Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog AN IDLE KING by Andrew Paterson A journey into the heart of darkness and a hell that feels ever closer #RBRT

Hi all:

I am bringing you another one of the selections from Rosie’s Book Review Team, and one that I chose because I had read a couple of books by our dear friend, talented blogger, and writer Mary Smith (sorely missed) set in Afghanistan, and I wondered how her point of view would compare with that of a former Canadian army officer who had fought there. I don’t think I had other wars in mind at the time, but things have moved on since I selected the novel, as we all know, and now it feels strangely apt and many of the reflections contained in the book hit the right spot for me.

It is so weird to think that many of the things I read about in dystopic books seem to be coming true at the moment… I guess we read these books thinking that the stories they contain might happen at some point, but I don’t think most of us expected it to be during our lifetime. And now we have global warming peaking up, pandemics running riot, and war in Europe (and threats of WWIII). Let’s hope all these books are wrong.

Sorry for wandering off on a tangent. Here comes the review.

And Idle King by Andrew Paterson

An Idle King by Andrew Paterson 

Imagine fighting a war no one wanted you to win. Imagine never wanting to leave.

Afghanistan has been abandoned by the international community. Left to the ravages of warlords and mercenaries, vying for dominance over the new Silk Road.

For Callum King, a former officer who was discharged from the army, his past remains very much tied to that forsaken place. When he receives an offer from one of his former soldiers to work for a private security company in Kandahar, the contract represents an opportunity to make amends for his failures as a soldier and a leader. But the cost would mean walking away from a family that he’s tried so hard to put back together.

An Idle King is a modern retelling of an ancient story about lost soldiers who can never go home.

Andrew Paterson is a former infantry officer who served with the Canadian Army and deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 as a Platoon Commander. He now lives in Ottawa with his wife and two sons.

 My review:

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her and the author for this opportunity.

I didn’t know the author before reading this book, and there isn’t much information available about him, other than the brief biography included above, which mentions his army experience that comes through loud and clear in the novel.

The plot can be summed up quite briefly: Callum King, a former army officer who was discharged in not very good terms, is struggling to find his place in civilian life. He is running a group of veterans and is back with his family, but there is something amiss. When he hears about one of his soldiers —the one involved in the incident that led to his discharge— he sees it as an opportunity to make amends, despite his family’s reluctance to his getting involved. So, he ends up back in Afghanistan in what proves to be the mission from hell (or close enough).

Although the main character and most of the members of his team will be recognisable to readers of war novels or people who watch war films, the story is not the typical one of heroism under fire and all resourceful soldiers who can deal with anything (although there is something of the brothers-in-arms at play). Regret, the difficulty in fitting back into life as usual, finding one’s place and identity in a changed and changing world, learning how to communicate with family members, discovering the narratives and stories that keep us anchored in the past and prevent us from moving on… It is a book that is not afraid to look into the depths of its protagonist’s soul and mind, to go digging even further, and it doesn’t pander to anybody’s expectations.

Callum is a complex character who tries his hardest to be true to himself and to not disappoint everybody else’s expectations (those of his father, his wife, his son, his friends, and team members, his employers, and society at large), but he has difficulty understanding himself and getting his priorities in order. It is difficult to identify fully with him because most of us have never experienced anything even remotely like what he went through, but the author shares with us his thoughts and point of view (although narrated in the third person, the use of the present makes us feel as if we were there), and we also get to share in some of the other characters’ thoughts and experiences, and that gives us a wider perspective of the situation while we can also appreciate how he comes across to others.

The rest of the characters are quite varied: the somewhat naïve but eager and less-experienced soldier; a non-military medic who ends up in a very tricky situation; a couple of soldiers who bail off as soon as they have any misgivings about the whole thing; a soldier more interested in his boxing career than in anything else, a fabulous huge and fatherly Maori from New Zealand whom I loved; as I did Murph, a female soldier who becomes Callum’s right hand and is resourceful as can be; a man that has lost his way but still retains his loyalty; a local with inside knowledge caught in the middle of an impossible situation… Oh, and the client is disagreeable, unbearable, demanding…. They also come across some fascinating individuals, but I won’t try and mention every single one of them. Let me just say that it feels at times as if we were on a mythical trip (The Odyssey perhaps), where we go from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the magical to the most abject carnage, and from naked realism to the heights of surrealism.

