Sunday, 1 June 2014

LAST GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2014

The Blind Man’s Garden, by Nadeem Aslam

October, 2001.  In New York the Twin Towers have fallen and a grieving and outraged America has declared War on Terror.  It is believed that Afghanistan is the hiding place of the mastermind behind this ultimate atrocity, Osama bin Laden and  El Qaeda: therefore it must be invaded and America’s enemies destroyed.
Nearby Pakistan is the West’s reluctant ally;  it is their duty to give assistance and safe passage to American troops, a fact not easily accepted by its population – many Pakistanis regard America’s invasion of Afghanistan as a deadly affront to that country’s sovereignty and, filled with patriotic zeal hundreds of young men flock across the border to fight with their Afghani brothers against the Western invader.
One such idealist is Jeo, a young medical student, a peace loving soul who doesn’t want to fight but to use his skills to heal.  He is the son of Rohan, a pious Muslim schoolteacher, a man crippled by grief and remorse since the death of his wife after the birth of Jeo.  Jeo keeps secret from his father his forthcoming journey to the fighting;  he has not told Naheed his wife of twelve months, either – but he does confide in his foster brother Mikal, and Mikal is so uneasy for his friend that he decides to go too.  Jeo needs a protector.
Sadly, Jeo needs not only a protector, but a miracle:  his naïveté costs him his life as he and Mikal are betrayed by the Taliban and Mikal is sold by a warlord to the Americans as a spy and subjected to terrible interrogations in their efforts to milk him of Al Qaeda secrets he does not possess.
Against terrible odds, Mikal returns home to Rohan and Naheed to find the family on the brink of more tragedy:  Rohan’s sight is disappearing, exacerbated by an act of great cruelty that he endured as atonement for a perceived sin he committed many years ago;  and Naheed, Jeo’s wife whom Mikal has loved from afar for years, is to be married off again by her mother now that she is a widow.
Stated so baldly, Mr Aslam’s superb narrative sounds like a journey through the Vale of Tears but his talent is such that the reader is wooed on every page by beautiful imagery;  honeyed and gorgeous prose to tell a brutal story of misunderstanding, bigotry and treachery – and on another level, the human kindness and piety imbued by a great religion onto its most humble adherents.
The horrors of war, too, are summed up thus:  ‘The opposite of war is not peace but civilisation, and civilisation is purchased with violence and cold-blooded murder.  With war.’
But Mr Aslam always returns the reader to the blind man’s garden;  that oasis of beauty and calm that Rohan started so many years ago when his marriage was new and future happiness seemed assured:  the garden lives on, a metaphor for hope, giving freely of its beautiful fruits and perfumes and offering succour to all those with aching and wounded hearts.
This is a beautiful book.  Highly recommended.


GREAT TEEN FICTION IN YOUR LIBRARY.

Cress, by Marissa Meyer

Book Three of the Lunar Chronicles is here, and this is the first time I have felt that Ms Meyer’s excellent futuristic version of our old fairy tales has missed the mark – not by much;  it’s just that in this book the current protagonist, Cress, is a bit of a wimp compared to Cinder and Scarlet (see earlier reviews below).  That is hardly surprising when one considers that Cress has been marooned on a satellite orbiting earth for eleven years, at the mercy of a wicked Lunar thaumaturge (evil witch) called Sybil who visits her periodically to collect intelligence info that Cress gathers (she is an excellent hacker) – and blood samples, also from Cress. (And what might they be for, we wonder.) 
Cress’s hair has grown into great ropes;  she has no contact with anyone other than horrid Sybil and amuses herself by hacking into all the drama shows and singing along to Grand Opera - as anyone would to alleviate the boredom:  it is clear that we have Rapunzel trapped in her satellite instead of a tower.  Who will come to rescue her?
Cinder, Scarlet, Wolf and Thorne, that’s who, after she gives them vital information to prevent the capture of their spaceship in exchange for her rescue, but the mission goes wrong:  Scarlet is captured and sent to Luna by nasty Sybil;  Wolf is badly wounded trying to save Scarlet;  Cinder escapes with Wolf, but Thorne and Cress are trapped aboard the satellite as it crashes towards earth, programmed to burn up as soon as it enters our atmosphere.
All this should have been heart-in-the-mouth action, but the air went out of the plot’s sails as gently as the release of the satellite parachute, enabling everything (including the plot) to slow down sufficiently so that Cress and Thorne could make landfall – in the Sahara Desert. 
It takes several chapters for a head of steam to develop again, each character having a turn under the spotlight before a daring kidnap takes place:  the abduction of Commonwealth Emperor Kaito by Cinder on the eve of his wedding to wicked Lunar Queen Levana.  Cinder has recently discovered her own true identity, and the fact that she wasn’t always a lowly Cyborg has filled her with new purpose:  instead of waiting for Levana to mount her offensive to destroy the earth, Cinder will take the fight to Levana. 
It is time to start the revolution, and Cinder will be its kick ass leader, so put that in your pot and glamour it, Levana!
Now if Ms Meyer can only keep up the momentum (no mean feat) ‘Winter,’ book four and the last of The Lunar Chronicles, will be a fitting finale to 
a great series.  Highly recommended.

