Saturday, April 28, 2007

some recent reading

I have had a chance to do some lighter reading recently, most notably the first two books in Angie Sage's wonderful Septimus Heap series: Magyk and Flyte.
I read Magyk a couple of weeks ago. I needed something that could help me decompress from a long week and it was just the ticket: a captivating story full of sympathetic characters. I later read Flyte. It isn't quite as good as the first book, but that's to be expected of the second book in a series. I thoroughly enjoyed both books, am looking forward to reading Physik (the third book in the series), and am planning on procuring a copies for my own personal collection (I'd borrowed the books from a friend).

Here's a little passage that struck me as being very apt to my own situation: "Everywhere you looked there were books. On sagging shelves, in boxes, having in bags from the ceiling, propping up the table and stacked up in such precariously high piles that they threatened to collapse at any moment" (Magyk, 21). Things here aren't quite that bad, but we definitely have the same book hoarding problem as the Heaps.

I also read the first three Shopaholic books: Confessions of a Shopaholic, Shopaholic takes Manhattan, and Shopaholic Ties the Knot.
My coworker has been bugging me to read the Shopaholic books for some time. Honestly I was a bit reticent because I know how easy it is to get in debt and the books really seem to trivialize the problem (yes, I know it's chick lit, but a little realism wouldn't hurt... with Becky's spending habits she should be much more in debt than she is in the book).

In any case I finally got around to reading the first few books in the series. They were OK. I actually liked Shopaholic takes Manhattan better than Confessions of a Shopaholic (I'd classify Shopaholic Ties the Knot as more of the same).

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

book clubbing in April

This month my book club discussed The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

I first read The Time Traveler's Wife in late 2005. Here's what I had to say about the book at that time (taken from my BookCrossing journal entry):
What a wonderful book! I was afraid that this might be one of those books that just doesn't live up to the hype, but I was not disappointed.
A love story, an interesting premise, and well-developed, sympathetic characters... what more could you want?
And, honestly, I enjoyed my second reading as much as the first. I really do think that The Time Traveler's Wife is a wonderful book and - come to think of it - I should pick up a copy for my permanent collection.

What was really interesting about our book club meeting today is that we all liked the book and we had a good discussion. For some reason we tend to have much better discussions when we are talking about books we didn't like all that much. We discussed the author and her writing style, how Niffenegger's theory of time travel deviates from the "rules" that govern most time-travel fiction, Henry and Clare as characters and how they acted in certain situations, the implications of Alba's time traveling, and whether or not we found the ending satisfactory among other things. All in all it was a very successful meeting.

Niffenegger is definitely a gifted novelist evidenced by her ability to manage The Time Traveler's Wife's complex plot and present it so seamlessly. I'm very curious to see what her next novel will be like.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Lately it seems that I have taken an unintended break from blogging.
I've been strangely unmotivated. Originally this was due to winter's tenaciousness. Then the weather started to get better, but last week happened. I know it shouldn't affect me more than most other people, but if I wasn't here I would have been there... not that it would have made any difference, but still.

In any case, I'll be back tomorrow with my comments on my book club's April selection. Then, with any luck, the usual reviews and comments will start to trickle out.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Kabul Beauty School

Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

Deborah Rodriguez, known by Kabul shop owners and Michigan prison inmates alike as “Miss Debbie,” first came to Afghanistan in 2002 as part of a group from the Care for All Foundation, a Christian Humanitarian Organization. A hairdresser by trade, Rodriguez is deemed significantly less useful than her medically-trained compatriots and is given any number of odd jobs and a good deal of free time to explore the city. Little did she--or the relief group--realize exactly how desirable her skills might be in that war-torn city.

When the expatriate community discovers a hairdresser in their midst, Rodriguez is swamped with requests. One woman summed up the situation quite succinctly: “We have literally risked our lives for highlights. […] Once I drove ten hours over the Khyber Pass to get my hair done in Pakistan” (39). During Taliban rule, hair salons and their feminine space were banned. In 2002 salons were only just starting to reopen, struggling without the supplies and skills needed to be truly successful.

As she begins to befriend both westerners and Afghans in Kabul, Rodriguez begins to see a niche that she can fill. She returns to Michigan hoping to find a way to open a teaching salon in Kabul. Armed with her dream and a lot of gumption she manages to get $500,000 worth of donations from Paul Mitchell and other large beauty companies. Just when Rodriguez is at a loss as to how to proceed, she discovers Mary MacMakin and her nonprofit, PARSA. Aligning herself with PARSA, she returns to Kabul in Spring 2003 as a founding faculty member of the Kabul Beauty School, eventually becoming its lead instructor and administrator.

While Rodriguez’s story of an American woman helping to make a difference in the lives of Afghan women is not unique, it is both moving and powerful. Kabul Beauty School is compulsively readable. A strong opening chapter illustrates both the struggles of modern Afghan women and Rodriguez’s inimitable blend of brazenness and kindness, leaving readers with a desire to know more about this spunky, resourceful hairdresser and her students.

The stories of Rodriguez’s students fill the pages of this memoir: the wife of a Taliban-aligned opium addict, the bride who must fake virginity, and the young girl sold by her parents to an older man, just to name a few. The author, however, is just as interesting as her students.

