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review 2018-01-02 01:06
A Funeral for an Owl - Jane Davis

Using a novel to highlight invisible social issues, such as runaway teenagers, taking flight as a consequence of factors such as domestic violence, gang culture and parental rejection is a tricky business. For example, who knew “one in ten run away from home before they reach the age of sixteen, a massive 100,000 every year”? It’s a fairly damning statistic, which says much about British society and an apparent incapacity to protect vulnerable young people. Moreover, “two thirds of children who run away are not reported to the police.” Still, against this rather bleak backdrop, Jane Davis has constructed a subtle plot, which does far more than merely generate pathos. Indeed, JD has also sought to establish that this is not a problem solely besetting some poverty-stricken underclass, but rather an issue that crosses mundane social boundaries and ‘runaways’ might therefore be seen as victims of an extreme degree of family separation.

‘A Funeral for an Owl’ centres on history teacher, Jim Stevens, who works at an inner city high school, but originates from the nearby council estate and though the vagaries of social mobility have enabled Jim to move literally to the other side of the railway tracks, he has not strayed far from his roots. When a violent incident at school sees Jim hospitalised, colleague (‘Ayisha’) is drawn into the clandestine support he has been providing to one of his pupils (‘Shamayal’) and Ayisha’s own integrity, in the face of strict policies and procedures, is challenged.

Ayisha has benefitted from a stable family upbringing and though struggling with the expectations of a distant and demanding mother, she has little insight into the profound hardships experienced by some of her disadvantaged pupils, away from school. And so, while Jim languishes in a hospital bed, the story alternates between examining Jim’s past experience, which culminated in his being stabbed and the very pressing present, which finds Ayisha discovering that doing the ‘right thing’ can take courage and a sense of bewildering isolation.

In spite of his inner city upbringing, ten year-old Jim is into birdwatching and this egregious pastime enables the boy to connect with the troubled Aimee White. Two years his senior, Aimee is destined to attend the all-girls school designated by her wealthy parents, but for the intervening six weeks of the summer holidays, the pair fashion a poignant relationship, which bridges their respective worlds. Almost spookily prescient, Aimee observes that “Indian tribes believe owls carry the souls of living people and that, if an owl is killed, the person whose soul they’re carrying will also die.”

Later, the geekiness of Jim’s birdwatching also captures Shamayal’s imagination and there is symmetry too, in Jim’s burgeoning relationship with Ayisha.

However, what stood out most for me in this book was the crafted writing, in which JD changes gear so smoothly that the journey was simply a pleasure and over all too quickly. The plot was deceptively simple and yet the characterization of the protagonists was insightful and interesting (I especially enjoyed ‘Bins’ the estate eccentric, who is curiously invisible) and made the story eminently plausible and readable. Clearly the book is not targeted solely at young adults and as with a lot of good fiction, the food-for-thought it provides is rightly taxing. As a social worker myself, it would be easy to criticize the rather neat conclusion, which perhaps sanitizes the ‘messiness’ that attends typical family life, but that would be churlish and miss the point. The adage that ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child’ is at the heart of this book and we all need to do our bit…

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review 2017-11-26 10:27
Modern charades....is it a book? Is it a film?
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - Deborah Moggach

I generally get a sense of foreboding when I read on a book's cover, "NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE", even more so when I have seen said movie. "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" is a good example, in that it is a glorious 'feel good' film, with a host of wonderful actors, setting the bar high for the preceding novel, which I notice was previously entitled, "These Foolish Things". But, notwithstanding this book has apparently inspired a successful cinema formulation, would it be any good?


The answer is 'yes', Deborah Moggach's original novel is really well conceived and the interplay between the cast of characters is comical, poignant and even touching at times. However, the downside to seeing the movie first is a sense of disappointment that the book has not been faithfully reproduced on the screen. Some parts that have been 'bigged up' for the cinema-going public proved to be relatively modest on reading the book. Unsurprising perhaps, when the talents of Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith et al are at hand, but the young charismatic Indian entrepreneur (played by Dev Patel) shown on the book's cover with his beautiful girlfriend, doesn't actually exist in the intervening pages. Instead, Sonny is middle-aged, rather dull and a 'bit part', compared to his central role in the screen version.


In contrast to the Hollywood meets Bollywood makeover, the book is earthier and the characters' back-stories more authentic, in turn making the plot lines more plausible. At a time when the UK's National Health Service is creaking under the pressures of an ageing population and traditional family loyalties are equally stressed, the advantages of shipping out to a new retired life in a strange land is a tantalising prospect   The comparing and contrasting of cultures within the book was also arguably more nuanced and the author holds up an interesting mirror on what it is to grow old in modern societies. East and West both have their 'hidden' populations of the 'uncared for'. But, perhaps the message of the book is that for those with an adventurous or courageous spirit and a willingness to share and create new social circles, life retains a wealth of possibilities.


The title is an interesting aside, but for me the book is much more explicitly about the characters and the dilapidated hotel merely a backdrop, albeit a useful metaphor, for which the original title may have better preserved the distinction. Still, despite the apparent temptation to ride the coat-tails of a successful movie, this book is, of itself, worth a read and perhaps for people of a certain age provides important fuel for thought.

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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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