7

Sofia Khan is Not Obliged

I went to the library to pick up my hold (The Handmaid’s Tale) and ended up taking home a couple of other books (because that’s how that works) including Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik.

It’s billed as the “Muslim Bridget Jones.” I hope I don’t need to tell you what I think about that comparison (I hate it) but it kind of gives you an idea of what we’re talking about here.

sofia khan.jpg

Sofia Khan is a 31 year old Muslim woman who works in publishing. She lives at home with her parents and her sister, who is getting ready to be married. Sofia has just broken things off with a man she thought she was going to marry. But when he refused to move out of his parents’ home, Sofia knows there isn’t a future for them. So now she’s trying to figure out what her future does look like – does she want to get married? Will she move out on her own?

And then the editors at work decide that she would be the perfect person to write a book about Muslim dating! So now she’s writing a book about something she’s very conflicted about.

Soon she begins mining her friends’ relationship experiences for stories, signs up for online dating (on a Muslim site) and stressing about writing this book that she isn’t really sure she ever wanted to write in the first place.

I liked this book – I was charmed by Sofia and her family; her parents who were the result of an arranged marriage and spend their time bickering about everything; various aunts and uncles who arrive on scene for celebrations; Sofia’s older sister, Maria, who is everything you could ever hope to have in an older sister and is also obsessed with wedding plans. I also loved Sofia’s friends – they were all so involved in each others’ lives – from showing up to support one becoming a second wife, to pretending it was no big deal that one of them was falling in love with a black man.

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged is written in a kind of modern diary style, complete with text messages and emails. It isn’t really my favourite style, but it worked in this case. However, it could have done with another editing look – there were some amazing oversights (like Pasiktan instead of Pakistan).

But overall, this was a charming, light, quirky book. It had a lot of elements that I enjoy in this kind of “chick lit” book but the fact that Sofia was a devout Muslim (she wears a hijab, can’t see herself not marrying a Muslim, prays five times a day, doesn’t drink etc) made it so much more interesting. The family dynamics and the complications of her faith in a city that doesn’t always smile on it (she’s called a terrorist a couple of times by other commuters) made for a much more compelling read.

If you’re looking for something easy, something to make you giggle, I’d recommend this one. I’ve added the follow up (The Other Half of Happiness) to my list.

17

Unreliable Narrators: The Girl on the Train

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

One of the most commented and searched posts on my blog from last year was the review I did of Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch. In it I touched on the idea of an unlikeable narrator and how that can colour what actually happens in the story. Can you really trust what an unlikeable, unreliable narrator is telling you?

While the narrator in Koch’s book is telling you his version of events, filtered by his prejudices and a certain amount of self preservation, in The Girl on the Train Paula Hawkins’ narrator doesn’t really know what happened.

train

Rachel Watson takes the same commuter train into London and home every day. On the way in, the train stops at a light right outside some Victorian row houses and Rachel can see into the home at number 15. Here a young couple she christens Jason and Jess go about their morning routine. Rachel imagines that Jason is a doctor, heading out to save the world for weeks at a time. She imagines that Jess is some kind of creative, maybe she has a studio in the house where she paints, or she works in the fashion industry. Whatever she does, Rachel knows that Jess must miss Jason so much when he’s away because he’s such a kind, thoughtful and supportive husband.

But then one day as she’s passing, Rachel sees something that changes everything she thinks she knows about this couple and when, days later, “Jess” has gone missing, she decides that she has to tell the police what she knows.

The problem of course is that she actually doesn’t know anything. And Rachel has a bit of a drinking problem so the police are super suspicious of her from the beginning, pegging her as a rubbernecker.

As Rachel’s story unfolds, we find out more about what her life looked like five years ago and even two years ago. We begin to understand how she got to where she is. We also meet Megan (Jess’ real name) starting a year earlier and find out what her and Scott’s (Jason) life actually looked like. And finally, we meet Anna, who lives in Rachel’s old house, which was doors down from where Megan now lives. This goes some ways to explaining why Rachel became interested in what was happening at number 15 in the first place.

Hawkins used to be a journalist and it shows in the way she handles this story. Her prose is short and to the point. It is deceptively simple, straightforward writing but which infuses the whole thing with the best kind of suspense. Her narrator struggles with alcohol, trying to stay sober for hours, then a day, then three days together before ultimately giving in. Rachel gets black out drunk, calling and texting and emailing people she wouldn’t if she were sober. Her black outs also mean that she can’t always remember everything that’s happened to her – how she got that cut on her head, where the bruises on her arm came from, why she’s ended up in this room and not her own.

It’s been compared to Before I Go To Sleep and I can see the similarities. Both centre around a woman who doesn’t know the whole story as they try and put all the pieces together. But while Before I Go To Sleep deals with a brain injury, The Girl on the Train‘s narrator suffers from self-inflicted memory loss.

Rachel, Anna and Megan aren’t always the most likeable characters. Neither are the men in their lives. Each character hides parts of themselves from the world and keep some devastating secrets. Hawkins ably handles all their stories and has crafted a superb thriller.

