Review: The Raqqa Diaries – Escape from Islamic State by Samer

9781786330536“I walk around the city with a broken soul, looking at all the other broken souls passing by. Each pair of eyes that passes tells a different story, a different struggle.”

Raqqa is one of the most isolated and fear ridden cities on earth. The ongoing situation in the Syrian city is both a tragedy and a travesty, and I can barely comprehend the horrors its innocent inhabitants experience every single day.  Books like this one — The Raqqa Diaries by a young man writing under the pseudonym Samar — are so important because they humanize the conflict and devastation. One anecdote, about lost love, is particular heartbreaking, and really struck a chord: “I know that if I am to keep going and stay alive, I must not dwell on the sadness in my heart… How I miss that love of mine. The woman I shared all my troubles with. Now I must deal with everything myself.” We have all suffered heartache, but nothing like this.

This heart-wrenching account of Samar’s life in Raqqa before and after it was taken over by Daesh is raw and powerful. I was left emboldened by Samar’s bravery to speak out and put his own life on the line to expose the truth, and heartbroken by the overwhelming hopelessness of his — and the whole of Raqqa’s   — situation. He reveals Syrians’ continued hopes for change, but also the fear and growing despair that whatever change eventuates might not improve their situation at all. They exist in a perpetual state of uncertainty.

Samar risked his life to break ISIS’s communication siege. His resistance group, al-Sharqiya 24, made contact with the BBC, and a version of The Raqqa Diaries was read on Radio 4’s Today program a year years ago. There is a coldness and starkness to his prose as he lays out the bleak reality faced by his people. There is no need to mask the hideousness of their situation with pretty prose. The bluntness works, and is juxtaposed with illustrations of an almost childlike quality by Scott Coello. The disparity between text and imagery is incredibly effective.

The Raqqa Diaires is in credibly eye-opening and poignant. It should be mandatory reading. It offers rare and remarkable insight, and should not be missed. It will certainly be remembered as one of the most affecting books of the year.

ISBN: 9781786330536
Format: Hardback
(205mm x 145mm x 20mm)
Pages: 108
Imprint: Hutchinson
Publisher: Random House Children’s Publishers UK
Publish Date: 9-Mar-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

My Year in Reading – 2016

This year I tracked the books I read by a variety of categories in an attempt to ascertain my reading habits. I didn’t participate in any sort of reading challenge; just read what I wanted, which was a lot (maybe not for any voracious book bloggers reading this, but for the normal person on the street, a considerable amount, I think): 142 books in total. 

I always start the year with a target of approximately 75-100 books, knowing this could fluctuate depending on the number of graphic novels / collected comic editions I read. I’m also totally cognisant of the fact — though not apologetic of it — that I read predominantly commercial fiction, which I can generally breeze through in a couple of days, or one long reading session if I’m gripped. That’s why I don’t really think there’s any point in comparing  my total number of books read with other people. Besides which, it’s not about the number of books you consumed, just that you read and enjoyed something. And this year had some great reads: check out my Top 5 Books of 2016.

So, here’s what I learned about my reading habits this year:


Yikes, right? I knew my reading was dominated by men — every year I read the latest offerings by Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, etc — but I never knew my reading was quite this skewed. I was actually a little surprised, given that 3 of the books on my Top 5 Books of 2016 were written by women. It shows that I need to make a conscious effort to read more books by female authors. So that’ll be one of my mission statements for 2017, which shouldn’t be too hard to accomplish if I flit equally between both genders. It’s not asking much of myself.


No real surprises, here. Again, most of the long-running series I read are by Americans. I’d like to make more of an effort to read local authors next year, though. I thought I had done so  this year, but it’s not really reflected in the stats. Another goal for next year…


No real surprises that my reading is dominated by thrillers and crime fiction. I read far less YA and children’s books this year because I spent far less time in the children’s shop, and am less naturally inclined to pick up the new Tom Gates or Wimpy Kid. One weakness I need to rectify is my overall lack of non-fiction reading. And I absolutely do need to read more literary fiction.


2016 was the year of the audiobook. I’ve started listening to them at the gym and when I go running (unless it has been a particularly exhausting day, in which case I need some beats to get me through the 10km). I generally listen to thrillers or crime novels; nothing too character-focused or nuanced, in case I’m momentarily distracted and lose track.


As a bookseller, I’m lucky enough to receive tons of review copies and proofs, but there’s plenty I don’t get, and as such, I read more books I’ve purchased than books I got for free this year. I’m always annoyed when bloggers groan about how they didn’t receive a copy of a book they wanted to review from a publisher; as though they’re obliged a free copy, and because they haven’t, can’t possibly drop the $32.99 for a copy. Happens to me all the time, and I’m supposedly on the frontline, interfacing with customers. When I’m forced to buy a book, I try not to complain about it: I think of the positives. The money’s going back into the bookshop, and at some finite level, the author of the work is benefiting from my dollars. Of course, I wouldn’t say no to publishers providing more review copies…!

 Let’s see what 2017 brings!

The Best Books of 2016

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It’s that time of year — mid-November — when proofs for 2017 titles are beginning to pile up, which means it’s time to pull the plug on what’s been a great year of reading, and jump heard-first into the future. But before that, let’s pause and reflect on the year that was — well, still is, for a few more weeks. You understand.

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Review: Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

9781910701881The author of Sapiens — also a must-read — returns with another enthralling work of potent brain fuel. Seriously, whatever Yuval Noah Harari writes, I will read. And I’m not a guy who reads a ton of non-fiction.

This time, Harari explains humanity’s rise and ponders our future. He poses that humanism is the dominant ideology of the modern age, but warns it carries the seeds of its own destruction.  Homo Deus is less of a prophecy and more of a conversation: what sort of future do we want? Human nature will be transformed in the 21st century — into what? 

Whether or not you agree with Harari’s assertions and proclamations, his latest work is highly captivating.  Will his outlandish visions come to pass? Well, who knows? But the very idea of it’s possibility — that it might happen — is chilling.

ISBN: 9781910701881
ISBN-10: 1910701882
Format: Paperback (235mm x 155mm x 34mm)
Pages: 448
Imprint: Harvill Secker
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 8-Sep-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom