book review

READ THE WORLD – Equatorial Guinea: La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono

Translated by Lawrence Schimel. Trigger warnings for sexual assault.

Orphaned teenager Okomo lives under the watchful eyes of her grandparents and dreams about finding her father. All she knows is that he’s a “scoundrel” and she’s forbidden to seek him out. She enlists the help of other outcasts; her gay uncle Marcelo and a gang of “indecent” girls. With them she finds comfort, falls in love and rebels against the rigid norms of Fang culture.

La Bastarda is a very short book, it’s only 88 pages so it’s very easy to read it in one sitting, and it’s the first book from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into English which is pretty cool.

La Bastarda is a coming of age story about a girl who is trying to understand the various traditions her people have and what that means for her and her desire to know her father. Okomo is quite a naïve seventeen-year-old which is probably due to the sheltered life she’s led, she’s unsure about so many relationships in her life and is often clueless about the different rules her culture has.

I liked the relationship that forms between Okomo and Dina. It’s interesting as Okomo’s uncle Marcelo is known as a man-woman because he sleeps with men and refuses to “do his duty” and get his infertile brothers’ wife pregnant to make sure the family has a son; however their community doesn’t have a word for lesbian so it’s as if Okomo, Dina and the rest of the girls don’t exist.

I enjoyed La Bastarda. It’s a quick, easy read about a culture that’s complete different to my own. It’s an episodic story and while Okomo is quite a young seventeen-year-old, I did want her to find her own place, whether that was in her society or not, with people who care about her.

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REVIEW: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

Set in France during the 1620s, young d’Artagnan looks to join the King’s Musketeers where he meets Athos, Porthos and Aramis. Soon the four of them become firm friends and they have adventures across the country as there’s many plots afoot.

Every August Rincey from Rincey Reads on YouTube hosts a month long readalong of a large and maybe intimidating classic. This year it was The Three Musketeers, a book that’s been on my shelves for at least ten years, so this readalong gave me the push to finally read it.

I’ve seen a lot of different adaptations of The Three Musketeers, I saw some of the episodes of the relatively recent BBC series and I’ve seen a whole host of the various films that have been made over the decades. So, going into The Three Musketeers, I could remember bits about the characters, their relationships, and the story but it was really interesting to learn more about them and get the whole story.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Tristam Summers and it was a great audiobook that sucked me in and I’d definitely recommend it as it made the story fly by and wasn’t as intimidating as the physical book might’ve been.

The main plot of The Three Musketeers takes a while to reveal itself, instead focussing on introducing all the characters and their loyalties. I was surprised how much of the focus of the story was on d’Artagnan, especially the first third. He was definitely the main character rather than the titular three musketeers themselves. Athos is the musketeer with the most backstory, I personally found Aramis kind of snarky and frequently hilarious (he’s my favourite musketeer) but he and especially Porthos were left in the background for the majority of the book.

Once everyone’s been introduced the story moves along at great speed. There’s political intrigue with some people supporting the King, or more specifically the Queen, while others stand by the Cardinal who has he’s own goals. He’s a shady character who seems to have eyes and ears everywhere so when d’Artagnan and the musketeers have a mission, they have to very careful as to who they trust.

The female characters aren’t treated particularly well which is a shame and is potentially a sign of the time it was written. Milady de Winter is a fantastic character though and I would read a spinoff or a prequel about her. She’s a spy and an assassin who uses men’s idea of her, that she can be nothing more than a weak, delicate woman, in order to complete her mission and in some cases get away with murder. She’s brilliant and her interactions with both d’Artagnan and Athos were always interesting.

I loved The Three Musketeers. It is a proper action-adventure with some political intrigue and romance sprinkled through it as well. The characters, especially d’Artagnan, ends up in a completely different place compared to where they started, and I could never have predicted where the story goes even though I’ve seen various film adaptations. The Three Musketeers is just a lot of fun. 5/5.

REVIEW and GIVEAWAY: One Would Think The Deep by Claire Zorn

I was contacted by Ransom Publishing to see if I’d like a copy of One Would Think The Deep to review, and they were nice enough to send me a second copy to giveaway! More on the giveaway below and on my Twitter, and just so you know, my thoughts on the book are my honest opinion.

