April 2

Marrying Ameera by Roseanne Hawke

9780732291440It has been a long time since a book kept me reading until the wee hours of the morning. But this one did, two nights in a row. I know that Hawke has a talent for helping you see the world through another pair of eyes, but this book was amazing.

Ameera has an Australian mother and a Pakistani father. As she finishes secondary school she is looking forward to university and a bright future. But her father is determined to keep her away from males of all ages until she is safely married. When one night she is caught at a party, her father decides to send her to Pakistan to visit his family. What he doesn’t say is that he has arranged a marriage for her, years ago, and her uncle is under instruction to ensure that the marriage takes place.

This was a brilliant read. Ameera’s story is told with great sympathy and understanding. Yes, while in Australia, she probably makes a few mistakes that trigger the whole story, but then I am not convinced that the father wasn’t going to act before she could go to uni anyway. So she is trapped in a tunnel without hope of escape, forced to proceed deeper into trouble.

Hawke has included a brief comment about the reality behind this story. Even though forced marriages are now illegal in Pakistan, tradition is not overturned by laws. Girls today are still living this nightmare. And I think that is the scariest thing about this book.

May 30

The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith

9781408701058So much of what I read is adventure, mystery, thriller or love story. Sometimes it is nice just to sit back and look at the world through another pair of eyes. This book had been waiting for review for months, and last week I heard a young girl stand up in front of her class and say how much she enjoyed it. Suddenly I realised that I needed to read a lovely gentle story myself.

The plot for any of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books is irrelevant. All the stories, and there are several in each book, are about the wise Mma Precious Ramostswa and her friends and family. Occasionally there is a minor mystery, but mostly she is in the business of helping people. This time she is asked to find discover the identity of an unknown safari guide and inform him of his surprise legacy. When a dear friend suspects her husband is having an affair, she reluctantly investigates, and then her wonderful assistant has trouble with her fiance’s aunt. In 250 pages, all these questions are answered, Mma Ramotswa has a holiday and the reader is left with a warm gentle happy glow.

I have no idea how McCall Smith does it. Whatever he writes has a distinct charm. He manages to hold a reader’s interest by telling simple tales about simple people. In a world of action movies, violent games and adrenaline, his books stand apart. There is no way his books, even about detectives could be considered mysteries in the same genre as so many of the violent serial murders.

McCall Smith is in the habit of producing a new book in this series every year, and I for one am looking forward to his 2011 addition.

January 31

Destination Abudai by Prue Mason

9780143304029OK, my editor is on my back. The new year has begun. I have been reading all summer and now have a box of books and an ebook reader full of books that have been read, but not yet reviewed. I think it is time to get to work.

A few years ago I read and greatly enjoyed Camel Rider by Prue Mason. So when I was offered another book by the same author to review, I eagerly accepted. But now that it is done, I am not sure. I expected an adventure book for kids in years 7 or 8, but instead I got a book about cultural differences. Hmmm.

Jaz is a young Australian boy living with his mother and grandparents. He knows nothing at all about his father, but his family is happy and complete. And Jaz is passionate about karate. His life is centred around family, karate, and school, until he gets a letter from his father. Suddenly he is on a plane for Abudai, enrolled in an Islamic school and expected to live with his father, the Black Prince.

As Jaz tries to fit into the new life where he doesn’t know the rules, things start going wrong. His step-brother is left ‘in charge’ of the household, and that isn’t good news. His grandfather back in Australia is diagnosed with cancer. And his young step-sister has a very active imagination and convinces Jaz that he is in danger. All he wants is to go home!

This is a reasonable book with important themes. In this time of religious tension, any book that helps kids understand those who are ‘different’ is important. But maybe because I was expecting a real page turner and got a family drama, this didn’t capture my interest.

I would love to hear from anybody who disagrees.

May 3

Teatime for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith

Believe it or not this is the first book in the extensive No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series that I have read. I greatly enjoyed a radio play based on the first book, so before commencing this book I did have some idea of the main characters and of course, the white van. Now I wish I had the time to go back and savor the other 9 books.

Precious Ramotswe is having a few problems. First and foremost, her little white van has a very strange knocking noise and she is certain that Mr J L B Matekoni will finally pronounce her beloved car dead once he hears the noise. So for a while she begins to walk to the office, 40 minutes in the hot sun. But very soon her secret is discovered, and a new shiny blue van is bought as a replacement. But somehow she cannot forget her faithful friend of many years.

