Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

kite

I’ve previously read And The Mountains Echoed and  Thousand Splendid Sons by Khaled Hosseini, and believe me, this is an author who knows how to tell stories of pain and torment and anguish.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is the story of two boys growing up in the city of Kabul, in Afghanistan. Amir is the son of a rich man, while Hassan is the child of Amir’s father’s servant. Amir and Hassan, who are both motherless, shared the same wet nurse and despite the differences in their social status, are friends. Hassan is a Hazara, (an ethnic minority in Afghanistan) and he is bullied and tormented by Amir’s peers. Amir is not as courageous as Hassan, who demonstrates over and over again his love and respect and willingness to do anything for Amir, just as Hassan’s father does for Amir’s father. Amir’s and Hassan’s lives are forever shaped by several cowardly actions of Amir’s, which Amir regrets for the rest of his life.

Very soon after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Amir and his father fled for the United States, where Amir finished school and eventually married the love of his life. Amir eventually returned to Afghanistan, in an attempt to redeem himself for hurting Hassan. On his return, Amir barely recognised the Kabul of his childhood, which had become a violent, poverty stricken place.

Reading books like The Kite Runner makes me feel ashamed of myself for several reasons, one, for knowing so little about how people in other parts of the world live and what they go through, two, for being lucky enough to have been born into a majority ethnic group living in a stable and rich country and three, for knowing this and still choosing not to give everything I have to try to make a difference in the lives of people who are not as fortunate. I have a habit of burying my head in the sand when something is too horrible for me to think about, but the examples used in this book of the Taliban’s atrocities kept me awake the night I read this book.

The story is huge and full of terrible things, with details of inequality, hard-to-read depictions of the rape and abuse of children, and a terrible recounting of the public stoning of people found guilty of adultery, but The Kite Runner is also filled with heroes, such as Hussan and his father, Amir’s father, and eventually, Amir himself. A particularly lovely feature of the book was the feeling of belonging that Amir and his father had, both in Kabul and in San Francisco, as part of the Afghan community.

The edition I read was an illustrated edition, with photos of what to me looks like extreme poverty in a harsh land. The people in the photos look unhappy and frightened. The coloured photos show green walls everywhere, which I understand is a special colour for the Islamic people of Afghanistan. I suppose there is joy in people’s lives sometimes no matter what their circumstances, but these photos left me feeling sad.

The Kite Runner was Khaled Houssini’s first book and although it was a best seller, I think the author’s style has improved since writing this. Some of the storytelling was too obvious, with too many clichés and I found the narrator’s melodrama irritating as the story went on. However, while I wasn’t as touched by The Kite Runner as I was by the author’s other books, but it is still a worthy read.

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The Blood of an Englishman by M.C.Beaton

death

After reading Emily Goes To Exeter, by MC Beaton, I couldn’t resist reading The Blood of an Englishman by the same author.

In the first three pages of this book the main character, Agatha Raisin, a Private Detective, openly lusted after handsome men, made nasty comments under her breath about fools and told lies to achieve her ends. I think if Agatha were a real person, she would be one of those enormously amusing people who no one actually likes.

The story starts with Agatha attending a village pantomime (under sufferance), with a friend, when one of the actors is murdered during the performance. Agatha is quickly employed by the main suspect to find out who did it, as he says he didn’t.

The Blood of an Englishman is the 25th Agatha Raisin mystery, so Agatha has been around for a while. She’s been around in other ways too, with several ex-husbands and another couple of would-be husbands appearing in this book, not to mention Agatha enjoying several crushes on men of her acquaintance and a great many amorous thoughts.

I haven’t read books 1 to 24, but I didn’t need to. The plot was easy enough to follow, although ludicrous and by the end of the book I was only skimming through the pages. I did find Agatha’s romantic tribulations funny though.

I probably won’t read another Agatha Raisin story, although Ann Holman of the blog Holmanese (http://www.holmanese.com/) tells me that this author writes historical romances as Marion Chesney. I’ll be watching out for a historical romance by this author, because I think that will be more to my taste.

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The Messenger by Markus Zusak

messengerMarkus Zusak, who wrote The Messenger, is probably best known for having wrote The Book Thief. I haven’t read The Book Thief, but I saw the movie and howled buckets. So I was expecting great things from The Messenger, which won the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Award and the 2003 NSW Premier’s Literary Award Ethel Turner Prize in Australia (Young Adult category).

The Messenger delivered.

The Messenger’s main character is Ed Kennedy, a twenty year old taxi driver. Ed grew up and continues to live in a low socio-economic area of a city. When he isn’t working, Ed bums around with his friends, mostly playing a card game called Annoyance. Ed is in love with Audrey, who has a series of boyfriends who come and go. Ed has a dog called The Doorman and a mother whose blood pressure seems to rise every time she sees him.

Things change for Ed when he prevents a bank robber from getting away and he becomes a hero. After this, Ed receives a card in the mail, the Ace of Diamonds, with three addresses on it. Ed visits each of the homes, and realises that he needs to do something for each of these families to make the world a better place.

