book review

REVIEW: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen

Hart is a marshal, tasked with patrolling the strange and magical wilds of Tanria. It’s an unforgiving job, and Hart’s got nothing but time to ponder his loneliness. Mercy never has a moment to herself. She’s been single-handedly keeping Birdsall & Son Undertakers afloat in defiance of sullen jerks like Hart, who seems to have a gift for showing up right when her patience is thinnest. After yet another exasperating run-in with Mercy, Hart finds himself penning a letter addressed simply to “A Friend”. Much to his surprise, an anonymous letter comes back in return, and a tentative friendship is born. If only Hart knew he’s been baring his soul to the person who infuriates him most – Mercy. As the dangers from Tanria grow closer, so do the unlikely correspondents. But can their blossoming romance survive the fated discovery that their pen pals are their worst nightmares – each other?

I really enjoyed the setting and world-building of The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy. The fantastical land where “drudges” (basically zombies) roam and how the mythology and religion of these people does have some bearing on their lives today. How Mercy cared about the dead and how the burial rituals are different to what we tend to know about them was really interesting and how the dead are honoured and cared for isn’t something you see in books that often. Especially in a romance where the heroine is an undertaking – it’s not the most pretty or girly of jobs but Mercy’s love for it shined through.

It’s easy to compare The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy to the film You’ve Got Mail as it’s the story of two people who don’t like each other but find they a connection when they don’t know it’s their worst enemy that they’re writing to. The letters were a great way for the reader to get to know more about Hart and Mercy and see beneath their hostile exteriors. While it’s easy to say Hart is the grumpy one, Mercy can be pretty harsh and cruel too as she tends to think she’s right a lot of the time. Seeing how they both soften overtime when it comes to each other as well as with family or co-workers was nice.

The problem I had with The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy, and the reason I put it down for a while and took so long to finish it is because around the half way point something happened that just made me feel uncomfortable. To go back to the You’ve Got Mail analogy, what happened was like if Tom Hanks had walked into the coffee shop to meet Meg Ryan, knowing she was his anonymous pen pal but she didn’t and then started a relationship with her without telling her that he knew so much about her because they’d been writing to each other for months. It was a power imbalance to the relationship that just made me feel weird and as naturally the truth would come out eventually, that made me more stressed waiting for it to happen especially as it took a lot longer than I thought it would.

I know in romance stories there’s often miscommunication or that one final hurdle before the couple have their happily ever after, but the way this one played out made me more uncomfortable than interested. I don’t read a lot of romance so if you’re more used to that trope then maybe The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy would be absolutely fine for you. I think knowing it would happen and then reading this long drawn-out process was a different thing.

I wanted the “lies” to come out a lot quicker than they did and it took me longer to read this book than it should’ve as I’d be apprehensive waiting for the big reveal and I found it hard to root for Hart and Mercy’s relationship when one of them was keeping such a big secret from the other.

Overall I did like this mixture of cutesy romance and fantasy. It wasn’t something I’d read before and was surprised how well the elements came together and when there wasn’t big secrets I found The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy to be very quick and easy to read. 3/5.

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.

REVIEW: Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega

Shortly before Halloween, twelve-year-old Lucely and her best friend, Syd, cast a spell that accidentally awakens malicious spirits, wreaking havoc throughout St. Augustine. Together, they must join forces with Syd’s witch grandmother, Babette, and her tubby tabby, Chunk, to fight the haunting head-on and reverse the curse to save the town and Lucely’s firefly spirits before it’s too late.

I haven’t read a middle grade or children’s book since I was the intended demographic for such a book, but when I heard about Ghost Squad, I knew I had to check it out and I’m very pleased I did. Yes, the humour is naturally more juvenile than my kind of thing as an adult but there’s still some moments that made me smile to myself and Syd especially had some witty observational one-liners.

I read Ghost Squad in two sittings and it was a great way to spend some time. I got pulled into the story almost immediately and Lucely and Syd’s friendship was so great. I liked both girls a lot and they have a proper ride or die friendship and there’s pretty much nothing they can’t say to one another. I liked that a lot actually, that they weren’t afraid to ask each other tough or potentially personal and uncomfortable questions and the other never getting upset with those questions. Instead, it was a sign of how deep their friendship was as they could be so open with one another even when it was about something that could hurt them.

