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Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

There has never been a better time to read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Not only because it has recently been hailed as:

A benchmark for excellence in fiction writing

by the Baileys prize judges as they crowned it the ‘best of the best’ of the past decade’s winners. Not only if – like this reader – you were woefully ignorant of the Biafran war, its causes and consequences and your own government’s underhand behaviour throughout the period covered by the novel. Instead, read it because it really is an enlightening tale, far from being a dry history lesson, instead packed with vivid, memorable characters who it is difficult to step away from every evening when it becomes time to put down the book.


Twin sisters Olanna and Kainene couldn’t be more different in their approach to life after graduation: Kainene dryly amused by her work in their father’s businesses while Olanna heads off to an unfashionable university in a outlying town to be with her boyfriend Odenigbo (who Kainene dismisses as ‘the revolutionary’). Events leading up to the outbreak of war between Nigeria and Biafra conspire to drive the sisters apart and it is not immediately clear that they will be able to resolve their differences amid the chaos. The stories are also narrated in part by Richard, Kainene’s British boyfriend, who is attempting to write a novel inspired by Igbo-Ukwu art and Ugwu, Odenigbo’s houseboy, whose adolescence, education and journey to maturity are interrupted by the fighting.

This is a novel of bold ambition, not only in telling the stories of the war, but in dealing with the themes that engaged and challenged people through the 1960s. Olanna and Odenigbo are both academics, hosting colleagues and visitors at their home each night for lively, wide-ranging and drunken debates on the future of post-colonial Africa. Kainene and Olanna are both modern girls, keen to have careers and not be as dependent on their men as their mother perhaps is. Meanwhile fine distinctions abound – between wealthy Olanna (who after fleeing finds herself missing her tablecloths) and her aunt’s more down-to-earth family, the differences between the sophisticated city dwellers and the superstitions of village life, Richard’s attempts to distinguish himself from the other Westerners – which are often missed when the ill-informed speak of ‘Africa’ as one mass.

Although set in a different continent and era, it is difficult to escape the thought that not much has changed, as Olanna and Odenigbo are displaced from one home to another and another, each one more precarious until they arrive at a refugee centre. Initially, as the ‘police action’ begins and rumours swirl, they are so convinced that the situation can be resolved that it is not until they hear the sound of shelling outside that they finally decide leave their home. It is such an unplanned flight that they leave with a half-cooked pot of soup in the back of the car and not much else. Earlier, when the twins’ parents decided to go to London it was easy for the younger relatives to dismiss it as an over-reaction. By the time it looks sensible, of course, it is too late to follow them. The targetting of civilians, forced conscription, starvation being used as a weapon, other nations lining up to support one or the other side, rapes by soldiers: this is the story of the brief nationhood of Biafra, but it is not too dissimilar to what is in the news today and it seems we are no more able to prevent it and assist the victims than we were back then.

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Hurma by Ali Al-Muqri

From viewing the cover of Hurma you might not expect a darkly comic sex romp. You might make some guesses as to the content and expect an illicit ‘peek behind the veil’ for Western audiences in this, the first of Yemeni author Ali Al-Muqri’s books to be translated (by Thomas Aplin) into English. Especially when the tabloids in the UK are equal parts fascinated and horrified by girls running away from home to marry IS fighters, you might expect a tale of misery, beatings and death – and while all those elements are present – what I wasn’t expecting was the laughter.

hurma ali al-muqri

There are so many beautifully-realised moments in this tale, some more poignant, some that will have you shaking your head with disbelieving laughter. The strict family patriarch who beats Hurma for drawing a heart in class but tells the rest of the family to allow older sister Lula complete freedom after her sex work pays for his heart operation. Raqeeb the secret drinker and public Marxist who nicknames his younger sister ‘Ruza’ and tells her:

‘Be free and wonderful like Rosa Luxemburg!’ he would say, ‘Read her book and you’ll learn what really matters in life.’

Raqeeb is scornful of religion until he transforms himself into ‘Abd al-Raqeeb, holy warrior, as he prepares for marriage to a neighbour’s daughter.

