audiobook

READ THE WORLD – Angola: Transparent City by Ondjaki

Translated by Stephen Henighan and narrated by Sam Peters.

In a crumbling apartment block in the Angolan city of Luanda, families work, laugh, scheme, and get by. In the middle of it all is the melancholic Odonato, nostalgic for the country of his youth and searching for his lost son. As his hope drains away and as the city outside his doors changes beyond all recognition, Odonato’s flesh becomes transparent and his body increasingly weightless.

While the blurb focuses on Odonato, really Transparent City is an ensemble book as it follows the many people who live in the apartment block who have connections to it, whether that’s the postman or local politicians and tax inspectors. The male characters are the focus though, with the female characters being cooks, wives, mothers, secretaries and objects of the men’s sexual desire. It’s the men who have pseudo-narrative arcs

Transparent City is such a weird story. There’s the magical realism aspect with Odonato. He slowly becomes more transparent and weightless as he misses his son and he lose hope of seeing him again, or of seeing his city how it used to be. That part, while odd is understandable. It’s a lot of the other things going on with the characters that is confusing and farcical. Confrontations and conversations appear to go around in circles, as they do their best to befuddle whoever they’re talking to with rhetorical questions and agreeing to disagree. It feels like there’s little point to their actions and it’s difficult to gage whether the outcome is in their favour or not.

What is clear in Transparent City is that money talks in Angola and those who have it can pretty much do whatever they want. There’s also corruption and violence. The police will only help people if they are bribed, and the politicians are far removed from the everyday issues an average person may have. There are sparks of goodness and community though. The people who live in the apartment block help each other out, for the most part, and will give what they can to those who need.

I listened Transparent City on audio and to be honest, I found it a struggle to get through. I think that was mostly down to the narrator. There’s a lot of characters in this book, both male and female, and he doesn’t do anything with his voice to differentiate between the characters when they’re talking, or when he’s narrating the narrative. It makes it difficult to follow the story and to distinguish who is who. Also, I think how the book is formatted influences that too as there’s no chapters, instead there’s what I presume to be line breaks when the story goes from one characters point of view to another, but that’s hard to pick up on when listening to the audiobook.

It’s a shame that I didn’t get along with the audiobook, and maybe if I’d physically read the book I might have been able to understand it better, but I do think Transparent City didn’t work for me for reasons beyond the narrator. There often seemed little point to characters actions, and the story itself didn’t seem to have a beginning, middle or end. It was hard to become attached to any of the characters, and there may be somethings in term of the culture and politics of Angola that I didn’t understand or get deeper meanings of, but I should’ve been able to follow the story a lot better than I did.

READ THE WORLD – Taiwan: Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

Translated by Bonnie Huie and narrated by Jo Mei.

Afflicted by her fatalistic attraction to Shui Ling, an older woman who is alternately hot and cold toward her, Lazi turns for support to a circle of friends that includes the devil-may-care, rich-kid-turned-criminal Meng Sheng and his troubled, self-destructive gay lover Chu Kuang, as well as the bored, mischievous overachiever Tun Tun and her alluring slacker artist girlfriend Zhi Rou.

Set in the late 1980s, Lazi is at university in Taipei but the focus of Notes of a Crocodile are her romantic endeavours and how she tries to open herself up to love. Lazi is quite reserved when it comes to love, and it’s like she gets to a certain point in a relationship and then becomes shut off and terrified about whether she has the capacity to continue to love someone.

Lazi is an interesting character because it’s like she’s searching for love and security but is also fiercely independent. It’s how those two sides of her conflict feels very relatable. She also ponders gender and sexuality, the feminine and the masculine, and where she fits within those binaries and if she even wants to fit in them.

A lot of the conversations she has with her friends are about love and how people feel about themselves and others. Notes of a Crocodile probably has the most communicative characters I’ve seen in a book in a while. There’s still instances where Lazi or her friends don’t find the right words to say at the right time, or she talks to a friend rather than to the person who is breaking her heart, but at least they’re talking and trying to figure out their feelings.

Interspersed in the main narrative, there’s the story of the crocodile – a semi-human creature that the general human population of Taiwan are simultaneously intrigued by and scared of. The crocodile is a metaphor for queer people in Taiwan and how they were treated, and how they can feel isolated and unlovable. It took a while for me to understand these crocodile-segments and how they fit with the story and how they related to what Lazi was going through.

I listened to Notes of a Crocodile on audio and I think the narrator did a good job even though the story was a bit disjointed. A lot of the chapters end abruptly, and sometimes the narrative jumps back and forth in time so sometimes Lazi is with Shui Ling, other times she’s over her, and then sometimes she’s still coming to terms with their relationship ending. Then there’s her friend’s various relationships that you see at different points too. It’s a bit confusing but the main theme throughout is finding somewhere to belong and a lot of heartbreak.

