A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie

A God in Every Stone When choosing what to read for this year’s #Diversiverse event, A God in Every Stone was the obvious choice as it also counts towards my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project (it was shortlisted for the 2015 prize). It’s the sixth novel by Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie, but the first one I have read.

The novel opens in July 1914 in Turkey, where twenty-two-year-old Vivian Rose Spencer is working on an archaeological dig led by Tahsin Bey, a friend of her father’s. Vivian is intrigued by tales of Scylax, the ancient Greek explorer who sailed down the Indus River from the city of Caspatyrus (now Peshawar in modern-day Pakistan) and was rewarded by King Darius I with a circlet decorated with figs. As Tahsin Bey tells her of his mission to find the legendary circlet, she finds herself falling in love with him, despite the age difference. Soon, though, she and Tahsin Bey are separated; war has broken out in Europe and Vivian must return home to serve as a VAD nurse in a London hospital.

Another thread of the novel follows a young Pashtun soldier from Peshawar, Qayyum Gul, who has been injured while fighting with the British army at Ypres in 1915. Qayyum is on his way home when he briefly meets Vivian on a train. Having been traumatised by her experiences of wartime nursing, Vivian has decided to travel to Peshawar to continue Tahsin Bey’s search for the Circlet of Scylax. In Peshawar, she gets to know a twelve-year-old boy called Najeeb and awakens in him a passion for archaeology and ancient history.

The stories of these three people – Vivian, Qayyum and Najeeb – come together again fifteen years later in 1930s Peshawar. I think I’ve said enough about the plot now, so I won’t tell you how their characters have developed in the intervening years or the circumstances that lead to their paths crossing again. What I will say, though, is that 1930 is a very significant year in the history of Peshawar, as a group known as the Khudai Khidmatgar campaign to end British rule in India through non-violent means. The novel reaches a dramatic conclusion on the Street of Storytellers during one of the defining moments of the Indian independence movement – and one that I confess to knowing nothing about before reading this book.

A God in Every Stone is an ambitious book, spanning three decades, crossing two continents and tackling some big themes, such as the rise and fall of empires and the loyalties of the people living within those empires. The settings – which include Turkish archaeological sites and the old walled city of Peshawar – are vividly described and I loved the way in which the story of Scylax was worked throughout the novel, its relevance not immediately clear but soon becoming obvious.

Although I found a lot to admire about A God in Every Stone, I still felt that there was something missing: an emotional connection to the characters. I found that the only one I really cared about was Najeeb – his innocence and enthusiasm as a twelve-year-old meant he instantly became my favourite character – but I struggled to feel anything for Qayyum and Vivian, despite the ordeals they both go through. It didn’t help that towards the end of the novel they are pushed into the background as two more characters – Zarina and her sister-in-law, Diwa – are introduced. Choosing to focus on new characters at such a late stage of the book meant that the final scenes set on the Street of Storytellers lacked the impact they should have had.

I did enjoy this book but I couldn’t help feeling that the author had tried to include too much in what is really quite a short novel. I think I would have preferred a longer book giving the characters more emotional depth and exploring the themes in more detail – or maybe a shorter book concentrating on just Vivian’s story or just Qayyum’s. Looking at other reviews of this novel, it was possibly the wrong Kamila Shamsie book for me to have started with; I’m looking forward to trying one of her earlier books and I think Burnt Shadows will be the next one I read.

Historical Musings #7: Exploring Africa

Historical Musings It’s very easy to find historical fiction set in Europe or America. If you’re looking for a book on the wives of Henry VIII, the Italian Renaissance, the US Civil War or the French court, there are literally hundreds of novels to choose from – but historical fiction set in other parts of the world is not as well represented.

I’m participating in A More Diverse Universe at BookLust this month and will have two books to tell you about soon: the first is Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone, set partly in 1930s Peshawar, and the other is Flood of Fire, the final part of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy set in India and China during the First Opium War. Last year, for the same event, I read The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, set in Malaya in the 1940s and 1950s, and The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan, a story of Mughal India. It seems, then, that when I do choose to read more diversely within the historical fiction genre, I tend to pick up books set in Asia (particularly in India and China) rather than in other areas of the world.

