Review Catch-up…

Life is rather busy, and I’m terribly behind on my reviews. So here is a batch of reviews and links for you…


Educated by Tara Westover

This memoir of growing up in an unconventional setting and how the author escaped to discover the world outside was absolutely compelling reading, Westover grew up off-grid in Idaho, with no birth certificate, no education until she was a mid-teen, and having never seen a doctor or nurse. Born at home to religious survivalist parents, she is one of seven children. They live in a remote, but beautiful valley:

The hill is paved with wild wheat. If the conifers and safebrush are soloists, the wheat field is a corps de ballet, each stem following all the rest in bursts of movement, a million ballerinas bending, one after the other, as great gales dent their golden heads. The shape of that dent lasts only a moment, and is as close as anyone gets to seeing wind.

Behind the setting is such a different life. The family are Mormons, but Westover is at pains from the start to declare that the book is emphatically not about that. Her father, who runs a scrapyard, is a survivalist and completely distrusts all forms of Government, calling them the Illuminati. He is prone to putting his own weird and literal interpretations on verses from the bible and is a strict authoritarian. Westover’s mother always meekly supports his edicts, despite having her own calling and a great local reputation as a herbalist.  This is the atmosphere that Tara grows up in with only her Grandma on her father’s side who dares to talk back to him.  Her older brothers are a mixed bunch, but Shawn (not his real name), is the one that causes trouble and his behaviour towards Tara gives her the impetus to escape.

Eventually, Tara manages to go to school, then college and uni in Utah, followed by getting a grant to study in England at an Cambridge summer school – it’s an eye-opening coming of age, One of her tutors at Cambridge cheesily says:

It’s like having my own Pygmalion.

Her escape from her family situation comes at a huge cost though, effectively severing any remaining bonds with her parents and some of her siblings. I attended an event with her and she was sanguine about it. She now has to live her own life.

This memoir is very much  book of two halves: the growing up off-grid, and the education of Tara Westover. Naturally, perhaps, the first half – the part beyond our own experience, is the more gripping – it’s fascinating, moving and shocking in equal measure. Although the second half has its moments, her journey towards conventionality through education is less exciting. What you can’t deny is her will to achieve and that is quite inspirational.  Well worth reading indeed. (8.5/10)

Source: Review copy.  Tara Westover, Educated (Hutchinson, Feb 2018), hardback, 400 pages.  BUY at Amazon (affiliate link).


Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous by Manu Joseph

This novel set in contemporary India is a thriller with a wicked sense of wit that takes on power, nationalism, terrorism and their effects on ordinary people, woven into a multi-stranded narrative. It begins on the day that Hindu nationalists win an election victory, coinciding with the collapse of a large apartment building in Mumbai. One person remains trapped underneath and access is very tight. Akhila Iyer, a medical student, arrives at the scene and she persuades the fire chief to let her crawl into the wreckage to treat the trapped man. Reaching him, he is delirious and mumbles about a terror attack that will be carried out by a young Muslim couple.

Meanwhile, a Hindu patriarch, Professor Vaid, is watching a video online while the Hindu patriots do their drills outside. The video is a political prank one made by Akhila, who has another life outside med school making satirical films. In this film, she is making fun of the Hindu nationalist leader:

‘The Hindu Reich is coming,’ Miss Iyer says in theatrical glee. ‘Damodarbhai is here, bow to Lord Voldemort. Everyone has to choose a side.’
The Patriarch is grateful that the secular intellectual dig this time was derived from Harry Potter. Usually, it is Animal Farm.

The third strand is itself a dual one. Partly narrated through the eyes of intelligence agent, Mukundan. He is to follow two suspect terrorists. One of them is Laila, a teenaged beauty. Laila’s little sister Aisha tells us about her loving big sister who looks after their family. When she meets her boyfriend to go off on a journey, the agents’ plans are to intercept them before they reach the border.

