Book Review: ‘Two Sisters’ (Into The Syrian Jihad) by Åsne Seierstad

Two Sisters by Åsne Seierstad

This book, ‘Two Sisters’, has been described as “riveting”, “gripping”, “intense and compelling”. And it’s true. It’s almost like one of those Harry Potter books which I’d get from a bookstore at the launch and then proceed to read all day and even through the night till I’m done. However, and this is one big ‘HOWEVER’, I feel strangely disappointed. Like ‘I should go ask for a refund’ kind of disappointed. Reading all 411 pages of this book, I wanted to know not just why the two sisters went to Syria but also what happened to them in the end (did they get killed or get back home safely?). The book focuses mainly on the ‘WHY’. And I’m left feeling there’s no closure. Like an itch which cannot be reached yet demands to be scratched, I want to know what happens to the two girls! Urgh! Perhaps there’ll be a sequel to this ‘true story’? 😛

Also, I only realised at the end of the book that “Ayan” and “Leila” are not the real names of the two sisters. It’s like only finding out that Harry Potter’s real name is “(name withheld) Potter” at the end, and I’ve been ‘deceived’ all along. *sigh*

In a nutshell, teenage sisters Ayan and Leila (not their real names) leave their home in Oslo, Norway, in 2013 to travel to Syria. Their father, Sadiq, decides to go after them and try to get them home. Unfortunately, he gets captured and tortured, but eventually escapes. Subsequent attempts to get his daughters home fail, but Sadiq manages to burn through lots of cash in the process. In the end, he’s broke (both financially and in spirit), his daughters are supposedly wives and mothers now, and the family is torn apart as the girls refuse to return and Sadiq can only dream of turning back time and having his life return to what it once was.

So, if you’re wondering why teenage girls would want to head to a warzone and leave their cushy lives with family behind, this book offers some clues. They *may* have naively thought that they would be “fetching water for the sick to working in refugee camps”. 😉 More importantly, you’ll put together the pieces and find out how they got radicalized. It could have started from something as simple as spending “hours on YouTube listening to clerics and preachers”. Eventually, they’d think they are saving their family members from Hell (“If you died as a martyr, you could choose seventy family members to join you in paradise.”) And as the two girls reveal to their family, once they were in Syria and married, there was no need to pay rent or water and electricity bills (the State took care of all that), houses are free, and they received monthly groceries plus money without working at all.

You might wonder why the girls’ parents were so ‘blind’ toward the obvious radicalization happening right under their noses. The girls had started wearing niqabs (causing a headache in school for their teachers and Principal), and even cut out their pictures from family albums (to prevent outsiders from seeing them uncovered)! Based on the things they were sharing on social media, their parents, teachers and friends should have been alarmed and promptly put a stop to things. But they didn’t. The mothers in the community even paid for an extremist (though they didn’t know it at that time) Koran teacher called Mustafa to come teach their kids.

In the end, before leaving, Ayan bought lots of things but didn’t pay the bills, signed up for multiple mobile subscriptions (sold the phones and SIM cards) and raised money for the trip to Syria. This refusal to pay the bills was even viewed as “economic jihad”.

Interestingly enough, when her father needed money, he had questionable ways of raising it too, such as by selling ‘fake news’ to journalists, who ended up printing what he had supplied. In return, Sadiq received thousands of Norwegian kroner.



I can’t say I didn’t raise an eyebrow or two at a certain part of the book, where a text ‘Defense of the Muslim Lands’ was referenced’…

“The unclean have duped the dull masses of Muslims by installing their wooden-headed puppets as false figureheads of states that remain under their control.”

*cough cough*

And this next portion made me think that ISIS may have done lots of questionable, if not horrific, things but they’ve at least got something right:

“Although cigarettes were not forbidden in the Koran, they were deemed haram by ISIS and looked on as a form of “slow suicide” and pure pleasure. ISIS came down hard on people smoking on the sly, even in their own homes, and flogging was the usual punishment. Selling or smuggling was worse.” (p215)

*clap clap*

By the end of the book, you’ll probably come to the realization that the initial question of “Why would someone go to Syria and join ISIS?!” has become a simpler one – “Why not?”


