audiobook

REVIEW: Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson

This book has trigger warnings for transphobia, homophobia, and racism, war and death of a loved one.

Narrated by Nicola Coughlan.

There’s a prophecy that the Sullied Child will bring about a demon so strong that it will cause the end of all witches, and even the end of the world. Decades on from a civil war, Helena, High Priestess of Her Majesty’s Royal Coven (HMRC), will do whatever she can to stop that from happening while her childhood friends and fellow witches have all left behind the bureaucracy of HMRC. Elle is focusing on being a wife and mother, Niamh is a country vet, and Leonie has defected to start her own more inclusive and intersectional coven. But when the child is found and the prophecy is looking closer than ever, the four friends must try and figure out the best course of action as loyalties are tested and conflicting ideals arise.

Her Majesty’s Royal Coven is told via the fours friend’s perspectives and it’s great to get inside each of their heads. Niamh and Helena probably have more focus and development than Elle and Leonie but it’s still an interesting look at female friendship and how some friendships can last decades while others get strained over time. Leonie is a Black, lesbian witch while the other three are all white and pretty middle class so the things she sees and how she reacts to things is often different to the others. She’s incredibly aware of the differences between them and how society treats Black women and gay women differently to whit, straight women but some of her childhood friends just see them all as women and therefore have the same problems.

There’s a lot of discussions in Her Majesty’s Royal Coven about what it is to be a woman and how transwomen fit into that. A lot of the anti-trans rhetoric that we hear nowadays is used though it’s always clear that it’s wrong. The discussions the characters have about being a woman and how that can be different for different people, women-only spaces and how trans people do (or don’t) affect cis people. I think having these discussions through a fantasy lens was interesting and worked well as you got to see pretty much every point of view (good and bad) that we see in real life but there’s also meaningful discussions and it makes some potentially big ideas more accessible.

I really enjoyed the setting of Her Majesty’s Royal Coven. It’s mostly set in the town of Hebden Bridge (a place I’ve visited a couple of times as one of my best friends lives there), but also a bit in London and Manchester. Having a witchy fantasy novel set in present-day Britain where the characters are all in their mid-thirties felt like this was truly for the British millennials like me. There’s a lot of 90s references as that’s when the girls grew up as well as references to more modern-day issues like Brexit and Covid. It was so nice to read a fantasy novel where the character are adults and have to juggle things like their families, relationships, and jobs while also having magic and responsibilities outside of the “normal” stuff. Plus, how witches and witchcraft is explained to have been a part of Britain (and the world) for centuries helps flesh out this modern interpretation of witches.

I borrowed the audiobook from my library and it was narrated by Nicola Coughlan (of Derry Girls and Bridgerton fame) and she was fantastic. She captures the different voices of the four women so well and makes the exposition just as compelling as when there’s a big action sequence. The final showdown is something I could easily visualise in my mind and was very cinematic. Her Majesty’s Royal Coven is the first book in an adult trilogy and I hope Nicola Coughlan narrates the other books in the series because I’d love to carry on reading these books that way.

Her Majesty’s Royal Coven has compelling characters and relationships and the different kinds of magic is great. It’s a story that’s exciting and thoughtful and packs an emotional punch too. I got really quite attached to a lot of these characters, Elle’s daughter Holly especially, and the ideas of fighting fate and prophecy were interesting too. 5/5.

REVIEW: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

Narrated by Santino Fontana.

It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games. In the Capital, eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Games. The once-mighty house of Snow has fallen on hard times, its fate hanging on the slender chance that Coriolanus will be able to outcharm, outwit, and outmanoeuvre his fellow students to mentor the winning tribute. The odds are against him when he’s given the humiliating assignment of mentoring the female tribute from District 12, Lucy Gray Baird. Their fates are now completely intertwined – every choice Coriolanus makes could lead to favour or failure, triumph or ruin.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who was apprehensive about a prequel to The Hunger Games trilogy that was centred on a young President Snow. To be honest, that’s one of the reasons it’s taken me so long to read it but after rereading the trilogy and revisiting the films I thought now was the time.

