Reading in the Desert

…a bookworm in Dubai

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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


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Natural Causes by James Oswald

Natural Causes (Inspector McLean, #1)

Chosen for the Richard & Judy Book Club Summer 2013.

If books can go from rags to riches then this one did. It started life as a Kindle freebie and ended up with the lucrative honour of a Richard & Judy Book Club listing with the extra publicity and sales that that brings. Originally self-published, this book enjoyed great success on Amazon receiving rave reviews from readers and bringing the author to the attention of Penguin. The success of this book shows that talent does shine through and, through e-publishing, unknown authors can break through and make the big time.

This is a crime novel set in Edinburgh with the main character being the likeable and down to earth DI Tony McLean. It begins with the gruesome discovery of a mummified murder victim from 50 years ago. In fact the attention-grabbing beginning is enough to put some people off the book altogether but really it does not actually set the tone for the rest of the book. More likely it was a device to attract potential readers in a self-publishing e-game where opening chapters are crucial for recruiting new readers, though I suspect this particular opening put off as many readers as it attracted. Anyway, the plot thickens with more gruesome murders and a bit of hocus pocus in the present day – could there be any connection to the murder 50 years ago? What do you think?

What I loved about this book was that the author’s talent shines through immediately. He observes everyday, ordinary life brilliantly and produces convincing and realistic dialogue. I liked that DI McLean had paperwork to do and a heavy workload – he wasn’t just working on one case, he had lots to juggle and find time for. I liked that he was a team player and good manager, happy to delegate tasks to other officers and listen to their theories. I’d be doing the book a disservice to say it is like reading an episode of The Bill, but it is the most realistic crime novel I have read and conveys the goings-on in a police station better than most. The other revelation for me was the male author’s portrayal of female characters. At last the female officers were just that – colleagues who happened to be female. The author was able to describe them without the need to tell us how (sexually) attractive they are (to men), how big their breasts are or how their hips move as they walk down the corridor. The station chief happened to be female but he didn’t make a big deal of it, and he didn’t feel the need to make the women super intelligent to prove he isn’t sexist. Because he isn’t. It is amazing in this day and age how authors still can’t get this right so thank you Mr Oswald!

In all this is a very good crime novel. The plot has its twists and turns and there is plenty of back story to go with DI McLean. My only complaint is that the reader is able to deduce what has been going on long before the detective but that was ok because I still wanted to read on to see if I was right. I read this book soon after reading a number of other crime novels and it stood out for me as being particularly good. Recommended.

4 stars

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The Other Hand by Chris Cleave

Little Bee

Shortlisted for the 2008 Costa Novel Award. Also published under the title ‘Little Bee’.

This is the story of a teenaged Nigerian girl, Little Bee, who has fled the violence of her home country to seek asylum in the UK. She spends two years in a detention centre in Essex and on her release goes in search of the only people she knows in the UK, Sarah and Andrew O’Rourke. After an unlikely two day stroll from Chelmsford to Kingston Upon Thames, Little Bee finds herself on the O’Rourke’s doorstep and the story then goes on to explain what happened on a beach in Nigeria two years previously that has changed the lives of these people forever.

To begin with I was very excited about this book and it started well. I was fascinated with life inside the detention centre and was looking forward to a realistic portrayal of the difficulties asylum seekers face trying to make a new life for themselves in a strange country. But when Little Bee is let out of the centre the book rapidly goes downhill into a somewhat farcical and contrived story.

There was so much about this book that I hated unfortunately. The crux of the novel is what happened on the beach in Nigeria and the O’Rourke’s behaviour was both irritating and ridiculous. For a start, what were they even doing there? Two high-flying journalists on a cheap package holiday to Nigeria? I don’t think so. And then there’s the way they reacted to a dangerous situation: they’d just seen their guard gunned down and yet they stand around in their swimming costumes confronting their attackers one of whom, guess what?, went to Uni in Kingston Upon Thames. Argh!

Finally, I don’t think this book teaches us anything. It raised the issue of asylum seekers and detention centres but skirted round it rather than addressing it. There is a suicide that we don’t really get to the bottom of, I wasn’t convinced of the motive for it. But probably worst of all is that we learn nothing about the problems in Nigeria, which is what really should have driven the novel. A few silly tourists on a beach does not get to the heart of the issues there. A better book is Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christie Watson, which describes the impact the oil companies have on rural life in Nigeria.

Perhaps I wouldn’t have disliked this book so much if it hadn’t been for the blurb on the back. Apparently this book is so good that it doesn’t need a blurb, everyone should read it because it is so outstanding. Well, that throws down the gauntlet doesn’t it? And then you open the book to begin this masterpiece and there is a gushing editor’s note putting it in the same league as Cloud Atlas and Schindler’s Ark – shame the Booker prize judges didn’t agree. It really is a shameless piece of marketing and the book falls way, way short of the mark.

