Ten books you can’t miss


Blends literary critic tells which ones and why.

By Asma Chaudhry

The art of storytelling is as old as mankind. And because history is nothing but a series of stories that can teach us lessons, give us insights into a variety of concepts, or even entertain us endlessly therefore every story serves a purpose as if to relay a special message to us. Without history we would be clueless to the past and therefore helpless for the future. I have had the privilege of listening to stories of ancient kingdoms and evil spirits under the shade of the neem trees in Northern Nigeria and while holidaying in Pakistan, my maternal grandmother would tell me tales of sword-wielding villagers on horseback settling scores on the dusty plains of the Punjab. It was by no means an uneasy switch from one storytelling culture to the other, it came very naturally tome. I grew up with my feet firmly planted wherever I happened to be at the time and made every place my home.


My propensity for curiosity automatically led me to become an avid reader of books and it is a hobby that has not only given me immense pleasure but perhaps a greater understanding of human nature, or so I’d like to think. I have compiled a list of international books for Blend readers which I hope can contribute towards a better understanding of others, but most importantly of us as part of the larger world.

The Girl from the Golden Horn by Kurban Said
is a classic novel of love, exile and desire set in prewar Istanbul and Berlin of 1928. It explores the wide chasm and clash of values between conservative life in Istanbul and the decadent life in postwar Berlin trying to reassert itself on the European scene. It is the story of one girl’s choice between the two worlds and is set against the backdrop of tensions between Muslims and Christians. Beautiful, suspenseful and striking but most of all a timeless classic that is just a powerful and moving in today’s world as it must have been back then.


The Dark Side of Love by Rafik Schami
 is a massive monumental ode to love that spans eight hundred and ninety six pages and three generations of Syrian families in an evocative portrayal of life in the Syrian capital.  Decades in its creation, Schami’s work consists of three hundred and four separate fragments interspersed together in the same intricate manner as the mosaics which adorn the most splendid mosques in the Arab world. When you read all the stories, you see the whole picture clearly, definitely a book that will live on for generations. Seldom has a book so long remained utterly compelling, I like to call it the great Arab novel.


The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid   is a courageous story about a Pakistani man who makes it and then throws it away because he doesn’t want it anymore.  He realizes that making it in America is not what he thought it was or what it used to be. The monologue form allows for an intimate conversation, as the reader and the American listener become one. It could just have easily been titled an open letter to America. Extreme times call for extreme reactions and perhaps even extreme writing. Hamid is one of the most gifted writers of his generation and has done something extraordinary with this novel. Well worth reading for those who want a different voice, a different view of the aftermath of 9/11.


Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie is a moving story of war and prejudice that spans more than 50 years and 5 countries. It is an epic read and perhaps the most ambitous novel ever written by a Pakistani writer. It begins in 1945 Nagasaki, just before the bomb drops whenHiroko Tanaka is 21 years old and engaged to Konrad Weiss, a German living in Japan. The reader barely has time to appreciate their idyllic world and the promise of love, when suddenly everything changes. One of them survives, the other doesn’t. A mesmerising read, especially the first half and one that lingers long after you’re done with the book.


The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna is an intelligent and heartbreaking depiction of the brutally uncertain aftermath of war in Sierra Leone. The book is set in the Freetown of 2001, Forna’s narrative brings together the good, the bad, and the cowardly in a place of healing- a Freetown hospital. No one in Freetown at this time is without a story to sell, and Forna weaves an intricate tapestry of betrayal, tragedy and loss with deftness that at best can be described as out of this world. She expertly draws together the threads that link the protagonists- and there are many to brilliantly create a masterpiece.

Samira and Samir by Siba Shakib is a heartrending story of love in Afghanistan in the time of oppression. The writer is an expert when it comes to seeking attention to the distressing situation of Afghan women. She tells a story of love and courage, and of a remarkable woman who finds her own path in life. When the young girl Samira is born, her father decides to bring her up as a boy known as Samir and soon the fact that Samir is really a girl is forgotten. Samir learns to fight, ride and shoot, and when her father is killed, she becomes head of the family. However, as an adult, Samir’s love for the friend of her youth forces her to confess the truth. A brutal, haunting tale that leaves a mark on your heart, and makes you appreciate your freedom even more.




Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
I will not cut for stone,” runs the text of the Hippocratic oath, “even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.” Verghese is a physician and an accomplished author with two other books to his name. This is a sweeping, emotionally riveting first novel—an enthralling family saga of Africa and America, doctors and patients, exile and home. It is an unforgettable journey into one man’s remarkable life, and an epic story about the love, power, intimacy, and beauty of the work of healing others. Beautifully written it plants you deeply in the passion of practicing medicine, and makes you fall in love with Ethiopia. Verghese uses language so elegantly and paces his story so perfectly that the reader is transported to another world.

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk  “It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it.” So begins the novel from the universally acclaimed author of Snow and My 

Name Is Red. It is 1975, a perfect spring in Istanbul. Kemal, scion of one of the city’s wealthiest families, is about to become engaged to Sibel, daughter of another prominent family, when he encounters Füsun, a beautiful shopgirl and a distant relation. Once the long-lost cousins violate the code of virginity, a rift begins to open between Kemal and the world of the Westernized Istanbul bourgeosie. A world dotted by opulent parties and clubs, society gossip, restaurant rituals, picnics, and mansions on the Bosphorus, until finally he breaks off his engagement to Sibel. For eight years Kemal will find excuses to visit another Istanbul, that of the impoverished backstreets where Füsun lives. It is a provocative exploration of the nature of romantic attachment and of the mysterious allure of collecting, The Museum of Innocence also plumbs the depths of an Istanbul torn between modernisation and tradition, and that is signature Pamuk and ultimately his greatest achievement.


The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak   Before he became a world-famous poet and Sufi mystic, a religious scholar named Jalal ad-Din Rumi struggled with a feeling of inexplicable emptiness. Despite his thousands of admirers and disciples, Rumi felt something was missing in his life. And then a wandering dervish called Shams of Tabriz came as the answer to Rumi’s prayers. The pair were kindred spirits and intellectual equals who enjoyed discussing and debating matters of God, man and divine love. Their friendship, in 13th-century Anatolia, transformed Rumi. Shafak draws on facts from Rumi and Shams’ biographies and brings them to life with deft storytelling. The 40 rules in the title refer to a list of principles that Shafak’s rendition of Shams compiled while roaming the Earth. The Sufi perspective on Islamand how drastically it differs from that of fundamentalists — is a major theme. Definitely an important and captivating book of our time.



Minaret by Leila Aboulela  is a provocative and engaging novel about a young Muslim woman, once privileged and secular in her native land and now impoverished in London gradually embracing her orthodox faith. With her Muslim hijab Najwa is invisible to most eyes, especially to the rich families whose houses she cleans in London. Twenty years ago, Najwa would never have imagined that one day she would be a maid. An upper-class Westernized Sudanese studying at university in Khartoum, her dreams were to marry well and raise a family. But a coup forces the young woman and her family into political exile in London. She finds solace and companionship within the Muslim community. Then Najwa meets Tamer, the intense, lonely younger brother of her employer. They find a common bond in faith and slowly begin to fall in love. It is an insightful novel about Islam and an alluring glimpse into a culture Westerners are only just beginning to understand. A very timely account of immigrants and the process of ( sometime painful) adjustment in an alien, secular society.