I found Coriolanus Snow to be equal parts fascinating and infuriating. He is not a nice young man. He is obsessed with his standing and appearance in the Capitol and the power his family name no longer has, he is constantly hiding his true self from pretty much everyone and he’s always second-guessing other people’s motivations as he believes that everyone is out to get him. It’s almost funny at times as he’s so self-centred that he thinks every comment or action someone might make is supposed to be an affront to him but in reality, they probably don’t even think about him like that at all. He’s always thinking about what other people can do for him, and how his actions at any moment can either further his aspirations or tear them down. He’s arrogant and even when he’s been knocked down a peg or two and is in a similar situation to people of the Districts, he still sees himself as better than them. He continues to blame them for their own circumstances when if he took his rose-tinted-Capitol-loving glasses off, he’d see that the people of the Districts and his own really have the same cause.

As The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is told solely from Snow’s point of view it makes his relationship with Lucy Gray super interesting. As he’s possibly falling in love with her, and starts to believe she cares for him, you have to wonder if that’s really the case. Lucy Gray is in the Hunger Games against 23 other tributes, many of whom are stronger than her, surely she’d use anything at her disposal, including a boy from the Capitol who is supposed to be her mentor, in order to survive? As the book progresses, I’m not sure what Lucy Gray’s feelings are towards Snow but how he often refers to her in ways that makes her his possession or gets jealous of any mention of her having loved someone before him just made my skin crawl. I think how Snow sees Lucy Gray is a fine line between love and obsession and even at the beginning he mainly thinks of her as what she can do for him and any sign of kindness like getting her food, is so that she’ll survive to get to the Hunger Games for him, not for herself.

Though you don’t live the terror and fear of the Hunger Games in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes as you’re a spectator just like Snow is, it’s still a brutal book at times. It’s brutal in the cruelty the tributes face as the life of a tribute is vastly different to what we’ve seen before, and there’s moments that made my jaw drop because Suzanne Collins can do those sudden moments of violence like no one else.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is quite slow-paced but as I listened to the audiobook that didn’t really bother me. That being said, I feel like the ending took a sudden turn and was a lot more abrupt than anything previous so it was a bit jarring. Also, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was kind of an uncomfortable read. It’s not necessarily a book I enjoyed reading because you’re in Snow’s head and that’s not a fun place to be, never mind what’s going on around him, but it’s a book I found really interesting in the context of it being a prequel. It explored things I didn’t expect, how it tackled Snow as a protagonist especially, and had seemingly minor things that would go on to feature in the original trilogy.

Having been a couple of years late to The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes I’ve been looking at reviews and reactions and can see why it might’ve got a mixed response. Having the book being from the point of view of (for all intents and purposes) the oppressor was certainly a choice and while there may have been moments at the beginning that made you almost sympathise with Snow because of the trauma he had of living through a war as a child, it doesn’t dwell on it and you soon see the beginnings of the tyrant he’s destined to become.

What can I say except that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes surprised me and I found it engaging even when Snow was wallowing in self-pity, being incredibly narrowminded and just generally an unlikeable character. 4/5.

Thoughts on… rereading The Hunger Games trilogy

Warning for vague spoilers for the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.

Over the last few months, I’ve been rereading the Hunger Games trilogy for the first time since I first read them around 10 years ago. I wasn’t intending to revisit the series but I was looking for an audiobook to keep me occupied on my way to work and found my library had the trilogy and it was narrated by Tatiana Maslany which is always a bonus.

When I read the trilogy the first time, I did really like it but I remember not being too impressed with the final book, Mockingjay, and how the series ended as a whole. I was never Team Peeta or Team Gale so that wasn’t the reason but as they were so similar, I thought Katniss would end up like Haymitch, bitter and alone, so any type of happy ending for her didn’t really work for me. Having reread the series now I like Mockingjay a lot more and I’m more content about Katniss’s “happy ending”.

