Saturday, 31 March 2012

Out of Shadows: Jason Wallace (Zimbabwe)

‘If I stood you in front of a man, pressed a gun into your palm and told you to squeeze the trigger, would you do it?’‘No, sir, no way!’‘What if I then told you we’d gone back in time and his name was Adolf Hitler? Would you do it then?’

Zimbabwe, 1980s. The war is over, independence has been won and Robert Mugabe has come to power offering hope, land and freedom to black Africans. It is the end of the Old Way and the start of a promising new era. For Robert Jacklin, it’s all new: new continent, new country, new school. And very quickly he learns that for some of his classmates, the sound of guns is still loud, and their battles rage on . . . white boys who want their old country back, not this new black African government. Boys like Ivan. Clever, cunning Ivan. For him, there is still one last battle to fight, and he’s taking it right to the very top.

This is a compelling and very well written novel by a highly acclaimed author, which I read in two days flat, a much unusual feat for me.

The preface to this remarkable book consists of the quote listed above, which the young Robert, a pupil at a boys boarding school in the newly independent Zimbabwe is asked shortly after his family's emigration to that land. It is not until the closing chapters of the book that we truly learn the significance of this quote and indeed the question that it poses.

Robert Jacklin, an impressionable thirteen year old, is the lead character in this extraordinary tale that addresses racism cleverly from both angles, black versus white, and the other way around. Robert is the son of idealystic yet highly dysfunctional parents, who have begun a new life in independent Zimbawbwe shortly after the war. Young and naive, and oblivious to the simmering tensions within the country, the young Jacklin initially befriends one of the few black pupils in the school, but desperate to fit in and feel part of the crowd, he soon ditches his black friend in favour of three particularly nasty and racist white boys in order to fit in and protect himself from their jibes.

The worst of these is the highly manipulative Ivan. It is easy to see elements of the Afrikaaner mentality in this character, and to some extent their American equivilant, the KKK. Unlike the KKK, Ivan makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the black pupils, and black Africans in general, in particular the new President, Robert Mugabe, openly using racist jibes and abusing both staff and pupils under the watchful eye of the history teacher, who shares his views.

Jacklin, despite his discomfort with many of the acts of violence and bullying that his three friends carry out, and that he feels obliged to join in with, allows himself to become part of this gang, all the while struggling with his conscience. As his friends become more and more sadistic, Jacklin becomes more and more uncomfortable. He feels powerless to extricate himself from the metaphorical grave that gets deeper each day. One has to feel sorry for Jacklin, feeling isolated and trapped, in a country where he does not belong, with friends that he begins to realise are not friends at all, but violent bullies trapped in a cycle of hatred.   

As Jacklin begins to mature, helped by his fathers remarriage to his former black maid,  he slowly comes to his senses, and starts to step back from the group. It is very much a case however of three steps forward, as he has witnessed the level of violence that these boys are capable of, and is fearful of what they may do to him. When he realises the full extent to which they have gone, killing and maiming innocent black children, and he uncovers a plot to assissinate the President himself, the country's great hope for peace, he realises that he must act.
The closing chapters reach a thrilling cresendo which is thought provoking indeed. The book finishes as it began with that same question - If I stood you in front of a man, pressed a gun into your palm and told you to squeeze the trigger, would you do it?’‘No, sir, no way!’‘What if I then told you we’d gone back in time and his name was Adolf Hitler? Would you do it then?’

If you changed the name Hitler to Mugabe and looked 20 years into the future from the time that this book was set, I wonder if the answer would be the same, and what the outcome may have been. Would history have been any different, or would another dictator have taken his place? Did the sins of the white settlers fathers find them out, and is this a case of what goes around comes around? If so, where if anywhere do you draw the line? The books willingness to explore these issues in a way that is designed to appeal to young adults is what makes this so good a read, and why it deserves all the awards that it got.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

What the Day Owes the Night: Yasmina Khadra (Algeria)

'Darling, this is Younes. Yesterday he was my nephew, today he is our son'

Younes' life is changed forever when his poverty-stricken parents surrender him to the care of his more affluent uncle. Renamed Jonas, he grows up in a colourful colonial Algerian town, and forges a unique friendship with a group of boys, an enduring bond that nothing - not even the Algerian Revolt - will shake. He meets Emilie - a beautiful, beguiling girl who captures the hearts of all who see her - and an epic love story is set in motion.

Time and again Jonas is forced to to choose between two worlds: Algerian or European; past or present; love or loyalty, and finally decide if he will surrender to fate or take control of his own destiny at last.

This is a beauthifully written, highly descriptive book by an exceptionally talented author. Reading this book was like listening to a beautiful song, as the way in which the author writes is almost poetic, with a lyrical quality to the words, and the way that the story unfolds.

Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an officer in the Algerian Army. He adopted a female pseuodnym to avoid military censorship and despite the publication of at least four successful novels (to my extreme annoyance this being the only one to be converted to Kindle), only revealed his true identity a little over a decade ago. 

