Thursday 29 September 2011

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

I chose this book purely and simply because I know a young girl who came from Sierra Leone to study in England while her parents stayed behind to survive the horrors of civil war as well as they could.

Saying that, I must point out that Sierra Leone isn't mentioned anywhere in the book but I think it's accepted that it is indeed set in Sierra Leone both during and after those dreadful times.  It tells the story of three men whose lives become three strands which touch and cross to form a complex web: Kai, a Sierra Leonean surgeon; Elias, the retired dean of the university who is dying at the hospital; and Adrian, a young British psychologist who is escaping his life in England.

At first I found it hard to keep track of the three different points of view all of which darted from present to past and back again.  It often took me a few moments to work out where I was, and when.  Before long, though, I was totally absorbed and found it a compelling read.  I kept wanting to pick up the book when I should have been doing other things.

It's not the most comfortable of reads, it does make you sit back and think, so if you're looking for a light page-turner this is not it.  However it does give you insight not only into ordinary life in western Africa, but also a clear picture of a country torn apart by war and an idea of what those terrible times must have been like.

More than that, it raises issues that are worth considering, whether or not you agree with them.  The first of these is whether all the western organisations which flood into developing countries do any good and whether in fact the individuals are there for their own benefit rather than the people they profess to help.  Do these NGOs understand the way of life in the countries where they are trying to help as they should or are they approaching with pre-conceived western values?  Second is the matter of post traumatic stress disorder, and whether it's always necessary to pathologize what is a natural reaction.  A vast percentage of the Sierra Leone was affected by the war but is it a psychosis or is it life?

There is a really interesting interview with Aminatta Forna on The Interview Online. It really is well worth listening to it.

The Memory of Love is available at and at
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Wednesday 14 September 2011

Cambridge Blue by Alison Bruce

A Cambridge Blue is normally an award for sporting excellence given to a member of the University of Cambridge in England.  In this case, it means a book that is set in Cambridge and its cover is blue. Or green.  Unless I am missing something, I can see no reason for the title.

The story is a police procedural or would be except that the young and too-good-to-be-true (brilliant, good-looking, caring) detective paid scant attention to police procedures.  I know this is fiction but there is a limit beyond which the story loses credibility.  He is so "nice" that I disliked him almost as much as the "nasty" detective.

I found the plot interesting enough but the ending seemed rushed and contrived.  I always dislike lengthy explanations to find out "whodunit"

Alison Bruce very clearly has an excellent knowledge of Cambridge and you do get an overall idea of the place but some atmosphere is missing.  Someone, somewhere, described it as being like Cambridge-by-numbers.  It might be a book you would read after you've visited, to bring back memories.

Buy Cambridge Blue at or at

Wednesday 7 September 2011

The Joys of My Life by Alys Clare

From the back of the book I read: "Adroitly weaving medieval history into a rousing and mystical tale", and I was interested.  Elsewhere on the cover it mentioned Chartres, the Ile d'Oléron and Richard the Lionheart and that finished the process of capturing my imagination.

This was yet another cover with a black background - there seem so many at the moment.  A robed figure, maybe a monk, a labyrinth, maybe the one at Chartres.

It became obvious after a while that the book was one of a series with a number of references to things that had happened to the characters in the past.  It wasn't a major problem because the book stands relatively well on its own but I'm not sure how you'd feel going back to read earlier books.  In fact it is the twelfth and final book in the Hawkenlye Mystery series and it finishes with a fair amount of tidying up of loose ends.

The story started at the siege of Châlus Castle, not far from Limoges, where Richard the Lionheart was fatally wounded.  From there we are taken to Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine who wants a chapel built in honour of her son, Richard, we are introduced to the main characters, and the mystery unfolds.  In all honesty there wasn't much of a mystery so you could hardly describe the book as full of suspense.  The magical or mystical elements were over-played for my taste.

Nor did the characters really come to life for me.  They all seemed too good to be true - or evil.  Even the hero, Josse d'Aquin, didn't feel like a real person, and I the love of his life, Joanna, left me with no impression of her character at all.  I found Helewise the abbess more interesting because through her we saw how the Christian church was changing at that time and how the crusades against Catharism were starting.

It was fun, though, to trace the journeys made by the characters through France, and to visualise the cathedral being built at Chartres. It was a light, easy, and undemanding read.

The Joys of My Life is available at or at

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