Reading in the Desert

…a bookworm in Dubai

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist

Book of the Year and New Writer of the Year at the 2014 Specsavers National Book Awards. Chosen for the Winter 2015 Richard & Judy and Waterstones book clubs. Longlisted for the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction.

This book made everyone stand up and take notice when the British public voted it Book of the Year at the Specsavers National Book Awards and it soon appeared on the major book club lists. Today it has been announced as a longlistee for the well-regarded Desmond Elliott prize although it was notable for its absence on the Bailey’s Women’s prize longlist.

The novel is set in seventeenth century Amsterdam when the young Petronella Oortman arrives at the home of her new husband, the dashing merchant Johannes Brandt. Her hopes as a married woman are soon dashed as her husband is aloof and distant and she must make do with the company of his formidable sister, Marin, and a household of unusual servants. Nella’s life picks up when her husband presents her with a cabinet with which to make a replica of their home and she employs the services of a miniaturist to furnish the house. As the family’s life rapidly disintegrates with scandal and intrigue, can the miniaturist predict the future? Does the miniaturist hold the key to the family’s fate?

Well, who knows? Whilst I enjoyed the book and its characters it didn’t quite live up to expectations. I liked the portrayal of Amsterdam’s merchant warehouses and the moral standards of the late 1600s and I enjoyed the plot although it was far-fetched and relentlessly tragic. The main problem I had with the book was that the whole miniaturist sub-plot was superfluous to the main happenings in the story. The miniaturist didn’t really predict anything or provide any insight and was a distraction from all the other things going on. I was left with the unusual feeling that the book would have been better without the miniaturist. It should have been the heart of the book that pulled everything together rather than an unnecessary sideshow.

So yes, it was a nice book to read with a story that holds interest but it didn’t really hold up to scrutiny, which is why, I suspect, it isn’t on the Bailey’s longlist.

3 stars


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The Penal Colony by Richard Herley

The Penal Colony

I downloaded a free copy of this for my Kindle on the basis of some rave reviews.

The story begins when (wrongly, of course) convicted murderer, quantity surveyor Anthony Routledge, is sent to the island of Sert to serve his sentence. Sert is a penal colony for the very worst types of offenders who are sent the island and left to their own devices with only satellite surveillance and occasional helicopter drops of supplies from the outside world. The convicts have settled into two factions: The Village, where the men work together as a community using their individual skills and talents to establish a basic level of civilisation; The Outsiders on the other hand live outside the Village where there are no rules and must fight amongst themselves for survival. Routledge’s first task on arrival is to survive on the outside to prove himself worthy of a place in The Village.

This book was a surprisingly good read (my expectations weren’t high). It took the done-before premise of the penal colony and imagined how such a society would evolve. There was plenty of action alongside the power struggles, processes of self-discovery and complex engineering projects culminating in a daring escape plan. It shows what humans can achieve when they work together and how brutal and savage they can be when they are in conflict.

The book is marred by racist and homophobic undertones. From the very start some characters were defined by their skin colour and portrayed in a negative light as if somehow the colour of their skin and behaviour went hand in hand. These characters were not given names but referred to as ‘the black’ and ‘the mulatto’. This book was written in 1987, hardly the dark ages, and the tone at the beginning of the book stopped me in my tracks and I considered not continuing with it. It is only my ‘never giving up on a book’ policy that kept me reading. I figured that pointing out my exceptions in my review would be a fair compromise.

Putting these issues aside I did ultimately enjoy the story. It is not my usual sort of book and was rather too violent for my liking but as an adventure story, a story of survival, and a back to basics establishment of society and community it was an interesting read.

3 stars

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The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

The Panopticon

Shortlisted for the 2013 Desmond Elliott Prize. Chosen for the 2012 Waterstones 11 list of debut fiction.

The Panopticon is a care home in Scotland for the most vulnerable and disturbed children and it is where our heroine, Anais Hendricks, is sent after she puts a police officer in hospital. This is a gritty novel that gives a damning indictment on the care system and its failings. “Care” is a contradiction in terms where the youngsters are exposed to a world of underage sex, drugs and violence and abuse from the very adults who are supposed to look after them. Although I am fortunate enough to not have experienced the care system myself, reviews of this novel by those that have suggest that the author has described the system extremely well and illustrated not just the obvious problems but the subtleties and nuances too. Whilst life is tough for these kids they also form bonds and look out for each other in an us against them scenario although ultimately are on their own surviving until they reach 16 and are let out into the big wide world and left to their own devices.

