The Baghdad Clock: Shahad Al Rawi

★★½

I’ve been struggling with this book on and off for about a year, which is odd, because many people have written enthusiastic reviews of it. It’s the kind of book that, to be slightly cynical, one feels that one should admire. Essentially autobiographical, it tells the tale of a young girl, her friends and her neighbourhood in Baghdad, beginning in 1991 and finishing in 2003. It invites us to imagine growing up under the cloud of two wars and crippling sanctions. It shows us a picture of a community which remains resilient in the face of hardship for as long as it can, and it traces the things which remain important even when your country is falling apart: love, hope, the dreams of the future. And I do admire the spirit and the courage of the neighbourhood memorialised in the novel. What jarred with me, however, is the way the story is told: detached and dreamlike, it wanders in and out of magical realism without any sense of narrative discipline. Some readers have found that charming; for me, alas, it felt only messy.

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The Consequences of Love: Sulaiman Addonia

★★★

Sulaiman Addonia must be one of the few authors whose life has been as dramatic as his fiction. Born in Eritrea, he spent his childhood in a refugee camp in Sudan and then moved as a teenager to Jeddah, where his mother had been working for some time as a servant. Later, he and his brother came to London; and, more recently still, he has moved to Brussels with his Belgian partner and their son. The protagonist of this debut novel shares some of Addonia’s own displaced history, although in other important ways he’s had a very different experience. Struggling to make ends meet as a foreign worker in Jeddah, Naser lives in a strange world where life is governed by the whims of his kafeel (Saudi sponsor) and the dictates of the religious police, and where men and women inhabit fiercely segregated worlds. Then, one hot and languid summer, a girl drops a note at Naser’s feet in the street. Shrouded in her burqa, she has fallen in love with him; but he can only recognise her by her shoes. It’s the beginning of a heartfelt story of forbidden love played out in the shadow of the fundamentalist regime.

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Silk and Song: Dana Stabenow

★★★★

There’s something about the Silk Road that sparks off a latent dream of adventure deep inside me. One day I’d love to travel through these souks and caravanserais and to visit Samarkand, but for now I have to restrict myself to my imagination. And this wonderful book gave me ample opportunity for that. It’s a sprawling adventure, epic in every way, that crosses the breadth of the known world in the 14th century. Our heroine is Wu Johanna, the remarkable (and fictional) granddaughter of Marco Polo. Like a fairytale heroine, the orphaned Joanna escapes her wicked stepmother – and her ardent suitor – to follow her heart and heritage as a merchant on the trade routes of Asia. Dreaming of finding her grandfather, she presses further and further west with her small but loyal band of friends and family – and one very splendid horse. This is a super book, full of scents and spices and adventure, set in a most unfamiliar period of history, and with a very determined heroine at its heart. It’s a winner on all counts.

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Red Birds: Mohammed Hanif

★★½

My brain feels a little scrambled right now. I thought I knew what I was getting with this book and, for the first two thirds, I did get that, more or less: an ironic satire on the modern cycle of war and international aid. We’re introduced to the bleak aftermath of war in a remote corner of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Smart, ambitious teenager Momo has dreams of becoming a billionaire entrepreneur, fuelled by the stories he’s read in his dad’s magazine about the Fortune 500. But how’s a kid to get started in a place like this, where even the aid workers have given up and drifted away, and the local American air base has shut up shop? To make matters worse, Momo’s big brother has been missing for months, his dog Mutt has got himself electrocuted, and an American pilot has just wandered in from the desert. And what of those red birds? Well, that’s where it all gets more than a little weird.

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Delilah: Eleanor de Jong

★★

My quest to find decent novels about Ancient Mesopotamia continues, although I’m still not having much luck finding books about this period other than Biblical fiction. And so I came to Eleanor de Jong’s Delilah, the story of my favourite Biblical harlot-hairdresser. It turned out to be quite a contradiction: a Biblical tale that doesn’t particularly follow the Bible; an historical novel which shows little interest in history; and a story which should show women at their most wily and powerful, neutered into a love story. Come, join me, as we try to tease our way through an increasingly unfamiliar Biblical tale.

