I’ve been incredibly lax on the blog this month, but with the scorching weather and some rubbish health issues to boot, I’ve struggled to have the motivation to read – or do very much of anything in fact – these past few weeks. I did manage to get through two books in early July though that I should have reviewed long before now.
The Poisoned Rock by Robert Daws
Following on from his debut crime novella The Rock, this is the second book by Robert Daws to feature Detective Sergeant Tamara Sullivan and her boss Chief Inspector Gus Broderick. At the opening of the book D.S. Sullivan is almost done with her enforced three-month secondment to the Royal Gibraltar Police Force and is torn about the notion of returning to the Met as she is starting to feel at home in Gibraltar.
A distraction from her inner conflict arrives in the form of a film crew, who are shooting a Gibraltar-based film about the WW2 exploits of the mysterious, enigmatic spy ‘Queen of Diamonds’, starring an A-list actress. At the same time, the British government decide to declassify numerous WW2 espionage files, some of which are quickly spirited out of Britain. On Gibraltar, the past and the present become inextricably linked around the history of this mysterious spy and someone feels strongly enough about it to start committing murder!
It’s an absolute gripper of a plot, and I thought the links between WW2 espionage and the modern day film world were perfectly constructed. I ploughed through the book in one sitting and wound up staying up till 2am as there was no way I could put it down without discovering if the person I suspected was indeed the murderer. My inner Sherlock Holmes was celebrating when I got it right, but I will keep this spoiler free besides saying the clue that helped me solve it was a tasty one.
One of the great strengths of the book was the clarity and realism of the setting, and the attention to detail in its construction. I’ve never been to Gibraltar in my life but Daws paints such a clear and vivid picture that I feel I would almost know my way around if I did. It’s also a really refreshing change from murder mysteries set in London or, a la Agatha Christie and Midsomer Murders, in charming country villages and stately homes.
The balance of characters is as excellent this time around as it was in the first novella; the partnership of Sullivan and Broderick is both professional and amicable, founded on mutual respect and free from cliche. Well-fleshed out supporting characters including Broderick’s long suffering sister Cath, his sweet-tempered daughter Daisy, the laddish D.C. Calbot and grouchy Chief Superintendent Cassetti make for a great ensemble.
It really shines through that Daws is an experienced screenwriter because not only is it an elegantly-written and well-paced novel, but it is simply begging to be made into a TV series. By the time I was half-way through, I’d made up a face cast for everyone in my head. It’s the sort of thing autumn Sunday nights were made for and I will watch the hell out of it if, as was hinted in the afterward of The Rock, it does hit our screens!
My rating: 5/5 and thoroughly recommended if you like a good murder mystery.
The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad
This was the choice for the first month of the new book club I joined. It’s not the sort of thing I would ever have chosen for myself, but then again that was really my impetus in actually joining the club; to try new things and expand my literary horizons.
In the spring of 2002, following the fall of the Taliban, Asne Seierstad spent four months living with a bookseller and his family in Kabul and it is their story she tells; with the names suitably altered. Divided into several very long chapters, the book follows story arcs of several different members of the family and discusses their hopes, motivations and societal limitations.
Head of the family Sultan Khan defied the authorities (communist and Taliban) for over two decades in order to supply books to the people of Kabul. He hid some volumes, covered up the images in others and despite being arrested, interrogated, having to watch some of his books burned, he never ceased in his endeavour. The book also covers his decision to take a second, considerably younger wife and the impact that has on Sharifa, who he has been married to for some years.
Sultan’s son Mansur chafes at the strict control his father has on him and wants to be free to be his own man and enjoy himself in the world, while younger son Aimal, who works twelve hours a day in a small hotel stall selling sweets and so never sees daylight, only wants to go to school. Despite Sultan’s passionate advocacy of the need for education, he thinks it is in his sons’ best interests to have them working for him instead.
Two of Sultan’s sisters are married throughout the course of the book but the youngest, Leila, seems to be consigned to a life of domestic servitude, acting like the family’s servant. She is respected by no one, taken advantage of by her mother and unkindly treated by her brother and nephews. She desperately wants to become an English teacher so that she can find some way out of her family circumstances.
Although I knew from the start to expect considerable cultural differences, I found some of the book incredibly hard to read – especially when it discussed the treatment of women and the acceptance on all fronts that they were second class citizens. When the author recounted an honour killing and the severe violent abuse of a young woman whose crime was only to accept letters from and sit in a taxi with a young man she wasn’t related to, I could have almost cried with rage.
I’m not sure I can say that it was a book I enjoyed reading in the normal sense; it generally just made me angry or sad. It was, however, a deeply evocative book that made me think. It made me consider how much we take for granted in the liberal society we have here in the UK; freedom to dress and self-express as we wish, to marry who we want, to have an education, employment opportunities, to not run the risk of death for normal teenage behaviour.
One of the other themes that really stuck out for me was just how much a society can be completely and utterly transformed by religious extremism; the book talks about the Afghanistan of the mid twentieth century. At that point, it was a tourist destination for hippies as well as a place of doing business, people wore suits and women left their hair uncovered and there were nightclubs and bars in some of the hotels. All of that changed with the Taliban’s arrival – thereafter men could be arrested if their beards were not long enough and it was more than a woman’s life was worth to step out of the house uncovered.
It made me wonder just how easy it would be for that to happen elsewhere – in America, for example, where there seems to be a resurgence in hard-line Christianity. In the constant stream of news, we see some citizens completely disregard proven science, wish for a religiously motivated legislature and make ever more extreme judgements on those they consider ‘other’. It is, of course, a very different sort of fundamentalism to the Talibans, but is it possible that one day we will see American society take such a seismic shift? I certainly hope not!
It’s not an easy read, but if you want something to make you think, then I would recommend giving it a try!
My rating: 3.5/5