The Crying Tree by Naseem Rakha

Shep Stanley is murdered when he is just fifteen years old, leaving his mother, Irene, bereft of the will to live. Disjointed and unable to connect with the world around her, she becomes a stranger to her family and friends, moving through life but never really feeling anything.

Filled with an all-consuming hate for her sons killer, Daniel Robbin, her days are consumed with dreams of retribution. Weeks, months, years spent fantasising about justice and the day he will be sentenced to death.

But after years of bitter loathing Irene begins to realise that she cannot go on living on the sustenance of hate. It’s forgive or die and so she digs deep into her heart and somehow finds the strength to forgive the boy who stole her son’s life.

Irene writes to Daniel informing him of her forgiveness, Irene has no idea that they will embark on a ten-year relationship, never meeting, but writing back and forth to one another for years.

When ten years later his warrant for execution is finally passed, Irene is once again lost. How can she stand to lose someone else?

The novel reaches a fever pitch as the date for Daniel’s death looms closer and Irene’s family learn the truth about her desperation to save Daniel. I found myself tearing through the pages desperate to see if he would be saved, all the while unsure if I really thought he should be.

I love books that challenge my ideas and force me to re-evaluate my opinions. The Crying Tree is the master of this and below my fascination to find out Daniels fate, lay deeper and more complex musings.

I’d always had rather abstract feelings about the death penalty, it’s not a concept that I relish, but in some extreme cases I will confess to assuming it could be apt.

But the wonderful thing about Rahka’s writing is the way she really forces her readers to rethink everything they’ve ever thought about an issue. As I read on, a light was lit on my own ignorance, here I was condoning people and making claims about my own capacity for forgiveness, when really I had never given enough thought to the idea of corporal punishment or what true forgiveness is.

Rakha gives humanity and life to Daniel Robbin, revelling a man with a past, feelings and the capacity for love and sorrow. Whilst the rest of the rest world continue to perceive him as a cold-blooded murder, Irene begins to see him as a young man who made a huge mistake.

Nothing is simple or as it seems in this moving and beautiful story. Rakha writes with a gentle, melancholy tone, never rushing her story or bogging it down with overly dramatised events. Instead she allows a very human and in turn real story to blossom. There is something harrowing in the journey Irene must take and I felt humbled by her actions.

I wish there were more books like this, one’s that hold my attention and compel me to read on, all the while changing the way I see the world.

Has anyone else read The Crying Tree, if so did you enjoy it? Did it force you to rethink your idea’s? Or did the novel fail to stir your emotions? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Q by Evan Mandery

When I first heard the premise for Q I was torn, a story about an unnamed writer who is visited by his future self and told not to marry the love of his life sounded in equal measures fascinating and worryingly corny.

Fifty pages in and my feelings were edging towards disappointment, I’d failed to connect or emphasise with Mandery’s story. The whole book seemed overly detailed and spoilt by serious bouts of procrastination from the writer. But just when I was thinking of throwing in the towel the story progressed and my interest was slowly piqued.

I began to forgive Mandery for his frequently frustrating writing and instead started to realise that this was more than just your average love story. When our hero is visited by a future self telling him not to marry Q he is off course perturbed and naturally reluctant, he loves her dearly and can’t imagine being with anyone else. But then this future self knows him better that anyone, surely his advice trumps anything else?

And so he acts upon these instructions, only to be visited soon after by another version of himself who tells him he should marry another woman. But then a few months later he his visited by yet another future self who tells him he should not now marry this women. And so the story progresses in this vain.

Off course he is exasperated, he has faithfully followed the advice of his older self, only to receive contradictory instructions further down the line.

I’m sure every reader would interpret this book differently, but to me Mandery seemed to be exploring the rather poignant idea that we cannot, despite our very best efforts, control our lives completely. Nor can we guarantee our happiness. Our hero seems to be so determined to have a happy and succesful life that he follows any of the steps he is told to take. It doesn’t matter that the path he really wanted to take may well of made him sad but also happy in equal measures, he seems to be chasing ultimate happiness.