In an interview with the German radio station SWR1 in 2006, Khadra said “The West interprets the world as it likes. It develops certain theories that fit into its world outlook, but do not always represent the reality." He holds no bars in this book, telling the story of young Jonas and the birth of the nation of Algeria during its struggle for independence exactly no doubt as it was, at least for him.

It was for me, the human interest element that shone through, partcularly Jonas' romance with Emilie and the tragedy that follows. When we first meet Jonas, or Younes as he is then, he is a young Muslim boy, the son of a farmer, but he is forced to leave everything he knows behind when the harvest burns down and follow his family (parents and deaf, mute sister) to the city of Oran, where they end up living in little more than a shack. Life is hard and many tragedies ensue, his father works day and night to make a better life for his family so that they can move out of the shack, but his life savings are stolen by his would be business partner.

It is at this point that his father reluctantly agrees to allow him to live with his Uncle, a successful Pharmacist, and his French Christian wife, and that is when the real tragedy begins, for unable to deal with his grief, the father slips into alcoholism and eventually disappears, a loss that Jonas and his mother, whom he occasionally visits, never quite comes to terms with. Initially bullied at school, as an outsider, he eventaully forms a lasting friendship with three French boys who become his constant companions.

Jonas comes across in some ways as a bit of a vain character, filled with his own self pity as to what has happened to him, it is almost as if he is a bystander, allowing things to happen rather than fully participating in his own fate. There are of course reasons for this, for he is thrown into a difficult situation - torn between two words and constantly forced to choose, Algerian or European, past or present, love or loyalty. By the time he does choose it is almost too late.

His failure to choose leads to the loss of his first love, the beautiful and enigmatic Emilie, daughter of a wealthy French landowner. As a young man, Jonas has an ill advised encounter with Emilie's mother, his first sexual experience. It her intervention when she realises that Jonas has feelings for her daughter that leads him to crush the fledgling romance. By that time Emilie is involved with one of his three best friends, but it is obvious that the two have feelings for each other, which Jonas does his best to ignor. When the friend catches them talking in an intimate way, his relationship with his friend changes forever. Emilie eventually marries another of his three friends, begging Jonas to intervene on the eve of her wedding, as it he that she really loves, but he does not have the courage to do so, as he is torn by his duty towards her mother and the guilt that he feels.

All of this only serves to reinforce how difficult it must be for a Muslim or for that matter, any child of other faith, growing up in a world where the majority are a different faith, in this case, Christian. Coming to terms with the disparities between beliefs, loyaltties and prejudicies. A reccurent thread that runs throughout the book is the guilt that Jonas feels at his relatively comfortable upbringing while his fellow Muslims, including his own lost family, who by that point are fighting for independence, live in abject poverty, facing discrimination on a daily basis from the French occupiers. The treatment that one of his friends meets out to his Muslim servant is truly shocking, and Jonas never can quite bring himself to intervene, in the end though he does learn to help in his own way, when the servant enrolls in the resistance, and Jonas who has by now taken over his Uncle's business, keeps them in medical supplies.

Jonas' friends all of whom are French, and Emilie, her husband having been killed during an arson attack by the resistance, are forced to flee the country during the uprisings, and Jonas becomes almost a recluse, immersing himself in his work.

Despite his weaknesses, I found myself warming to the character of Jonas, for there is much of him that I can recognise in my own youth, where I too allowed life to pass me by, afraid of making choices, or perhaps more accurately the wrong choice. It was this fear that prevented me, and no doubt Jonas too, from making any choice at all.

Despite the sorrow within these pages, the book ends on a high note, with Jonas an old man, having visited his childhood friends in France, and made his peace with not only them, but his long lost love, and also himself. There is much that we can learn from this character and this book, and I shall be badgering both Amazon and his publisher to convert more of this wonderful authors books to the Kindle format, so that I can read them. I would definately give this book five stars.   

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea (Saudi Arabia)

Gamrah’s faith in her new husband is not exactly returned …

Sadeem is a little too willing to please her fiancé …

Michelle is half-American and the wrong class for her boyfriend’s family …

While Lamees works hard with little time for love.

The girls of Riyadh are young, attractive and living by Saudi Arabia’s strict cultural traditions. Well, not quite. In-between sneaking out behind their parents’ backs, dating, shopping, watching American TV and having fun, they’re still trying to be good little Muslim girls. That is, pleasing their families and their men.

But can you be a twenty-first century girl and a Saudi girl?

I first heard about this book during one of many trips to Lundy, a small island in the Bristol Channel, when I read an interview with the author in the Daily Mail. The book sounded fascinating, but this was in the days before Kindles when everything (for me at least) was still bought in shops, so the book was filed in my brain under those that I would like to read, until some vague recollection triggered its memory and a copy was finally ordered several years later.

