Category Archives: Kamila Shamsie

A God in Every Stone – Kamila Shamsie

I mentioned a while ago that I had a small backlog of book reviews, which is fortunate as I can’t really talk to you about what I am reading at the moment. One book is Kamila Shamsie’s sixth novel A God in Every Stone which has just been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which I read last year. Why have I held of reviewing it until the shortlisted nudge? Well, A God in Every Stone is one of those books that is epic for its size in both its stories scope and indeed the themes that are held within. This is a readers dream, it is also blooming hard work for a reviewer, here goes…

Bloomsbury Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

There are three strands within A God in Every Stone. The book opens with us in the Persian empire in the company of Scylax, an explorer in the fifth-century BCE, this is a very brief snippet before we are thrown into 1914 and the first of the two major strands, but don’t forget old Scylax, as we join Vivian Rose Spencer as she joins a Turkish archaeologist, Tahsin Bey, at a dig in Labraunda. Tahsin has been in her life for many years as a friend of her father and used to often tell her stories of Scylax when she was a young girl, inspiring her love of adventure, archaeology, history and the stories of the past and its people. As they work together an additional bond is built yet soon the First World War begins and are separated when Vivian is sent back to London to serve as a VAD.

The second main strand is that of two brothers living in Peshwar, Najeeb (who is an utter joy to read and instantly became my favourite character) and Qayyum. Qayyum has been a soldier for the British forces, and is returning after having been kept in Brighton to recover from some injuries. He returns to find his home city a changed place, having left the battle fields he returns to a city that seems to be on the very edge of unrest and potential catastrophe. How do these all interweave, well that would be telling I don’t want to spoil it for anyone so I am not going to tell you, you need to read the book.

If this all makes it sound like A God in Every Stone is rather confusing and disorientating, it honestly isn’t. This is a novel where characters, and most importantly really history, interweave and intertwine creating a wonderful tapestry of interconnecting lives. Now I worry I have made it sound twee and this book is anything but that; there is one huge twist in the novel that I didn’t see coming and hit me with an emotional wallop that actually made me gasp, as the book leads to its conclusion on The Street of Storytellers it depicts one of the biggest atrocities in Peshwar’s history, yet one that is little known or spoken of outside of the country.

The book is also teeming with themes one being history. Regular visitors will know that my mother is a classics teacher who would love to do archaeology and dragged me round Pompeii for a day when I was younger, so when I started reading about archaeological digs a bit of me went back to that day and winced. However the story of a woman in that setting in the male dominated pre-war era is a really interesting one and Vivian is quite the forward thinking woman who fights against stereotypes often through some very awkward situations with men who want to tame her, women who hate her – oh and the secret service wanting to hire her. It is little gems like that, based on fact, that give the book added dimensions and Shamsie is very good at giving every character some kind of additional story without it feeling forced or that she wants to bash you over the head with all the research she has done.

How can I explain how it feels to hold an ancient object and feel yourself linked to everyone through whose hand it passed. All these stories which happened where we live, on our piece of earth – how can you stay immune to them? Every day here in Taxila I dig up a new story. And, yes, I am grateful to the English for putting this spade in my hands and allowing me to know my own history. But to you history is something to be made, not studied, so how can you understand?

Shamsie takes a very interesting look at history in the novel. She looks at how we see events before something life changing occurs, how we see it during and how we think of it afterwards both instantly and in hindsight. All of the characters do this be it on a small or large scale. Shamsie also looks at how history is not actually something solely from the past, it is also something from the future because we are building it every second, every minute and indeed as we think our future actions through.

I know the stories of men from twenty-five hundred years ago, but I’ll never know what happens to you.

Another large theme in A God in Every Stone is the importance of story; how stories become history, how history becomes a story. She also looks at the power of stories and storytelling, be they the ones we tell others, the ones we tell ourselves and the ones that we will never know. In fact really you could say that this novel is the embodiment of how we can learn through stories, be they fictional or factual, and how we use those stories of the past to build the stories of the future.

I still don’t feel like I have really done A God in Every Stone justice, thought I felt the same after reading Burnt Shadows (you can see the review but bear in mind it was written long ago and made me wince a little as I read it) which is also a deceptive epic for its 300 pages too. It is just one of those tricky yet marvellous books that are very hard to write about if you haven’t read them and experienced them. Experienced is the right word actually because having come away from this novel I really felt I had lived, lost and loved alongside all the characters and what they went through. Suffice to say I think you should stop reading this and go and read Shamsie instead.

If you would like to find out more about A God in Every Stone, you can hear Kamila talking about it (far more eloquently than I can write about it) in conversation with me on You Wrote The Book here. Who else has read it and what were your thoughts?

