Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Book 3: A Season In Hell- Robert R Fowler

My third book of my 52 books in 52 weeks challenge has been ‘A Season in Hell’ by Robert Fowler. ‘A Season in Hell’ is the first non-fiction book I have read this year, and couldn’t be farther from the wishy washy romantic novel I started the year with. This is a book of hard facts, political analysis and lots and lots of sand. In the book, Robert Fowler recounts his 130 days in the Sahara desert as a Captive of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) along with his United Nations colleague Louis Guay. 

“A Season in Hell” was given to me by my mother last year as a present, and I had been half ignoring it and always finding another book to read first as I prefer reading fiction. However this year is not just about reading what I already like, it is about branching out and expanding my comfortable reading world. Overall the book was interesting, well written and insightful but it wasn't an especially quick read.


Robert R Fowler’s name is familiar to many Canadians, not simply because of his kidnapping but because of his career as a high profile diplomat and through his work at the UN as Canada’s representative to the UN, and more recently as a special envoy to Ban Ki Moon. In this book he recounts his capture in Niger in 2008, the extremely long and painful trip in the back of a ute into the middle of the Sahara, and his subsequent months spent in the desert with a hardy bunch of religious AQIM zealots.
As a westerner, my image of being hostage is being held in a camp or locked in some sort of room. Fowler and his fellow captive Louis Guay obviously thought likewise. However this does not at all conform to the reality of the extremely nomadic life that his Al Qaeda captors live. In fact, I was shocked to read that during his 130 days of capture Fowler and Guay not once were kept in a room or any kind of structure at all. They spent their time as hostages living as their captors did, in the desert, perhaps by a scraggly tree or a few rocks, and sleeping on the sand with a blanket. Only once did they sleep in a tent. 
This is similar terrain to where Fowler and Guay spent the majority of their captivity
 Imagine 130 days of really, really sandy undies

The book provides a very interesting insight into how Al Qaeda operates, the mindset of its members and the absolutely dogged determination of its members to succeed in removing the 'infidels' from Islamic lands, no matter how many generations it will take. Fowler's captors were extremely religious men, prescribing to a fatalistic view of the world, if Allah wishes it, it will be. If anyone narrowly misses death for any reason (a rocket propelled grenade misfiring for example), it is simply shrugged of as the will of Allah. Fowler describes how he had never encountered a group of men more dedicated to Allah; in all his time as their capture there were never any women and no suggestion of fun or games to pass the monotony of life in the Sahara as an Al Qaeda operative.

The descriptions of each of Fowler's captors serve as a reminder that no ‘terrorist’ is the same. The Western media portrays Al Qaeda as turbaned extremists in Afghanistan and it is rare that we are offered any greater insight. Fowler describes the different personalities of all of his captors, ranging from the extremely intelligent, to those full of hatred, to a few very young boys who mostly seemed scared, to those who were businesslike and respectful. Fowler emphasises that he did not like his captors; the extremism of their religious Zealotry made finding any common ground impossible, as did the constant threat (never followed through) of violence or execution.

An image of Fowler (middle), Guay and their driver taken from a proof of life video
It is not much of a spoiler if I say that Fowler was released after 130 days, as he wouldn't have been able to write this book if he had been executed as he feared. However what is surprising is who helped secure his release. Fowler is extremely critical of the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade for which both he and Guay had worked, explaining that they both contributed little to the negotiations, and their bureaucracy and hubris greatly hindered the process. In fact the majority of assistance and bargaining for their release came from the most unlikely of African politicians, as Fowler discovers after his release.
Ultimately, if you are after facts, detail and geopolitical observations, this is the book for you. You can tell “A Season in Hell” is written by a diplomat as every word feels carefully chosen, and never inflammatory or provocative. Fowler’s tone is always measured and thought out, even when describing the extreme emotional and physical challenges he faces. The book would have perhaps be a quicker read if Fowler sensationalised the events surrounding his capture but it is a better account for his dedication to providing a truthful and measured account.

The Good Bits

Fowler's descriptions of West Africa before he is kidnapped at the very start of the book are fantastic, and they really transported me back to some time I spent in West Africa a few years back

The Not So Good Bits

I found this a slow read, and at times dry (duh, it was in the desert). I was not as drawn in by the story as I thought I would be, perhaps due to the sometimes dry and diplomatic tone used by Fowler.

Three  and a half out of Five sandy diplomats

The Next Book I am currently reading The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt (readers of The Secret History rejoice, she has written another novel!). It is incredibly good, but at around 1000 pages it is not short and taking me a long time to read.
Buy the book here if you like the sound of it.
Please let me know what you think of my review!



