book review

READ THE WORLD – Oman: Celestial Bodies by Johka Alharthi

Translated by Marilyn Booth.

Set in the village of al-Awafi in Oman, Celesital Bodies follows the lives of three sisters. Mayya, who marries Abdallah after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla who rejects all offers while waiting for her beloved, who has emigrated to Canada. These three women and their families witness Oman evolve from a traditional, slave-owning society slowly redefining itself after the colonial era, to the crossroads of its complex present.

The chapters in Celestial Bodies alternate between the first-person point of view of Abdallah and with the third person point of view of different characters. Pretty much every other character has a part of the story told from their point of view, though some are the focus more often than others. This part of the story is, for the most part, told linearly starting with Mayya’s marriage, her having her first child and then as her younger sisters get older, their experiences in marriage and romance. With the chapters from Abdallah’s point of view, they are almost always far in the future from what you read about the sisters, he reflects on his marriage and family, and his relationship with his cruel father.

The way the story jumps back and forth can be a bit confusing as sometimes Abdallah talks about how he perceives events or people before we’ve met them in the other half of the story. It does flesh those events/people out a bit more which is needed as the book spans a good few decades in the way characters reminisce about past events or talk about their children who are now adults when in the previous chapter, they were still young children.

There’s a lot of characters in Celestial Bodies as the story ends up spanning multiple generations. There is a family tree at the start of the book, which is helpful but unfortunately, I read the book on my kindle which made it a bit more difficult to flick back and check who was who and how they related to everyone else.

Celestial Bodies gives an insight into Oman and how the country and its people are changing. There are characters who once were slaves and now that the government has ruled that slavery is illegal, they are free. But while some want to leave the place they grew up and were a slave, wanting to truly be free, others feel that their life is good and that the man who owned them treated them well so why should they leave.

For a book where you only seem to spend a short time with each character as they are at a certain point in their lives before moving forward (or back) months or years, you do get a strong sense of who they are. The three sisters and their marriages are at the centre of this story and out of the three it is Mayya and her husband and children that gets the most attention, so you feel you understand her more than the other two.

Celestial Bodies is a beautiful book about love and family and the changes they go through over time. It also shows how people grow and change, as does the country and culture they are a part of, but those changes sometimes don’t happen at the same time and can cause conflict. 4/5.

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READ THE WORLD – Eritrea: African Titanics by Abu Bakr Khaal

African Titanics follows the adventures of Eritrean migrant Abdar as he journeys north speeding through the Sahara and crawling under barbed wire fences to make it to the coast where he must await news of a calm sea.

One thing I’m enjoying about my Read the World Project is how it’s opening my eyes to different cultures and periods of history that I had little to no knowledge of before. There is a migrant crisis happening in Europe right now, and has been happening for almost a decade, and so when I read the blurb of African Titanics I thought it would be set now-ish but that wasn’t the case. African Titanics is set in the late 1990s or the year 2000 and perhaps I was naïve, but I didn’t realise that people from different African countries were trying to make the journey to Europe for a better life then as well as now.

Having the story from the point of a migrant, hearing about all the things they go through to get to the coast, avoiding the police, escaping bandits, learning which smugglers you can trust to not just take your money and leave you stranded, makes something that’s often a footnote in the news feel more real and personal. These are people who are pushed to take dangerous risks and Abdar and his friends know how deadly the sea can be, but they still want to take that chance – even when they know of people who have died at sea.

African Titanics doesn’t just cover the dangerous journey, but the people Abdar meets along the way. He meets so many different people from different countries and their camaraderie transcends language barriers. The migrants form strong bounds as they have to rely on one another, and the men they have given money to to get them across the water. This adds humanity to an otherwise bleak story.

The writing in African Titanics is beautiful. It keeps Abdar’s story, and the story of other migrants he meets along the way, very matter of fact but that doesn’t stop you feeling for him and the other characters. There’s also vivid description of the different landscapes Abdar travels through and the sea is described both a new frontier and a deadly obstacle.

African Titanics is a short yet compelling story. Throughout the hardships Abdar faces there’s moments of levity and joy as he and his fellow migrants laugh and tell stories together. The combinations of the real and almost dreamlike sequences as Abdar thinks of what the future could hold makes it a thought-provoking story. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Runaway Jury by John Grisham

They are the twelve men and women at the centre of a multimillion-dollar court case. They have been watched, assessed and manipulated by high-priced lawyers who will stop at nothing to secure a verdict. Now the jury must make a decision in the most explosive civil trial of the century – a precedent-setting lawsuit against a giant tobacco company. But this jury has a leader and it is Nicholas Easter, Juror #2. He has planned every detail and, with the help of a woman on the outside, will bend the jury and its verdict to his will. As a corporate empire hangs in the balance and as a grieving family waits, the truth about Easter is about to explode in a crossfire of greed and corruption – and justice fights for its life.