When Ed completes these tasks, he is sent other aces with cryptic clues to solve. Again, each of the clues lead him to a task. The tasks vary enormously, from assisting a woman who is regularly being raped by her husband, to befriending a lonely old woman.

Ed is a likeable character, funny and honestly telling his story as he sees it. The words are perfect. Ed’s voice is ocker, with a broad Australian accent that is familiar and endearing to me, even though dialects in stories usually annoy me to the point of not finishing a book. His voice is often funny, although at other times the emotion made me feel exactly as the author intended, sad, angry, flattened, hopeful or hopeless.

For example; “I’m just another stupid human.”

“Have you ever noticed that idiots have a lot of friends? It’s just an observation.”

“I was always reading books when I should have been doing math and the rest of it.”

The Messenger reminded me a little of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World. Maybe this might mean that The Messenger is predictable for some readers, but for me, I found the story and the message to be inspiring.

 

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Cop Town by Karin Slaughter

cop

Okay, I know this is obvious, but Karin Slaughter has the perfect name for a crime fiction writer. Seriously, what else could someone with that surname do for a living? Would you leave your first born with a kindergarten teacher named Ms Slaughter? Or how about depositing your favourite grandmother in a nursing home under Nurse Slaughter’s care? No, anyone named Karin Slaughter either had to be a butcher or a crime writer.

Thank goodness Karin Slaughter didn’t become a butcher, because she is a terrific crime writer. I haven’t read any of her other works before reading Cop Town, but I am itching to read more.

Cop Town is set in Atlanta in the 1970s. The only other book I have read that was set in Atlanta was Gone With the Wind, but this is a very different Atlanta to the gallant, elegant city I remember depicted in the movie, (before the joint was burned by Sherman’s army. If I have this wrong, forgive me, I read GWTW over thirty years ago, and I am Australian, so this is not my history).

As for Cop Town, Atlanta in the 1970s was no place for female police officers, yet the main character, Kate Murphy has joined the force. A killer has been murdering police officers during the months before Kate’s first day at work, and hysteria is rampant throughout the squad room after another police officer is shot. Despite these circumstances, Kate is manhandled, subjected to sexist comments and verbal abuse just making her way through the staff only part of the police station to the female change rooms on her first morning at work. Kate is completely aware that her lack of experience makes her a danger to both herself and to other officers.

On her first day, Kate is initially partnered with Jimmy Lawson, whose former partner was killed the previous day by the murderer. By lunchtime, Jimmy has fobbed Kate off to his sister Maggie, who is also a police officer.

Maggie has her own difficulties. Her brother Jimmy was a sporting hero and became a favourite of the whole police force, while Maggie has constantly suffered the same sort of sexual abuse and harassment as Kate did on her first day at work. Maggie and Jimmy’s uncle, Terry, is a highly ranked police officer who believes Maggie’s place is at home with her mother, who is not supportive of Maggie’s career either. Terry often physically and emotionally harms Maggie.

The way Maggie, Kate and the other women in this novel were treated by their families and male counterparts had me burning with indignation. The men in this novel were afraid of change and afraid of women taking responsibilities. Racism was rampant. There were four different groups in the police force, white male police officers, black male police officers, white female police officers and black female police officers, and none of them had much support from each other.

I didn’t figure out who the killer was until the author told me in the last, exciting pages of Cop Town.

 

 

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Heroes Are My Weakness by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

heroes

The title of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s book, Heroes Are My Weakness, had me nodding in agreement. Mr Darcy, Rhett Butler, Westley in The Princess Bride, almost any of Georgette Heyer’s heroes, (although I have a particular weakness for Lord Damerel and the Duke of Avon – the bad boys), not to mention handsome men on the covers of Mills and Boon novels, are all weaknesses, (or guilty pleasures) of mine.

Why limit yourself to being side-tracked by heroes though? My other weaknesses include chocolate, reading too late at night, saving cut-outs of recipes that in reality I am never going to make and all sorts of other nice things, which are lovely weaknesses which people who live in glass houses probably say that they don’t do.

Anyway, back to the review. The heroine of Heroes Are My Weakness is Annie Hewitt, a broke puppeteer, (why am I not surprised she is poor? I’m reasonably sure the words ‘rich puppeteer’ are not often used in the same sentence). In order to keep her inheritance, a cottage on remote Peregrine Island off Maine which no one in their right mind would want anyway, Annie arrives on the island in the middle of a blizzard to spend an obligatory 60 days in the cottage.

The hero of this novel, Theo Harp, is a brooding writer of nasty crime novels. He was also Annie’s first love. Theo first appears in the story riding a big black horse in the snowstorm (shades of Mr Rochester?) Before too long Annie learns that Theo has been recently widowed (shades of Maxim de Winter?) Meanwhile, Theo takes every opportunity to be a jerk to Annie (shades of Mr Darcy?)

Be warned though, if, like me, you get embarrassed easily and hate technical details in sex scenes, then prepare to cringe. Seriously, do readers really want to know that Annie’s legs end up behind her ears? There are some things I would rather imagine (or not imagine) than be told!