It was worth the wait, as I can honestly say that this was one of the most eye opening reads of last year (2011). It definately changed my perception of what goes on 'beneath the veil' in the world's only Islamic state, where there is no secular law, only religious.

Having worked for a company whose clients were all Saudi banks back in the early 90's, I had many conversations with our salesman, a regular visitor to Riyadh where the book is set, on the apparent contradictions and blatant hypocrisy in Saudi society, especially when it comes to women, which this book exposes in stark detail. I remember a conversation I had via email with the Indian employee of one of our clients, to the effect that I should not go to Saudi, for women there were like "birds in gilded cages". Having read this book, I have no doubt that he was right. The cage of which he speaks is very much a men's world, where the every single action that a woman takes, even in private, is largely controlled by the attitudes and beliefs of men.       

The book follows the lives of 4 Saudi women, all of whom are very different, but as it turns out, want the same thing (goodness knows why, for if I were a Saudi woman I would remain resolutely single, not that I would probably have a choice) to marry the man of their dreams. How though do you do this, in a society where dating as we would know it is forbidden, and where most marriages are arranged, or at the very least, have to be 'vetted' by the grooms family?

The girls go about their quest in different ways and experience many trials and tribulations along the way. As with all good stories, all bar one end up happy and settled in the end, the rest I will leave you to find out for yourselves ...

Friday, 16 March 2012

Island of Wings: Karin Altenberg (Scotland)

On the ten-hour sailing west from the Hebrides to the islands of St Kilda, everything lies ahead for Lizzie and Neil MacKenzie. Neil is to become the minister to the small community of islanders and Lizzie, his new wife, is pregnant with their first child. Neil's journey is evangelical: a testing and strengthening of his own faith against the old pagan ways of the St Kildans, but it is also a passage to atonement. For Lizzie - bright, beautiful and devoted - this is an adventure, a voyage into the unknown. She is sure only of her loyalty and love for her husband, but everything that happens from now on will challenge all her certainties. As the two adjust to life on an exposed archipelago on the edge of civilization, where the natives live in squalor and subsist on a diet of seabirds, and babies perish mysteriously in their first week, their marriage - and their sanity - is threatened. Is Lizzie a willful temptress drawing him away from his faith? Is Neil's zealous Christianity unhinging into madness? And who, or what, is haunting the moors and cliff-tops? Exquisitely written and profoundly moving, Island of Wings is more than just an account of a marriage in peril - it is also a richly imagined novel about two people struggling to keep their love, and their family, alive in a place of terrible hardship and tumultuous beauty.

I have a long standing fascination with the St Kilda group of islands, having first heard of them during a visit to Shetland in 1988, and having also read Tom Steel's seminal work The Life and Death of St Kilda several times, so when I saw the paperback edition of this book on sale in Waterstones in late 2011, had to buy a copy.

I was not disappointed, as the story fascinated right from the first page. Both Lizzie and Neil are based on real people who actually did exist, and although much has been written about the historial Neil, little is known of his wife. This book aims to redress that imbalance, and like other books that I read that year (2011), is written much more from the female perspective.

I suppose this is what I liked about the story - the idea of this strong woman who supports her man by sailing almost to the other side of the world to live among illiterate farmers whose language she cannot even understand. During her time on the island Lizzie loses several children, and as her husband becomes more and more fervent in his faith, she feels herself gradually losing him too.

This book, although hypothetical and based only loosely on fact is still very well researched. The descriptions of the St Kildan landscape and way of life really bring the story to life, adding much more depth to what could otherwise have been a much less ordinary tale.   

Ancestor Stones: Aminata Forna (Sierra Leone)

Abie follows the arc of a letter from London back to Africa to a coffee plantation that now could be hers if she wants it. Standing among the ruined groves she strains to hear the sound of the past, but the layers of years are too many. Thus begins the gathering of her family's history through the tales of her aunts - four women born to four different wives of a wealthy plantation owner, her grandfather. Asana, Mariama, Hawa and Serah: theirs is the story of a nation, a family and four women's attempts to alter the course of her own destiny.

Having searched for books by authors from this part of Africa, it was inevitable that I would come across this authors work towards the end of 2011, when I tentatively began this challenge. The book was duly added ot my wish list until I noticed that it was the Kindle Daily Deal, which was almost too good to be true, and so I began to read.

This really is a very well written book, full of insights into the lives and experiences of four African women, all related by marriage. The four women are Aunts in the Kholifa family whose wealthy patriarch has no less than eleven wives. Although the country in which the story is set is not explicitly stated, I tended to assume that it was the authors homeland of Sierra Leone, for the descriptions of war that follow seem to follow the same pattern of my own admittedly limited knowledge of this land.

The book starts when the lead character Abie receives a letter from her cousin Alpha requesting that she return to take over the family's coffee plantation. She had left her homeland as a teenager and is now happily living in London, with her husband and children. What follows is a pilgrimage into her own past.

