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.