A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

834713Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are forced to live together. At first Mariam feels suspicious and jealous towards Laila, but as they endure ever escalating dangers around them – in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul – they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation.

Khaled Hosseini is one of those authors that almost every literary fiction reader is familiar with and you’re almost supposed to feel ashamed when you haven’t read his work, so I always planned to pick up A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner at some point, but I knew it would be a long term goal.

That was before I got into audiobooks. This book was one of the very few unabridged – seriously, why would anyone want an abridged version? – stories they had at my local library, so I wasn’t left with much choice. I wasn’t particularly excited as I expected it to be too literary and ambitious for my taste.

Not only did I go into A Thousand Splendid Suns with low expectations, the conditions in which I listened to it were far from ideal. I reserve audiobooks strictly for whenever I’m driving the car. While it’s great entertainment during a rather boring activity, it does require focus on two things at once: the road and the book. Easy enough with a light read, but less so with a more complex story.
Moreover, I was given a damaged copy that faltered on a number of occasions and eventually skipped parts of the book.

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Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

12699042Lyra and her animal daemon live half-wild and carefree among the scholars of Jordan College, Oxford. That is until she embarks on a dangerous journey to the frozen North in search of a kidnapped friend. Little does she know that this sets the destiny in motion that has awaited her since birth. Her adventure leads her to talking bears, flying witches and eventually the northern lights, where she might learn more about the mysterious Dust that worries the adults.

I was almost old enough to read Northern Lights when it was first published in 1995, so it’s a shame really that so many years had to pass before I picked up this children’s classic. In my defense, I tried to read it ten years ago around the time that The Golden Compass – which is the US title of the first volume in the His Dark Materials series – movie came out, but couldn’t get into it. Looking back now, I can’t possibly remember why, as there is so much to love about this book.

For starters, Northern Lights has one of the best opening scenes of the children’s books I’ve read so far. Philip Pullman drops you right in the middle of the action, explains nothing and builds up tension and mystery. If he does throw the reader a few crumbs of information, they are rather vague and difficult to understand. Despite it being marketed as a middle grade book, I expect some themes of the series to be lost on young readers. Northern Lights is one of those books that could benefit from a reread a few years down the road.

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Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

The year is 1945. Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is just back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach—an “outlander”—in a Scotland torn by war and raiding border clans in the year 1743.

Claire struggles to acclimatize in a world she only knows from history books, but soon finds support in Jamie Fraser. Because of his unconditional love for her, she finds herself torn between infidelity and desire. Eventually, she’ll have to face a tough decision. Does she return to her husband in 1945 or does she stay with Jamie in the 18th century?

Even Diana Gabaldon seems to have trouble describing her novels. Is it romance? Historical fiction? Or Fantasy perhaps? Whatever it is, I think it is fair to say that the majority of her fanbase is feminine. It is also true that the Outlander series isn’t seldom described as (enjoyable) trash. While I get the point, I do believe that this view isn’t doing the books justice. So far I can’t speak for the rest of the series, but looking at Outlander I see a nicely plotted story full of conflict, with strong characters and a vivid writing style.

I won’t lie, I did approach it with a mixture of excitement and nervousness. A story of no less than 850 pages, crammed on thin paper in a tiny font, turns out to be quite intimidating. Given that I’m a slow reader I honestly believed it would take me years to finish it. In reality it took me a few months, which was frankly still more than long enough. Great book or not, after a while, you long for a shiny new story to delve into.

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Complicit by Nicci French

Complicit

Bonnie Graham is standing in a room belonging to a friend. At her feet is a corpse, straddled in a spreading pool of blood. The questions are numerous: who is responsible for the dead body on the floor? What does Bonnie have to do with it? And what is her next course of action?

The premise of this crime novel is shockingly addictive. From the very first scene the reader will be drawn into the story. It’s impossible not to. You’re left with so many mysteries that need solving that you’ll find yourself in the middle of the novel before you notice any time has passed.

Nicci French is clever enough to use this to her advantage. Complicit is structured in such a way that it forces you to read until the very end if you want to know precisely what happened to the dead body. Everything is deliberately kept vague. At first you don’t even know who the dead body is, let alone that you would know how that person died or who is responsible.

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Bird Box by Josh Malerman

18753853Don’t open your eyes. They are out there. They might see you, or worse: you might see them. Even the slightest glimpse might get you killed.
Malorie has managed to survive for over four years, but she’s far from safe. She raises the children indoors. They’ve never been outside, they’ve never even seen the light of day. The doors are locked, the windows nailed shut with mattresses.
Today they must leave the house. Today they will risk everything.

Bird Box is marketed as a horror novel that could be compared to Hitchcock’s The Birds and Stephen King’s most haunting work. Admittedly, there have been worse comparisons. Bird Box definitely has its moments whereby you’re fighting the urge to close your eyes along with the characters, wishing they’ll be okay. And while Stephen King would certainly applaud the level of disturbance, I can’t quite agree that this is the kind of story that will scare the hell out of experienced thriller readers or leave them with sweaty hands. Having said that, the constant terror of some evil you can’t see or hear is unsettling at least. The real fear is to be found in what might be, rather than in what is.

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