself otherwise. I don't usually take the time to write reviews (far too busy reading, although I've joined this site to change that) but I think this series of books, perhaps because the author self published, has slipped under the radar and people need to know how good it is! I'll stay clear of spoilers though.



The first of this trilogy; Cloak of Magic, was published way back in 2006 and the last, Spirit of Shehaios, in 2011 but I think these books are well placed to come into their own in 2016: The storyline captures some of the innocence and magic of Harry Potter, the power plays and licentiousness of Game of Thrones, and the subtle critique of contemporary society found in The Hunger Games, all packaged up in an alternative pre-history with a similar feel to The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings – what's not to like!


Throwing such successful titles around may seem like hyperbole, but I challenge you to read The Shaihen Heritage Trilogy and not agree.


In Cloak of Magic we're introduced to a Shire-like world of good natured people who live in harmony with the land. It's a balanced society where male and female are equal, inhabiting roles from Chief to Minstrel alike, where both sexes display depths of emotion and strength of will – and where everyone likes a good party. In this world there are dragons and unicorns, there are spirits and magicians, and the people see themselves as expressions of the spirit of the land.


Through the course of the Shaihen Heritage trilogy this world is increasingly threatened by an encroaching empire within which, things are done very differently. A patriarchal power structure, where women are adornments or deceivers, men are stubborn and ambitious, cities are decadent places of plenty – surrounded by slums and fuelled by servitude – and everyone knows their place. In this world there is war and slavery, there are prostitutes and priests, and the people see the land as something to own and fight over (sound familiar anyone?).


The tension created by this clash of cultures invites a delightfully subtle criticism of our own modern world in much the same way that the exaggerated spectacle of The Capitol does in The Hunger Games. Unlike The Hunger Games though, this trilogy doesn't follow just one main protagonist. The first two books are led largely by the mercurial character of Kierce, the Shaihen magician, but he is by no means the only lead. There are Chiefs and Healers, Warriors and Scholars, parents, children, Kings and Emperors as well as gamblers and tavern owners. What impresses me most about this series, in fact, is the sheer depth and richness of all the characters we encounter. With the possible exception of the priest, Aruath, in the third book, none of the players we meet can be accused of being shallow or two-dimensional; they all possess a subtle, textured personality and a rich, individually nuanced inner world, which makes them feel so much more real than mere words on a page.


This realness is what draws you in and what makes the books so easy to read: where Lord Of The Rings can get bogged down in lengthy descriptions of the landscape, in Shehaios you find yourself identifying with characters on all sides of the dice, be they noblemen, slaves, farmers or soldiers; none are defined simply by their role – even Kierce is far more human than Tolkien's Gandalf or Rowling's Dumbledore.



The three books span a large time frame, with the third story, Spirit of Shehaios, occurring at a further remove from the first two, and this makes the final instalment a little harder to get into. The reader is caught on the back foot, so to speak, and feeling like there's a lot to catch up on and a lot of new characters in whom we're not particularly invested. In fact, you could stop reading at the end of the second book, Staff Of Power, and still be blown away. But with a little patience, the realness of the characters – some of whom are familiar – and their capacity to surprise us, once again pulls you back in.


I read most of this trilogy while travelling on trains and there were times when I could not help but laugh out loud as well as times where I found my self welling up in tears or struggling to contain the tension – all rather embarrassing, for a grown man in a public place, and not usually something I have to contend with. In almost all cases, it's the interplay between the characters (all of whom you really come to care for), which leads to this powerful emotional journey. There is, however, plenty of action and a fair share of plot twists to contend with. In particular, I was impressed by the candid descriptions of sex acts. The books are not saturated with them but, when they happen, the author manages to find the right balance between descriptive and erotic, never straying into graphic gratuitousness nor sentimentality.



Coming from an unknown, unsung author, this power house of creative imagination, action, adventure and subtle social critique is simply astounding. And knowing that I'm one of the first to discover this series made the whole experience feel a little more special. So my advice to you would be, 'don't delay!' read this trilogy now so you can say you loved Rule when she was still underground (and not in the way that Tolkien is under ground – by then you'll be late too the show!).