I really liked how present the adults in Lucely and Syd’s life were. Yes the girls go on a lot of adventures on their own and figure things out together, but it’s nice that when adults are made aware of what’s happening, namely Syd’s grandmother Babette and Lucely’s dad Simon, they’re supportive and help the girls solve the problem. As I said, I haven’t read much middle grade but with YA there’s often a lot of dead, abusive, or emotionally or physically absent parental figures in the main characters lives. This tends to be so the main characters can have their adventure and story without worrying about the pesky adults getting in the way but Ghost Squad shows how your child hero characters can be the heroes of their story but still have love and support from the adults in their lives when they need it.

The ghosts themselves and the monsters they can create were excellent and suitably spooky. The action sequences and the magical items the girls and Babette use to capture and fight the ghosts were fun too. Ghost Squad really captured the sort of childlike wonder of a situation full of ghosts, like the items used to fight ghosts could only be found in a children’s book and it was great.

I found how Ghost Squad delt with death and family really interesting and effective. Lucely can still see pretty much all of her dead family members thanks to their spirits being connected to her home while her dad has lost that power and can only see them as fireflies. So, for Lucely no one is truly dead and gone so when something threatens them, and her grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins start to get almost sick even though they’re already ghosts, it’s a really scary time for her. On the flipside to that, her mother left Lucely and her father and that grief and sadness is there unlike the grief of losing a loved one to death. It’s a really interesting parallel and shows the difference between losing someone due to something out of their control, and losing someone due to their own choices.

I’m really pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Ghost Squad considering middle grade isn’t something I read. I liked the characters, the adventure, the spooky vibes, and that there was a fat cat called Chunk that was more than meets the eye. It’s a fast-paced and fun story that has some depth to it. It’s definitely a book well-suited to Halloween season. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Monaco: My Book of Flowers by Princess Grace of Monaco with Gwen Robyns

The former actress shares her sense of floral aesthetics, discloses the secrets of flower pressing, examines the portrayal of flowers throughout history in the arts, and discusses the use of flowers as beauty aids and home remedies

This was the last country/book for my Read the World Project! I did feel like I was cheating a bit as this is the only book where the author isn’t of the nationality of the country the book is supposed to represent, but Monaco is just such a small country that it was impossible to find any works by native writers available in English. However, as I read My Book of Flowers I started to think that it did count, especially at the beginning where the Princess talks about Monaco’s history in relation to flowers and the local flora. Like The State in the Third Millennium, My Book of Flowers made me interesting in visiting a place I’d never really considered before which was interesting.

I’m not really a flower person. While it is always nice to see pretty flowers, I never really have any at home in a vase (I’m not sure if I even own a vase) and I struggle to keep plants alive. That being said I did find My Book of Flowers interesting and I learnt a lot from it. The Princess’s passion for flowers shines through and I think learning about something the author is clearly passionate about always makes the topic more interesting and thought-provoking. I especially liked the chapter on the legends related to different flowers. I never thought there was such a thing but considering there are myths and legends about pretty much anything in any culture it makes sense that there would be ones surrounding flowers. They’re legends about how the flower got its name, why it looks how it does, for some flowers there’s just the one story but for others there’s multiple stories as different countries have different legends for the same flower.

My Book of Flowers contains so many photographs and illustrations, there’s at least one image on each page. There are photos the Princess’s flowering pressings, the Royal gardens and their home, as well as images of paintings and furniture where flowers are heavily featured. It’s a nice book to flick through and read at a chapter or two at time or just look at the photos.

And this is my last review for my Read the World Project! Can’t quite believe it’s over. I am writing a sort of wrap-up post about this experience which should be published next week but after that this is done.

READ THE WORLD – Tuvalu: Tuvalu – A History edited by Hugh Laracy

First off as there were too many names for the title of this post, here are all the people who wrote chapters for this book: Simati Faaniu, Vinaka Ielemia, Taula Isako, Tito Isala, Reverend Laumua Kofe, Nofoaiga Lafita, Pusineli Lafai, Dr Kalaaki Laupepa, Nalu Nia, Talakatoa O’Brien, Sotaga Pape, Laloniu Samelu, Enele Sapoaga, Pasoni Taafaki, Melei Telavi, Noatia Penitala Teo and Vaieli Tinilau.

Tuvalu – A History is a history of Tuvalu, written by Tuvaluans. It’s a really interesting and accessible book as it’s not just the history and politics of the country, but it also spends time talking about the culture and the way Tuvaluans lives have – or haven’t – changed across the generations.

