A slow-paced entertaining holiday read that delves into human relationships bringing home the truth that no matter where we are in the world, our lives' baggage travels there too. (Has a Woody Allen feel to it).
Sixty-year-old Jim Post, recently 'retired' from his job and his writer wife Franny have booked a gorgeous house (with a swimming pool) in the mountains of Mallorca, Spain, for a two-week vacation with their children and very close friends.
Having planned and booked the trip before 'the incident', they decide to go ahead with it anyway feeling in the case of Jim that 'two weeks away would make him feel he had made a change and chosen this new, free life, like so many people his age did.' As for Franny, the choice of Mallorca 'was less cliche than the South of France and less overrun by Americans than Tuscany." But what she mainly wanted to do on the trip was to 'please everyone'.
Jim and Franny's eighteen-year-old daughter Sylvia has just finished school and is desperately waiting the Summer out to go to Brown's and finally "be somewhere where the name Sylvia Post came without the ghosts of the girl she'd been at sixteen, at twelve, at five, where she was detached from her parents and her brother and she could just be, like an astronaut floating in space, unencumbered by gravity". Recovering from heartache and betrayal she soon finds solace in the young dashing Spanish tutor Joan (pronounced Joeahhhn) that Franny has hired for her to perfect her command of the language and things slowly seem to be looking up for her for a while.
Also joining the Posts is Jim and Franny's immature 25 year-old son Bobby who is 'waist-deep in swampy Floridian real estate' who is hoping to come clean to his parents about his life and gather enough courage to ask for their help. Tagging along is his 'albatross of a girlfriend Carmen' who is if nothing an exercise fanatic who is desperate for Bobby to marry her. Franny's dear friend Charles and his husband Lawrence join them as well. They are desperately waiting for news from an adoption agency that has assured them that circumstances were looking 'promising' and they'd soon have a baby in their arms. All at the time when Charles was feeling 'that their shared dreams of having a family would soon go the way of the dodo'.
The Posts 'hadn't vacationed like this in years', and with each and every one of these 'Vacationers' with secrets and confessions, relationships are tested and loyalties challenged. The Post's two-weeks' promised respite in sunny Mallorca could see them return home with more than just a suntan to show for it.
Once upon a time, in the not-so-distant past, there lived a beautiful queen, adored by her King and children and much loved by the people of the land. The King and Queen, famous for their compassion and love for their people, were bound by a deep sense of duty to support the betterment of each and every individual in the land. They would often travel about the Kingdom to wherever they felt their presence most needed earning the altruistic Queen the title of 'Mother of the poor'.
Until sadly, on one ill-fated day, the helicopter transporting the Queen crashes and the Kingdom is plunged into mourning. The King, not only a monarch who has to address his people on the loss of their beloved Queen but as a father he is saddled with the daunting task of informing his two young children, a boy and a girl, that their mother will never return to them again; they will now have to face the ultimate challenge of resuming life without her.
Although the above tale seems as if it were the stuff of fiction, it is a rather brief, but true, account of the life of HRH Queen Alia al-Hussein, the late Queen Consort of Jordan and the third wife to the late King Hussein Bin Talal of Jordan. The children she leaves behind are Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein and Princess Haya Bint al-Hussein, the 'real-life princess' who is the inspiration for Stacy Gregg's children's novel 'The Princess and the Foal'.
The novel highlights a series of events in the life of Princess Haya that occur between the ages of five and twelve. As a young 'titch' she is heartbroken and inconsolable in spite of her father's continuous efforts to help her get over the tragic death of her mother. Adding to her sense of loss is the departure of her old nanny, Grace, who has been replaced by the two-faced governess Frances Ramsmead. With one 'personality' reserved for the King and another for the children and staff, matters don't go smoothly simply because 'Frances is a stupid meany' a young Prince Ali confirms.
Haya's source of solace is her love of horses and it is only at the Royal Stables in Al Hummar that she feels strongest and happiest. Unfortunately, Frances continuously tries to discourage her from being with her beloved animals believing it is the Princess's duty to be a lady, not to associate with the stable staff.
So, when she is entrusted with the care of a young foal on her sixth birthday, who she names 'Bint al Reeh' aka 'Bree', her life takes a different turn and the sadness slowly starts to dissipate. Drawing on the memory of her mother as an athlete, she dreams that she will one day be the first female horse rider to win the King's Cup and make her Father proud. Her dream isn't without obstacles leaving her, in the darkest hour, with a sense that its realisation may be hopeless and unattainable. Many lessons are learnt along the way.