The main protagonist, Anais, is a wonderfully complex character. Hard as nails and yet so vulnerable, she gets into some shocking situations and no one is truly looking after her interests. But at the same time she refuses any help offered and rejects authority; bright and witty, she refuses to go to school. But somehow we know that Anais is different, she has the intelligence and toughness to find a way out and a better life for herself instead of the inevitable path into crime, drugs and prostitution that her contemporaries seem destined for. For the reader she is exasperating, we are rooting for her and want to protect her but then she goes and does something that’ll get her into more trouble.

The author sets out the problems of the care system but does not offer any solutions. She is making the reader think, not just as they are reading but long after they have finished the book, how can the system be made to work effectively for these young people? Number one, the adults working in it must have the children’s best interests in mind and not be there to abuse and take advantage of them. But after that it is complicated – you can’t make children who are fighting the system and distrustful of it work hard at school and stay away from drugs, for example. At the end of the book we are optimistic for Anais, but can she really just walk away from her past and change her life for the better? We hope so.

4 stars

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The Good Father by Noah Hawley

The Good Father

Chosen for the Waterstones Book Club Winter 2013 and the Richard & Judy Book Club Spring 2013.

The ‘good father’ in this novel is successful doctor and family man, Paul Allen, whose 20 year old son, Daniel Allen aka Carter Allen Cash, shoots and kills the charismatic presidential front runner, Jay Seagram, at a political rally in Austin, Texas. We see events from the father’s point of view as he struggles to come to terms with what his son has done, pondering his own failings as an absent father and the bleak future that his son now faces. We also see the story from Daniel’s viewpoint as a disillusioned young man, always on the outside of society, never fitting in. How in his despair he, quite rationally and calculatingly, chose his victim and planned his attack, fully knowing the consequences of his actions.

In the telling of this story, the author not only has his own fictional tale to tell, he also uses real political shootings and assassinations (Giffords, Reagan, Kennedy) to analyse who carries out these acts, what motivates them, what are their backgrounds, what effect did they have on their families. Hawley is very sympathetic to the perpetrators’ families as he demonstrates when he describes the anguish of Timothy McVeigh’s parents (the Oklahoma bomber), who not only have to come to terms with their son’s dreadful crime but also the pain of their own loss when he is executed. Paul Allen quickly realises that although he is an upstanding family man with a wife and two young sons, he has failed his eldest son from his first marriage. Daniel was always in limbo, not happy living with his mother but unable to be part of his father’s new family. This raises the question: how far does a parent need to take responsibility for his child’s actions? Daniel is an adult and knew what he was doing, but should Paul have paid him more attention, seen this coming, been a better father?

Two issues that separate the UK from the USA come to the fore in this novel: gun control and capital punishment. Both highly contentious political issues in America but not even on the agenda in the UK – we are never going back. This novels highlights for me the incongruity, the tragedy, that disaffected youngsters in the US can legally obtain guns, illegally use them to kill and then be legally executed themselves. I find that scary. Daniel talks about people being either wolves and sheep with the wolves needing to separate themselves from the rules of society but this doesn’t have to mean shooting people, there are other ways of bypassing society – communes, alternative lifestyles, emigration. Daniel’s actions were frustrating as he had his whole life ahead of him, he didn’t have to do something so terrible, he had other options.

Although this is a work of fiction it feels like a true story. I found myself emotionally involved with the characters and when I wasn’t reading the book I kept expecting it to be on the news. The emotional tension at the end is almost unbearable, I didn’t want to face up to Danny’s fate any more than his father and there was always hope – hope that there was a mistake, that Daniel didn’t do it, that his young life will be spared… an intense read.

5 stars

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The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist

The Alchemist is the story of a young shepherd, Santiago, who leaves Andalucia to journey across North Africa in search of the ultimate treasures of life. I’d heard lots about this book before I read it and how profound and life-changing it is meant to be and, whilst I enjoyed it, I have to say it didn’t live up to the hype.

Three conflicting messages come from Santiago’s quest. First, that we should live our lives in accordance with our destiny, we should follow our dreams in search of personal fulfillment. Second, we have the concept of ‘Maktub’ or fatalism. So no matter what we are searching for, it is all mapped out for us anyway. I felt that the overall message was muddled, free will and fatalism are opposites and this book seems to combine the two managing to tell us everything and nothing all at once. The final idea of the book was that what we are searching for is what we had all along, so the whole search was pointless from the outset. In fact, you can get the same conclusion from reading The Wizard of Oz, much more entertaining too.