He encourages Hurma to attend Islamic college, where she too becomes more devout. Although, in the manner of girls’ schools the world over, her classmates are boy-crazy and the pleasures of the flesh can’t be shut out completely: even when the male instructors give lessons via video links that only show their hands. With her siblings pulling her in two opposing – both extreme – directions, Hurma decides to marry one of her brother’s co-conspirators. She daydreams of a happy, contented life with her husband and pictures herself performing heroics on the battlefield, but the experience is as unsatisfying as her marriage. Her husband is more turned on by martyrdom than anything else, including a Lula-supplied Viagra, and her role more akin to a mule than a freedom fighter.

Hurma’s story unfolds as she is listening to a tape made for her by a male neighbour and passed to her via his sister. She is looking for meaning in the lyrics of the songs by the singer Om Kalthoum as she also looks for meaning in the events of her life. She realises that she can interpret the songs as love songs, songs of desire, or with a more religious aspect and it is those two influences – which should be able to coexist instead of being in opposition – that keep pulling and pushing her along.

I prayed to God, but He didn’t answer. I became more and more frustrated as the days went by – in fact with every hour and every second. I tried to get my life in order. I asked myself: What do I want, and how am I going to get it? But my inner turmoil made it impossible… how could there be inner peace with the unquenchable flames of desire?

The more that something is forbidden, the more alluring it becomes. Once Hurma doesn’t have the war as a distraction, it isn’t long before the drive towards sex completely overwhelms her. Her lack of an outlet leaving her contemplating tunneling into the house of the neighbour who made the tape to jump him after a second unconsummated marriage to an impotent man. For all that this is a novel awash (sorry) and dripping (sorry) – one might even say stuffed (sorry!) with sex, for its heroine it is a messy, frustrating, unsatisfactory endeavour. Luckily, that isn’t true for the reader, who will find much to enjoy in this tale. I look forward to reading more of Al-Muqri’s work in English!

Thanks to Darf Publishers for sending me a free copy of this book.

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DisGRACEfully Delicious

The DisGRACEfully Delicious Grace Jones is a natural phenomenon. How can such a force of nature be contained and distilled within the confines of a hardback covered book? Reckless and unpredictable on stage, her world is like a tempestuous tornado. How the devil can the whole Bacchae experience that a Grace Jones performance delivers be articulated just by the written word?


It was quite apt I read the book on a Saturday night, the traditional night to paint the town red, blue, purple and green. To exploit all the colours in the disco palette, I complimented the reading with a disco soundtrack and became totally absorbed into the small hours. The music ceased, the soundscape of a police helicopter being replaced by birdsong.

And what a tale she has to tell. I felt like I’d been completely taken up in her storm of a life, twisting through a strict religious Jamaican childhood, charmed by the sexual seduction of Paris, to the dance floors of seventies (cocaine-laced) New York and being dumped back into my chair in my little Liverpool flat, Treeview.

We see the origins of the model’s fashion lust,

I would cut up old dresses and make new ones from the material.

To her theatre-dabblings that helped sketch out her performance art and assist her in finding her natural tribe of people, the creatives.

Well I am not going back home, I don’t need no more education. This is education.

She speaks frankly about her sometimes controlled drug experimentation,

The doctor would safely guide us through the trip. It was like a clinical trip, with a bit of anarchy thrown in.

Her quest to explore the many levels of her personality,

The underground clubs satisfied the explorer in me seeking new discoveries.

Throughout the memoirs she illustrates a strong degree of self-awareness and a tenacity that can only be admired,

I knew I didn’t have a natural voice, but I was going to work at how to make it work, stretch into a new place.

She has many musical anecdotes, like turning down the song BOOGIE WONDERLAND,

Can you imagine me singing Boogie Wonderland? Preposterous. That song needs a tinkling Tinker Bell to sing it, and I’m much more of a witch with a smear of blood on my cheek.

Her values and respect for creativity and individualism are illustrated when she openly talks about one of my personal bug-bearers the reality talent show, the modern-day equivalent of the Roman Colosseum.

