Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The Underground Railway by Colson Whitehead

I try so hard to read good books, worthy books and books that I will learn from.  But sometimes I just need a book that will grab me and take me out of the world and refuse to let go.  In other words a good story that I have to drop everything for.  The cover of The Underground Railway says “Winner of the National Book Award” and “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017”.  In the past the grand titles have meant that a book is likely to be worthy, but no guarantee that it is interesting enough to hold my often goldfish level attention.

The Underground Railway tells the story of a young woman called Cora from a cotton plantation in Georgia who decides to try and escape the utter misery and horror of life as a slave.  We follow her on her journey, with a slave catcher in pursuit.  The book doesn’t hold back when describing the horrific treatment of slaves at every step of their life.  It also throws light on the plight of freed men and women, who despite not being slaves are completely at the mercy of the whims of white people of the time.

The book highlights the thinking of the time that stated non-whites were inferior, barely human and even sinful (from the biblical story of Ham), requiring control and discipline or punishment from white people.  Even those who are considered to be comparatively sympathetic are shown to treat black people as subjects of ridicule of experimentation.

On her journey Cora also provides us with a window into the other forms of persecution of the time, whether medical experiments, arbitrary violence against black people, or the “clearing” of whole towns of any black people through public lynching’s.

The Underground Railway is written in clear, forceful prose.  The writer often builds up tension and suspense and then resolves it so suddenly and quickly that within a sentence the awful has happened, barely leaving you time to feel the full horror of  a situation. 

Cora is a complex protagonist, veering from thinking deeply about her situation only to dismiss it to being driven by a profound anger at her situation.  Interestingly, she never buys into the negative narrative about her race and situation.  She is always crystal clear that there has been an injustice against her race and that they are deserving of  justice and freedom, that the slave owners and sympathisers are the sinners and


The book moves from brutal scenes of violence to contemplative passages, meditating on the situation of the people.  Colson Whitehead’s writing and the themes of this book reminded me of the books of Tony Morrison, one of my favourite writers: moving, often painful to read, leaving you brimming with anger at the injustices brought down on generations of people in the name of money and justified through both religion and science.  Part polemic, part history lesson, this is a fascinating and engaging story, I think I will keep hold of this book for the my children to read.


Monday, 24 July 2017

City of Ember by Jean DuPrau

I picked this book up from the charity shop never having heard of the author and not knowing that it was a children’s book until I started reading it.  But put post-apocalyptic and fiction in the same sentence and I am on it like a bookworm getting her fix.

The book is set in a town called Ember, nothing exists outside of the town except for darkness and the town contains everything the dwellers will ever need.  All light is provided by electric lights during the day and at night there is pitch black.   Except the lights are starting to stutter and the food and supplies the town needs are starting to dwindle leading people to start asking whether anything lies beyond the dark.

The prologue to the book tells us that the “Builders” of Ember expected the people to live in the city for two hundred years and then gain access to instructions which would lead them out of the city, over time the instructions are misplaced and accurate time keeping of the two hundred years is lost, so that the period may have been exceeded by an unknown amount of time.

Lina and Doon are two children who have just finished their schooling and are expected to take their place amongst the adults of Embers and learn the trade assigned to them to help keep Ember running, Lina as a messenger and Doon working underground in the pipework’s below the city that keep it functioning.  When they come across a damaged old parchment they are convinced that within its directions lies the salvation of Ember.  How will they decipher it with so much of it missing and will they be able to do so before the town falls into permanent darkness?

This is a fast-paced, clever book, with the action moving at a cracking pace. The characters are easy to like, with many eliciting a lot of sympathy and sadness from the reader: Lina’s senile grandmother, her toddler sister left without parents at such a tiny age, the various lonely and frightened people of Ember trying to survive on less and less.  The world of Ember is fascinating and brought to life through its songs, way of life and the anxiety of the people as we witness the slow decline of the towns infrastructure.

The book was a little predictable and I knew what was coming towards the end, but I raced through it to see how the characters could possibly find resolution.  As with all of the best post-apocalyptic fiction, the ending leaves us with as many questions as answers and ends one journey with the start of another.  I would happily read the next book in this series to find out what happens next.


Saturday, 15 July 2017

Beautifully Different by Dana Salim

Beautifully Different is the second book in the Yousuf’s Everyday Adventures series, written by Dana Salim and illustrated by Pavel Goldaev. The book is based on the premise of a question that Yusuf asks his father: “Why are we all different? Especially when it leads to some people being treated unfairly?” for instance by being made fun of).




Yusuf’s father responds to his question by taking him on an imaginary journey to an island in the sea where he meets interesting animals and colourful birds. The island is being overtaken by weeds that are choking out the flowers. The flowers are all different but with Yusuf’s encouragement they come together to push back the weeds. This helps Yusuf to understand that it’s ok to be different and that when we come together our differences can be a strength.

