Tuesday, 3 November 2009


By Julia Kuttner

The Wasted Vigil, by Nadeem Aslam

These books are stories of Afghanistan, ‘The Graveyard of Empires’, full of searing truths and crushed hopes, the inevitable perversion of the truth and beauty of a great religion by those fanatics who invoke its name, and the paranoia and terrible revenge wreaked by a powerful nation under attack.
The wasted vigilThe Wasted Vigil tells the poignant story of a British convert to Islam who has lived in Afghanistan with his muslim wife for decades. Their beloved daughter is forced to flee into hiding after trumped-up charges by the local imam put her life in danger, and thereafter begins the pattern of their lives, times of great beauty, unbearable pain and the savagery and ruthlessness of a war which has no victors. Mr. Aslam’s prose is lyrical and superb; seldom have I read of evil deeds written so beautifully, or delighted in the honeyed imagery of love, atmosphere and landscape that he depicts so well. Horrific and poignant; superlative and full of grace: don’t miss it.

Guantanamo Boy, by Anna Perera – Young Adult fiction

Guantanamo boy

Guantanamo Boy, by Anna Perera is an entirely different kettle of fish, but has the same shock value and quickly engenders within the reader the conviction that the West has no place in Afghanistan, Al-Quaeda notwithstanding. Khaled is a 15 year-old British boy of Pakistani extraction; his parents have lived in Britain for more than 20 years and are solid citizens. He is happy at school, has lots of cool friends and life’s good – until his Dad’s sister becomes ill and his father feels that the whole family should go back for a family visit to Pakistan during the Easter break. Khaled’ s disgusted – what a way to spend Easter! Could he stay home with the next-door neighbor? Naturally, his parents say no, and Khaled is off to meet his fate – capture by the CIA as an El-Quaeda suspect, for being photographed in the wrong place at the wrong time. Despite the fact that he is obviously British, and obviously 15, and the CIA have obviously erred, he is beaten, tortured, then flown to Guantanamo Bay where he is incarcerated for the next two years – by the Good Guys! This book is written as a novel but is based on true events: it is electrifying, unputdownable and horrifying, all the more so because it’s written in a young person’s mindset and deals with unbearable themes. Anna Perera has grasped the nettle here, bravely exposing the injustices perpetrated in the name of Truth, Justice and The American Way. Everyone should read this book.

Lustrum, by Robert Harris

LustrumRobert Harris has long had a well-deserved reputation as a writer of superior thrillers, ‘Fatherland’, Enigma’ and ‘Archangel,’ to name a few: now he turns his attention to Ancient Rome and the Republic, its consular leadership soon to be corrupted and vanquished from within by those men for whom matchless wealth and fame no longer hold excitement: ultimate power is the drug.
The greatest orator and wordsmith of the age, Marcus Tullius Cicero, is the central character in ‘Lustrum’, as he was in the first book ‘Imperium’ which charted his rise to power from relatively humble origins; this book covers a Lustrum, a 5 year period which sees Cicero enjoying his greatest fame and popularity –marred only by a younger, implacably ambitious senator, Gaius Julius Caesar, who matches Cicero in intelligence, oratory, deviousness and cunning – and outclasses him entirely in underhandedness and treachery. This book chronicles the rise of Caesar and ends with the apparent fall of Cicero; it’s as fast-paced and exciting as one of Harris’s thrillers and most satisfyingly, we know from the ending that all is not yet lost for Cicero, that beguiling, silver-tongued player of both ends against the middle – there will be a third book. The plot thickens, and I can think of no more able chronicler than Mr Harris to map out the inevitable course that we know history will take; exciting, terrible times are ahead in the next book, and even though the outcome is assured, his talents are such that it will be like reading these well-worn facts for the very first time, and savouring a marvelous adventure with larger-than-life characters – who really did live, in every sense of the word.