The second problem is that the owner of the local football (soccer) club has asked her to uncover the traitor on the team that is causing them to lose every week. The team used to be undefeated champions, but now they never win. Surely someone is guilty of match fixing, and he wants to know who it is. But traditional ladies know nothing about football. How on earth is Mma Ramotswe going to know who the culprit is?

And her assistant is no help. Grace Matkusi, who received 98% on her examinations, has doubts about her fiancee. He has just hired a new assistant manager in his furniture store to oversee the beds department. This woman was Grace’s archrival at business school and has most certainly lied about her results. Now it seems that Violet is after more than just Grace’s reputation. This problem requires Mma Matkusi’s undivided attention and there is no time left to help with any other investigation.

But a little willingness to listen to small voices and female logic and ingenuity saves the day. But what about the white van? Tune in next time…

McCall Smith portrays a lovely, peaceful Africa full of gentle people with long traditions. This is so far from the media image of pirates, massacres, and boy soldiers that it seems like a foreign land. I would dearly love to visit his Botswana and even meet Patience and Grace for they are so charming and adorable that I am sure we would be dear friends.

This is not a crime novel. It is book about people and all the things that happen to them in the course of their daily lives. And sometimes people need help. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is there to oblige.

 

May 2

Other People’s Country by Lee Fox

I seem to remember some controversy about this book when it was first released, but with the passage of time all controversy has faded. However, this is certainly a book that will cause the reader to re-examine his/her attitude to modern Aboriginal society.

Lola is very happy when her mother is appointed to a new job, store manager in Wandana a remote Aboriginal community in Central Australia. The new adventure is very exciting until the reality of the job hits. Lola is stunned by the school, shocked by the store and bewildered by the whole society. When the threat of violence forces the family to consider leaving this job long before the contract time is up, Lola is confronted with a difficult decision.

This book pulls no punches when it comes to portraying the poverty and other difficulties faced by Aboriginal people today. However, I didn’t find the portrayal at all sympathetic. In fact I felt that the author was indicating that any possibility of reconciliation between the white and Aboriginal societies is unlikely if not impossible. I felt that the book was very negative.

But then I saw the book listed as recommended reading on an Aboriginal culture website. Go figure…

February 14

The Night of the Mi’raj by Zoe Ferraris

I know. You recently saw this book in your local bookshop, but it was over with the crime fiction. What kind of credibility can I expect if I don’t know a crime novel when I read one.

Well yes, there is a murder. And an investigation. But much like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil the murder only provides a means of telling a much bigger and more important story.

Ferraris sets her novel in modern Saudi Arabia. Nouf a young woman from a wealthy family runs away before her arranged marriage. Najir, desert guide, devout Muslim, and trusted friend of the family, is asked to investigate what happened. It is not long before a body is found and it becomes a murder investigation. 

However, this book is not really about the murder. It is more a look at the way Saudi society works in the modern world. The medical examiner sympathetic to the investigation is a woman, and betrothed to the brother of the missing girl. Najir needs her help, but he is continually forced to cross the boundaries of proper behavior, according to the religious police. For a devout Muslim, this is frightfully difficult, but necessary in order to obtain justice for the poor girl.

In modern writing all too often the Muslim is the bad guy. Every one is obviously an evil terrorist out to destroy all civilisation. Ferraris provides her readers with an alternative view. Most Muslims are simply trying to find their way through the mass of rules and regulations strictly enforced in fundamentalist societies. Her characters are drawn strongly enough that they do not drown under the weight of these laws, and clever enough to find a way to achieve success in spite of them.

An important point of view in today’s world.

 

September 29

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic

Hmmm. A first time novelist. Book set in Bosnia with most of the action taking place in the early 1990s. It should be a serious memoir of one boy’s survival of genocide. Have the publishers got the cover wrong, again? No.

The story begins in 1991 with the death of Aleksander’s beloved grandfather. This grandfather taught the boy that the world could always be better if you used ‘magic’ or your imagination to finish stories. A great deal of this book takes place in the year following this opening and the arrival of the soldiers in 1992. During the time the reader gains a gentle, even whimsical look at the town of Visegard and the people that make the town special. Enter the soldiers. Soon Aleksander and his family escape to Germany, but not before the boy manages to rescue a Muslim girl from certain death.

Jump 10 years. Now a young man, Aleksander wants to return to Visegard to look up some old friends before deciding where he will live and what he will finally do with his life. But Visegard is not the place his imagination ‘finished’ or even the gentle friendly village he remembered. 