I loved the idea of the book and the message I took from it. There have being many crossroads in my life where I’ve tried to take the path in life that we will make completely happy, the path that will give me perfection. But after reading Q, a message has remained in my mind. Maybe it is greedy and foolish to try to find ultimate happiness? maybe there is no such thing?

Although this is very much the message that I took from Q, I am aware that this is one of those wonderfully rare stories that really encourages a wide spectrum of interpretations from its readers. I’d therefore love to hear from anyone else who has read this book and find out your interpretation of the story? Did you like the book? What was your interpretation of it?

Reviews that I’ve read of this book promise a heartbreaking ending. This wasn’t quite my experience, I’ve read other love stories that have moved me to tears. Q just wasn’t on that level. But it did leave me with a strong message that still sticks in my mind. A good read for anyone seeking something a little different that will really make you think.

The Girl Who Played With Fire With Stieg Larsson

As I began packing for my holiday just a few weeks ago, there was one essential I knew had to make it into my suitcase. Amongst the sunscreen and bikini’s, room just had to be made for The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson. I first fell for Larsson’s witting earlier this year when I began the mesmerizing and unforgettable The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a book which captured my attention with its edgy and daring style.

I was off course tempted to start The Girl Who Played With Fire almost as soon as I had finished the first book, however some books are just perfect holiday stories and this story really fits the bill. Mentally not too demanding but still emotionally hard-hitting with a plot line I can really sink my teeth into.

So I forced myself to wait and frankly it was well worth it. No sooner had a I sunk into my sun lounger then I was totally immersed within the story. The novel begins with the same fast and urgent pace that makes Larsson’s stories so intoxicating and captivating, my mind was soon reeling with excitement. A year has passed since Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist  were embroiled in the Wennerström affair which so nearly ended in tragedy. Now Lisbeth has seemingly disappeared from Stockholm and a frustrated Mikael has being unable to contact the mysterious and beguiling ‘wasp’.

But Lisbeth is never a simple or predictable character and whilst the rest of the world might be in the dark about her whereabouts, Larsson allows his readers to become personally reunited with our ‘heroine’.

Off course her life has been in no way dull and we soon learn that she has ‘aquried’ a sizeable fortune which has allowed her the time and space to finally begin to move forward from her dark and tortured past. But I  knew that nothing could be so simple and I waited with bated breath and a sense of unease and fear for Larsson to really mix things up.

When two innocent journalists are murdered Lisbeth becomes the number one suspect, the whole of Sweden seems desperate to have the elusive young woman captured and reprimanded, the police refuse to consider her as innocent and any establishment or person of authority is only too keen to label and cast of Lisbeth as a deranged and dangerous woman beyond any help. I wont spoil the plot of the story, my description so far only scratches the surface, what lies beneath is a richly complex treat all readers such discover for themselves. However winning plotline aside, there’s another element to this book that for me was far more enduring and important.

This is Lisbeth herself. Never has a character left me so fascinated or held me in such rapture. It’s one thing for a writer to create a character who is affable and pleasing, it’s another for a writer to create a character who is one hand appealing, sympathy inducing, often heroic, and at times even loveable, but at others questionable, freighting and even horrifying. There’s something so much more human and believable about a character like a Lisbeth.

She is not perfect, nor is she a biased product of her creators imagination. But she is multi faceted, she has many layers, her actions can be condemnable, even repulsive and yet they can be inspiring and moving. Larsson forces us to draw on our morals and ethics and as well as encouraging us to emotionally connect with Lisbeth. And for me this made her one of the most intriguing female characters in a work of fiction. She is someone who society has condemned and pigeon hold, rejected and defiled, and yet she has risen from her past, endured, survived and stayed true to herself. Her life choices cannot always be justified, but would she be so plausible if you could?

It’s good to meet a character who really shakes up literatures perceptions of women. The fact that the book was written by a male, a male no longer alive and therefore unable to comment upon his work, well this just makes the book all the more unforgettable for me.

Now, after nearly six hundred pages even this fan needs a short break, but I’m sure it wont be long until I’m trying the next in this instalment, Th Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest. But what about everyone else, have you read this book or any other of the Millennium books, maybe you have read them all, or perhaps you’ve seen the films. Either I’d love to know what you all think.

