What This Week (x2)

River Spirit by Leila Aboulela

Although I definitely felt a little low at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, the January Blues didn’t really hit as hard as I expected them too as I have been considerably busier than anticipated. I signed up for annual membership to Royal Museums Greenwich and had a wonderful day out exploring Cutty Sark, The Royal Observatory and even caught a show at the Planetarium, The Sky Tonight. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to spot any of the constellations we learnt about due to weather conditions and light pollution, but I’m still holding on to the hope of spotting the Green Comet, making its Earth flyby for the first time in 50,000 years, on the 1st of February, when apparently it should be at its most visible in the London sky.

I did of course manage to find time to read, mostly thanks to being gifted some awesome books that are due to be released later this year and borrowing audiobooks from my local library.

What I read

I was sent Cursed Bread By Sophie Mackintosh late last year and having never read anything by the author I really didn’t know what to expect. The story is set in a small town where Elodie lives with her husband. They own the local bakery where he bakes and she sells the bread. A mysterious couple move into the town and Elodie becomes somewhat obsessed with the woman, Violet. Her partner, The Ambassador, hosts a party for the towns people and from that they become acquainted and fast friends. Soon the sleepy town becomes awash with strange happenings: horses found slain, people claiming to see the dead and a teenage boy throws himself into a bonfire at the midsummer feast. Something is clearly affecting the people in the town and Elodie is central to the madness.

The story is told by Elodie and is split into two timelines, one in the past, and the other in an epistolary style in the present. The novel has so many layers and keeps you guessing right until the end, although even then its ambiguous, but in the best way. It explores relationships, romantic and otherwise as well as a kind of voyeurism in friendships. Its not a particularly long book, at just shy of 200 pages, but it’s very impactful. Its an enviable skill to be able to craft such a brilliant story in such a succinct manner and not have it lose any of its potency. I will certainly be seeking out more of Sophie Mackintosh’s books especially her debut The Water Cure, which was nominated for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. 

Cursed Bread By Sophie Mackintosh will be published on the 2nd of March by Penguin Hamish Hamilton.

River Spirit by Leila Aboulela is a historical novel set in Sudan and explores an extraordinary period in the countries history, one that I’ll admit I knew nothing about. Sudan had a period of Turkish-Egyptian rule and since Britain ruled Egypt, they also had defacto control of Sudan. During this period, in the late 19th Century, many Sudanese were subjected to huge taxes and the population was full of anger and discontent, he ideal melting pot for a political and spiritual uprising.

The events within the book take place from 1877 to 1898. Siblings, Akuany and Bol are the sole survivors of a raid on their village and escape with a trader, Yaseen. Whilst Bol is immediately accepted and adopted into Yaseen’s family, Akuany is passed from home to home and experiences a myriad of lives, from being a pet plaything, sold as a slave, and working in the home of a Scottish painter and Marine Engineer, Robert. The story is told through many perspectives and that helps develop a complete picture for the readers, if not the characters, as to what is happening in the wider country as well as the lives of all our main characters. I was fully immersed in this story and loved that it was based on actual historical events. I had no idea of a false Mehdi in Sudan and Aboulela really bought the story to life. My favourite thing though, was how Islam and Muslims were so well represented. I enjoyed learning about the practises of the religion and cultural practises in Sudan tied together and none of it felt like it was pandering to the white gaze. I really hope this book does well when it is released later this year and gets read far and wide.

River Spirit by Leila Aboulela will be published in March 2023 by Saqi books.

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam tells the story of how Bangladesh, formally known as East Pakistan, fought for her freedom from Pakistan after being handed to that country during Partition. The story is told from the view point of a single mother, Rehana, who is widowed with two young children. At the start of the novel Rehana loses custody of her children and they are sent to live in Karachi with her brother-in-law and his wife, who is unable to have children. Once she gets her children back, she becomes determined to never lose them again. They grow up in an increasingly political environment, and both become involved in the liberation movement, but in very different ways. The story is as much about family as it is about the political struggle for freedom. I learnt after finishing the book that it is the first part of a trilogy, which is interesting as I really wanted to know more about the impact of independence on the family dynamic. I also thought Rehana was an interesting protagonist, I didn’t particularly warm to her and I thought she had an interesting relationship with her daughter, which I wanted explored further!

I borrowed the audiobook of A Golden Age from my local library

I borrowed the audiobook of A Golden Age from my local library.

The last book I read this month was The Khan by Saima Mir. I’ve seen this book in various corners of bookstagram and have been curious about it for a while. When I saw the audiobook was available from my local library I borrowed it immediately. I’m not a huge crime/thriller reader these days, but I have grown up on a diet of Lee Child and Carol O’Connell. I will admit I found the writing style a little jarring but I did enjoy the plot. Its set around a kingpin like figure, who governs the streets of Bradford, keeping the fine balance of peace between the many conflicting interests, including the police. When he is suddenly murdered, the reigns of the drug empire are handed to his estranged daughter, Jia Khan, who now works as a barrister. She’s a complex and messy character, and is determined to prove to everyone that she is capable, although many undermine her as a woman, to take over the family business.

