Review: Rain Dance by Karen Wood

 

Title: Rain Dance

Author: Karen Wood

Published: Allen & Unwin September 2014

Status: Read from September 24 to 25, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

Rain Dance is an enjoyable Australian rural romance for an young adult audience from accomplished author, Karen Wood.

When the Harvey family loses their house to the bank, they are forced to relocate from their coastal home to an isolated property in Gunnedah to fulfil a temporary building contract. Fifteen year old Holly, along with her two older brothers, Brandon and Jake, and younger sister, Eva, have no option but to make the best of the situation but she can’t imagine ever considering the arid land home.

Seventeen year old Kaydon Armstrong is shocked when he returns home from boarding school for the holidays to learn his father has made a deal with an investor to expand their cattle farm. Given the current drought conditions, Kaydon is suspicious of the investor’s motives but his father isn’t interested in his doubts and is determined for the deal to go through.

Rain Dance is an engaging story set in Gunnedah, a regional area in New South Wales. There is a sweet romance that develops between teenagers Holly, a vegetarian, and Kaydon, a fifth generation cattle farmer, action packed scenes when an accidental fire sparks and threatens Holly and her family, and a touch of intrigue when it becomes obvious the investor willing to bankroll the Armstrong’s plans for expansion has his own agenda.

While Rain Dance is aimed at a young adult audience Wood doesn’t shy away from illustrating the realities of life. She explores the affect of the financial crisis through the Harvey family’s losses, the emotional and financial strain drought has placed on regional farmers and raises the environmental risks of mining. Wood also examines some difficult themes through some of the minor characters. Kaydon’s best friend Dan has been struggling since the death of his father in a farming accident. Dan’s mother has been unable to maintain the farm and, with the family on the verge of losing everything while the insurance company delays payment, Dan is growing increasingly desperate. Jake, Holly’s brother, has admitted to being gay and is feeling lonely, and Holly’s mother has just been diagnosed with cancer, with the only treatment available hundreds of kilometers away.

With appealing characters, a strong sense of place and a well crafted plot, Rain Dance is a lovely read. I’d recommend it for adult fans of the rural romance genre to share with the teens (age 12 and up) in their life.

 

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Review: Rachael’s Gift by Alexandra Cameron

 

Title: Rachael’s Gift

Author: Alexandra Cameron

Published: Picador:Pan Macmillan September 2014

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Status: Read from September 20 to 22, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

An intriguing story about love, ambition, manipulation and betrayal, Rachael’s Gift pits husband against wife as they disagree about what they think is best for their child.

Rachael’s Gift unfolds from the alternating perspectives of husband and wife, Camille, a high-strung art historian who investigates the provenance of artwork, and once dreamed of being a famous painter, and Wolfe, an easygoing Aussie bloke who surfs every morning and shapes surfboards in his garage, who are the loving parents of Rachael. Fourteen year old Rachael, precocious and charming, is a gifted artist and Camille is determined to protect the future she has envisioned for her daughter at any cost. Wolfe is proud of Rachael’s talent but is increasingly concerned about his daughter’s gift for lying, especially when she accuses a teacher at her prestigious private school of sexual misconduct.

“She shook her head in disbelief, ‘You’re going to ruin her. Don’t you realise? I can’t let you do it.’ Her chest heaved and then some kind of realisation dawned in her face. ‘Oh my god, you don’t love her. You wouldn’t do this if you did.’
I felt as if my veins were bursting, ‘Of course I love her,’ I shouted, ‘It’s because I love her!’
‘This is not love.’
I stabbed my finger in her face, ‘You love her too much.'”

Unwilling to compromise, Camille flees with Rachael from their Sydney home to Paris, ostensibly to attend a family memorial service for her recently deceased mother, and to further investigate the provenance of a painting at the center of a dispute, but also with the hope she can wrangle Rachael an interview at the prestigious Beaux-Arts Institute. In Paris, Camille is faced with truths she would rather ignore and lies she has forgot she has told, but her focus is Rachael and she must decide what she is willing to sacrifice for the chance of her daughter’s success.