The story focusses on the stories of her four aunts, covering an extended period of time from the late 1920's through to the millennium. The various stories touch on village life, customs and traditions written very much from the female perspective, as seems to be the case with the majority of African books that I have read. As the book was read some months before I wrote this review, it is difficult to remember exact facts or details, except to say that although the book was rather slow to begin with, as the story began to unfold I found myself gently drawn in. Although some of the stories were harrowing, especially the treatment of the younger wives, I was and am no stranger to this type of book, so it did not unduly shock compared to books set in other African, or indeed, Southeast Asian countries. Nevertheless it is clear that Sierra Leone has a chequered history.

It was refreshing indeed to read a book that was so free of pretensions and I will definately try and read more of this authors work.

My Autobiography: Charles Chaplin (England)

Born into a theatrical family, Chaplin's father died of drink while his mother, unable to bear the poverty, suffered from bouts of insanity, Chaplin embarked on a film-making career which won him immeasurable success, as well as intense controversy. His extraordinary autobiography was first published in 1964 and was written almost entirely without reference to documentation - simply as an astonishing feat of memory by a 75 year old man. It is an incomparably vivid reconstruction of a poor London childhood, the music hall and then his prodigious life in the movies.

This was the second time that I have read this book. Being brought up by parents who were a generation older than the norm, I was brought up watching Chaplin movies and so am a huge fan of his work. I bought my mother a copy of the paperback edition of this book as a birthday gift a few years before she died, and found it while clearing out her house, which is when I read it for the first time. I am not sure what happened to that original, but was inspired to download and read it for the second time following a visit to see The Artist.

Considering that this book was written when Chaplin was in his mid 70's (and unlike modern celebrity memoirs, he did indeed write this all himself) it is an astonishing feat of memory. As such it covers the period from his birth to the mid 1950's around the era of Limelight and Monsieur Verdoux, two of his most successful films, and his fall from grace in the United States, where he was accused of being a Communist sympathiser.

It is all in here, from his humble beginnings in Lambeth and Kennington and the grinding poverty that led his mother to repeated bouts of insanity, and his meteoric rise to fame. Despite his reputation as a womaniser, Chaplin is relatively coy about his love life, with little information on his four marriages - mostly it has to be said, to protect the elder of his many children.

Despite his rise to fame and incredible wealth, Chaplin never forgot his beginnings, and the things that matter. The book reveals an astute mind and understanding of what I would term humanist principles.

It is true what they say that films are not made the way they used to be, and I for one would welcome a revival of silent movies and this expressive form of acting and entertaining, where action reigns supreme and the true meaning is lost in words that act as mere symbols for what we feel.

To write a comprehensive review of this book would be a tome in itself, but suffice to say that this is a well written and exceedingly readable book, which makes a refreshing change from the egocentric modern celebrity tell-all memoirs. These so-called celebrities and indeed actors, could learn a lot from this man were he still alive.

The Book of Lies: Mary Horlock (Guernsey)

On this island your friends and your enemies quickly end up the same . . .-1985-When fifteen-year-old Catherine sees her best friend slip from a wild cliff path she vows never to say a word. But Catherine was the last person to see her alive.-1940-Charlie is also holding back a secret from the adults on the island. As German soldiers arrive on Guernsey, he carries out an act of rebellion with consequences that will reach far into the future - and into Catherine's own life.The Book of Lies is a powerful novel about friendship, love and betrayal. Weaving together two lives across the decades, it proves that no truth is as simple as it seems.

This was an excellent book, a first in two ways - my first Kindle read and a first novel for the author Mary Horlock, who was born in Guernsey and moved to the mainland at the age of 18.

The Book of Lies is really two books in one, for it skillfully interweaves the story of teenager Catherine or Cat, and her Uncle, local historian Charles. The book as far as Cat is concerned in set in the mid 1980's, whereas Charles the Uncle tells his story from the mid 60's, looking back to the German occupation of the island, a period of Guernsey history about which few books exist. As both stories unfold, we find snippets of information that link the two tales together, like the fact that Cat's tormentor, her so-called friend Nicolette, lives in the same house where her Uncle Charles was tortured by the German occupiers.

There are other similaries between the two characters, for both Cat and Charles have lost their fathers, and both have done terrible things without meaning to, having been caught up in a web of lies and miscommunication that ultimately costs lives. Like the blurb says, on an island this small your friends and your enemies quickly end up the same. Charles was betrayed by those that he thought were friends, in an effort to try and fit in, as was Cat, who is betrayed by her best friend, Nicolette, the coolest girl in the school.

The authors portrayal of the teenage Cat was for me particularly poignant, as I too was bullied by those that I tried to befriend, like Cat for trying too hard to fit in. Cat's disgust at her friend's clique and the way that she so rapidly lets their friendship go and moves on to the next thing is palpable and so very true to life, as this is the reality for so many teens.