Notes of a Crocodile was an interesting read about a time, place and culture that I knew little about. Lazi is an interesting, flawed and sometimes infuriating character but that makes her feel more real. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Narrated by Michael Page.

Locke Lamora is the leader of the Gentleman Bastards, a small gang of thieves who are masters of the long con. They are not the petty criminals the other gangs of the city of Camorr think they are, instead they steal from the rich putting together heists full of disguises and trickery. The Lies of Locke Lamora follows the Gentleman Bastards as they start the ball rolling on their latest con, but there’s more going on here with challenges to the power structure of the criminal underworld of Camorr and bigger threats than they’ve ever encountered.

I loved this book and I’m annoyed at myself that it’s taken me so long to read it. I started reading it on my kindle way back in 2013, I got about 150 pages in but then stopped even though I did like the atmosphere and Locke as a character. I think the reason I stopped (besides life getting in the way) was because the beginning is a bit slow as it has a lot of things to set up. It’s more character focussed so you learn about who the Gentleman Bastards are and how they work, and how this whole world works with both the upper-class and the lower-class systems of Camorr too. Seven years later I tried again and this time I went with the audiobook which I thought was brilliant. The narrator did such a good job a distinguishing between the many characters in the story and he really brought this world to life, along with its dark humour. The Lies of Locke Lamora surprised me with how funny it is. A lot of that come from Locke’s sarcastic thoughts or his reactions to the situations he ends up in, and I just love characters with deadpan humour and who aren’t afraid to “Well shit, this isn’t going how I thought it would.”

The city of Camorr is kind of Venice-like with its canals and boats and the changing weather. The setting is also a bit historical and feels like the seventeenth century with the clothes they wear, the rules of society, and the style of language they use – though there is a lot of modern and inventive swearing too. However, there’s also some magical elements or alchemy to this world too, but it’s all weaved together in a way that makes it feel so real. Your plopped straight into the story and the setting is built up around the characters and the plot in an organic way and it never feels like there’s an infodump.

The structure of The Lies of Locke Lamora is really interesting. There’s the present where Locke and the Gentleman Bastards are grown up and conning noble people, and there’s interludes or flashbacks to when the Gentleman Bastards are children, where you see how they meet, and how they learn to be great thieves. The flashbacks were so great because they not only added backstory and layers to the characters, but they are just as engaging as the action in the present. I never got bored or annoyed when there was a flashback, even if one happened when the tension and the action was amping up in the present.

The characters are brilliant and are so lifelike. While they are all thieves and conmen, the Gentleman Bastards all have their own distinct quirks and personalities. The relationships between the Gentleman Bastards, in their various combinations, are wonderful too. They are more of a family and brothers in arms than just a gang. They all care deeply about one another and are willing to die for one another, and they all trust one another and it’s the epitome of the found family trope which I love.

Locke is a great leader of this family too. They each have their role and they often fit the archetypes of characters needed for a heist, and Locke is definitely the brains of the operation. That’s not to say he won’t bounce ideas off the others or listen to their advice, but he’s definitely the smartest one – and he’s often the smartest one in the room. His intelligence, and ability to think a couple of steps ahead is his superpower, so when there’s other people or powers who come into play that are potentially smarter than he is, that’s when things get even more interesting and you start to worry that these characters won’t make it out of this situation fully intact.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is such a fun and thrilling adventure story. There’s twists and turns and surprises, as with any good heist story, and there’s bloody fights and verbal battles. The Gentleman Bastards are characters I can’t wait to spend more time with, and I’m tempted to carry on this serious with the audiobooks if they have the same narrator because they were that good. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Ethiopia: The Wife’s Tale: A Personal History by Aida Edemariam

Narrated by Adjoa Andoh.

A hundred years ago, a girl was born in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar. Before she was ten years old, Yetemegnu was married to a man two decades her senior, an ambitious poet-priest. Over the next century her world changed beyond recognition. She witnessed Fascist invasion and occupation, Allied bombardment and exile from her city, the ascent and fall of Emperor Haile Selassie, revolution and civil war. She endured all these things alongside parenthood, widowhood and the death of children. Aida Edemariam retells the story of her grandmother’s life.

The thing about time and history is it’s very easy to think that things happen so far apart from one another, but The Wife’s Tale proves that really isn’t the case. A lot can happen in one person’s lifetime, from the personal – births, deaths, careers, marriages – to the historical – changes in government, war, revolution, and technological advances. The Wife’s Tale shows how much a person can live through, the good and the bad, and how often moments in history are like a domino effect with problems or solutions can be traced back decades.

Through Yetemegnu’s life you can get an insight in Ethiopian life and culture. She was born in 1916, married at age eight to a priest who was almost thirty and had her first of nine children when she was fourteen. Her marriage wasn’t always a happy one. Never mind the fact she was a child bride (though they didn’t have a sexual relationship until she was a teenager so at least that’s something?), but her husband would sometimes hit her and she was often admonished by family when she wanted to leave.

