Review: Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland by Pamela J. Olson

16000331Title:  Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland
Author: Pamela J. Olson
Published: March 12th 2013
Publisher: Seal Press
Pages: 320
ISBN: 158005482X
Source: Netgalley

For much of her life -like many Westerners- most of what Pamela Olson knew of the Middle East was informed by headlines and stereotypes. But when she traveled to Palestine in 2003, she found herself thrown with dizzying speed into the realities of Palestinian life.

Fast Times in Palestine is Olson’s powerful, deeply moving account of life in Palestine – both the daily events that are universal to us all (house parties, concerts, barbecues, and weddings) as well as the violence, trauma, and political tensions that are particular to the country. From idyllic olive groves to Palestinian beer gardens, from Passover in Tel Aviv to Ramadan in a Hamas village, readers will find Olson’s narrative both suspenseful and discerning. Her irresistible story offers a multi-faceted understanding of the Palestinian perspective on the Israel/Palestine conflict, filling a gap in the West’s popular understanding of the difficult relationship between the two nations.

At turns funny, shocking, and galvanizing, Fast Times in Palestine is a gripping narrative that challenges our ways of thinking – not only about the Middle East, but about human nature, cultural identity, and our place in the world.

Over the years I’ve read quite a few books about Israel and Palestine, but this one is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I knew that this book was about someone’s personal account of life in Palestine, but I had no idea that Olson hadn’t specifically intended to go to Palestine. She went backpacking in the Middle East and happened to come across some people who invited her to come along to Israel with them, and took her with them to Palestine after that. The fact that the Middle East was a relatively unknown region to Olson before she started out on her journey is actually really nice, especially for people reading this novel who don’t know much about it either, because you gradually discover more and more about the region and Israel and Palestine in particular.

The best thing about this book, in my opinion, are the personal accounts of the people she meets during her time in Palestine. Here in the West we get so much information thrown at us about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but there is nothing we can directly empathise with. By recording people’s personal accounts and allowing us a brief glimpse into their personal lives, it brings the conflict much closer to home. Olson shows that Palestinians are just ordinary human beings who try to go about their normal life as much as they possibly can in spite of all the restrictions imposed by the Israeli government.

The author tries to illustrate the injustices in the region the best she can, and she does so from a fairly objective point of view. It is very easy for a casual observer to generalise a situation and condemn only one of the parties involved, but Olson manages to depict everyone she encountered as human beings, Palestinians and Israelis alike, which is exactly where the power of this book lies. There is no doubt about the fact that Israel is the oppressor in this conflict and Palestine the oppressed, but that does not mean that Israel and all of its inhabitants are the source of all evil, which is how they are often depicted by pro Palestinians. The same goes for the general image of Palestinians in the media. Very often they are either depicted as victims of a great injustice, or as terrorists. The author shows that there are good and bad people on both sides, and also tries to understand and explain why certain people are drawn to certain courses of action. She doesn’t just depict the Palestinians as a poor, homeless people with no prospect, but rather as a multitude of people with hopes and dreams, and with very diverse expectations of life. Olson gives a voice to people who would normally be ignored by the general media, to show that there are many Palestinians who condemn suicide bombers, and there are many Israelis who oppose the settlements in Gaza and on the West Bank, just to name a few examples.

The way in which the book is written, as a kind of travelogue, works really well. Together with the author we gradually peel back the layers of society and of the conflict, and it makes reading the book really exciting because it almost feels as if you are there with her. Olson also manages to strike the right balance between the more light hearted moments of her time in Palestine, such as accounts of helping families with the harvest, enjoying dinners with a large variety of people, and sightseeing, and the more shocking and depressing moments when talking about the many civilian casualties, people being robbed of their land, and tragedies at the various Israeli checkpoints. This way the book offers a perspective that is neither too positive nor too depressing or pessimistic either. It shows how strong human spirit actually is, and that people can manage to retain a degree of optimism even in the most dire of circumstances.

I think this is a must-read for anyone who is remotely interested in the Middle East and who wants to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but doesn’t want to read a dry text packed with statistics and facts. This book does occasionally contain some statistics to back up arguments, but it is a lively and beautifully written account of a young woman whose life took some truly unexpected turns. It is an engaging and thought provoking book, and I definitely think everyone should read it.