This is one of those books that contains many different layers, and I suppose it is that that makes it so refreshing and so readable. It is a book of history, of dark comedy and the deepest secrets of the soul, it is also a book about truth and dare I say it, the law of cause and effect, for it shows that for every action there is indeed a reaction. Most of all it is as the title says, a book about lies and about how they are always found out. It is however a book that I would wholeheartedly recommend.

The Checkout Girl: Tazeen Ahmad (England)

Tazeen Ahmad is an Indian born British Muslim working as a television reporter and broadcaster and in 2009 published her first book entitled The Checkout Girl. This is an undercover expose of her time spent working on a frontline as a checkout girl (otherwise known as COG - a most fitting term, since these underpaid employees are indeed the COG's that keep everything, and not just the conveyer belt moving) in Sainsbury's. I too worked for Sainsbury's for 2 years between 2003 and 2005, at one of their larger branches in the southeast. Ahmad does not state which branch she worked in, and this does not matter, for the book is really about the people with whom she worked - this is their story, and as the book says, by the time who you have finished reading it, I can guarantee that you won't ever shop in the same way again. I certainly changed my own habits after I started working there, and like Ahmad, am thoroughly glad that I left.

The relentless grind of this job is enough to drag anyone down - contrary to popular opinion it is a skilled job that not everyone can do. One has to perfect the art of doing about ten things at once (this is the main reason why I suspect the majority of COG’s are women, for men are by tradition useless at multi-tasking), all the while engaging with the customer in what Sainsbury's refer to as a 'meaningful manner.' While it is true that if you stay in this job for any length of time, relationships can develop with customers, the majority of this banter is take it from me, far from meaningful, but enough to put most ordinary people to sleep.

As COG's every move you make is monitored, with hidden cameras everywhere. Those at the top instantly know if a COG has short changed customers, accepted an out of date coupon, forgotten someone's cash back, or heaven forbid, spoken back to a rude and argumentative customer, of which there are many. Their rudeness and arrogance is sometimes breath taking, treating you as little more than paid robots, and robots who are not that well paid at that. This is mirrored by the behaviour of the checkout supervisors - like Ahmad I know all about lack of bag packers, wonky chairs, unanswered call bells, and late reliefs. This for me was the greatest bugbear of all - the fact that if you as a COG are even one minute late for your shift, they deduct 15 minutes from your wages, yet if you are late out, which you are almost every day, you are not paid. Sainsbury's (and no doubt other supermarkets too) must be getting hours of unpaid labour from their COG's held captive at their checkouts, every day. Other staff after all, can simply leave the shop floor and go home, but not COG's who are completely at the mercy of late reliefs, forgetful supervisors and customers with huge trolleys who are unable to comprehend that a closing sign means just that.

These things may sound trivial to some, but when they happen repeatedly every single day, they begin to get more than a little wearing. Ahmad worked just 2 days a week, so you can imagine what it was like for me, working full time.

In the end I went stir crazy - I looked around at some of my colleagues who had been there so long that they were afraid to leave, and knew that if I didn't do something to rectify my own situation, I would end up institutionalised just like them. The day I gave my notice was the day they left me sitting on that checkout for over an hour calling to say I needed the toilet - that gave a whole new meaning to the term pissed off I can tell you, and I haven't looked back.

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. I still work in the service sector, but in a job that offers more meaning than sitting at a moving conveyer belt watching food whizz by could ever offer. Reading this book has though made me think back to those days and remember all the reasons why I had to leave, and also I suppose evaluate how far I have come. When I worked at Sainsbury's all those years ago, I would not have dared stand up to the supervisors or the customers in the way that I should have, keeping stum until the anger and frustration boiled over. Not so now. I have learned to communicate properly and with confidence so that these little things do not become larger issues. I am glad that I have changed, and I thank Sainsbury's for the time I spent working there, but I am still glad that I escaped, as most of their customers are too by the time they have finished their shop. It may be stressful for them, but they are the lucky ones for they can take their custom elsewhere, for the COG’s it is not so easy during a recession, when jobs are scarce. Next time you go shopping then, spare a thought for the beleaguered cashier, remember that a few niceties go a long way, and there is no need to be rude, they are after all just like you, only human, and trying to do the best that they can in difficult and very trying circumstances.

The Storm Before the Calm: Neale Donald Walsh (United States)

In October last year (2011), I read a somewhat different book for me entitled The Storm Before the Calm by Neale Donald Walsh. Neale is of course the author of the Conversations with God series of books. I have read most if not all of his works, and met him in person during one of his visits to London several years ago. It has though been a while since I picked up a book of this genre, mostly because so few of them seem to resonate with the way in which I have evolved. This one though is different, as it speaks directly to my soul about so many of the things that I have felt instinctively for so long, but have until now been unable to put into words.

I found the book purely by accident, as one does, browsing online for information about the Occupy movement. Boris Johnson, the Lord Mayor of London. said around the time that I found this book, that it was time for the London protestors to reliniquish their base near St Paul's Cathedral, as they had "made their point". To my mind, the fact that he even said this was proof that he had not begun to understand the point that they were trying to make. That was and is that the world as we know it, or more specifically, our beliefs about the world, are fundamentally flawed and are no longer (if they ever did) serving humanity's best interests. This too is the basic tenet of The Storm Before the Calm.

