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 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, 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
Robert 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.
OLDIES BUT GOODIES !
The Night Watch Quartet, by Sergei Lukyanenko
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.