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Khairy Shalaby: The Time Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets
The Time Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets by Khairy Shalaby tells the story of Ibn Shalaby, an ordinary modern-day Egyptian man who can travel through time. He has no control over when he is thrown into the past or the future; instead, he must consult his wristwatch to find out what year it is.
In his travels throughout the Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mamluk eras and his meanderings around Cairo, Ibn Shalaby meets many rulers, historians and other famous people. His real adventures take off when he presents a cassette recorder to a Fatimid caliph, who of course has never seen such an advanced device before. Unfortunately, the recorder fails to function, angering the caliph and his assistants.
Originally published in Arabic in 1991, the novel was translated into English in 2010 by Michael Cooperson. At parts, the writing style seems stilted and verbose, probably because the translator stayed very close to the original Arabic text. The translator’s afterword is worth a read as it explains the difficult decisions that the translator had to make in order to keep the translation faithful to the original while making it appealing to English readers.
The Time Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets is not really a historical novel, despite what you might expect from the book’s premise. Instead, it is a fantastical and surreal story. The novel can be disorientating as new characters constantly appear and disappear, and Ibn Shalaby bounces through time and space without warning. The story is not particularly gripping; and The Time Travels requires careful, thoughtful reading in order to pick up on the subtleties.
Perhaps the best part of the novel is the main character, Ibn Shalaby. He is constantly surrounded by chaos but manages to observe all the details in his surroundings. He is a witty, amusing character who repeatedly confuses historical figures by mentioning modern-day phenomena such as pharmaceuticals and electronics. Ibn Shalaby’s humour and clever jabs make parts of The Time Travels a joy to read.On the whole, the story can be disjointed and confusing; although this could have been the author’s intention. One of the book’s most central ideas – time travel – was not emphasised as much as it could have been. Though it can be difficult to become engrossed in this book, The Time Travels is recommended to the more persistent readers.
Penny Vincenzi's latest novel The Decision tells the story of Eliza Fullerton-Clark and Matt Shaw who live in London in the 60s. Eliza is a society girl, carving out a career for herself in the fashion industry and Matt becomes a millionaire by working in the property market.
Introduced by Eliza's brother, they get married, but it's not long before their seemingly-solid marriage goes downhill. Eliza wants to keep pursuing her career, but Matt's old-fashioned notions require her to stay at home and raise their only girl, Emmie.
The entire story is pretty much given away in the synopsis. It feels like the author is robbing you of the element of surprise; you already know they are getting a divorce. The only part that the author holds back on until the end of the novel is the results of the court battles over custody of their daughter. Emmie is a spoiled brat of a child; a fact that makes it difficult for readers to sympathize with her.
There are many subplots seamlessly woven into the main plot, adding richness and depth to the story. Readers might even find themselves more interested in the fates of the secondary characters than Eliza's and Matt's.
Vincenzi's writing is laden with poignancy. She accurately describes how marriages that are often fuelled by so much passion can gradually deteriorate into a battle. In this aspect, Eliza and Matt are extremely relatable.
The Decision is such a long read, but that doesn't detract from its enjoyment. The longer pages only mean additional engagement with the characters' lives, but it also means that Vincenzi ends up repeating herself quite often.
The story captures many of the time’s ill-founded ideas against women, but it also includes many female characters that challenged the ideologies of the 60s. Louise, Matt's business partner, is a headstrong woman who won't let anything come between her and her goals, while his sister Scarlett is another female character who does things her own way.
The author takes readers back to the 60s and offers vivid portraits of different aspects of life back then; however, the plot could have easily fit into any other time.
Vincenzi's avid fans might find The Decision a tad disappointing. It's not quite as addictive as the rest of her novels, and it generally sticks to the author's pattern, making it even more predictable.
A man goes back to the village in which he grew up in to attend a funeral. As he drives through the streets of the place he once called home, childhood memories come flooding back to him; he stops at an old farm where a friend of his used to live - a girl called Lettie Hempstock.
They used to play together when he was about seven years old. Lettie is not home, but her mother invites him in and he visits the pond in the backyard. Lettie used to call it an ocean. Sitting by the water, he remembers the day his family’s lodger stole his father’s car and committed suicide in it; an event that somehow awoke ancient powers that would have better been left undisturbed.
From that point onwards, things get progressively more bizarre in Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. As it turns out, Lettie was no ordinary girl and her family is pretty out of this world as well. Her mother can ‘fold time’ and make people forget things ever happened and her grandmother remembers being around for the Big Bang.
Gaiman carefully sets his readers up for what is coming. When the narrating main character discovers an open wound in between his toes, kind of like a hole, the author explores it in a way that lets the reader sense the hole spells trouble - and indeed it does.
There is one fairly big twist in the story – in relation to the aforementioned wound – and aside from that, Gaiman generally tends to give the reader a sense of foreboding. Nevertheless, he manages to keep his audience captivated throughout the novel.
His storytelling is eloquent and descriptive enough to give a good impression of the story’s setting, but also leaves sufficient room for the reader’s own imagination, which – especially in fantasy – is a key factor of a well-written book.
Because the two main characters are children, and the story has strong fantasy elements, The Ocean at the End of the Lane feels like reading a children’s book at times. Curiously, we never learn the name of the little boy that narrates the story or the time it is set in.
As a whole, the latest Gaiman is a thoroughly engaging read. This might well be one of those books that you can’t put down until you’ve finished it. In any case, this book is worth reading twice, because certain things that are revealed in the beginning will get new meaning when you add specific knowledge you gain later in the story.