I’m offered so much money to do these kind of shows, but no amount of money is enough to compensate for what appearing on them would do to my soul. They’re awful, there’s no learning experience, it’s demeaning and dispiriting. Sure, it’s part of life and you have to go through it, but to set it up as something that people laugh at is so damned cruel.


She is aware of reputation and plays the part of Grace Jones, particularly for the press,

I am having fun with the idea of the performance, with me as a performance. I turn myself into a kind of party, but after you’ve been to a party, you don’t come home and have the same party.

Also, the book is philosophical, she comes across at times as a glittered philosopher,

Disco in its purest sense means that you will come out of a place having gone into euphoria, feeling that you have rejoiced. That’s the sense the disc jockey in the clubs was helping crowds achieve… Mixing the music to completely control your emotions, bringing you up, taking you down, slowing you down, speeding you up, making you soft, making you hard.

Essentially, Jones HURRICANE album was autobiographical, she shrieks at the beginning of the work,

This is my voice, my weapon of choice, this is life.

And goes on to deliver a musical confessional, the most overtly personal album of the maverick’s musical collection.

Did we really need her to pen her memoirs, ‘I’ll never write my memoirs’, a lyric she sung in one of my favourite tracks of hers, Art Groupie.

Well, if the truth be known, we didn’t really. Part of me liked the mystique, the uncertainty of the real Jones. But is she really revealing the Grace behind the mask in this book or is it simply another guise, another art project.

I am very militant and disciplined. Even if that sometimes means being militantly naughty, and disciplined in the art of subversion.

I guess we needed Grace Jones to pen her life, explain some of the incidents, as much as we need luxury truffles and caviar. We don’t really need them but there is a decadent delight in the consumption.

May she long continue being disgracefully delicious!

If you are based in the US and wish to purchase the book from an independent bookstore, the link below will take you to IndieBound – a community of independent bookstores. ten minutes hate will receive a small commission if you do. Many thanks!

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Maps of the Soul by Ahmed Fagih

Remember when I said recently that Transit was going to be my favourite book of the year? Here we are a little while later with another contender. Put down whatever you are doing and read Ahmed Fagih’s Maps of the Soul right now.


The story, set in Libya in the 1930s, begins with one of the most affecting opening scenes I have ever read. It grabs you and does not let go for a moment. Without giving too much away, an otherwise nameless ‘you’ is waiting under a hot sun to be brutally executed by another:

Why did you care about fending off fear when your end was nigh, when you knew that once the electricity that provided you with energy and life was cut off, perpetual darkness would follow?

Of course, that second-person ‘you’ makes it very difficult to look away. You are right there in that ‘you’, feeling the heat beating down as you wait for the knife…

In the second chapter the tale flashes back some time to show us that ‘you’ is Othman al-Sheikh, a boy from a far off village forced to leave for Tripoli after being caught in an indiscretion. He flounders at first, sleeping rough and contemplating a career of begging, before beginning to find his way and make connections across the city that will see him admitted to the palaces and high society now controlled by the Italian Governor-General Balbo.

Whirling through the streets of Tripoli, shedding innocence and qualms as he goes, still Othman manages to never quite lose his moral compass, while all around are misplacing theirs. He joins the occupier’s army as one of few volunteers and is unapologetic and enthusiastic in his beatings of other recruits, eyes firmly fixed on a promotion.

Nevertheless, you would not eat blood dipped in the blood of your own countrymen. You prayed that God would not let the situation deteriorate to the point that Libyans would be used against Libyans.

He joins the Fascist party to try to get out of being sent to Abyssinia, is taught to drive by the most Italian of Italian characters ever encountered on the page and gets tasked with showing Balbo around the hidden parts of the old city his official motorcade could never reach. But it is the women of Maps of the Soul who centre Othman’s world, from the saintly Thuraya, who marries another man before Othman can make his move:

She was the brilliant essence of all happiness and comfort in the world, and at the same time of every sorrow, deprivation, and grief.

