Two Sisters (2018): Åsne Seierstad

★★★★

On 17 October 2013, Sadiq and Sara Juma experienced one of the worst things that can happen to a parent. Their two teenage daughters, 19-year-old Ayan and 16-year-old Leila, left the house as usual in the morning, but never came home. That evening, their frantic parents received an email from the girls, explaining: ‘we have decided to travel to Syria and help down there as best we can… Please do not be cross with us.’ In that one moment, the Juma family’s world shattered. In this impeccably balanced book, journalist Åsne Seierstad tells the story of what followed, as Sadiq desperately tries to get his daughters to come home. She also looks back, drawing on texts, emails and interviews to understand how two young Norwegian women could be so deeply radicalised without their parents even suspecting. It is a very difficult story to read, and it is harder still to emulate Sierstad’s admirable detachment, but I believe it’s an important book: a rare flash of compassion and humanity in a dialogue that seems to have increasingly broken down.

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The Half-Drowned King (2017): Linnea Hartsuyker

★★★½

The Norway Trilogy: Book I

This rollicking tale of Viking adventure opens with oar-dancing in the first sentence, which boded very well for the rest of the story. Based on the sagas of Harald Fairhair written by Snorri Sturluson in his Heimskringla in the 13th century, it looks back to the Norway of the late 9th century, a fragmented peninsula of petty kings and ruthless raiders. Focusing on the stories of a brother and sister fighting to realise their destinies, it’s an engaging tale spiced with the beliefs of medieval Scandinavia.

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Kristin Lavransdatter: Sigrid Undset

★★★★

This is not the longest book I’ve ever read, though it comes close – trailing just behind World Without End and War and Peace, and probably The Lord of the Rings too, if we count that as a single book – but it certainly feels like the longest. I started it back in October, and since then it’s been flowing quietly along beneath the other books I’ve been reading like some great leviathan. Now and then I’ve put it aside for a bit, but its shadow has always been there, flickering at the corner of my eye. Finishing it feels like a major accomplishment. If I had a spare bottle of champagne, I’d be tempted to open it.

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