It is no secret that within the United States (and for that matter the rest of the world at large), 99 percent of the wealth is controlled by 1 percent of the population. Like Neale, I have nothing against the rich (he is after all one of them). I have tasted myself what it felt like, after my mother died and left me a six figure sum (most of it has since been invested and/or spent). No, it is the systems that they represent, which are designed to oppress the masses and keep them in their place, so that the rich can maintain theirs that is the problem. This is not necessarily the fault of the rich, but they nevertheless help to maintain this system and this way of thinking by their inertia and their failure to change.

What is needed, says Neale, is a change from our current way of thinking, from a dyad (two centred approach where politics and economics rule) to a triad where culture, that is to say everything that is not politics or economics, takes centre stage. At the moment we live in a society where economics are King, where the first consideration is always the cost. The first consideration should however be whatever is in the best interests of the population, the majority of whom are ordinary working class citizens. It is then not a a question of redistribution of wealth, but more a question of a change of beliefs, for it is our beliefs about life, and more specifically about God (the terms life and God are in fact interchangeable, as God is life manifesting itself through us) that create our thoughts, and those thoughts that give rise to action.

The way to create this change says Neale, and I am inclined to agree, is to start a global conversation based around seven core questions - the most fundamental of which are 1) Who am I, 2) Where am I, 3) What do I intend to do about that. The answers will be personal to each and every one of us, and we have to find out for ourselves what they are to us, by putting the mind to one side, and seeing what lies in the silence that lies beyond. This takes practise and patience, but the rewards are more than worth it, but once we are able to achieve this and put this into practise, a global shift will occur, the like of which we have never seen before. All it takes for us to achieve this is to converse with others on the matters mentioned in this most remarkable book. This can be done in any way and in any form that you choose with anyone that you choose, whether in person or on the Internet. I would encourage everyone to try. It is easier than you might think, and what have you got to lose? You may be surprised to find that others have been thinking and feeling the exact same as you, without you even being aware, for that is usually what happens. Someone has to start somewhere, so it might as well be you.

For more information, and to join the discussions go to

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Between Shades of Grey: Ruta Sepetys (Lithuania)

One night fifteen-year-old Lina, her mother and young brother are hauled from their home by Soviet guards, thrown into cattle cars and sent away. They are being deported to Siberia.

An unimaginable and harrowing journey has begun. Lina doesn't know if she'll ever see her father or her friends again. But she refuses to give up hope. Lina hopes for her family. For her country.
For her future. For love - first love, with the boy she barely knows but knows she does not want to lose . . . Will hope keep Lina alive?

Set in 1941, Between Shades of Gray is an extraordinary and haunting story based on first-hand family accounts and memories from survivors.

There are many books that detail the horror of what happened in WW2, but very few about the effect that the formation of the Soviet Union had on the inhabitants of the former (now independent again) Baltic states. This is one of those books that tells the story of what happened to the inhabitants of Lithuania.

It details the story of a 15 year old Lithuanian girl, Lina, and her family, whose ordinary life is shattered the day that she is dragged, together with her family from her home by the Soviet Secret Police, and transported hundreds of miles by train, to the icy wastes of Siberia to live and work in a Soviet labour camp. As with the Jewish concentration camps, these ordinary people, thrown together by fate, form strong friendships and bonds that help them to survive against incredible odds. Throughout her ordeal, Lina, who is an artist, finds the opportunity to draw whenever she can, using whatever materials she can find, in order to record the people and the places that she encounters. This is no doubt one of the things that helps her to keep her sanity and survive.    

This is a tale of hardship and deprivation, of  sadness and of man's hostily towards his fellow man (and of course woman), but most of all it is a book about survival and a book about friendship and resilence and of how the human spirit ultimately always wins through.

The author is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee who lives in the US. She wanted to tell this story, the story of her ancestors, for some of it is based on the first hand accounts of survivors, so that more would be aware of the history of these Baltic states and what their people went through.

It would be misleading to say that this was a book that I enjoyed, for it is hard to enjoy tales of others suffering, but it is a book from which I learnt a lot, and is therefore a book that I would strongly recommend.

Strength in What Remains: Tracy Kidder (Burundi)

I read some interesting books during the latter part of last year (2011), from various countries in Africa and South-east Asia, but the one that stands out more than any other was set in the impoverished central African counnty of Burundi. The book, entitled Strength in What Remains is written by an American named Tracy Kidder, and tells the true story of a survivor of the genocide that took place in that small African country in 1993. It really made me think and question many of the things that we take for granted and which are in the scheme of life, frivulous and really quite insignificant.