Tuvalu – A History is kind of a book of two halves with the first being more about the island’s origins, culture and traditions while the latter half is more about the history, politics and international relations. I liked both parts of the book and I think they complimented each other. Having the knowledge of the culture of the country and its people made the historical developments more understandable. There’s also photographs, maps and family trees which were all pretty cool too.

The first half was more of a narrative with the stories passed down the generations that explain how each of the islands that make up Tuvalu were formed and populated. Each of the eight islands that make up Tuvalu had their own story and some were related to each other – though technically there’s nine islands but one isn’t inhabited. I liked reading those stories as they’re like a snapshot of culture and history and of how people can explain the unexplainable.

The second half is interesting because as Tuvalu is such a small and remote country, naturally it took time before white Europeans “discovered” it and even when they did “discover” it and there’s written accounts about things, there’s also evidence that Europeans must’ve been there earlier but when and how is a mystery. For instance, there’s Christian Bibles on some of the islands with people know a few hymns in English but the people who must’ve taught them that or given them the Bible aren’t there. It’s kind of amusing how (for better or worse) Christianity manages to get everywhere in the world no matter how remote. Naturally when some Europeans arrive it’s to trick and take the Tuvaluans away from home to become slaves, forced to work in mines in countries like Peru. It’s horrifying to read how the population of an island went from almost 800 to about 170 in ten years because of these slavers.

Something that I hadn’t really considered before my Read the World Project was how big world events affected the countries we don’t tend to learn about in school. Sure, the clue is in the name, but it’s always interesting and insightful to see World War Two from other countries point of view – especially non-European ones as that was the focus for my schooling in the UK. It turns out that Tuvalu became an outpost for Americans as they fought the Japanese and while some thing’s they did had a positive effect on the country – like cutting down a load of coconut trees to make an airstrip – others weren’t so much, like the Americans leaving a load of unexploded munitions around so children could play with it.

Tuvalu – A History was written and published in the early 1980s so naturally the history/politics side of things finishes there. I’d love to learn more about Tuvalu and see if/how life on the islands have changed over the last 40 years. I guess there’s a good chance they’d be suffering the affects of climate change as Tuvalu is not far from the Marshall Islands and the poetry I read for that country touched on how climate change was affecting them. I think I’ve used the word “interesting” a lot here but that’s how I found Tuvalu – A History, it’s very readable and the language used is simple but engaging and I read it in one sitting because I found it so interesting. The fact it’s under 200 pages probably helped a bit too.

READ THE WORLD – Gabon: The Fury and Cries of Women by Angèle Rawiri

Translated by Sara Hanaburgh.

Trigger warnings for death of a child, animal abuse, and discussions of miscarriage and infertility.

Emilienne completes her university studies in Paris; marries a man from another ethnic group; becomes a leader in women’s liberation; enjoys professional success, even earning more than her husband; and eventually takes a female lover. Yet still she remains unsatisfied. Those closest to her, and even she herself, constantly question her role as woman, wife, mother, and lover. The tragic death of her only child accentuates Emilienne’s anguish, all the more so because of her subsequent barrenness and the pressure that she concedes to her husband taking a second wife.

The Fury and Cries of Women is set in the 1980s and it’s one of those stories that seems as relevant today as when it was first published in 1989. Emilienne has a good job (that earns more than her husband) and she’s educated but all society and those closest to her seem to care about is her ability to have children – and she’s not immune to those thoughts either.

The Fury and Cries of Women can be a tough read at times because Emilienne puts up with so much from everyone around her including her parents, her sister, her husband and her mother-in-law that it’s surprising to takes her so long to snap at them when I got so mad at them when just reading about it. Her mother-in-law is especially awful as she thinks Emilienne is not good enough for her son and she conspires to end their marriage, even reaching out to her son’s mistress. Meanwhile, while the things they say are still bad, at least it’s still clear that Emilienne’s family cares about her.

I feel like The Fury and Cries of Women would be difficult read for any woman who doesn’t have children, whether by choice or because they have their own fertility issues and heartbreak. The things characters say about women who don’t have children (never considering the fact they may not be able to) are incredibly harsh and are along the lines of “a woman’s purpose is to be a mother”, “you’re not a real woman if you don’t have children”, “it won’t be your husband’s fault if he leaves you because the role of the wife is to produce an heir” etc. Emilienne wants to have more children but ever since her daughter she’s not been able to carry a pregnancy to term in years. In fact, the opening chapter has Emilienne going through a miscarriage alone in her bed and she struggles to clean herself and hide the evidence from her husband of what she deems as another failure. Emilienne feels like a failure and when everyone around her is pretty much saying the same it’s not a surprise.

