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review 2017-09-03 11:10
A powerful, touching, and beautiful book for readers prepared to ask themselves the big questions.
Home Fire: A Novel - Kamila Shamsie

Thanks to NetGalley and to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing me with an ARC of this novel that I freely chose to review.

When I read in the description of this novel that it was a contemporary version of Antigone, I was intrigued. If all Greek tragedies are powerful stories, I’ve always been inclined towards those that figure female characters at their centre, and by the moral questions they pose. The author explains, in a note at the end, that the project had started as a suggestion to write a modern adaption of the play for the stage but it had ended up as a novel. Her choices on adapting the original material make it, in my opinion, very apt to the current times, whilst at the same time preserving the eternal nature of its moral and ethical questions.

I don’t think I can improve on the description of the novel that I’ve shared above, but I thought I’d offer a few more details. The story, told in the third person, is divided into five parts, each one narrated by one of the main characters of the story. First, we have Isma Pasha, the oldest sister of a Pakistani-British family. When her mother died, she sacrificed herself for her twin sibling and left her studies to support them until they were old enough to choose their own paths. She is serious, studious, hard-working, and remembers a bit more than her siblings do what it was like when her father, a Jihadist who was never home, died on his way to Guantanamo Bay. The questions, the surveillance, the suspicions, the need to be ‘beyond reproof’… When her sister Aneeka, is about to start university, and her brother, Parvaiz, is pursuing a career in sound and media studies, she accepts an offer by one of her old professors to continue her studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts. She enjoys her quiet life there and meets a young man, Eamonn, whom she recognises as the son of an important UK politician, and one that had had some dealings with her family in the past. Although from very different social classes they share some things in common (they are both from London and they have Pakistani family, although Eamonn knows very little about that side of things). Their friendship never develops into anything deeper, but it brings hope and possibility to Isma’s life.

The next part is told by Eamonn, who intrigued by a photo he’d seen of Isma’ sister, tracks her down, and despite the secrecy surrounding their relationship, falls for her.

Parvaiz’s story is that of a young man brought up among women, who is very close to his twin-sister, Aneeka, but annoyed because the women in his life make decisions without him and he has no male role-model to guide him. A chance meeting with a man who tells him he knew his father ends up in his indoctrination and eventual joining of the Caliphate.

Aneeka’s chapters talk about her grief and her determination to do what she thinks is right, no matter the price or the consequences, both to herself and to those around her. When is love too much and how far would you go for your family?

Karamat Lone, the British Home Secretary, has the two final chapters. He is of Pakistani origin but has abandoned much of his culture and identity (including his religion and his way of life) and advocates assimilation and harsh punishment for those who don’t. Like for Aneeka, for him, there can be no compromise. He repeatedly chooses politics and his official life over his family and that has terrible consequences.

Shamsie has created multi-faceted characters, all distinctive and different in the way they feel, they see the world, and they relate to others. I found Parvaiz’s story particularly effective and touching, particularly as his decision might be the most difficult to understand for many readers. He loves sounds and the way he describes everything he hears is fascinating. The story of his indoctrination and the way he ends up trapped in a situation with no way out is hard to read but totally understandable. They choose him because he is a young man, vulnerable, looking for a father figure, and easy to manipulate. He makes a terrible mistake, but like the rest of the characters, he is neither totally good nor bad. They all keep secrets, in some cases to avoid others getting hurt, in others to try and save somebody or something. At times questions are not asked so as not to shatter an illusion, and at others, even the characters themselves no longer know what the truth is. The structure of the novel allows us to see the characters from their own perspective but they also appear in the stories of the others, and that gives us a better understanding of who they really are, how they appear to the rest of the people, and of the lies they tell themselves and others.

The novel deals with a number of relevant subjects, like terrorism and counter-terrorist measures, religion, ethnic and religious profiling, social media, surveillance and state-control, popular opinion and its manipulation by the media, politics, identity, family, love (many different kinds of love), ethics and morality. Although many of these topics are always at the centre of scholarly and popular debates, now they are more pressing than ever.

