Category Archives: books

Book Review: Siege and Storm (Grisha Trilogy #2) – warning – some minor spoilers

siege and stormSiege and Storm picks up almost immediately right where Shadow and Bone ended in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy. Mal and Alina have escaped the Darkling and crossed the ocean. However, when they are forced to return to Ravka, Alina, more powerful than before, is faced with an overwhelming mission. Will she be able to overcome her self-doubt to fight and defeat an enemy whose power has taken on new and darker forms?

Overall Opinion

I am so glad that this book is a great improvement on the first installment in the series. I enjoyed reading it and seeing the characters grow. And I have to say that the story’s climax and ending is heart-stoppingly spectacular.

Writing

I feel that I enjoyed reading this book much more than Shadow and Bone, and this was partly due to the writing. One of the best examples is the description of the flying ship, which was well-written, reminding us once again that this book is set right at the advent of modern warfare – guns are still primitive, yet developing quickly, and airplanes had yet to be invented. Additionally, the flying ship also lends a bit of believable magic and fun to the novel, and its mere presence makes the character of its creator, Sturmhond, all the more interesting.

Having said that, there were some minor parts where the writing was confusing. For example, in the beginning of the novel, there is a scene in which Alina keeps Mal talking because “she knew when she slept, she would dream.” But on the very same page, we are told that “The dreams were the only place it was safe to use her power now, and she longed for them.” So does she or doesn’t she want her dreams? Another example of writing is the use of foreign words. I didn’t understand the need for words that weren’t the proper names of something within a fantasy novel. The premise is that the setting is a fantasy world, with countries that don’t exist in our world, so why the foreign words? If an author is going to use foreign words, then they should either explain or provide a glossary.

Character Development

Mal: We keep being told (by Alina) that he’s handsome and charming and that everyone loves him, but we see very little of that charm. Instead, for much of the book, we see a primarily sullen, jealous (both of Alina’s power and other men’s interest in her), and somewhat simple character. The short scenes with lighter banter between him and Alina, when they aren’t being jealous or possessive of each other, help to make him slightly more likeable. I only wish there were more scenes like this.

Alina: Let me start by saying that Alina changes throughout this book, which is definitely a good thing. I generally dislike both excessive impetuousness and excessive hesitation in characters. Somehow, in the beginning of the novel, Alina has both these qualities, which, when displayed over and over again become annoying and childish. At this point, her main goal is saving herself and Mal. She has no interest in saving her country. There was a glimmer of hope when she embraced her power and used it confidently. That’s when I thought she was finally a character I could come to love. However, just when you think she’s about to finally step into the role that was meant for her all along, she has to burst your bubble by either doubting herself for the millionth time or by asking stupid questions. ***SPOILER ALERT***An excellent and eternally frustrating example of this is when she is told that as the new commander of the army, she will have guards. Her first question is: “Do I really need guards?” Why? Why must she ask such stupid questions? You’re going to be the commander of an army, facing off an enemy whose power you have yet to understand, but have felt and been defeated by over and over again, and you’re still asking if you need guards?***END OF SPOILER*** I find this trope of a heroine being difficult and contrary just for the sake of being difficult and contrary irritating in YA literature. It is overdone and makes it almost impossible for me to like these characters. However, she slowly but surely starts becoming more serious, more focused, and more confident, and the more she does so, the more I root for her.

Sturmhond: I have to admit that I am officially in love with this character, and so far, he is my all-time favorite in this series (with the Darkling coming in second). ***SPOILER ALERT***One of Sturmhond’s most endearing moments (to me) was when he replied to Mal’s accusation that his proposal to marry Alina with the following: “Did you think you could just carry off one of the most powerful Grisha in the world like some peasant girl you tumbled in a barn? Is that how you think this story ends? I’m trying to keep a country from falling apart, not steal your best girl.” I think I almost cheered at this point.***END OF SPOILER*** Finally, someone takes it upon himself to knock some sense into these two self-absorbed characters. As the story progressed, I often found that he would articulate my exact frustrations with Alina and Mal, and wonder whether the author created him specifically for this purpose. Seriously, the more I get to know about Sturmhond, the more I wish this novel had been about him, rather than Alina and Mal. I hope he shows up in the third book.

Themes

One of the best features of this novel is how deeply it delves into the politics and power dynamics of this world. This gives the book much more gravity and substance than its predecessor, making it a much more satisfying read. Important and universal questions are explored: should we seek to gain dubious, almost infinite, power to destroy evil? Is all power bad?