Scarlet, by Marissa Meyer.

It has been a while since I reviewed any teen or children’s fiction available in our library, but the librarians have recently given me some great titles that ably demonstrate the wealth of writing talent catering to young readers, ensuring by their excellent stories that the wonderful pastime of reading will continue into adult life.
Such a story is ‘Scarlet’, Ms Meyer’s sequel to ‘Cinder’, her fabulous futuristic version of ‘Cinderella’.  (Reviewed May, 2012, see below).  ‘Cinder’ was so good that this reader found it a real chore to have to wait for Book two – and I’m grinding my teeth to think that Book three won’t be released until next year:  couldn’t Ms Meyer speed things up a bit?
Anyway:
Cinder is in prison, after her capture at the Prince’s ball – instead of leaving a slipper behind, she leaves her Cyborg foot!  How’s that for a variation on the old tale?  A?  A?  Sadly, the loss of her foot means that she was an easy catch and is now disabled in her cell – until a secret visit from professor Erland, a research scientist:  he provides her with a new state-of-the-art hand and a top-of-the-range foot, enabling her to engineer (she’s a mechanic, remember) a daring escape from jail.  And guess who he is?  Yep, Ms Meyer’s version of Cinderella’s fairy Godmother. 
She also takes with her another prisoner, Thorne, because he has a stolen spaceship hidden in a warehouse, and on their travels they link up with Scarlet Benoit, who has been looking for her beloved grandmother, kidnapped by a gang of wolves.  Scarlet wears a red hoody, has a nasty temper and a reluctant attraction to a street fighter called – Wolf.  Now.  Who do you think she could be?  And guess what happens to poor old Grandma imprisoned by the wolf gang in the bowels of the Paris Opera House, derelict and in ruins since the Fourth World War? (the Opera House, not Grandma)  Nothing good, that’s for sure.
As before, Ms Meyer has her readers in an iron grip and doesn’t relinquish them until the very last page:  once again, the reader is screaming ‘but what happens NEXT!  And once again, we’ll just have to wait and see.  I’m sure all this suspense is hell on the digestion, but I’ll just have to tough it out.  This is a great series.
   
Cinder, by Marissa Meyer (Young adult reading)

Our Children’s librarian recommended this book to me and as she’s seldom wrong in her reading choices, I’m happy to give this the ravingest (ravingest??) endorsement possible:  WHAT A STORY! 
The tale of Cinderella – yep, Cinderella, her nasty stepmum and the two stepsisters – is transferred hundreds of years into the future.  Cinderella is now Cinder, living in New Beijing with a family who are, to say the least, most reluctant guardians.  She is a mechanic (truly!) and a Cyborg, to her shame, having been fitted out with a steel hand, leg and inbuilt computer screen after a terrible childhood accident.  Cyborgs are the future’s Untouchables, considered fit only to perform the most menial and degrading of tasks, but Cinder is such a good mechanic that a Royal prince visits her to have his tutor android repaired, and after that visit she and the reader are lost:  she to alien romantic impulses (she is not programmed for this!) and a reluctant involvement in a life and death experiment -  and the reader to being nailed to one spot until they have reached the last page.

To add insult to injury, the hapless reader finds that after a thrilling journey at a breakneck pace through more clever plot twists than a pretzel, there are three more books to come – and they haven’t been written yet!  To say I feel cheated is an understatement and the withdrawal symptoms are dire, but I also say with complete confidence that ‘Cinder’ will be the next big Blockbuster book/movie series:  you read it here first.  

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