Sam has always had too much going on in his head, and now his mum is dead and it’s worse than ever. With nothing but his skateboard, his discman and some clothes in a garbage bag, Sam goes to live with the only family he has left; Aunty Lorraine and his cousins Shane and Minty. But his mum cut ties with them seven years ago and he doesn’t know why. Sam faces suspicion and hostility in his new home, but he starts following Minty around like he did as a child. Soon he’s surfing with Minty, finding it to be the one thing that cuts through the static in his head. But the secrets of the past refuse to stay hidden. What happened seven years ago that caused such a rift? Why won’t anyone tell him who his father is? And if things weren’t complicated enough, there’s also this girl…

Set in 1997, One Would Think The Deep is like a love letter to Australian surfer culture. Surfing is Minty’s life and it could be a way for him to leave his small hometown and make a name for himself. The way the beach, the ocean and Sam’s experience learning to surf is described, paints such a vivid in my mind it was almost like I could hear the waves. The setting and counterculture described in One Would Think The Deep reminded me of the films Point Break (1991) and Lords of Dogtown (2005) so if you like either of those films, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

I really liked Claire Zorn’s writing style. It’s beautiful as you were inside Sam’s head, but like him, there is also a distance there between what he experiences and what he feels. It’s almost a gentle, contemplative story so when there are outbursts of emotion they are even more affecting.

Sam is such an interesting character. He has a lot of grief and anger that he’s dealing with, or not dealing with as the case may be, and while his mother’s sudden death is a big part of that, as the story unfolds you see that he was angry before that too. The way his mind works, how there’s almost too much going on in there and his memories are like photographs he files away so he doesn’t have to think about them.

The secrets the adults in Sam’s life keep from him bubble away under the surface and while he meets new people and potentially finds love, those secrets and his own confused mind drag him down. It’s like if he doesn’t know his past, or come to terms with his past actions, then how can he figure out what his future should be?

Sam, his Aunt Lorraine and the rest of the main characters feel like very real, flawed people. While their stories develop over the course of the book, it feels like you only spent some time with them and they’re going to continue living beyond the pages of the book.

One Would Think The Deep is a slow burn story, about a young man figuring out who he is and who he wants to be. It has beautiful writing, and a gorgeous setting. The only negative, and it’s a small one, is that it took me a while to get into the rhythm of the story and the writing, but once I had loved seeing what might become of Sam. I feel like it’s a book that will play on my mind for a while. 4/5.

Like the sound of One Would Think The Deep and fancy your own copy? Make sure you follow me on Twitter and retweet this tweet and you could be in with a chance to win a copy – this giveaway is open internationally too!

READ THE WORLD – Belgium: Thirty Days by Annelies Verbeke

Translated by Liz Waters.

Alphonse is a friendly and observant former musician, who has left Brussels with his girlfriend Cat to live closer to her parents in the rural district of Westhoek. It’s a place that has open fields and more World War I graves than almost anywhere else in Europe. Alphonse starts a new life as a painter and decorator, and he becomes entwined in so many peoples lives. But when he, Cat and one of his clients help a group of Afghans and Syrians at a makeshift refugee camp, he learns that not all of the locals appreciate what they’re doing.

Somewhat surprisingly the first chapter in Thirty Days is chapter 30, and each chapter number decreases. While it’s a slow book to get going, this adds to the fact that the story appears to be building to something – and it certainly does build to something unexpected. Plus, like the title suggests, it each chapter is a day, something I didn’t register to begin with.

I really liked Alphonse, but I could see why his partner Cat would get frustrated with him. He’s a painter and decorator so he goes to various people’s homes to do a job but there’s something about him that causes his clients to offload a lot of their thoughts or secrets on him. He becomes involved in so many people’s lives and Cat doesn’t always like that as it takes his time and thoughts away from her and their life together. He’s a guy that’s almost too nice for his own good but his niceness is never off-putting or eyeroll-inducing.

Alphonse is victim to a lot of racism ranging from micro aggressions, being asked where he’s really from after first saying Brussels, to full on hostility, such as when a client’s neighbour accuses him of trying to break into their house. As Thirty Days is from Alphonse’s point of view, it never stops and describes how he or Cat look like, so you get to know him without any preconceptions meaning when he does experience racism it’s more of a shock and an interesting way of presenting what he faces.

Surprisingly, Alphonse doesn’t encounter the refugee camp until the last third of the book. Instead, the clients he has and his relationships with them, and his girlfriend and their friends and family, is the main focus of a lot of this story.

Thirty Days is beautifully written and it’s a moving story. The themes of being a good person, helping others but still making sure you don’t give up all of yourself are all handled well. As is both the underlying and overt racism Alphonse experiences, in every day life, and when he tries to help refugees who are just looking for somewhere to call home. It deals with so many opposites, good and evil, beauty and ugliness but it never feels preachy. Thirty Days is a compelling story and I devoured the last few chapters as I just had to know where things were going for Alphonse. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Albania: Negative Space by Luljeta Lleshanaku

Translated by Ani Gjika.

A collection of poetry from Luljeta Lleshanaku examining the space between objects and people, how things balance together and the different human emotions.