As well as not having reread the books before, I’ve not watched most of the films since I saw them in the cinema so while I remembered certain big moments or things like how it ended, I didn’t remember how it got there and various character dynamics. So, in some ways it was like experiencing the story for the first time.

I really enjoyed rereading the trilogy with the benefit of hindsight too. Characters like Johanna Mason were mentioned in like the fourth chapter of the first book and when you don’t actually meet her until half way through the second. Also, as the books are in the first-person point of view, everything’s from Katniss’s perspective which can be both interesting and frustrating with the benefit of hindsight. There were so many times when I could see the rumblings of a rebellion, or what Haymitch or Peeta’s true intentions were thanks to my knowledge of the overarching plot but Katniss was oblivious more times than not. That’s not to say she’s dumb, she’s incredibly smart and impulsive but she’s not a tactician like those two, or like Gale. She has a single-minded focus on the people she cares about which is admirable but it means she’s a bit clueless about what’s going on around her and how she’s affecting it – consciously or not.

This could be because it’s been so long since I’ve read the books/watched the films but I think took in a lot more of the nuances of the story this time round. For instance, I’d completely forgotten about what Finnick had to do once he’d won his games so that was like a sucker punch when I got to that reveal. Also, I don’t know if it’s down to being older or having read a lot more books about tougher topics since, but I think I could comprehend and sympathise with Katniss’s trauma a lot more this time round. She, and so many other characters but especially the other Victors, go through so much it’s no wonder they have PTSD and at times their minds just shutdown because they can’t cope with the reality of their situation.

All in all, I’ve really enjoyed revisiting the trilogy and they are all 5 star reads – though Catching Fire is still my favourite. I’ve not read the spin-off/prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes yet but I’m waiting for the audiobook to be available at my library. I’ve heard mixed things about it but after rereading the original trilogy I’m interested in seeing what Suzanne Collins did with a prequel. I’m also planning on rewatching (and possibly reviewing) the films too. Like the books, I remember enjoying the films and I think they were good adaptations so it’ll be interesting to see if that perception stays the same.

Have you read or reread the Hunger Games trilogy recently? Or seen the films? I always get a little apprehensive when revisiting a book or film I have fond memories of but I’m pleased in this instance I wasn’t disappointed upon reread.

REVIEW: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan

Narrated by Kate Reading.

Everyone knows Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, prospects, and her life to satisfy scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the mountains of Vystrana, where she made discoveries that would change the world.

First off, I’ve got to say how much I enjoyed the narrator for this book and while I’m sure I’d still have liked A Natural History of Dragons if I’d read a physical copy, the audiobook was brilliant and if/when I carry on with the series, I’ll definitely be doing so via the audiobooks. It brought Isabella’s story to life in a way I wasn’t expecting. The narrator had a wonderful old posh British lady kind of voice and it just worked. It was easy to imagine an elderly woman writing her memoir and throwing in the odd aside about what she’s learnt since and how her attitude towards certain things might’ve changed in the intervening years.

A Natural History of Dragons is a historical fantasy memoir of a fictional character who lives in a world that’s inhabited by dragons. I would say there is not that many dragons in a book titled A Natural History of Dragons but I didn’t mind that. Instead, it’s more character focused as a good portion of the novel is about Isabella’s childhood, how she became obsessed with natural history and dragons and how that hindered/helped her find a suitable man to marry. I liked how A Natural History of Dragons spent time building Isabella as a character and the world around her which often feels like a nineteenth century world. There’s a lot about the upper society and how Isabella doesn’t fit in with her interests and not being very lady-like but still knowing that she needs to marry in order to be a respectable daughter. I liked the struggles Isabella goes through personally just as much as her “professional” ones when she gets involved more with dragons. It’s interesting to see her straddle this line between respectability and following her passions and how love could possibly combine the too.