And who contrasts with:

Nuriya, whose dearest hope was to be able to pursue her profession officially, without being hounded or blackmailed…

Before he encounters the schemes of Houriya, the most beautiful of the Governor-General’s mistresses (and ‘your’ boss!):

You were attracted to her by something that spoke to you in a language that no one but you could discern.

From arriving in the city by truck, knowing no one, Othman comes to realise that:

Every person belongs to a place and a circle of friends and acquaintances.

And for all that he at times feels lost and unsure, making his way in a world with the competing demands of the Italians and his compatriots:

You didn’t have any other homeland, and it was more than being stone, tree and earth, it was people, hearts, and emotions.

But just as he begins to rely on these connections, history and events conspire against him.

The call to prayer awoke memories of the relationships, images, and events that tied you to the city you would leave… you wondered if this was your final farewell to this muezzin’s call to prayer, or to these people, or the vast deserts of your homeland and its scattered oases, like green stains on the red maze of sand. You wondered if your bones’ final resting place would be some distant, dark mountain, and if this was the last contact you would have with your friends and family…

As it is the 1930s in North Africa, the reader might suspect that Othman is in for quite a time of it before he meets that final resting place. Maps of the Soul is, not unlike Anna Seghers’ story of the refugees in Marseille, Transit, a tale of place – finding one’s place, growing into it – as well as the mistakes and missteps we make along the path and the good luck and good hearts we encounter as we go. It is beautifully written and captivating, pulling the reader in and along with the tastes, sights and even the smells of a city that is being forcibly modernised by the latest in a long line of invaders, intent on making their mark, similar to those of the Ancient Romans that Balbo finds on his illicit stroll.

No one could escape his fate or what the angels had written upon his brow, as the saying went among mothers and grandmothers.

Maps of the Soul is the first three parts of what eventually became a 12 part story. I can’t wait to read the other nine, when they become available – hint, hint, Darf Publishers, PLEASE – to see what Othman makes of his fate.

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The wisdom of no escape by Pema Chödrön

wisdom of no escapeI highlighted many of the sentences in Pema Chödrön’s The wisdom of no escape and you will too, when you go and read it, right after you finish reading this post. Before I had even got to the end of first chapter, I had told my good pal Mr Maguire to order a copy (and he did!) so we could talk about it. It is that kind of book, you want everyone you know to read it.

The quote that first pulled me in is one you will see quoted on goodreads and in many reviews, as it must speak to something in many of us. The words have that ring of truth that see us turning down the corner of the page, or making a pencil mark if we’re the sacrilegious kind, or swiping to highlight if we are fancy.

The problem is that the desire to change is fundamentally a form of aggression towards yourself. The other problem is that our hangups, unfortunately or fortunately, contain our wealth. Our neurosis and our wisdom are made out of the same material. If you throw out your neurosis, you also throw out your wisdom.

The title of the book comes from its original existence as a series of talks given at Chödrön’s remote institute in Nova Scotia, where there are big windows looking out to sea and, literally, no escape. There is nothing to do but sit and meditate. You might as well get into it. It sounds heavenly, so long as you are allowed to take a big stack of books. And a teapot. And teabags.

But what Pema Chödrön is telling her students is that you don’t have to be in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by natural beauty and enjoying the peace and quiet to be doing it perfectly. She talks openly about her own struggles on the journey to enlightenment and is at pains to point out that she is not there yet and has stumbled along the way. You will too, she tells us, but you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it.

That is an essential lesson for us all, particularly as mindfulness becomes an industry like any other, determined to sell us the cure for the perceived problems of our hyper-connectivity. Her message, that you have everything you need if you could just be kind to yourself, is so simple that you would almost slap yourself on the forehead for missing it, if she hadn’t just expressly forbid it.

…each of us has all that it takes to become fully enlightened. We have basic energy coursing through us. Sometimes it manifests as brilliance and sometimes as confusion.’

Well, quite. Often veering from one to the other in the same few moments. When you are strong enough to face your own fears, you can get on with tackling the ones we are all facing.