Stacy Gregg tells a beautiful, refreshing, engaging tale about a princess with a dream. A princess who is not only proud of her ancestry (she wants to be a proper Arabian Princess) but is also endowed with her parents' sense of duty and responsibility. Haya is also a sister and the mischief she gets up to with her brother, Prince Ali, are the best parts of the book and will make you laugh out loud. They are like two peas in a pod and Gregg captures a genuinely affectionate sibling relationship that is heartfelt and heartwarming.
Reviewed by Rana Asfour
Publishing date is June 19 by Random House UK, Cornerstone
"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you" (Mathew 7:7). But what if the answers are none one seeks to hear or harbinger an existence too unbearable to grasp, answers seeming instead cruel and pointless? Does one break away from one's belief or does it become one's salvation helping one to understand, learn and grow stronger and closer to The One? How much can one person be expected to endure as 'God tests His faithful servants'? What happens when we die? What compels humans to willingly place not only faith, but hope and trust in divine doctrines that seem powerless to stop death and adversity?
These difficult questions are at the core of Carys Bray's debut novel 'A Song for Issy Bradley'. Mormons, Claire and her husband, Bishop Ian Bradley, have lost their five-year-old girl Issy. Suddenly and without any warning, their life is turned upside down and everything they have ever believed in and raised their three remaining children Alma, Zipporah (Zippy), and Jacob to believe is tested and challenged every step of the way as they try to deal with life at this difficult time.
The novel details Mormon life and beliefs through the Bradley's interactions with each other, the members of their faith and 'non-members' in the wider community particularly with regards to Issy's death. Mormons believe that the body is but a vessel that carries the soul inside it and when one dies, the soul leaves this 'shell' and waits for its loved ones in Eternity. As comforting as the idea of reuniting with loved ones may be, how much solace is it to a mother who will never touch or see her child again and to whom Eternity seems like an unbearably long time to wait? or to one brother who wishes he'd told his sister how much he loved her and appreciated her and another who feels they should have grown up and done things together being so close in age; that same brother who is yet too young to understand that the words of God concerning resurrection are not to be taken literally. And how do you comfort a sister who knows she'll one day walk down the aisle but her sibling 'will never be a bridesmaid'?
Issy's father, Bishop Ian Bradley has problems of his own to deal with. A strict and devout Mormon, he is torn between his devotion to his faith and his duty to his parishioners that consumes him leaving not much time for his family and his role as a father who is grieving for the loss of his beautiful baby girl. He is obstinate, unemotional and quite selfish, yet the reader knows he only carries good intentions and his unwavering belief in the righteousness of what he is doing is quite infuriating if not also admirable. And yet when he finally realises that his family is crumbling before his eyes, that is when we see the true nature of the man come to the forefront and whether or not he is the better for it I will leave to the reader's discernment.
The novel also sheds light on certain aspects that concern growing up in a Mormon community. Carys Bray herself was raised by strict Mormon parents and her first-hand experience as such is quite relevant particularly when it comes to describing Zippy's feelings for Adam, a boy in her school that she likes. As a Mormon Zippy is conflicted between giving in to her budding sexuality and the commandment that is the law of chastity which dictates abstinence from sex before marriage. That God expects His followers to keep thoughts clean and be modest in dress, speech, and actions. This not only sets Zippy apart from her counterparts at school obliging her to correct certain misconceptions regarding her faith but it also creates guilt and the need to 'confess' after a brief incident between Adam and herself.
Although the novel in places feels like a 101 class in the Mormon faith, it's saving grace is Bray's beautiful style of writing. She manages to make her characters real, and loveable. Carys Bray tells a stunning heart-warming story about loss that is brave, even funny and so heartbreaking in its sincerity that you'll need to keep that tissue box handy. In short, this is a book about a family, any family, who has to conjecture enough faith to miraculously resurrect itself from the abyss after having lost one of its own.
Last week, at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, I attended two sessions that featured Abdo Khal: one in which he was part of a panel that hosted IPAF winners, and the other in which he was the main speaker discussing his highly explosive novel 'Throwing Sparks'.
