Books

Talking about books (when I have time to read for fun)

READ THE WORLD – Dominica: Nature Island Verses by Alick Lazare

A poetry collection split into three parts; Love, Life, and Politics. This collection has a mix of poetry, some rhymes, some don’t and the rhyming schemes used aren’t consistent in the collection.

The first part of this poetry collection had poems about love. Maybe it’s because I’m not a particularly lovey-dovey person but these poems didn’t do a lot for me. I don’t think it’s Lazare’s poems specifically, just love poems generally. The poems about life and politics were more interesting to me.

Of the Life poems, “By the Lake”, “Epitath”, and “Hurricane David (August, 1979)” were what really stood out to me. They seem to encompass the theme of life very well and almost seem to be about different stages of life. “By the Lake” is quite beautiful with its descriptions of nature and belief, it’s almost like rebirth or the start of life – especially in comparison to “Epitath” which is about death and the acceptance of it. “Hurricane David (August, 1979)” paints a vivid picture of the destruction and beauty of a hurricane; before, during, and after it wreaks havoc.

I found the poems in the Politics section interesting though I feel like there was references to people and events that I’m unaware of so some probably didn’t have the same impact as if I did know those bits of Dominican history. “A Chronicle of Events Untold” was a great poem to end the collection on. It’s a narrative, rhyming poem that tells the history of Dominica; the different people who tried to colonise it, Columbus, slavery, independence, the rise and fall of democracy. It’s an interesting and affecting way to get a very broad overview of Dominica’s history and what the people have gone through.

READ THE WORLD – Belarus: The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich

Translated by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. Narrated by Yelena Shmulenson and Julia Emelin.

Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of women to get their first-hand accounts of their experiences in the Second World War. What made them want to fight and what they did – whether that was on the front lines, on the home front or in occupied territories.

Being born and raised in the UK, when it came to learning about the First and Second World War, what British soldiers went through and how the wars affected the British people was the main focus. I did learn about the Allies and how Russia played a big part in the success of both conflicts but never really knew anything about the people on the front lines there.

While most of what I learnt about British Women during WWII was that they worked on the farms or in factories, or maybe became nurses or radio operators in Europe but there was definitely more of a focus on what British women did on British soil.

The women from the Soviet Union, whether they were Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Russian, or whoever were on the front lines. There’s accounts from women in the typical roles like nurses, surgeons and radio operators but then there’s women who were snipers, pilots, anti-aircraft gunners, soldiers. They all had different ranks from privates to lieutenants and many of them were awarded medals and honours for their service. And the majority of these women joined up when they were teenagers, some as young as fourteen but most were between the ages of sixteen to twenty-one during the war. It’s hard to comprehend what these women saw and experienced and how it shaped their lives.

The Unwomanly Face of War is a hard book to get through as it really is often harrowing. These women tell their stories so matter-of-factly even when it concerns dead bodies and men trapped inside a burning tanks. I think listening to it on audio helped as it was easier to take a breather and pull myself out of that dark headspace.

While naturally these women’s accounts were the main focus, I did like how Alexievich inserted a little backstory every now and then as to how she found these women to interview or what the experience was like listening to them talk. I especially found it interesting how she noted that the way these women talked about their experience differed when there was a man in the room. If their husband was there, it was like they didn’t feel as free to talk about things – even if he also fought and had seen and done similar things. I think it’s because these stories are often about how the woman felt in these situations, and some of the things talked about were mundane like how there was no lady’s underwear or boots in the army to begin with and the problems that came with that.

Another thing that’s talked about is love, whether these women found love before, during or after the war and how the war affected them and their relationships. The fact that after the war some men refused to date or marry a young woman who had been at the front, who had fought for her country, because it was seen as unseemly or unladylike was infuriating. Especially as often during the war it seemed like male soldiers treated their female counterparts with respect.

I learnt a lot from The Unwomanly Face of War. I was almost constantly in awe of these women, how they were just teenagers or young women at the time and the things they fought through, is so impressive. I liked how the accounts sometimes contradicted each other, in the sense that it’s clear that while all these women experienced the war, they didn’t experience it or feel about the enemy the same way. Some pitied the fascist soldiers they had to treat while others despised them. It showed how complicated human emotions are and how sometimes in wartime not everything is easy to compartmentalise.