My rating: heartheartheartheartheart


Review: The Boleyn King by Laura Andersen

boleynkingTitle: The Boleyn King
Author: Laura Andersen
Published: May 14th 2013 (expected publication)
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Pages: 368
ISBN: 0345534093
Source: Netgalley

Laura Andersen brings us the first book in an enthralling trilogy set in the dramatic, turbulent, world-altering years of Tudor England. What if Anne did not miscarry her son in January 1536, but instead gave birth to a healthy royal boy? Perfect for fans of Philippa Gregory and Allison Weir.

Henry IX, known as William, is a 17-year-old king struggling at the restraints of the regency and anxious to prove himself. With the French threatening battle and the Catholics plotting at home, Will trusts only three people: his older sister, Elizabeth; his best friend and loyal counselor, Dominic; and Minuette, a young orphan raised as a royal ward by Anne Boleyn. Against an undercurrent of secret documents, conflicting intelligence operations, and private murder, William fights a foreign war and domestic rebellion with equal resolve. But when he and Dominic both fall in love with Minuette, romantic obsession menaces a new generation of Tudors. Battlefields and council chambers, trials and executions, the blindness of first love and the betrayal of true friendship…How far will William go to get what he wants? Who will pay the price for a king’s revenge? And what twists of fate will set Elizabeth on the path to her destiny as England’s queen?

What if one important historical event hadn’t happened, or had turned out differently. What would the world look like then? These are fun things to speculate about, and this is exactly what The Boleyn King is all about. The story starts off on the premise that Anne Boleyn didn’t miscarry her second child, but had a healthy son instead. Because of this Henry VIII never had her executed and he remained married to her until his death. Their son Henry IX, who goes by William, became King at the tender age of 10, and this book follows his story starting when William is 17 years old. His uncle George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, is Lord Protector of the realm until William comes of age.

Life as a boy King is sometimes hard on William and he is wary of people in general. The only people he really trusts are his sister Elizabeth, his best friend Dominic, and Minuette, Elizabeth’s lady in waiting who happened to have been born on the same day as William.

This story is extremely well written and well researched, which you can tell by the in-depth way in which certain historical aspects have been changed. Many things in this alternate reality, if you will, are different, though certain historical aspects haven’t changed. The tension between the Catholic and Protestant nations of Europe is still there, England is facing difficulties with France and Spain, and Mary Queen of Scots is starting to pose a threat as well. And then there are difficulties within the Kingdom as well. Mary Tudor, who still considers her father’s marriage to Anne Boleyn to be invalid, refuses to make an appearance at court and goes out of her way not to be in the vicinity of Queen Anne, who she refers to as ‘that woman’.

The story switches between narrator quite often, though most of it is told from either Minuette’s or Elizabeth’s perspective, and a few times from Dominic’s perspective as well. Although the reader is never notified of this switch in the narrative it is always easy enough to pick up on, because the writing is very clear. Even though the novel is supposedly about William, it actually focuses a lot more on courtly life and the people closest to him. A great deal of the novel is focues on Minuette and her position at court, and also on Elizabeth and the role she will play in the ruling of the Kingdom.

Even though the story often doesn’t focus directly on the way ruling a Kingdom at such a young age affects William, it does show how he has to deal with a multitude of conflicts both at home and abroad. He goes to war against France which ends in a triumph, and he even manages to win some of the cities back that were lost during the reign of his father. But at the same time he discovers a secret plot, with the help of Minuette, aiming to put Mary on the throne by claiming that William was born from an incestuous relationship between his mother and her brother George, and is therefore not the legitimate heir to the throne. And on top of that he also finds himself caught in a love triangle when both he and his best friend Dominic fall in love with Minuette.

The story ends at rather a strange moment when William proposes marriage to Minuette, but this is because it is the first part of a trilogy. So it ends on a real cliffhanger, which leaves the reader wanting more. I am definitely eagerly awaiting the second instalment!

This book was extremely difficult to put down and I finished most if it in one sitting. It’s a story that will appeal to any fan of historical fiction, and especially to people with a fondness for Tudor history.