Thursday, 16 January 2014

Book 2 Review: Room- Emma Donoghue

"It has layers, like an onion"

Room, by Emma Donoghue, is a novel that will grab you by the feels and not let go until about 3 days after you have finished it. It is an emotionally challenging novel, but extremely rewarding. Although some might find it contains some difficult themes, it is not hard to read and you are easily drawn in by Donoghue’s incredible writing. This novel will be very tough for the rest of the 50 books out of my 52 books in 52 weeks challenge to follow.
Room is written from the perspective of a five year old boy, Jack, who lives in ‘Room’ with his Ma. Room is Jack’s world and only other person except his ma who is a part of his world is Old Nick. As a reader you realise that Jack and his mother are confined to Room, kept hostage by Old Nick. On Jack's birthday his world starts to rapidly expand when his mother explains that there is a whole world outside of Room and they start plotting an escape attempt.
Room by Emma Donoghue Book Cover
Room is a hard book to review, not simply because early on there is a big plot development that I don't want to spoil, but also because it is the type of book that people tell you "It's awesome, it's about stuff, just read it okay, read it." I now understand why. 
It is a cliché to talk about how great things are 'through a child's eyes'. Many books attempt to portray situations through the perspective of a child and ultimately end up sounding contrived or overly simplistic. Jack's image of the world is so unique and so beautiful that each line in 'Room' is interesting, especially when he describes everyday situations in a creative way.
Some of my favourite quotes from Jack :
“I remember manners, that's when people are scared to make other persons mad.”  
“Vitamins are medicine for not getting sick and going back to Heaven yet.”
"Is there a word for adults when they aren't parents?" Steppa laughs. "Folks with other things to do?”  

Seeing the world through the eyes of Jack made me consider when the last time was that I saw something that I had never even conceived of before. That doesn't mean seeing a new TV show that I hadn't heard of before or trying a new sport or having a turkey burger for the first time. When is the last time I saw something I never even imagined existed previously? I certainly can't think of anything, and I doubt many people with access to all the glories of the interwebs have either. Jack experiences so many ordinary things and situations that are so mundane they are almost invisible to us and his reactions on seeing them for the first time (like stairs for example) are fantastic.


'Room' also makes us consider how the way we perceive the world is a result of our surroundings, and our upbringing. It is incredible how different someone's understanding of the same 'reality' can vary so much from another. Although someone's understanding of 'reality' is so different it is not any less true, and is in fact, even more valuable. The novel can also be seen as a modern interpretation of Plato's Cave , and how we perceive reality. I could say a lot more on that but you didn't sign up for a philosophy degree, just a book review. Safe to say, the book has lots of layers, like an onion.

The Good Bits:
Can I just say- all of it?
Although the book contains implications of kidnapping and sexual assault, the book is overwhelmingly positive. The way Jack views the world, and describes his world to the reader, is  positive and optimistic.

I really enjoyed how as a reader you gradually realise other plot points as Donoghue cleverly lets out little hints, or signs that Jack misses but as a reader you pick up on.

The ending was fantastic. Leaves you with a cathartic sense of conclusion and brings the novel full circle. No need for a wishy-washy epilogue here.

The Not So Good Bits:
The Novel has implications of kidnapping and sexual assault (only implied). If this is a trigger, probably best to give this book a miss.

Five out of Five scaredybrave boys

The Next book:
"A Season in Hell" by Robert R Fowler, a true story of the author's capture in West Africa by Al Qaeda. Am half way through at the moment.


Also, Emma Donoghue did a Q and A session on 'Room' for Goodreads. Once you have read the novel head over there and see how she describes some of her decisions as a writer- its really interesting


Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Book 1 Review: The Husband's Secret- Liane Moriarty

"Not just a bunch of middle aged women talking
about their husbands"

My first book of my 52 books in 52 weeks challenge is The Husband's Secret By Liane Moriarty. The novel tracks the impact of one tragic instant through the lives of three families irrevocably tied together from that moment on. In the novel, the protagonist Celia Fitzpatrick’s understanding of her comfortable and structured world is thrown into turmoil when she discovers a letter written from her husband to be opened upon his death. The letter unearths a horrible secret from his past which not only affects Celia’s family, but two other families from their small Sydney Catholic school community. It has been an easy novel to start my book reviews with and was overall an enjoyable, but not overly challenging read.

At the beginning of this novel I wasn’t glued to every word and wasn't desperate to read on. However Moriarty’s storytelling has a way of drawing you in. I was unimpressed and skeptical even after the big reveal of the letter (I called it a holiday read in my last post)
yet by the end I was easily caught up as the pace of the novel sped towards a much anticipated climax.

At the beginning, the novel mostly felt like a bunch of middle aged women sitting around talking about their husbands and children.

(Yep, this is what I imagined)

However I soon realised this novel is about much more. It raises serious questions of whether justice for past crimes can ever be achieved. The novel makes you question if one person’s life can be equal to that of another and whether a lifetime of good deeds ever absolve one from the crimes of the past. It shows how hard it is to truly know those you are closest to and how easily the sense of stability and normality in our lives can disintegrate. 

On a less serious note, this novel was set in Sydney’s North, my hometown. It is quite a refreshing change to read about a character rushing down a street that I drive down daily.