While The Unwomanly Face of War is a tough read, I think it’s an important one. I learnt so much and the fact that it’s an unflinching look at what so many women went through and of the war as a whole makes it more impactful. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Laos: Mother’s Beloved: Stories from Laos by Outhine Bounyavong

Translated by Bounheng Inversin, Roger Rumpf, Jaqui Chagon, Thipason Phimviengkham, and William Galloway.

A collection of short stories about the ordinary people of Laos.

These stories were super short, often no more than five pages long, but they often managed to say a lot. I was frequently surprised by how often the last paragraph or even the last sentence of a story suddenly reframed everything that had come before it, twisting the narrative slightly so you see things from a different point of view. The stories are quite simply written but that just adds to their impact and makes them incredibly readable. This is a collection I read in one sitting and I think that’s because of the length and the writing style.

The stories are often about very mundane things and people, their hopes and dreams, their mistakes and good fortunes. It made how the viewpoint on the characters or the story twist so much more interesting. I really liked how this collection was bookended by stories about mothers. It made the title of the collection work and it gave the collection a sense of completeness that I haven’t always gotten from short story collections.

Some of the stories were sad, talking about the fallout of from war and how the threat of environmental degradation affects people, both individually and collectively, in different ways. It’s an interesting collection and I really appreciated the introduction from Peter Koret as it gave a brief overview of Laos history and how different factors has affected its literature over the decades. To be honest, I don’t often read introductions in books (I’m usually too keen to get to the actual story) so I’m not sure what made me start reading this one, but I’m pleased I did as a lot of it added context to the short stories and made me grasp cultural references I would have otherwise missed. Note to self: read introductions more often.

Something I really appreciated about Mother’s Beloved was the decision to have the stories in the original Lao side by side with the English translation. I’ve seen it before in translated poetry collections like The End of the Dark Era and Looking for Trouble, but I’d not seen this in a short story collection before. Lao is a completely different looking language and alphabet to what I know so I have no hope of reading it but I liked how in the introduction the decision to include both the original text and the translation was because it could mean the stories could be shared with multiple generations of people, no matter if they only knew English or Lao.

READ THE WORLD – Kazakhstan: The Silent Steppe: The Story of a Kazakh Nomad under Stalin by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov

Translated by Jan Butler and edited by Anthony Gardner.

The story of Mukhamet Shayakhmetov from childhood to his early twenties as he grows up under Stalin’s rule and how the collectivisation of agriculture forever changed his peoples’ nomadic lifestyle and caused a famine that killed over a million Kazakhs.

The Silent Steppe is the kind of historical memoir that’s written in a way that’s pretty easy to read and easy to get engrossed in. It’s not necessarily a literary masterpiece but it manages to capture so many emotions so well and it’s a really interesting insight into a time and a culture I knew nothing about. The Silent Steppe is split into three parts: “Class Enemy” which focuses on what the nomadic life was like, how it was forced to change, and how Shayakhmetov’s father was branded a “kulak” (a well-off peasant and therefore an enemy of the people) and imprisoned, “Famine” which covers the 1932-34 famine, the build up to the disaster and how eventually things started getting a bit better, and “War” when Shayakhmetov was a young man and joined the Red Army to fight in World War Two.

Shayakhmetov was born in 1922 and for his first seven years or so his life was normal, helping his father to look after the animals, travelling hundreds of miles with the rest of the family and the village as the seasons turned. Obviously a life not without hardships but positively idyllic compared to what followed.

