Saturday, January 29, 2011

Audio Book Review: The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor, read by Gerard Doyle

Posted by Simcha 3:56 PM, under | 4 comments

Alice in Wonderland is not my favorite book and so it’s unlikely that I would have picked up The Looking Glass Wars if it hadn’t been featured on my library’s digital book homepage, and if I wasn’t in a hurry. But I needed to quickly choose and download an audio book and The Looking Glass Wars was there, so I decided to chance it. And boy am I glad that I did because this book was really fantastic.

The looking Glass Wars is an alternate version of Alice in Wonderland in which Alice (which she spells Alyss), the princess of Wonderland, is forced to leave her kingdom and escape to our world after the Redd Queen conquers Wonderland and destroys the royal family.

The story opens up with young Alyss being presented with the recently written Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by her friend Reverend Charles Dodgeson. Dodgeson had been inspired to write it after listening to Alyss’s imaginative stories about Wonderland and its fantastic creatures, promising that the story would be both of theirs. But after glancing through the book Alyss becomes furious at Dodgeson and his ridiculous story, which is nothing at all like what she had told him, and swears to never speak to him again, before running away.

The story then jumps back several years to the kingdom of Wonderland where Alyss’s seventh birthday is being celebrated in a grand fashion. There is dancing and feasting and a special parade, all in Alice’s honor. And Alice herself is at the center of it all, basking in the adoration of the Wonderlanders. With her strong imagination Alice will someday be the most powerful queen Wonderland has ever seen, though that day still seems far away. In the meantime, Alice’s imagination is most often put to use in mischievous but harmless pranks, much to her mother’s disapproval.

But the birthday celebration comes to an abrupt halt when the Redd Queen and her army break into the palace, slaughtering everyone in their path. With a last look at her mother, Alyss is spirited away by Hatter Madigan, her mother’s bodyguard, before the Red Queen can take notice of her.

With nowhere safe to hide in Wonderland, Alyss and Hatter jump into the Pool of Tears, a magical portal. Alyss emerges from a puddle in 18th century London, all alone. Heartbroken and confused,
Alyss struggles to survive in this foreign world where her tales of Wonderland the magical power of Imagination only lead to ridicule. And so Alyss slowly turns her back on her past, almost convinced that she had imagined it all.

As Alyss becomes integrated in her new world, Wonderland falls under the crushing heel of the Redd Queen and her followers, and all supporters of the Heart family are destroyed. Black Imagination takes over and the land becomes a place of suffering and pain. Everyone believes Princess Alyss to have been murdered, all but Hatter Madigan who had lost the princess in the Pool of Tears and won’t rest until he finds her. Even if it means searching every corner of the globe for the rest of his life.

As I said, this was a fantastic book. The story was creative and fully engaging with wonderfully rich characters that really came alive for me. Many of the central characters in The Looking Glass Wars are based on characters from the original Alice in Wonderland. Instead of a white rabbit there is Bibwit Hare, Alice’s tutor. The Mad Hatter appears in the form of the sober but deadly bodyguard, Hatter Madigan, whose top hat turns into a dangerous weapon. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum are converted into General Doppelganger, the commander of the royal army who can split into two characters, Dopel and Ganger. And the cat is no smiling Cheshire but an assassin of the Red Queen who can trick his enemies by taking the form of a sweet cat.

There are also several wholly original characters, such as Dodge Anders, Alyss’s best friend from childhood who becomes hardened after seeing his father murdered by the Red Queen’s assassin.

Beddor even includes some factual characters and events in the book as well, such as Charles Dodgeson, aka Lewis Carroll, and his book Alice and Wonderland, as well as some events from the real life of Alice Liddell.

I really enjoyed the magical aspects of Wonderland, such as such as the way citizens could from one place to another by using mirrors or how magic could be performed with the use of imagination. Though Beddor doesn't explain if non-royal citizens with imagination are also able to perform magic, which does disappoint me a bit.