Meanwhile Wolfe, who arrives home to find his wife and daughter have fled without a word of warning, is left to cope with the fall out as word leaks of Rachael’s allegations. Wolfe is reluctant to believe his daughter would go so far as to ruin a man’s life with spurious allegations, but he can no longer ignore the evidence that suggests it is not only his daughter is a liar, but his wife too.

The protagonist’s of Rachael’s Gift are skillfully drawn and developed. Rachael is not unlike a modern day Lolita, whose age belies her innocence. Cameron portrays Camille’s and Wolfe’s emotional upheaval with authenticity. I sided with Wolfe in his arguments with Camille but as a mother I also understood her instinct to support her daughter.

Cameron also raises some of the modern concerns of parenting such as cyber-bullying, sexual predation and the narcissism of youth, and questions the choices parent have in an era where they are expected to protect their children from the consequences of their own behaviour and to support their ambitions without censure.

The pacing is perfect. There is increasing tension as the situation in Sydney spirals out of control and as the relationship between Camille and Rachael begins to fracture in Paris. The conclusion is startling in its honesty.

Part domestic drama, part psychological suspense this is a compelling read and an impressive novel from debut Australian author, Alexandra Cameron.

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Review: The Hawley Book of the Dead by Chrysler Szarlan

 

Title: The Hawley Book of the Dead

Author: Chrysler Szarlan

Published: Ballantine Books: Random House September 2014

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Status: Read from September 23 to 24, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

“On the day I killed my husband, the scent of lilacs startled me awake.”

When someone exchanges the blank in her prop gun for a real bullet, Revelation ‘Reve’ Dyer unwittingly shoots her beloved husband dead during the final act of their world renowned Las Vegas magic show. Reve is devastated and then terrified when she realises the murderer still has Reve and her three daughters in his sights. To protect her family, Reve flees Nevada and takes refuge at Hawley Five Corners, her family’s abandoned estate in the woods of Massachusetts. But Reve has something the killer wants and he won’t give up until he gets it.

With its blend of mystery, suspense and the supernatural, The Hawley Book of the Dead offers a complex story about family secrets, magic and revenge.

Told in the first person, it introduces Revelation and her intriguing family history. Reve is the descendant of a line of women who have always wielded great power. Her grandmother can transport people with a thought, her mother is a healer, Reve can disappear by stepping into the veil between worlds, a talent she was born with but has never fully explored, her ten year old daughter Caleigh can weave magic with string, but the abilities of Reve’s fifteen year old twins, Faith and Grace, have yet to manifest.

In general, I feel Szarlan created well rounded and interesting characters, I found Reve frustrating a lot of the time though. She has the ability to disappear, her family line is littered with women whom she has accepted have true magical abilities, yet she dismisses most other instances of magic out of hand. This ploy may serve the needs of the plot but I felt it damaged the credibility of her character.

I did enjoy the blend of magic and myth which Szarlan gives her own little twist. The true motivations of the ‘Fetch’ stalking the family turn out to be quite unique and his relentless pursuit of Reve provides plenty of tension. The romance element, involving childhood sweetheart, now Hawley chief of police, Jolon, is a little awkward though considering Reve’s husband has just died.

The setting is great, Szarlan’s description of Five Corners and the surrounding woods are evocative and atmospheric. I loved the stories of the vanishing townsfolk and the ghostly cowherd and could easily imagine the abandoned estate and the manor house that is home to Reve and her family.

Not so great is the uneven pacing and the author’s attempt to force suspense surrounding the disappearance of the twins when their fate is blindingly obvious.

I really like the concept of Hawley Book of the Dead and there are elements of the story and character I think are creative and well done, and while overall I am not excited by this book, I do think the series has potential.

 

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Review: Lyrebird Hill by Anna Romer

 

Title: Lyrebird Hill

Author: Anna Romer

Published: Simon & Schuster Au September 2014

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Status: Read from September 18 to 19, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

As in Romer’s debut novel, Thornwood House, the past casts deep shadows over the present in Lyrebird Hill, a haunting story of family secrets, mystery and murder.