I am definitely looking forward to reading the third book in this series, and hope that the story keeps getting better.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under books, reading, Readings, Uncategorized

An Interview with Shelina Zahra Janmohamed – Part 2

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed's Love in a Headscarf

The US cover of Shelina's book. It was released in the US October 2010.

Last week I published part 1 of this interview, in which Shelina Zahra Janmohamed talked about her book Love in a Headscarf, why she wrote it, and how it was received.

This week, Janmohamed delves into her own writing process, talks about receiving rejection letters, and offers advice to writers.

M: I want to get deeper into your writing process, how do you balance a full time job with your writing?

Janmohamed: I write because I love it, and because I have something that I want to say. I spend weekends and evenings tapping away, or writing little notes down at odd times (and on very strange scraps of paper) so that when I do find time to write, I have some sparks to kick start me.

M: Do you have any writing routines?

Janmohamed: No. It takes me a while to get into writing something, but once I’ve got going, I tend to write with a passion.

M: Are you part of a critique group? Where do you get feedback on your writing?

Janmohamed: I asked my close friends whose opinions and literary talents I respect to give me feedback on my book. It’s a huge imposition to ask someone to read a book, and not one that I make lightly.

M: What would you say is the single most important lesson you learned when writing (and publishing) Love in a Headscarf?

Janmohamed: Be true to your vision, you are the best supporter that your work can have.

M: Is there anything about writing and/or publishing you know now that you wished you knew when you first started writing LIAH?

Janmohamed: It’s a much harder and slower process than you might imagine. And it’s certainly not lucrative. But the joy of holding your book in print is unimaginable.

M: I know that there are a lot of Muslim women who are interested in writing about their own experiences as a form of self-expression, but may be worried about reactions from their communities and families. What would you say to them?

Janmohamed: The only way to change society is to be brave. If we are not willing to put ourselves out there, then things can never improve. I’d say, have the right intention, ask Allah for guidance, and then start a gentle evolution. Courage is a difficult thing to practice, but we must all try.

M: What advice would you give to beginning writers?

Janmohamed: Ensure that the quality of your writing is the best it can be. When you write, make sure you say something original either in content, or in the way you say it. And make every effort you can to get your work out there. Promotion is your best friend.

M: You wrote LIAH as a memoir rather than a novel. Do you think you are more comfortable writing nonfiction or do you see yourself as writing fiction in the future?

Janmohamed: Non-fiction is a genre that conveys what I want to communicate. However, I veer into creative non-fiction which at times has a storytelling style that is quite like fiction, and has the same qualities to transport you into an alternate domain.

M: Do you mind sharing with us how you found your publisher? From your interview in The Asian Writer, it looks like you didn’t have to deal with rejection letters. How did you decide on which agents and publishers to solicit and which to choose?

Janmohamed: Actually I have a whole folder full of rejection letters from publishers, varying from bog standard photocopies which go out to anyone who has sent in a manuscript, to more personal notes. Eventually I narrowed down my choices to six agents. I met with each of them in turn to understand whether they shared my vision as a writer and also to see if I thought they would do a good job of representing me. I eventually chose Diane Banks – and I haven’t regretted my choice for a moment.

M: And finally, what’s your next writing project?

Janmohamed: Right now I’ve been focusing on writing newspaper and magazine columns, but I definitely plan to write another book in the future – God willing!

Thank you, Shelina, for a fascinating interview.

I hope all of you have enjoyed it as much as I did.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s website: www.spirit21.co.uk

6 Comments

Filed under books, interview, reading, writing, Writing related

An interview with Shelina Zahra Janmohamed – Part 1

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, author of Love in a Headscarf

"My book has been described as a ‘Muslim Bridget Jones,’ and I have mixed feelings about this."

I’d heard a lot about Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s Love in a Headscarf before I read it. It was supposed to be about finding love and a husband, in a chick-lit fashion, but it was also about Divine love. How on earth did she manage that?

Janmohamed is a young British author and commentator who caught the attention of people searching for a Muslim voice through her writings on www.spirit21.co.uk.  A blogger since March 2006, Janmohamed’s writings are intelligent, as well as cool, calm, and collected. Her book has been published in several languages.

As soon as I finished reading Love in a Headscarf (LIAH), I just knew I had to interview Janmohamed. Reading the book, I felt as if I was having lunch with a friend, discussing all the strange, often sad, often mad, and often hilarious situations in our search for love.  Contacting her for an interview, I discovered that she was as friendly and approachable as her book.

This is the first part of my interview with Janmohamed. She discusses her book and how it was received, among other things. In the second part, she discusses writing, gives some advice, and tells us what she’s been up to lately.

M: It’s been more than a year since Love in a Headscarf was published. How do you evaluate it and the reception it received?