…no withdrawing, no centralizing into ourselves. That is what we aspire to, the warrior’s journey.

Then you are ready to meet dragons, without fear and without armour. And if you are not sure exactly what I mean by that, go and read the book and then we can talk more!

If you are based in the US and wish to purchase the book from an independent bookstore, the link below will take you to IndieBound – a community of independent bookstores. ten minutes hate will receive a small commission if you do. Many thanks!

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Transit by Anna Seghers

Undoubtably, the best book I have read this year, Anna Seghers’ Transit is lyrical and beautiful, restless and meandering.

transit anna seghers

Surgical in its examination of the gap between our lives as we want them to be and what we are really capable of achieving.

I’d always enjoyed unraveling tangled yarn, just as I had always enjoyed messing up neat skeins of yarn.

It is the early part of the War, the Nazis running rampant across Europe, scattering multitudes as they go. Seghers’ narrator has drifted as far as he can and now clings to the edge of the continent, the seaport of Marseille, surrounded by similarly adrift refugees of a variety of nations, some still in existence, some not. They spend their days trailing from consulate to travel agent to embassy, in search of the right combination of travel documents, exit and transit visas.

All these casual chance encounters, these senseless, repeated meetings depressed me with their stubborn unavoidability.

This never-named young man is a German who has twice escaped from the camps, once in his homeland and once in France, possessing only fraudulent documents including a set belonging to a writer named Weidel who committed suicide as Paris fell. These comprise the necessary papers to get him out of the trap and a mysterious unfinished manuscript. To further complicate matters, Weidel’s wife arrives in the company of a doctor who has safe passage to Mexico, yet she is anxious to follow rumoured sightings of her husband. It isn’t long before our narrator is putting his full efforts in to getting the doctor out of the city, not altogether 100% altruistically:

I just had the feeling I was about to take something away from him that wasn’t really his.

And while he flirts with the romance of the situation,

All these ordinary little things together would make a powerful whole: our life together.

He can’t escape the intrusion of a certain realism:

I would make sure that she would never again fall prey to some guy like me.

The bureaucracy the refugees have to contend with is Kafkaesque, labyrinthine and deadly. Paperwork must be gathered in the correct order and submitted before the ship is due to sail or back they go to the start. Even completing all the steps is not enough to guarantee passage and the U-boats wait patiently beyond the harbour. The paranoia and rumour-mongering as people are seized by the authorities, escape, or decide to return to whatever ‘home’ remains builds to a palpable collective fear. And as he alternates between activity and waiting, the narrator can’t help but examine the life of the exile, the pull between a desire to be on your way and that of nurturing even the shallow roots that can be put down in a short time. His story perfectly combines the tedium of waiting to leave, with the thrill of not knowing where you could end up:

…where the sky and the sea touched, the thin line that is more exciting to people like us than the wildest, most jagged peaks of the craggiest mountain chains.

This story is essential reading. As fresh today, with the UNHCR estimating that 50 million people were displaced in 2014, as it was when it was completed in 1942. Not a tale that is often told when we hear stories of WWII, but one that must have been common, if forgotten once the refugees met their destination and resumed the lives that they had been forced to put on hold.

If you are interested in reading Transit, may we suggest sourcing it via your local independent bookstore? One of our favourites is News From Nowhere in Liverpool.

If you are based in the US and wish to purchase the book from an independent bookstore, the link below will take you to IndieBound – a community of independent bookstores. ten minutes hate will receive a small commission if you do. Many thanks!

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Air Babylon by Imogen Edwards Jones

Ladies and gentleman, welcome on board this feature. My name is John and I will be your reporter during today’s review of the notorious book, AIR BABYLON. It will be quite a short, succinct piece and if the seat belt sign is turned on, please return to your seats and buckle up immediately.


