book review

READ THE WORLD – Germany: Sirius by Jonathan Crown

In Berlin, he was named Levi – a good Jewish name for a good Jewish dog. When he fled with his owners to America he became Hercules, Hollywood’s famous acting dog. Then he caught the eye of Hitler he was renamed Hansi. But to the Resistance he was known as Sirius, the dog on the inside who could bring peace to a world at war. No matter the name, he’s a little dog who almost changed history.

Sirius is a historical novel that’s mostly told from the point of view of the titular dog. He is the focal point of much of the action, it’s through his eyes the reader see’s major events like Kristallnacht, so there’s often this distance between the action and what it really means as while Sirius is smart, he’s still just a dog who doesn’t understand what’s happening. The story also follows Sirius’s human family, the Liliencron’s, so the more emotive stuff comes from them as they flee Germany and make new lives from themselves amongst famous face of Hollywood’s golden age.

Sirius is written in a simple language style and is a very quick and easy book to read that’s got some humour in it. Having a dog being the main character makes this book have an unusual take on historical events. It’s one of those stories where you wonder where the fiction ends and the fact begins due to Sirius meeting so many real people from Hollywood executive Jack L. Warner to Adolf Hitler. There’s some things I know cannot be true and Sirius and his human family have been dropped into a real moment in time, where there’s other parts that seem almost plausible.

The main problem I had with Sirius is that I didn’t really connect with characters. Maybe it was because of the writing style but there was this distance between the characters and myself as the reader. I was interested in Sirius’s adventures to an extent but it wasn’t really a book I felt compelled to keep reading.

If you’re a dog lover (I am and that’s the main reason I picked up this book in the first place) and someone interested in a different kind of story set during World War Two then give Sirius a go.

REVIEW: Electric Souk by Rose McGinty

With nothing left for her in Ireland, Aisling travels to the Gulf to live out the Arabian Dream. There she meets fellow expats living the dream including debonair Brian who has heaps of charm and champagne, though is perhaps not all he seems. She also gets to know locals like Laila, her translator, and activist Hisham and finds herself in between the sleazy world of expats and wanting to learn more about her new home. As the Arab Spring erupts, Aisling is faced with a world of violence and fear and she’s left not knowing who she can really trust.

Set in an unnamed country in the Gulf, though I presume it to be Saudi Arabia based on a throwaway comment that the book Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea is banned, Electric Souk doesn’t always paint the city and its people in the best light. The divide between the Western expats and the locals is starkly obvious and the way characters act about the rules of the country they’re currently living in made me uncomfortable. Some of the expats talk in quite a derogatory manner about how the locals live and the rules of their society, and it’s a pet peeve of mine when people don’t accept other people’s way of life so that part of the book really grated on me.

Electric Souk is a bit slow to start but there’s an air of suspense and uncertainty throughout the second half of the book that made it much more compelling. With people disappearing, hints of corporate espionage and civil unrest edging ever closer, it becomes more of a thriller than the story of a woman trying to make a success of her new life. When Aisling starts to hear conflicting accounts of events, some of which she was involved in, she’s unsure of who to trust and starts to doubt everything she knows about the people she’s come to count as friends and the place she’s starting to call home.

I really liked how Aisling and Laila’s friendship grew. Aisling surprised me by being an expat that was actually interested in the culture and people she was now living with, instead of just being into the alcohol and partying like the majority of Western characters seen. She doesn’t want to be a part of the “us vs them” mentality but doesn’t always get a say in the matter which makes an interesting dilemma.

Aisling is often a character who a lot of stuff happens to, and she’s not always proactive in her own story. However, while I found that a bit frustrating at times, I realise that Aisling is a victim of circumstance and there is so much out of her control. Electric Souk ends up being a compelling and fast paced book with a real air of threat and danger. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson

When Andie’s dad is caught up in a political scandal, all her summer plans are thrown into chaos. No more summer internship, instead she finds herself with a summer job as a dog walker. She’s not used to not having everything planned out but having everything be unexpected for once could mean a chance for love and new experiences.

