Books

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

READ THE WORLD – Portugal: Raised from the Ground by José Saramago

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

A multigenerational family saga set in twentieth-century Portugal. Raised from the Ground follows the Mau Tempo family, a family of poor landless peasants, as they try and make a life for themselves as national and international events take place around them. But nothing really impinges on their grim reality until the first communist stirrings in the country.

The way Raised from the Ground is written took me a long time to get my head around. It’s like there’s an omniscient and omnipresent narrator, telling the lives of the different members of the family as each generation grows up. This style means there’s no speech marks when people talk and there often are very long sentences with many commas in them. The long sentences aren’t so bad, it’s the paragraphs that are anywhere between a page long and four-pages long that cause problems. It is very easy to get lost in those long paragraphs.

The story itself is not memorable and the characters, of which there are a lot, are not well developed. When the story shifts focus from one character or relationship to the other, it’s hard to remember or keep track of who is related to who. While the first 80 pages or so are engaging, the dreary existence of this peasant family becomes repetitive and dull as there is little chance for them to better themselves. No doubt this is the point of Raised from the Ground, but a novel can’t just make a point, it must also be interesting and unfortunately this one wasn’t.

Raised from the Ground pans around sixty years and the verbose narrator also talks about events that happened before the books beginning multiple times. Across those years different national and international events are referenced (including two World Wars) and the little footnotes that explained a reference to an important event in Portugal was appreciated. Though the way the book is written, focusing so closely on one family’s struggles, meant that the historical context was never fully explained so the impact of these events on the family and their community was never really felt.

I’ve read multigenerational family sagas before and on the whole I rather enjoy them. However, Raised from the Ground is not one of the ones I enjoyed. The combination of the writing style and the story meant I often felt my eyes glazing over. I did like the little titbits of Portuguese history speckled throughout the novel, though there wasn’t enough of that to keep me interested. 1/5.

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REVIEW: Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu

Seventeen-year-old Rachel Walker’s family and community have turned away from the world and closely follow the Lord’s words. Every part of Rachel’s life is controlled; what she wears, what she does, who she is meant to be. Her future is laid out for her; modesty, children and obedience to her future husband. But when Lauren, a girl who escaped the community five years earlier returns to Rachel’s small Texas town – her whole world is turned upside down as she allows herself to ask the questions that have been bubbling inside her.

Devoted was a very engrossing book. Rachel is a wonderfully complex character as she grapples with conflicting ideas of what it is to be faithful to God while still wanting to be loved by her family. Rachel loves to learn; she’s always got her head in books but her father doesn’t feel it’s appropriate as she is meant to be a wife and homemaker without any ideas above her station.

The idea of what abuse is in Devoted is only mentioned briefly but it is an important thing. When Rachel first learns of Lauren’s perspective after growing up in the same place but then leaving to move in to the big city, Rachel is surprised to hear Lauren call the environment abusive. To Rachel abuse means being hit or touched inappropriately, but what is clear to the reader, and slowly becomes clearer to her, is that she, like many of the young women in her community, is the victim of emotional and psychological abuse. That mental abuse can be as harmful as physical abuse is never outright said, but conversations between Lauren and Rachel showing how they both have lingering problems thanks to what they’ve experienced – even Lauren who has been out of that world for 5 years. The friendship and support between Rachel and Lauren is so important to both of them and even though Lauren is about five years older than Rachel with more worldly experience, as a character she is never pigeonholed as Rachel’s mother or sister figure. They both make mistakes as they learn to help and support one another and that’s OK.

The discussions of faith, praying and God were really interesting and tactful. Not all religion is “bad” but those who pick and choose what words to follow, especially if those words promote the subservience of women, aren’t necessarily nice people. It offers a more complex idea of religion and faith, and there are many ways to be faithful and there is no “right way” as it is all down to personal choice.