Ordinary Thunderstorms, by William Boyd

Prize-winning author William Boyd has created for readers yet another unforgettable protagonist, climatologist Adam Kindred , on the run and hiding out after being accused of a grisly murder he did not commit, but equally enthralling is Boyd’s portrait of London, that great, sprawling, dirty magnet of a city and its pulsing artery, the Thames, without whose parallel life, traffic and tidal flows the Metropolis – and Adam – would wither and die.
In his attempts to stay hidden from his accusers, Adam discovers a guile and resourcefulness hitherto unknown; he also realizes how very easy it is to disappear completely, and stay gone with some applied common sense and forethought. Against the odds he establishes a new identity – then the tables are turned: it’s time for the pursued to become the pursuer. Vengeance is in the air.
Mr. Boyd has achieved his usual high standard once again; this is a very classy literary thriller with an excellent cast of characters. Highly recommended.


The Night Watch Quartet, by Sergei Lukyanenko

The Night WatchThe Day watchThe Twilight WatchThe Last Watch

Lovers of fantasy (and there are so many of us!) should not go past this series – there’s something in it for everyone; wizards (good and bad), vampires (licenced and otherwise) werewolves, necromancers etc. etc. BUT! It’s set in mainly in Moscow with side trips to Europe and the former satellite states of the old Soviet Union, which increases the novelty factor, and all four books are exceptionally well written, fast-paced, thrilling reads. Absolutely nothing is lost in translation, and though the usual ‘good versus evil’ premise is followed to the letter, Lukyanenko demonstrates that there are still mitigating circumstances and ‘many shades of grey’ to be explored. This is an excellent series and I hope that ‘The Last Watch’ isn’t the last time we shall enjoy the company of these great Russian sorcerers – may they keep on weaving their magic for our enjoyment for years to come.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009


by Julia Kuttner

THE 19TH WIFE, by David Ebershoff

19th wifeBased on historic events, Mr Ebershoff’s novel contains parallel memoirs set 100 years apart, dealing with the Mormon pioneers and their first charismatic leaders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and the disillusionment and fall-out visited by their polygamy on their contemporary descendants.  Ann Eliza Young, Brigham’s ‘19th’ wife, escaped Utah and her husband’s dictatorship in 1873 and thereafter campaigned vigorously through lectures and print to expose the cruel subjugation of ‘plural wifery’.  More than a century later, 
Twenty-year old Jordan Scott, excommunicated and dumped by the side of the road with nothing at the age of  fourteen by his family’s  defiantly polygamous breakaway Mormon sect  returns to Mesadale  in 2006 because his mother – his father’s 19th wife – is in deep trouble:  his father has been shot dead,  his mother has been arrested for the murder and the death penalty still applies in Utah.
Mr. Ebershoff is a very skillful writer;  the action never flags;  his research is painstaking and accurate;  he presents his characters in the fairest light and he has written a fascinating historical page-turner where the murderer is not revealed until the very end.  Which is exactly as it should be! 
Highly recommended.

The earth Hums in B flatTHE EARTH HUMS IN B FLAT, by Mari Strachan

In the 50’s, everyone in 12-year old Gwenni’s Welsh village has secrets to which she wants answers:  the trick is to be super-watchful, a discreet listener and to have the ability to ask the nonchalant but leading questions -  sometimes people will let their guard down enough to satisfy her curiosity as to (1) why her mother seems perpetually irritated by Gwenni’s very presence; (2) why her mother has an intense dislike for Gwenni’s favourite person, her schoolteacher, who is married to the village wastrel, and (3) why, when the wastrel disappears (and everyone says ‘good job!’) her mother appears devastated by this turn of events.
Mari Strachan’s debut novel is a tender and funny evocation of childhood and village life, where no-one had secrets but thought they did.  As with all immensely satisfying stories there is a twist to the tale at the end, and Gwenni, that singular, kind and determined little girl, will remain with the reader long after the book is finished.

WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel

Thomas Cromwell:   Blacksmith, mercenary, international banker, cloth merchant, lawyer, indispensable assistant to the powerful English clergy – and king’s confidante:  at a court full of the powerful and the power-hungry, this layman of uncertain origins came to wield more influence with Henry VIII than all his royal dukes combined. 
It was Cromwell who was the main architect in drafting the Reformation laws separating the English church from Rome, enabling the king to claim the wealth of the catholic monasteries and religious houses as his own, and finally abolishing the need for the Pope’s permission for the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon.  Brilliant, loyal Cromwell engineered for Henry the king’s heart’s desire:  marriage to Anne Boleyn.  
Hilary Mantel recreates admirably  the pomp, intrigue and hypocrisy of the time and the struggles for European dominance by the rulers of France, Spain and England, but most of all she breathes wonderful life into some of the most famous and notorious characters in history:  their stories have been told many times before but seldom so convincingly, or so well.  - And it has just been announced that Ms. Mantel has won the Man Booker Prize for 2009 for Wolf Hall. 
There can be no greater recommendation.

Shanghai girls by Lisa SeeSHANGHAI GIRLS   by Lisa See

Shanghai, the Paris of the East, in 1937 glamorous, notorious and home to Pearl and May Chin, cosseted and pampered daughters of the wealthy owner of a chain of rickshaws.  Life is perfect until their father reveals that he has gambled away the family fortune and has sold the girls into arranged marriages to clear his debts.  Then the Japanese bomb Shanghai and the ignominy of their union to two strangers, Chinese American brothers, pales into insignificance as the sisters fight for their very lives in their attempts to leave their beloved city and travel to the Great Unknown, the Gold Mountain:  America.

Lisa See weaves a fascinating tale of families, natal and adopted, and the inflexible obligations expected of them:   love, respect,and  above all unshakable loyalty to each other in the face of racism and discrimination, both overt and hidden.  She evokes unforgettable images of California in the 40’s and 50’s, liberal and cosmopolitan on one hand;  mortally afraid of Communism and the Yellow Peril on the other.
The story ends inconclusively, which surely indicates a sequel:  One hopes Lisa See has already  embarked on Part 2 – the reader musn’t be left in such suspense!

Tuesday, 4 August 2009


Across the nightingale floorTALES OF THE OTORI  by Lian Hearn

This sweeping fantasy of Medieval Japan covers four books and a prequel, starting with ‘Across the Nightingale Floor’.  15 year old Tomasu is rescued by Shigeru, the charismatic head of the Otori clan after Shigeru’s mortal enemies the Tohan led by Iida Samu raze Thomasu’s village and kill his parents and all the inhabitants because they belong to ‘The Hidden’, a religious sect that preaches love and forgiveness, anathema to the warring Samurai class. 
Shigeru adopts Thomasu as his heir, and sets in motion a chain of events that carry the reader inexorably along until the conclusion of this great saga.  Lian Hearn is a writer of superb talent and imagery and it was very hard to say goodbye to the Otori clan.   Here’s hoping she’s working on her next epic.


All together deadSookie Stackhouse works in a bar in Bon Temps, Louisiana.  It’s a redneck little town with a motley population – including shape-shifters, maenads…and vampires, who have now revealed themselves to the human world, thanks to a synthetic blood derivative, TrueBlood, invented by Japanese scientists which saves vampires from having to feed on their traditional human prey.   Sookie is pretty unusual herself:  she is telepathic, making her a very reluctant reader of whatever people are thinking in her presence – she can’t regard this unique power as a gift – it’s a curse! 
She doesn’t WANT to know what secret thoughts lurk behind peoples’ smiles, and for that very reason, she falls for vampire Bill Compton (y’all thought he’d be called Dracula, didn’t you!), not least because his mind is closed to her:  it’s wonderful to meet a true man of mystery at last.
Charlaine Harris has found a winning formula here, starting with the first book ‘Dead Until Dark’, which documents the start of Sookie’s love affair with Bill; introduces Sookie’s handsome but dim brother Jason, who has a distressingly fatal effect on the women in his life (and they are many);  sets the scene for a raft of fascinating characters both dead and alive, and makes sure that we will never regard The Undead in quite the same way again.  Each book (we are now up to # 9) is tightly plotted, slathered with TrueBlood and gore – and very, very funny.  Now a smash hit TV series starring