I have mentioned the point of view, and the author writes beautifully (some of the scenes are indeed breathtaking) and vividly about landscapes, people, and situations, some real and some hallucinatory or dreamlike. The pace is not constant, and there are slow and contemplative moments, but also action scenes that rump up the rhythm and the tension. Although this is not a violence-fest or a narration overflowing with senseless gore, there are very violent scenes, so I wouldn’t recommend it to people looking for a peaceful and relaxing read. This is, after all, a book set in a territory where war and armed conflict have become the norm, whatever the official status of the nation might be at any given time. The novel is peppered with military terms, some that I was vaguely familiar with, but others I didn’t really know (although that didn’t prevent me from following the story or being gripped by it). As I read an ARC copy, I wasn’t sure if later editions might include a glossary of terms, which readers not versed on the subject would appreciate.

The ending is bitter-sweet, because although it is not a happy ending (it wouldn’t be befitting to the book genre), I found the resolution satisfying, at least for the main character, and I am happy to confess that I felt very moved by the two last conversations in the book, where we see several generations of men of the same family, who have always cared about each other but never managed to talk in a meaningful way, finally communicating their true feelings for each other.

There are many quotable fragments I would like to share, but I will choose only a few, and you can always check a sample from your favourite online store if you wish to check it in more detail.

 Your people have been coming here for thousands of years trying to conquer our country. You might as well throw sand against a mountain.”

 “Nation-states are finished. The future is the market-state. Instead of politicians and parliaments, now the world’s run by hedge fund managers and venture capitalists.”

 “You are fragmented and lacking certainty. You will not be able to make any decisions that way.”

“I don’t understand.”

“That is your problem, my friend. Like most people, you spend your life asking the wrong question.”

“Which is what?”

“What is my purpose?”

“Then what’s the right question?”

“What is our purpose?”

 “There`s so much he could say, so much he should say. Why do the truest things always remain unsaid?”

 I recommend this novel, which reminded me of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and even more of Apocalypse Now, to anybody who doesn’t mind harsh narratives that question the nature of reality, identity, war, and our own selves. Right now, when the future appears particularly uncertain, it seems more relevant than ever. A novel that will leave readers with more questions than answers, and one they will keep thinking about for a long time.

Thanks to the author and to Rosie and her team for their support, thanks to all of you for reading, sharing, commenting, and liking, and let’s hope things get better. Keep smiling, keep safe, and keep positive. 

Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni (Real Stories of Afghan Women) by Mary Smith (@marysmithwriter) Now more than ever an important book sharing the many lives of Afghan women

Hi all:

I hope you have enjoyed a lovely Christmas (or as good a Christmas as circumstances allow). Mine was pretty low-key (as I like it) but it got quite busy in the running up to it, and, if things don’t get even worse (fingers crossed) I should be busy again next week, but I had to share this review with you.

I don’t think many (if any) of those of you who read my blog don’t know blogger, writer, and all-around wonderful Mary Smith, and the many hats she has worn over the years (including as an aid worker in Afghanistan), and you probably now she became unwell during the lockdown and like Sue Vincent, another beloved member of the blogger community, was given a devastating diagnosis. Sue has sadly parted from us, and it seems that Mary’s health has taken a turn for the worse as well, to the point that I doubt she will ever get to read this review, but I couldn’t think of a better memorial for her.

Although I had only written this post a few days before Christmas, a few hours before it was due to go live I read on Mary’s blog a post written by her ever-present DH (you can check it here and leave a comment) informing all the people who knew her that she passed away the morning of Christmas Day. It seems that unfortunately, I was right, and she will never get to read this, but I hope it can help others to remember her, and to pay attention to a cause she felt so strongly about. 

Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni (Real Stories of Afghan Women) by Mary Smith

Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni (Real Stories of Afghan Women) by Mary Smith

Drunk Chickens and Burn Macaroni (subtitle) offers a remarkable insight into the lives of Afghan women both before and after Taliban’s rise to power. The reader is caught up in the day-to-day lives of women like Sharifa, Latifa and Marzia, sharing their problems, dramas, the tears and the laughter: whether enjoying a good gossip over tea and fresh nan, dealing with a husband’s desertion, battling to save the life of a one-year-old opium addict or learning how to deliver babies safely.
Mary Smith spent several years in Afghanistan working on a health project for women and children in both remote rural areas and in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Given the opportunity to participate more fully than most other foreigners in the lives of the women, many of whom became close friends, she has been able to present this unique portrayal of Afghan women – a portrayal very different from the one most often presented by the media.

Author Mary Smith

About the author:

Mary Smith has always loved writing. As a child, she wrote stories in homemade books made from wallpaper trimmings – but she never thought people could grow up and become real writers. She spent a year working in a bank, which she hated – all numbers, very few words – ten years with Oxfam in the UK, followed by ten years working in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She wanted others to share her amazing, life-changing experiences so she wrote about them – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and journalism. And she discovered the little girl who wrote stories had become a real writer after all.

Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women is an account of her time in Afghanistan and her debut novel No More Mulberries is also set in Afghanistan.

Mary loves interacting with her readers and her website is




 My review:

Having read and reviewed one of the author’s books before (No More Mulberries, a novel set in Afghanistan and inspired by her experiences in the country), and having visited her blog and followed some of her adventures in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I purchased this book a while back but hadn’t got around reading it. Recent events in Afghanistan reminded me of its existence, and although late, I’m happy I finally got to read it.

 Although the book is written in the first person, and it narrates the events from the author’s point of view, it is not one of those books where you can feel the author is breathing down your neck and trying to write herself (or himself) into everything that happens, insisting in becoming the protagonist and regaling you with her (his) opinion on everything, whether relevant or not. This is not a book proclaiming “Look at what I did! Aren’t I amazing!”. Quite the opposite. Smith is self-deprecating, often acknowledges her difficulties getting a good grasp of the language, her misconceptions and at times adherence to the limited and less-than-insightful Western point of view of Afghanistan’s people, especially its women, and what she sees as her weaknesses (that I am sure will resonate with many readers, because who wouldn’t want access to electricity, running water, and a bolt in the toilet?)

What the author wants, as the subtitle makes explicit, is to highlight the story of a full as possible a catalogue of Afghan women. And the ones we come across in the book are very different: some have had access to education and are trying to get a job; others have always lived in a small village and their life is having children and looking after them and their husbands; some have pretty enlightened husbands who allow them to go to work or to learn; others have to stay at home and keep to the traditional role or face the consequences; some are feminists who would not dream of covering their heads and are fighting for freedom; some are happy to break some rules and others would never do that; some are old; some are young; some easily accept guidance and education and others are suspicious of anything foreign… That is precisely the point. They are not all open to new ideas, they are not all daring, but they are not the stereotypical idea many people in the West have of women in Afghanistan (and in other Middle-Eastern countries, but perhaps Afghanistan more than others). They have complaints, they get scared, they don’t always want to get married and have children (indeed, abortion and terminations do come up in the book more than once), they have a sense of humour, they tell jokes and laugh, they are curious, love fashion and clothes, some are religious but not all, some are superstitious (as are we)…

We get to meet many women throughout the book, and some of them become close friends of the narrator (I hesitate to call her the protagonist because although the story happens around her, and she includes her impressions, thoughts, and feelings at times, this is not her story or an autobiography where she tells us everything that happened to her), and we get to like some of them more than others because that is what life is like everywhere. The author is skilled at choosing episodes and anecdotes that stick in one’s mind, so many that it is difficult to choose one or two. If you wonder about the title, well, you might guess it is something to do with food, but I won’t reveal the reasons for it (you should read it yourself), and there are some other wonderful images that made me smile (and chuckle), like the description of one of the women’s immediate love for motorbike races on the TV (never having watched television before), the exchange of traditional remedies (old wives tales) and how bizarre they could be (both in the West and in Afghanistan), impossible shopping trips, the importance of the type of tea you drink, the never-ending salutations, trying to explain to uneducated women what microbes are, totally missing the signs of relationships going on below one’s nose…