Ruby Cardel can’t remember the events surrounding the tragic death of her sister, Jamie. She knows only what she has been told, that Jamie died in an accident when they were children, slipping and falling into the river that bordered their property, Lyrebird Hill and that Ruby was found nearby, bruised and disorientated, her memory of the past year gone. Though Ruby has built a life for herself, opening a bookstore in Coffs Harbour and is in a relationship with handsome self help guru, Rob, her sister’s death continues to haunt her, and she is stunned when her mother is forced to confess that Jamie’s death was no accident. Despite a persistent feeling of dread, Ruby decides it is time to uncover the truth about that fateful day and returns to Lyrebird Hill in the hope of finding the answers she seeks.

As Ruby tries to unravel the mystery of Jamie’s death, a second narrative emerges telling the tale of Brenna Magavin. In 1898, nineteen year old Brenna was the carefree young mistress of Lyrebird Hill, owned by her father. When financial ruin threatened to force the sale of the property, Brenna agreed to marry a family friend, a peer of her father’s, in exchange for the clearance of the debt, only to discover she made a deal with the devil. When Ruby discovers a tin full of letters written by Brenna buried at Lyrebird Hill she learns her family’s history is blighted with tragedy, betrayal and murder and fears it is a legacy she has unwittingly perpetuated.

The dual narratives of Lyrebird Hill weave a captivating and complex tale as the mysteries surrounding Jamie’s and Brenna’s fate unravel. The atmosphere darkens as secrets are revealed and danger lurks. There is unspeakable violence, bitter regrets and shocking treachery but also a thread of redemption, of truth and even triumph.

The prose is lush and lyrical evoking both the landscape of Lyrebird Hill and the fraught emotions of Romer’s characters. There are distinct modern gothic undertones to the story, with a hint of fairytale morality. I did find the pacing a little slow, more so in the contemporary timeline, but the stunning twists presented in the conclusion of both narratives easily compensate for the small lag.

An absorbing and atmospheric tale, beautifully told, I enjoyed Lyrebird Hill and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

 

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Review: The Sunnyvale Girls by Fiona Palmer

 

Title: The Sunnyvale Girls

Author: Fiona Palmer

Published: Michael Joseph: Penguin September 2014

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Status: Read from September 22 to 23, 2014 — I own a copy  {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

The Sunnyvale Girls, Fiona Palmer’s sixth novel, is an engaging story about family, self discovery, and romance.

‘Sunnyvale’, a sheep and wheat farm in regional Western Australia, is home to three generations of women, matriarch Maggie, her daughter Antonia (Toni) and granddaughter, twenty year old Felicity (Flick).

A dual narrative featuring a contemporary and historical timeline has become a popular element in recent rural romance novels. In The Sunnyvale Girls, Felicity discovers a hidden cache of unopened letters addressed to Maggie, and unearths a secret Maggie has kept for over 50 years. Through Maggie’s memories, we learn the origins of that secret – a forbidden wartime romance between Maggie and a young, handsome Italian POW billeted to Sunnyvale during the last years of World War Two. Toni is shocked by Maggie’s revelation, but Felicity reacts to the news with excitement and convinces Toni to accompany her to Italy to try and find Maggie’s lost love.

Both timelines feature family drama, romance and a hint of mystery. Palmer explores the individual journey’s of the three women with a deft hand by challenging her characters emotionally.
Maggie’s story reveals a bittersweet tale of first love, thwarted by prejudice and circumstance. Her secret is easily guessed, but the storyline is sweet, the historical details are interesting and I was eager to find out why Rocco never returned for Maggie as promised.
Toni, already simmering with long held resentments and low self esteem, is furious with her mother when Maggie’s secret is revealed. It makes her question the choices she has made in the past and forces her to confront the decisions she needs to make about her future, especially where Jimmy, Sunnyvale’s farm hand, is concerned.
Felicity is simply curious about Maggie’s past and excited at the prospect of reuniting her grandmother with her lost love. Having fought her mother’s attempts to get Felicity to explore the world beyond the boundaries of Sunnyvale, Italy is a revelation for Felicity, especially when she meets a handsome Italian waiter.