Her husband Joseph is pretty much absent from their marriage. He stays for days or weeks at his mistress’s house, moving clothes out of his marital home, ad constantly lies to Emilienne about where he’s been and who with, sometimes making her doubt her own mind. Joseph seems to have a sense of obligation to Emilienne but at the same time refuses to be the one to ask for a divorce and possibly give her a chance to be happy. Likewise, Emilienne refuses to ask for one because all the failures of their marriage would be placed at her feet.

The Fury and Cries of Women is a quick and engaging read even though it can be tough, seeing all the emotional and verbal abuse Emilienne. Also, it has a very abrupt ending and not a particularly satisfying one as none of the various conflicts in Emilienne’s life are solved. The Fury and Cries of Women doesn’t tie everything up neatly – or at all – which perhaps shows how true to life this story is. 4/5.

READ THE WORD – Paraguay: I, the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos

Translated by Helen Lane.

I, the Supreme is a historical novel that’s a fictionalised account of the nineteenth-century Paraguayan dictator José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia aka El Supremo. The opening pages present a sign that they had found nailed to the wall of a cathedral, purportedly written by El Supremo himself and ordering the execution of all of his servants upon his death. This sign is revealed to be a forgery, which takes the leader and his secretary Policarpo Patiño, into a larger discussion about the nature of truth and the fallibility of the written word.

I feel like I should preface this review by saying that anything I say about this book is what I think was happening and I have no concrete idea if that was the case as I was often left confused by everything that was in this novel.

I found I, the Supreme really hard to read due to how it was written. There aren’t any speech marks when characters are talking, there’s long paragraphs, and it often it read like a stream of consciousness as characters seem to go on so many tangents. Obviously, I concentrate/pay attention whenever I read a book but with I, the Supreme I felt I had to put so much more effort in to follow what was happening and still I ended up lost a lot of times. The lack of speech marks was especially difficult as characters appeared to have conversations in the same paragraph. This may be because it’s a story that started off as two characters discussing things so a character recounts what someone else said in their own dialogue. Whatever the reason, it still made it hard to read.

I, the Supreme appeared to follow the life of El Supremo but not in a linear order. It would jump around and it would take time and many pages later to realise the connections between certain events or people mentioned. There were a lot of footnotes in the book which were helpful in providing true historical context for the events the book was depicting or bending slightly. In the latter half of the book there was almost footnotes or asides in the main body of the text, giving context in a way that you couldn’t avoid – perhaps to show how important that information was to understand the fictionalised account.

There were sections that seemed far removed from the life of El Supremo or seemed to be a fantastical take on things. For instance, in multiple chapters there are sections that focus on a talking skull which I think is supposed to be El Supremo’s talking skull but I’m really not sure.

Naturally a dictator does abhorrent things and the way they were depicted had a wry or dark sense of humour to them sometimes which again made them difficult to read about. I, the Supreme also depicted El Supremo as a dangerous child who’d have temper tantrums and suddenly change their mind about people or situations to deadly results. Maybe that’s what dictators are though? Impulsive people with too much power and people who are too afraid to say no.

Unlike other historical novels I’ve read during my Read the World Project I don’t think I learnt too much about Paraguay in the 1800s because I didn’t understand a lot of I, the Supreme. I don’t mind a non-linear narrative but I think the way I, the Supreme is written with its lack of speech marks and jumping to different times, places, and characters points of views without being clear about when, where and who we’re now with made it very difficult to read. In the end I don’t think I took much of this story in at all.

READ THE WORLD – Azerbaijan: Ali and Nino by Kurban Said

It is the eve of World War I in Baku, Azerbaijan, a city on the edge of the Caspian Sea, poised precariously between east and west. Ali Khan Shirvanshir, a teenage Muslim schoolboy from a proud, aristocratic family, has fallen in love with the beautiful and enigmatic Nino Kipiani, a Christian girl with distinctly European sensibilities. To be together they must overcome blood feud and scandal, attempt a daring horseback rescue, and travel from the bustling street of oil-boom Baku, through starkly beautiful deserts and remote mountain villages, to the opulent palace of Ali’s uncle in neighbouring Persia. Ultimately the lovers are drawn back to Baku, but when war threatens their future, Ali is forced to choose between his loyalty to the beliefs of his Asian ancestors and his profound devotion to Nino.