This is a beautiful book, lyrical at times, full of warmth and love (family love, romantic love, love for knowledge and tradition…), but also of fear and hatred. It is passionate and raw. We might not agree with the actions and opinions of some (or even all) the characters, but at a certain level, we get to understand them. We have fathers (and most of the men, although not Eamonn) prepared to sacrifice their families and their feelings for what they think is a higher and mightier good (country, religion, politics…). We have women trying to maintain the family ties and do what is right beyond creed, country lines, written laws, and paperwork. And a clash of two versions of family, identity, and survival condemned to never reaching an agreement.

I highlighted many lines of the text (and although always in the third person, the language and the expressions of the characters are very different in each segment), and some are very long (another writer not concerned about run-on sentences at times, although they serve very clear purposes), but I decided to share just a few examples:

Always these other Londons in London.

He was nearing a mosque and crossed the street to avoid it, then crossed back so as not to be seen as trying to avoid a mosque. (This is Eamonn walking around London).

She was the portrait to his father’s Dorian Gray —all the anxiety you’d expect him to feel was manifest in her. (Eamonn thinking about his mother).

Grief was what you owed the dead for the necessary crime of living on without them. (Aneeka thinking about her brother and about grief).

This was not grief. It was rage. It was his rage, the boy who allowed himself every emotion but rage, so it was the unfamiliar part of him, that was all he was allowing her now, it was all she had left of him. She held it to her breast, she fed it, she stroked its mane, she whispered love to it under the starless sky, and sharpened her teeth on its gleaming claws.

The human-rights campaign group Liberty issued a statement to say: ‘Removing the right to have rights is a new low. Washing our hands of potential terrorists is dangerously short-sighted and statelessness is a tool of despots, not of democrats.’

He looked like opportunity tasted like hope felt like love (Anika about Eamonn).

Working class or Millionaire, Muslim or Ex-Muslim, Proud-Son-of-Migrants or anti-Migrant, Moderniser or Traditionalist? Will the real Karamat Lone please stand up? (The newspapers talking about Karamat Lone, the Home Secretary).

Who would keep vigil over his dead body, who would hold his hand in his final moments? (Karamat thinking about his mother’s death and then his own).

This is a powerful book and a novel that made me see things from a different perspective. What happens to those left behind? We are used to hearing about the families of young men and women who leave them and their country of birth to join terrorist groups. We hear of their surprise at what has happened, they seem unable to react or understand how their son, daughter, sister, brother… has become somebody they no longer understand or know. But, what must life be like for them afterwards?

There are elements that might stretch the imagination but for me, they fit within the scope of the story (it is supposed to be a tragedy, after all) and the novel treads carefully between realism and dramatic effect.

A great novel that brings to life many issues that are sometimes ignored in the political and media discourses but that are fundamental if we want to reach a better understanding of the situation. A book for people who are looking for something more than a good story and a bit of entertainment, and are prepared to ask themselves some questions. Another author I had not read yet but whom I will eagerly follow from now on.

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review 2017-07-19 23:01
Recommended to those who enjoy action novels, spy novels, thrillers, and definitely to Baldacci fans.
Zero Day - David Baldacci

Thanks to NetGalley and to the publisher, MacMillan, for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

David Baldacci is one of these authors whose names a reader (and even a non-reader) cannot escape. His books are widely distributed and he always seems to have a volume or two in the bestsellers list (no, not the Amazon one on a little-known genre, but the real thing). Despite all that (or perhaps because of it, as sometimes some names seem so familiar that I feel as if I had already read/watched or whatever it is they do, them before) I had never read any of his books. I saw that coinciding with a book launch, NetGalley was offering a copy of the first book in the John Puller series, and I decided perhaps it was time I read him. (I don’t have any specific opinions on best sellers as such and I don’t necessarily avoid them as a matter of principle but I do prefer to discover them early on, so I can make my own mind up).

The story, narrated in the third person, mostly follows John Puller, a military investigator that is all you probably would wish for in such a character. He has complex family relations (including a genius brother imprisoned for life for treason), he has seen his share of combat and has the medals and the scars to prove them, he is as skilled at fighting as he is at investigating, and although usually he works as part of a team, he can be a one-man-band when required (as is the case here).  There are some moments (like the first chapter) when we follow other characters, but this is for a very good reason, and we, by and far, experience the events from Puller’s perspective. Of course, that does not mean we know everything he knows, because the book hides information at times and that means there are some surprises (the number of surprises might depend on how close your attention and on how many books of the genre you have read).  The story is a combination of a spy story with highly skilled military investigator/hero in charge, and a more standard police procedural, with big secrets, conspiracies, and environmental issues thrown in for good measure. There are hints of a possible romance, but nobody is up to the task, and the time frame is very tight for such developments.