John Grisham is known for his gripping legal thrillers and that reputation is well earned with The Runaway Jury. This is the first book by Grisham I’ve read, but I have seen and really enjoyed The Pelican Brief starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts which was adapted from his book of the same name.

The Runaway Jury is a riveting read. Considering it is about a court case and has a lot of characters with the twelve jurors, their family and friends, the lawyers on both sides and the judge and his court staff, it never feels overwhelming or boring. There are a trio of main characters really. Easter, the juror who knows more than he lets on, Marlee, the woman on the outside who appears to be calling the shots, and Rankin Fitch, a consultant for the tobacco companies who is known for using unethical schemes to win trials. These three are the ones who drive the plot forward and the verbal sparring between Marlee and Fitch as they each try and get what they want is brilliant.

The other jurors are featured to varying degrees and each have their own side plots as people with connections to the lawyers put pressure on them through their families to vote a certain way. These characters are juggled very well and while some of them you only spend a few pages with at a time, they all tend to have strong personalities and are easy to distinguish from each other.

Fitch is the kind of character you love to hate, while Marlee is smart, strong and resourceful. There are so many twists and turns as Easter, Marlee and Fitch try to manipulate one another and everyone around them, but nothing feels unearned or having a twist just for the sake of it. Considering how much legal jargon there is in The Runaway Jury there’s some surprisingly funny moments in it. A lot of that comes from how events are described in a very to the point manner, so the writing almost feels like it has a sardonic sense of humour.

It is funny reading The Runaway Jury over twenty years since it was first published because in some ways it is so incredibly 90s – especially in how it talks about smoking. A lot of the people giving evidence in the case are doctors. The ones on the plaintiff’s side describe in great detail how smoking is bad, causes diseases including cancer, and nicotine is addictive, while the doctors and researchers on the defences side dispute those claims, saving there’s not enough evidence for all that. It’s fascinating that something that is a fact now, smoking can and does kill, was something that was so heavily debated twenty years ago.

The Runaway Jury is a compelling courtroom drama that has humour and suspense in it too. The way all of the characters and plot threads are deftly handled is to be admired and it’ll keep you guessing characters motivations and the outcome of the trial to the end. 5/5.

REVIEW: A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney

Alice is a normal teenager with school, a high-maintenance best friend and a mum who gets annoyed when she misses her curfew. But what her mum doesn’t know is that the reason she so often misses curfew is because she’s fighting monsters called Nightmares. Nightmares come from Wonderland, a dark realm where there’s magic, creatures and secrets. When Alice’s handsome and mysterious mentor Addison Hatta is poisoned, Alice must venture further into Wonderland than she ever had before to find the antidote. She’ll have to use all her skills and connections to keep from losing her head – literally.

As you might imagine, A Blade So Black is inspired by Alice in Wonderland and it’s fun to see the references to the sour material and how the author puts a spin on certain aspects like characters names and idiosyncrasies. When it comes to Wonderland itself, not a lot of the world is explained but what you do see of it is very weird and eerie. The Nightmares are indeed nightmarish creatures and Alice’s battles with them are fierce. Alice is strong and skilled, but she also makes mistakes, gets scared and doubts herself a lot which means it’s never clear if she’ll come out on top in a battle.

A lot of the conflict in A Blade So Black comes from the fact Alice struggles being a normal teenager with being a Dreamwalker. She’s keeping secrets and lying with the only person in her “normal” life who knows about what she does in Wonderland is her best friend Courtney. Alice is black and, in her neighbourhood, a teenage black girl has recently been gunned down which adds to her mum’s anxiety when Alice seems to disappear and not answer her phone, as she is almost constantly worried the same thing is going to happen to her daughter.

Alice is a bit of a stroppy teenager (which is allowed) and one with magical responsibilities, but she doesn’t often think things through and how her actions can hurt other people. Her mum has very justifiable reasons to be angry and scared when Alice isn’t contactable for long periods of time, but Alice can’t really see that which is frustrating.