Palmer has always had success with creating a strong sense of place in her novels, drawing on her familiarity with the Australian rural landscape. The author’s descriptions of Italy, particularly of the village of Montone in which Maggie and Flick stay, are similarly evocative. (Check out Fiona’s guest post at Book’d Out to learn about her research trip to Italy.)

A lovely rural romance, with appealing characters, a strong storyline, and a historical twist, The Sunnyvale Girls is another enjoyable novel from Fiona Palmer.

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Review: One Kick by Chelsea Cain

 

Title: One Kick {Kick Lannigan #1}

Author: Chelsea Cain

Published: Simon and Schuster UK/AU September 2014

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Status: Read from September 17 to 18, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

One Kick is the start of a new action packed series for suspense/thriller writer Chelsea Cain who is best known for her popular Archie Sheridan and Gretchen Lowell series.

When the FBI raided an isolated farmhouse they were shocked to discover twelve year old Kathleen Lannigan, abducted six years earlier from outside her home, who destroyed their case against her abusers with a push of a button. Ten years later, ‘Kick’ as she insists she be called, is still struggling with the legacy of fear, shame and emotional trauma inflicted by her captors, and is desperate to find a way to redeem herself. Despite mastering skills in martial arts and marksmanship, amongst other things, to ensure she will never again be a victim, Kick feels useless, until a stranger breaks into her apartment and asks for her help. Bishop is hunting the pedophiles behind the recent abduction of two children and believes she is his best chance at finding them. Kick can’t refuse, but saving them may cost her everything.

With plenty of tension, convincing emotion and harrowing scenes, One Kick is a page turning thriller from the first page. The plot is fairly simple, but holds together well, anchored by Cain’s strong protagonist, Kick.

Kick is a survivor, and to be admired for all she has endured and battled to overcome, but she is damaged. She is all but estranged from her family, resists authority and is obsessed with abduction cases, though at a loss as to how to make a difference. She has never fully resolved her relationship with her abductor, Mel, and is overly attached to her aging dog, Monster. The story places Kick in circumstances that challenge her psychologically, forcing her to confront her dark past and it is impossible not to feel for her and hope that she will triumph. My only niggle with her character is that much emphasis is placed on her finely honed physical skills but when she needs to use them, they all but fail her.

Bishop is a fairly stereotypical character for the thriller genre – tough, enigmatic and ruggedly handsome, though not entirely infallible. His motivations for the hunt are revealed gradually, though his benefactor, who provides the money and resources needed to follow the clues from Seattle to San Diego, remains a shadowy figure.

Kick’s experiences as ‘Beth’ are never really articulated but what is implied is horribly confronting, and may be a trigger for some readers. Cain also exposes some of the sickening details of pedophile rings who rely on a network of safe houses, false identification and anonymous computer networks to procure and trade children while protecting their dirty secret. It makes for disturbing reading.

One Kick is a solid thriller with a strong protagonist and a storyline that is both confronting and exciting. I’m eager to see how the series and its characters will develop.

 

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Review: Tumbledown Manor by Helen Brown

 

Title: Tumbledown Manor

Author: Helen Brown

Published: Arena: Allen & Unwin September 2014

Status: Read from September 16 to 17, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

New Zealand born columnist Helen Brown is probably best known for her bestselling memoirs, Cleo and After Cleo. Tumbledown Manor, set in Australia where the author now lives with her family, is the journalist’s first fiction novel.

Lisa Katz (nee Trumperton) would rather forget she is turning 50 but is delighted when her family gathers to celebrate in her Upper East Side apartment, her daughter Portia has flown in from the west coast, her son, Ted, and her sister, Maxine and her husband, from Australia. As Lisa’s husband of 20 plus years delivers a speech honouring her, an extravagant arrangement of roses is delivered and Lisa reaches for the card, only to learn the bouquet was intended for Jake’s mistress. With her life in shambles, Lisa decides to return to Australia and to reclaim her ancestral home in the Victorian countryside. Trumperton Manor, nicknamed Tumbledown Manor by the locals, isn’t in great shape but Lisa is eager to make it her home despite flood, fire, family secrets, a feral cat and an overly familiar landscaper.

The themes of Tumbledown Manor mainly focus on family, love, acceptance and moving on as the plot centers around Lisa’s desire to make a new life for herself by renovating Tumbledown Manor. There is plenty of humour, a surplus of family drama, a touch of romance and a hint of mystery surrounding a past death in the manor’s stables, which eventually exposes a dark family secret.

I have to admit I wasn’t particularly fond of Lisa. While I sympathised with her over her marriage collapse, I thought her to be a prickly and somewhat self absorbed character who didn’t demonstrate the personal change I was expecting. I think several characters (eg Portia, Zack and Aunt Caroline) could have been dispensed with to give Lisa more opportunity to grow, and their absence wouldn’t have been noticed. I did like the laconic charm of Scott, the local landscaper/handyman who serves as the romantic interest, and is a fount of patience where Lisa is concerned. I also liked Ted and his ‘flatmate’ James. My favourite characters though were Mojo (the feral cat) and Kiwi (the cockatoo) who steal the limelight in every scene they appear in.

I was a little disappointed that the bulk of the renovations to the manor take place in the background. There are brief mentions of uncovering flagstones, furniture shopping and the ‘Grey Army’ being up and down ladders in between eating egg sandwiches but there is no real sense of the house being bought back to life, though the grounds get some attention.

Despite the appealing premise and some engaging, well written scenes and characters unfortunately, Tumbledown Manor wasn’t much more than an okay read for me.

 

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Review: Best to Laugh by Lorna Landvik

 

Title: Best to Laugh

Author: Lorna Landvik

Published:  University of Minnesota Press September 2014

Status:  Read from September 13 to 15, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

I’ve read and enjoyed several of Lorna Landvik’s novels so couldn’t resist sampling this offering. Partly based on Landvik’s own early years in Hollywood, Best To Laugh is a funny yet poignant coming of age story set in the 1970’s.

Candy Pekkala is a half Korean, half Nordic, American born twenty two year old who trades Minnesota for California with a half formed idea of becoming a comedienne. She sublets an apartment from her cousin in the once famous Peyton Hall, right in the heart of Hollywood, bordered by Sunset, Santa Monica and Hollywood Boulevards and takes up a series of temp jobs while she tentatively hones her act in local comedy venues.

Candy’s quirky neighbours play a large role in the novel. There is the body building daughter of a television star, a retired animator, a Romanian fortune teller, a substitute teacher who supplements his earnings with game show wins, an elderly man who once owned the most popular nightclub in town, his son, a punk rock singer, and an assortment of actors, actresses and executives waiting for their big break. Orphaned at a fairly young age and raised largely by her grandmother, Candy creates an extended family among the residents of Peyton Hall who give her the confidence and support she needs to pursue her dreams.

There isn’t a lot of story to Best to Laugh but it is an engaging read with plenty of humour and a touch of wistfulness. Landvik acknowledges that the novel is a homage to the people and places that launched her career and as such it has a rosy glow of warmth and nostalgia. I enjoyed it.

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Review: Zac and Mia by A.J. Betts

 

Title: Zac and Mia

Author: A.J. Betts

Published: HMH Books for Young Readers September 2014

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Status: Read from September 11 to 13, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

A.J. Betts won the Text Prize for YA and Children’s Writing in 2012 for her unpublished manuscript of Zac and Mia. Set in Western Australia, it is the story of two teenagers who meet while receiving treatment for cancer.

Seventeen year old Zac Meier is partway through an enforced period of isolation after a bone marrow transplant to treat his second re-occurrence of acute myeloid leukemia. Stuck in the adult oncology ward, with only his mother and the nurses asking about his bowel movements for company, when a blast of Lady Gaga penetrates the thin adjoining wall of his hospital room, Zac is intrigued by his new neighbour, Mia.
Before her diagnosis of osteosarcoma Mia gave little thought to the future but she could never have imagined she would face it as a ‘one legged freak’. Furious with everyone and everything, including herself, and desperate to deny the reality of her situation, Mia tries to run as far away as she can from her old life.