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Kamila Shamsie, Review, Women's Prize for Fiction

Books of 2009

As the end of the year draws in I find that I become quite reflective. I have actually had a bit of an issue with reading this week and wonder if that is an end of year thing, more on that at some other point. 2009 has been a big year for this blog; it’s also been a big year for my reading. It seems a delightful coincidence that today as I wrap up my best reads of 2009 it is also my 500th post which I think deserves some fireworks…

My original idea of doing my ‘best of’ like I did last year with The Savidge Dozen just wasn’t working. I have read too many brilliant books and so I thought I would instead do two separate top ten’s. The first being my favourite books published or re-issued in 2009 itself which was hard and actually I got down to a final twelve but I had to cut the delightful books Notwithstanding and ‘The Earth Hums in B Flat’ and be tough to make the ten which are (click on each title for full review)…

10. Legend of a Suicide by David Vann – One of the most emotionally raw novels I have ever read. Fictional accounts of a father’s suicide, the events leading up to it and the effects of this tragedy on his son and others around him, based in parts on the authors own fathers suicide. Moving and masterfully written.  

9. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood – The first of two Atwood novels that truly made my year. This dark (and often darkly funny) tale of the future of humanity starts off sounding like something out of a sci-fi novel yet disturbingly slowly reads as a not too distant possibility.  

8. After The Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld – Without question the debut novel of the year for me. A book many are labelling as being a ‘War book’, I wouldn’t 100% agree with that as its so much more. The author calls it a ‘romantic thriller about men who don’t speak’ I would call it ‘a book about the dark truths behind the faces of those we love’ a compelling and moving read.

7. Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill – Some loved it some hated it, I revelled in it. Susan Hill’s thoughts on some of her books and the people she met who wrote them. And she popped by and made a comment or two.

6. The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan – A fictional account of those famous Bronte Sisters which sadly didn’t get the Man Booker notice it should have. This brings the Bronte’s to life and you will think of them slightly differently. Made me want to read every Bronte book I could… as yet I haven’t started but a possible resolution for 2010, that or read all of Morgan’s prior works.

5. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – The deserved winner from the Man Booker Shortlist and the one I guessed (though I was hoping a certain other book would win, see below). I thought that there had been Tudor fiction overload, I was wrong just as I was wrong that reading a book about Thomas Cromwell that was huge would bore me to death, I was enthralled and enwrapped.

4. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie – The only way I can think of to describe this book which skips such a huge expanse of time is ‘a war torn epic’. I thought this was marvellous and was thrilled I got to hear her speak about it and even ask her a question; I was a bit in awe.

3. Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran – Definitely the non fiction book of 2009, well published in 2009. Getting a glimpse into the private world of such a marvellous author and how her criminal mastermind brain worked and plotted was utterly fascinating.

2. Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys – Technically not actually released originally in 2009, but thankfully brought back from the past thanks to the wonderful Bloomsbury Group. The tale of Henrietta and the villagers she lives with during the war had me laughing out loud all over the place.

1. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin – A book I fell wholly in love with from start to finish. It might not have the biggest plot or be brimming with a huge cast of characters but its simplicity is what makes it so stunning. An interesting look at the life of a woman who is sent to be saved from the poverty in Ireland by being shipped to America, only not everyone wants to be saved. Utterly stunning and quietly intense.

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Then I had the ridiculous task of finding the ten ‘best of the rest’ which in a year where I read such delights as The Secret Scripture (which lost a point or two for the ending I won’t lie) and the joy Miss Garnett’s Angel and had a Sensation Season was going to be tough. OK, so it’s not quite ten but it’s as close as I could get. The final ten (cough, eleven) are…

10. Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith – I wasn’t convinced that a thriller based on a child murderer in the time of Stalinist Russia would work for me. I was utterly wrong as I think for me it’s been the thriller of the year. Also thrilling was getting to go to Tom’s house for coffee and questions.

9. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – Proof that sometimes books can be hard work but all that hard work is definitely worth it. Opening with the suicide of the narrator’s sister, this becomes an epic novel of the lives of the Chase sisters and the effects of the Second World War. Also comes with an intriguing novel inside the novel and a sci-fi-ish novel inside that one, are you keeping up?

8. State of Happiness by Stella Duffy – I am a big admirer of Stella and her work and this to me is her best fiction yet (oh but wait for the next one in 2010) despite loving her latest book The Room of Lost Things in 2008. This is a tale about love and ultimately death and it broke my heart and made me cry quite a lot. If you are up for an emotional journey and wonderful writing you simply cannot miss this book.

7. Lady into Fox by David Garnett – Wonderful surreal and touching fable of a husband and how he deals with his wife randomly turning into a fox one day. This is may only be 96 pages long but each page is perfection.

6. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – Most of the planet with have read this novel so I will simply say a modern classic masterpiece about a dystopian future where we are all under the watchful all seeing eye of Big Brother and should ever be fearful of Room 101.  