There are still weeks and weeks of winter to get through and I can’t think of a better book to hunker down under the blankets with than The Girl on the Train.

6

The Distance: A Thriller

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I started The Distance, a thriller by Helen Giltrow back in September and only just finished it now. I’m not normally one to take three weeks to read a book, especially an exciting, complex thriller like The Distance but a few things conspired against me.

Firstly, I had been waiting and waiting and waiting for Ken Follett’s The Edge of Eternity to come out and when it finally did on September 17th, I resigned myself to the fact that I would be reading it at the same time as at least one other book because The Edge of Eternity is a beast of a book and I really wasn’t planning on dragging it on the bus with me.

And secondly, my wedding was days away and the planning of that and then the family coming in from out of town to hang out…well that all killed my reading stats.

Happily, I am now a married woman and we can all get back to our regular lives!

I literally just finished The Distance in the last 15 minutes. This is another complex story so I’m going to try and describe it as best I can without ruining the whole thing for you. We meet Charlotte Alton, an elegant London socialite out for a night at the opera. While there she thinks she sees someone she knows. But not as Charlotte; as Karla, the name she uses for work. Her work happens to be making people disappear. She’s only ever slipped up once and shown her face to this guy Simon, after a mob hit went horrifically wrong. So now, years later, Simon is back with an impossible job. He has to get inside this experimental prison project and take out a woman. Karla’s job is to keep an eye on him, make sure he has all the right paperwork in all the right places so that he has access and then make sure that he’s OK while he’s in there. The problem is that Karla doesn’t know enough – she doesn’t know who the hit is, what she did or who’s behind the project. And then there’s the whole thing where Karla has been providing information to this old school MI5 agent who has thrown himself in front of a train. He never knew who Karla was and neither did his superiors, referring to the informant as Knox, but the information that Knox supplied was so valuable, that they’ve put a new guy on the trail.

This is one of those books that you need some dedicated time to read. It’s really complicated and if you read it in small snatches of time, you will lose some of the threads that Giltrow has woven expertly for you to find. It’s extremely fast paced – things you know to be true at one point are no longer true 10 pages later. The narrative changes between Karla’s point of view as she’s tracking down who the target is and what she did and who might be behind the hit and back to Simon as he’s in the prison trying to find the target and then as he’s trying to stay alive in there. Some of the sections in the prison are really gruesome and kind of hard to read – lots of broken fingers and arms and flesh and knives and horrible people doing horrible things to each other. Every once in a while, the perspective changes to Powell, the guy that they’ve set to figure out who Knox is.

At times I wondered where the whole Powell thing was going. It seemed like an afterthought for much of the story but in the end, it was kind of a big part of the story. Giltrow had just disguised it so well that I didn’t realize it.

It’s Fall now so this is the kind of book that will make you want to stay inside while the rain and wind lashes at the windows and it gets dark earlier and earlier. Another fun thrill ride.

 

10

A Champion Paperback – Paris: The Novel

Did you know that all paperbacks are not created equal? Some of them have really tight spines that you have to fight to open and keep open. Others, stay open but that’s the only page they ever want to show you. If you are eating lunch while you are reading, most paperbacks require that you take a time out while you handle your cutlery.

Paris: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd? The perfect paperback. The pages fall open where you need them to, the spine didn’t crack once and if I wanted to eat a meal while I read it? I could lay it open on the table like a hardcover.

But the paperback perfection of this novel was only one reason to love it.

Perhaps you have already read some of Rutherfurd’s other novels. He’s responsible for the Princes of Ireland (which I have not read) as well as the city novels of New York, and London. His city novels follow the histories of five local families as they love and live amid the historic events of their locale. You zip back and forwards in time, filling in familial details and personages, until in the end, you have the full picture.

I enjoyed New York, I loved London but Paris might just be my favourite.

Paris

In this one we follow the fortunes of the Blanchard, de Cygne, Renard, Le Sourd and Gascon families as they navigate the streets of Paris throughout history. Normally, Rutherfurd moves us mostly forward, checking in with the families every generation or so.

This time, we moved back and forth in time. But when we moved forward we picked up more or less where we had left off, give or take 5-15 years. I found that this made for a more fluid story. When we shot back 500 years, I knew that we would eventually end up back with the characters that I had become so attached to.

There are no perfect characters in this book and I appreciate that each character struggles to make the right choices, and don’t always do that. They are products of their time and while history may show that they were on the wrong side of things, in that moment, it seems right.

Rutherfurd also incorporates real life characters into his story. Suddenly you’re spending time with Monsieur Eiffel, Coco Chanel, Monet and the Sun King and it’s pretty great.

The scope of the story is too great to give any real details here. Suffice it to say, you will enjoy it.

One tiny little issue that I may have had with this book? The theme of every family seemed to be “have a boy to carry on the family name” and while I’m sure that that was indeed the view and goal of most families at the time, it took a long time for us to get to the point where there were fully formed female characters. Eventually there are Louise, Marie and Claire but that’s probably only the case for the last third of the book. Before that, the women in the book are brood mares, their only role to have children and be a sounding board for their husband’s life decisions.

But other than that, spending time in Paris was a delight.