This is a book full of love, for Afghanistan (there are some beautiful descriptions of places, some that unfortunately get destroyed with the war, and in the latter part of the book, when the author returns for a visit, and sees Kabul for the first time, the author’s interest in history come to the fore), for its people, and especially for its women. There are frustrating moments, when nothing seems to be possible or to go right, there are moments of pride as well (when the women who attended the training started helping others in their communities), there are scary moments, and there are truly horrifying things that happen as well, although those are not witnessed directly by the author (but we get heartbreaking testimonies from those who lived and survived some truly harrowing experiences). The book has many amusing moments, it is full of insights and inspiration, but it is not a light read. The chapters describing later visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan paint a clear picture of some of the things that happened in the country under the Taliban rule (and later, after 9/11, the American intervention), and they are particularly poignant knowing what has recently taken place there. It is a difficult read because it is impossible not to imagine that many of those behaviours and crimes might take place again (and some already have). I know there are many books about the history of the area, and many articles and documentaries about the conflicts and the different factions, but I can’t think of many (if any) where we get the opportunity to read about Afghan women’s everyday life, in their own terms, from the perspective of somebody who lived, worked, and learned with them, and they accepted as a friend and adopted family member. She does talk about some of the women who became vocal and held important positions —even if fleetingly—in Afghanistan as well, but, as she says:

But, it´s not only the high profile women who work towards women’s rights in Afghanistan. Every girl in school and university, every woman working outside the home in whatever capacity, is engaged in bringing and retaining a kind of freedom to her sisters and her daughters.

We need to make sure that her voices continue to be heard.

 At a personal level, the author’s explanation for her decision to return home rather than stay there for a longer period gave me much food for thought. As somebody who spent many years away from home (although for very different reasons and in a far less adventurous and culturally diverse setting), I understood perfectly her comment about people who sometimes spend so long away that home doesn’t feel like home any longer. It reminded me of a wonderful passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun that similarly spoke to me many years back, and I share here (he is writing about his two American protagonists who decide to return to America after their visit to Italy):

 And now, that life had so much human promise in it, they resolved to go back to their own land; because the years, after all, have a kind of emptiness, when we spend too many of them on a foreign shore. We defer the reality of life, in such cases, until a future moment, when we shall again breathe our native air: but, by-and-by, there are no future moments; or if we do return, we find that the native air has lost its invigorating quality, and that life has shifted its reality to the spot where we have deemed ourselves only temporary residents. Thus, between two countries, we have none at all, or only that little space of either, in which we finally lay down our discontented bones. It is wise, therefore, to come back betimes — or never.

 Who would enjoy this book? Anybody looking for a non-fiction read providing a moving and true account of Afghan women’s lives (both in a big city and in a small rural area) in the late 1980s and 1990s, with some later updates (and some of those reflections are very prescient, knowing what has happened since); anybody who would like to know what life is (or was although I suspect not that many things have changed) for aid workers there, and anybody who enjoys a well written true account of what life was like in the country at the time. And, of course, anybody who has read any of Mary Smith’s books, because she writes beautifully and compellingly about the little details that are what make life so important. Thanks to the author for sharing her memories.

 If you want to read Mary’s own thoughts on the current situation in Afghanistan, I recommend you check this post:

 Here, a post from another blog on women’s current situation in Afghanistan:

And a more general one, about the situation for those who had been working with the Americans when they left:

Thanks to Mary for everything and my deepest sympathy to her family (we will never forget her). 

Thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, and… well, you know. Make sure you stay safe and let’s hope 2022 brings us some good news, for a change. We sure need them. 