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text 2016-08-07 00:10
Beautifully crafted by a talented wordsmith
Atonement - Ian McEwan

An engrossing novel, which charts the devastating, lifelong impact of a misguided child's testimony, in the wake of sordid domestic incidents. Belatedly, Briony Tallis, acknowledging her role in the deceit destined to shatter her family and the life of her sister's lover, seeks to atone. In this acclaimed work, McEwan deftly develops the plot against the backdrop of Britain in the 1930s, 40s and post-war, conferring upon the book momentum, but also a weight of years, which carries the reader seamlessly to a contemporary conclusion.

One can but feel a sense of enduring torment for Briony, though dwarfed by the price paid by Cecilia Tallis and her would-be suitor, Robbie Turner. The sweep of the book touches on class, and the seismic social change in Britain advanced by the war, as experienced by the main characters. However, while the fickle nature of fate is evident, so too is the injustice of an immutable social order destined to ensure the 'criminals' live the life that was expected, apparently untainted by their willingness to sacrifice the innocent.

The book also offers a commentary on love, but challenges the construction of romantic idylls, which demand a happy ending. Rather, Briony's gnawing sense of guilt is overtaken by the reality of events and her sense of 'doing the right thing' must suffer an unsatisfying delay. The resulting sense of unfairness for the victims is palpable and skilfully managed by McEwan, which is testament to his writing powers. Ultimately life can be unfair, despite our hankering for 'natural justice'!

This was my first dip into the work of this author, but on this evidence he is rightly lauded and I found 'Atonement' a truly absorbing read. 

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1686514922
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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-07-16 01:00
Old McDonald Had A...S-I-L-O.
Wool - Hugh C. Howey

E-I-E-I-Oh...you weren't kidding.


At some point in history, Old McDonald's farm must have not gone so well, because all he ended up with in the end was a silo. Props to whoever advised him to keep the silo, though, because it sure came in handy [spoiler] when the air got poisoned and the world became uninhabitable outside of said silo [/spoiler].


Anyhoo, Old McDonald's silo works, so all is good. Right?


Nope. [spoiler] The sheriff decides to go outside and die alongside his three-years-dead wife who went crazy. The mayor and the deputy take a looooooong trip downstairs (like, over 140 levels long) to pick out a new sheriff, and everything just goes downhill from there [/spoiler]. Do silos have any special mechanics or anything? Because this one has a bit of a problem.


Lucky for the silo, [spoiler] the new sheriff is a mechanic [/spoiler]. Juliette might not know--or care--a whole lot about politics ([spoiler] such as dealing with the all-powerful IT department [/spoiler]), but she definitely knows her way around machines.

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review 2016-05-24 01:20
Book 37/100: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
The Heart Goes Last: A Novel (Positron) - Margaret Atwood

Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #48: A Dystopia

Don't be discouraged by the fact that this book took me five months to read -- I was reading it on my Kindle, which is pretty much the "slow lane" to my book traffic. (I usually only read it in waiting rooms.) The writing style is accessible and it could be a "fast read," although it's up for debate whether it might be considered "light."

Like most of Atwood's dystopias, this one is thick with social commentary, particularly as regards to sex roles and the consumer packaging of sex. One of my friends gave up on the book halfway in because she felt like there was "too much weird sex stuff," and while uncomfortable in places, it is not purely gratuitous. The book is more dark satire than pure dystopia, so it calls for some suspension of disbelief as relates to the actual premise and the society that Atwood sets up. Atwood is making a point, not showing off her worldbuilding skills.

Still, while the men and women who populate this novel may read like caricatures at times, they are also uncomfortably recognizable. Stan and Charmaine are "average" folk who blunder into a surreal and twisted world during a time of desperation, and the piece ultimately ends up being a strange examination of marriage that manages to be both jaded and strangely hopeful.

I wouldn't recommend this as a first introduction to Atwood, as you almost need to have some familiarity with her work to take this one in context. But if you've enjoyed her in the past and don't mind a little humor in your dystopia or some major darkness in your comedy, you'll probably find this to be a satisfying enough addition to the Atwood science fiction canon.

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