What The Silent Steppe does well is not shy away from the horrors of what Shayakhmetov experienced. From the age of eight he was having to travel for dozens or even hundreds miles on his own in search of news of his father, or to learn about other family member. He had to do so much at such a young age as his mother either had to stay at home to look after his siblings or to find work so they could eat. The famine and its effects on him, his family and the people is described in vivid detail and it’s often unsettling. Shayakhmetov combines the personal with the factual almost seamlessly as he gives facts and figures on how the collective farms worked (or more often didn’t) and the cruelty and short-sightedness of government officials who repossessed people’s livestock, belongings and even their homes. It’s hard not to get angry when you read how livestock was taken from people and when the newly set up farms couldn’t deal with them, they slaughtered them and then the meat was just left to rot – not given to or even sold to the people. How Shayakhmetov and his mother managed to survive so much, like the fact they were homeless for so long and unable to settle anywhere due to being the family of a kulak, is a testament to their resilience but also a lot of luck and kindness from others. There’s so many other people mentioned, family and acquaintances, who didn’t survive the famine and a lot of the time who managed to survive and who didn’t was down to where people happened to be living and who or what they knew. Just pure chance.

One think that sticks out in Shayakhmetov’s story is how hospitable the nomadic Kazakh are. Their whole culture was forced to change under Stalin’s rule but so many people would still help him and his family when they could, and his family would always help others. They whole country and millions of people were forced to change and for the most part they kept their core values. Or at least, it took the combination of famine, war, and economic struggles for people to start to change.

The Silent Steppe is a really interesting book that covers a place and time I knew little about and shows how far-reaching Stalin and his policies were. How a whole nomadic culture was forced to change and never returned to what it was in such a relative short space of time is amazing – and not in a good way. The Silent Steppe is sad, informative but also a little hopeful as it really demonstrates the power of community – something the Stalin-regime tried to enforce in a structured way when it was already there.

READ THE WORLD – Turkmenistan: The Tale of Aypi by Ak Welsapar

Translated by W.M. Coulson.

After industrialists convince a village of fishermen and their families on the coast of the Caspian Sea, they start to make plans to move to the city. All but one, Araz refuses to leave and give up his ancestral home and his trade of being a fisherman. As tensions rise between Araz and the elderly fishermen, the ghost of Aypi, a woman betrayed and murdered by her husband and her village, begins to exact revenge on the villagers.

The Tale of Aypi is such a strange little story. It’s one that starts out relatively simple but then becomes a story that’s laced with mystery and magic as it becomes difficult to tell what is and isn’t real.

There’s a lot of true to life problems Araz and the other fisherman are facing. The majority of them have come to terms with the fact they are being forcibly relocated, and many of them are starting to see it as a necessity in order to keep connected to their children and grandchildren, as their city-living is so different to village life. Araz is like a one man protest as even his wife is looking to the future outside the village, even though she wouldn’t tell him that. The way Araz is almost abducted by the police so corrupt officials can hold and intimidate him to try and get him to agree to move from the village is very uncomfortable but also almost funny as Araz has such a strong sense of purpose he refuses to move.

Then there’s the ghost of Aypi. The way she interacts with the village and its people is interesting. It’s like she changes shape depending on who she is trying to influence or torment, and the thin line between real and imaginary is always there. Sometimes she’s a physical presence, she can be seen by the villagers and have conversations with them, while there’s other times where she attacks them in a fit of rage and they see a sandstorm. Then there’s also the blurring between dreams and reality where thing’s happen before someone wakes up and is unsettled by the whole encounter.

Aypi’s rage is certainly justified, and she offers some interesting ideas on the roles of men and women and their relationship in society. How what both men and women want has changed so men are more interested in finding foreign wives to fit in their strict moulds as the local women are striving for something else. There are some impactful lines like: “Women’ve lost their natural personality, and men’ve become too submissive and they can’t take it anymore.”

The Tale of Aypi is odd and melancholy as so many characters in this story have sad or hard lives. While many of the villagers have decided to give in and move, it’s clear that they won’t have it easy when they’re in the city as their attitudes are so different to people from the city. The Tale of Aypi is a story of community and cultural clash. The inclusion of Aypi the vengeful spirit is sometimes hard to follow as she often goes from being an almost solid person to some sort of spirit who isn’t connect to anything. Still, The Tale of Aypi is a compelling story and at less than 200 pages it packs in a lot of thoughts and ideas into it.

