Commuter Reads: I am Malala

This semi-autobriography follows the life of Malala Yousafzai who was shot in the head at point-blank range by the Taliban and survived. It also follows the life and birth of Pakistan as we know it and presents a view of Pakistan from a young girl’s point of view; a young girl who loves her country but knows it has been damaged and disfigured by politics, corruption and war.

If you are the sort of person who watches the news and sees the development of the conflict and discontent in Pakistan but don’t quite understand it’s roots, this is a story you need to read.

Malala, with the help of Christina Lamb, a well-known foreign correspondent, tells the story of her country, not in bland, historic, political terms, and neither in a biased, preaching way. She simply tells the story and the history and Pakistan and it’s internal and international relationships that have led to its state today.

Alongside the bigger picture of Pakistan, the book also tells the story of Malala’s life and her development as the voice for women and girls’ rights in Pakistan, particularly for their right to education. With the astonishing support of her father, you see the development of a modern Pakistani girl who loves the beauty of the country but can see its flaws and saw her friends and neighbours be corrupted by the Taliban forces as they took absolute control of her country.

Although I’m not usually a fan of autobiographies, this felt like so much more. The beautiful language and descriptions of another culture made it almost fictional, but the historical and current international relations mean that this is a very important book for everyone to read as it is informative in an easy, storytelling way.

The final aspect of this book that I loved so much was the feminism. It is an important insight into a culture which treats women so differently to ours and where women’s rights are still very much the exception rather than the norm. It is also an important lesson in how all it takes is one girl, or one woman, to initiate change and a huge global initiative – as Malala has done.

For more information about Malala and the Malala fund visit –
https://www.malala.org

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Commuter Reads: All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

[possible spoilers]

“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”

With the winners of the Pulitzer prize having been unveiled this week, it seems only appropriate that I post my review of last year’s Fiction winner, Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See.

This book is completely mesmerising, captivating and beautiful.

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Being an historical fiction, it feels like more than just your average easy-going read. It has so much substance and is simultaneously on a macro level of the second World War and a micro level of specific people’s very individual lives.

Although I love reading and being part of the lives and emotions of characters in books, rarely do I feel like I’m experiencing those emotions too; I felt like I could have cried several times in this book, either from despair, beauty, hope or loss. And anyone who knows me, knows crying is not something I give in to easily!

By far my favourite character in this book is Marie-Laure.

Blind from the age of six, the way she sees the world is more vivid and vibrant and beautiful than anyone with their sight fully intact.

So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?

Through her, you experience the world through the heightened versions of her other senses: sound, touch, taste, and smell. The deafening sensory experience of war in France is separated and felt and experienced by Marie-Laure, one exquisite and beautifully described sensation at a time.

Her all too brief overlap of her life story with the other young protagonist, Werner, leaves you begging for more interaction and more storyline between them. But the briefness of their encounter and the fleeting, but lasting, impact they have on each others lives speaks of the war and the way it touched so many across so many countries in a similar way, in a similar place, but only for a second.

“Don’t you want to be alive before you die?”

Regardless of sides or political allegiance, the book says more about human nature and the beauty in the ways we can choose to treat each other, even in the midst of something as ugly as war.

This book should not be picked up to read lightly, but it is a beautiful piece that you need to give yourself time to enjoy. I can recommend it to everyone.

Asking For It – Louise O’Neill

[spoilers and tw: rape, victim blaming]

Everyone needs to read this book.

For anyone who doesn’t know or understand rape culture or victim blaming, or doesn’t believe it exists: read this book.

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Not only is the book based on O’Neill’s research of true events, but the identifiable nature of high school cliques, popularity contests, laddish boys egging each other on and bitchy girls all wrapped up in a world of social media interactions makes this book all too realistic.

Emma is a popular girl, everyone wants to be her friend, she knows she’s hot and boys want to date her. But after a night out she doesn’t remember, she finds pictures of herself all over Facebook on a page called ‘Easy Emma’. In the pictures she is being abused and raped by four different guys.

Instead of being supported and defended by her friends and family, her dad is so disgraced he can’t look at her. Her mother is terrified of the way it will damage her ‘perfect family’ image. Emma’s friends refuse to talk to her, they blame her and call her a slut, despite the fact she is clearly unconscious in the photos.

In fact, victim blaming is so normalised that Emma actually tries to contact her rapists to apologise.