5. The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett – My first year of reading Persephone books and this one just took me on a journey that I wasn’t expecting. A sensational tale of rich American heiresses, one whom meekly marries an Englishman for a title and vanishes, the other a forthright woman who wishes to seek her sister out and solve the mystery of what has befallen her.

4. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes – A total surprise hit of 2009 for me. I never thought that a ‘sci-fi’ book about a mentally handicapped man and a genius mouse would grab me let alone move me to tears and yet this frankly marvellous book did exactly that.

3. Small Island by Andrea Levy – Really this is a modern masterpiece. A tale of two completely different women brought together through war and adversity. Also a tale of forbidden love, war, racism and hope, a remarkable book I was glad Granny Savidge Reads recommended so strongly and so often.

2. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – This book is what I may now consider the greatest nonfiction book I have ever read (so far – though unlikely to be beaten). A true tale of the ruthless killing of a family in America, and a thought provoking quite often disturbing study of their murderers. In parts bleak and horrific, it’s also emotional (I cried at this one too) and yet a darkly fascinating insight into the minds of killers.  

1. East Lynne by Ellen Wood/Armadale by Wilkie Collins – Technically I am cheating but I really couldn’t decide between these two. The epic scope, characters and thrilling plots of each of these was utterly remarkable. In a year where I rediscovered my loved of all things sensational I found these two new favourite books. Both of these are genuine gems of sensation novels and couldn’t have more mystery, twists, dramas or thrills if they tried.

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I have to say I don’t think that minimal short snappy reviews are my fortes so do visit the full reviews, they are much better. Should you be really tough and ask me which out of this final twenty one would be my favourite of the year I would have to go with… Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. I know some people will be surprised after my sensation fiction love in and some of you won’t agree and that’s fine, though don’t push your negative comments below this post (ha, ha, ha), for me it was just wonderful and a true surprise delight in this years Man Booker Longlist read-a-thon. There will be much more Toibin to come in 2010 I promise you. Now I must dash as I have a party to prepare for (attending not hosting) and some resolutions to make… What have been your best books of 2009?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Levy, Books of 2009, Colm Toibin, Daniel Keyes, David Garnett, David Vann, Ellen Wood, Evie Wyld, Frances Hodgson Burnett, George Orwell, Hilary Mantel, John Curran, Jude Morgan, Kamila Shamsie, Margaret Atwood, Stella Duffy, Susan Hill, Tom Rob Smith, Truman Capote, Wilkie Collins

Who Do I Think Should Win The Orange Prize?

So tonight is the ceremony which sees the winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction announced. I have to say I have it to thank for finding some wonderful books that I would have shamefully possibly missed out on and one particular author whose backlog of books I am getting very ‘Amazon Happy’ about. Sadly due to bloggers recent behaviour I haven’t been able to put the reviews for two of them up but I will and I can promise you that I have read them all and here, before it is announced (if blogger doesn’t go crazy) is who I think should win, I will admit it was almost a draw but my Orange Prize would go to…


…Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie! I know I have already waffled on about how wonderful I thought this book was but days on I am still talking to everyone about it and frankly I can’t be stopped. As soon as it comes out in paperback I have a list as long as my arm of people that I will have to send copies too. I think the one thing I wished that I had added in my review (which you can find here) is that it’s also very much a book for our times. We like so much to think that the human race has come such a long way forward and in reality I am not sure how true that is and in some ways (not all but some) Kamila Shamsie’s book captivates this and along with sadness and despair she brings hope in a wonderful, wonderful character such as Hiroko.

I did say that this could have easily been a drawer and the book that I would also be more than happy to see win has to be The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey (the review should be up on here on Friday) as the tale of a man and his developing Alzheimer’s and how he tries to remember his life story is another absolutely wonderful book. I would love it if one of them won the Orange and one of them won the Booker that would be quite fabulous wouldn’t it. If Ellen Feldmen or Samantha Hunt won I would be happy too (reviews are here and here), they were both very good books. I remain undecided on Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden possibly because I haven’t quite finished it (review will be up Monday when am back and have more time) but it’s left me luke warm for now. I won’t comment on Home, you can all read my struggle with that here.

Will I be right? I won’t actually know until Monday… how vexing! What are your thoughts?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Ellen Feldman, Kamila Shamsie, Marilynne Robinson, Orange Prize, Samantha Harvey, Samantha Hunt

Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie

This was actually the book that the person who was once named The Non Reader, and has now become The Converted One (thanks to Books Psmith – Brighton Rock in the post) bought me quite a while back. In such an effort to find a book that I liked and didn’t own, The Converted One checked in all my TBR boxes and piles, on my shelves, even asked a few friends and then made sure the reviews in the press and some of my favourite authors quotes we all good before buying.. I have to say The Converted One’s research would have culminated into one of my favourite books of the year… only for the book to then turn up three days later in the post from the people at Bloomsbury! It’s the thought though that counts!