One of the things that sets Rodriguez apart is her ability to empathize with her students. Having suffered an abusive husband, she is attuned to the indignities--both large and small--that affect Afghan women every day. Rodriguez is dynamic and personable; more than that, she clearly loves Afghanistan and its people. As she so elegantly puts it, “as soon as I set my foot on this soil, I knew I’d somehow managed to come home. I’ve been renewed by the spirit of this place and roused by its challenges” (269). While Rodriguez maintains both her personality and independence throughout the period covered in this memoir, she becomes ever more a part of the Afghan community, even allowing her friends to arrange a marriage to an Afghan businessman.

The history of the school--and Rodriguez's life in Kabul--is not without drama. The school has political and financial problems. There are cultural misunderstandings, most perpetrated by the clueless, but well-meaning Rodriguez. At the memoir's end, we learn that both the school and affiliated salon have been closed. Nevertheless, the reader is left with a sense of hope: if anyone can turn things around, it is Rodriguez.

The narrative is a bit uneven (for example, the handling of her son’s stay in Afghanistan is cursory, simply tagged onto a story about one of her students). However, that is almost to be expected in a first effort and the natural charisma of the author, and the compelling tale of the school, will be enough to keep readers interested.

Read the review at Front Street Reviews...

Friday, April 06, 2007

I think of you

I think of you by Ahdaf Soueif

Ahdaf Soueif's first fiction offering since The Map of Love, which was shortlisted for the 1999 Man Booker Prize, is actually a repackaging of nine stories originally published between 1983 and 1996.

Set primarily in Egypt and the United Kingdom, each of the stories features a female character. Throughout the collection Soueif focuses on the interior life of her protagonists and the ordering of the stories lends some sense of a progressively maturing voice. The collection, however, does seem a bit uneven. With the first five stories developing two specific characters, the protagonists of final stories seem comparatively inchoate.

The first three stories--"Knowing," "1964," and "Returning"--show three different epochs in the life of Aisha, an Egyptian woman who immigrated to the United Kingdom in her teens. "Mandy" and "Satan" feature Asya, a woman separated from her husband who dealing in different ways with the repercussions of their broken marriage and his philandering.

In the title story, which is arguably the collection's strongest, the unnamed first-person narrator has been hospitalized due to a high-risk pregnancy. With her husband in London unable to get a visa and her family in Cairo, she is alone, the only patient not observing purdah. She survives her hospitalization by invoking an elderly friend, confidante, and role model who died of cancer.

If the stories have a unifying theme it is that of estrangement; estrangement (both emotional and physical) from husbands, as well as from the homeland and the culture of one's childhood. While I think of you lacks the refinement of Soueif's later work it is nevertheless worth reading. Her stories are touching, nostalgic, but never overly so. Soueif's prose is lyrical and this collection is buoyed by her ability to give her readers an extraordinary sense of place.

Read the full review at Armchair Interviews...

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

River Secrets

River Secrets by Shannon Hale

The whole of Bayern is ill at ease when its king and queen decide to send a delegation to Tira, a rival nation that attempted to conquer Bayern the previous year. The losses incurred in that campaign’s final battle, most as the result of a Bayern fire speaker, have only fueled tensions between the two countries. No place is more dangerous for Bayerns to travel than the Tiran capital Ingridan, but King Geric and Queen Isi are convinced that a diplomatic mission is necessary to avert further conflicts. River Secrets is the story of one young Bayern, Razo of the Forest, and his role in securing peace with Tira.

When Captain Talone announces the twenty men selected for the ambassador's guard, Razo is astonished that a substandard soldier like himself has been chosen to be part of the elite group. While he is a member of Bayern’s Own, the king's personal fighting force, he is probably its most incompetent member. Regardless, Razo relishes the chance to be a part of the adventure and to keep an eye on his friend Enna, the fire speaker who puts herself at personal risk by joining the delegation.

Facing pressure from its citizens, the Tiran assembly has agreed to a fall vote on whether to go to war with Bayern, leaving the ambassador only a few months to convince them otherwise. When burned bodies start to appear - seemingly placed to incriminate the Bayern delegation - the group realizes just how impossible their mission is. In addition to convincing the Tiran assembly to vote against war, they must figure out the mystery of the burned bodies without implicating themselves.

The tense political situation between the Tira and Bayern is handled masterfully. Throughout the novel, Hale is able to balance the two competing fantasy cultures, highlighting their differences and similarities, and in the process saying some profound things about both their world and ours. One such profundity comes early in the novel from the mouth of Queen Isi: "It's easy to believe that complete strangers are your enemies" (18).

River Secrets is well-plotted, mixing action, mystery, and romance in just the right combination to perfectly satisfy readers. Hale's writing is lyrical, her characters enchanting. A page-turning adventure, River Secrets is also a touching coming-of-age story. At the beginning of the novel, seventeen-year-old Razo is insecure. Still reeling from the loss of his first love to another man, he can't see beyond his obvious failures to the unique talents that he does possess. It is only when Razo is able to see himself through the eyes of others that he begins to realize his potential. Young adults - especially those going through an awkward phase themselves - will have no problem relating to the novel's endearing protagonist.

Although this book does follow Hale’s The Goose Girl (2003) and Enna Burning (2004) - Razo is a secondary character in those two novels - it does stand alone. While many fantasy enthusiasts will want to immerse themselves in Hale's fully-realized world by reading all three novels, knowledge of the earlier books is not necessary to enjoy River Secrets.

Read the full review on Curled Up Kids...

Monday, April 02, 2007


Happy Buy a Friend a Book Week, everyone!

Celebrate this week and buy a book for someone you love (or someone you just like).