Because that’s what rape culture is. It’s the culture where any excuse is looked for to place the blame on the victim: the alcohol consumed, the way they’re dressed, the type of person they are.

It’s the culture that doubts the truth of a girl’s story in order to protect the perpetrators.

It’s the culture that mourns the impact of rape accusations on the male because “they had such a bright future ahead of them and she’s ruined it”, rather than the impact the actual rape has on the victim.

People are quicker to believe and assume a woman is lying when she says she has been raped.

All of a sudden, the fundamental justice of “innocent until proven guilty” applies to the perpetrator,  but not to the woman. She is “guilty until proven innocent”. Guilty of “asking for it” or of false accusations, until evidence can prove her veracity.

Rape culture accepts men at their word when they say they didn’t do it. A woman’s word that she was raped is not accepted until proven.

I won’t spoil the ending of Asking For It, but it is heartbreaking in its inevitability.

Victim blaming and rape culture won’t stop existing until everyone acknowledges that they exist in the first place. This book will help people to see and understand that.

Commuter reads: Only Ever Yours – Louise O’Neill

[As always, possible spoilers]

I had heard so many good things about this book and I can honestly say I was not disappointed. It may have been marketed as a primarily YA novel but I definitely think everyone needs to read and understand this.

Only Ever Yours is an extreme reality of gender roles and the consequences of enforced gender identity and female competition. This book is an exaggerated version of patriarchy at its worst. I was repeatedly shocked at the passive compliance to an inherently misogynistic way of life, and even more so when I realised the entire novel is a concentration of patriarchal voices that unfortunately are still present today.

freida and the rest of the eves live in a school for girls, not at academic school, but a school to teach them how they will conduct their lives in the service of men. The three categories they become reduce women to the sex which serves men. Companions will have husbands and produce as many offspring as possible, but only sons are born as female bodies have been genetically designed so their bodies are taught that a female baby is a parasite. Concubines serve men purely for their pleasure. Chastities are pure and teach future eves how to be perfect for their future roles in serving men.

The thing I love in this book is the detail. Immediately I noticed no female name is capitalised; women are the inferior sex. There are mirrors everywhere; body image is everything, there is a special sickness room which essentially provides the facilities to encourage bulimia after a meal. Hormones are medicated, periods are prevented, outfits are preselected. This is a world based on aesthetics and looks. The girls are rated every morning after they dress by the unknown men watching them from the outside world (hello creepy). These men will select their wives after the 16 years of ‘eve training’. The number one eve holds the most power and the rating system fosters rivalry and the worst kind of bitchy competition between the girls.

This again is another clever exaggeration of our own reality. The rating system is exactly like the ‘lad culture’ that perpetuates giving women a rating out of 10 solely based on their appearance. While it may not seem as extreme to us, women are constantly rated and judged for there outfits and looks in magazines, social media and newspapers. The inescapable idea of the ‘ideal woman’ does leave women feeling so unhappy with themselves that they develop eating disorders or feel the need to compete to be the prettiest, slimmest, best dressed etc

Phrases drilled into the girls minds: “There is always room for improvement” and “Always be willing” are horrifyingly uncomfortable sentences that overtly reveal the aspects of our society that tell women they can be prettier, or the rape culture which normalises victim blaming and the acceptance of male violence and abuse.

The difference between this book and our own world is that patriarchy is more covert for us. Gender stereotypes are in the process of being broken down but they are not non-existent. Louise O’Neill simply, and brilliantly, lays out bare the faults and disgraces of sexism and misogyny at its worst.

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Commuter Reads: The Way You Look Tonight – Richard Madeley

You might have seen my not so favourable review of Judy Finnigan’s book last week, I have to say I enjoyed her husband’s book far more. Although, ignore the ridiculous cover art, I have no idea how that actually relates to the content of the story!

Of course, [SPOILERS]

Set in the 1960s, The Way You Look Tonight follows Stella Arnold, something of a psychology Cambridge graduate genius, as she finds herself swept into the glamour of American life where she mingles with the likes of JFK and soon finds herself recruited by the man himself to use her knowledge of the criminal mind to track down a serial killer.

Madeley’s story felt a lot more fast-paced in terms of historical markers and the presence of politics. Plus my love of crime thrillers, psychological killers and a bit of gruesome detail meant this book was far more my cup of tea.