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Tamburlaine: Christopher Marlowe (1587)

tamburlaine_production_photographs__2018_2018_photo_by_ellie_kurttz__c__rsc_258815-1.tmb-img-1824 (2)

★★★★

(Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 25 August 2018)

Something is brewing in the Scythian steppes. As the power of once-mighty Persia begins to wane under the rule of foolish Mycetes, rumours reach the court of a new leader rising in the north: a former shepherd, who has gathered a band of thugs and thieves and believes he is destined to rule the world. His name is Tamburlaine. Christopher Marlowe’s play is rarely performed, which is a pity because it has powerful resonance in the modern world. The RSC’s production, directed by Michael Boyd and designed by Tom Piper, was first staged in New York in 2014 and boils down Parts 1 and 2 into a single three-and-a-half-hour behemoth of death and ambition. (Imagine seven seasons of Game of Thrones condensed into 180 minutes and you have some idea of the amount of blood involved.) These cuts emphasise Tamburlaine’s dizzying rise to power, and the whole play is anchored by a magnificently charismatic performance by Jude Owusu.

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In the Shadow of the Ark: Anne Provoost

★★★

When I saw this novel tucked away in a local charity shop, I pounced immediately. How could I resist a story about the Ark so soon after ferreting deep into the history of its legend? Originally published in Dutch in 2001 (the author is Flemish), it has been translated into English by John Nieuwenhuizen and takes us into a strange and foreign world of fishermen and nomads, boat-builders and prophets. And, at the heart of the tale, is the rumour of a great boat being built in the middle of a desert by a crazy old man, and the young woman who travels with her family to answer the call for workers.

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The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz: Russell Hoban

★★★

I can’t remember exactly why I bought this book. Surely it wasn’t just because there was a lion on the cover? I’d never heard of Russell Hoban, and knew nothing about the story; and yet here it is, on my shelf. It has turned out to be a thought-provoking, if somewhat mystifying read: the first half full of poignant comments on belonging, self-direction and the relationship between fathers and sons; the second half verging on hallucinogenic self-indulgence. Realising that it was first published in 1973, I wondered if parts might have made more sense if I’d been smoking something not entirely legal. And yet there’s one irresistible aspect: it’s inspired by the magnificent Lion Hunt reliefs at the British Museum.

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Rome: The Coming of the King: M.C. Scott

★★★★

The Rome Novels: Book II

When I saw the second book in Manda Scott’s Rome series in the library, I pounced on it. It picks up the story in 66 AD, a couple of years after The Emperor’s Spy concluded. Nero is emperor; Seneca is dead; the Empress Poppaea is dying in childbed; and our subtle protagonist Pantera is heading south to Judea on the heels of the man who started the Great Fire of Rome. Pantera has wise and loyal allies, but he is the only one with the skills to track down the zealot Saulos. For Saulos, too, was trained as a spy by Seneca and Pantera knows that he is stepping into a cat-and-mouse game with a man as dangerous as himself, made even more lethal by the fiery convictions of faith. As tensions simmer below the surface in Caesarea and Jerusalem, it requires only one spark for the whole of Judea to flare into bitter internecine war. And Saulos, as we’ve seen, loves a good fire…

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The Underground Girls of Kabul: Jenny Nordberg

★★★★½

The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys

Necessity is the mother of invention. That’s the message of this astonishing work by the Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg, who worked with women in and around Kabul in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2011. When she was told, discreetly, that a contact’s six-year-old son was actually a cross-dressed girl, Nordberg discovered that this was merely the tip of an iceberg. Her enquiries led her to unearth an open secret in Afghan society: an entire social practice, hitherto  unreported in the wider world, of bacha posh, literally meaning ‘dressed as a boy’. Mixing biography, psychology and anthropology, this is a deeply illuminating journey into the social constructs of an unfamiliar world.

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