Ali and Nino is set in between 1914-1920, and as they live in Azerbaijan and have familial connections in Georgia and Iran it’s another story where you can see a different side of the First World War and its effects on people. There’s also an Armenian character that faces hatred from some characters who can’t even explain why they hate Armenians so much – that was an interesting historical note after reading Armenian Golgotha.

I have such mixed feelings about Ali and Nino and a lot of the mixed feelings are probably because the book is successfully doing what it set out to do. So much of it is about the culture clash between Ali and Nino. They may love each other, but they both have different ideas about how a home should be run or how marriages work that they often struggle to understand one another. It’s a love story that questions if love really does conquer all when you’ve got people who have religious and cultural ideals that often seem to be in conflict. It’s the first third or so that made me the most uncomfortable but as Ali and Nino both started to mature, I could understand both their view points and their conflicts a lot better.

The religious aspect of how other male characters consider Nino and how women and wives should be treated is something that made me feel uncomfortable when reading. Ali doesn’t necessarily share the same views, but he’s young and was raised with those ideals so there’s often times you can see them there at a subconscious level. One memorable quote is a friend of Ali’s saying that “We have a proverb in our country – A woman has no more sense than an egg has hairs.” It makes my skin crawl even though based on the time period/culture it’s set in there’s a good chance that that was a common thought. When they’re in Persia, Nino chafes against the rules of the society. She can’t leave her home without wearing a veil, she can’t talk to any male guests who visit their home even if they’re her friends too, she can’t go walking around town side by side with her husband – all these customs she’s unused to and it makes her miserable.

Nino is quite a modern young woman thanks to her upbringing – or rather instead of modern, the term should be probably Western. Because that’s where a lot of Ali and Nino’s conflicts lie. Azerbaijan is a country that straddles on the border of Asia and Europe, the East and the West, and Ali and Nino are representations of that divide. As Ali says, “For me it would be just as impossible to live in Europe as it was for you to live in Asia. Let’s stay in Baku, where Asia and Europe meet.” The city of Baku seems like the perfect mix of cultures, religion, and ideals, and the description of the city paints a vivid picture. The novel is solely from Ali’s point of view and his love of his home, the city and the surrounding desert, shines through.

Azerbaijan is one of the many countries I knew nothing about before my Read the World Project – to be honest, Azerbaijan was one of those countries I only really knew of because it competed in Eurovision – and I really enjoyed seeing it through Ali’s eyes. The fact that it is such a blend of cultures due to where its situated makes it so unique and I’d be interested to learn more about what the country is like today as Ali and Nino is set 100 years ago and ends just as Azerbaijan’s independence is threatened by Russia’s expansion.

Ali and Nino is a love story but it’s so much more than that. It can be dark at times with honour killings but there’s also a lot of light to it too. The conflict over cultural ideals and the sense of belonging each character has is thought-provoking and makes their relationship all the more interesting. They both hurt each other, intentionally or not, but there’s something about their relationship that makes you hope for the best and they’ll find a middle ground on the things that threaten to push them a part. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Eswatini: Weeding the Flowerbeds by Sarah Mkhonza

A fictionalised memoir of Sarah Mkhonza’s time at Manzini Nazarene High School, a boarding school in Eswatini (formerly called Swaziland), in the 1970s. life there is strict but she and her friends grow up learning about life and Christianity and they love school.

It’s kind of unfortunate but Weeding the Flowerbeds is one of those books that I read but as soon as I’d finished it, I couldn’t really tell you anything that had happened. It’s also a book, that while short at less than 200 pages, felt longer at times and was a bit of a slog to get through. It’s another book I persevered with due to it being for my Read the World Project and the only book I found for this country.

Weeding the Flowerbeds is simply written which suits the mundane lives that the three school girls have as they study. There are things like sports days, new teachers, and the sudden interest in boys – all things that tend to happen in kids’ lives – but none of them are huge, earth-shattering moments. They’re just things they experience. I suppose Weeding the Flowerbeds is a good way to show how school life doesn’t really change no matter the year or where in the world the school is. There are the routines and classes everyone must go through in order to become a “grown up”.

The inclusion of photographs from, presumably, Sarah Mkhonza’s school days was a nice touch but overall Weeding the Flowerbeds wasn’t memorable. I suppose it’s a nice slice of life kind of story, and those who like books set at boarding schools may get more from it than I did. 2/5.