The book reads like a philosophy text and I found myself stopping and thinking frequently to absorb the author’s message. But how much of this book is actually grounded in the academic theories of theology, philosophy or science? Or has the author just made it all up to support his own views and to back up his story? Before we get too excited we must remember that this is simply a fictional tale well told, there is neither bibliography nor references to any research on the part of the author, only gushing quotes from the likes of Madonna. For a novel written in the late twentieth century it was pretty sexist too. It seems that men should be following their destinies whilst the women in their lives wait patiently for their return. May I suggest to any young men reading this: if you leave a woman to follow your destiny, unlike Fatima she might not be too pleased to see you on your return.

So perhaps I’m a cynic but it worries me that so many people see this book as inspirational and life-changing. This seems to me to be philosophy-lite, an easy read that you can pretty much take any message you like from and use it to justify your own actions or lack of action. Personally I have chosen not to take any message from this book at all and continue to live my life as I did before. On the plus side this novel is a quick and pleasant read with some lovely prose and descriptions of the desert. I’m glad I read it, if only to see what the fuss was about.

3 stars

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The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of Miracles

Selected for the 2012 Waterstones 11 list of debut fiction and for the Richard & Judy Book Club Summer 2013.

Imagine what would happen if the rotation of the earth slowed down. Days would get longer, nights would too, and the balance of the ecosystems would be thrown out with disastrous results. This is the promising basis for this novel as told through the eyes of 11 year old Californian, Julia.

To begin with this had me hooked. “The Slowing” is a pretty dramatic thing to happen and the story is told in an everyday, suburban setting so you can immediately get into the shoes of the characters and imagine what they are going through. There is mild panic, reliance on the media for (mis)information, and then trying to get on with ordinary life when you realise that not much has changed. And that’s the problem with this book. The author has a great, fantastic, brilliant idea for a novel and then finds that there’s not actually an awful lot to run with. She covers the obvious things – longer days, more sunshine, higher temperatures, followed by long cold nights and there is the intriguing decision whether to carry on living on a 24 hour clock as days and nights lengthen. She also comes up with some rather dubious ones such as birds falling out of the sky due to increased gravity. (I thought gravity was a function of mass and unrelated to the earth’s rotation, but never mind.) And we had an unconvincing attempt at prejudice against people who refused to stick to the 24 hour clock but this seemed a little contrived and things just got repetitive and ran out of steam.

I felt that, with an 11 year old protagonist, the book was neither an adults’ nor a children’s book. I actually think it might have been far better as a children’s novel – just take out the swearing and the extramarital affair – as it would have given a young reader lots to think about. My final issue with this book was the ending. As the earth continues to slow we seem to be at Armageddon. Agriculture and logistics systems have shut down, people have no food, no water and are worn down by the relentless strength of the sun. Mankind is on the brink of extinction. And then, all of a sudden, we fast forward 10 years. How on earth did they survive for another 10 years? That would have made a fascinating novel, mankind battling for survival against all odds. A missed opportunity I fear.

3 stars

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Netherland by Joseph O’Neill


Longlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize. Shortlisted for the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Chosen for the Richard & Judy Book Club 2009.

This is the story of city analyst, Hans van den Broek, looking back on the previous few years of his life. It begins in an unsettled New York in the aftermath of the 2001 terror attacks when his wife, Rachel, decides to return to the relative sanctuary of London with their young son, Jake. Left alone in New York, Hans explores the city and makes an unlikely friendship with the colourful character, Chuck Ramkissoon. Bonded by their mutual love of cricket they set about establishing a cricket club in New York.

This isn’t really a book about cricket, don’t worry, it is more of a collection of a quiet man’s thoughts. To begin with I found it somewhat rambling and not especially engaging and I struggled to find the beauty in it. But the book did grow on me and some things struck a chord. Hans is a thinker not a doer but he surrounds himself with dynamic people and then stands back and watches life happen. He is a frustrating character particularly as far as his marriage is concerned and his lack of action in trying to save it. It is not until he makes decisive moves himself that his life begins to improve and his destiny changes.

This book is beautifully written and I can see why it did well in the literary prizes. It is not plot driven but very thoughtful and philosophical and unfortunately it is not a book that has stayed with me such that, writing my review, I am wracking my brains trying to remember how I felt about it. I feel a bit mean giving it 3 stars as it is not a bad book and I did ultimately enjoy it but I can’t say I’d encourage people to read it with any enthusiasm.

3 stars