Book Review: ‘Somebody I used to know’ by Wendy Mitchell

somebody I used to know by wendy mitchell

Wendy Mitchell was diagnosed with early-onset dementia at the age of 58 and her memoir ‘Somebody I used to know’ helps readers understand a little better what it is like to be living with dementia. Sure, it freaks me out – suddenly not recognizing where I am nor remembering why I’m in a certain place would be really scary – but it offers hope too, in that there are different stages so you have some time to implement certain coping strategies.

For instance, Wendy uses technology to help her out – reminders to eat her meals and take her medication, for remembering birthdays, GPS tracking so her daughters know where she is, etc. And Post-it notes deserve special mention too as they have been so useful to her as reminders of where she is and what she needs to take with her (especially when she travels for conferences and such).

I’m really impressed by how she insists on having her daughters be her daughters (only), and not her carers. All too often, Asian parents expect their children, like insurance policies, to pay them back in times of sickness or in their old age. I’ve even heard of people who do not get married because they need to take care of aged or ill parents. I’m of the opinion that should I have children, I won’t want them to wipe my bum or wheel me around when I’ve lost my mobility. They have their own lives to lead as well.

Wendy sees the ‘silver lining’ too. For example, she can watch a show multiple times and be entertained the same as she doesn’t remember the plot or how it ends.


One big takeaway from reading this book is that people living with dementia may not remember people, places or events very well but they’ll remember how they felt during the interaction. So make them feel welcome, supported, appreciated and loved. And you can count on them to remember those feelings. 🙂

Also, Wendy has a blog over at Go check it out! 🙂

Book Review: ‘A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea’ by Melissa Fleming

a hope more powerful than the sea

This is one book I’d agree is exceptionally well-written, and reading the author’s note about the list of people she has to thank, you’re left with very little wonder why. While this book is based on a true story, it’s not about the life of the angmoh, Melissa Fleming. Instead, it’s about a young Syrian woman called Doaa Al Zamel. Doaa’s family had to flee from Syria because of the war, and while Egypt appeared to be welcoming at the start, things soon changed. Doaa and her fiancé decided to try and get to Sweden with the help of some smugglers (I’d call them thugs with lousy boats, really) then send for the rest of her family. Unfortunately, some of those thugs decided to sink the vessel and have the refugees (some 500 of them) drown in the sea. And like a scene from the ‘Titanic’, Doaa, who’s on a child’s rubber float, watches as her exhausted fiancé relinquishes his grip and sinks into the water. She, however, survives the 4 days floating out at sea, and also looking after two babies that had been left in her care by their family members who knew that they themselves might not survive but hoped the children would be able to.

Indeed, as Melissa Fleming has shared, it’s so much better to focus on one person’s story instead of trying to write about the millions of Syrians who have been displaced, killed or separated from their families.

Doaa’s story is a powerful one. And I think it really helps readers understand that these refugees are people just like us. And I’m grateful for the TED talks and other videos which share more of her story.

TED Talks:

*The average time a refugee will spend in exile is 17 years.*

And if you’re wondering how refugees can be better supported, watch this:


Come to think of it, Doaa is someone who’s truly blessed. For a person who cannot swim, she managed to survive for 4 days out at sea. And while others were dragged down by those who were drowning and grasping at anything and everything, she managed to avoid that same fate. And miraculously, no one tried to take the flotation device away from her – if they had, she would most certainly have perished.

And if not for the two babies left in her care, I’m guessing she would have followed her fiancé to the same watery grave. It would appear that a divine power wanted her to live.