Janmohamed: I’ve had a very warm reception to the writing in the book – coverage from all the big national and international media in print, radio and television. I constantly get messages from people all round the world who write to tell me that the book has reached out and touched them, and they’ve been moved to write to me – a response I find very humbling. Most exciting of all is the fact that the book has been published and translated internationally, which says to me that it is reaching across cultures and boundaries.

M: Is there anything that surprised you by how people reacted to the book?

Janmohamed: I’m just delighted that the warmth and humour of the stories has been embraced, and that my motivation in trying to create a new story and a new narrative about Muslim women being empowered, lively and enchanting, is starting to take hold.

M: How did you expect your Buxom Aunties and the mosque Imams to react to the book, and how did they actually react?

Janmohamed: I’ve personally given the book to some younger Imams in the hope they will read it, and use it to understand more about the female experience. I treat both with respect and compassion in my book as I feel they do a difficult but very important job – I hope they get that from my writing. And I hope they realize that my contribution is an optimistic one that will make their work more and more effective.

M: Right now in Egypt, there is a flurry of female writing about the pursuit of “a suitable boy”, and all the comedy and

The UK cover of Love in a Headscarf

The UK cover

tragedy that comes with it. One writer that comes to mind is Ghada Abdel Aal, whose I Want to Get Married has become a tremendous hit, growing from a blog to a book, to a TV mini-series, It’s  been translated into Italian and is now also coming out in English from University of Texas Press.  Do you think that Muslim female writing about courtship and marriage is becoming a trend, and do you think there is an audience for this kind of writing in the West?

Janmohamed: Love and marriage are universal topics, and as human beings we are intrigued by the processes used by other cultures.  I think that’s one of the reasons such stories become so popular. However, the popularity of such works also makes me cautious because whilst they are a good first step towards opening a dialogue about Muslim women, we need to ensure that marriage is not the new one-dimensional definition of women. That’s why I was careful to include deeper insights in my book as to the motivations and development that filled my own story.

M: You’ve said that you wanted to provide the unique experience of a British Asian Muslim woman, but at the same time, I find that there are a lot of shared experiences of Muslim women today all over the world searching for “Mr. Right”, especially since increased travel and globalization have created a lot of hyphenated identities. What do you think is unique about the British Asian Muslim experience?

Janmohamed: Britain has a specific relationship with the Muslim and Eastern world due to its colonial past.  Compared to the Americas also, Britain’s trading, cultural and intellectual relationship with the Muslim world is also much older – we have evidence in the form of coins dating back to the 8th century.  This long history means that many of the Muslims who came to Britain the 20th century already had longstanding links either in their own lives, or through their previous generations. Britain also has an incredibly diverse Muslim population – some says that outside of the hajj it’s the most diverse in the world. These two elements combine together in a very vibrant and lively manner.

M: I’ve read in an interview that you said that you wrote because you “couldn’t find anyone that was expressing a view based on critical thinking and, following the success of the blog, her audience began to suggest she write a book about being a Muslim woman”, and that love was a universal theme, so you brought those two elements (critical thinking and love as a Muslim woman) together. But at the same time, you wrote the book in the tradition of chick-lit memoir. Do you think this choice of genre made some people dismiss the book as being trivial?

Janmohamed: My book has been described as a ‘Muslim Bridget Jones,’ and I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, Bridget Jones really captured a zeitgeist and spoke to something very intimate in many modern women. To be compared to something that is now an entrenched part of popular culture is a great compliment. On the other hand, Love in a Headscarf has many deeper elements about asserting your identity, finding your place in the world, and standing for what you believe in. That these have become secondary is difficult, I admit, but overall the book has had such great success and been so widely published and read that the genre I’ve chosen has served the story very well.

M: As a writer who has chosen to write consciously as a Muslim, how do you see the current scene of Muslim writing? Why do you think there aren’t more Muslims writing their own narratives?

Janmohamed: Gradually more and more Muslims are writing, and I think that’s fantastic. I hope the trend continues.  However, I think part of the problem is confidence and encouragement – writers are still perceived rather dubiously in many parts of the Muslim community. And of course it takes practice to write well, and if you’re not encouraged to write you never gain that practice. The other problem is the gatekeepers to the media and publishing industries don’t ‘get’ the commercial and literary value of such works. I’m afraid the misery-memoir and the political ex-jihadi memoir seem to be the only ones that generally get commissioned.

M: Reading your book, I found a lot of explanations of rituals, traditions, values, concepts that would otherwise be self-explanatory to a Muslim reader. Do you think that this bogs down your writing? And does this mean that you are writing more for a non-Muslim audience than a Muslim one?

