Tag Archives: Kamila Shamsie

Seven Recommendations for Book Groups

On an art tour of the south of France recently I asked people about their reading recommendations, and in turn I was asked for mine. As such conversations developed they frequently referred to books discussed in reading groups. I was asked what I would recommend for book groups. In turn I asked my own group for their choices.

My Book Group’s reading choices

The criteria that emerged for making these recommendations were probably some combination of

  • The book was an enjoyable read
  • It was not too long or too difficult to be off-putting for very busy readers
  • It produced a good discussion in the group

To make our annual choices in our group we devote our December meeting to the task, each person bringing several selections. We have a free vote and then ensure we have on our list of eleven books, one from each individual and a variety of genres including poetry, theatre, memoir or biography and other non-fiction.

Seven recommendations from my Book Group

Milkman by Anna Burns (2018) 

Not everyone found this an easy read, but we all appreciated its innovation and compelling subject matter. Not everyone finished it.

I reviewed it on this blog, and you can find the review here.

Plainsong  by Kent Haruf (1999)

Some of the members of the group had not previously encountered Kent Haruf but agreed that this was a very good read, and prompted a good discussion about his focus on the ordinary folk of Holt, Colorado. 

I had reviewed this book as well. You can find it here.

Reservoir 13  by Jon McGregor (2017)

I missed the session at which this novel was discussed, but the enthusiasm of the group has encouraged me to plan to read it soon. It was swiftly recommended for this post.

My Life on the Road  by Gloria Steinem (2015)

This memoir prompted much talk about our different involvements in feminism in the past and today, and in Gloria Steinem’s approach to activism. Its length did not daunt us.

This is another book I reviewed on my blog and here is the link.

Go, Went, Gone  by Jenny Erpenbeck (2017)

The group recommended this book because they were interested in how it takes a long view of migration and a close look at refugees in Berlin. It was originally written in German and translated by Susan Bernofsky. 

I had read it and recommended it as part of a series on my blog about refugees. Here is the link.

All My Puny Sorrows  by Miriam Toews (2014)

The group recently discussed suicide, desperation, families and Mennonite communities after reading this book. Again, the topic prevents it being an easy read, but it was considered a very worthwhile choice.

Home Fire  by Kamila Shamsie (2017)

This novel had won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017 and the group enjoyed reading and discussing it. It has been a reference point since as it deals with people seeking to return from terrorist activities abroad, and the effects of radicalisation on families.

Yet another book I reviewed and here is the link.

You can find therecommendations of the art group here.

The Book Group and this blog

You can see that I have reviewed most of the group’s recommendations on Bookword. There’s a reason for that. The choices are good ones and I like to pass on reading recommendations. 

A footnote: You might be wondering what happens to the suggestions not included in the final eleven choices each year. To ensure that none of them are lost we add them to the schedule of books and group members can follow them up if they want to.

Over to you – what recommendations would you make to book groups?

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Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

A prize-winning novel that is an adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone, set in the present day? Already chosen by my reading group as our August book? There was no reason not to get stuck into this one.

Summary of Home Fire (no spoilers)

The story follows the misfortunes of one Pakistani-origin family living in West London. The children are orphans. Father was rarely there, a fighter for the so-called Muslim causes, who died somewhere between Bagram and Guantanamo. Mother died suddenly leaving Isma to bring up the twins Aneeka and Parvaiz with the help of local families, especially Aunty Naseem. The action takes place about 3 or 4 years ago against this background.

We meet Isma as she is about to board a plane for Boston where she plans to take up her doctoral studies again. The twins have grown up and she can leave them in the care of others. The usual airport irritations of the security checks are much greater for her, both at Heathrow and also when she lands. She is a Muslim and must be closely questioned. Knowing this, she has arrived extra early and rehearsed answers to possible questions with her sister. The family have a secret that must not be divulged. Parvaiz has left the UK to join ISIS. Both sisters miss their brother badly and would like to make contact with him, find out if he is okay.

In Amherst she meets Eamonn another young British citizen from a Pakistani family. His father, Karamat (Lone) Wolf, has just been made Home Secretary. Karamat is a man of high political ambitions, but known to Isma’s family as Shameless. He favours Muslims who adapt to British life, not those who object to how they are treated.

Eamonn goes to London and takes up with Isma’s sister Aneeka. It is not clear whether she has hidden motives for getting involved with him, the reader suspects that she has, but he is quickly smitten.

The action shifts to Parvaiz. We learn of his recruitment, his training and employment in the media branch of ISIS, and how he now wants to return to London. This is, of course, the crux of the action of the novel. The Home Secretary has just announced that those who have left to join the militants will have their British citizenship revoked. And now, his own family is involved with such a young man.

As the plot moves to its conclusion, both families – the Home Secretary’s as well as Isma’s – are put under severe pressure.

