In 2009 the International Human Rights Watch published a truly appalling 96 page report on the situation of women in Afghanistan. It would appear nothing has changed since the Taliban were thrown out. If anything, a further five years on from this report,  the lot of women has actually got worse. The report focused on five areas: attacks on women in public life, other violence against women, child and forced marriage, access to justice, and girls' access to secondary education  All of these issues are covered in this novel with the author stating on her website that she wrote this novel to share the experiences of Afghan women in 'a fictional work that is made up of a thousand truths'.  This novel tells the story of two women - Rahima, the third daughter of five, living with her cocaine addicted father and powerless mother in a village with numerous other extended family members around her. As there are no sons, Rahima  has the great good fortune to be able to take on the role of a son for the family. She is dressed  as a boy, has her hair cut, her name is change, she is able to go to school, to do the family shopping in the market, speak to men, look them in the eye, and have other boys as her friends. A great life, until inevitably, puberty begins and she must revert. What follows for Rahima and her two older sisters is forced marriage to much older men in order to satisfy their father's debt to a local war lord. Life takes a terrible turn for the worse for the three sisters. The girls' aunt, is a most unusual woman in that due to a physical disability she has never been given in marriage. She does all she can to focus Rahima and her sisters on being strong and smart and resilient by telling the story of the girls' great great great grandmother, Shekiba, who in turn was treated very badly by the men in her family and community she lived in. At one stage, she is required to take on the task of guarding the women in a harem,  dressing and living as a man, giving her unprecedented freedom from the dreadful life led by women. But life is not always rosy, and violence, death and betrayal are never far away.

I can't even begin to think  how intolerable and terrifying a life such as this could be. It is dreadful to think that millions of women in these countries are still living such restrictive violent lives. Although this is fiction, it is a serious read and doesn't shy away from the tough issues. It doesn't have quite the same punch and impact as 'The Kite Runner", but is every bit as good a story.  


So did Harper Lee really write this or not? There seems to be more hype about the publication of this book than about the book itself. Supposedly found abandoned in Ms Lee's house, this was the manuscript that she first submitted for publication, only to be told by her editor to take the main character, Jean Louise Finch/Scout, and flesh out her childhood story. Which she did, and it became that marvellous wonder of a story - "To Kill A Mockingbird". It's a shame that this found manuscript made it out of the drawer or cupboard where it was found, because it probably should have stayed there. The story line - early to mid 1950s, a grown up Scout returns to her home town of Maycomb, Alabama where ideas and views have changed somewhat since she left, and she is forced to take a long hard look at herself and those around her - has been challenging for readers who hold Mockingbird close to their hearts. But for me, and plenty of other on line reviewers, the main problem with this is how poorly it has been written and pulled together. It is almost as if maybe, the manuscript has been published as it was found - bits and pieces of Jean Louise's early life slotted in around the few days of her visit back to her home town. I really enjoyed these early stories - vignettes of her relationship with her father, the perfect Atticus Finch; her brother Jem; Calpurnia, the black housekeeper who became Scout's surrogate mother; her days at school. Wonderful stuff, and maybe this is why that long ago editor asked Ms Lee to make a story about Scout the child. Because the writing around Scout the adult is all over the place - it rambles, it is boring, she has the most bizarre conversations with her uncle, goes through the most intense 24 hour love/hate/love crisis with her father that reads more like a soap opera than a genuine crisis. I actually wish I hadn't read this - as a prequel/sequel it has added nothing to 'To Kill A Mockingbird". Maybe it was the vision of all those dollars to be made by those managing Ms Lee's affairs....

A FAREWELL TO ARMS by Ernest Hemingway

My first Hemingway, and probably my last. I didn't not enjoy it, but I certainly didn't really like it. My thinking is that I should read at least one book of this famous twentieth century author, possibly more famous for the life he led than the books he wrote, even though he did win the Nobel Peace Prize for literature in 1954. And this was a random pick off the library shelf rather than one I specifically chose.

A good story, based on Hemingway's own ambulance driving experiences during WWI in Italy. The lead character is an American, Fredric Henry, serving as a lieutenant in the medical corps of the Italian army. Amongst all the horror of war he meets an English nurse, Catherine, with whom he falls madly in love. Their love affair amidst the chaos going on around them is the backbone to the story.

The problem is that it is just not terribly well told or very well written. The plot meanders quite a bit, the dialogues between all the characters are dreadful, often amounting to no more than two or three word exchanges - for a couple in love they can't really seem to find anything to talk about, but having said that, probably not a lot of talking was going on! With his fellow soldiers, all Italian, the conversations are just as boring, naturally there is a lot drinking and ribbing and sitting around being bored going on, which is probably what happened anyway. The best writing is the descriptions of what is going on around them all - the fear, the tension, the horror, the dirt, the day to day life. And quite a bit on the futility of war, the pointlessness of it all, and of course the inevitable deaths.

This was probably very much a book of its time - published in 1929 the war had ended only ten years earlier, and it was very well received when first published. So, I can now say I have read a Hemingway, yay, moving on. 