1 star

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The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son

Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize and fiction finalist at the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Awards.

I bought this book on a whim having been drawn to the setting of North Korea and was surprised and pleased to hear it announced as the Pulitzer winner the very next day. Part of the Pulitzer Prize remit is for the winning novel to deal in some way with American life and perhaps this book doesn’t quite do that although it does shed light on North Korea, a country that is one of the single biggest threats to world peace and security, and the peculiar relationship between the two countries.

This novel tells the story of a man called Jun Do, raised in an orphanage in North Korea, who believes he benefited from special treatment as the orphan master’s son. It begins with his early career at sea as a radio operator, tuning into the radio messages of nearby ships, looting shipwrecks and kidnapping Japanese citizens from their own soil. Jun Do ends his career rubbing shoulders with the Great Leader himself as he assumes the role and life of the notorious Commander Ga.

How much of the story is based on factual accounts of North Korea and how much comes from the author’s imagination is unclear. Many of the horrors and hardships are well-documented but for an individual to have a life quite as eventful as Jun Do’s is unlikely. The author uses his own extensive research of this secretive nation, mostly the stories of those who have managed to escape, combined with his creative licence as a fiction writer to bring about a complex and preposterous plot, in keeping with the complex and preposterous nation that he is trying to portray.

There is some insight into the daily lives of the people living in North Korea, which is what I was looking for when I picked up this novel. Their daily struggle for food, the constant state messages over the radio, trucks picking people off the streets to work the fields, or to take them away never to be seen again.  I felt the author painted a realistic picture of daily life for ordinary North Koreans but I wasn’t convinced that he captured what they were feeling. The characters in the novel seemed too cynical of the regime, as if they were hiding their true thoughts and intentions, they just didn’t seem as brainwashed as I expected them to be, they were too restless and canny. Yet for such a regime to continue to exist and to continue to keep its citizens so obedient whilst living in abject poverty requires a high level of fear, submission and ignorance that wasn’t really captured.

The star of the book is the utterly resilient Jun Do. Written with humour, he gets himself into and out of some impossible predicaments whilst winning the confidence of the Great Leader himself and the stealing the woman of his dreams from his arch enemy, Commander Ga. Jun Do shines a light into the darkness of his country and uses his wit, charm and guile to secure a future for his loved ones knowing that his own future in North Korea is virtually certain to end badly.

I very much enjoyed this book. It is clever, funny and I learnt an awful lot about a subject I’m unfamiliar with. I highly recommend it if you are prepared to suspend belief in parts and allow yourself to be both horrified and entertained by a very good story.

4 stars

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Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I read this book for my book club, Dubai Bibliophiles. It was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2007.

This book is set in New York in the aftermath of the September 11 2001 terror attacks. It tells the story of nine year old Oskar, who is coming to terms with the loss of his father who died in one of the World Trade Center buildings. Whilst looking through his father’s things, Oskar finds a vase containing a key and sets about finding the owner of the key by visiting everyone in New York with the surname, Black. Interwoven with Oskar’s story is the story of his grandparents, survivors of the World War 2 Dresden bombings who meet again in New York and marry.

Whilst this seems like a dreary plot, the book is quirky and ultimately uplifting. Oskar is quite a character, a very bright boy who writes to top scientists such as Stephen Hawking, wears only white and shakes a tambourine wherever he goes. It is never explicitly stated that Oskar has Asperger’s syndrome but there is a strong sense that he is on the spectrum somewhere.

What my book club thought…

First of all this book brought out the biggest ever turnout at the book club. There were more than 30 of us and we split into three smaller groups taking over the cafe we were in and the atmosphere was buzzing with book-chat. Generally people loved the story, characters and quirky presentation of this novel. We were very much drawn to Oskar and had some prolonged debate as to whether he was autistic or not. Many of us felt that the grandparents’ story almost overshadowed Oskar’s – their relationship was very strange to say the least and we wanted to get through the grandparents’ sections and back to Oskar. Having said that, the grandparents seemed to give us the most to talk about with their traumatic pasts and dysfunctional relationship.

As a group we felt that 9/11 was dealt with very well. The book wasn’t oversentimental and schmaltzy but it still tackled the impact of the tragedy head-on. A couple of people were concerned that it exploited 9/11 but most of us felt that it was well done.

What I thought…

I very much enjoyed this book. I liked Oskar and sympathised with him but, as a mother of a 9 year old boy myself, I had to suspend my belief that Oskar was free to roam New York City unsupervised. I felt his character would have been more believable if he had been a few years older, about 12 – young enough to be naive and innocent but old enough to be so independent.