I’m not someone who knows a lot about poetry, but I found a lot of Lleshanaku’s poems beautiful yet bleak. There’s a loneliness to a lot of them, when someone is the subject matter of a poem they often can’t connect with others and there’s a distance between the subject and what they’re doing. Many of the poems aren’t tied to one specific place or time, instead the “story” flows from different perspectives, almost always focusing on the mundane.

Most of the poems here were about a page long, but there were a few that almost played out like short stories – Homo Antarcticus and Water and Carbon are two examples of this. They are both sad, haunting poems about people who are at a distance from others, through they choice or not. I enjoyed the poems that were more like short stories rather than the page-long ones as they naturally had more depth to them.

The poems in this collection are quiet peculiar and haunting. Whether it’s because they have been translated into English or because they’re from an Albanian poet, they don’t quiet fit with what my preconceived notions of poetry are. It makes reading these poems an interesting experience and I could see myself going back and rereading some of them to see if they have a different affect on me.

This is my pick this month’s Monthly Motif “Read a book that has won a literary award, or a book written by an author who has been recognized in the bookish community” as Negative Space is the winner of the English PEN Award and Luljeta Lleshanaku received the 2009 Crystal Vilenica award for European poets.

READ THE WORLD – Colombia: Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo

Translated by Charlotte Coombe

Fish Soup is a bind up of two novellas and a short stories collection. Waiting for a Hurricane follows a girl who’s desperate to leave her life and her country. Sexual Education is about a student who tries to keep to the strict doctrine of abstinence taught in her school. Worse Things is a collection of snapshots about different characters who are all in different states of turmoil.

Trigger warning for child abuse in Waiting for a Hurricane. The main character forms an unlikely friendship with an old fisherman from a young age. There’s one moment where it seems like his touching her under her underwear but it’s something she never minds and isn’t really mentioned again, and as it’s from a child’s perspective it takes a while for you to figure out what’s happening. She’s so desperate to leave her home on the Colombian coast that she loses touch with friends and family but never seems to find any real connections.

All the stories in Worse Things, and in the two novellas as well, are about people who are suffering in some way. None of them appear to be happy and nearly all of them are unreliable narrators. This makes it difficult to connect to these characters, especially in Worse Things as each snapshot is a matter of pages so you can never truly understand them. Some snapshots I’d have preferred to be longer as I found the characters and their situations interesting whereas I found others very frustrating.

In both Waiting for a Hurricane and Sexual Education, punctuation around speech isn’t used which can make reading these stories a little difficult to begin with as you get used to the style of them. The way the towns and overall settings of the stories were described was incredibly vivid and I could see the beauty of the country even though so many characters didn’t like their home or saw all the problems with it. Fish Soup is an interesting collection of work from Margarita García Robayo. It’s probably a good place to start but I unfortunately found it difficult to like and connect with the majority of the characters which lessened my enjoyment.

READ THE WORLD – Kosovo: Summer is my Favorite Season by Ilir Berisha

Summer is my Favorite Season is the true story of Ilir’s childhood growing up in Pristina in Kosovo. He lives with his parents, his older brother Shpetim and his little sister Fjolla but their lives are disrupted when Serbian forces take to the streets and they begin to hear rumours of villages burning. Their lives are changed when they, ethnic Albanians living in the Kosova region of the former Yugoslavia, are treated like second-class citizens when Slobodan Milošević and his government came into power.

I knew nothing about the Kosovo War in the late 1990s and about the events leading up to it that started in the mid-1980s. The fact that Kosovo isn’t recognised by Serbia as an independent state and that there’s still tensions today (in this years World Cup two Swiss footballers of Kosovar-Albanian heritage celebrated their goals against Serbia by locking their hands together and flapping their fingers, in a gesture to resemble the two-headed eagle on Albania’s national flag) isn’t something that had passed me by, but the conflict and tensions were something I didn’t understand.

As Summer is my Favorite Season is a memoir, it doesn’t go into extreme details of how and why the conflict started, instead it’s told through the eyes of a child and that makes it so much sadder and affecting. Things happen slowly and Ilir doesn’t even know or understand what a tank is when one park outside his family’s apartment building. It becomes part of the view from his window. He doesn’t understand why his father is always so focussed on the news or his mother can’t go to work, and it takes time for the affects of the conflict, which for a time was in the villages away from his family, to trickle into his life.

Summer is my Favorite Season is a tough read. The things Ilir and his family went through is heart-breaking, and as he says, they’re some of the lucky ones who managed to get out of the country. They have friends, neighbours and family who are killed. They experience police harassment, and when NATO acts there’s bombs dropping so close to their home the windows shatter. The emotions Ilir goes through during his childhood are vivid, he’s scared, angry, confused, and when it’s all over he has nightmares. The affects of the conflict on him and his family is plain to see and it’s horrible to think about the thousands of people who didn’t survive.