Burnt Shadows for me has been a complete and utter joy to read. In fact I could go as far as to say its one of the rare books that you pick up, devour, put down and then get itching to start at again. It’s going to be a hard book to review because there is so much to encompass and so much to praise but I will do my best.

The story follows possibly my favourite character of the year so far (and there have been a few contenders) Hiroko Tanaka on August the 9th 1945 in Nagasaki just before they dropped the bomb and ‘the world turns white’. Though Hiroko survives her German lover Konrad is killed. Two years later as India declares its independence she turns up on his half-sisters door step in Delhi with nowhere to stay and becomes attracted to their servant Sajjad and all this is in the first 60 pages. The book then follows Hiroko’s story and the story of people around her (that’s all I am saying trying not to plot spoil) through more pivotal times in history such as the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and America post 9/11.

Burnt Shadows as you can probably tell is an epic novel. However despite the subject matter, which is dealt with in a thought provoking, shocking, touching and yet tactful the book never feels heavy even though at times it is wrought with emotion. If I had one small complaint it would be that I could have read another 200 pages easily. In keeping the book just over 340 pages long Shamsie does hurry slightly towards the quite amazing climax.

Hiroko herself is an additional reason that you should read the book. A quirky sparky victim of her times at no one point does she ever complain she just keeps trying and hoping (this isn’t a woe is me tale because Shamsie doesn’t ever let it be) and most importantly observing. Some would say that to cover all the different era’s, cultures, and issues of this time span would be far too ambitious for any writer and yet I thought that Shamsie did this effortlessly, there must have been hours and hours of research that went into this book and without question it has paid off. I can unashamedly say that I think this is one of my favourite books of the year so far no question.

I don’t feel that I have written enough to justify what an amazing book it is, but then I don’t really think I could if I wrote for about ten pages of praise for the novel. I will simply say please read it. Do I think it could win the Orange Prize? Yes I do and part of me thinks that it definitely should however it has one contender which I haven’t reviewed yet which I think is the other most deserving winner and in fact I am hoping that both of these books make it onto the Man Booker list later in the year, but more of that another time…

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2009, Kamila Shamsie, Orange Prize, Review

Oranges Or Lemons?

So it starts, yes I am all finished with the utterly superb thriller/crime novel (which I will review later today – I know two blogs in one day I really am spoiling you) and now am all focused on the Orange Short List. I did actually really toy with the idea of reading the freshly arrived latest Sarah Waters novel ‘The Little Stranger’ but then thought “hang on I have already now got a backlog of six books that I need to read in just over two weeks… have I really got time? Actually I am still waiting on Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden and also The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey (which is all about Alzheimer’s a subject very close to my heart as I often go to an Alzheimer’s home to see my Great Uncle) but they are on their way and it give me a chance to get through the others. Maybe I can treat myself to Sarah Waters along the way, maybe at the midway point? I am interested with the selection as until the shortlist was announced I had only heard of two and had only wanted to read one of the books on the list which is Kamila Shamshie’s Burnt Shadows, purely down to a few rave reviews and a wonderful cover. I should really put down the entire list just in case any of you don’t know it (highly unlikely) so the contenders are…

Scottsboro – Ellen Feldman
The Wilderness – Samantha Harvey
The Invention of Everything Else – Samantha Hunt
Molly Fox’s Birthday – Deirdre Madden
Home – Marilynne Robinson
Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie
I am wondering if there will be some complete lemons in the mix of oranges, time will tell. I already have an inkling which one will win, but I am holding fire on saying in case it turns out to be a complete lemon. I also have two favourites in my head (neither which I think are the winner pre-reading them) just from the storyline’s alone. Isn’t it funny what judgements you can make on books without having read a single word!?! Will I be right? I am not sure to be honest as I have only read two of the winners the first was On Beauty by Zadie Smith which I think is possibly one of the most boring books I have ever read and on the complete opposite spectrum Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half A Yellow Sun which sits in my Top Ten Books of All Time. If I can I will try and fit in a few other winners along the journey but I do only have 15 days I must try and stay realistic. I shall announce who is my winner before 9am on Wednesday 3rd of June as it’s announced that evening. I can’t cheat as I will be on a plane to Switzerland at 7am that morning which also means you will all know the winner before I do! I don’t think it will make world news?

What are your predictions? Have you read any so far (no plot spoilers please)? What has been your favourite of the Orange Winners so far? Oh and most controversially, do we still need the Orange Prize and is it sexist to have an award just for women?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ellen Feldman, Kamila Shamsie, Marilynne Robinson, Orange Prize, Sarah Waters