“A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini

Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of an Herat businessman and one of his maids, who, after the death of her mother finds herself married to a shoemaker and moved from her home to the city of Kabul. Disillusioned by her father and broken by her husband, Mariam survives the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Laila is the daughter of one of Mariam’s neighbours who grows up with a virtually absent mother and a father who believes that education is the key to Laila’s success in life. With an unusual homelife, the one person she relies on is her beloved friend Tariq, but when the Russians leave and the civil war starts, his family decide flee the country. The book follows the stories of the two women, and how their destinies become entwined, in a tale of love and friendship through the nightmare existence in which they live.

This is Khaled Hosseini’s second novel, following the hugely successful “The Kite Runner”, which told the tale of two boys growing up in Afghanistan, and the devastating effects the decision of one of them will have on both their lives. “A Thousand Splendid Suns” has many similarities to the first novel, in that it is again set in Hosseini’s native Afghanistan, and tells us of life in that country by how it affects the daily lives of two inhabitants, rather than a bigger view of the wars, invasions and violence that exists all around them. Told from the female perspective, we see a different side to life in Kabul, and how the lifestyles of its women are affected by the different regimes, as well as the men in their own household, and how they attempt to control their own fates in a male dominated society. It is an engrossing book to read, and the style of writing allows the story to wash over you, so that while you feel the horror of some of the situations the women find themselves in, it is never so horrifying that you don’t want to carry on and learn how their stories will end. But, it is the end of the book which is slightly disappointing. I felt that the conclusion was a bit of a cop out, as the authors attempts to give us an uplifting, hopeful view of the potential of Afghanistan, rather than a truthful, genuine ending to the story of the two women.

Definitely worth reading, though, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to others, particularly if they’ve read and loved “The Kite Runner”.

“Twilight” by Stephenie Meyer

After spending years in the heat of Phoenix with her mother, Bella is moving back to live with her father, the local police chief, Charlie, in small town Forks – possibly the wettest place in America, and the complete opposite to her old life. That’s not the only change either, instead of a massive school with seven hundred pupils in her year alone, she’s in a small high school with just three hundred and fifty students in total. At least her classmates are friendly … except the Cullen family who seem to keep themselves to themselves. The family are exceptionally beautiful, but when Bella has to sit next to Edward Cullen in class, he seems to have utter distate for the newcomer, even asking to swap classes. But when Bella is the victim of a car accident, it is Edward who saves her and she finds herself drawn to him and determined to find out more.

I’d seen these books on display in the bookshop and noticed how striking the cover design, but reading the back cover (so I’m giving nothing away here!), I didn’t feel that a teenage vampire romance was really my style. When I read an article in the Guardian books section, I thought I’d try it after all. Am I glad that I did? Absolutely. It’s been a while since I’ve been so compelled to keep reading a novel. So much so, that after starting on Saturday morning, I found I’d gorged on the entire book by Saturday night, and found myself in the bookshop (literally as they opened the doors) first thing Sunday morning to buy the next two in the series, finishing the second book by Sunday afternoon, and despite trying to stop myself, I’d started the third book – at 11pm – on Sunday night, and after working all day finished it by Monday evening.

So just what was it about the books that captivated me so much? I’m still trying to figure that out! I’m not a fan of horror films or stories, I’ve never read a vampire book before in my life, and I should be way too old to read teenage novels. This isn’t really about vampires though, it’s about the pain of first love, of the isolation that teenagers feel, and the sacrifices and compromises that relationships require. Throw in the tense, thrilling vampire story, and it adds up to a cracking read that you just can’t put down.

But it’s also not just the plot that keeps you reading, you really invest in all the characters. Every one of them is believable and beautifully drawn, with no sketchy, unnecessary personalities. Meyer’s writing style is eloquent and utterly readable, washing over you with a warmth hard to find in many novels.

So, in case you hadn’t guessed, I can’t recommend this book enough. A wonderful start to a fantastic series, and unbelievably satisfying, but just like a vampire tasting a human’s blood, once you’ve read one, you’re appetite will never be satiated, and you’ll be hungry for more. Delicious.