I listened to the audio version of Through the Looking Glass, read by Gerard Doyle, who does an excellent job. From the very beginning, Doyle swept me into the story and then continued to keep me enthralled by the vivid images his voice painted in my head. Somehow Doyle manages to read each character in a different and unique voice so that I was never confused about who the current speaker was. His British accent also imbues certain words with an additional charm, and each time he would say “tarty tart” (a popular Wonderland treat) I would shiver in delight. (Just try saying “tarty tart” with a British accent and you’ll see what I mean. Unless you already have a British accent in which case you probably have no idea what I’m talking about).

I have read some criticisms of Beddor’s writing style, character development, the limited world building and a few other things, but I didn’t notice any of these problems while listening to the book. Perhaps Doyle's manner of reading smoothed out for me any cracks in the story telling, but whatever the case may be, for me it was a fully entertaining experience that left me with no complaints. I loved the story, the characters and the world of Wonderland and I intend to read (or listen to) the sequel as soon as possible.

I do want to mention that while Through the Looking Glass is a young adult book is does get pretty dark in place which might make it an unsuitable book for young readers. I would say it's an appropriate book for older YA readers and adults, but that's just my personal opinion.

If you are looking for a good audio book to listen to than I full-heartedly recommend The Looking Glass Wars, whether you are an Alice in Wonderland fan or not. And if you have never listened to an audio book before, this one will make you a convert.

And even though I didn’t actually read the book I’m still going to go ahead and recommend it because I did enjoy the story so much and can't imagine that it would be any less pleasurable in the written form.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

My Mini-Vacation (and some gloating)

Posted by Simcha 3:04 PM, under | 8 comments

Yesterday, while you all were going about your regular daily routines I was enjoying a min-vacation at the Dead Sea. And yes, I'm writing this post just to gloat.

Last week my husband had surprised me by announcing that he was sending me away for a night's stay at a hotel by the Dead Sea. I was getting too grouchy, he said, and seemed like I could use a bit of a break from the kids. And I forgave him for saying that (and really, who wouldn't be a little extra-tense when their two-year old suddenly becomes incredibly clingy and has a fit every time they leave the room, and has started waking up several times each night making numerous demands that must be met or else everyone will be awoken by loud screams? Just saying. )because he was sending me on vacation.

So yesterday I caught a bus to the Dead Sea and arrived at the Prima Spa Club Hotel around 4PM, immediately soothed by the serene atmosphere (a combination of some wonderful floral scent and a
wonderful no-children policy). When I entered my room I was tempted to just curl up in the beautifully made bed with it's fluffy pillows and sleep for twenty hours straight (I only had the room until 11 am, the next day), but instead I headed across the street to the hotel's private beach. The beach was pretty empty so I didn't feel too self-conscious about what I did next, which was walk into the water fully clothed- because I had forgotten to bring a bathing suit (which is a good example of why you shouldn't pack in the last minute). It was amazing though, just floating there effortlessly on top of the water.

I was probably there for about half an hour, at which point it was becoming too chilly to be enjoyable. I dripped and squelched back to the hotel where I enjoyed a long, hot shower, reveling in the knowledge that I could spend hours in that shower and no little kid would be banging on the door, demanding that I get out (though the hotel manager might not be too happy with me).

The rest of my stay was spent eating as much as I could at the breakfast and dinner buffets and making interesting tea concoctions in the lounge (there were glass jars of different tea leaves and a kettle of hot water so guests could make their own tea at any time) and sleeping. I'm proud to say that I even spent 30 minutes in the gym (exercising, no less) which I vow will be the start of a regular exercise regiment (and which I'll continue sometime soon...). After checkout I still had a couple of hours until it was time to catch my bus so I went to the hotel's garden where some comfy looking bean bags were scattered around and settled into one of them with a book for the rest of my vacation.

I had a great time and really enjoyed getting a whole day and a half to myself. I think it's been about four years since I last went away for that long, and I certainly appreciated the break. Though the minute I walked into the house my kids were on top of me demanding to eat, to be held or to be avenged for some wrong done by their siblings.

The soothing atmosphere of the Prima Club Hotel is fast becoming a distant memory, but it's a nice memory at least. And now I'm off to catch up with the laundry.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card

Posted by Simcha 4:19 AM, under | 6 comments

It’s been years since I last read a book by Orson Scott Card and so I was thrilled when Tor provided me with a copy of his newest book, The Lost Gate. for review. I had loved Card's Alvin the Maker series when I was younger and I was eager to delve into another of his wonderful fantasy worlds.