Janmohamed: For those who are not familiar with Islam, I wanted to ensure that they weren’t lost in jargon, and also that any assumptions that they brought with them as they came to the book were cleared up. For those more familiar with Islam, I felt it was important to take them through my own journey in Islam, so that they could make sense of my stories and decisions.

Read part 2 here.

Here’s more Janmohamed:

Her website: www.spirit21.co.uk

To read her articles on The Guardian newspaper, click here.

Read more about her:  Sense and Serendipity.

Interview in Marie Claire.

4 Comments

Filed under books, interview, reading, Readings, writers

Denying your creativity can kill you

The War of Art - book coverI’m reading Steven Pressfield‘s excellent little book about writing, how to be a professional writer, what that means, what makes you stop writing (or doing any creative work) and how you can overcome it. I’m almost finished reading The War of Art, but from the very fist chapter, I knew this was a winner. It’s one of those books that make you feel like you have to underline every single sentence.

Let me give you an example. Last night, I read a chapter titled “Life and Death”. This is a chapter I wanted to underline, quote, print out and frame, and shout out from the rooftops. In “Life and Death”, Pressfield discusses how a profound shift takes place in the awareness of a person who finds out that he/she has a terminal illness.

“Things that sixty seconds earlier had seemed all important suddenly appear meaningless, while people and concerns that he had till then dismissed at once take on supreme importance.”

How many times have we heard stories of people who, after being told by their doctors that they have just six months to live, quit their jobs to spend time with their families and do something that takes everyone by surprise?

Tom Laughlin, an actor, lecturer, author, and psychologist who works with the terminally ill, says that this “deadline” makes people start to think about what they’ve always wanted to do in their lives. They start thinking about how they’ve always wanted to play music, or paint, or write, or travel around the world.

The reason this happens, Laughlin says, is that consciousness shifts from the Ego to the Self. As Pressfield puts it, “The world is entirely new, viewed from the Self. At once we discern what’s really important. Superficial concerns fall away, replaced by a deeper, more profoundly grounded perspective.”

So what’s new about that? We all know that, right? Who would continue working in their 9-5 jobs or prefer to spend time in their cubicles or in office meetings when they find out they have six months left? So what’s so amazing that I’m dedicating an entire blog post to this?

According to Pressfield, once people make this mental shift and start pursuing their dreams, they recover from their illnesses.

And Laughlin, as well as Pressfield, ask some crucial questions:

“Is it possible… that the disease itself evolved as a consequence of actions taken (or not taken) in our lives? Could our unlived lives have exacted their vengeance upon us in the form of cancer? And if they did, can we cure ourselves, now, by living these lives out?”

How much negativity exists in our lives when we aren’t doing what we aren’t pursuing our dreams? And how many diseases baffle doctors and researchers, who end up explaining them as being a result of “negative stress”, among other things?

Call me deluded, but this makes a whole lot of sense to me.

What do you think?

6 Comments

Filed under books, life, reading, writing, Writing related

Reading binge makes for a magical week

Last week was magical. I grumbled into the phone when friends called, and snapped at anyone who dared interrupt me. That’s not the magic part, though. You see, I treated myself to a reading binge and discovered not one, two, or three, but four amazing authors. Most of these  novels are not recent publications, and I’ve had them on my Kindle since last year, but never got around to reading them. Here they are in the order I read them.

1. Kate Morton, The Forgotten Garden. With a little bit of The Secret Garden, a lot of going back and forth between three different time periods, and a delightful dose of original fairy tales, this novel bowled me over. What can be more exciting than a forgotten garden, an old book of original fairy tales, and a family mystery?

From the book description:

“Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace – the Victorian authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century – Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of [her recently dead grandmother] Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself.”

One of my favorite quotes:

“Ever since Eliza had discovered the book of fairy tales… she’d understood the power of stories. Their magical ability to refill the wounded part of people.”

2. Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees.  I emerged from between the pages of this book half-wishing I was a beekeeper. Maybe I should put that on my list of “things I wish I can do sometime in my life.” This list includes things like becoming a marine biologist and a wildlife photographer for National Geographic.

From the book description:

“When [Lily’s governess] Rosaleen insults three of the deepest racists in town, [teenage misfit] Lily knows it’s time to spring them both free. They take off in the only direction Lily can think of, toward a town called Tiburon, South Carolina – a name she found on the back of a picture amid the few possessions left by her mother.”

One of my favorite quotes:

“I was wishing I had a story like that one to live inside me with so much loudness you could pick it up on a stethoscope, and not the story I did have about ending my mother’s life and sort of ending my own at the same time.”