The main dragon stuff comes in the latter half of the book as Isabella gets to join an expedition to Vystrana. I really liked how while dragons were known and excepted creatures in this world, the people don’t know too much about them. Isabella and her fellow naturalists are what I presume were like the people who first started any animal in our world, especially potentially deadly ones like sharks. It’s clear in the beginning they don’t know a lot and some of their theories are wildly inaccurate while others are the basis of bigger discoveries. I liked how there’s references to things later in Isabella’s life throughout the book but especially when she comments on their research process or ideas and how they might’ve changed over time. I also appreciated the trial and error of their expedition and how Isabella gets into various scrapes due to her impulsiveness.

I really enjoyed A Natural History of Dragons. It’s a book I’ve seen around over the years but the fact it’s a fictionalised memoir did put me off a bit. I’m glad to say I’m wrong and that interesting narrative choice really works, especially via the audiobook. 5/5.

REVIEW: Red Seas, Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

Audiobook narrated by Michael Page.

This is the second book in the Gentlemen’s Bastard series, the first being The Lies of Locke Lamora, so there may be vague spoilers for the first book.

After barely making it out of Camorr alive, Lock Lamora and Jean Tannen arrive in the city state of Tal Varrar where they are soon planning to take on the legendary gaming house The Sinspire. No-one has ever taken even a single coin from the Sinspire that wasn’t won on the tables or in the other games of chance on offer there but Locke and Jean plan to change that. The course of crime rarely runs smooth and soon Locke and Jean find themselves entangled in the politics of the city and are coerced into setting sail in order to find some pirates

Red Seas, Under Red Skies is almost a book of two halves and I very much enjoyed both of them. The first follows Locke and Jean about two years after the events of The Lies of Locke Lamora as they are putting the final touches to the long con they’ve been pulling. In that half there’s also flashback chapters to see what happened to them in the first few months after they left Camorr. I’m always impressed by the flashbacks in this series. They never bore me and do a good job of actually adding to the characters and their newly changed dynamic as Locke and Jean have been affected by what happened to them in the first book. The second half is the seafaring adventure as they’re forced to learn how to be passable sailors and go searching for pirates to bring back to the city. It’s like the first half is a city book and while the setting is different to where they grew up, Locke, Jean and you as the reader know what they’re up against and how to rig the system. When it becomes a sea/pirate adventure book, that’s when Locke, Jean and the reader are on uncertain ground as no matter how much charisma and smarts they have, there’s things out to sea that you can’t talk your way out of.

It was fun seeing Locke and Jean out of their element when they’re out to see, but really through the flashbacks you see that they haven’t really been 100% themselves since they left Camorr. They relationship has shifted a but and while they still definitely trust and care about each other (don’t think I’ve read about such ride or die best friends like them for a long time) they aren’t always quite on the same wavelength anymore. Locke especially is unsettled and doesn’t always believe in himself and his schemes and it’s interesting to see him doubt himself and work to overcome that.

There’s a lot going on in Red Seas, Under Red Skies with various outside forces having their own schemes that attempt to ensnare Locke and Jean, but I never felt lost or confused when reading it. There are schemes within schemes and it’s fun to see how things unfold and while there’s certainly surprises, when you think back, the groundwork for them was there and pretty much everything was meretriciously planned.

I love the blend of magic and science in this series. You get to see more of Locke’s bag of tricks and how a pack of playing cards can be more than what they seem. Alchemy is the main sort of “magic” but there’s a few instances where mind control and telepathy may come to play, and when they’re out to see there’s clearly some large, deadly and fantastical creatures in the water.

I love the characters, the world, and the whole vibe of Red Seas, Under Red Skies and this series as a whole. It’s a series I want to take my time with as there’s only three books released but even though it’s been a couple of years since I read the first book, I soon found myself immersed in this world again. Locke and Jean’s character development was so good and interesting and the new characters, especially the new lady pirates, were great too. 5/5.

REVIEW: You Can’t Be Serious by Kal Penn

Audiobook narrated by the author.