When the powerful gatemaker Loki closed off all the gates to the magical world of Westil, all of the Gods were cut off from the source of their power, leaving them greatly weakened. Fourteen centuries later they are just shadows of their former selves, forced to live among the magic-free humans, or drowthers, and hoping that someday a gate will be discovered that will allow them to return to Westil.

In the meantime, the families of these gods have spread out across the continent, doing battle with each other, every so often, to make sure that no one family becomes too powerful. In another bid to ensure that a balance is maintained between the families, it has been ruled that if a gatemaker is born into any of the families they must be immediately killed so that no one family alone gains the means to return to Westil.

Danny North is part of the North clan, descended from Norse gods and now living on a secluded compound in Virginia. Each member of the family has a unique magical skill and Danny, as the son of the two most powerful mages, is expected to be particularly powerful. So when it turns out that Danny isn’t even capable of doing the simplest spells he becomes a figure of ridicule, fit only for menial tasks like babysitting.

But one day Danny accidentally discovers that he has the power of a gatemaker and that he been making gates all over the compound without even realizing it. While at first he’s ecstatic to learn that he is not a worthless drowther after all, Danny soon realizes that his newfound talent will get him killed if anyone finds out about it. The only solution is for Danny to escape.

Transporting himself by a gate to the entrance of a Walmart, Danny makes a new start for himself in the outside world, using his powers to help him survive. As Danny learns to adjust to life among regular people he makes new discoveries about himself and his power as a gatemage. But is Danny powerful enough to create the great gate to Westil, the one which can make the Families as powerful as gods again? And does Danny even want to?

Meanwhile, in Westil, a man emerges one day from the trunk of a tree, having no memory of how he came to be there. He makes his way to the castle where the cook recognizes what he is and takes him under her wing, naming his Wad. Wad becomes a silent shadow in the castle, seeing everything that takes place but never participating himself- until the queen is threatened and the he chooses to act. Wad is suddenly embroiled in the court intrigues and his efforts to protect those he cares about will have devastating effects.

My feelings about The Lost Gate are somewhat mixed since there were aspects of the story that I really enjoyed, such as the idea of the gates and the Westil sub-plot, and others which I could barely tolerate, like Danny. Danny was probably the main impediment to my truly enjoying the book because he was just so obnoxious and annoying that I spent most of the book wanting to slap him upside the head. When one of the book’s characters does slap Danny, I gave a mental cheer. I think Danny was supposed to come across as a charming rogue with a silver tongue who is lovable despite his smart alecky behavior, but I wasn’t convinced.

I had a similar problem with another character, Veevee a middle-aged women who I believe is meant to be vivacious and irresistible but who I thought was simply creepy. Especially after she tracks Danny down and then practically throws herself at him. I wouldn’t have known she was even supposed to be likable if another character hadn’t told me so.

The only character in the whole book that I cared for at all was Wad, and unfortunately his story was not given as much as focus as Danny’s. I actually enjoyed reading about Westil and the characters there a lot more than I enjoyed the story which took place in the “real” world. The characters there were more interesting and I would have liked to spend more time getting to know them, instead of Danny and the people that he takes up with.

Aside from my issues with the characters, I also had trouble maintaining my interest in the story due to the slow pacing and lack of tension or suspense. When Danny escapes from the compound he is told that no one will be hunting for him, which I think was a big mistake. The story could have really used the tension that would have been present if Danny were also running for his life. But without it, Danny's escape and much of the ensuing events were rather bland and uninteresting. The series of events that take place after Danny left the compound seem to drag on without adding anything to the story as a whole. It’s possible this was meant to be a time for Danny to grow and mature but it didn’t seem to me that any such things occurred.

I also had a problem with one of the basic premises of the story which requires gatemakers to be killed. Considering that all the Families dream of returning to Wasil, what sense would it make to kill the only people who could make that happen?

What I did enjoy about the book was the idea of the gates, which are passages in space created by gatemages to travel through. Some of my favorite parts of the book are Danny’s discovery of the use of his magic and all the intricacies involved. And as I mentioned before, I particularly enjoyed the parallel story that takes place in Westil and I’ll probably end up reading the sequel to The Lost Gate just so I can follow up on the Westil plot and Wad.