My reactions

The idea of using a modern-day Antigone to explore some very ancient and difficult themes works well. Kamila Shamsie does not confine herself to the original story, but makes enough use of it to enrich the telling of this thriller. The theme of conflict between family and civic duty is central. Those who try to legislate for civic over familial duty are culpable. We must also understand the pull of the family, and the questions of identity in our multifaceted world.

The novel questions easy solutions. It will not allow us, or any of the characters, to get away with ideas about British values being the answer, and continually asks what is identity, what matters to one’s sense of self, and the role of family and country in this. These concepts have never been straight forward, and today they are as complex and insoluble as ever.

I have two reservations. First, it is not possible for anyone to be in ignorance of the atrocities committed in the name of ISIS. Nor of the possible consequences of betraying your country by joining them or of betraying them. [I write this as the current Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, announces the suspension of the policy of demanding that British Citizens do not face capital punishment.] But for the plot to work the reader must have some sympathy for Parvaiz and believe that he is motivated by his wish to find the truth about his father and that he is susceptible to the recruitment process.

Second, fictitious presentation of prominent political figures is very hard to do. This may be because our perceptions of them are built gradually through innumerable press exposures, not presented as thought-through characters in a novel. I think of the Blair character in The Ghost by Richard Harris (2007), and the Prime Minister in The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (1987). Both characters are problematic because they do not accord with our own picture of these people. The complexity of a political figure’s motivations and actions seem to me to resist authenticity.

I will mention two other things which I thought were well done. Aneeka’s grief is overpowering and leads to the final horrifying scene.

But this was not grief. It did not cleave to her, it flayed her. It did not envelop her, it leaked into her pores and bloated her beyond recognition, She did not hear his footsteps or his laughter, she no longer knew how to hunch down and inhabit his posture, she couldn’t look in the mirror and see his eyes looking back at her.

This was not grief. It was rage. It was his rage, the boy who allowed himself every emotion but rage, so it was the unfamiliar part of him, that was all he was allowing her now, it was all she had left of him. She held it to her breast, she fed it, she stroked its mane, she whispered love to it under the starless sky, and sharpened her teeth on its gleaming paws. (193)

The other small detail is the way the press mangle the names of the protagonists. Their identity is fodder to the news mill.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017) Bloomsbury 264pp

Long listed for Man Booker in 2017 and winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018.

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Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018

Announced on 6thJune, the winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

As in previous years I give you the short and long lists for 2018 and all previous winners, because it’s so good to have 43 excellent books by women listed in one place!

Announced in April, the short list

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Sight by Jessie Greengrass

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Announced in March, the longlist

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Sight by Jessie Greengrass

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (will be reviewed on Bookword on 19thJune)

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Previous winners of the women’s fiction prize.

Naomi Alderman: The Power (2017)

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (2016)

Ali Smith: How to be Both(2015)

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2014)

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven (2013)

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles (2012)

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna (2010)

Marilynne Robinson: Home (2009)

Rose Tremain: The Road Home (2008)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)

Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2006)

Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005)

Andrea Levy: Small Island (2004)

Valerie Martin: Property (2003)

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto (2002)

Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection (2001)

Linda Grant: When I Lived in Modern Times (2000)

Suzanne Berne: A Crime in the Neighbourhood (1999)

Carol Shields: Larry’s Party (1998)

Anne Michaels: Fugitive Pieces (1997)

Helen Dunmore: A Spell of Winter (1996)

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Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction Shortlist 2015

BWPFF 2015 logoAnnounced on Monday 13th April 2015, here is the shortlist for the Baileys Prize.

  • Rachel Cusk: Outline
  • Laline Paull: The Bees
  • Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone
  • Ali Smith: How to be Both
  • Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread
  • Sarah Waters: The Paying Guests

160 How to be bothThe winner will be announced on Wednesday 3rd June.

These books were on the longlist:

  • Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart
  • Patricia Ferguson: Aren’t We Sisters?
  • Xiaolu Guo: I Am China
  • Samantha Harvey: Dear Thief
  • Emma Healey: Elizabeth is Missing
  • Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven
  • Grace McCleen: The Offering
  • Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star
  • Heather O’Neil: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night
  • Marie Phillips: The Table of Less Valued Knights
  • Rachel Seiffert: The Walk Home
  • Sara Taylor: The Shore
  • Jemma Wayne: After Before
  • PP Wong: The Life of a Banana

151 E missiing cover 3

And here’s the shadow shortlist from The Writes of Women blog:

  • Samantha Harvey    Dear Thief
  • Sandra Newman      Ice Cream Star
  • Ali Smith                    How to be Both
  • Sara Taylor                The Shore
  • Anne Tyler                A Spool of Blue Thread
  • Sarah Waters           The Paying Guests

 

Never mind the winner, here’s lots of lovely reading for us all!

 

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