These three strands led by Akhila, Vaid and Mukundan/Laila interweave around each other as the day progresses. Will Akhila be able to save the trapped man?  What will happen when the Hindu nationalist, Damodarbhai’s celebrations begin?  Will they stop Miss Laila in time?  The race is on for all three. In between, we find out more about Akhila’s life – her parents had been activisits, and after her mother dies, she suggests to her Marxist father:

‘Why don’t you go and live in Sweden?’
‘I don’t hate this place,’ he says.
‘You do. It whips you every day.’
‘India is a wound,’ he say in a professorial tone. He is a bit drunk. ‘But it is not a wound like a whiplash. It is a wound, like a spouse.’

This novel is full of quotable sentences like that. Joseph’s writing is at once, to the point – the novel is just over 200 pages – and we also get more philosophical musings around the action which twists tighter as the pages fly by. The creepy, nationalist ‘death-eaters’ to use the Harry Potter metaphor further are shown to be scheming and dangerous politicos. Thank goodness for Akhila, who is certainly a feisty and worldly non-Bollywood heroine representing the future of India. As for Miss Laila, I can’t say more – but I can thoroughly recommend you read this book to find out. (9/10)

Source: Review copy.  Manu Joseph, Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous (Myriad editions, 2018), paperback original, 212 pages. BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link).


Now for some Shiny linkiness 

I reviewed two superb novels for Shiny recently.

The first is Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, translated by Geraldine Harcourt. This Japanese novel, originally published in serial form in the mid-1970s, follows a mother and her child for a year after she splits from her husband and has to find a new life.  It’s a beguiling story, and captures the limbo of separation particularly well. Read my review of Territory of Light here.

Then I reviewed the most timely thriller, Star of the North, by DB John set in North Korea.  It was absolutely brilliant!  You’ll finish reading this timely thriller realising that any knowledge you had of North Korea was just scratching the surface too, but you’ll also be desperately hoping that a certain President doesn’t muck things up big-time!  Absolutely brilliant.  Read my review of Star of the North here.


And the DNF. 

I really wanted to read The Testament of Loki, Joanne (M) Harris’s sequel to The Gospel of Loki which I really enjoyed and reviewed for Shiny here.

In the first book, Harris retold the Norse myths leading up to Ragnarok through the eyes of Loki, the trickster.  As the sequel begins, Loki lives on in chaos, chained to a rock. Desperate to escape, he does this by going into ‘dream’, and through there into a computer game called Asgard™ and from there into the mind of a seventeen year old girl known as Jump playing the game. Odin does the same, inhabiting Jump’s friend Evan.  

With the introduction of the two teenagers, it all suddenly went a bit YA, and this is where I lost interest. (I hasten to say that I have enjoyed many a YA novel in the past).  This turn of events rather took me by surprise, and I didn’t read on far.


That’s caught me up a bit… now it’s time to get on with my 20 Books of Summer!

11 thoughts on “Review Catch-up…

  1. I’ve got a copy of Educated waiting on my shelf and I’m sure I’m going to love it. Both Miss Laila… and Star of the North sound great – definitely up for reading thrillers that take a different tack from the same tropes that seem to get recycled a lot at the moment.

  2. AnnaBookBel says:

    Star of the North is a conventional thriller – but high class. Miss Laila is a bit different and fabulous with it. You have to pinch yourself to remember that Educated is memoir and not a first person narrative – an inspirational young woman. Much to enjoy!

  3. I read the sample of Educated and did not feel compelled to go on, even though I love stories about “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” and overcoming obstacles. Perhaps, for me, it was too like Hillbilly Elegy in which the narrator went to Harvard, I believe, and still returned from whence he came. I didn’t find his writing very clever or articulate, in my opinion. But, maybe it’s not fair to compare these two stories.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’m not familiar with Hillbilly Elegy, but the obstacles Westover had to overcome to even get to school were immense. The second half when she gets her education was less interesting, I’ll admit.

  4. I’ve transcribed an interview with Westover and found it all very interesting but I fear I know everything that happens now! I hadn’t realised there were two Loki books now: as an Icelandophile, I feel duty-bound to read both. I don’t mind YA but I do mind people messing too much with the stuff I love (I was OK with the Thor films, however!), so I’ll have to see …

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