So The Lost Gate was pretty disappointing, especially after I had read so many positive review of it. If I hadn’t received the book for review it would probably still be sitting on my shelf with a bookmark stuck somewhere within the first few chapters. It is possible, though, that I might have enjoyed The Lost Gate more when I was younger, and closer to the age of protagonist, as well as a less critical reader. So while this isn’t a book I will likely be recommending to many of my friends I think I might pass it on to some younger readers that I think might enjoy it more than I did.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

New Scifi & Fantasy Releases: Week of January 23

Posted by Simcha 3:42 PM, under | 5 comments

Finally, some new releases that I'm actually excited about!

I've been eager to read The Warlord's Legacy, by Ari Marmell, since I enjoyed
The Conqueror's Shadow so much, when I had read it last year. The False Princess is a book that I only came across a couple of days ago but the glowing review that I read of it had me immediately adding it to my TBR pile. There is also The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, which I am currently halfway through and very much enjoying.

I have also read some very positive reviews of Brave New Worlds but I'm not yet at the point where I get as excited about short stories as I do about full-length novels. But it does look like an anthology that I would definitely like to read at some point, since I do enjoy enjoy dystopian fiction.

How about you? Are you as excited about any of this week's new releases as I am?

Hope you have a great reading week!



************************************************************************************



Blessed
Cynthia Leitich Smith
Genre: Young Adult
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release Date: January 25


Quincie P. Morris, teen restaurateuse and neophyte vampire, is in the fight of her life -- or undeath. Even as she adjusts to her new appetites, she must clear her best friend and true love, the hybrid werewolf Kieren, of murder charges; thwart the apocalyptic ambitions of Bradley Sanguini, the seductive vampire-chef who "blessed" her; and keep her dead parents’ restaurant up and running. She hires a more homespun chef and adds the preternaturally beautiful Zachary to her wait staff. But with hundreds of new vampires on the rise and Bradley off assuming the powers of Dracula Prime, Zachary soon reveals his true nature -- and a flaming sword -- and they hit the road to staunch the bloodshed before it’s too late. Even if they save the world, will there be time left to salvage




Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories
Edited by John Joseph Adams
(Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, Cory Doctorow, Paolo Bacigalupi, Orson Scott Card and more...)
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Release Date: January 25

When the government wields its power against its own people, every citizen becomes an enemy of the state. Will you fight the system, or be ground to dust beneath the boot of tyranny? In his smash-hit anthologies Wastelands and The Living Dead, acclaimed editor John Joseph Adams showed you what happens when society is utterly wiped away. Now he brings you a glimpse into an equally terrifying future what happens when civilization invades and dictates every aspect of your life? From 1984 to The Handmaid s Tale, from Children of Men to Bioshock, the dystopian imagination has been a vital and gripping cautionary force. Brave New Worlds collects 33 of the best tales of totalitarian menace by some of today's most visionary writers.



Dark Goddess (Devil's Kiss, Bk 2)
Sarwat Chadda
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Hyperion Book CH
Release Date: January 25


Billi's back, and it seems like the Unholy just can't take a hint. Still reeling from the death of her best friend, Kay, Billi's thrust back into action when the Templars are called to investigate werewolf activity. And these werewolves are like nothing Bilil's seen before. They call themselves the Polenitsy - Man Killers. The ancient warrior women of Eastern Europe, supposedly wiped out centuries ago. But now they're out of hiding and on the hunt for a Spring Child — an Oracle powerful enough to blow the volcano at Yellowstone — precipitating a Fimbulwinter that will wipe out humankind for good. The Templars follow the stolen Spring Child to Russia, and the only people there who can help are the Bogatyrs, a group of knights who may have gone to the dark side. To reclaim the Spring Child and save the world, Billi needs to earn the trust of Ivan Romanov, an arrogant young Bogatyr whose suspicious of people in general, and of Billi in particular. Dark Goddess is a page-turning, action-packed sequel that spans continents, from England to the Russian underworld and back. This is an adventure of folklore and myth become darkly real. Of the world running out of time. And of Billi SanGreal, the only one who can save it.