My rating: heartheartheartheart

Review: The Garden of my Imaan by Farhana Zia

17267943Title: The Garden of my Imaan
Author: Farhana Zia
Published: April 1st 2013 (today)
Publisher: Peachtree Publishers
Pages: Ebook (the hardcover is 192 pages)
ISBN: 1561456985
Source: Netgalley

Aliya already struggles with trying to fit in, feeling confident enough to talk to the cute boy or stand up to mean kids. The fact that she’s Muslim is just another thing to deal with. When Marwa, a Moroccan girl who shares her faith if not her culture, comes to Aliyas school, Aliya wonders even more about who she is, what she believes, and where she fits in. Should she fast for Ramadan? Should she wear the hijab? She’s old enough for both, but does she really want to call attention to herself?

This book tells the story of Aliya, an Indian American girl of, I’m guessing, around 11 years old. She feels American through and through, just like her other school friends, but a few events that follow in quick succession make her begin to question her identity and where she stands in life. When she goes to Sunday school to learn about Islam she wears a headscarf and some of her friends there even wear the hijab, but during the rest of the week she doesn’t because her mother beliefs that modesty is not inherently linked to the covering of your hair. She doesn’t always fast during Ramadan either, because her parents believe her schoolwork will suffer if she doesn’t eat all day. Then a new girl arrives at her ‘normal’ school, a Moroccan girl called Marwa, and she wears the hijab. The headmistress asks Aliya to show her around and make her feel welcome, even though they’re not even in the same class. The reason why she asked Aliya and not another girl? Because she’s a Muslim too. Aliya doesn’t like the fact that she’s been singled out and made to feel different from her friends, because before Marwa’s arrival she was never regarded as “the Muslim girl”. At the same time she gets an assignment from her Sunday school to do a project about what Islam means to her, and she decides to keep a diary with letters addressed to Allah. In these letters she vents her frustration and misunderstanding of the world and the people around her, but after a while she finds that the manner of her writing begins to change, and her way of seeing the world begins to change for the better as well. She eventually befriends Marwa, and she shows Aliya that your identity and your religion is something to be proud of, and that it’s okay to be different. Marwa wears her hijab with pride and isn’t at all fazed by the comments people make about it. Many other things happen in Aliya’s life as well which I won’t go into because it’s too much to discuss here, but over the course of maybe 9 months you see the changes the young girl goes through and by the end she’s changed for the better. She no longer struggles with her identity as much, and she’s beginning to find her own way in the world.

I really enjoyed reading this book, especially because it’s written from a young girl’s perspective and I love the way children see the world. They don’t seem to care about different skin colours and religions unless it’s pointed out to them. And I think that this is what the author is trying to show, that being different is not a bad thing, in fact, it’s a good thing as long as people respect one another and allow other people to be themselves. I think it’s terribly important that children read books like this one, because if we want to create a respectful and understanding generation we need to start teaching them at an early age.

My rating: heartheartheartheart

Review: Roses Have Thorns: A Novel of Elizabeth I by Sandra Byrd

15763945Title: Roses Have Thorns: A Novel of Elizabeth I
Author: Sandra Byrd
Published: April 9th 2013 (expected publication)
Publisher: Howard Books
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley

Like Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir, Sandra Byrd has attracted countless fans for evoking the complexity, grandeur, and brutality of the Tudor period. In her latest tour de force, she poses the question: What happens when serving a queen may cost you your marriage—or your life?

In 1565, seventeen-year-old Elin von Snakenborg leaves Sweden on a treacherous journey to England. Her fiancé has fallen in love with her sister and her dowry money has been gambled away, but ahead of her lies an adventure that will take her to the dizzying heights of Tudor power. Transformed through marriage into Helena, the Marchioness of Northampton, she becomes the highest-ranking woman in Elizabeth’s circle. But in a court that is surrounded by Catholic enemies who plot the queen’s downfall, Helena is forced to choose between her unyielding monarch and the husband she’s not sure she can trust—a choice that will provoke catastrophic consequences.

Vividly conjuring the years leading up to the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots, Roses Have Thorns is a brilliant exploration of treason, both to the realm and to the heart.