As an example, at the beginning of December, around the time that I read this book, I attended my work Christmas party. It was a lavish do with disco and three course meal at nearby Epsom Racecourse, in which all the staff dressed up. I was fretting over what to wear, so that I did not look frumpy, and also moaned about the standard of the vegetarian food that I was served, which when compared to the carnivorous option, was far less substantial. Yet Burindians, and for that matter, those in many other countries, cannot afford even basic clothes and have no idea as to where their next meal is coming from. The amount of money that was spent that night by some people was akin to more than most Burundians make in a whole year.

The book quotes some frightening statistics - Burundi has the lowest GDP per head of population than any other country on earth with one of the lowest literacy rates and life expectancy, particularly for women, who due to the high infant mortality rate go through pregnancy after pregnancy getting old and worn out way before their time.

The things that the main character in this book saw and experienced cannot begin to be imagined - the book describes a scene where he was fleeing from his own country into neighbouring Rwanda.  He was sheltering in a banana grove surrounded by dead bodies. It was there that he noticed a live baby trying to suckle it's dead mothers breast. He knew that there was nothing whatsoever that he could for this child and it too would die, a victim of those intent on killing those that they felt were different to them.

The whole experience of that Christmas party, dressing up to try and impress, making polite conversation with the boss and keeping up a pretence that I was enjoying myself left me wondering why we do it - why do we do things that we know make us uncomfortable in an effort to try and fit in? I prefer a quieter, calmer environment, where I can hear the conversation without having to strain, not glamour, flashing lights and falsehood. Real strength, like the character in this book, comes from being willing to face your demons and work with them, not by blotting them out with distractions, which for me at least, is what events like this are all about.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Drums on the Night Air: Veronica Cecil (Congo)

Veronica Cecil was twenty-five years old when her husband was offered a job at a large multi-national company in the Congo. Filled with enthusiasm for their new life, the couple and their eleven-month-old son set off for an African adventure. Very soon, however, Veronica began to realise that life in the Congo was not what she had imagined. Food shortages were an everyday occurrence; she felt like an outsider at the club in Léopoldville, which only the Belgians and other expats frequented; and flickers of violence were starting to erupt everywhere. Six months later Veronica and her family were sent to Elizabetha, a remote palm oil plantation on the banks of the Congo River. But even here paradise didn't last. Civil war broke out, and the rebels captured the neighbouring town of Stanleyville and took all the whites hostage. Despite the fact that Veronica was on the verge of giving birth, the situation was so dangerous that she and her toddler had to be evacuated. Leaving her husband and all their possessions behind, she and her son began on a two-day journey through the jungle. But on the plane back to Leopoldville, the first labour pains began...

I bought this book at the beginning of the year, as part of the 12 Days of Kindle campaign, but for some reason, put off reading until now. I am not sure why that was; maybe it because so many other different books vied for my attention that seemed more interesting, but whatever the reason, I found that I was pleasantly surprised when I did begin to read.

I had been expecting a somewhat lame tale about expats living in Africa and the difficulties of having to face all that poverty, but in fact I found the opposite. The author who was born in British India, and lived in both South Africa and what was then Rhodesia, was no stranger to Africa or its problems, but was in fact for her day somewhat of a revolutionary and champion of civil rights. Everything of course changed with motherhood, and this revolutionary young woman was transformed into loyal wife and mother whose role was to support her husband and keep home. This is not to say that she did not have a mind of her own, but back then, in the early 1960's things were different and women's roles were also different. For those who did not live through, or like me, were not born into that era, it would be difficult to understand.

She found the life of a expatriate wife in the capital Leopoldville dull and frustratingly cliquey, and longed to see the real Congo, but when her chance finally came, it was short lived, for within five short months everything changed, and both she and her family were forced to flee back to the safety of Leopoldville and ultimately home. The trouble was that at the time, the author was not just heavily pregnant, but about to drop. The pains started on the way back to Leopoldville, and after several false starts, her daughter was finally born.

Being written, as it is from the woman's point of view, this book is more likely to appeal to women, I hate to say it, of a certain age, who were either born into or part of the era of which she speaks. Mrs Cecil was obviously a strong and a courageous woman, that much is clear, for not many would have had the guts to endure what she did, but then again, when your children's lives are at risk, you will go to extraordinary lengths.

Overall this was a enjoyable short read, to which I would probably give an average rating.

Hypothermia: Arnaldur Indridason (Iceland)

One cold autumn night, a woman is found hanging from a beam at her holiday cottage. At first sight, it appears like a straightforward case of suicide; María had never recovered from the death of her mother two years previously and she had a history of depression. But then the friend who found her body approaches Detective Erlendur with a tape of a séance that María attended before her death and his curiosity is aroused…Driven by a need to find answers, Erlendur begins an unofficial investigation into María’s death. But he is also haunted by another unsolved mystery – the disappearance of two young people thirty years ago – and by his own quest to find the body of his brother, who died in a blizzard when he was a boy. Hypothermia is Indridason’s most compelling novel yet.