The Fallen Blade: Act One of the Assassini
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Orbit
Release Date: January 27

Venice is at the height of its power. In theory Duke Marco commands. But Marco is a simpleton, so his aunt and uncle rule in his stead. Within the Serene Republic, their word is law, but for all their influence, Venice’s fate still lies in other hands . . . Lady Giulietta is the Duke’s cousin. She enjoys greater privilege than many can even dream of, but her status will demand a terrible price. Atilo Il Mauros is head of the Assassini, the shadow army that enforces Venice’s will-both at home and abroad. Prince Leopold is the bastard son of the German emperor and leader of the krieghund-the only force in Venice more feared than Atilo’s assassins. And then there is Atilo’s angel-faced apprentice. Only a boy, Tycho is already stronger and faster than any man has a right to be. He can see in the dark, but sunlight burns him. It is said that he drinks blood.



The False Princess
Eilis O'Neal
Genre: YA Fantasy
Publisher: EgmontUSA
Release Date: January 25

Princess and heir to the throne of Thorvaldor, Nalia has led a privileged life at court. But everything changes when she learns, just after her sixteenth birthday, that she is a false princess, a stand-in for the real Nalia, who has been hidden away for her protection. Cast out with little more than the clothes on her back, the girl now called Sinda must leave behind the city, her best friend, Kiernan, and the only life she’s ever known. Sent to live with her only surviving relative, Sinda proves inept at even the simplest tasks. Then she discovers that long-suppressed, dangerous magic runs through her veins, and she realizes that she will never learn to be just a simple village girl. Sinda returns to the city to seek answers. Instead, she rediscovers the boy who refused to forsake her, and uncovers a secret that could change the course of Thorvaldor’s history forever. An intricately plotted and completely satisfying adventure, The False Princess is both an engaging tale in the tradition of great fantasy novels and a story never told before that will enchant—and surprise—its listeners.


The Griffin's Flight (The Fallen Moon, Bk 2)
K.J. Taylor
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Ace Books
Release Date: January 25

Although he was once chosen as a griffin's companion, Arren Cardockson was reviled, betrayed, and ultimately killed. Brought back to life by a power beyond his understanding, Arren flees for the frozen sanctuary of the North. With the man-eating griffin Skandar by his side, and an entire country hunting him, Arren has little hope of reaching the place of his ancestry and of lifting his curse. But then he comes across a wild woman who may hold the key to making his lifeless heart beat once more.



The Iron Queen (Iron Fey, Bk 3)
Julie Kagawa,
Genre: YA Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Release Date: January 25

In less than twenty-four hours I'll be seventeen. Although, technically, I won't actually be turning seventeen. I've been in the Nevernever too long. When you're in Faery, you don't age. So while a year has passed in the real world, agewise I'm probably only a few days older than when I went in. In real life, I've changed so much I don't even recognize myself. MY NAME IS MEGAN CHASE. I thought it was over. That my time with the fey, the impossible choices I had to make, the sacrifices of those I loved, was behind me. But a storm is approaching, an army of Iron fey that will drag me back, kicking and screaming. Drag me away from the banished prince who's sworn to stand by my side. Drag me into the core of conflict so powerful, I'm not sure anyone can survive it. THIS TIME, THERE WILL BE NO



Moon Flower
James P. Hogan
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Baen
Release Date: January 25

Something strange is happening on the planet Cyrene, which is in the early phases of being "developed" by the mammoth Interworld Restructuring Corporation. Terrans from the base there have been disappearing. Myles Callen, a ruthlessly efficient "Facilitator," is sent to investigate. Also with the mission is Marc Shearer, a young, idealistic quantum physicist, disillusioned with the world, who’s on his way to join a former colleague, Evan Wade. On arrival he finds that Wade too has vanished and doesn't want to be found by the Terran authorities. Wade has arranged contact via the Cyreneans, however, and accompanied by two companions that he has befriended, Shearer embarks on a journey to find his friend that will change Cyrene—and Earth itself.