Oh, in case you are wondering if I’d recommend Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun… Well, it depends on what you like. He writes beautifully, as you can appreciate in the quote, but the style might not suit impatient readers or those who value plot over everything. The Scarlet Letter is a much better novel, but The Marble Faun has some wonderful descriptions of Italy, is much more fanciful (he wrote what they termed “romance” at the time, that wasn’t to do with love stories, but rather with fanciful events, with some similarities to what we would term paranormal now, but not quite) than The Scarlett Letter, and it is also heavy in symbolism and explores some tropes that we have all become familiar with (the innocent American abroad, blonde vs dark-haired women, legends). He wrote some wonderful short stories as well, so that might be a good introduction for those thinking about reading his work.

Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog NO MORE MULBERRIES by Mary Smith (@marysmithwriter) An immersive trip into rural Afghanistan #Afghanistan

Hi all:

Many of you probably know and follow the blog of the author whose first novel I’m reviewing today. I hope she is feeling better.

No More Mulberries by Mary Smith

No More Mulberries by Mary Smith

Scottish-born midwife, Miriam loves her work at a health clinic in rural Afghanistan and the warmth and humour of her women friends in the village, but she can no longer ignore the cracks appearing in her marriage. Her doctor husband has changed from the loving, easy-going man she married and she fears he regrets taking on a widow with a young son, who seems determined to remain distant from his stepfather.
When Miriam acts as translator at a medical teaching camp she hopes time apart might help her understand the cause of their problems. Instead, she must focus on helping women desperate for medical care and has little time to think about her failing marriage. When an old friend appears, urging her to visit the village where she and her first husband had been so happy. Miriam finds herself travelling on a journey into her past, searching for answers to why her marriage is going so horribly wrong.
Her husband, too, has a past of his own – from being shunned as a child to the loss of his first love.

Author Mary Smith

About the author:
Mary Smith has always loved writing. As a child she wrote stories in homemade books made from wallpaper trimmings – but she never thought people could grow up and become real writers. She spent a year working in a bank, which she hated – all numbers, very few words – ten years with Oxfam in the UK, followed by ten years working in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She wanted others to share her amazing, life-changing experiences so she wrote about them – fiction, non-fiction, poetry and journalism. And she discovered the little girl who wrote stories had become a real writer after all.

Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women is an account of her time in Afghanistan and her debut novel No More Mulberries is also set in Afghanistan.

Mary loves interacting with her readers and her website is




My review:

I know I can go on with my reviews, and although I’ll try not to test your patience, I thought I’d offer you a capsule summary of my opinion. Do yourself a favour and read it. This is one of those novels one can’t help thinking about and talking about to anybody they meet. To begin with, I loved the clinical cases and the little stories embedded in it (all those events and lives that touch the protagonist’s life) although I wasn’t so convinced about the main characters. As the novel evolved, I came to appreciate and gain a better insight into the characters as well and came to accept them and like them too.

I was familiar with the author’s blog and had read some of her posts about her life in Afghanistan, so I knew she had plenty of local first-hand knowledge, a wealth of anecdotes, and could tell a story. She does have a sense of humour as well, although that isn’t too evident in the novel (the circumstances the characters are living through are very difficult, so it’s not surprising). I had had her books on my list for a while, and I decided it was time to read her first novel. Having read it, I’m eager to explore her writing further.

The description offers readers a good idea of what to expect. Miriam (born Margaret. She became a Muslim and adopted a new name when she married her first husband, Jawad), a Scottish midwife, and a widow who lost her first husband in tragic circumstances (although she doesn’t know the full details of her first husband’s death at the time we meet her) is back in Afghanistan with her second husband, Iqbal, a doctor who has set up a clinic in the little village where he was born. They have been married for five years, have a daughter together, and also live with Miriam’s son from her first husband, a quiet child who works hard but isn’t too close to his stepfather. Miriam can’t help but compare her two husbands and has put her dead husband on a pedestal nobody can reach. Iqbal resents this, and finds it difficult to cope with being back in his village, where he can’t escape expectations, tradition, and prejudice, regardless of how much he has achieved since his childhood. They are both unhappy and unable to talk about it, trying to do what they think the other expects of them. When Miriam ends up spending a few weeks away at a training medical camp, she gets confronted with her unhappiness and has to face some hard truths about the past and about herself. It’s make or break for her relationship and her life in Afghanistan.