A Blade So Black is bit of a weird book pacing-wise. The first half spends the time setting up the conflicts between Alice and her friends and family as she juggles her Dreamwalker duties and being a normal teenager and introduces you to Wonderland but nothing big plot-wise happens until the halfway point. It’s then that Hatta gets poisoned and after that a lot happens very quickly with new characters being introduced and you learn more about the history of Wonderland and what it could mean for Alice. It makes the second half of the book feel rushed and, while it is the first book in a series so it’s understandable that not all plot threads will be tied up, there’s a pretty major one that doesn’t feel like the characters make much headway with.

The premise of A Blade So Black and its setting is more interesting than the actual plot. Still, it’s a quick and enjoyable read and it’s a solid foundation for future books in the series to build on. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD: Burkina Faso – Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman by Malidoma Patrice Somé

Audiobook narrated by the author.

Malidoma Patrice Somé was born in a Dagara Village but when he was four years old he was kidnapped and taken to a Jesuit school where he remained for the next fifteen years. There he was indoctrinated into European ways of thought and worship and learnt to read and write. When he made his escape and returned to his village, he had to go through a hard initiation to be able to belong with his community and learn their ways and beliefs.

I found Of Water and the Spirit to be an interesting and thought-provoking take on the interaction and conflict between spirituality and academia. Somé is a man who has multiple degrees, undergraduate and postgraduate, so is a very knowledgeable man in that respect, but he also has a great spiritual belief. To me, as someone who is an atheist, it is impressive yet feels contradictory that an educated person can believe so whole-heartedly in the powers of a talisman or a medicine bag.

Somé has important things to say about culture, unity and learning from the mistakes of your ancestors. His discussion of ancestors is interesting as it seems like the Dagara people are very in tune with their past and their ancestors so they can learn and evolve, whereas in the West we often easily forget about the past and ignore any past wrongdoings. According to Somé this is why the West isn’t tolerant of those who are from different cultures and faiths, and it’s not until people look to their past and own up to past atrocities that they can move forward.

Of Water and the Spirit has some stunning imagery as Somé describes what he saw and felt as he went through the initiation. It’s magical and beautiful yet unsettling as boys get burnt or die during the initiation, but Somé also sees some beautiful things.

Considering Of Water and the Spirit was published in the mid-90s it’s disappointing that many of Somé’s observations on tolerance, understanding and belonging are still just as relevant twenty years later. Somé is a man of two worlds and he never fully feels like he fits in either of them, the “educated” West and his spiritual village, but what he does feel is a sense of purpose and a belief that it was his destiny to gain so much knowledge and use that to spread his beliefs and try to make people more understanding.

Of Water and the Spirit can feel a bit preachy at times, but it’s difficult to dislike the memoir because it is what he went through and believes he experienced. We are all different and believe in different things and it was interesting to learn about the culture and beliefs of the Dagara people.

REVIEW: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Rosemary Harper doesn’t expect much when she joins the crew of the aging Wayfarer. While the patched-up ship has seen better days, it offers her a bed, a chance to explore the far-off corners of the galaxy, and most importantly, some distance from her past. But Rosemary gets more than she bargains for with the Wayfarer. The crew is a mismatch of species and personalities, from Sissix, the friendly reptilian pilot to chatty engineers Kizzy and Jenks who keep the ship running. Life aboard the Wayfarer is chaotic but more or less peaceful – exactly what Rosemary wants. That is until the crew is offered the job of a lifetime; the chance to build a hyperspace tunnel to a distant planet. They’ll earn a fortune… if the manage to survive the long and dangerous trip. Along the way Rosemary learns she isn’t the only one on board with secrets to hide, and that space may be vast, but spaceships are very small indeed.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is mostly a space road trip where not a lot of big plot things happen. Instead it’s a character driven story as Rosemary becomes a part of this crew that’s more like a family. The way exposition and character backstories are interwoven into the story is wonderful, as often it is from characters learning from one another or learning to open up and ask for help and support.

The book is told from all of the crew member’s point of view at least once, though characters like Rosemary, Sissix, Kizzy and the captain Ashby seem to get more focus. You still get a good feel of all the characters though and how they fit together. They each have their problems or secrets, some of which they don’t even know about themselves, but they still all mange to work together.

How space, and the many different species that live there, is beautiful and vivid. Humans are far from the dominant species which is a different take compared to the majority of sci-fi I’ve come across before. It’s also great to read about characters that are different species and are so different from humans – whether that’s by appearance, social norms or both. The political systems, and politics between different species, are intricate yet as the author has taken the time to sprinkle information throughout the story, when there’s tension between species, you can quickly understand why.