Throat
R. A. Nelson
Genre: YA Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Release Date: January 25

R. A. Nelson takes us on a supernatural thrill ride, a modern-day vampire story set on a NASA base and filled with space-and-science intrigue. Seventeen-year-old Emma feels cursed by her epilepsy - until the lost night. She's shocked to wake up in the hospital one morning, weak from blood loss. When her memories begin to return, she pieces together that it was a man - a monster - who attacked her: a vampire named Wirtz. And it was her very condition that saved her: a grand mal seizure interrupted Wirtz and left Emma with all the amazing powers of a vampire - heightened senses, rapid speed - but no need to drink blood. Is Emma now a half-vampire girl? One thing soon becomes clear: the vampire Wirtz is fierce and merciless, feared even by his own kind, and won't leave a job


The Sentinel Mage
Emily Gee
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Solaris
Release Date: January 25

Her magic may be the only thing that can save a prince—and the Seven Kingdoms. In a distant corner of the Seven Kingdoms, an ancient curse festers and grows, consuming everything in its path. Only one man can break it: Harkeld of Osgaard, a prince with mage’s blood in his veins. But Prince Harkeld has a bounty on his head—and assassins at his heels. Innis is a gifted shapeshifter. Now she must do the forbidden: become a man. She must stand at Prince Harkeld’s side as his armsman, protecting and deceiving him. But the deserts of Masse are more dangerous than the assassins hunting the prince. The curse has woken deadly creatures, and the magic Prince Harkeld loathes may be the only thing standing



The Warlord's Legacy
Ari Marmell
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Spectra
Release Date: January 25

Corvis Rebaine, the Terror of the East, a man as quick with a quip as he is with a blade, returns in this highly anticipated sequel to Ari Marmell’s acclaimed The Conqueror’s Shadow, a debut hailed for its refreshing take on dark fantasy and surprising flashes of sharp, sarcastic wit. Now Marmell raises the stakes in a story that has all the humor and excitement of its predecessor, plus a terrifying new villain so evil that he may well be a match for Rebaine himself.

For let’s not forget how Corvis Rebaine came by the charming nickname “Terror of the East.” Certainly no one else has forgotten. Corvis Rebaine is no hero. In his trademark suit of black armor and skull-like helm, armed with a demon-forged axe, in command of a demonic slave, and with allies that include a bloodthirsty ogre, Rebaine has twice brought death and destruction to Imphallion in pursuit of a better, more equitable and just society. If he had to kill countless innocents in order to achieve that dream, so be it.

At least that was the old Rebaine. Before he slew the mad warlord Audriss. Before he banished the demon Khanda. Before he lost his wife and children, who could not forgive or forget his violent crimes. Now, years later, Rebaine lives in a distant city, under a false name, a member of one of the Guilds he despises, trying to achieve change nonviolently, from within the power structure.

Not even when the neighboring nation of Cephira invades Imphallion and the bickering Guilds prove unable to respond does Rebaine return to his old habits of slaughter. But someone else does. Someone wearing Rebaine’s black armor and bearing what appears to be his axe. Someone who is, if anything, even less careful of human life than Rebaine was.

Now Baron Jassion, Rebaine’s old nemesis, is hunting him once more, aided by a mysterious sorcerer named Kaleb, whose powers and secrets make him a more dangerous enemy than Rebaine has ever known. Even worse, accompanying them is a young woman who hates Corvis Rebaine perhaps more than anyone else: his own daughter, Mellorin. Suddenly Rebaine seems to have no choice. To clear his name, to protect his country, and to reconcile with his family, must he once again become the Terror of the East?


The Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

Posted by Simcha 3:44 AM, under | 4 comments

Wow, that a fantastic book!

In The Kabul Beauty School Deborah Rodrigues shares her memories of her time in Afghanistan, from her first visit with the Care for all Foundation (CFAF) to her decision to return as a beauty school instructor.

Deborah Rodrigues was a hair dresser from Michigan with two sons and an abusive husband. Needing an escape from her troubled marriage, Deborah signed up for disaster relief training given by the CFAF. A year later Deborah convinced the CFAF to include her on a team that they were sending to Afghanistan to help the locals recover after the fall of the Taliban.