Winner of the IPAF for 2012, 'Throwing Sparks' has been controversial from the word go. Beginning with the choice of title: a partial Qur'anic verse from Surah Al-Mursalat, Aya 32, that describes the fires of Hell as large as castles, and then broaching a tough, eyebrow-raising subject matter: corrupt 'delinquent' characters controlled by a depraved 'Master' of a castle in the Saudi city of Jeddah, Khal ensured that this novel was never going to go unnoticed and it came as no surprise to anyone when it was banned in Saudi Arabia.
I believe that Abdo Khal knew exactly what he was doing when he set about writing his novel and in my opinion, the novel matter is proof that old habits die hard. A former preacher, it could be argued that the castle of Hell that he conjures up in his novel could be an elaborate form of sermon to warn people of the consequences of sin and vice and their detrimental effects on individuals and societies; a Hell on Earth and damnation in the afterlife. And yet, and in spite of all that the reader comes to know, Khal through his character Ibrahim, reminds us that God is ultimately The Gracious and Most Merciful, that forgiveness is truly holy. The perfect ending to a perfect sermon if there ever was one.
The jaw-dropping first paragraph ensnares the reader, and the first few lines are as a noose that wraps itself firmly around the reader's neck tightening and restricting the passageway of air with every turn of the page. I found myself offering very little resistance to the experience, courtesy of human curiosity possibly but most likely because I found the style of writing beautiful, poetic, mesmerising, and gripping (well done translators) albeit claustrophobic at times. I did have to force myself to put the book down, take gulps of air before re-immersing myself in the events of 'Throwing Sparks'. This is a book that is not for the faint-hearted and there are scenes that are revolting to the senses and render the reader livid with indignation and disbelief at the cruelty and the injustice meted out so nonchalantly by the characters. The writer shows no mercy, and only a few pages into the novel, the reader quickly learns to expect none.
The novel follows the story of 51-year-old Tariq who we meet reminiscing about his life and lamenting his 31 years lost in the service of the 'Master'; the cruel, immoral owner of the magnificent castle that sprang up one day on the shores of Jeddah, changing the lives of the city's dwellers forever. Those on the outside looked to the castle as a 'paradise' that they longed to enter, unknowing that those who had preceded inside long for a chance to escape its walls. Their lives as slaves to the 'Master' is unbearable; They are maimed, scarred, and tainted by the 'Hell' that descended on them from the higher echelons of the palace's dwellers and everyone associated with it.
Tariq's job is an appalling one. He is hand-picked by the 'Master' to serve as a most particular torturer; one to dishonour and humiliate the enemies, and anyone who disobeys the Master, in the vilest, most terrible of ways. In between these 'tasks' he falls in love with the Master's mistress 'Maram', which 'was like touching a live wire... untold misery awaited anyone caught glancing her way when she was in the Master's company or when she stepped out onto the dance floor'. With each new 'task' and every passing year, Tariq grows increasingly richer and more powerful eventually exacting his own vengeance on those he blames for his moral detriment and sullied existence.
This painful, dark satirical novel throws light on the excesses of the rich and wealthy. Their jaded demeanour regarding all worldly pleasures. Tariq labels them as deviants and perverts who are 'basically motivated by boredom: tired of what is socially acceptable, they seek whatever is novel or uncommon to break the monotony of routine pleasures".
Why write the book? it is a question I have asked myself many times and when I posed it to Abdo Khal at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, he answered that he writes out of love. Love for humanity in all its layers: the good, the bad and the extremely ugly. He believes, as any writer does, that writers are possessed and later become obsessed with the story that takes hold inside of them. He went on to explain that he would stop several times during the writing of 'Throwing Sparks', feeling ill at the words and ideas spewing out onto the page yet helpless and unable to stop them from flowing nonetheless. He was eventually hospitalised and it was the encouragement of his wife who spurred him to complete his work as he'd faltered many a time unable to go on.
And go on he did, presenting a work that although fiction, will strike a chord particularly with readers of this region. The cases in question are sensitive, often volatile issues particularly when it comes to sexuality, morality and honour. In a scene where Tariq approaches his loathsome aunt and wonders if he was there 'to give the lie to all her dire warnings or to confirm them?' one cannot but pause, reflect and wonder whether such a book, with such a dark horrific message, is actually conducive of expelling the myth that already surrounds a country shrouded in gossip and mystique or whether fuel has been added to an already raging fire.
I received a request to read/review 'Beyond Belief' by Helen Smith around Christmas holidays last year. As of January 28th the book has become available in paperback, audio and ebook editions and I am happy to write in that this latest addition to the Emily Castles Mystery series, is just as light-hearted and engaging as ever.