This is the latest installment in the so-called Reykjavik murder mysteries series featuring detective Erlendur and his team. I have read all the previous ones and enjoyed them each tremendously, getting to know the characters as they slowly unfold. For me, it is definite boon to read a book that is set in a familar location, and Iceland to me is very familiar indeed. I have visited five times now and got to know the country reasonably well - both city and country. Reading about places that you are familar with, and understanding the Icelandic pysche as I do adds more depth to the story, and for me at least, makes these books a much more interesting read as I can relate to the characters that much more.

Each book in the series has then for me, been successively better than the last, and this one I am pleased to say was no exception. As the preview says, a  woman whose mother has recently died, and who has a history of depression, is found hanging in her holiday cottage. The friend who found the body hands Erlendur a tape of the deceased speaking to a medium and so a chain reaction of events is set in motion that leads Erlendur to undertake some unofficial investigations of his own. These investigations ultimately lead him to realise that this apparent suicide is not necessary what it seems, and in the process, he also manages to solve some other unrelated crimes.

I won't go into too much detail as to exactly what does happen, for it will only ruin it for those who wish to read it for themselves. Suffice to say that the woman's home life is not what it seems, and her apparently grieving and supportive husband is harbouring secrets of his own, secrets of a misspent youth that lead Erlendur to uncover a darker, more sinister crime.

Interwoven are snippets about Erlendur's own life, and his troubled relationship with his ex wife and their two children, particularly his daughter, who is recovering drug addict. As in all good stories, Erlendur has secrets of his own, and as this series has progressed, we have got to know the man himself and what makes him the introverted and somewhat dark character that he is - not unlike the majority of Icelanders that I have known, who too have their dark side.

I guess you would have to know a little about Iceland to get the most from these books, but if you have no previous knowledge of the country, then these are an excellent way of helping you to understand what makes the Icelandic people tick.

This is the sixth out of seven installments that have so far been published, and I will miss Erlendur when I read the final book. I hope that many more will be written, but I guess I will have to wait and see.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Chronicle in Stone: Ismail Kadare (Albania)

In a seamless mosaic of dreams and games, Kadare's young narrator both reflects and distorts events as his ancient, magical home town and his own innocence and sense of wonder are lost forever in the madness and brutality of the Second WORLD War. A disturbing mix of tragedy, comedy, politics and sexuality, Chronicle in Stone is a fascinating early masterpiece from the winner of the inaugural Man Booker International Prize.

Ismail Kadare was born in 1936 in Gjirokaster, southern Albania, the same town in which this book is apparently set. He studied in Albania's capital Tirana, and Moscow, returning to his homeland in 1960 after the country broke ties with the Soviet Union.

I found this to be a beautiful and eloquently written book, based on a childs perceptions of war - the outbreak of WW2. The age of the child is unspecified, but one wonders whether this book is at least autobiographical, given the age of the author and the fact that it is apparently set in his hometown. The child, whomever and however old he is, has a vivid imagination, seeing images in raindrops and imagining that the echo from the cistern is an actual voice and therefore consciousness, answering hin back.

Life is not easy for this child, as he grows up in one of Europe's most superstitious countries, steeped in tradition, where any form of moral transgression is severely frowned upon - the men as they say are men, and the women, women, who have to know their place. When the boy pays a visit to the local slaughterhouse, he tries to imagine what the slaughter of a nation would look like, and sadly it is not too long before he begins to find out.

The first sign that anything is amiss is when an aerodrome begins to be built. The narrator is excited by this event, imagining the planes with their own personalities, just like people, but the adults around him recognise that this is the first sign of war. Then the blackouts begin, with his house, or rather the cellar, turned into an air raid shelter, where half the villagers, or so it seems, seek refuge. As the air raids intensify, the villagers begin to share their stories, one by one, and we learn what makes these people tick.        

The city oscillates between Italian, Greek and German control, with each vying among themselves as the most hated occupier. The young of the village, including one of the boys own relatives, begin to join the Partisans (Resistance), but the old among them (mostly women) fear that the young girls will bring shame on their families by mixing so freely with unmarried men. Some are invetitably caught and brought back, but then the Commander of the Garrison is assasinated and the trouble really begins, with executions and all sorts of reprisals, until the Partisans begin to fight and kill each other. When the Italians eventually leave, the Communist Partisans pour in, carrying out what they term as `revolutionary justice', but then the Germans come, following the mass exodus of most of the population into the surrounding mountainous villages. Only a few old women, whom the author refers to as "crones" remain, with a few other brave or foolhardy souls.

From their mountain refuge, their hear the gun fire and see their city in flames, until all goes silent and they eventually return to find the city burnt out and bodies swinging from lamp posts, lynched as traitors and informers. The war is not yet over, but at this point, the book is, with one wondering what happens next.

To sum up then, this is an excellent book, written by one who can justifably be called Albania's national author, it may not tell you everything about that small country, which remains as Europe's last bastion of Communism, but it goes a long way to helping one to understand the Albanian soul.