The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

The Underground Girls Of Kabul: The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys Source: Library

Five words from the blurb: hidden, gender, observations, society, secret

The Underground Girls of Kabul is a fascinating investigation into the lives of Afghani girls who are raised as boys. The practice is secretive, but widespread, and occurs for a variety of reasons. Male babies are prized because they protect the family, bring in the majority of income, and are necessary for inheritance reasons. Women who produce only female offspring are seen as failures, so the idea of pretending your newborn is a boy is an appealing way of being accepted by society. From birth these female babies are presented to the world as male. They are known as ‘bacha posh’, which translates as ‘dressed up like a boy’.

Jenny Nordberg is a journalist who spent time interviewing people in Afghanistan. By gaining their trust she managed to get an incredible insight into this hidden world. Her discoveries on gender differences were especially revealing – showing to what extent nature can be overridden by nurture. Nordberg also managed to find adult bacha posh, some who have revealed their true gender and are now living as women, but others who have decided to remain as men throughout their adult lives.

Who would not walk out of the door in disguise – if the alternative was to live as a prisoner or slave? Who would really care about long hair or short, pants or skirt, feminine or masculine, if renouncing one’s gender gave one access to the world?

The book gives details of what everyday life is like in Afghanistan. I’ve read several books on this subject, but this is the first to really get under the skin of normal people. Gender politics within the country were also explained fully and I now feel I have an understanding of the history behind the rules. It was interesting to see how powerful women are trying to change things, but be able to appreciate the immense difficulties they face in trying to do so.

The writing was excellent, but maintained a journalistic distance from the subjects throughout. I’d have preferred to get to know some of the interviewees in more depth, but the book skipped to the next person before the reader had a chance to bond with anyone. This meant a wide range of different families were introduced, but the same topics were occasionally repeated.

Overall this book was fascinating for many different reasons, but an essential read for anyone interested in gender differences.

Books in Brief: I Let You Go, Unbroken, Where My Heart Used to Beat

I Let You Go Source: Personal Copy

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

Five words from the blurb: tragic, accident, escape, mystery, consequences

I read I Let You Go because it was chosen by my book club. It is a fast-paced thriller about a woman whose child is killed by a car. Some elements were fantastic, but I found other sections less convincing. It’s probably worth reading for the twist alone, but don’t stop to analyse it for too long as it is one of those books that falls apart under scrutiny. Perfect when you’re looking for a gripping mystery to race through!


Unbroken Source: Library

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Five words from the blurb: Runner, WWII, crash, survive, floating

Unbroken is the fascinating true story of an Olympic runner who is shot down during WWII and finds himself floating in the middle of the ocean, hundreds of miles from the shore. Unfortunately the text was lacking emotion and, despite the fact it is one of the most interesting stories I’ve come across in a while, I found myself not caring whether he lived or died. Facts seemed to get in the way – with excessive detail on everything from his Olympic running, to the planes he was flying. A quick check on Goodreads suggests I’m in the minority on this one – most other people seem to love it.


Where My Heart Used to Beat Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks

Five words from the blurb: soldier, WWII, sanity, love, Front

I loved Birdsong, so was interested to try Faulks’ new book. Unfortunately it didn’t have the same emotional power. There was nothing really wrong with this story of a former soldier learning more about his family and meeting people from his past, but it wasn’t special in any way. An average read for those who enjoy reading about the way war impacts on a soldier through his entire life.


Every Boy Should Have a Man by Preston L Allen

Every Boy Should Have a Man Source: Library

Five words from the blurb: man, pet, bond, wild, dystopian

Every Boy Should Have a Man is a strange fable set at a time when the Earth is suffering from climate change. ‘Man’ is in danger of extinction – partly from lack of habitat, but also because giant ‘Oafs’ are keeping them as pets and eating them.

The book begins with a poor oaf child discovering a female man in a bramble patch. He takes her home to play with and discovers that she is a rare, valuable, talking man. The pair form a close bond, but their happiness is broken when she becomes pregnant:

If she were not pregnant, I would sell her as meat and pay for this expensive house I am building. And when the litter is born, can I sell it to make back some of my money? No. Instead I must surrender the litter to the wealthy! I could save a lot of money by just allowing them to remove her thumbs. I would surely be better off if I lived as a pet. The government protects pets! What about protecting people?

This is a very strange book, but its messages on climate change, slavery and animal ownership are delivered in an effective way. It shouldn’t make any difference, but seeing what life would be like if humans were kept as pets raised some difficult questions. The arguments were extremely powerful and some people might find them too disturbing, but I loved the way it made me stop and think about our treatment of animals.

Every Boy Should Have a Man is a short book. Part of me wants to criticise the fact that it skipped over elements I’d have liked to investigate in more depth, but another was impressed by the amount of subjects covered in such a short time. This probably means it struck exactly the right balance between the two!