The story was slow to get going, and the early gothic references seemed to be pushing the story in a particular direction. By about the middle of the book, though, the romance was underway, and all of the earlier gothic hints seemed to have been red herrings.

Heroes Are My Weakness was a comfortable, easy read, but I don’t think I’ll remember much about this book in a few weeks time. At any rate, I’m hoping I’ll have forgotten the bits that I don’t want to remember (fifty shades of blush).

 

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The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe by Romain Puertolas

ikeaThe plot of The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe by Romain Puertolas is just as ridiculous as the title, but is very entertaining.

First things first. I didn’t know what a ‘fakir’ was, so off I went to Google to find out. (Any excuse will do, really). There are a number of definitions for fakirs, who, as it turns out, are holy men who perform feats of magic or endurance, or itinerant Hindu wonderworkers. In this novel the main character is an Indian Fakir, Ajatashatru, who is more of a ‘Faker.’

Ajatashatru’s village raised the money to send him to Paris, to buy a bed of nails for himself from Ikea. (I Googled Ikea to check if they sell beds of nails, not that I actually want one, I was just interested, but this product is not actually in their catalogue). Anyway, Ajatashatru arrives in Paris with a fake 100 Euro note, printed on one side only, which he uses to swindle a gypsy taxi driver out of the fare to Ikea, which is funny, since the taxi driver was also attempting to cheat Ajatashatru by taking him to the furthest Ikea in Paris.

When Ajatashatru arrives at Ikea, he learns that the bed of nails he wants is 120 Euros, so he then scams a Frenchwoman in the cafeteria line to get the extra money he needs. Ajatashatru also gets her phone number.

Without enough money to get a hotel room for the night, Ajatashatru decides to make himself comfortable in Ikea overnight. And while we’re on the subject, who amongst us hasn’t imagined being locked in Ikea overnight? Thought so. Me too. I would fill up on Daim bars before making myself comfortable in one of those tiny little homes until I was freed.

Ajatashatru was enjoying his evening in his choice, a dinky little Ikea lounge room, until a group of Ikea employees returned after hours to move the furniture around. As the title suggests, Ajatashatru hid in a wardrobe, and at this point, the story went from ridiculous to ridiculouser. (You can Google ‘ridiculouser’ if you like, but it isn’t a real word. I like it though). When Ajatashatru escapes from the wardrobe, he finds the wardrobe with him in it, in the back of a truck bound for England with a group of illegal Sudanese immigrants. They are all caught entering England and deported to Spain.

At the airport in Barcelona, Ajatashatru runs into the gypsy taxi driver he swindled in Paris, and ends up hiding in another wardrobe to escape him, only to find himself en route to Rome after emerging from the second wardrobe.

And so the story continues, with Ajatashatru randomly travelling around the world. There are serious messages about illegal immigration, and Ajatashatru’s morals do get the better of him eventually, but this book is pure slapstick. I liked the story of The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe, but if farce doesn’t make you laugh, flip through the Ikea catalogue instead. I’m sure you can Google it.

 

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Winter Street by Elin Hilderbrand

winter

After reading just about everything Elin Hilderbrand has published, I’ve become a little bit obsessed by Nantucket, an island off Massachusetts, the setting of Winter Street and other novels by this author.

I’ve Googled the beaches and the lighthouse, checked the weather report and the price of real estate. I’ve even read about Nantucket’s history, and I’ve obviously laughed at Nantucket limericks, (mostly unrepeatable, but very funny).

Winter Street was an enjoyable story which I ended up finishing late last night. Usually I’m fairly rigid about bedtime, as I get up early and work quite long hours, but this author has the ability to make me keep turning the pages, even though I know I will suffer the next day.

Winter Street starts with Kelley Quinn walking in on his second wife, Mitzi, kissing George, a family friend who stays with them in their Nantucket Winter Street Inn every year over the Christmas holiday. It emerges that Mitzi and George have been having a Christmas affair for 12 years, and that Mitzi has already packed her bags, because this year, she and George are making their fling permanent.

Kelley’s adult children from his first marriage also feature in this story. Ava is in love with someone who doesn’t love her, Kevin is seen by his family as a loser and Patrick, the oldest of the Quinn children, is an over-achiever who has a guilty conscience. Kelley and Mitzi also have a son, Bart, who used to be a spoiled brat but is now a soldier in Afghanistan.

Kelley’s first wife, Margaret, the mother of Patrick, Ava and Kevin, has her own story too, and she is much more likeable than Mitzi, (although the reader was never going to be on Mitzi’s side after seeing her kissing George through Kelley’s eyes). But, back to Margaret. Margaret and Kelley’s marriage ended amicably when their children were quite small, when Margaret’s career as a journalist took off.

Elin Hilderbrand has the same quality as all of my favourite authors, which is the ability to make me feel as if I know and like, and in some cases, feel very fond of her characters. Her stories can be a little predictable, but that is allowed, because for me, her books are a comfort read.

Perfect reading for a cold winter night in Melbourne.

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