Asian Readathon TBR

In May in the United States it is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and in honour of that Cindy from WithCindy on YouTube created a readathon where the main aim is to read books by Asian authors. I think this is the second or third year of the readathon, but this is the first time I’m participating. Her announcement video explains it all really well and she also has a Google Doc with extra info and resources and there’s a Twitter account for the readathon too.

There are five challenges in this readathon and any amount of them can be combined to make things easier for yourself:
– Read any book written by an Asian author.
– Read any book featuring an Asian protagonist.
– Read any book written by an Asian author in your favourite genre.
– Read any nonfiction book written by an Asian author.
– Read any book written by an Asian author that’s not US-centric.

There is a twist to combining the prompts though. You can combine challenges and read in any order; however, each book you read should feature a character or author of a different Asian ethnicity. This is to encourage cultural diversity. Books by Chinese, Korean, and Japanese authors do tend to be more common or popular here in the UK, so I think this is a great way to encourage people to read more diversely. Because like any ethnicity, Asians aren’t one huge monolith.

Thanks to my Read the World Project I’ve already read books from authors from over thirty different Asian countries – in fact I think Asia is the continent I’ve read the most books from. You can check out my Read the World Project masterpost to see all the countries and books I’ve read so far and links to all the reviews.

Like any readathon, my TBR is going to be far too big but I wanted to use this moment to highlight books by authors of different nationalities and backgrounds. I also used this readathon to order some books from both the library and bookshops that I’d been thinking of for a while so some of these haven’t arrived yet and a couple are on my kindle. I’m going to be (hopefully) reading books in all formats for this readathon.

Shepherd of Solitude: Selected Poems by Amjad Nasser, translated by Khaled Mattawa (Jordan)
This is a poetry collection and is the first English collection of Amjad Nasser’s work. The poems are from various collections originally in Arabic published between 1979 – 2004.

Palestine +100 edited by Basma Ghalayini, translated by Raph Cormack, Mohamed Ghalaieny, Andrew Leber, Thoraya El-Rayyes, Yasmine Seale and Jonathan Wright (Palestine)
A collection of short soties from twelve Palestinian writers imagining what their country might be like in the year 2048. These stories are in a whole range of genres including sci-fi, dystopia and farce.

The Silent Steppe: The Story of a Kazakh Nomad under Stalin by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov, translated by Jan Butler (Kazakhstan)
This is a memoir from Mukhamet Shayakhmetov, who was born into a family of nomadic herdsman in 1922, about life under Stalin’s rule.

QuixotiQ by Ali Al Saeed (Bahrain)
I’m not even sure what this book is about. It hasn’t arrived yet and all I’ve got from Waterstones and Goodreads is that it’s about two men whose lives take dramatic turns. It’s also the only book I could find in English by an author from Bahrain.

Armenian Golgotha by Grigoris Balakian, translated by Peter Balakian (Armenia)
A memoir about Grigoris Balakian’s eyewitness account of the Armenian Genocide which happened from 1915-1918.

Mama Hissa’s Mice by Saud Alsanousi, translated by Sawad Hussain (Kuwait)
Three friends who share neither ethnic origin nor religious denomination, get involved in a protest group and one of their grandmothers, Mama Hissa, warns them against it.

Mother’s Beloved: Stories from Laos by Outhine Bounyavong (Laos)
This collection of short stories is the first collection of Lao short stories to be published in English. I think this collection has both the English translation and the short stories in the original language and I really like when books do this. This is one I’m waiting to pick up from Waterstones.

The Tale of Aypi by Ak Welsapar, translated by W.M. Coulson (Turkmenistan)
The story of a group of Turkmen fishermen who are trying to save their ancestral home from the ruling powers who are attempting to confiscate their land.

Looking at my books here and the challenges, the only one I’m unsure if I’ll complete is “book written by an Asian author in your favourite genre” mainly because I’m not even sure what my favourite genre is anymore, though I do like some hard-hitting non-fiction which is certainly here so those books could count for that.

Are you taking part in the Asian Readathon? Or do you have any books by Asian authors on your TBR in general? I would love to hear about them.

READ THE WORLD – Moldova: The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov

Translated by Ross Ufberg. Narrated by Daniel Thomas May.