The investigation is very detailed, and we get to know quite a few of the characters in the small West Virginian town of Drake, a coal mining place that has become almost a ghost town due to the environmental and economic consequences of the exploitation and depletion of its resources by the sole industry in the area. Baldacci shares as much loving detail on the way the coal industry works (or at least some far-from-exemplary companies), as he does on everything else: the way the military works, the different roles of the investigating and security agencies and how they interact, the equipment used, the weaponry… This might be too much for some readers, but I am sure it will make others very happy. I did enjoy more the discussions of the environmental issues and the socio-economic effects of the coal-extracting industry than the details about the equipment, but there is plenty of action and intrigue to keep readers of mystery, and also spy novels, entertained.

My favourite character is Sam Cole, the female police officer in charge of the investigation. She has problems of her own and also a difficult relationship with her family, and seems the perfect match for Puller. I would probably have preferred the novel to be about her, but that is not the genre or the focus of it. In many ways, her character is the one that makes us see Puller as something more than a perfect fighting and investigating machine, all professional, and efficient. Yes, he has a cat, some sort of relationships with his father, and an interesting dynamic with his brother, but she is the only person who is not a relative he seems to relate to at a level beyond the casual, and it is not only because it is helpful to his mission.  

I agree with comments that the novel is formulaic in many ways (Puller survives several attempts on his life, has to subvert orders and get inventive to save the day and manages to pull an incredible feat at the end), although as I haven’t read other Baldacci’s books, I cannot comment on how much better or worse Puller is compared to some of his other heroes (Reacher is mentioned often in the reviews, sometimes agreeing he’s as good, others denying it). I imagine once you have such a following as an author, you know what your public wants and expects, so it is perhaps disingenuous to accuse him of writing to a formula. It is not a genre I read often, and I prefer something more distinctive, less heroic, and with a bit of humour.

The book is well paced, the writing supports the story rather than calling attention to itself (as I said, some readers might find there is too much detail, but I doubt his fans will, and after reading the acknowledgements, it is clear that he is well-informed and has had access to first-hand information not many would have), and if you like lone heroes with a conscience, John Puller makes a pretty decent one. Recommended to those who enjoy action novels, spy novels, thrillers, and definitely to Baldacci fans. I am not sure I’d say I’ve become one of them, but I might try another one of his stories at some point.

 

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review 2017-05-19 17:15
Book Review - Please Explain Terrorism to Me: A Story for Children, P-E-A-R-L-S of Wisdom for Their Parents
Please Explain Terrorism to Me: A Story for Children, P-E-A-R-L-S of Wisdom for Their Parents - Laurie Zelinger,Ann Israeli

Our Beck Valley Book Review - Please Explain Terrorism to Me: A Story for Children, P-E-A-R-L-S of Wisdom for Their Parents by Laurie Zelinger and Ann Israeli

Prepare*Explain*Answer*Reassure*Listen*Safeguard
The acronym for PEARLS who produce a series of books for parents to share with their children explaining scary topics to help them understand difficult topics. The colourful illustrations which depicts the script help take the edge of the harsh reality off the topic. The way the topic is shown through the eyes of a young person that another young person would understand is exceptional. Also involving the boys friends, school life and family and the discussions along with the situations they protray bring it home to any family.

The books writing and explanations are very easy for anyone to understand and along with the brilliant illustrations make this an exceptionally teaching aid. There is brilliant guidance notes in the book on how to get the best out of it for parents.