The book successfully combined a variety of different myths; giving a modern twist to some old stories and creating new ones which were equally engaging. I loved the fact I had no idea what would happen next and would enjoy talking about some of the issues raised. It would make a fantastic book club choice, but I’d recommend it to anyone looking for something a bit different.


The First Bad Man by Miranda July

The First Bad Man Source: Library

Five words from the blurb: weird, life, people, faults, love

The First Bad Man is a very strange book! I have to give it credit for its originality, but unfortunately I could only stand its bizarre characters for a limited amount of time. 

The plot focused on Cheryl, a forty-three-year-old single woman who has an odd outlook on life. At first I found her quirkiness amusing – I loved the initial scenes with the chromotherapist and was intrigued by the painfully awkward way she communicated with others. It was fascinating to read her thoughts and be able to see why her anxieties caused her to make bizarre life choices.

Unfortunately everything seemed to fall apart when Cheryl was forced to take in a teenage house-mate. The book lost its humour and become almost realistic. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at all! 

The writing was excellent throughout and there were some wonderful passages:

Try not to base your decision on this room, it isn’t representative of the whole world. Somewhere the sun is hot on a rubbery leaf, clouds are making shapes and reshaping, a spider web is broken but still works.

The dialogue was also especially good – it’s just a shame that the brilliance wasn’t maintained throughout.

Overall, it’s probably worth reading this odd little book, but be prepared for it’s patchy nature.


Kauthar by Meike Ziervogel

Kauthar  Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: Islam, rituals, love, extremism, terrifying

Kauthar follows a young woman as she converts to Islam and then becomes increasingly radicalised. The subject matter is particularly pertinent to our society today and I’m pleased that I am now more informed about the issues involved. Unfortunately it lacked the emotional power of her debut, Magda and I found the amount of religious information overwhelming.

Kauthar is only 144 pages long, but it crams a lot into such a small space. The writing is deceptively simple, but contains many sections that force the reader to stop and think about the issues raised. 

The book was very well researched and contained a wealth of information that was new to me, but I occasionally found that too much was explained and this detracted from the story. It is a very hard line to tread, especially when the author is aware that the majority of readers are not familiar with the details of the subject matter, but much of the book felt like a lecture in religious studies, rather than a compelling novel:

And I ask Rabia,’Isn’t Islam misogynistic?’
‘For Allah there is no difference between the soul of a man and the soul of a woman. We are all from Him and we will all return to Him. O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from the twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women. However, there is a physical difference between men and women. And Islam and we Muslims accept and acknowledge this difference in our earthly appearance.

It was interesting to see the young woman become increasingly devoted to her religion, but I never felt I truly understood what was going on in her head. I failed to connect to the characters and always felt as though I was a distant observer, rather than someone immersed in the action.

If you’re interested in learning the basic principles of Islam and would like an insight into the process of radicalisation then I recommend Kauthar, but if you’re after a more powerful book I suggest you try Magda instead.


A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life Source: Personal Copy

Five words from the blurb: college, friendship, decades, New York, trauma

A Little Life is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. The evolving relationship between four college friends over several decades sounds like nothing special, but Yanagihara manages to get under their skin in a way few writers can. I was totally engrossed in their story, unable to stop thinking about them – even long after I’d turned the final page.

A Little Life deals with many difficult subjects – including paedophilia, physical abuse and suicide. Some people will find it too disturbing to read the more graphic scenes, but I thought it was important they were included. The way these events rippled through the lives of everyone, no matter how indirectly they were involved, was skilfully shown and I especially liked the way mental health and the pursuit of happiness was explored:

But these were days of self-fulfilment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.

The length of the book (700+ pages) will be daunting for some, but I loved the detail of this novel. It meant I could picture every aspect of their lives; imagine myself visiting their houses and be able to predict how they’d react to different scenarios. It’s rare to discover a book where a cast of characters are developed to this extent; to witness the strength of friendship and to investigate how it responds to the strains of life.

I have to admit that I wasn’t enthralled by the first 200 pages. The quality of the writing was outstanding, but I disliked the way the book switched between each of the men – it threw me out of the story and I felt as though I was having to start a new book on beginning each chapter. Luckily, about a quarter of the way through the book, everything came together and I remained hooked for the rest of the novel.

I loved Yanagihara’s debut, The People in the Trees, but A Little Life is even better. It has a much simpler plot, but the characters have more depth. It’s still well worth reading both books, but it is wonderful to see a writer develop and create something with the potential to become a classic.

A Little Life is an outstanding novel. It will probably make you cry but, worst of all, it will make all the other books you try for months afterwards feel insignificant.