The Prisoner Of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

There are books that we read and enjoy, then there are book that we read and instantly fall in love with. Enchanted from the first page and forever unable to forget them. The Shadow Of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is one such book for me, so it was with extreme excitement that I began reading his new novel, The Prisoner Of Heaven.

The novel opens by rejoining Zafon’s cast of eccentric and unforgettable characters. Daniel Sempere has married the love of his life Bea and is now the father of his first son Julian. His father still runs his beloved bookshop, Sempere & Son. And Fermin, against the odds, is soon to marry his fiancé.

Life seems peaceful and contented, however this is a Carlos Ruiz Zafon novel and it’s not long before he is cranking up the pace and tension of the book. When Daniel receives a strange and ominous customer at the bookshop it’s clear that the troubles of the past have not being completely banished. The eerie and sardonic customer appears requesting to buy one of the most expensive books that Sempere & Son’s stock, Daniel is reluctant to sell to this unusual and unsettling man, however the stranger produces an irrefutable amount of money. After purchasing the book and scribbling a note in its front page, the stranger leaves, without taking his purchase. Inside is written:

For Fermin Romero De Torres, who returned from among the dead and who has the key to the future.

Daniel is torn, should he tell his good friend of this strange occurrence, or should he try to solve the mystery himself? Upon closer inspection Daniel realises that Fermin’s past is even  more dark and complex than he had ever imagined. From Fermin’s time imprisoned in Montjuic Castle, to his desperate attempts to restart his life. He has lived a turbulent and often tragic existence. But even more startlingly Daniel will come to realise just how intricately his own life links to Fermin’s; opening painful wounds that Daniel would rather forget and causing him to become fuelled by jealousy and the need for revenge.

From people who have read and loved Zafon’s work, to those new to his stories, readers of this book are bound to be hooked. From the magical opening to the climatic and dramatic ending, this story is intoxicating. Like a Russian Doll with many layers to discover, Zafon packs story upon story into one super story, the effect of which left me reeling with excitement.

But with all this undulated praise I have to say the book, for me, wasn’t without fault. Frustratingly the female characters of Zafon’s book seemed even more one-dimensional than in The Shadow Of The Wind. Zafon, a man of irrefutable imagination, seems incapable of presenting anymore than two types of women. There’s the good, virginal woman like Bea. And then there is the alluring, dangerous tempest who turns good men to bad acts.

I can’t deny that this element of the book didn’t annoy me, or baffle me for that matter. How could such an insightful writer lack such vision in this one area?

Maybe there is room for improvement though, I’m certain Zafon geared up this story for another follow-up book. I can’t tell you how much I hope this is the case, not only am I well and truly addicted to Zafon’s writing, he also left some tantalizing questions unanswered.

Interestingly this is now the third in a series of book, The Prisoner Of Heaven relates to The Shadow Of The Wind and The Angles Game. Zafon explains at the beginning of the book that all three books are connected, however do not need to be read in a particular order. I like this idea. First time readers of his need not be daunted by a trilogy of books but could start anywhere.

I’m yet to read The Angels Game but it’s top of my list. Has anyone else read it? And if so is it as good as his other stuff? Has anyone else read this book? Do you plan too? What is your favorite Zafon book so far? I’d love to know your thoughts.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

When sixteen year old Katniss Everdeen finds herself selected as a contestant for the annual Hunger Games her world is turned upside down. Whisked from her squalid and impoverished home in District 12 she arrives in the dazzling and overwhelming Capitol. Soon she will be thrust into the arena, an unimaginably cruel and sadistic place created and controlled by the game keepers.

Katniss belongs to a new world, a scary and often dark place which emerged after an apocalyptic event saw the end of the world as we know it. In her world twelve districts are ruled by the resplendent and domineering Capitol. Whilst the Districts live in poverty, the Capitol shines with wealth. There were once thirteen districts, but when they all conspired to overthrow the Capitol, the thirteenth was destroyed. Now every year a boy and girl from age twelve to eighteen is picked from each district to compete in the Hungers Games. A fiercely cruel game set to remind each district of the Capitols omniscient power.