Read this book. There’s both delight and despair in almost equal parts. You’ll be horrified at the ugliness of humanity (the smugglers trying to fleece and then kill the refugees, the citizens who harassed the refugees, the horrors of the civil war). But there’s also hope – one baby died after being rescued but Masa survived. Doaa lost the love of her life but Sweden embraced her and her family. And while many Syrians have died while trying to escape the war, Doaa’s sharing of her story has captured the attention of people in countries which can help.

If you’re unsure about how you can lend a hand, just grab a copy of this book as most of the proceeds will go towards helping the refugees. 🙂

Book Review: ‘Promise Me, Dad’ by Joe Biden, Former VP of USA

joe biden promise me dad book review

“You can never tell a book by its cover” is especially true in this instance. I thought the cover of this particular book – ‘Promise Me, Dad’ by Joe Biden’ – looked boring but the contents made me cry on the flight back to Singapore (thankfully, no one noticed). I’m glad the former Vice President of the United States wrote this book as it provides an insight into his life, what working with Barack Obama is like, and how you can keep on pressing on even when disaster strikes twice.

Joe lost his wife and 18-month-old daughter in a car accident but his two sons survived. Things seemed to take a turn for the better when he married Jill and had a daughter with her. Then his eldest son, Beau (who has children of his own, and who aims to be the future President of USA) gets brain cancer and succumbs to it. And through it all, the VP has to deal with issues of national global importance, like the Ukraine crisis and ISIL.

Read this book and find out:

  1. What it’s like being the VP of USA and having the “nuclear football” within your reach – “you can launch a nuclear strike on almost any target on the planet”. And the privileges like traveling via Air Force Two, how you can “convince almost any doctor or medical researcher in the country” to take your call, and how your children and grandchildren can travel the globe with you, learning what school does not (and cannot) teach.
  2. What Barack Obama did when Joe said he’ll take out a second mortgage on his property should Beau no longer be able to work. And why the President was “in tears” during one of the meetings with Joe.
  3. What occurred during Joe’s meetings with Hillary Clinton and with Putin.
  4. How life comes full circle and how empathy extended to one person in his/her grief comes right back to you.
  5. How having a PURPOSE helped Joe survive the hardships in Life…

& a whole lot more.


I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and I believe you will, too. I cannot begin to imagine how painful it was for Joe to write this (it must have ripped open many wounds) yet he’d made a ‘Biden family’ promise to Beau that he’d be all right even after his son’s death, so this book proves he’s made good on that promise, apart from the work he’s doing with the Biden Foundation. A must-read for anyone dealing with loss or anyone who wants to know how to help someone in their time of grief.

Grief is a process that respects no schedule and no timetable.” – Joe Biden

Book Review: ‘Dying (A Memoir)’ by Cory Taylor

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor

I had to read this book twice, just to be sure. I don’t want to appear disrespectful especially ‘cos the author has already passed away, in July 2016. On the first read, I was rather taken aback by the number of pages allocated to sharing about the author’s parents’ and grandparents’ past. Unlike in Asian societies, where washing your family’s “dirty linen” in public is frowned upon, the author shares things such as how an uncle and his wife kicked the author’s grandmother out of her own home, and claimed it as their own. (I wonder if said uncle and his wife are still alive :D)

I think Cory wrote this book so as to ‘make sense of’ or derive some purpose / meaning from this process of dying. I can’t actually decide which would be worse: (1) dying suddenly and therefore not having the chance to say proper goodbyes or (2) knowing you’ll be dying soon and just saying your goodbyes seems to be killing you.

Cory was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at age 49. She had 2 teenage sons. Both her parents had died after suffering from dementia – she says they had “died badly” in nursing homes. Cory herself died in a hospice with her family around her, according to media reports.

Again… which would be worse? (1) Having dementia and all its attendant symptoms, and relying on others to do things for you (including cleaning your bum), or (2) Getting ravaged by cancer, having this guillotine above your head, and not knowing when your time will be up?

She sets the record straight by writing that “The fact that I was dying now was sad, but not tragic. I had lived a full life.” Unlike other authors who have written similar books, it truly is less sad, ‘cos her children were adults by the time she breathed her last, and they could fend for themselves in this world. It’d be much worse if they were still infants when she left them.