This time, Emily Castles lands a gig with the Royal Society for the Exploration of Science and Culture to attend their annual conference being held in Torquay entitled 'Belief and Beyond'. The society will have for the first time in its history, extended the invitation to mediums, hypnotists and psychics. Emily's mission? Hired by the society's current president Gerald Ayode, she is there to investigate the possible threat to the conference's main attraction and 'super star' Edmund Zenon who is offering a £50,000 reward to anyone who can prove the existence of the paranormal. A well-known rationalist, he is not only a TV celebrity hoping to plug his book at the conference but his tour is aptly entitled 'Don't Believe the Hype'. Quite an inflammatory title at a conference that specialises in nothing but the paranormal.
The setting for the novel is The Seaview Hotel in Torquay aptly named for its location. It is in the waters of Torquay that Zenon has promised his audience, who are gathering in this seaside village from near and far, the most amazing gig on Earth: he will walk on water. And so enter a wide range of amusing (the colonel) and the not so amusing (Madame Nova) and even sinister characters who are all hoping to witness the moment Zenon delivers on his promise.
By now readers of Helen Smith will be expecting a diverse list of eccentric characters and she does not fail to deliver. There is never a dull moment as the characters battle each other for attention. There is murder, fortune-telling, a prophecy, and a very memorable baptism scene. And, of course, there is philosophy professor, Dr. Muriel Crowther, who is like the 'Watson' to our female 'Sherlock'.
Helen Smith's 'Beyond Belief', a whodunnit in all sense of the word, touches upon sensitive, humane issues such as ordinary people's need for the paranormal and the reason people feed into the hype of fortune tellers, psychics, and mediums. It also highlights how wrong it could all go and how easily some take advantage to prey and exploit people's vulnerabilities at a time of loss, bereavement and loneliness. It highlights how people's fears, anxieties, hopes and dreams are feeding an industry, whether authentic in its claims or not, that is constantly expanding and that is proving hard to ignore.
Finally, let me tell you why I like Helen Smith and why you should read her books. It's simple: Helen Smith is an author who listens to her readers. When those readers loved Emily Castles from the word go and asked to know more about her, Helen Smith was listening. In 'Beyond Belief' she creates settings that allow her main character the opportunity to connect with the reader. We glimpse a more intimate, possibly romantic side to Emily that was lacking in the previous book. I do believe she has a lot of growing up to do as a character and I do think there is more to her than the author is letting on. And best of all? Emily's a South London girl. Enough said!
To know more about Helen Smith, click HERE.
Great news: I have a new book to rave about and recommend off the tip of my tongue as soon as someone suggests a title to read. Last year was 'Gone Girl' by Gillian Flynn (click HERE to read the BookFabulous review). Less than a week into this new year and I'm already excited about Liane Moriarty's latest book 'The Husband's Secret'.
The novel, set in Australia, is about a woman, Cecilia Fitzpatrick, who is living the perfect life. She is in love with and married to the town's handsome much-loved and highly-respected member of the community, Jean Paul, who happens to come from a well-to-do family as well. Together they have three beautiful high achieving young daughters. Chairman of the school's PTA, Cecilia has also recently launched a new very successful career involving Tupperware. In short, the woman has it all.
One day, while searching for a souvenir in the attic - a piece of the original Berlin Wall as it happens - to give to her teenage daughter who is currently obsessed with that story having moved on from her obsession with the Titanic, she accidentally stumbles upon a sealed enveloped addressed in her name. Recognising the writing as that of Jean Paul she cannot open it as it has clear instructions that Cecilia is only to ever read the letter in the event of his death.
And here the dilemma starts. Does she open it knowing full well that if she told any one of her friends about it, nearly every one of them would urge her to do just that? Or should she return it to where she found it and pretend it didn't even exist? But it does exist she reasons and starts to obsess about finding answers to questions like why it was there in the attic and not filed away with all of Jean Paul's other legal work? and why had he not given it to their solicitor to keep in the first place?
Her decision? Of course, she opens the letter - (I am not spoiling this for you as the title of the book kind of gives it away) but when she does, it is only to discover that in her hand she holds something akin to a Pandora's box (who by the way Moriarty begins and ends her novel with) that now unleashed unto Cecilia's universe has set in motion a string of events that will change the lives of those closest and dearest.