The differing perspectives between Stella trying to identify the killer, and the perspective of the killer himself, made the story far more captivating, particularly in reading the killer’s unsettling motives and psychology for killing young girls the way he does. Stella teams up with local cops, inevitably drawing the sexist distain of her male colleagues when they discover they are working with a female barely into her twenties. However, she proves her worth with each step and identifying characteristic that she attributes to the killer, which helps them close in on him.

The only bit of the book that really infuriated me was the seemingly inevitable underlying romance plot. Stella and lead-investigator on the case,  Lee, are initially at loggerheads at the thought of working together. They inevitably, and unrealistically quickly, fall for each other, and in the space of working together for around a week or so, declare their love for each other. Then despite Stella having been an enjoyably independent female protagonist, she finds herself having to be saved by Lee from the killer in the end and is left somewhat hysterical and psychologically traumatised. So what the book does for undoing sexist stereotypes in the 1960s, is undone by the unnecessary ‘knight-in-shining-armour’ ending. Frustrating, in my opinion.

Nevertheless, for an enjoyable and fairly easy-going read, I would recommend this book. It’s particularly suited as some good holiday reading material.

Commuter reads: I Do Not Sleep – Judy Finnigan

I have a lot of time for celebrities and well-known figures encouraging people to read, so Richard and Judy’s Book Club is an idea that I think is really great and I decided I needed to give one of their books a try (check out my next post for a Richard Madeley book review).

As always, possible [SPOILERS] alert

I Do Not Sleep felt like it had great potential. A bit of mystery but grounded in the real-life trauma of a woman’s loss. Reading the blurb had made me genuinely intrigued as to what had happened to her son; what could have happened that made a simple ‘lost at sea’ story be something else? What else could have possibly happened and did that mean her son was still alive?

So yes, the premise was gripping, it had some nice background stories woven in and since I’m a very visual reader, I found the descriptions of the Cornish coast absolutely beautiful. Of course that also meant pathetic fallacy was used in full force throughout, with the tempestuous weather reflecting the mother’s loss but also conviction that there was something more to her son’s disappearance (she refuses to believe he is dead without proof)

I know I have a strong dislike and general cynicism about emotions and how they are portrayed in stories, but this was too much. I wanted to shake Molly out of her blind denial and tell her it’s been five years since she lost her son, she needs to let go and move on before she pushes the rest of her family away (which she accomplishes very well I might add).

Of course she doesn’t listen to me, or her husband, or her other son and new daughter-in-law, who all love her very much. She pursues her motherly instinct that something else happened to her son and I’ll admit, she does eventually find answers. But they aren’t answers that the reader isn’t already anticipating and the great mystery of what really happened to her son, Joey, isn’t really a mystery at all.

A read a review of the book which said, “Intensely emotional and relentlessly suspenseful”. Perhaps as a testament to a mother’s love and the need for closure it is “intensely emotional”. But I was still waiting for some suspense and mystery even on the last line. It did keep me interested but only by its fingertips.

Commuter reads: What Remains – Tim Weaver

Another gritty crime thriller novel, with just the right amount of mystery and suspense; the kind of novel I love reading. Some of the details are gruesome and bloody, particularly the brutal murder of ten-year-old twins, April and Abigail, whose unjust murders at the hands of a psychopath is what drives Detective Healy throughout the story.

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Again as part of Weaver’s David Raker thriller series, Raker and Hea
ly form the perfect partnership equilibrium. Both wanting the same thing, with the same drive but Raker with slightly more rational and logically reason ways of achieving it. Although, I did find Healy’s fall from grace in this book quite upsetting, particularly the way he was driving himself away from his wife and sons.

However, having read Never Coming Back previously, I have to say What Remains was slightly underwhelming. It had all the great tropes of a thriller no doubt, maybe my expectations after Never Coming Back were too high. But although it kept me reading, I wasn’t as absorbed in the story as I was with Never Coming Back or many other crime thrillers I’ve read, such as Mo Hayder. I felt Weaver’s descriptions and writing style was trying to hard this time: resonating images such as red tail-lights in the snowy traffic with looking like blood. No. If you’re a crime thriller writer, don’t try to be poetic if it isn’t your style; stick to what you are good at.

Having said that, this is well worth the read and the twists and turns at the end were suitably unpredictable if slightly understandable. If you’ve like Weaver before or are looking for a new thriller series, I would definitely recommend this one.