Aside from getting readers to contemplate their own deaths (which Cory says takes courage, and indeed that is so) and lives, she also offers thought-provoking statements such as these:

P38: “I don’t think God has a plan for us. I think we’re a species with godlike pretensions but an animal nature, and that, of all of the animals that have ever walked the earth, we are by far the most dangerous.”

p144: “We are all just a millimeter away from death, all of the time, if only we knew it.”


With just 147 pages, this book should have been an easy read, yet it’s anything but. I’d encourage you to read it… at least once. 🙂

Book Review: ‘The Girl Who Escaped ISIS’ by Farida Khalaf

the girl who escaped isis book review

I’ve previously reviewed a book titled ‘The Last Girl: My Story Of Captivity, And My Fight Against The Islamic State‘. And this is yet another book about a girl captured from Kocho (in northern Iraq) and who manages to escape. Initially, I’d thought that perhaps Farida somehow escaped being sold into sexual slavery by some ingenious means. Alas! She also suffered the sexual abuse, numerous beatings and there were even numerous failed suicide attempts.

Where this book differs is that Farida managed to escape together with 5 other girls, when the soldiers were out at battle and the guards were, shall we say, preoccupied with the other girls who had refused to leave together with Farida for fear that their family members would be implicated.

I think it is out of sheer luck, or maybe even divine intervention, that Farida and the others managed to approach the right household for assistance. They could easily have encountered ISIS supporters and gotten sent right back to camp where a terrible fate surely awaited them.

In the previous book I’ve read, I was left wondering why they would not lie about renouncing their faith so as to save their lives. In this book, I was given the answer. I also got to read Farida’s account of how her father taught her to fire a Kalashnikov rifle (here in Singapore, we are pretty much defenseless with neither revolver nor rifle and it’s not like regular citizens like myself would know how to use them either).


As this book was co-written together with Andrea C. Hoffman, the latter offers an insight into the “post-traumatic depression” that Farida suffered.

“As a symbol of her grief Farida is now wearing black. On her left arm she tattoos with needles and ink the names of her dead father and eldest brother. She also scratches Arabic letters on her fingers which when she clenches her first form the name of her village back home: ‘Kocho’. In a book she lists all the names of the villagers from Kocho who were murdered. It’s her way of mourning.”

So why is Farida ‘The Girl Who Escaped ISIS’? Co-writer Andrea says “Essentially, she has defeated the terrorists twice. Once by escaping their physical violence. And the second time by banishing the terror from her head. This battle was perhaps the more difficult of the two.” I wonder if she’s being optimistic as Andrea herself got nightmares after interviewing Farida for the book. I’m not sure if it’s ever possible to ‘banish the terror’ from one’s head but Farida’s wish to have the world know about the atrocities committed by ISIS and to name the perpetrators of that horrific violence and abuse suffered by the women of Kocho is definitely more achievable. Like her, I wish those men would get their comeuppance in the end.

*Farida was granted asylum in Germany in 2015. 🙂

Book Review: Penguin Bloom – The Odd Little Bird Who Saved A Family

Penguin Bloom Book Review

The two books I’m reading this week! 😀

It’s hard to hold in the tears when reading this book yet it’s supposed to be a very easy read as it’s full of beautiful black-and-white pictures. The book ‘Penguin Bloom’ is named after the ‘injured magpie chick’ who was rescued by the Bloom family and who, in turn, helped the family cope with a tragedy.

“Penguin taught us that helping others feel better is the easiest and best way to help yourself feel better.”

While on holiday in Thailand, Sam Bloom (wife of the author, and mother to three young boys) suffered a terrible accident that left her paralyzed. But this family’s kindness in rescuing and nursing an injured baby magpie back to health sure paid off as the bird (whom they named Penguin due to its black and white plumage) became Sam’s buddy and cheerleader.