Kal Penn is an actor and former White House staff member in the Barack Obama administration. I first saw him in the TV show House but knew little about him (except his character was written out of House so he could go work at the White House) so when I heard about his memoir and I had a free audible credit I thought I’d check it out.

I really enjoyed You Can’t Be Serious. It’s narrated by Penn (I always prefer to read memoirs narrated by the author, it just makes it feel more real and accessible) and he is a funny guy so there were many anecdotes that got me smiling or even laughing. Equally, he does a really good job of explaining things. Whether that’s what his job entailed in the White House or how the entertainment industry works and the difference between agents, publicists and managers.

I found it equal parts interesting, disappointing and hopeful hearing about how he broke into acting and the various racist things he encountered from the likes of casting agents along the way. Disappointing and sad because of how used he became to such things but then hopeful and inspiring because of the people he had around him and how other people of colour would give advice when they could and he learnt to do the same. There are instances where a producer thought that Asians don’t watch movies (because of shoddy data) or that white people won’t watch anything that doesn’t have white people in, and while Kal Penn was hearing this in the late 90s and early 2000s, they are unfortunately ideas that are still prevalent today – no matter how many box office success have proved people wrong.

Kal Penn covers a lot of things in his book. His childhood, university years and how he always wanted to be an actor and to do something in public service. How he got into campaigning for Obama in 2007 and then becoming part of his staff was compelling as it was clear to see his passion for what they were doing. I liked that fact that the audiobook actually had the audio from when Penn delivered a speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. It’s a great speech but actually hearing the crowd react to it makes you feel like you’re there with them.

What I wasn’t expecting from listening to You Can’t Be Serious was the urge to watch the Harold & Kumar films. Stoner comedies aren’t really my thing, plus I was a young teen when the first film came out, so they had passed me by. That is until listening to Penn talk about Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. His love and affection for that film and how proud he was of it made me want to watch it (I now have and a review will be coming soon). Listening to him talk about the script and the fact two white guys wrote it specifically with two Asian American leads in mind just amazed him and he never thought it’d get made. But it did and the way he talked about the audition process and being in waiting rooms with people who looked like him rather than being the only Asian was really something.

You Can’t Be Serious is a really entertaining and interesting memoir. Naturally those who are fans of Kal Penn should like it but for people like me who only knew him from one TV show that’s 10 years old, I still found it very enjoyable. It’s both frustrating and inspiring to see the highs and lows of his acting career and he paints such a vivid picture of the people around him, friends, family, co-workers, that it feels like your listening to an old friend telling their story. You Can’t Be Serious is just a lot of fun and I think anyone who’s interested in the entertainment industry and how someone who isn’t white experiences it could get something out of it. There are passages in here I could see being very useful in Film Studies classes on how the industry works – or rather how it shouldn’t and needs to change. 5/5.

Plus, this this the first book I’ve managed to read in like a month so I’m very grateful for it hopefully helping me get out of my reading slump.

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.

READ THE WORLD – Zambia: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Narrated by Adjoa Andoh, Richard E. Grant and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.

In 1904, in a smoky room at the hotel across the river, an Old Drifter named Percy M. Clark, foggy with fever, makes a mistake that entangles the fates of an Italian hotelier and an African busboy. This sets off a cycle of unwitting retribution between three Zambian families (black, white, brown) as they collide and converge over the course of the century, into the present and beyond. As the generations pass, their lives – their triumphs, errors, losses and hopes – form a symphony about what it means to be human.

I shall preface this review by saying it took me over two months to listen to this audiobook. Audiobooks are something I tend to listen to when I’m out and about and as I’m not going anywhere due to a pandemic it took me lot longer to read this book than normal. I think this probably did affect how much I enjoyed The Old Drift as it’s such a sprawling generational epic that I’d sometimes forget characters names between times I was listening or find it difficult to remember the different familial connections.