There are elements of romance in the story (a romance where cultural differences take centre stage); grief and how different people deal with it is an important theme, as are also: the role of family; tradition and expectations; life in rural Afghanistan; international organisations providing education and health aid; and how far and deep you need to go sometimes to find your true self.

I have mentioned before that I didn’t connect with the characters straightaway. Although the story is narrated in the third person, it is mostly told from Miriam’s point of view, and she has a keen eye for observing and zooming on little details, gestures, and things, that makes the book quite cinematic in many ways. She can observe a movement, a dirty finger, she can marvel at an oven, or a night sky, but she is also at times quite blind to her own behaviour and the way she might be making matters worse for herself and others, and I was quite impatient with her attitude at times. That is not to say that her husband’s actions help matters, although there is a point in the novel when we get to read about his traumatic childhood from his own point of view (also in the third person) and that makes him more sympathetic. The author cleverly shares the main characters’ flashbacks/memories (Miriam’s most of all) that slowly, layer by layer, help unfold the events that got her to Afghanistan. We read about her love story with her first husband, we hear about their life together, and this is contrasted with her experiences with Iqbal. Events that take place later on, and the advice offered by some of Miriam’s friends help us understand that her memories are not always accurate, and there is more to the story and the characters than meets the eye. Miriam is an unreliable narrator, not only for the readers, but also for her own self.

Apart from the protagonist couple, we have many other characters, like their children, both lovely, Western characters (with their own prejudices and good points), neighbours and friends (wise, peculiar, amicable, gossiping, warm-hearted, mean…), all distinct and familiar, no matter how different their circumstances and way of life might be. They all feel like real people and are recognisable as such, even in the cases where we might not fully understand the motivations behind their actions and/or might dislike what they do, and there are many I’d love to have as friends.

Despite the changes in time-frame brought in by the flashbacks and memories, I felt the book flowed reasonably well, and I didn’t find it confusing. The author uses unfamiliar words to describe objects, clothing, places, characters, and actions, and although the meaning of most can be worked out from the context, I’ve noticed that some reviewers asked about a possible glossary. In some cases I felt an image would be better, for instance when describing clothing. The descriptions don’t overwhelm the book or slow its pace, and the author manages to give us a real sense of life in rural Afghanistan, and makes us not only see, but also feel, taste, and smell all aspects of it. She also makes us pay attention to the unspoken gestures and to the silences of the characters, to the importance of the things that go unsaid, and that is a difficult thing to achieve using only the written form.

I leave you a couple of examples of the writing, so you can judge by yourself.

On moonless nights the Milky Way was a magical white path through stars that didn’t twinkle —they blazed. Constellations her father had taught her to recognise when she was a child —Orion, the Plough, the Seven Sisters —demonstrated proudly that here, they possessed far more jewel-bright stars than she had ever seen in Scotland.

Although they had no decent sized pockets, waistcoats took the place of handbags. Safety pins and sewing needles were embedded in the fabric, matches stowed away in a small side pocket while, pinned to the inside were the keys to unlock the tin trunks in which were stored sugar and sweets and other household valuables.

I won’t talk too much about the ending, but yes, I liked it. I found it perfectly fitting.

So, as I started this review by recommending everybody to read this book, I can only repeat it. If you’re interested in stories about Afghanistan, in stories with protagonists that make difficult choices and are not always wise or likeable, in stories where people try to find themselves and to find a place to fit in, appreciate good writing and have always wondered how it would be like to share your life with somebody from a totally different culture, you should try this book. Oh, and check the author’s blog. I must go and catch up on more of the author’s books.

Thanks to Mary (and hope she is feeling better soon), thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, keep smiling, visit Mary’s blog, and stay safe.

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