I read the book to my two year old and my four year old. The four year old had lots of questions and wanted to discuss what was happening, she picked up the messages of the book quite clearly. The two year old was engrossed in the bold and colourful illustrations.





This is a lively and accessible book with an important message for the times we live in. The two messages around celebrating and accepting our differences and coming together in difficult times despite our differences resonated with me and are very apt for the circumstances we find ourselves in whether Muslim or not. I hope this is a message that reaches the hearts of all of our children.

Note: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Picture of the Day 14.07.17 - My Cheeky Bookworm

When Gorgeous picked up this big book, I had my doubts. I know he loves reading, but my boys can be lazy and go for easier books sometimes. Three days later he presented it back to me bleary eyed saying he loved it. I was impressed and really very proud, although I have told him I don’t want him staying up late to read. I remember my mum telling me the same thing, to no effect at all.

He is so boisterous and full of life and mischief alhamdulilah, that it is both endearing and exhausting, so books have been an absolute gift. In between the noise, annoying his sisters and creating mess, he will disappear for hours into his room to just read and read and we all wonder how it got so quiet in the house.






Saturday, 4 March 2017

Thrifty Book Haul March 2017

I had an urge for some retail therapy this morning and not wanting to waste too much money, I decided to take a trip to the charity shops.  Gorgeous wakes up early like me and is the only one that will tolerate going anywhere near a charity shop, even the babies moan at me if I go into one, so I took him along with me.

I managed to find everyone something without wasting too much money.


















The bag of little girl’s toys and the bag of balls cost 99p each, prompting Gorgeous to sing "Balls! Balls! Balls! Balls!" until I asked him to stop.  The acrylic paints were for Little Lady and cost £2, when I checked the Wilko website, I realised they cost that much anyway.

The two little dishes are to use for soap trays.  Both I and Little Lady have been using Shea Moisture Black Soap and the bars of soap are quite big and can get a little messy.  Normal soap trays are too small, so these will contain larger bars of soap.  Both together cost £2.

The two toiletry bags were £2 for both, the large one is a really good size to store stationary or make-up, but in the end I put small toys in it for the girls to play with when we go to my mum’s house 

The little kid’s books were 2 for 99p, with the Hungry Caterpillar for Baby.  The little green notebook was 50p and has dots inside.  It's perfect for a dots and boxes game I like to play with the boys, otherwise I will use it for taking rough notes.















I was looking for some engrossing fiction to get lost in, but the shelves full of chick-lit and supermarket thrillers didn't really appeal.  In the end, I picked three books which cost £5 altogether.  I really, really like the look of all three alhamdulillah.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Divine Reality: God, Islam and The Mirage of Atheism By Hamza Andreas Tzortzis

The writer begins with sharing his own journey to Islam and the drivers that motivated him to search for truth. He describes the greatest of these as being the contemplation of death. This serves as a background for how the author came to grapple with this question and also a disclosure of any bias on his part.

The book outlines a definition of atheism, the different types of atheism and what the reasons for these to emerge could be. The writer cites historical examples showing that atheism has always existed in some form or other since the earliest days of Islam and that Islamic scholars have responded to it articulately and with confidence, something that we should retain today in the face of modern challenges to faith. There is a brief history of the rise of atheism in recent years including its growth in Muslim countries and Muslim populations in the Western world.

The writer then breaks down the implications of not believing in God, including the loss of hope and a light at the end of the tunnel and the loss of meaning for our struggles, pain and sacrifices. In contrast there is the hope that faith brings and the reminder from the Quran that those who do not believe in God will feel hopeless:

“Certainly no one despairs of God’s Mercy, except the people who disbelieve.”

The book explores fundamental questions like “what is our purpose?”, “what is true happiness?” and “where are we going?” underpinned with logical reasoning, examples to illustrate the writers thinking and including different viewpoints. The writer uses these questions to show that atheism cannot provide satisfactory answers to the big questions in life and because of this cannot lead to the peace and happiness that we seek through trying to answer these questions.

The book then explore the oft-presented argument that you can live a good life as an atheist and while accepting that you can, it cites research evidence of relationships between religion and greater charitable giving, greater levels of volunteering, lower risk of depression, drug abuse, fewer suicide attempts and greater wellbeing.

The writer takes to task naturalist and Darwinist thinking, challenging the belief that everything we do and believe in is geared to increase our chances of survival. He asserts that our existence is not just based on our will to survive, but to find the truth, giving examples of all of the dangerous things we are willing to do to get to it (like explore space or climb a mountain).

The book looks at the argument for the existence of God as opposed to the evidence for the absence of a Creator giving evidence from psychological, sociological and anthropological sources. It also suggests that belief is intuitive, citing the concept of “fitrah” or the innate disposition within each of us to recognise God. This departure is interesting, because the author has to step aside from rational arguments for the existence of God and consider something that is so hard to prove, so easy to reject when arguing about these things, but still so impossible to dismiss on a personal level. It’s that part of us that speaks to us when we look at the beauty of nature and the world around us and tells us that there is something greater than us and that everything that is happening to us is not just random. Tzortzis quotes Al-Ghazali to explain this point quite beautifully:

Al-Ghazali argues that the fitrah is a means that people use to acquire the truth of God’s existence and that He is entitled to our worship. He also maintained that knowledge of God is something “every human being has in the depths of his consciousness.” 