I didn’t like the grandparents and couldn’t relate to them and the way they chose to live their lives at all although I like the connection with Dresden, a beautiful city where I lived 7 years ago and is my daughter’s birthplace.

The paperback version (as opposed to the ebook) has illustrations and pictures throughout to complement the text including some haunting images of the twin towers on 9 September 2001. This is a rewarding and entertaining read and I think most people would enjoy it.

4 stars

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Hostile Witness by Rebecca Forster

Hostile Witness (Witness Series, #1)

I downloaded this book on my Kindle as it was a freebie with rave reviews on Amazon.

Defence attorney, Josie Baylor-Bates, is tracked down by an old college friend whose troubled teenage daughter has been arrested for starting a fire that caused the death of her step-grandfather, renowned judge Fritz Rayburn. Josie is reluctant to take on the case after successfully defending a mother who goes on to murder her own children. Feeling responsible for this, Josie had taken a role in a low profile, small law practice. Nevertheless she feels compelled to help her friend and gets herself back in the courtroom.

The defendant is seriously screwed up 16 year old, Hannah Sheraton. Suffering from OCD she lives with her mother, Linda, and stepfather, Kip, often staying at the home of Fritz Rayburn. Her stepfather is an aspiring judge and her mother has had a tough time but has finally found financial and emotional stability through her recent marriage. The family dynamics are compelling enough and throughout the novel it is never clear whether or not Hannah started the fire, she certainly has a motive but would she actually commit murder?

I enjoyed this book, the plot moved along nicely and it was engaging. However, Josie as the main character was so irritating I got the impression that even the author didn’t like her. She just didn’t behave professionally, she was erratic and unreasonable and I always found myself disagreeing with her in arguments, taking the other person’s side. And she seemed to have no empathy for other people, making decisions that would badly affect the people she was closest to and supposed to be helping. With her track record I am amazed that she is ever hired to practice law again but, given that there are sequels to this novel, there must be more to come from her which I won’t be seeking out.

In all this was a quick and easy read. A good thriller but, for me, not great.

3 stars

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Honour by Elif Shafak


Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013.

This story follows four generations of a family; first in their village on the banks of the Euphrates in Turkey and then as they make new lives for themselves in London. It explores the cultural differences between the UK and the Middle East, how first generation immigrants must adjust and the contrasting, sometimes hypocritical, behaviour of their UK-born children.

The book begins with the release of Iskender from prison having served time for the honour killing of his mother, Pembe, who had embarked on a relationship with a man after being abandoned by her husband. We then go backwards and forwards in time from rural Turkey to London as the events leading up to the murder unfold.

I enjoyed this book from the start. I’ve travelled a bit in Turkey and love the country so I loved the part of the book set there. The subject of honour killings is the main theme of the book and Shafak does well to help the reader to understand the sense of shame and disgrace that families feel when a female family member embarks on an illicit relationship. This concept is alien to Western mindsets and it hard to accept the double standards for men and women.

There is one somewhat offhand paragraph in the book that, for me, raised the key cultural differences between East & West with regards to feminism.

“In the West people are confused. They confuse happiness with freedom and freedom with promiscuity. Whereas we respect our mothers, sisters and wives. We don’t force them to dress up like Barbie doll. It’s a whole industry. Cosmetics, fashion, shoe designers…”

The second most common question people ask me about living in Dubai is what is it like for a woman (the most common question is how do you cope with the heat). Actually there is a deep respect for women here and I am treated with courtesy and respect wherever I go. In return I don’t wear strappy tops, don’t show my cleavage and don’t wear very short skirts or shorts. I can quite happily go about in a knee-length skirt and t-shirt, I’m not completely covered up. It is not just about people respecting me it’s about having respect for myself too. The Western feminist in me says that it shouldn’t matter how I dress or how I behave, women should always be treated with respect. I agree with that but I don’t see a need to reveal my body, men don’t do it do they? The respect for women here is matched by standards of behaviour expected of men. Unwelcome advances, wolf whistles, bottom pinching are all complete no-nos and women are free to walk around unmolested.

This novel sets out the culture clash of East meets West but shows that neither side gets it right. The husband, Adem, has his Russian dancer and Iskender himself has a pregnant English girlfriend and yet they cannot accept Pembe’s friendship with Elias. Yet in the West, where women are free to dress how they like and enter and leave relationships as they please, they are also subjected to scrutiny and sexualisation like never before. Every tabloid newspaper has pictures of  female celebrities being criticised for their appearance, photographed in their bikinis and half-naked women on page three. Is that really progress?

This book struck a chord with me and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is beautifully written with lots of memorable characters and a decent plot twist at the end. There is loads to talk about so it would make for lively discussion at a book club. Highly recommended.

5 stars