To win the competition the contestants must fight to the death in the arena. The last remaining contestant is the victor, but as Katniss prepares for the mission ahead she can’t help wondering if, after killing all contestants, will she really be a champion?

The Hunger Games takes all ideas of morality, love and humanity and turns them on their head. How far can one person go to survive if it means slaughtering innocent people?

I recently read an article where Collins explained that part of her inspiration came from the multitude of reality shows that congest our tv’s. I can see her logic. We live in a world obsessed with reality programmes, we morbidly watch as unlikely groups of people are banded together to live in confined quarters for our viewing pleasure. Team this with our ever increasing desensitisation to violence and you can conceive of a world like Katniss’s where The Hunger Games exists.

Although I do suspect that much of this stories success and appeal lies in the simple fact that Collins is, to put it simply, a brilliant story-teller. Often The Hungers Games is not the most eloquently or poetically written novel. Nor does Collins spend too much time deeply reflecting in any detail the impact of the world she has created. Some writers might have given more time and devotion into intricately exploring the reality of Katniss’s world, but where this novel lacks any intense musings, it more than makes up for it in an intoxicating, vivid and relentlessly captivating story.

I for one was hooked with this book. I loved the speculative nature of it, teamed with Collins talent for building suspense and drama. From page one I felt compelled to learn more about Katniss’s life, to see where her journey would take her and if she would survive. I actually felt slightly bereft upon finishing this book, what could I possibly read next that would captivate my attention so deeply?

This book is light and easy but it holds your attention and keeps you riveted throughout. Next time I find myself craving a book that I can wile away the hours with I will certainly reach for the next in this trilogy. So who else has read The Hunger Games, do you love it as much as me? Will you be reading the next one? Or perhaps you’ve read them all? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran

How To Be A Woman first found its way into my hands a year ago when a very lovely friend gave me it as a gift. As you can see from the note she wrote inside ‘I hope this book makes you as happy as it made me‘, she had high hopes that I would fall for Moran’s writing. Off course I was delighted to receive such a lovely gift, but if I’m being completely candid, yes I had reservations.

How To Be A Woman, written by a woman I’ve never even met before?! My first reaction was one of slight stubbornness and a good douse of disbelief. Why after twenty-six years of being female would I need a total stranger to tell me the secrets of ‘being a woman’? Then I read the blurb and realised this was also a book on feminism and I’m now ashamed to say I let out a loud groan of dissatisfaction.

I’m not a feminist! I don’t need to burn my bra’s or march against woman’s right, life is good, there’s nothing to ‘moan’ about. Oh, how wrong I was, how very wrong. Two weeks after finishing this book and I can’t believe I ever made such bogus, irrational and quite frankly ridiculous statements.

Read the below extract from the book and tell me what you think?

I realised that its technically impossible for a woman to argue against feminism. Without feminism, you wouldn’t be allowed to have a debate on a woman’s place in society. You’d be too busy giving birth on the kitchen floor – before going back to quick-liming the dunny. This is why those female columnists in the Daily Mail – giving daily wail against feminism – amuse me. They paid you £1,600 for that, dear, I think. And I beat it’s going in your bank account, and not your husband’s. The more women argue, loudly against feminism, the more they prove it exists and that they enjoy it’s hard-won privileges’.

It was from around this paragraph on that I began to see the light at the end of tunnel. After years of perceiving feminism as a simply overly angry and outdated movement the blinkers began to come off and I realised that feminism was not only all around me, but an important movement that must never die out.

I chose to go to work today and tonight I’m writing my opinions in my blog. Simple choices that we daily take for granted and yet would I swap my laptop for some washing up gloves? My own voice for that of all of male societies? No. And for that off course I must thank feminism.

So after reeling in my attention with her powerful and provoking opening, Moran continued to dazzle and amaze me with her witty, outrageous and refreshingly honest prose. No punches are pulled in her ‘part memoir, part rant’. Which details Moran’s experiences from her first period, to body images, through to pregnancies, sexism and abortion.

I didn’t agree with all of her theories or ideas. I don’t think for example think that there is more pressure on women than men to portray themselves through their clothes. Nor have I quite made my own mind up on lap dancing bars, a subject Moran debates in great detail. I believe woman have a choice to do as they please, so long as they are safe and happy.