The Sultans Wife A quick look through my blog archives has shown me that I have read a very small number of historical novels set in Africa over the last few years – and even fewer that were actually written by African authors. Several of Dorothy Dunnett’s novels are set partly in Africa (the journey to Timbuktu in Scales of Gold is particularly fascinating), Wendy Wallace’s The Sacred River is set in 19th century Egypt – and of course, there’s Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series which is set in Egypt too. I can also recommend three novels set partly or entirely in Morocco: Linda Holeman’s The Saffron Gate (1930s), Jane Johnson’s The Sultan’s Wife (17th century) and Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account (16th century).

half of a yellow sun If we can include the 1960s as historical fiction, then I have also read The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone) and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria) – and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, which covers the history of Ethiopia from around 1950-1980. I do prefer to stick to Walter Scott’s definition of historical fiction, though, which would rule out anything set less than sixty years before publication! Before I started blogging, I read Roots by Alex Haley and the Ramses series by Christian Jacq, but beyond these I’m struggling to think of anything else.

Can you recommend some good historical fiction novels set in Africa? Which are your favourites?

The Moor’s Account – a Shiny New Books review

Just a quick post to let you know that Issue 7 of Shiny New Books is out today!


Shiny New Books is an online magazine for book lovers and is packed with book reviews, news and other features. In this issue, I have provided a Q & A with author Laila Lalami and a review of her Man Booker longlisted novel The Moor’s Account.

This is what the novel is about:

The Moors Account “In 1527, the Spanish conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez embarks on an expedition to the New World. With five ships and six hundred men, there’s every reason to hope that the voyage will be a success and will result in the area now known as the Gulf Coast of the United States being claimed for Spain. Within a year, however, most of the men have succumbed to disease, lack of food, extreme weather and encounters with Native American tribes. Eventually, only four of the original party remain: the treasurer of the expedition, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca; the nobleman Alonso del Castillo Maldonado; Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, an explorer; and finally, Estebanico, a Moroccan slave in the service of Dorantes.

The story of the disastrous Narváez expedition is told in a chronicle written by Cabeza de Vaca, known as La Relación, yet Estebanico – one of de Vaca’s three fellow survivors – is only very briefly mentioned. Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account gives Estebanico a voice of his own and an opportunity to tell his side of the story, including details which were omitted from the official records…”

You can read the rest of my review here – and don’t forget to explore the rest of the new issue!

Oswald: Return of the King by Edoardo Albert

Oswald One of my favourite reads from the first half of this year was Edwin: High King of Britain, the first in Edoardo Albert’s Northumbrian Thrones trilogy which tells the stories of three seventh century kings. On a visit to the library a few weeks ago I was pleased to find a copy of the second book, Oswald: Return of the King – and I was delighted to discover that it was just as good as the first.

It’s not necessary to have read Edwin: High King of Britain before starting this book – the key events of the previous book are given in a summary at the beginning of this one – but those of you who did read Edwin may remember Oswald as the young boy who fled into exile with his family after his father, Æthelfrith, King of Northumbria, was killed in battle.

During the years of Edwin’s reign, Oswald remains in the northern kingdom of Dal Riata, living amongst the monks on the island of Iona, where he is converted to Christianity. When news of Edwin’s death reaches the island, Oswald is reluctant to take action; he has no real desire to claim the throne for himself and would prefer to stay on Iona and enter the monastery. Abbot Ségéne, however, has other ideas – he wants Oswald to become king so that he can spread the new religion to his people – and a sequence of events follows which will leave Oswald with little choice other than to return to Northumbria and regain his father’s throne.

Oswald’s story is as exciting and engrossing as Edwin’s was. If the title, Return of the King, has made you think of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, that’s not a coincidence: Tolkien is thought to have taken the historical Oswald as the inspiration for his fictional character, Aragorn. Edoardo Albert lists Tolkien as a favourite author and there is a definite influence here, though it would be difficult to say how much. This tale of treachery and betrayal, stolen thrones and warring kingdoms does sometimes feel like fantasy – but of course, it isn’t; Oswald was a real person and Albert’s novel is based on historical fact (except where some imagination was clearly needed to fill in the gaps).

Oswald himself is a fascinating character and I thought his internal struggle between his desire to become a monk and his duty to become king was very well written. I also loved the portrayal of his relationship with his younger brother, Oswiu, who is going to be the subject of the third book in the trilogy. The brothers have very different temperaments, and while the loyalty and love they have for each other is plain to see, there’s also a tension which is always there below the surface.