The Old Drift is a generational story, and it is interesting how three generations of three families can keep encountering one another in different ways and in different times. There’s romance and conflicts and just passing freak meetings, and often younger generations have no idea that their parents or grandparents may have met in some capacity before. Characters hear stories about things that as the reader you’ve already seen from someone else’s point of view and you realise that while some characters in these families might not meet themselves, they may have mutual friends or even passing strangers who have talked to them both at some point or another.

People in all three families go through love and loss, have children, and jobs and while there are universal struggles or life events The Old Drift does a good job at showing how their different backgrounds can have an effect on things. One family is descended from Italian immigrants/colonisers and one of their children then marries an Indian hairdresser. Another family is descended from a Black Zambian and a white English blind woman who ran away with her husband back to his home country. And the third family is Black, born and raised in Zambia. Due to their differences in wealth and education these families have very different lives and attitudes. One odd thing does connect them all and that’s hairdressers. A lot of the major life events for these characters happen in a hair salon or because of a hairdresser.

There’s a sci-fi element to The Old Drift I wasn’t expecting. As the story gets to the twenty-first century, there’s the technology we know, iPhones and drones for example, but then there’s advanced tech imbedded in people’s hands so they can use their had like a phone. It has a torch in a fingertip and their palm is a holographic touchscreen connected to the internet. It’s a bit jarring having these futuristic elements after previously appearing to be very true to the various periods of history these generations of characters have been living through – the AIDS epidemic plays a big role in many characters lives when the story gets to the 1980s.

There’s so much going on in The Old Drift that it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of who’s who and how they’re connect, nevermind finding meaning and some sort of thread to follow through this story. Seeing events from different characters points of view, some more in depth than others, lets you see how different people react to events, how it can be a big deal for some and barely a memory for others, but this can get a little repetitive.

I’m really not sure what else to say about The Old Drift. It is an impressive debut novel and one a may have found easier to follow if I didn’t have such huge gaps between picking it up. There’s a lot of tragedy in these characters lives and maybe it’s because you only see snapshots of their lives at different times but there certainly seems to be more sad moments than happy ones. This, along with how long the book is and the often lyrical narrative, does make The Old Drift a bit dense and hard to get through.

READ THE WORLD – Cameroon: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Narrated by Prentice Onayem.

New York, 2007. After two long years apart, Jende Jonga has brought his wife Neni and their six-year-old son from Cameroon to join him in the land of opportunity. Drawn by the promise of America they are seeking the chance of a better life for them and their son. When Jende lands a dream job as chauffeur to Clark Edwards, a Lehman Brothers executive, Neni finds herself taken into the confidence of his glamorous wife Cindy. The Edwards are powerful and privileged: dazzling examples of what America can offer to those who are prepared to strive for it. But when the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, all four lives are dramatically upended.

I really enjoyed how Behold the Dreamers took place in the recent past and how it showed the many big changes in a short space of time. There’s mentions of the race for Democratic nominees for President between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, and how when Obama got the nomination and then the presidency how Jende saw it as a sign that he and his family could achieve anything in America. Knowing about the financial crash and how that’s going to have a huge knock-on effect on the Jonga’s and Edwards’ makes there an air of tension in the story, it’s like you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop while the majority of the characters have no idea what’s about to hit them.

There’s a lot of themes in Behold the Dreamers, a lot of them surrounding the highs and lows of being an immigrant. There’s the loneliness, monotony and uncertainty surrounding trying get the correct papers to stay in the country or to work or to get an education. There are so many hoops for Jende and Neni to jump through, but they also find their own community with fellow immigrants who have lived and worked in New York for far longer than they have.

Behold the Dreamers does a good job at showing how the American Dream is portrayed to immigrants and how over time it often becomes clear that it is an impossible dream. However, for Neni she can only see the good about life in America, especially when comparing it to life in Cameroon. Neni in sees America through rose-tinted glasses. She’d watched episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air in Cameroon and thought that could be her life, and even when she watches other media like Boyz n the Hood she feels that’s the outlier, really life in America can be great for Black people like her. Her naivety and optimism are almost painful, especially when thinking about what is currently (and has been for years) going on in America and the rest of the world right now.