This is a book about one family’s triumph over tragedy and how angels really do come in all shapes and sizes. You’ll find there’s indeed something very special about this “odd little bird”. 😉

This is my favorite picture within the book: Sam’s determination in regaining her strength and stamina, and Penguin always by her side (doing the same)…

Penguin Bloom

*Too cute, right?*

I think this book will be most useful for people who’ve had spinal cord injuries, and also for their families. All too often, we say the wrong things while trying to comfort or encourage someone who’s been through a terrible accident and endured unimaginable physical, mental and emotional trauma. Sam and her husband, Cameron, help us understand a little better what it’s like to be a caregiver, and what needs to be done in order to survive the period following the accident and the sudden and catastrophic loss of mobility.

After you’re done reading the book, you might be tempted to look at the pictures again. The photographs are stunning, and they tell the story of how Penguin is, in fact, a member of the Bloom family. How they got Penguin to pose for pictures, sharing a strand of pasta with one of the boys, or doing “weight-lifting” lying on its back next to Sam (as you’ve seen above), I’ll never know. 🙂

Book Review: ‘GURKHA – Better to Die Than Live a Coward’ by Kailash Limbu

Gurkha Kailash Limbu

If you’ve ever been curious about the Gurkhas, you’ll love reading this book. I was keen to find out why these men are so brave, why some would classify them as “mercenaries” and really, what makes them loyal soldiers. Reading this book, I’ve indeed gotten to know the Gurkhas a bit better – their selection process, what it was like fighting the Taliban, and even what they (really) think about joining the police force in Singapore. 😛

5 interesting things I learnt from this book:

  1. Gay sex is highly unusual to them. The author saw Afghan men with young “tea boys” following them everywhere, and he said this is “very shocking”. Back in the villages in Nepal, “sex between men was completely unheard of”.
  2. They strive to be the next Gurkha commended for his bravery – “For us, there is nothing greater a man can do than act courageously in battle, and we take enormous pride when one of our number is commended for bravery.”
  3. Cowardice is not an option – Kaphar Hunnu Bhanda Marnu Ramro – ‘It is better to die than be a coward’ (the Gurkha motto)
  4. Joining the Singapore Police is not their first choice – “Those who didn’t get into the British Gurkhas still had the chance of joining the (Singapore) police. But although nobody said so, we all thought that going into the police was definitely second best. For myself, I decided I would be a British Army Gurkha or nothing at all”. The author believed that “there wouldn’t be much chance of seeing action” in Singapore.
  5. They don’t give up, ever – “we Gurkhas would carry on fighting right down to the last man. And even if we ran out of ammunition we wouldn’t give up. We’d use our kukris. And if we lost our kukris, we’d fight with our bare hands.”


Truly an ‘unputdownable’ book. I’ve had Nepalese schoolmates since primary school but have never found out that ‘Limbu’, ‘Gurung’, and ‘Rai’ were more than just family names. They also refer to the different castes / tribes in Nepal. There are also the Chetris, Magars, Sunwars, Thakurs, and others. 🙂

I love how the author intersperses bits of history and recollections of his childhood with his account of fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, so it never gets boring. I highly recommend you get a copy of this book.

Book Review: ‘The Last Girl’ by Nadia Murad

The Last Girl by Nadia Murad

‘The Last Girl: My Story Of Captivity, And My Fight Against The Islamic State’ is Nadia’s story of growing up in Kocho (in northern Iraq), of how IS militants massacred the people in her village, how the girls were forced to become sex slaves in Mosul, and how Nadia eventually escaped. It appears that history just keeps repeating itself, in different places with different folks. And it’s really sad how women (especially young women) often end up becoming sex slaves once captured. Nadia says in this book that “When you are a sabaya (sex slave), you die every second of every day”. In contrast, the men are quickly killed and dumped into mass graves, which I feel is a slightly better plight compared to being in a living hell as a sex slave.

