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City of Soldiers: A Year of Life, Death and Survival in Afghanistan
City of Soldiers: A Year of Life, Death and Survival in Afghanistan
by Kate Fearon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.02

5.0 out of 5 stars Sensible and shrewd analysis, 16 Sep 2012
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This memoir of sixteen months spent in Helmand Province promoting grassroots democracy and the rule of law is an important and accessible contribution to understanding the conflict in Afghanistan.

The author writes with sensitivity and sympathy, describing the "terrible, quiescent, essential stoicism" of the Afghan people. Her analysis of the conflict is from the ground up, based on individuals she has met and events she has witnessed. Again and again she notes that this society and its people are more complex than simplistic political or ideological divisions. She points to "the tension between the constraining architecture of the social surface with that which riots perpetually underneath" and she notes that society in Afghanistan "is as fragile as the skin of a wave".

In addition to sensible and shrewd analysis, "City of Soldiers" is characterised by stylish writing.

A detail of Pashto pronunciation is described as "a soft stopping and starting of the breath as it loops over and under consonants and vowels like thread being teased into elaborate embroidery."

The sound of mortar explosions is "smudged by the soft warm breeze that runs along the red ribbon of sunset."

The author also has a sense of humour, which makes her narrative compelling and immediate. Among other things, she notes that words deemed by the authors of "First Words in Pashto" as being invaluable to the beginner include "beach" and "ship" (even though Afghanistan is landlocked) and "teddy-bear".

The book's conclusion will resonate in other parts of the world: ". . . we make progress, we regress. We go forwards, we go backwards. It is as inexorable as the way that waves come and go at the ocean's edge."


Across A Bridge Of Dreams
Across A Bridge Of Dreams
by Lesley Downer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A vivid description of a vanished world, 31 Aug 2012
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Lesley Downer has completely mastered the nuance and detail of late nineteenth-century Japan, when the country was transformed in the space of a generation from a feudal shogunate to a modern industrial (and imperial) power. The reader can sit back and enjoy the lush and vivid descriptions of a vanished world. Downer has a gift for the telling phrase. The story unfolds in a period when girls, for example, "didn't need to be able to read or write much more than the slip to tell the dyer how to colour the yarn." A marriage go-between "had a sagging, lugubrious face with pouches like money bags under his eyes . . ." and characters caught in the midst of civil war have "faces pale as tofu". Downer's account of the Satsuma Rebellion, the last stand of the samurai who resisted what they saw as the corrupting tide of modernisation, is built around a plucky heroine and her intrepid lover - the two, as fate would have it, on opposite sides of the conflict. A compelling recreation of bygone Japan with a classic love story at its core, the outcome remains uncertain until the final pages.


Escape from Camp 14: One man's remarkable odyssey from North Korea to freedom in the West
Escape from Camp 14: One man's remarkable odyssey from North Korea to freedom in the West
by Blaine Harden
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A clarion call for human rights, 22 Aug 2012
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Blaine Harden has given a voice to Shin Dong-hyuk and to every human being who has been unjustly and brutally imprisoned. Escape from Camp 14 confronts the moral incompetence and corrupting cruelty of a state governed by fear. The narrative is detailed and ultimately exhilarating because in this case fear doesn't triumph. This is a succinct and authoritative account of one man's remarkable experience, a clarion call for the global cause of human rights.


The Courtesan and the Samurai
The Courtesan and the Samurai
by Lesley Downer
Edition: Hardcover

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Descriptive flair, 6 April 2010
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With descriptive flair ("women in dresses shaped like temple bells", for example, and a villain whose head is "like a tangerine balanced on top of a pumpkin-sized rice cake") Lesley Downer mines a rich seam of historical romance in this tale of love lost and found amid the social and military upheaval of late nineteenth-century Japan. The period lends itself to all sort of quirky insights on what happens when ancient meets modern (a samurai sword, for example, splits a bullet in half) as the author explores a strange world that mixed chivalry with commerce and which, even more strangely, survived in Japan right into the twentieth century.


The Last Concubine
The Last Concubine
by Lesley Downer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Rollicking Good Read, 29 Nov 2009
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This review is from: The Last Concubine (Paperback)
Lesley Downer is that rare thing, an expert with a gift for sharing her encyclopaedic knowledge entertainingly. She writes with a sure, light touch - and she brings nineteenth-century Japan to life. The account of travelling on foot through the mountains to Tokyo in the last days of the Shogunate is atmospheric and masterly, as are the descriptions of customs, clothes, food, fads and even scents in the Japan of the period. The author takes the reader into a vanished world at the heart of which is a love story where destinies are decided on the strength of a look or a fleeting touch. The plot includes the obligatory foreigner - but it is a measure of Downer's success that she doesn't really need her enterprising British diplomat as an entrée to the world she describes: she has already made the reader completely at home. The Last Concubine can be thoroughly recommended to anyone with an interest in Japan or an appetite for stories of adventure and romance. Like one of the previous reviewers I very much look forward to the movie.


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