3. Kathryn Stockett, The Help. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, this novel reminded me of just how deeply entrenched racism was in the (US) South. Told through the voices of one white woman slowly realizing how little she fits in with her childhood friends and hometown, and two black women working as maids in Jackson, Mississippi, this novel traces the stories of black maids working in the American South in the 1960s.

From the book description:

“Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed. ”

One of my favorite quotes:

“She gave me a lemony smile.”

4. Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible. Told in five different and distinct voices, Kingsolver tells a powerful tale about family, missionaries, and politics. Her novel follows the fates of the wife and four daughters of an American missionary who sends himself and his family to the Belgian Congo to bring Christianity to a small village. Despite the serious subject matter, Kingsolver surprised me by making me laugh out loud at times, with her characters’ observations on situations that are so horrific or pathetic that they become darkly comic.

From the book description:

“[I]t isn’t long before they discover that the tremendous humidity has rendered the [Betty Crocker cake] mixes unusable, their clothes are unsuitable, and they’ve arrived in the middle of political upheaval as the Congolese seek to wrest independence from Belgium. In addition to poisonous snakes, dangerous animals, and the hostility of the villagers to Nathan’s fiery take-no-prisoners brand of Christianity, there are also rebels in the jungle and the threat of war in the air. Could things get any worse?

In fact they can and they do.”

One of my favorite quotes:

“White men tell us: Vote, bantu! They tell us: You do not all have to agree, ce n’est pas nécessaire! If two men vote yes and one says no, the matter is finished. Á bu, even a child can see how that will end. It takes three stones in the fire to hold up the pot. Take one away, leave the other two, and what? The pot will spill into the fire.”

Lesson to be learned from this latest reading binge: If you call me and I answer the phone in a distracted grumble, that probably means you interrupted me while reading and I was too polite to snap at you.

Have you read any good books lately?

5 Comments

Filed under books, reading, Readings

The results are in

I just took the BookBrowse quiz to find out what kind of reader I am. Yes, I know, these quizzes are usually just for fun. But this time, I believe the results:

I’m an “all-rounder”, which means that I fit equally into all four reading personalities. Here’s what BookBrowse has to say about me:

Involved Reader: You don’t just love to read books, you love to read about books. For you, half the fun of reading is the thrill of the chase – discovering new books and authors, and discussing your finds with others. Yes, oh yes! The “thrill of the chase”. Only a true book lover understands that.
Exacting Reader: You love books but you rarely have as much time to read as you’d like – so you’re very particular about the books you choose. Well, I do have much more time than most other people I know, but I am a bit picky.
Serial Reader: Once you discover a favorite writer you tend to stick with him/her through thick and thin. How true! And woe be it if my favorite writers disappoint me! It’s only happened once, and I still haven’t gotten over it.
Eclectic Reader: You read for entertainment but also to expand your mind. You’re open to new ideas and new writers, and are not wedded to a particular genre or limited range of authors. Yes! I love discovering new genres and new authors. I read all types of fiction, narrative nonfiction, poetry, children’s books, and YA novels. I have yet to conquer my extreme reluctance to read sci-fi, though.

And now, over to you. I’m interested to know, what kind of reader are you? Take the BookBrowse quiz here. I don’t think you have to be a member to take it.

5 Comments

Filed under books, readers, reading, Readings

The rights of the reader

I have long admired the illustrations of Quentin Blake. To me, Roald Dahl’s books just would not have been the same without them. So when I found out that he (Blake) had illustrated a poster by Daniel Pennac, with the delicious title of “The Rights of the Reader”, I couldn’t resist.

The rights of the reader (by Daniel Pennac, illustrated by Quentin Blake)

My favorite is #6 (The right to mistake a book for real life.)

And then I discovered that there was an entire book by Daniel Pennac, illustrated by Quentin Blake with the same name, first published in 1992.  Here’s the description of the book: “Drawing on his experiences as a child, a parent, and an inner-city teacher in Paris, the author reflects on the power of story and reminds us of our right to read anything, anywhere, anytime, so long as we are enjoying ourselves. In a new translation with a foreword and illustrations by Quentin Blake, here is a guide to reading unlike any other: fresh, sympathetic, and never didactic, it is a work of literature in its own right.”

My favorite right is #6, of which I am repeatedly and unashamedly guilty. And if I would add another right, it would be #11: the right to not be interrupted while reading.

Download a PDF of the poster here.

And, *ahem*, for anyone who would like to make this reader’s eyes light up with joy and forever win her love and gratitude, you can always buy (me) the book here.

Or, for a cheaper alternative, tell me which right of the reader is your favorite, and if you could add another right for readers, what would it be?

10 Comments

Filed under books, readers, reading