Please note before we do take off, in one of my previous lives I was actually a long-haul flight attendant for a well-known Italian business. I travelled around the world for several years enjoying the environments of Cuba, Maldives, Dominican Republic, Mombasa, Calgary, Goa and Florida to name a few. A question I am often asked is that of my favourite destination. Undoubtedly Calgary, a great place for outdoor pursuits and a thriving culture scene. It was quite a lifestyle: staying in five-star hotels and having lots of time off in between. Reality did not just bite, when I had to do a proper occupation with conventional hours, as in so much that it gnawed off my leg.

So this book, AIR BABYLON by Imogen Edwards Jones and Anonymous. In a similar formula to Hotel Babylon, the stories all take place within a fictitious airline known as AIR BABYLON. The action is the life cycle of an airport’s day of operation and a flight. However, like air travel in general, there was a slight delay before the story actually took off. This piece of pulp fiction reminded me of terminology used in this industry I had forgotten, such as disco nap (a quick sleep before a night on the dance floor). It took me right back to what it was like working in the airport, an overpriced shopping centre with runways. I recalled the cast of characters regularly seen, semi-permanent resident tramps, drug addicts and petty thieves.

I could identify with lots of areas covered in the book. For example, some of the customer annoyances and desperately trying to have five minutes’ rest on an upturned silver stock box in the galley, uninterrupted by passengers demanding more booze or snacks. To the in-flight rituals: checking the seat pockets during turn around (when the plane prepares to come back from a short haul flight) to see what treasures are left behind. Things like duty free or books, the occasional oddity like dentures and – on one of my long-haul flights – a sex aid!

It also identified my particular hate, passengers standing up as soon as we landed, even though the fuselage was still in transit,

They’ve been cooped up for hours, fed and watered at someone else’s whim, and now, suddenly they are allowed free will. But it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. If they are not held up by passport control, Baggage will get them in the end. They’ll all end up standing next to one another in the taxi queue at the other end no matter how speedily they exit the plane.

I will state now though that I am not one to kiss and tell, my personal tales of damage and glamour are filed away in my mind’s eye for my own pleasure and perhaps a few choice friends only. As I worked in the aviation industry, some of the sensationalist factoids quoted failed to impress. In general, I found the book was like a long-haul fight. It was too, too long and some of the anecdotes made me feel nauseous. I did wonder whether or not the book should be accompanied with a sick bag, as the emphasis was on the grosser elements involved in sharing space with strangers at 35,000 feet. A great deal too much focus on toilet habits!

Where the amount of scenarios encountered in a 24 hour time period in a hotel seemed just about credible, here in the air it is exceptionally unbelievable. With one calamity bungling into the next, this book makes the movie Snakes on a Plane seem plausible. A warning to the cautious, particularly those who feel extremely petrified about flying, a common phobia: THIS BOOK WOULD NOT PROVE APPROPRIATE TRAVEL READING.

I personally find the whole concept of air travel fine. I quite like floating up in the clouds, it is soothing. But I must say I do find the choice of terminology for an airport quite weird, I mean TERMINAL is not a good advertisement for safety. If you have never worked in aviation, this book will prove to be salacious camp fun, but if you have, perhaps some of the clichés will prove irritating. But then, I often think I was born in the wrong era, as I would have loved to have flown in the bygone golden days, when air travel was elite and the height of sophistication. One of my life ambitions is to travel on the Orient Express and also take the boat from Liverpool to New York City.

I remember flying with one debonair lady who was of an undisclosed age. She was couture sophistication, all leather gloves, starched epaulettes and rouge-red lipstick. She never broke a sweat or looked stressed, even after a 15 hour flight to Tel Aviv. Her perfume scented calmness and her smooth glide as she walked turned heads. Every time I saw this vixen of the skies, in comparison to the other new blood who had just begun their careers, it made me think of the musical song from the show CHICAGO, Nowadays and particular the line sung,

Whatever happened to class?

A similar sentiment entered my head when I reached the final destination, the end of this book.

Well, as we are shortly about to begin our descent to the end of this piece, may I inform you that I am going to tackle another in the Babylon series, FASHION BABYLON. We do hope you have enjoyed this literary flight. Thank you for flying ten minutes hate.

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