My biggest issue with this book was definitely the writing style. It was overly descriptive to the point of unbearable with Jia Khan unable to say a single word without the author describing, in painfully long detailed passages, of how thoughtful and introspective each of her words and ideas were. It was too much. There was a lot of back story, so everything was tied in neat knots and overly explained. It was also littered with clichés, which is something I’m willing to forgive in crime, so long as the plot holds up, and for the most part it did, but the writing really could have done with some serious editing. All that being said, I enjoyed the book, it was a lot of fun and I loved the idea of a Pakistani Godfather like figure, I just rolled my eyes a lot!

I borrowed the audiobook of The Khan by Saima Mir from m local library.

What I listened to

I listened to an amazing podcast called Feel Better, Live More hosted by Dr Rangan Chatterjee. I was drawn in by the title: Finding Balance In A Dopamine Overloaded World with Dr Anna Lembke. Dr Lembke is the author of the book Dopamine Nation, one I’ve been wanting to read for a while. This particular episode is from December 2021. Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter. Your body makes it, and your nervous system uses it to send messages between nerve cells. Dopamine plays a role in how we feel pleasure. Too much or too little of it can lead to a vast range of health issues. This episode was absolutely fascinating to me, both for myself and as a parent. The part I found most compelling was about radical honesty. The practise of truth telling in every situation, including in all the small interactions where we might find ourselves tempted by lies. Dr Lembke argues that truth telling creates true intimacy and helps us develop a true autobiographical narrative of our lives.

I also listened to The Lex Fridman podcast, in conversation with Omar Suleiman: Islam. I’ve never listened to this YouTube show before and have no idea who Lex Fridman is, but I do try and listen to Omar Suliman’s Friday Khutbah every week. This was an excellent episode where the two men talked about God, Loss, Islamophobia, prayer, Malcom X, Palestine and so much more. This was absolutely brilliant and I recommend it to everyone, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Interestingly they also discuss the importance of truth telling, which reinforced the ideas from the above podcast.

I’m a huge fan of The Islamic History podcast, but I haven’t heard it in a while. Somehow I got an alert on my phone about a bonus episode on Vikings and Muslims this week and having been reading about Vikings with my children I decided I wanted to listen to it, and I’m glad I did. There were bits in this podcast that really blew my mind. I don’t know much about Vikings, including that they came from Ireland as well as Denmark and that they travelled as far as Bagdad! The episode also mentions how much of the documented evidence we have on Vikings is from Muslim writers as they kept clear diaries of these interactions. Its absolutely brilliant and I can’t recommend this podcast enough.

The final thing I listened to this week was another really old episode of For Harriet, this time from 2020 when Kim had a conversation with one of my favourite women of the moment, Kelechi Okafor: You Won’t Erase Me: A Transformative Conversation with Kelechi Okafor. I love both these women and have a lot of time for them. Of course I’m not a black woman, but as a visibly Muslim woman, I feel like I can relate to so much of what they say. The whole episode is brilliant (with strong language) but if you don’t have the time to listen to all of it, definitely treat yourself to the last 15 minutes. Its beautiful. Kelechi recommends a book during this episode called This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour which is something I’m going to look out for.

What I Watched

As I keep saying, I’m trying to not watch TV, I don’t find anything particularly compelling at the moment and I’d honestly rather read or listen to a podcast than waste hours in front of the television, especially just before bed. I did however make an exception this week to watch a movie with my husband, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. I honestly don’t remember anything about the first movie other than enjoying it enough to want to watch the second. Again, this wasn’t particularly memorable and the mystery was quite obvious. I did laugh out loud at one part. Anyway, if you don’t already know its about a tech giant, Miles Bron, who invites all of his friends, controversial figures in media, politics and science, who have all been funded by the billionaire to his Greek Island for a weekend murder mystery. He also invites the great detective Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig, and his co-founder, Cassandra “Andi” Brand, played by Janelle Monáe. I won’t deny that its a fun film, but it really didn’t bring anything new to the table. Its set during the Covid pandemic, and even then it felt tired. Vacuous actresses, bulky men from the manosphere, geeky scientist and ambitious politicians, nothing new to see here. There’s a lot of camp humour and popular culture references, but at 2 hours and 19 minutes, I thought it was too long. I think its perfect for a background movie whilst hanging out with friends or doing something else but i wouldn’t recommend this over any of the above suggestions.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is available on Netflix’s.
So that’s what the last two weeks of January have looked like for me. I already have a interesting exhibition in my diary for February, In Plain Sight at the Wellcome Collection, and I have a few books reserved from my library including Finding Mr Perfectly Fine by Tasneen Abdur-Rashid, which I’m really looking forward to. Let me know in the comments below what you have planned for February and what you read, listened to ad watched in January.

Peace out


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