I absolutely adore historical fiction, and Tudor court novels are by far my favourites. I’ve read so many by now that I could easily write my very own detailed book about the Tudor monarchs. So why do I keep reading them then? A very good question, and I think it’s mostly to do with the fact that I love history, and also I just love the descriptions of life at court which is just so complex and other-worldly when you look at it from our modern perspective. And even though I’ve read so much about Elizabeth I, it was really nice to read her life story from another person’s perspective. I think it’s odd that I had never heard of Elin (later called Helena) von Snakenborg, even though she was one of the women who was closest to the Queen for the majority of her adult life. Elin travels from the Swedish court to England at a young age and, at the prospect of marriage and becoming a true Englishwoman, she decides to stay at the English court rather than return to Sweden. The book follows her life through the years as she marries, becomes a widow, remarries below her status, has children and so on. Her life at court in service of Queen Elizabeth is a very prominent factor all through the book.

What I really liked about reading this story from Elin’s perspective is that at times you could see the more human side of Elizabeth, as a woman rather than a Queen. These moments never lasted long, but it made her personality all the more likeable and ‘real’, rather than the fantastic and almost mythical ways in which she is usually described in the history books. I really liked Elin as a character as well. She’s very kind and caring, and she must’ve been such a good friend and confidante to Elizabeth, which is why I don’t understand why she isn’t better known. There is almost no mention of her in most historical novels that I’ve read, and if she was mentioned it was probably so fleetingly that I can’t even remember it.

The first 2/3 of the book were absolutely amazing and I read most of that in the same day because I just couldn’t put it down. After that the story seemed to stall a bit and, in my opinion, it lingered a bit too long on the question of Mary Queen of Scots. But luckily the story picked up again after that and I was actually disappointed when the book was finished.

I really enjoyed this book from start to finish, and it was refreshing not only to read a familiar story from someone else’s perspective, but also from another author who was unknown to me before.

My rating:heartheartheart

Review: The Dervish by Frances Kazan

17401697Title: The Dervish
Author: Frances Kazan
Published: April 12th 2013 (expected publication)
Publisher: Opus Book Publishers
Pages: Ebook (the hardcover is 256 pages)
ISBN: 1623160049
Source: Netgalley

The first Arab Spring: revolution and passion seethe and erupt in this action-packed romance during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. Kazan’s novel takes us intimately behind the veil, to see and experience the Ottoman world,to let us view, from the “other” side, how the cultural and political antagonisms between the Occident and the Orient of the past century look. There are no easy villains or heroes in this story. Only ardent, unforgettable characters.

An American war widow seeks emotional asylum with her sister at the American Consulate in Constantinople during the Allied occupation in 1919. Through a cross-stitched pattern of synchronicity Kazan’s heroine becomes a vital thread in the fate of Mustafa Kemal (later Ataturk) and his battle for his country’s freedom. Based on firsthand accounts of the Turkish nationalist resistance, THE DERVISH details the extraordinary events that culminated in 1923 with the creation of the Republic of Turkey.

THE DERVISH is the dramatic culmination of Kazan’s acclaimed novel Halide’s Gift, the story of two sisters bound by an extraordinary friendship, and torn apart by their love of radically different men. Translated into seven languages, the novel, according to Publishers Weekly, uncovers “an Islamic world on the brink of change [that] is carefully detailed and convincing.” (Goodreads)

I love books about Turkey, especially when they’re set in Istanbul, so this in itself was already a real treat for me. The second thing that I really loved about the book is that it taught me a lot about a period that I didn’t know very much about. Last year I wrote my thesis on the Arab Revolt, but I had no idea of all the things that went on in Turkey as the last remnants of the Ottoman Empire slowly crumbled, and what it took before an independent Turkish state could be created. Amidst all this turmoil the main character Mary, an American artist, travels to Istanbul to join her sister and brother-in-law there after her husband was killed during WWI. She settles in fairly quickly and is amazed and enchanted by the wonderful city of Istanbul. But soon after her arrival she witnesses an assassination of a young Turkish man by Allied troops, and before she knows it she’s actively involved in the Turkish Nationalist Movement.