But then another part of me does despair at women who seem to sell themselves in such a one-dimensional, objectified and sexual way. There’s nothing worse than seeing a woman caked in three inches of make-up, wearing vertigo inducing heels and the most miniscule of clothing. It wasn’t until I read How To Be A Woman that my underdeveloped and unattended opinions began to take real form. In short this is a truly thought-provoking book.

Perhaps the most admirable piece of the whole book though is when Moran talks about the reason why sexism exists. There was none of the ‘girls your boyfriend secretly wants to kill you, he must be destroyed’ anger that I had expected and instead a very honest and brave admission that woman are overlooked as the weaker sex because for so many years we have being.

We are physically the weaker sex….so to the powerful came education, discussion, and the conception of ‘normality’…without citites, philosophers, empires, armies, politicians, explorers, scientists and engineers – women were the losers’. 

Off course Moran isn’t anti woman. She’s actually pro men and woman. She just highlights the simple fact that woman have, for many years, being the weaker sex and despite great advances in feminism we’ve not even begun to show the world what we’re made off. Were coming out the shadows after years of being looked down upon, even by ourselves and we have a voice.

It does help that Moran is so side-splitting funny, there just aren’t enough books that simply make you laugh out loud. I’ve read mixed reviews of this book and I know many people who didn’t like. But I also know many people who love it. My advice is this; men and woman read this book! Try it, feminist or not. You might hate it, you might love it, either way I’m sure it will get you talking and after all that’s what good books do.

Born To Run by Christopher McDougall

A new book has being doing the rounds at my work, everyone is talking about it, it’s hot on all my colleagues lips and everyone seems desperate to read it. What am I talking about? The much coveted Fifty Shades Of Grey? Thankfully not!

The book I am in fact talking about is Born To Run and it’s actually rather good. A factual story told by and based upon the experiences of journalist Christopher McDougall as he goes in search of both ancient and new secrets into the art of running. In this honest, personal and often entertaining story Chris takes us with him on his journey. After many running related injuries and a string of recommendations to hang up his shoes, McDougall decides to look outside modern science for the answers into becoming a successful runner.

His mission takes him many, many miles from home and deep into the Mexican Copper Canyons in search of the elusive and mysterious Tarahumara, a tribe of people as famous for their incredible running capabilities as for being one of the most isolated and unattainable tribes of people in history. Along the way he meets the equally mysterious and notorious Caballo Blanco and a whole string of elite ultra runners each as eccentric as the other.

What unfolds is a whirlwind story, from the fascinating and unforgettable Caballo Blanco to the detailed portrayal of the Tarahumara. McDougall produces a rich, lively and tangible image of his extraordinary journey. You can be forgiven for thinking like I did that this is surely just a story about running? How interesting could that be? But you really don’t need to be sprinting miles and miles each day just to empathise with this story.

Despite my initial hesitations I soon became absorbed in Born To Run and from the first page the Tarahumara had me intrigued. There’s something compelling and attractive about a novel which offers us such a rare glimpse into a culture that otherwise very little is known about. The Tarahumara aren’t just runners, running is their life and McDougall’s understanding of that teamed with his discoveries and the story he has to tell make for a brilliant read.

My only issue with this book was the occasional and often tiring dips into technical and overly emphasised detail. Page by page accounts of the dynamics of a pair of Nike running shoes tended to leave me feeling slightly lacklustre. Off course I can appreciate that many other readers probably not only enjoyed these sections but lapped them up. And so I patiently persevered. My patience always paid off though and it wouldn’t be long before the story dragged me back into the complicated and often emotional world of running.

I particularly enjoyed the ending of this story and the poignant message it left me with. interestingly I finished this book a good few weeks ago and yet it’s still lingering in my head. Perhaps because I know the people of the story really exist? Or maybe because I know the events of the novel actually took place? Either way this is a spectacular novel and not one I’m likely forget.

I was also pleased to note that everyone who read this novel in my office loved it. From the geeky readers like me, to the sports lovers and most satisfying those who don’t usually like reading; they’ve all fallen for this story. Surely that’s the sign of a truly great book?