Read more on the #book and author here...
http://beckvalleybooks.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/book-review-please-explain-terrorism-to.html

Book Description
Complemented by exquisite, colorful artwork, Dr. Zelinger skillfully crafts an easily relatable children's story using everyday situations, around the oppressive concept of Terrorism in the news. With masterful understanding of the child's world, new and frightening concepts are introduced carefully and gently, with the child's perspective in mind. Dr. Zelinger provides parent coaching to further the dialogue in her P-E-A-R-L-S of Wisdom section (Prepare, Explain, Answer, Reassure, Listen, Safeguard) where caregivers are given scripts to guide them, as well room for individuality. This pioneer book helps children and parents face a critical, often avoided topic with reassurance and calm.
"This book provides the 'PEARLS' of wisdom for parents and children to discuss a scary topic like terrorism in ways that promote healthy and authentic parent-child conversations that yield to mutual respect and bonding."

--Marc A. Brackett, PhD., Director, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence

"Deep and yet accessible, her remarkable deciphering of the psychological factors that hinder the free communication between parents and children on terrorism is compelling. This fascinating guide amounts to a riveting lesson of clarity and to a masterpiece in bridging the unbridgeable."

--Hon. Yehuda Lancry, Former Ambassador of Israel to the U.N.

"Please Explain 'Terrorism' to Me is a straightforward and down-to-earth treatment of a difficult subject. Dr. Zelinger uses common sense, a simple clarification of the basic issues, and reassurance to provide a deeper understanding of terrorism for kids--without a corresponding rise in anxiety."

--Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D., Psychologist/Author,

Source: beckvalleybooks.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/book-review-please-explain-terrorism-to.html
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review 2017-04-05 22:59
One Perfect Lie
One Perfect Lie - Lisa Scottoline

By: Lisa Scottoline

ISBN: 978-1250099563

Publisher: St. Martin's Press

Publication Date: 4/11/2017

Format: Hardcover 

My Rating: 4 Stars

 

Lisa Scottoline returns following Most Wanted landing on my Top Books of 2016 with her latest, ONE PERFECT LIE. A mysterious new teacher lands at a high school. Is he a fraud?

A twisty suburban crime thriller, keeping you on the edge-of-your-seat, classic Scottoline style.

“Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others." — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chris Brennan is applying for a teaching job at Central Valley High School, but he is not forthcoming about his past. He had scoped out the school and the teachers in advance.

After all, everyone liked a clean-cut guy, and they tended to forget that appearances were deceiving.

 



Even a fake resume. His resume says he went to Northwest College in Wyoming. He even picked a housing development nearby, Valley Oaks.

The small town is located in south-central Pennsylvania, known for its outlet shopping. No one would imagine what he was up to. His story was his parents passed away five years earlier in a car crash (drunk driver). An only child he says, so he decided to come to the area for higher pay and he loved kids.

Chris led the officials at school to believe he wanted to be accessible to his students on email, social media and believed in personal contact and mutual respect. He also said he coached. He even applied for the assistant baseball varsity coach position.

What better way to get connected? He was setting up a plan. Chris is not who he pretends to be.

What is his motive?

Chris bonds immediately with students. Can he fool the other teachers? Can he be trusted?

We meet a variety of moms, students, and teachers. Susan, Raz, Heather, Justin, Mindy, and Evan. The baseball team. Chris keeps abreast all the families and all the activities. Will he accomplish his mission? He puts his plan in place.

Mr. Y (Abe Yomes) gay, African American who teaches eleventh grade. He also lived in the town with his partner Jamie who owned a realty company. He is from Wyoming (for real).

Soon enough, however, Mr. Y is dead, an apparent suicide, and Chris is ready to move forward with his plan. There are certain people he needs to befriend. They are all part of his plan. Chris targets three teenage boys.

Absorbing and entertaining, you never know what is going on in suburbia. Domestic terrorism? Justice? Take a walk down Wisteria Lane. Domestic suspense is all the rave today. What goes on "behind closed doors" in normal neighborhoods. The lies we tell ourselves as well as each other.

Action-packed family drama, a thriller complex ride with lots of twists, turns, secrets, cover-ups, and suspense. Scottoline once again surprises her readers with contemporary issues and topics which filter into our lives.

A special thank you to St. Martin's Press and NetGalley for an early reading copy.