I am not really sure how I felt about this book. The tone was very gentle, even naive, totally appropriate for the young boy. And it may well be the only way a child could understand the tragedy invading his life. But there always seemed to be an underlying message that was never revealed. I kept waiting for something more. Even the young man was simply too naive to comprehend what his home town had become.

Sorry, but the events that took place in Serbia and Bosnia in the 90s are too tragic for this trivial treatment. It is a lovely book about childhood, but the setting is wrong.

July 12

Hungry Ghosts by Sally Heinrich

This is another book that I finished when I was a long way from any Internet connection. As a result the review did not get written until now.

Sarah is a young girl from Singapore who is not happy with her parent’s decision to move to Australia. Her father is determined that the family will adapt quickly to Aussie customs, but mother is clinging to her Chinese culture. Sarah is caught in the middle, not happy in either place. But then at the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts, Sarah starts hearing voices. Are the voices real, or is the girl going mad?

In the process of telling this story Heinrich provides a great deal of historical information painlessly. The plight of early Chinese migrants to Australia is beautifully portrayed, and far more sensitively than in the Scholastic My Story series.

My one concern is the inconsistent voice from the Sarah. From the narration the I assumed that she was a young adolescent, facing all kinds of changes in her life, and this was only one more. However the story continually refers to the fact that Sarah is in year 11. I don’t think so.

April 19

Stealing Water by Tim Ecott

Regular readers of this column will know that I rarely read non-fiction. If I want to read for entertainment, then I would far prefer imagination. Stealing Water is different. It’s a memoir of a young English man who truly is a citizen of the world, growing up in the Far East, Africa, and Ireland.

In 1977 the Ecott family moved from a staid middle class existence in Ireland to South Africa. The move was motivated by a continual threat from the IRA, a wish for warmer climate, and what looked to be a grand employment opportunity. All their friends and family left behind pictured the family living well, with a grand house, servants and all manner of luxury. In reality life was quite different. The family was bankrupt within a few months. Father was unemployed, the bailiffs took everything they could find, and the family was living in the streets even stealing water. They all had to survive by their wits, and fortunately Mum could. She started selling their personal possessions, eventually funding a small secondhand shop in the wrong shopping district. But customers could get what they needed there, if it was a thief in need of a fence or even some falsified identity papers, Mum had the contacts to help. Father was an ex SAS soldier who never should have left the Army, but he thought he could make a living as a security advisor, especially in troubled areas of the world.

I found the book fascinating. The stories about Mum are told with sympathy and humour. All the various characters who frequented the shop have their individual charm. And it is important to let the world know that not every white man in South Africa during apartheid was as ‘superior’ as the media would have us all believe.

However, I do have two comments. Firstly, it would be much easier to read this book if the story was told in some kind of chronological order, or even just some logical order. It appears that Ecott wrote the book as the memories popped into his head, one chapter about Mum and the shop, the next about life in Ireland, the next about the first few weeks in South Africa, and then the next about the trip to Malaysia, and then school life in Ireland, then back to Mum in the shop, and then to Dad and the IRA… Are you lost yet? I was. Secondly, the photo on the front cover of the cute boy standing next to a crystal clear inground swimming pool has nothing to do with the story. It may be a family photo, but really ….

April 18

Diego, run! by Deborah Ellis

Deborah Ellis. What an amazing woman! I met her after reading Parvana, and her social conscience just blew me away. Since then she has written books about children in Africa (orphans of the AIDS epidemic) and now she is looking at the exploitation of children in South America.

The story begins with a young man who is actually growing up in a prison. His mother and father have both been imprisoned because a package of cocaine was found taped underneath the bus seat they were sitting in. Diego and his sister are living the the women’s prison with their mother, but visit their father regularly. Diego is old enough to earn a small income running errands for the other prisoners and therefore support his mother.

Then one day one of Diego’s friends hears of an opportunity to earn money, lots of it. He talks Diego into going along with the scheme, and together the two of them end up enslaved and forced to manufacture cocaine. The working conditions are hazardous and once the boys can no longer work, they are killed.

The story ends once Diego has escaped from the work camp, but he is still lost deep in the jungles of Bolivia. Obviously this book is intended to be the first of a series, much like the Parvana series.

Ellis was originally an investigative journalist. As a result her books are all thoroughly researched and graphically accurate. All over the world she has raised awareness of the plight of refugees in her Parvana series. With this series of books she will do the same with the children working as forced labour.

Once again Deborah Ellis has written a book that will challenge young people in a comfortable Western society to consider the lives of children who happened to be born elsewhere.