Trigger warnings for rape, child trafficking and suicide.

Set in the early 2000s, a group of villagers in Moldova dream of a new life in Italy. They live an impoverished life in Moldova and through any methods they can think of they try to get to Italy where they’ve been told you get paid thousands of euros for just washing dishes.

The Good Life Elsewhere is a strange and funny story. The ways these people attempt to get to Italy become more and more absurd. To begin with there’s the understandable and realistic attempt to cross by paying smugglers who promise to get them across the Italian border and con them out of €4,000 each as it’s revealed that they never left Moldova. From there the attempts get more outrageous and include building both an aeroplane and a submarine out of a tractor.

I think listening to the audiobook helped me take in and understand this story. The narrator does a good job at distinguishing the many characters voices and I think the humour of the various situations came across a lot better than if I was just reading it. Hearing someone tell a funny story is often more entertaining than reading the funny story yourself.

The Good Life Elsewhere follows multiple characters including a man who has been obsessed with Italy since he was a child and has spent years learning the language and a priest who accidentally starts a couple of crusades leading hundreds of people to Italy on foot. There’s also a number of politicians who seem the most realistic out of them all aka could be from a Moldovan version of The Thick of It.

You can almost get emotional whiplash from The Good Life Elsewhere. The antics these villagers get into to try and get to Italy are often ridiculous and amusing but, as the trigger warnings suggest, there’s also a dark underbelly to it all. People who lose everything in their quest to get to Italy take their own lives, and when a woman is repeatedly raped over the course of years, it’s almost like a footnote and there isn’t time to linger on it before the next strange event is discussed. Besides the triggering content, often just after an amusing escapade or attempt to conduct a plan to get to Italy, something suddenly happens that turns to comedic into a tragedy.

The Good Life Elsewhere is an interesting story to consider in terms of European politics and the extreme lengths people will go to, to try and get somewhere they believe will give them a better life. The “fear” of immigrants Italy and Romania seem to have, the way Moldovans have to pay bribes to the police or other officials in order to keep travelling, how people are detained for no reason and have no idea if or when they can continue. It’s all very sad. Moldova joined the EU in 2016, as The Good Life Elsewhere is set in the early 2000s there’s often discussions of the EU, Moldova potentially joining it and what that could mean for the people. Especially as Moldova was once a part of the Soviet Union so there is the stark contrast between what was once a pro-Soviet country and how they almost idealise the West – in this case Italy. It really is weird but interesting how Italy becomes the almost promised land to these people, and how a whole village becomes enamoured with it.

The Good Life Elsewhere is equal parts tragedy and comedy. It’s satirical and odd and often unbelievable, but even today thousands of people travel from their homeland, risking death in the hope of where they end up might provide a better life for them and their loved ones, so it’s not totally unbelievable. It just pushes everything to the extreme.

X is for Xtras

I’m sure like many people who do the A-Z in April Challenge, I often really struggle with the letter X. I’ve previously had Charles Xavier when I wrote about favourite characters before but as I don’t want any repeats, I’m cheating and just sharing a few favourite characters that didn’t quite make the cut for their own post.

Steve Harrington
My all-out favourite from Stranger Things. I love his growth as a character and even when he was a bit of a bully towards Jonathan in the first season, he realised his mistakes and went to apologise and became a great monster hunter. I love how protective Steve is of the kids, how he’ll always put himself in harms way to stop others getting hurt (he really needs to be checked for any brain injuries) and that while he’s not academically smart, he picks on things up others don’t.

Jaylah
Star Trek Beyond is my favourite Star Trek film and is generally one of my favourite films. Jaylah is a brilliant character and I love how she fits in with the crew of the Enterprise. She’s a fierce fighter, she’s a smart engineer, and though she’s scared of what they have to face thanks to her traumatic childhood, she is brave enough to stare down her demons and finds a new family with the crew.

Jesper Fahey
Jesper was already one of my favourite characters from Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom but having finished (and loved) the Shadow and Bone TV show, I love him even more. He is funny and charming and brave, and he is such a good friend. There’s a moment when a friend asks him to kill someone for her and his response is “Ugh why me? But OK.” because that’s just how he is. He has a gambling problem which often leads him to get into scrapes so it’s a good job his such a fantastic shot – honestly how they showed his guns skills in the show was so cool.