The Jonga’s are well-rounded characters and you can understand both Neni and Jende’s feelings when they’re trying to earn money for their families. Both of their relationships with the Edwards’ is interesting. While he never stops seeing Clark as his boss, Jende wants to look after him and protects his secrets, unconsciously getting entwined in his life far more than the average employee should. Neni on the other hand, never sees her work for Cindy (as a housekeeper/nanny for their young son) as more than it is. While she appreciates when Cindy might give her old clothes that were going to a charity shop anyway, she never stops seeing the social and economic divide between them and doesn’t see why she should help Cindy when she won’t help herself.

A lot of the time the problems the Edwards’ face often feel like #FirstWorldProblems – especially when compared to the Jonga’s. However, Behold the Dreamers makes it clear how while their lives are so different, money really can’t solve all of the Edwards’ problems. Cindy is lonely, she thinks her husband is cheating because he’s never home and always working, she drinks and often seems unhappy. Her issues are big for her and while she does sometimes try to offer Neni money or guidance, she can’t comprehend the uncertainty the Jonga’s are going through as they wait for the next immigration court date.

Behold the Dreamers covers so many themes and ideas while still making a compelling story. You want the Jonga’s to achieve their dreams, but the many barriers in their way slowly become clear and should they really spend their lives struggling for the idea of the American Dream? 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Liberia: She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore

Narrated by Wayétu Moore.

Gbessa, exiled from the West African village of Lai, is starved, bitten by a viper, and left for dead, but still she survives. June Dey, raised on a plantation in Virginia, hides his unusual strength until a confrontation with the overseer forces him to flee. Norman Aragon, the child of a white British colonizer and a Maroon slave from Jamaica, can fade from sight when the earth calls him. When the three meet in the settlement of Monrovia, their gifts help them salvage the tense relationship between the African American settlers and the indigenous tribes, as a new nation forms around them.

I enjoy memoirs narrated by the author, but this was the first fiction audiobook I’ve listened to that was narrated by the author which was an interesting experience, and I think Moore did a good job.

She Would Be King has beautiful, lyrical writing which was very nice to listen to. I’m not sure how easy I’d have found it to physically read the story though. As She Would Be King is narrated by an omnipresent voice, one you learn who it is and how they relate to the characters as the story progresses, and I think that makes it feel like you are being told this mythical tale by an old storyteller.

While the writing in She Would Be King is generally poetic, the violence Gbessa, June Dey, Norman and many other characters face is not glossed over. The beatings, whippings and forced abortion are written in detail, forcing you to face the atrocities’ that were committed to generations of people.

She Would Be King is a mix of historical fiction and fantasy. It takes place during the early-mid 1800s and the effects of slavery and colonialism is a big part of the characters lives. June Dey is raised on a plantation while Norman Aragon grows up being measured and experimented on by his father as he tries to learn more about the power he believes his son has inherited. Gbessa is the only one of the three who has always lived in West Africa, but with her dark skin and red hair she was shunned by the villagers and called a witch. The fantasy element, though it probably could be classed as magical realism, is the fact three characters all have “superpowers”, immortality, invisibility and being bullet proof. How they each discover these abilities and how they, and others, react to them is a big part of their growth as characters.

The pacing of She Would Be King is uneven, and with this all-knowing narrator it’s hard to get into begin with. Some elements of the story seem rushed and then in others it’s difficult to tell how much time has passed for a character, for instance I was surprised when a character said Gbessa had been in certain town for five years, I wouldn’t have said it was that long.

She Would Be King is a magical story about the formation of Liberia, how people can change, how they can find their own family or home, but also how they can’t forget about who they are. She Would Be King feels like a retelling of a legend, it can be hard to follow or connect with some characters at times, but it’s still and impressive tale. 3/5.