“Being dead was better than being sold like merchandise and raped until our bodies were in shreds” -Nadia

Beyond molesting and raping her, one IS militant who’d ‘bought’ Nadia even had honey spread on his toes and got her to lick it off. (>_<) And that’s just one of the militants who’d owned her at some point.


Nadia is a big fan of history so she gives you lots of detail about the place she grew up in, her family background, etc. So it’s only from Part 2 of the book that the ‘action’ begins, so to speak.

If I do meet Nadia in person or get to ask her a question, it’ll be about the time in 2006 (when she was 13), when an American soldier gave her a ring as a present. She describes it as a “simple band with a small red stone” but I’m so curious as to WHY he gave her the ring. Why her, out of all the girls in her village? Why a ring? What was the relationship between the soldier and Nadia? Surely he didn’t go around giving out jewelry to every person he met, right? The book doesn’t proffer an answer regarding this.

Food For Thought From This Book:

  1. “I still think that being forced to leave your home out of fear is one of the worst injustices a human being can face. Everything you love is stolen, and you risk your life to live in a place that means nothing to you and where, because you come from a country now known for war and terrorism, you are not really wanted. So you spend the rest of your years longing for what you left behind while praying not to be deported.”
  2. Many of the sabaya (sex slaves) were turned in by people they had approached for help. Of course, some of them, like Nadia, received help and got to escape. Why would regular folk be so heartless? Was the promise of a monetary reward (whether a lie or not) so tempting?
  3. “We had no way to find work or go to school, so mourning the dead and the missing became our job.” Beyond providing food and shelter in refugee camps, education and employment opportunities are needed too.
  4. “Some countries decided to keep refugees out altogether, which made me furious. There was no good reason to deny innocent people a safe place to live.” Singapore’s one such country, is it not? Are we open to foreign talent and foreign workers, but simply cannot accept refugees? Why?

And if you’re wondering about the title of the book… why ‘The Last Girl’? Nadia hopes that she’ll be the last girl to have such a story / plight, and that it won’t happen to any other girl. However, I do think that’s not entirely possible at this point in time. But we can still hope… I guess.

Book Review: ‘Feel Good 101’ by Emma Blackery

Feel Good 101 Emma Blackery

I would go so far as to say that every teenager needs to own (or, at least, read) a copy of this book! In ‘Feel Good 101’, Emma Blackery lays bare her life story, and while she’s much younger than me, I do think she’s been through a lot and those ‘life lessons’ are worth your time. Beyond being a “Youtube sensation”, she’s someone who:

  1. Was only 12 when her parents got a divorce
  2. Survived a mental health issue, which probably had its roots from the time her dad collapsed when she was 10
  3. Was a victim of bullying both in school and later at work
  4. Doesn’t put together a book with just fluff in it; she goes on to tell you when she lost her virginity, her experience of sexual assault, etc
  5. Gives good advice with regard to coming out to your parents, dealing with bad friends, putting together an awesome CV, etc

Just one of the stunning things she says in the book is with regard to YOUR choice of career. In Singapore, especially, kids aim to be doctors, lawyers or accountants because their parents want them to be in these fields. But Emma, being Emma, puts it to you like she sees it:

“Your life is still going to be yours long after (forgive me) your parents are gone, and then you’ll be left with the career that they wanted for you. Sure, you might be earning enough, but will you be happy once you have no one left to please?”

If you’d like more punches to the gut like this one, then you certainly have to read this book. I didn’t know who this Emma is before reading the book, but now I’m certainly sitting up and taking note when she’s dishing out advice in her videos.

Her use of expletives in the book might come as a shock to certain readers, but eventually (I think) you’ll be won over by her no-holds-barred sharing, and even if you do not get a crash course in “Feeling Good 101”, you’ll learn more than 1 insight you’ll be thankful for.

Finally, I love how she put it so plainly that “you cannot turn your haters into your lovers – it is a futile exercise“. It’s something everyone who has any sort of presence on the Internet needs to know. 🙂