Religion played a huge part in Yetemegnu’s life and The Wife’s Tale shows how Ethiopian Christianity was (and perhaps still is) a cornerstone to many peoples lives. Yetemegnu prays to Mary, has spiritual dreams and has so much faith in God and his plan. That doesn’t mean she just takes everything life throws at her. When her husband is arrested, she fights for him. When her lands are taken, she learns about the law and goes to the courts to fight for what is hers. When her children are endangered, she does everything in her power to protect them. She is the epitome of a strong matriarch and seeing how her experiences shape her and her actions was fascinating.

As well as learning so much about one woman’s impressive life, The Wife’s Tale covers so much of the history of twentieth century Ethiopia that you can learn so much from it. There’s the rise and fall of an Emperor, the introduction of democracy, the rise of Communism, the deadly famine as well as the fact the country was invaded by Italy in the 1930s.

I feel I learnt so much from The Wife’s Tale and seeing how one person can live through so many national and international events showed just how things are connected and that a lot can happen in one person’s lifetime. The audiobook was really good to as Andoh’s narration really brought Yetemegnu’s voice alive and made the book a lot more engaging than it might’ve been to physically read it. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – The Channel Islands: The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards

Narrated by Roy Dotrice.

Eighty years old, Ebenezer has lived his whole life on the Channel Island of Guernsey, a stony speck of a place caught between the coasts of England and France yet a world apart from either. Ebenezer himself is fiercely independent, but as he reaches the end of his life, he is determined to tell his own story and the stories of those he has known.

First of all, I’ll say that I did really enjoy the narration by Roy Dotrice. I don’t know if they are an old man themselves or they’re just that good at voices and accents but they truly embodied the cantankerous Ebenezer Le Page. It was like listening to an old relative recount their life in the corner of the living room and as they rambled on so much and mentioned so many people it was almost easier to just nod your head and tune them out. I think I might have done that with The Book of Ebenezer Le Page as there’s not a lot that has stuck with me and I’m only writing this review the day after I finished the audiobook!

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is a sprawling epic about one mans life. Ebenezer is writing about his past 80 years of life and all the people he’s met, loved and lost. He is one of the oldest people on Guernsey and has never left the island. He talks about so many people that it would’ve been handy to have had a family tree! So many people that he mentions are his cousins (or second or third or fourth cousins), or sometimes they are known as cousins, but they aren’t actually blood related. Then there’s his friends that he talks about too that might also be distantly related to him in some way.

Ebenezer lives through two world wars and remarkably doesn’t seem too changed by either of them. Guernsey was occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War but while how Ebenezer dealt with the occupation is featured, it’s not an overly big or dramatic event – it’s just something that he and his friends and neighbours have to deal with. Having to just “get on with things” seems to have been Ebenezer’s life moto. He’s a proud man, and a self-sufficient one, and he’s happy to work for a living rather than getting a pension in his old age.

Ebenezer really is the epitome of an old man who has seen many things and just doesn’t know how the world works anymore. It can make him equally judgmental and oblivious. For instance, he’s very quick to judge some people and can take an instant dislike to some of them. However, when he opens his home up to tourists and has a gay couple stay with him, he thinks they are very pleasant chaps and doesn’t understand why a neighbour would say horrible things about them. It’s hard to tell whether he just doesn’t think “that sort of thing” goes on, or if he genuinely doesn’t care.

It’s not the events or anecdotes in The Book of Ebenezer Le Page that have stuck with me, instead it’s the feeling this book gave me. It’s strangely nice to hear someone, even a fictional someone, tell you their life story and see how it intersects with real world events. Ebenezer has a distinct narrative voice so even though he is obviously telling you about the various events and people in his life, they are still interesting because of how he felt about them.

I wouldn’t read The Book of Ebenezer Le Page again, and I’m not sure who I would recommend it to, but it is a strangely calming and enjoyable read and an interesting way to see how and island and its people may or may not have changed over the decades. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Barbados: The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke

Narrated by Robin Miles

Trigger warnings for rape, sexual assault, racism.

On a Caribbean island in the 1950s, elderly Mary Gertrude Mathilda commits murder. As she explains herself to police, her story exposes the ugly underbelly of life on Caribbean plantations, with its slavery and brutality.

This is one of those books that I’m very glad I listened to the audiobook. The characters speak in creole and it’s something I find easier to understand when hearing it compared to reading it. A good 90% of the book is in that kind of vernacular as the characters talk a lot and describe events and places in great detail.