I enjoyed the books forays into descriptions of planets, energy forces and the laws of physics and how they prove some kind of intelligent design as well as the chapter on the divine authorship of the Quran. The latter cites a variety of Islamic and academic scholars. The chapter entitled the Messenger of God (sallallahu alaihi wasallam) is also fascinating in its mention of his teachings, character and impact, but also the things he predicted would come in the future.

One thing I really liked about this book was that it doesn’t dismiss any alternative views out of hand as books written from one religious viewpoint can do. It has the courage to outline all of the alternative views and voices and then follow a line of logic that takes us to why belief in the Divine is the one that makes the most sense.

The book is well structured and aims to be logical as it reasons its way through interlinked elements of atheism. The writer unpacks the arguments in a systematic way. This subject can be a complex and extremely abstract area, difficult to get your head around, cloaked in academic language and sometimes just chasing its tail in circles. This book breaks down the different parts to think about when addressing or trying to understand atheism and provides examples to illustrate what the reasoning looks like. At the same time there were some parts of the book where the reasoning followed through to a conclusion quite effortlessly and there were other parts where the author took the argument to a conclusion in favour of theism rather than atheism, but it did not feel as conclusive. I think that this is because for some of the issues looked at, logic and reason can only take us so far and there is a point at which you have to come down on one side of the argument or other based on what you believe. 

The Divine Reality does not shy away from covering extensive research, multiple areas of study and complex arguments. There were parts of the book that required deeper thinking, re-reading or for me to take a step away and mull over them. This was not for me a book to be devoured in one sitting, but one that took careful reading and some clear thinking space to get through. Even being peripherally aware of the current debates around atheism and the history between the writer and atheist Richard Dawkins, the book introduced me to a very wide range of concepts I was unaware of (such as the “the hard problem of consciousness”).

One of the things in the book that had a powerful impact on me, was a quote from a different writer altogether:

“On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of this bus are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” ~ Richard Dawkins

I found this quote stopped in my tracks. It is so full of hopelessness and so depressing, especially in contrast to the books description of how empowering and uplifting the Islamic belief in a Creator can be.

The writer explains that he wrote the book to assist Muslim’s in having clarity for themselves and when engaging others, particularly at a time when atheism is increasing both in Muslim countries and non-Muslim. Particularly he notes there is an aggressive push to promote atheist ideology on university campuses. This book will serve as an accessible, useful tool in discussing faith and answering the very difficult questions we find ourselves faced with from people both critical of faith and those interested in it.


Sunday, 5 February 2017

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

This book is often used as a GCSE study text although I seemed to have skipped it at school (I think we studied Z for Zachariah instead, which is also very good). I spotted this in a shelf full of sci-fi books at a local charity shop and it was the first one I picked up.

Flowers for Algernon is the story of Charlie, a young man with learning difficulties, who despite the challenges of life has a sweet and gentle nature. He is selected for an experiment at his local university that aims to enhance intelligence, an experiment initially tested on a mouse called Algernon with great success. As the experiment takes effect, we find Charlie’s intelligence and understanding expand and deepen to outstrip everyone around him. When the mouse starts to behave erratically and fade, Charlie as to question what that means for him.

The book is written in the form of a diary which Charlie is asked to keep as a measure of his progress. The author deftly takes us on a journey through Charlie’s words, portraying innocence, hope, Charlie’s excitement and awakening and then his dawning realisation that the people around him are not always what they have seemed to the child-like version of himself. Throughout Keyes creates the doubts and insecurities that plague Charlie whether his IQ is low or high.

This is not the sci-fi of space ships, aliens or killer robots. This is the kind of book that looks deep into the human psyche and nature and explores the effect of intelligence on the way the world treats you, the way you see it and your relationships. Charlie is lonely and alienated from those around him both when he can barely read or write and when he is considered a genius.

The book was originally written in 1959 and feels very much of its time, with mentions of dance halls and a Strato-jet. But it also shines a spotlight on the treatment of people who were categorised as “retarded” at the time, whether in the community or in hospitals. I recently had a long conversation with a colleague at work who used to manage care homes for people with learning difficulties. She described how at the start of her career she would find people left with no games or radio or any other kind of activity to keep them occupied. They would share communal shower areas and rows of toilets without doors (shared between male and female residents). Most devastatingly, anyone with challenging behaviour that might bite had their teeth removed, the youngest person she saw this done to was 23 years old. So the descriptions of the hospital where “retarded” young men are sent is quite upsetting.

A deeply moving, heart-breaking little book.