(This one to be precise)

Great novels can transport you anywhere in the world with a few carefully selected adjectives. It is a different experience entirely being transported by Moriarty, only ten minutes up the road.
This made me think. I realised that novels don’t have to be placed in historically significant times or exotic locations to make an impact. In fact I would contend it is harder to impress an audience when your novel is centered on the everyday and the mundane; the picking up and dropping off of children, the amount of butter left in your fridge, the Easter Hat Parade at the local school. Moriarty does an excellent job of showing how emotional turmoil and life changing revelations occur in everyday life, in the least glamorous of places and that people have to cope with these changes all while trying to maintain a semblance of normality.  

Good bits
It was a good reminder that I should read more Australian literature. I’ll be making sure to include more Australian books in my reading list this year.

The plot is interesting and unexpected. As it progresses Moriarty builds a palpable sense of foreboding as the plot progresses as you feel that sooner or later past crimes must be paid for.

It had an epilogue! Not many serious novels have epilogues, perhaps because its not cool among writer folk. It was nice to have a more solid sense of conclusion that is often missing from novels what leave you guessing at the end.

Not so good bits
I felt like I would have enjoyed this more if I was a mother, or perhaps a Catholic. Some of the biggest themes in the novel centre on children and the concept of ‘sin’. Having neither children nor ever sinned I couldn’t possibly relate.

Thanks Clueless

Joking aside it did feel like the book was tailored to a specific audience that I wasn't a part of and although this feeling abated as the novel progressed, it never quite went away.

The novel was not life changing for me. It didn’t force me to open my eyes to anything new or unexpected. I did end up liking the novel more than I expected to but overall it felt a bit ‘soft’ for me.
It had an epilogue. Yeah I did say it was one of the good bits but it did again leave me feeling the ending was a bit ‘soft’, as if the author wanted to give us all a happy ending rather than a kick in the guts to finish. Perhaps a kick in the guts is what all the cool writers are doing these days.

Quotes that made me think
"What can you say or do to make up for a horrible incident? The words ‘I’m sorry’ felt like an insult. You said ‘I’m sorry’ when you bumped against someone’s supermarket trolley. There needed to be bigger words."

Three and a Half out of Five well-buttered hot cross buns 

The next book
Book number two will be 'Room' by Emma Donoghue as suggested by Cat. It has been sitting ignored halfway down the list of books on my Kindle for about a year now so time to get reading! 

Like the sound of the book? Buy it here on Amazon or at your local bookstore. 

Please let me know what you thought of my review below please. Its my first time doing this since a year five book report so I am feeling rusty!  Agree with me? Think I'm spouting a load of rubbish? Let me know :)

Monday, 6 January 2014

All booked up 2014- reading and reviewing 52 Books in 52 Weeks

“Reading one book is like eating one potato chip.” 
Diane Duane, author of 'So You Want to be a Wizard'

I belong to the special club that makes bookstore owners weep and true bibliophiles scorn- I own a Kindle.
 (Pic belongs to Adrian Tomine)
And I really like it. I can select from thousands of books whenever I want. I can read huge books without doing weird head tilts every second page. Books no longer cost upwards of $30 from overpriced bookstores. I can go traveling and not have to carry the three or four books I've half finished with me. I no longer have to trawl through my local council library to try and find a book I haven't previously read or one that isn't called ‘The Pirate’s Mistress’ or ‘Legacy of lust’ with a cover that features a woman trying to fuse to a man with either luscious flowing locks or a waxed chest. 

(Well gosh)

With my Kindle I can now read basically any eBook that exists thanks to the interwebs.

But despite having access to all these books on my Kindle, I hardly read at all. As a child my bedside table would be perpetually be overflowing with books. I loved losing myself, and any chances of schoolyard popularity, in a novel and wouldn't emerge until the novel and all its sequels were finished. I even tried reading with a flashlight under the covers of my bed until I discovered it was super uncomfortable and that the children who tried it in the movies obviously never read for more than three minutes at a time. (Being a child actor is not really synonymous with being a bookworm). But now, It's time to get back to what I loved most as I grew up.

So, this year, I have set myself a challenge of reading 
52 books in 52 weeks.
These are my guidelines:

  1. I will read as varied as possible a selection and step outside of my comfort zone of just reading award winning novels.
  2. I won’t read anything I’ve read before.
  3. I will read books I can’t find reviews for online.
  4. I will read books in hard copy and not just on my Kindle.
  5. I will read books in genres I haven’t before.
  6. I will read one book in French or German (my two half fluent backup languages)
  7. I will read a book by an author I dislike or in a genre I hate.
  8. I will take suggestions of books and read them.
  9. Buy books from second hand bookstores and support someone other than Amazon for a change.
  10. I will document it all by reviewing each book here after I’ve read them.

So being the first week of January, the week where New Year’s Resolutions are normally fiercely forgotten, I have begun my challenge.

What have I started with?


The Husband’s secret- by Liane Moriarty

Funny considering it sounds exactly like the type of Mills and Boon novel I have been trying to avoid. However, there is a reason I chose a book described as a ‘holiday read’. Here's the Goodreads reviews page. Recently I have found myself struggling to stick to reading one book and not drift back to sitting in front of the TV. So this is my easy start to a year of reading.

One more day to finish it, with just over half completed. Time to go read.