What I liked about this novel and its main character is that this isn’t a story about someone who sets out to make a difference in the world, but rather about an ordinary person who, per chance, gets involved in some extraordinary events. When the situation calls for it she proves to be anything but ordinary, but rather a very determined and courageous young woman. While the rest of the Americans prefer to stay safe within the perimeters of the American Embassy, Mary chooses to go out by herself and observe the world around her. She doesn’t care much for Embassy parties and socialising with other Westerners, but prefers to make friends with the locals. She quickly becomes friends with some of the most prominent members of the Nationalist Movement, something she didn’t know about at first, and as the fight for self-governing begins to take flight she decides to stay and fight alongside them. In all this turmoil she even manages to find love, if only for a short time.

The Dervish is a beautifully written book about love, friendship, loyalty, and the fight for freedom. I would recommend it to anyone with a fondness for Turkey, the Middle East, or history in general.

My rating: heartheartheartheart

Review: Daughter of Jerusalem, A Novel of Mary Magdalene by Joan Wolf


I kindly received a review copy of this book through Netgalley

Title: Daughter of Jerusalem, A Novel of Mary Magdalene
Author: Joan Wolf
Published: April 16th 2013 (expected publication)
Publisher: Worthy Publishing
Pages: 320
ISBN: 1936034670
Source: Netgalley

“At the time of Christ, the spoken language was Aramaic. The characters in this book are supposedly speaking Aramaic. The book is a modern English translation of the language.It’s the story of Mary Magdalene. Part One: Mary meets her first love at age 14. Part Two: Mary meets Marcus, Part Three: Mary encounters Jesus.”

In Daughter of Jerusalem, readers will quickly identify with Mary Magdalene– a woman of deep faith who used her wealth and influence to serve Jesus. This fictionalized story of Mary Magdalene is, in the truest sense of the word, an inspirational novel for modern people who are looking to renew in themselves the message of Christ. It’s the greatest story ever lived, told by one of the most famous women who ever lived, and it’s a page-turner. Joan Wolf’s years of success as a novelist enable her to combine storytelling and a faith plot in this beautifully written biblical fiction.

My review
Even though I am not a religious person myself, I am very much interested in the various world religions and their origins. I also adore reading historical books, so I was definitely looking forward to reading this book. And I have to say I really enjoyed it. It may be surprising to hear that this isn’t an overly religious book, in spite of the fact that the main character is Mary Magdalene, and a large part of the book is focused on Jesus and everything he brought about. The way I see it, this is more a book describing the life of a young girl whose life took a few unexpected turns, and who happened to come into contact with an exceptional man. Throughout history, Mary has often been depicted rather negatively, which isn’t the case in this book. She’s described as being a kind, caring, and more than anything a very intelligent woman who was ahead of her time, and dared to think for herself and hold an opinion contrary to the masses. The fact that this book has a first person narrative, Mary’s, helps I think to establish her as a free thinking individual, and it makes her likeable. We see the world through her eyes, and it is very refreshing to see a few iconic events of this world through the eyes of a woman, rather than from a man’s perspective which is customary.

To what degree the story of her early life is accurate I couldn’t say, since I don’t know that much about Mary Magdalene and I had never read a book before that was specifically focused on her life’s story. But to me that didn’t really matter to be honest, because I found it a very interesting read and I know, like with any work of fiction that is based on real people and actual events, that you always need to take what’s been written with a grain of salt. The overall story will have many realistic elements, but many of the details will be either hearsay, or completely made up by the author to fill in the gaps and make the story coherent and interesting. And that’s okay, because it’s a work of fiction and not a text book. In my opinion there is nothing wrong with historical fiction containing some inaccuracies because there are a lot of things we simply don’t know, especially when the events described happened centuries ago, and there are things that just don’t work well and need to be altered or left out in order to make a story readable and coherent. Like I already said, it’s a work of fiction, and as long as that is made clear I see no problem with the author deviating from the facts.

I am torn between giving this 3.5 or 4 stars, but I’m leaning more towards giving the book 4 stars because it was a well written, obviously well researched and detailed story, and I enjoyed reading it very much.

My rating:heartheartheartheart