JDCMustReadBooks

 

 

Praise  

 

"Scottoline keeps the pace relentless as she drops a looming threat into the heart of an idyllic suburban community, causing readers to hold their breath in anticipation." –Booklist
 
"Readers can be assured that the author nails the high school milieu, from athletic rivalries to sexting...they're in for one thrilling ride." –Kirkus Reviews
 
"Entertaining...This fast-paced read culminates in a daring chase that would play well on the big screen." –Publishers Weekly
Source: www.judithdcollinsconsulting.com/single-post/2016/11/04/One-Perfect-Lie
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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-02-02 22:38
Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue - Maajid Nawaz,Sam Harris

'Liberals imagine that jihadists and islamists are acting as anyone else would given a similar history of unhappy encounters with the West. And they totally discount the role that religious beliefs play in inspiring a group like the Islamic State - to the point where it would be impossible for a jihadist to prove he was doing anything for religious reasons. Apparently it's not enough for an educated person with economic opportunities to devote himself to the most extreme and austere version of Islam, to articulate his religious reasons for doing so ad nauseam, and even to go as far as to confess his certainty about martyrdom on video before blowing himself up in a crowd. Such demonstrations of religious fanaticism are somehow considered rhetorically insufficient to prove that he really believed what he said he believed.' - Sam Harris page 47-48

 

I think that one paragraph sums up my frustrations with the debate on Islamic terrorism. Imagine if you went back in time to see the Knights Templar not give an inch in battle, driven by their religiously inspired, fervent belief in martyrdom. The conclusion you draw from this is that this was at root a frustration garnered from hundreds of years of eastern foreign policy in the form of Jihad and the knights' reaction has nothing to do with religion. Surely you'd have to be at least dishonest in that scenario to discount the role of religious conviction? And yet as Harris demonstrates, this has almost become a mainstream political opinion amongst so called liberals. Harris continues -

 

'The belief that a life of eternal pleasure awaits martyrs after death explains why certain people can honestly chant "we love death more than the infidels love life." They truly believe in martyrdom - as evidenced by the fact that they regularly sacrifice their lives, or watch their children do so, without a qualm. As we have been having this conversation there was an especially horrific attack on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, where members of the Taliban murdered 145 people, 132 of them children. Here's an except from an online conversation with a Taliban supporter in the aftermath of the massacre - Human life only has value among you worldly materialist thinkers. Death is not the end of life. It is the beginning of existence in a world much more beautiful than this. Paradise is for those pure of hearts. All children have pure hearts. They have not sinned yet... They have not been corrupted by their kafir parents. We did not end their lives. We gave them new ones in paradise, where they will be loved more than you can imagine. They will be rewarded for their martyrdom."

 

I think that speaks for itself. You would have to make the claim that the Taliban supporter is lying, in order to undermine the idea that extreme religious conviction plays some part in the terror debate and I personally think the weight of evidence rests against you if you do.

 

But anyway that's not even the debate that people should be having, the debate should be how do you deal with the tide of Islamist and jihadi groups around the globe? Maajid Nawaz argues that Islamism, the political belief of fundamentalism and the spreading of Islamic law and customs across all nations, must be defeated at grass roots levels within the Muslim community. They estimate that Islamist groups make up between 15 and 25% of the world's 1.6 billion strong Muslim population. He sees The Obama administrations refusal to name Islamism as being at the root of groups like IS as a failure. He believes that naming the problem instead of avoiding it, gives Muslims a choice to either 'reclaim our religion and its narrative, or allow thugs and demagogues to speak in its name and impose it on others. Calling it extremism is too relative and vague and sidesteps the responsibility to counter its scriptural justification.' He means scriptural justification here in the sense that one may interpret many things from the Qu'ran and ahadith and one of those readings is the skewed beliefs of Islamic State. He also mentions however that another essential thing that needs to happen is for there to be an acknowledgement that there are many different interpretations possible, each to the person who reads the scripture. Essentially if the Muslim community can get to the stage where the interpretations are personal to the person and there is no right answer, this is the first step on the way to pluralism and secularism. 

 

I've done rather a hatchet job here of what is a short, at 128 pages, yet valuable conversation in which the intricacies and problems of the debate are analysed in such greater depth. Despite its small length, it is definitely a worthy addition to the field and a good discussion between two respectful men, one a liberal Muslim, the other a liberal atheist. The more this is talked about and the less it is approached with apprehension and shame the better for our society. 

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