The narrative is shared between the perspectives of Zac and Mia. Betts characterisation is credible and I felt her portrayal of her protagonist’s emotions and behaviours was realistic.

Zac is an easy character to like, he is sweet, thoughtful and deals with the indignities cancer treatment forces upon him graciously. His family is supportive, with his mother rarely leaving his bedside. He has a sense of humour about his situation, and remains hopeful even despite his bleak odds of long term survival.

“I don’t moan about treatment because what’s the point? The way I figure it, this is just a blip. The average life span for an Australian male is currently seventy nine years or 948 months. This hospital stay, plus the rounds of chemo and the follow up visits, add up to about nine months. That’s only 1.05 percent of my life spent with needles and chemicals, which, put into perspective, is less that one of the tiles of the eighty-four on the ceiling. So, in the scheme of things, it’s nothing.”

Mia is a seemingly less sympathetic character, she is bitter, angry and absorbed by her own misery after her diagnosis, however I never held that against her. In truth, Mia is simply terrified and, completely overwhelmed, lashes out indiscriminately.

“Lucky?
While my friends were dancing at Summadayze, I was kept in observation with intravenous morphine. I pitched in and out of the world, visited by shrinks who attempted to talk about change and perspective and body image and luck. Then they hooked me up to more chemo. I couldn’t eat, wouldn’t talk, didn’t watch when the wound was unbandaged or the staples taken out. I tried to trick myself beyond my fucked-up body, slipping between vivid dreams until the morphine was taken away and I was left to live like this.”

The relationship that develops between Zac and Mia is well crafted and believable. Despite their differences, the pair form a tentative friendship, starting with a few taps on the hospital wall dividing them. It isn’t until Mia unexpectedly turns up on Zac’s doorstep once he is home though that the pair really begin to get to know one another.

While there is a touch of romance, it is important to note that Zac and Mia isn’t a love story. This is a story about friendship, understanding, family and finding the strength to face life’s difficult challenges. It is poignant and sweet, though Betts doesn’t gloss over the darker realities of battling cancer.

The comparisons between Zac and Mia and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars are almost inevitable given the similar premise, so I think it is important to point out that author interviews have them drafting their novels at about the same time and published only months apart (Text publishing 2012) . I loved The Fault In Our Stars but of the two, I think Zac and Mia is the more genuine story.

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Review: The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

 

Title: The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan

Author: Jenny Nordberg

Published:  Crown Publishing: Random House September 2014

Status: Read from August 22 to 23, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

“We are who we must be.”

In The Underground Girls of Kabul, Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg reveals a hidden practice in Afghanistan of presenting young girls as boys for part, or all, of their childhood. In an oppressive patriarchal society that demands sons at almost any cost, these girls are known as bacha posh.

“[I] have met girls who have been boys because the family needed another income through a child who worked; because the road to school was dangerous and a boy’s disguise provided some safety or because the family lacked sons and needed to present as a complete family to the village. Often…it is a combination of factors. A poor family may need a [bacha posh] for different reasons than a rich family, but no ethnic or geographical reasons set them apart.”

Nordberg attempts to explain the complex role of a bacha posh by sharing the moving personal stories of a number of Afghan women, including Azita, a female parliamentarian who turns her fourth daughter into a boy; Zahra, who refuses her parents’ attempts to turn her back into a girl; Shukria, now a married mother of three after living for twenty years as a man; and Shahed, an undercover female police officer, who remains in male disguise as an adult.

The author also explores the traditional roots of the practice within the cultural, political and religious framework of Afghan society, and how it contributes to the global dialogue on gender issues. “The way I have come to see it now is that bacha posh is a missing part in the history of women.” concludes Nordberg.

Written with keen insight and sensitivity, The Underground Girls of Kabul is a fascinating and poignant account of women’s lives in Afghanistan.

 

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