Rachel struggles with her faith when she’s at home with her family. The way her father and Pastor Garrett preach is often uncomfortable and Rachel often feels she’s making mistakes and is not good enough for God when she has questions or a desire to learn things. It’s when she can step away from them that she can connect to God in her own way, she doesn’t have to cut herself off from her faith just because she no longer believes or practices like her family has done, and how she has done her entire life.

Devoted is a book about a sensitive topic but it’s one that is always handled with care. While Pastor Garrett and the threat of the “brainwashing” camp Journey of Faith looms, members of Rachel’s family, and even other people in the community, aren’t demonised for what they believe. What Devoted manages to make clear, is that the way Rachel’s community follows religion is not healthy or the right way for everyone. Rachel’s older sister Faith appears very happy with her life, settling down with a husband and having a child in her early 20s, but that doesn’t mean that is the kind of life Rachel should be made to have if she doesn’t want it. 4/5.

REVIEW: A Girl Called Shameless by Laura Steven

It’s been two months since a leaked explicit photo got Izzy O’Neill involved in a political sex scandal that got national coverage. The Bitches Bite Back movement is gathering momentum online, and when a girl at school has a sex tape shared online, Izzy feels a fresh surge of anger and pain as she leads the charge against slut-shaming. Izzy and her best friends Ajita and Meg use comedy to fight back as they want to change the state law on revenge porn and get people to listen to them.

A read and reviewed The Exact Opposite of Okay at start of the year and I absolutely loved it. I’m very happy to say that A Girl Called Shameless is a more than worthy sequel.

A Girl Called Shameless is an enthralling book. It’s the sort of book you can read in a day because of how fast-paced it is, how layered and funny the characters are, and how it balances tough topics with levity and teenage-relatability.

In A Girl Called Shameless, Izzy and her friends start a movement to get the law changed as in her state revenge porn is legal. It was a great look at grassroots activism, how the pressure and desire for change can be almost suffocating, but also how there can be a lot of support out there. One thing that I thought worked really well is how through this book, the feelings Izzy felt when her explicit photos were shared online haven’t necessarily gone away. She might put on a front, but she is still hurt and angry and her confidence has taken a knock too.

Izzy has a lot going on in her life and it was good that it showed that not everything goes well all the time. Izzy finally gets a part-time job to help her grandmother pay the bills, she has an agent for her scriptwriting, she has school, and she also has this role of an activist. Izzy gets pushed to breaking point in this book, and sometimes she breaks, but she’s got a great support system around her and a strong sense of self so she keeps moving forward.

A Girl Called Shameless is even more inclusive with its message. Being against slut-shaming and fighting to get revenge porn made illegal is still the main focus of the novel, but it brings in other areas of oppression albeit sometimes briefly. There is a trans girl at Izzy’s school that gets involved with the Bitches Bite Back website, writing articles about how trans people can be affected by revenge porn. Izzy’s boyfriend Carson is black and the two of them talk about his fear of the police and the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a sharp shock when Izzy realises that Carson might not feel comfortable or safe to join a protest with her, because the police mean a different thing to him.

A Girl Called Shameless is funny, thoughtful and empowering. Izzy’s friends and family are just as important and complex as in the first book, and the narrative style of being written in blog posts with interjections from future-Izzy was great too. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Iraq: Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

Translated by Jonathan Wright

From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi, a scavenger, collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His aim is for the government to recognise the parts as people and give them the proper burial they deserve. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city. Haidi soon realises he has created a monster, a monster that cannot be killed and one that needs human flesh to survive.

At the beginning of Frankenstein in Baghdad there is a rather helpful list of characters that give you a short description of what each character’s job/relationship is. There are a lot of characters in this book, and you follow the perspectives of some but not all of them, and most of the characters lives intertwine with one another at at least one point in the story.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is described as “darkly funny” but I didn’t find it amusing at all, not even in a black humour kind of way. Potentially that’s because it’s a translated novel and humour isn’t always something that can be translated and work for people outside of its place of origin. It is a creepy novel at times, though not as horrifying as the quotes on the cover make out. The descriptions of the creature and what it does to people is unsettling and disgusting. However, the actual story of the creature, Hadi and the many characters they both interact with, was slow-paced and in the end dull. There’s so many characters and their side plots often have little or nothing to do with the creature, which makes the story meandering and hard to follow if you put down the book for a day or two.