The world (or should that be universe) of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is full or rich detail as the crew stop off at different planets to restock their ship and even see friends. There’s so many different people and their technology is advanced yet not always working well, meaning the world feels lived in. This isn’t the shiny and sleek kind of sci-fi, instead it’s a dirty, lived in kind of sci-fi. The Wayfarer isn’t a new ship, things go wrong with it and it’s the crew that fixes it and makes it feel like a home.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a bit of a slow read but that doesn’t mean it’s not a compelling one. It has so much detail with its world building and it really gives the characters room to breathe. Every single member of the Wayfarer crew has their own unique personality and the author does a great job of not turning any of them into clichés.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a sweeping science-fiction novel that never forgets that humanity (though is that the right word when there’s characters who are not human?) is the most important thing. 4/5.

REVIEW: This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura

Katsuyamas never quit—but seventeen-year-old CJ doesn’t even know where to start. She’s never lived up to her mom’s type A ambition, and she’s perfectly happy just helping her aunt, Hannah, at their family’s flower shop. She doesn’t buy into Hannah’s romantic ideas about flowers and their hidden meanings, but when it comes to arranging the perfect bouquet, CJ discovers a knack she never knew she had. A skill she might even be proud of. Then her mom decides to sell the shop — to the McAllister’s the family who swindled CJ’s grandparents when thousands of Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps during WWII. Soon a rift threatens to splinter CJ’s family, friends, and their entire Northern California community; and for the first time, CJ has found something she wants to fight for.

This Time Will Be Different has a lot more going on in it than the conflict about the family flower shop. There are discussions of racism, sexism (and how the two can intersect), teen pregnancy, unplanned pregnancy, and family, relationship and friendship drama too. All these elements make CJ, her friends and her family feel more three-dimensional as while they might be concerned with the McAllister’s racist family history and the fate of the business, it’s not the only thing that’s going on in their lives. There are the little things along with the big things, and the things that they didn’t want to confront until they suddenly come to ahead.

CJ is a very interesting and layered character. Sometimes I’d like her, sometimes I didn’t, because she was a messy person. She’s incredibly loyal but she can use that loyalty to cover up how she’s really feeling which can be petty and insecure. She’s not great at communicating and bottles a lot of her fears up until they all come pouring out in tears or cutting comments. CJ is someone who feels like she’s a failure, she doesn’t get great grades, she isn’t athletically or musically talented, and she doesn’t have the drive or goals that her mother has. It often appears that CJ is the kind of person that doesn’t try that hard, because then it doesn’t feel so bad when she fails, and she uses her failures as a protective shield against the rest of the world.

CJ’s relationship with her mum is often fraught as CJ worries that she’ll never do anything to make her mum proud, and that her mum regrets having her. The two of them have some great discussions and the writing is great as it shows how CJ can go with sympathising with her mum in one moment, to being angry with her the next, and back again. It’s true to life as when people have arguments or heated discussions, they feel a lot of different things at different times, especially if the other person says something they weren’t expecting. There’s almost the nature vs nurture idea going on in This Time Will Be Different. CJ was mostly raised by her Aunt Hannah due to her mum wanting to have a career, meaning CJ is similar in a lot of ways to Hannah. She still has some of her mum’s influences in her, but she is also her own person and it is as she becomes more comfortable with the idea of who she is and what she’s interested in, that who she is becomes more clear to her.

The frank discussions of what happened when hundreds of thousands Japanese Americans were sent to Internment Camps and how it still affects people generations later makes This Time Will Be Different a poignant read. When CJ starts to fight for her family’s heritage there’s a lot of talk of racist trolling, the white saviour, and how some people don’t see the big deal and are almost happy to let injustice slide if it doesn’t affect them. The Internment of Japanese Americans is something that happened not that long ago with people still alive who went through it, and their children and grandchildren perhaps still dealing with the emotional and financial consequences. With what’s going on in the world at the moment, it seems like now, more than ever, it is a part of history that shouldn’t be forgotten.

This Time Will Be Different is a fast-paced book though it does end quite abruptly. Not everything is tied up neatly and leaves some questions which is fine, but there doesn’t seem to be any closure for CJ and how she feels about her successes and failures now. Also while the romance was sweet, there was a lot of mixed messages as CJ doesn’t believe in true love, meaning the romance is a very slow slow-burn romance.

This Time Will Be Different is a compelling read with a fantastically flawed and interesting main character. It’s funny, sad and shines a light on a piece of history that shouldn’t be forgotten about. 4/5.