Other characters include friends such as the monk, Aidan, who brings Christianity to the island of Lindisfarne, and enemies such as Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd, and Penda, King of Mercia – and I was pleased to see the return of Coifi, the pagan priest whom we first met in Edwin: High King of Britain, now a lost and lonely character having had his faith in the old gods shaken. I should also mention Oswald’s wonderful pet raven, Bran, who seems to have a personality all of his own (I wasn’t aware until after finishing the book that there are stories associating the real Oswald with a raven).

Before reading this book I had very little knowledge of Oswald or this period of history, so I found it a very informative novel as well as an entertaining one. Albert includes a lot of useful additional material: there’s a map showing the various kingdoms that made up Britain in the year 635, a character list, a glossary of unfamiliar words and a pronunciation guide – which was very helpful as I would otherwise have had no idea how to pronounce a name like Rhieienmelth!

I’m now looking forward to the third book in the trilogy – and while I await its publication I think I would like to read The King in the North by Max Adams for a non-fiction view of Oswald.

Upcoming reading events

A More Diverse Universe 2015

Beginning today, Aarti of BookLust is hosting A More Diverse Universe, her annual reading event designed to encourage people to read more diversely. There’s still plenty of time to join in – the sign-up post is here and you’ll find lots of suggestions and recommendations on Aarti’s blog.

I’m currently reading A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie, which I chose because it was also on the shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize this year (I am slowly working my way through all of the shortlisted titles since the prize began). Two other books I’ve been considering reading are Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh and The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende. I haven’t read anything by Allende before but received a review copy of The Japanese Lover through NetGalley and am looking forward to trying it. Flood of Fire is the third book in Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy and I enjoyed the previous two when I read them earlier this year.


The 1924 Club is being hosted by Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book and the idea is for everyone to read and review books originally published in 1924. I was sure I must have something on my shelves from that year, so I had a look and found two books: Precious Bane by Mary Webb and Beau Geste by P.C. Wren. I’m going to try to read both of those for the club – I think I’ll probably enjoy Beau Geste and I’m curious about Precious Bane, having seen very mixed opinions of it!

Simon and Karen (and others) have provided plenty of other suggestions: it seems that a lot of great books were published in 1924 and I’ll look forward to seeing what everyone chooses to read.

Witch Week

From October 31 to November 6, Lory of The Emerald City Book Review will be celebrating Witch Week. Her theme this year is New Tales from Old, which involves reading fiction based on fairy tales, folklore, myths and legends – not necessarily including witches! I’m thinking of reading The Last Enchantment, the third of Mary Stewart’s Arthurian novels. Lory will also be hosting a readalong of The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, though I won’t be taking part as I’ve already read it.

German Literature Month

November is also German Literature Month at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy’s Literary Life. This event is now in its fifth year but it will be the first time I’ve participated. I haven’t decided what to read yet, but I do have two Hans Fallada books on my TBR (Wolf Among Wolves and Once a Jailbird) as well as Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. There will also be some themed weeks and readalongs throughout the month of November.

Will you be taking part in any of these events?  Do you know what you’ll be reading?

The Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott

The Heart of Midlothian In 2012 I read my first Walter Scott novel, Ivanhoe, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Having found Scott less difficult to read than I’d expected, I decided to add another of his books to my Classics Club list and something drew me to this one – possibly memories of the Scottish football results being announced on the television on a Saturday afternoon (Heart of Midlothian is the name of an Edinburgh team).

The novel – which predates the football team, being published in 1818 – takes its title from the Old Tolbooth Prison in Edinburgh, which was in the heart of the county of Midlothian. Scott based his plot on two real historical events: the Porteous Riots of 1736 and the story of a young woman who walked all the way to London to obtain a royal pardon for her sister who had been wrongly charged with infanticide. In Scott’s version, the young woman’s name is Jeanie Deans and she lives on a dairy farm at St Leonard’s Crags with her father, Davie, a strict Cameronian (a Presbyterian faction).

Jeanie’s younger sister, Euphemia – known as Effie – is in the Tolbooth facing the death penalty, having been accused of giving birth in secret and murdering her newborn child. Jeanie is sure Effie is innocent, but with no witnesses to the pregnancy or the birth and no way to prove what happened to the baby, she is guilty in the eyes of the law. If Jeanie would only tell the court that she had known her sister was pregnant, Effie could be freed, but she is unwilling to tell a lie and instead she decides to go to London to ask Queen Caroline for a pardon. Armed with a letter of introduction to the Duke of Argyll and some money borrowed from an admirer, the Laird of Dumbiedikes, Jeanie sets off on foot to save her sister’s life.