What Moriarty does with this novel is very clever. She brings a group of ordinary people leading ordinary lives and strings them together in the most extraordinary way. Yet in spite of the novel switching from one character's life to the other, there is an order to the madness and it flows beautifully. However, the reader will run out of guessing options as to the content of the letter and then as to where on earth Moriarty is leading us all. And by us, I mean the readers. For once that letter is opened the reader is no longer an impartial entity but remains challenged throughout. It's like Moriarty defies you to act any differently to her characters when faced with the same situations. It is a novel that will force you to address who you are at your core and what you would do when your values, beliefs, and everything you know about wrong and right are put to the test.
The plot is very believable, so much so that it will have book club members shouting over each other to be heard and most likely at each other. And that in my opinion makes it well worth reading and ultimately gives depth and credibility to the writing. It is a novel about redemption, love, and closure. It is a story about regrets, guilt, and many many secrets.
My best friend and I are still at lock horns with her unbudging attitude that Cecilia should not have opened the letter in the first place. My argument? why write a letter with a secret if you don't want to be found out? Which one of us is right? We'd like you to be the judge of that so come on, go and read/download the book now. A friendship could be at stake here :)
Welcome back everyone and happy 2014!
Boy, oh boy do I have a lot (seriously a lot) of book recommendations to throw your way. Christmas holidays, never a quiet affair in this household, saw me with time to read loads and loads of new and not so new titles finally decreasing that pile of books in the corner collecting dust. My cleaning lady is the happiest person on Earth right now. Yes, I have a live-in cleaner (I'm in Abu Dhabi now duh!) and yes, she really is happy (my judgement is based on her whistling tune - on that some other post).
Anyway, back to business and since I'm on the subject of cleaners, I thought I'd kick the year off with a Dubai-based memoir by Becky Wicks aptly called 'Burqalicious: The Dubai Diaries'. But why is my cleaning lady relevant to this I sense you wondering? well, because it seems that according to Becky's book she would have us believe that expats in Dubai are all blessed with one (a cleaner that is, not a Becky) and by the time expats leave the magical city of Dubai they've forgotten how to wipe stains off a floor or how to stack anything in a dishwasher. A bit of an exaggeration (a thing this book is apt to do quite often) but I can see that happening ;)
However, this is a hilarious, casual, not too seriously written memoir about Wicks' time in Dubai between 2007 -2009! It is a delightful read, quite saucy and funny. This is no surprise given that among the many jobs Becky held in Dubai, was running a celebrity gossip blog. Not an easy job as one would imagine in a country where words like 'sex, drugs, whores, adultery and nudity' are forbidden. Basically not easy writes Becky 'when anything that makes writing about celebrities vaguely interesting is a big, fat no-no'.
Thankfully her book, written and published outside of Dubai, is far from censored. Dubai, a city that is not only Muslim but has strict rules about sex outside of marriage, unmarried couples living together, public displays of affection and zero tolerance to alcohol, Becky Wicks's book is rife with all those forbidden pleasures. The book is a diary entry of Becky's days and nights in the the city that not only seems to be competing with the world but who seems to continually want to outdo itself. This is a city where everything is bigger, better and shinier than anywhere else on Earth and where billboards and press releases promise outlandish dreams that only Dubai can make true.
Seems too good to be true? well, it's because it is. Dubai is not an easy place to live where everyone seems to be out to make a quick buck. And judging by Becky's account hardly anyone does any work in proportion to the amount of money they're paid and in fact treating their stay as one big holiday. The outcome? The bubble bursts, businesses collapse, and loads of people are thrown in jail due to mounting unpaid debts. However, most of the book focuses on the lifestyle pre-Dubai crash and although the situation is tamer these days it is by no means vanished. Dubai winning the bid to host Expo2020 are proof of that and the size of the New Year celebrations that took place in Jumeirah are yet the biggest proof of all. (Dubai New Year 2014 fireworks have entered the Guinness Book of Records. Click HERE to see the YouTube.
The author, Becky Wicks, is no angel, although she would have us believe otherwise. Becky was a single, 20-something year old out in Dubai at its prime. In the space of only two years, she changes several jobs, becomes mistress to a very wealthy Muslim and married man, and has several 'boyfriends' along the way. In her book she comes across as an immature, irritating, self-centred gold-digger (her relationship with M&M is proof) and a bonafide drama queen. There is sex, there is a city, but Becky Wicks is no Carrie Bradshaw.
So why should you read the book? Because it is fun, un-putdownable, insightful and shallow in equal measure and perfect for when you're detoxing in January!