Elizabeth Swann
I still believe the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy are brilliant and The Curse of the Black Pearl is a fantastic film. I love how Elizabeth evolves as a person over the course of the films though still stays the same adventurous and quick-witted person she always was. She’s brave but sometimes reckless, caring but sometimes harsh – she’s one of the most interesting characters in that franchise. I also love how she becomes such a great sword fighter, pirate, and the Pirate King.

REVIEW: Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Just a little quick backstory on me and the Grisha’verse. I read and reviewed Six of Crows way back in 2016 without reading the original trilogy. I enjoyed it and still agree with a lot of my review but now that the Shadow and Bone TV show arrives on Netflix tomorrow, I decided to revisit the world. I read the original trilogy for the first-time last month and reread Six of Crows on audio and enjoyed that even more than I remembered due to now having a better understanding of the world and the magic system and I got all the little references. And now I have read the conclusion to that duology on audio, which was narrated by Roger Clark, Jay Snyder, Elizabeth Evans, Fred Berman, Brandon Rubin, Kevin T. Collins, Lauren Fortgang and Peter Ganim.

I will try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible but as it’s a sequel events of the first book are likely to be mentioned. Kaz Brekker and his crew may have pulled off the most audacious heist, but they didn’t come home to the fortune there were promised. Betrayed, alone, and weakened they have to pull together to find away out of this mess as criminals, merchants, and officials are all after them. Because it turns out it’s not just their lives on the line, when a powerful drug is the most sought-after tool in the world, the fate of the Grisha world hangs in the balance.

I loved Crooked Kingdom. Much like Six of Crows it’s full of twists and turns and even when you think you know the plan either something goes wrong, or it turns out it was an illusion and the real plan was something else entirely. There isn’t one big job to pull off this time. Instead, there’s a series of schemes to try and keep them all alive and to get the money they were owed.

As events unfold, the crew has to rely on one another even more and seeing how the different relationships, both platonic and romantic, evolve is just incredible. All six of these characters (and you get chapters from all of their points of view this time) have gone through so much trauma. Some of the things they’ve gone through include drug and gambling addictions, surviving sexual assault, parents or family dying or just being terrible people. You get a lot more of Wylan’s backstory and perspective in Crooked Kingdom and it really adds something to the group dynamic.

While I still think you can get by not having read the original trilogy when reading Six of Crows, that is definitely not the case for Crooked Kingdom. Characters from the original trilogy make an appearance (one of which caused me to actually gasp because I was that excited) and a lot more of various countries politics and conflicts come into play here.

The pacing of Crooked Kingdom is just so good. There’s pretty much nonstop action and scheming and even when there isn’t, the conversations between various characters is just as compelling. When characters argue, and some of them are big conflicts, you feel it because slowly you as the reader realise, as a lot of the characters are doing, that these people actually care about each other. They are still liars and thieves and, in the case of Kaz Brekker especially, can be cruel and ruthless, but they’re also growing as people and making connections and even in some small way want to do better.

Crooked Kingdom is a brilliant conclusion to this duology. It expands this fantasy world, gives the characters more development and nuances and does a great job at building tension. All the twists and turns keeps you guessing and it’s just a fun ride with a lot of emotional payoff. 5/5.

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Colourful Book Covers

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Artsy Reader Girl. The theme of this week is, as the title suggests, sharing some of your favourite colourful book covers. I had a lot of fun going through my books and seeing what colourful covers I had. It looks like I’ve read more books with colourful covers than are currently sitting on my shelves waiting to be read so all these link to my reviews of them – some of which are nearly five years old!

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard
Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
Young Avengers Vol. 1: Style > Substance by Kieron Gillenand& Jamie McKelvie
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

When We Collided by Emery Lord
Frangipani by Célestine Hitiura Vaite
Seed by Lisa Heathfield
The House of Hidden Mothers by Meera Syal
The Exact Opposite of Okay by Laura Steven

What are some of your favourite colourful covers?