The setting is the best thing about Frankenstein in Baghdad. Having it take place in Baghdad with the presence of American troops always being felt made it a setting where anything could happen. There were explosions, suicide bombers, and hints at corruption in the security forces. Everything in Baghdad is so uncertain that there’s always a sense of uneasiness and having the creature on the prowl just adds to that. At the same time though, the people of the city are so used to the noise of gunfire and explosions being a constant threat, that they go about their day as normal. It makes the situation feel somewhat surreal. From the outside, this constant state of danger is not normal nor OK, but here it shows how it unfortunately is normal for a lot of people.

Frankenstein in Baghdad has an interesting premise, but it unfortunately isn’t an interesting or compelling story. 2/5.

Thoughts on… Reading Slumps

I like routines especially when it comes to my blog. On Monday’s I post a film review and on Thursday’s I post a book review and if there’s something else I want to write about it’ll go live on any other day – that’s how I’ve done it for years now. I’m pretty consistent when it comes to that “schedule” but it’s tough to keep up with it when you’re in a reading slump.

I’ve read two books this month and I’m currently in the middle of two more; The Dry by Jane Harper on audio and I’m reading a physical copy of Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi. It’s not unusual for me to be reading one book on audio and another in physical format at the same time, but what is unusual is that it’s two and a half weeks since I started the physical book and it’s less than 300 pages long.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a reading slump.

I think this one has been brought about by life being a bit more busy than usual. I’ve started a new job, I did a movie marathon for charity, and I have family-related things I’m perhaps I’m subconsciously worrying about. I say subconsciously as I’m very much a person who doesn’t think they get stressed, until my body gives up in some shape or form and I realise I wasn’t feeling that great. Time to read and being in the right headspace to read is definitely the main factor. And while I do find the premise of Frankenstein in Baghdad interesting and I like how it has a large cast of characters, I never feel compelled to pick it up even though when I am reading it, I enjoy it. It’s a weird situation to be in.

This long weekend I plan to either finish Frankenstein in Baghdad or consciously put it aside and pick up something else. I can always go back to Frankenstein in Baghdad when I’m more in the mood for it. Because that’s something I’ve learnt about myself over the many years I’ve been reading – I am a mood reader.

That’s why my TBR’s are often pointless as I might read one or two books from them but the rest of that week/month/whatever I’ll read completely different things. With my Read the World Project I do think I put pressure on myself to read certain books and quickly. The plan with that project was to read a book from every country in the world before I turn 30 which is in less than two and a half years now and I have about 100 countries still left to read. While I enjoy reading books from different people in different places, and I’ve certainly found some favourites that I would never have heard of if it wasn’t for this challenge, there’s sometimes an underlying sense of guilt if I’m reading books that don’t fit for the challenge.

I think really for me, reading slumps are something that happens when I’m drained, can’t focus on the physical act of reading, and can’t find a book that suits my mood. To get myself out of reading slumps I tend to go to graphic novels as they are so much shorter and quicker to read than a novel. If I read a couple of graphic novels, I feel like I’ve achieved something and can then attempt to read a novel next.

I’m still learning to tell myself that putting aside a book to try it again at a later date, or just admitting that it’s not for me and DNF-ing it, is absolutely fine. I haven’t “wasted time” on that book and it’s totally OK to just have a break from reading if my mind is not up to it – blogging schedule be damned!

I hope this all makes sense. I was trying to write through how my feelings on reading and how that relates to blogging. I also have a clearer idea of how I’m going to think about my current read, my reading slump, and what kind of book(s) I want to read next. Have you ever had a reading slump? And if you have, how have you gotten yourself out of it? It’s always good to hear other people’s tips and tricks.

READ THE WORLD – Malawi: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

Narrated by Chike Johnson.