While at first Deborah felt out of place, being the only member of the team without a medical background, she soon discovered that her services as a hairdresser were just as welcome. Hair salons had been banned by the Taliban and were now mostly out of business or were run by women with very little experience. Deborah quickly realized that she could make a big difference in the lives of Afghan women by passing on to them her skills as a hair dresser so that they could have a means of supporting themselves and their families. Fueled by this vision, Deborah went ahead and managed to put together just such a school, changing for better the lives of the many Afghan women who graduated from there.


Deborah’s recollections of her time in Afghanistan and the stories of the women whom she befriended there had me glued to this book, from start to finish. The book is narrated in a friendly and easy style that made me feel as if Deborah were a friend with whom I was sharing a cup of coffee with while catching up on each others lives.


The book opens up with the wedding-day preparations at the salon for one Deborah’s Afghan friends. While the bride’s friends and family flutter around her excitedly the bride herself is pale and anxious, looking more miserable as the day goes on. Only Deborah knows the real reason for her friend’s distress, a secret which will cause her groom to immediately reject her if he ever finds out. But in the last-minute Deborah manages to save the day and her friend’s reputation, though later she will wonder if it would have been better had she not intervened.


Many of Deborah’s stories are bittersweet in this way since these small triumphs are just a part of the bigger struggle in which these women are caught up in, as Afghan wives and daughters. It’s the main reason why Deborah opened up the salon, to give the local women a place where they could escape for a short while from the husbands and fathers who control them, while also giving them an education they could use to gains some independence.


Deborah recounts the story of one woman whose husband had become dangerous and abusive after being attacked by a group of Taliban. Using the money she made from working at the salon this woman took her husband to be treated by a special physician who was able to help bring her husband back to the caring man he used to be. Another woman used the money she made working to bribe her husband’s first wife to divorce her so that she could live in independence with her son.


Unfortunately not all of Deborah’s attempts to help her Afghan friends were as successful as in the stories above. Deborah soberly tells of her failed attempts to help a young girl who was being horribly molested by a man whom Deborah had previously considered a friend. And one of Deborah's best friends is never heard from again after being married off to a man whom her family has never even met.

But Deborah’s love for Afghanistan and the Afghan people shines through, even when things get particularly tough or when she herself becomes the target of injustice or abuse. And despite the often difficult subject matter, the book is narrated in a light, and often humorous tone, particularly when recounting one of Deborah's numerous cultural faux passes.

As an obvious foreigner, one who is often loud and brash, Deborah was excused from many behaviors which an Afghan would suffer serious consequences for. One of my favorite stories was of the time she went to an open market with a friend, both modestly dressed in burqas, and felt herself being groped by the man behind her. Deborah immediately turned around and punched him in the face, much to the astonishment of the onlookers, and the embarrassment of her friend. Had she been an Afghan women Deborah would have probably been arrested for hitting a man but as it was, she managed to get the groper arrested instead.

Deborah also recounts in amusement the time someone sent the salon a box of thongs, in a misguided attempt to do a kindness for the students. The Afghan women had no idea what the thongs were for but once they found out they had a great time teasing each other with them; throwing them in the air or wearing them on their heads, until finally the box of thongs got thrown in the fire.


I finished
The Kabul Beauty School with reluctance, wishing I would find at least a few pages more hidden at the end of the book, because there was still so much more I wanted to know about Deborah’s story. The edition of the book that I have includes a Afterword, written several months after the publication of the book and which provides a bit of an update (though it is from 2007), though the news it gives is rather sobering. Next, I went turned to the Internet to see if I could find more recent news about Deborah and her beauty school, but unfortunately I was unsuccessful. I’m tempted to just email Deborah herself to satisfy my curiosity, though I suspect that might be a little too intrusive...

As I’m sure you can tell, this book had a strong impact on me. I’m in awe of Deborah and inspired by the way she threw herself into building a beauty school in a country completely foreign- and often dangerous- to her, in order to help improve the lives of women she didn't even know. It's also a wonderful example of how any one person can make a tremendous difference in the lives of others, just using the skills that they already have at hand.


While I can't imagine myself doing anything as amazing as what Deborah did in Afghanistan, this book makes me think that perhaps someday I could at least give it a try. And I'm sure that I'll be rereading The Kabul Beauty School many times, especially when I want a reminder of this.


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