Even though I listened to the audiobook, I still found The Polished Hoe a bit of a slog to get through. The story takes place over one night as Mary Gertrude Mathilda gives her statement to the police Sergeant Percy. But her statement is more than the how and the why of the murder, it’s Mary Gertrude Mathilda’s life story and how it’s entwined with the history of the island. You don’t learn the how of the murder till the last couple of chapters but the reasons why Mary Gertrude Mathilda would commit murder is sprinkled throughout the story with the final reason that provokes her to finally act is revealed towards the end of the novel.

Mary Gertrude Mathilda grew up on a plantation, working in the fields, then in the kitchen as she got older. She was also repeatedly raped by Mr Belfeels, the plantation owner. The descriptions of their encounters and the assaults she experienced are vivid, but she also recounts them in such a matter of fact way that there’s a distance there too. Even as an adolescent she knows what is happening to her is wrong, but she also knows there’s nothing she can say or do to make it stop.

There are also long sections from Percy’s point of view. He’s been infatuated with Mary Gertrude Mathilda since he was a teenager and he struggles to put his fantasies aside when he’s with her, listening to her story. They are both well-written and well-developed characters, full of contradictions and flaws and aspirations. There is a long history between them and they each delve into a different part of it at different times throughout the book. You get the sense of how their friendship could’ve been much stronger if there wasn’t the issue of perceived class that divided them – Mary Gertrude Mathilda is well respected in the community because of her connection to Mr Belfeels while Percy is just a police officer, even if he is the Sergeant.

It was hard to follow the general plot of The Polished Hoe and both Mary Gertrude Mathilda’s and Percy’s trains of thought in the novel. While the story takes place over one night, they recount historic events and how it’s affected them both and the islands inhabitants. The story meanders from different times and places and jumps back and forth from different points and ideas. The writing definitely captured how people speak as Mary Gertrude Mathilda would start talking about one thing and then that would inspire her to go onto another topic before circling back around to finish what she was originally saying.

The Polished Hoe is well-written but while the characters are well-defined, the actual plot is thin on the ground and it’s more about two characters reminiscing about their experiences. It has a lot of detail of what life on a plantation is like and covers tough topics like racism, slavery, rape and white privilege but those themes, while obviously important, aren’t enough to make an engaging story. I kept reading The Polished Hoe because it was an audiobook (so it was easy) and because I wanted to know what Mary Gertrude Mathilda had actually done and what was the repercussions but unfortunately not all of those questions were answered in a satisfactory way or at all. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Rwanda: The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

Narrated by Robin Miles.

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbours began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were thunder. In 1994, she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years wandering through seven African countries, searching for safety – perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive.

When Clemantine was twelve, she and her sister were granted refugee status in the United States, where she embarked on another journey, ultimately graduating from Yale. Yet the years of being treated as less than human, of going hungry and seeing death, could not be erased. She felt at the same time six years old and one hundred years old.

The chapters in The Girl Who Smiled Beads alternate between a chapter set in the 90s when Clemantine was a child refugee, and the 2000s when she’s a teenager learning to acclimatise to her new life in America. It’s equal parts hopeful to see Clemantine’s life gets better but also so sad that even when she is living this new life – perhaps even the American Dream – what she went through has lasting affects on her.

The main thing I’ll take from The Girl Who Smiled Beads is that someone’s life doesn’t automatically get better once they have some semblance of stability, especially when they’ve been to dozens of countries when they are so young, looking for safety. Clemantine doesn’t hold back in describing how what she experienced shaped her as a person and continues to affect her. She takes a long time to trust people and open up to them, because she had to learn to put on a tough exterior when she was a child to protect herself and her family. Her relationship with her sister is interesting and fraught as Clemantine often resents her for some of the choices she made when they were refugees, but also knows she did her best and is so thankful that Claire never abandoned her.

After the age of six, Clemantine never gets to be a child. Because her sister Claire needs to work and get money (her resourcefulness and entrepreneurship is to be admired, especially as she founded so many black markets in refugee camps) Clemantine becomes more of a mother to Claire’s children than Claire was. Clemantine was only about nine or ten when she was caring for her baby niece; bathing her, feeding her, keeping her safe. It’s so much to put on a child but you cant hate Claire for it because she had to go from being a normal teenager to sole-caregiver to her kid sister in such a short space of time.

Clemantine must grow up so quickly and it’s incredibly difficult for her to handle all the emotions she’s feeling and the experiences she’s living. It’s not until she’s in America with her “American mom” and life that’s stable, that she can even begin to access what she’s gone through. And even then, she’s angry and scared and jealous and resentful, and so many other emotions that she struggles to put a name to and to express and understand.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a tough read as it is an unflinching look at the realities of being a refugee and of having no home or place to belong for over six years. It’s about the trauma Clemantine experienced, the threat of death, sickness and violence, and the people she met over the years in different refugee camps, in different countries. It’s an incredible story, and it’s so sad that it’s one that so many people have lived through, and are still living through in the refugee camps around the world.