William Kamkwamba loved school but when he was just 14 years old, he could no longer attend because his family couldn’t afford the fees. William resorted to borrowing books from the small local library to continue his education. It was there that he discovered a book with a turbine on the front cover, and with the help of that book William began to build a windmill outside his home to get electricity in his home.

I learnt so much about Malawi and its history from The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. While I know there has been, and still is, drought and famine in various countries in Africa I’d never learnt about what happened in Malawi between 2001 and 2002. During those years, floods and then droughts caused an emergency in the country as everyone run out of food. The way the book is written gives you the factual information, like the causes of floods and drought and the different diseases that can plague the country, while also making the stark reality of the situations more affecting because of how they all relate to William and his family. William is the only son in his family, and he has six sisters so that’s a lot of mouths to feed and William never shies away from the dire situation they were all in when they were slowly running out of food. There are vivid descriptions of people losing an extreme amount of weight due to starvation and descriptions of people dying in the street. It’s shocking but never exploitative.

The book provides a lot of context about Malawi, its history, superstitions and the difficulties its people faces. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind follows William’s life as he grows up and gains fame at 19 years old for making a windmill that produces electricity for his family’s home. There is more of a focus on William growing up and the last third with him gaining fame and recognition for what he achieved unfortunately seemed a bit rushed. I did like how it was clear from a very young age that William was interested in finding out how things worked. He would take a part radios and ask people how cars engines would make cars move and was generally curious about everything.

William is an impressive young man. He never gives up and believes in what he was doing when it comes to collecting scraps to make a windmill. People in his village, and even some members of his family, think he’s crazy rummaging around in the scrapyard and saying he’s going to give his home electricity. The doubts people have about him never dents his determination or conviction, and its very satisfying when he’s able to prove people wrong.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is informative and inspiring. William Kamkwamba is a smart man who perseveres even when other people think he’s mad or is using dark magic. Hearing about how he made a windmill to provide electricity for his family, and how he also went on to build other solar or wind-powered devices to improve the lives of his family and the other people in his village was heartening. He’s an inventor and this autobiography captures his inquiring mind and his desire to make life better for his family and his village wonderfully. 4/5.

Bout of Books 25 TBR

Bout of Books is back! It’s a weeklong readathon that happens multiple times a year. This round begins at midnight on Monday 13 May and finishes 11:59pm on Sunday 19 May no matter what timezone you’re in.

Apparently readathons are my thing this year – or at least I’m trying to make them my thing. I was successful at the OWLs readathon last month, reading all the required books for my chosen career, and I’m currently in the middle of the Avengers Readathon. I’m lagging a bit on that readathon if I’m honest though. My current read Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi is good, but it’s slower paced than I thought it’d be so I can’t quite get into it at the minute. Hopefully having Bout of Books to look forward to will get me reading more again.

Viper by Bex Hogan
Burn for Burn by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian
Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig, translated by Tess Lewis
African Titanics by Abu Bakr Khaal, translated by Charis Bredin

Once again, I’ve got a mixture of YA and super short books on my readathon TBR.

Burn for Burn is the last book I need to read for the Avengers Readathon, and it sounds like a book that I’ll fly through. I’m loving the trend of YA books about teen girls standing up for themselves and/or getting revenge on those who’ve hurt them. Viper is a book that’s recently come into my life and I’ve wanted to read it ever since a friend showed off the cover on Twitter. I’m so bad at reading books I want to read as soon as I get them, so by the time I do read them I’m not so excited about them so they don’t have the same impact.

African Titanics and Maybe This Time are both barely over 100 pages so if I plan ahead, I could totally read each of them in one sitting. They’re for my Read the World project, Eritrea and Austria respectively, and Maybe This Time is a collection of short stories so they’re totally readable in one sitting.

I will probably not get a lot of reading done during the weekend of Bout of Books. On the Saturday I’m taking part in a 24-hour movie marathon to raise money for charity, so I think I’ll be somewhat sleep deprived and useless on the Sunday!

There’s my TBR for the next Bout of Books readathon. Wish me luck!