KING RICH by Joe Bennett

Well-known NZ writer and columnist Joe Bennett, who has lived in the Christchurch area for many years, has now written his first work of fiction. What would have happened to someone who actually managed to remain inside the cordoned off CBD disaster zone, living in the condemned multi story  hotel which also happened to be the tallest building in the city? For Richard, in his early sixties, life in recent years has taken a bad turn. Sick, probably malnourished, basically homeless, and an alcoholic to boot, the haven he finds in the deserted and leaning hotel, is really the only place he wants to be. No one to love, and no one to love him other than an abandoned dog which also finds its way into the building, Richard has little to live for. On the other side of the world in London, his daughter Annie, who has spent her whole life wondering what happened to her adored father after he left her and her mother, sees on TV the devastation wrought on her home town, and makes the long journey back to Christchurch to see if she can find him and maybe re-find herself.

It's a simple story of love and hope, the kindness of others, the simple pleasures in life, set against a background of such devastation, loss and despair. Could it only be written by someone who has lived through all this themselves? Well, in this case, I think yes. Because the book absolutely sparkles with what Christchurch is all about. The writer captures the essence of the landscape, the garden city, the old wooden architecture, the solidness of the place, the spirit, resilience and stoicism of the residents that was apparent to the rest of the country and the world in the days, weeks and now years after. Joe Bennett is a marvellous writer, so visual - 'The starlings are gangsters in flashy suits, strutting like hit men on the far edge of the sill, their sword-beaks jabbing at each other in perpetual squabble.' This is just one of many, many sentences that I loved. It's such an entertainment to read, even though the subject matter is not.

Both Richard and Annie, as the main characters, are very real people. Despite their flaws, as the reader you can't help but relate to them, empathy oozing over the page. Noted NZ writer Dame Fiona Kidman reviewed this book for The Spinoff, and her main criticism is how Annie's mother/Richard's ex wife is portrayed, and I agree with her. It is a very simplistic and one dimensional view of a woman who was betrayed early on in her marriage, left with a young child to raise, and consequently not a very nice portrayal. The reader is not supposed to like her, she does not behave well. However, taking into consideration the circumstances of her marriage breakdown, I do think she deserves some compassion and sympathy. Dare I say it, if the book had been written by a woman the wife may have come across as a nicer person, with at least one redeeming quality.

But a small criticism. Annie's search for her father, the history she unearths, the people she meets who knew her father in his younger and better days is really quite heart warming. Disasters like this always produce small but beautiful real life stories, and what is probably the best thing about the story of King Rich and his daughter Annie, is that it could so easily be true. I hope Joe Bennett keeps writing fiction! 


Not so long ago I read 'My Salinger Year', a memoir by a young woman in her first job at a literary agency that just happened to number JD Salinger among its clients. She revels in the myth of the hermit like Salinger, she answers his hundreds and hundreds of fan mail on his behalf, she eventually meets him. Many of his writings get a mention in the book, none more so than The Catcher in the Rye, that angst ridden teenage rant of young Holden Caulfield who is having the usual crap time of life that teenagers the universe over have always had. So I thought I better read it, again, as I did way back in my tender youth. It is actually still pretty good, and did take me back to the intense emotional tragedy that one feels one's life is between about the ages of 14 and 18. Poor old Holden -misunderstood, unloved, unable to attract any girls, very self centred and full of his own self importance. At least he comes from money so no worries there, unlike the vast majority of teenagers...

This book has over 36,000 reviews on GoodReads, so not much more to say really. Read some of the reviews, they are great, works of art themselves! Glad I am not a teenager, and never to be one again, horrible time in one's life. 


I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this novel. It was a Goodreads top read for 2014 and I must say I was a little sceptical at first. The blurb on the back wasn't that inspiring, but I figured with 70% of the Goodreads readers giving it four stars or above it had to be a goer. And  it really is!

Two stories are running parallel - in 1964 New York, young graduate Vivian is bored in her new job as a fact checker for a magazine. Despite her wealthy and  privileged background, she is starting at the bottom, and very keen to work herself up the ladder as fast as she can. She is ballsy,  awesomely articulate, loads of personality and ambition. Her life changes completely on a Saturday when her roommate tells her there is a parcel waiting at the local post shop for her collect - a suitcase as it happens, and an encounter with a young man in the queue.

In alternate chapters is the story of Violet. Her story begins in 1912. She also is not typical of young women of her time, having escaped her own suffocating privileged background to further study physics at Oxford university. She quickly falls under the spell of her famous professor and so begins her story. Much of Violet's story is set with the beginnings of WWI as a backdrop, moving from Oxford to Berlin, Switzerland and finally Paris. Vivian's  receipt of the suitcase and its mysterious contents and origins leads her inevitably to Violet's story.

Both stories are really good, both young women rebelling against their expected roles, both trying to survive in tough surroundings, and both shining through. The two women are quite different, and I was really impressed with how the author created two entirely different personalities in Vivian and Violet, and how both women changed and grew during the course of the story. Plus you are on your seat right to the very end, to a most satisfying conclusion for all involved.