The Unexpected Everything is a delightful book. At over 500 pages I was worried it would take me a while to read but in the end, I read it in just one day. I got pulled in by Andie’s story and all her friends, and by the fact there was so many dogs. Honestly if you like dogs, this book is for you as its not only the characters that are interesting and a lot of fun but the many dogs Andie ends up walking are too.

Andie is the kind of character that normally would rub me up the wrong way as she’s often quite selfish and likes everyone and everything to fit in her own plans, but much of the story is about her growing as a person and seeing how she is seen by other people. Andie doesn’t like letting people get close to her or even tell people she’s in a relationship with anything of real substance about herself – this all comes to ahead when she meets Clark. The romance between Andie and dog owner Clark is sweet and has your usual lack of communication confusion but the story has a lot of charm and Andie and Clark both have their flaws and still compliment each other that I was rooting for them.

I really liked Andie’s friendship group, their summer adventures and how The Unexpected Everything showed that some relationships can be quite overwhelming and we all need are space from those we care about. I also really liked how Andie’s relationship with her dad was so believable, they’d not had anything to do with each other for so long so suddenly being around each other led to an interesting dynamic.

The Unexpected Everything is the perfect summer read. It’s fun, has moments of humour and lots of characters you want to be happy. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – China: The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung

Old Chen lives in Beijing, where a whole month has gone missing from official records, no one has any memory of it and no one cares about it either. Except for Old Chen and his friends – they realise something’s wrong with the Chinese people’s cheerfulness and amnesia. When they kidnap a high-ranking official and force him to reveal all, what they discover could shake them to the core.

The Fat Years is set in the near future so while things are different, for instance there was not just the financial crisis of 2008 a second one in 2011, a lot of Chinese history is mentioned. This is interesting and on the most part the social and political history is well-explained and is a great insight into what life is like in (almost) contemporary China. However, as the book progresses it becomes more dense and I struggled to get through the 100 page epilogue. There was a lot of talk about world economics and politics and while most of the book had been relatively quick to read, that epilogue was a slog.

The Fat Years is an interesting take on a near-future dystopia as so much of it appears to be heavily influenced by what we know of China today. There’s the heavy control of the media and the internet, and if someone disagrees with the government there’s strict punishments. It’s the sort of situation that’s scary and unsettling because it’s so realistic. I did like how The Fat Years talks about controlling governments and how the people tend to just accept what is happening, the sociological angle of how a month could go missing from people’s memories was very interesting.

I enjoyed the concept and it was well thought out and interesting however the characters were a bit of a mixed bad. I didn’t find the main protagonist Old Chen particularly compelling but I did like Little Xi, an internet political activist, and the mentions of her relationship with her son who is an ambitious party member.

If you have an interest in or a good understanding of Chinese political and social history then The Fat Years might be for you. Unfortunately, it became a bit too dense and complicated for me towards the end. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Nepal: Gurkha: Better to Die than Live a Coward by Colour Sergeant Kailash Limbu

A memoir from Colour Sergeant Kailash Limbu on his time in the army, the tough training he went through to become a Gurkha, and what it was like during the thirty one day siege in the town of Now Zad in Helmand, Afghanistan during the summer of 2008.

I hadn’t really heard of the Gurkha’s much, not until when actress and comedian Joanna Lumley became the public face of the campaign to provide all Gurkha veterans who served in the British Army before 1997 the right to settle in Britain, in 2008. This led me to learning more about the Gurkha’s and I was fascinated by how determined and fearless they were.

Colour Sergeant Kailash Limbu’s story definitely puts across what the mentality of the Nepalese soldiers who become Gurkha’s is like. Only a handful who apply each year actually make it through the three stages of the tough selection process to become Gurkha’s and join the British Army. He recounts the things he went through in training and how being a Gurkha, like his grandfather and uncle, was all he ever wanted to be.

The book almost seamlessly goes between Kailash Limbu’s childhood and training to what was happening during the siege in Now Zad at regular intervals. This means that while the parts on the Gurkha selection are no less interesting, they are slower paced compared to the action in Afghanistan. I thought it explained military terminology very well, along with things like Nepal’s caste system. There’s a lot of information to take in really but it’s all pretty easy to understand.