The first half of the novel sets the scene, describing a riot that breaks out in Edinburgh during a protest over the hanging of two smugglers. When Captain John Porteous orders the city guard to fire into the crowd, causing the deaths of several people, he himself is imprisoned in the Tolbooth. The prison is then stormed by a mob and Porteous is lynched and killed. These events become entwined with Effie’s story and provide the historical backdrop for the novel. The second half of the book concentrates on Jeanie’s journey to London, which includes encounters with some characters we previously met in Scotland: George Robertson, the father of Effie’s child; and Meg Murdockson and her mentally ill daughter, Madge Wildfire, two women who could hold the key to the mystery of the missing baby.

Well, The Heart of Midlothian was not the relatively easy read that Ivanhoe was! I found it much more challenging, for several reasons. First, as the novel is set mainly in Scotland, the dialogue is written almost entirely in Scots. I wouldn’t normally have a problem with this, but added to the fact that the book was written in the early 1800s, it did slow down the pace of my reading quite a lot. I find that whenever a book uses a large amount of dialect – even one you’re familiar with – a little more effort is required to read it and that was definitely the case here. If you think you might struggle with the dialect, I would recommend choosing an edition of the book with a good glossary!

Also, unlike Ivanhoe, which is a medieval adventure story packed with sword fights, sieges, villainous knights and feuding noblemen, this is a very different type of novel. While Jeanie’s personal story was gripping, I have to admit I had very little interest in the long passages describing the religious situation in eighteenth century Scotland and the discussions between Jeanie’s father, Davie Deans, and his neighbours on their different moral beliefs. I also thought the plot relied too heavily on coincidence, with Jeanie meeting people from her own small community in Scotland hundreds of miles away in England – and I felt that the final few chapters of the book were unnecessary as the story had already reached a more natural ending point.

I did enjoy parts of The Heart of Midlothian, though. Jeanie is a strong heroine who behaves with honesty and integrity throughout the novel, and although some of her choices were frustrating, I did like her. There is a romantic interest for Jeanie too – the schoolmaster, Reuben Butler – but this only forms a small part of the story. I was also interested in the descriptions of eighteenth century life and the relationship between Scotland and England in the years following the union of 1707. And there are plenty of memorable scenes, from the storming of the Tolbooth near the beginning to Jeanie’s meeting with Queen Caroline, wife of George II, towards the end.

I certainly didn’t love this book the way I loved Ivanhoe, but I’ll still read more of Scott’s novels and will hope that the next one I pick up is more to my taste than this one was!

Looking back, looking forward: September 2015

September has been a good month for me in terms of reading (I’ve read eleven books and enjoyed most of them) but less productive where blogging is concerned. I’ve only written about five of those eleven books and hope I can catch up in October before I get too far behind. I have a week off work coming up so that should help. September was also a lucky month – I won a new Kobo Glo HD in a NetGalley Prize Draw which I couldn’t even remember entering. I don’t usually win anything so that was a nice surprise!

Let’s look back at September before looking forward to October…

Favourite books this month:


Oswald: Return of the King by Edoardo Albert

This is the second book in Edoardo Albert’s Northumbrian Thrones trilogy and I loved it as much as the first. I don’t want to say too much about it here as I’m hoping I’ll be ready to post my thoughts very soon!

The Last Queen

The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner

I didn’t know what to expect from this book as I’ve never read any of C.W. Gortner’s historical fiction before, but I was very impressed by this moving story of Juana of Castile. Again, further thoughts will follow soon.

Read and reviewed this month:

Glorious Apollo by E. Barrington
April Lady by Georgette Heyer
Nelly Dean by Alison Case
What Angels Fear by C.S. Harris
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

Also read this month but not yet reviewed:

The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory
The Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott
The Queen’s Man by Sharon Penman
The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami – review will appear in the next issue of Shiny New Books

Looking forward to October:

As the nights continue to get darker and Halloween approaches, I’m looking forward to reading more books for this year’s RIP challenge. I’ve only read two so far (What Angels Fear and The Queen’s Man, both mentioned above) but I’m in the middle of a third – Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer.

I’m taking part in A More Diverse Universe, which is hosted by Aarti of Booklust and begins this Sunday. I’m still trying to decide what to read, but some possibilities are A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie, The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende and Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh.

I also still need to read my Classics Spin book, The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier. I have just over three weeks left to read it if I’m going to meet the deadline!

How was your September reading? Do you have any plans for October?