The sections on the siege are tense and compelling. It does a great job of putting you right into the action and how relentless the attacks on the small compound the Gurkha’s were based in. You get to know the men Kailash Limbu fought with and how they do all get scared sometimes but they fight through it and do the job that needs doing.

Gurkha: Better to Die than Live a Coward is a great memoir. It is interesting and exciting and is a great insight into what it means to someone to be a Gurkha and why they are so revered in the military. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Zimbabwe: The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

Memory is an albino woman, serving time in prison in Harare, Zimbabwe. When she was nine she was adopted by Lloyd Hendricks, a wealthy white man. It is his murder she is now convicted of and is facing the death penalty. As she waits for her death she tells the story of the events that brought her here – but is everything as she remembers it?

The Book of Memory is an interesting story but one that I sometimes found hard to get through. It wasn’t till I got to the half way point that I began to like the book more and start reading it more quickly. I think that’s because The Book of Memory is split into three parts, Memory’s childhood with her family, her growing up with Lloyd and her time in prison. Though while the book is labelled like that, she does meander with her storytelling meaning it jumps from the present to various points in the past. I personally found the parts more focussed on her adolescence with Lloyd more compelling than her childhood – though I did like how the story brings those two halves of her together.

Memory’s name is apt as so much of her story is recounted from her memory and she doesn’t have anyone to collaborate what she remembers. It’s an interesting to see how something you see and remember when you were a child changes dramatically when you get more information.

Memory is a likeable character, as are many of her fellow inmates, though naturally the prison guards are the main antagonists Memory’s present situation. That being said, there is one guard whose behaviour towards Memory is so nice and almost kind that it makes both the reader and Memory uncomfortable.

I did like the smattering of Shona language used in the book, as well as how it didn’t give you a crash course in Zimbabwean history. Memory often would go between calling her home country Zimbabwe and Rhodesia, and talk about warring political parties and how white people were seen.

For me, there’s not much memorable about The Book of Memory. While I liked Memory well enough, the other characters weren’t particularly notable and there wasn’t many stand out moments in the story. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – India: The Bollywood Bride by Sonali Dev

Ria Parkar is Bollywood’s favourite Ice Princess until one impulsive act threatens to ruin everything she’s built. Her cousin Nikhil’s wedding in Chicago, with the family, food and extravagant celebrations, is the perfect escape from the impending media storm. But being back in Chicago means facing Vikram Jathar. Ria and Vikram spend their childhood summers together, growing up their friendship turned into love until Ria made an earthshattering decision. Vikram believes she sold her soul for stardom but when they meet again, the passion is still there, no matter what Ria does to evade it.

Ria is an interesting character as while the book is from her point of view so you can see her inner-turmoil, she still often projects this poised and impenetrable persona. She’s not always a likable character but I found myself sympathising with her and understanding why she kept so many secrets and tried to keep people at a distance, even those who cared about her.

With Vikram, on the other hand, it took me a lot longer to warm to him. He’s justifiably angry but he’s also very stubborn and believes he knows everything when he often doesn’t. How he reacts to Ria coming back into his life is hurtful and frustrating for both Ria, and myself as the reader. Eventually you see a softer side to him but he’s a character that takes some time to like.

It was the family aspect of The Bollywood Bride that I really liked. I enjoyed the descriptions of all the things that go into a big, stereotypical Indian wedding and what being a part of such a huge extended is like. I loved all of Ria’s family and how they all come together to look out for each other and know each other so well.

In the last third of The Bollywood Bride there are some short but edging on explicit sex scenes. I don’t have a problem with that in a book but I was caught a bit off-guard by it – I think it’s because when I do read a romance novel it tends to be the more rom-com-esque type of book and if there are any heated moments, they tend to fade to black. Still the sex and romance in The Bollywood Bride was sensual and heated and you definitely could feel the connection between the characters.

The Bollywood Bride is quite a quick read – Ria is a volatile character so I always wanted to see what her reactions would be next. The Bollywood Bride is a romantic story full of love of all kinds and also has a few surprises too.