book review

READ THE WORLD – Bahrain: QuixotiQ by Ali Al Saeed

Guy Kelton is a young man with a troubled mind. His shattered dream and the relentless mundane life he’s been living, alone and broken away from his family, takes an unexpected toll on him, driving him to violent, reckless extremes. He falls deeper and deeper into a bloody abyss; through extremes that would eventually lead him to the most devastating discovery about his existence. Going through his mid-twenties, Patrick Roymint, lost and confused, still struggles to come to terms with the loss of his whole family many years ago. But soon as he decides to change all that and try to rebuild the future he’s not had, he is dragged into the unseen, disturbing and filthy underworld of the little, diminishing Okay County. As both men go through a series of mysterious and bizarre events, their lives take dramatic turns that lead them to new revelations about their past, present and future. They somehow find their fates connected by some mystic, unfathomable power.

At second time of trying, I managed to read QuixotiQ. I think there’s a few reasons why I struggled with this book even though it’s pretty short at less than 200 pages long. The first is the translation/editing. It’s a self-published novel and I believe the translation was done by the author, or the author wrote it in English but that was their second language. I say that as there were a few instances where it didn’t quite read right to me, a native English speaker. Sentences were phrased awkwardly or adjectives were used which didn’t really fit the context of what was going on.

Then there was the plot itself. It was a bit difficult to figure out what was happening with Guy and Patrick. Guy especially has a lot going on in his head and he has dreams or visions where both he and you as the reader can’t really tell what’s real and what’s not. It makes the story kind of hard to follow and you’re unsure if he’s going mad, just having vivid dreams or if QuixotiQ has some surreal fantasy elements.

The chapters are short and there’s sometimes point of view changes between the chapters and in the chapters, shown by a line break. However, it can sometimes be hard to tell whose point of view your in to begin with as the first three or more paragraphs just use “he” or “she” rather than a character’s name so it can be disorientating. Mandy, Patrick’s girlfriend, and Christina, her friend and former co-worker, also have chapters from their points of view.

All four of the characters are going through tough times and their thoughts and motivations are often jumbled. I supposed it’s a good way at showing how lost these characters are, but it does make things hard to read at times and I didn’t particularly like or connect with any of the characters. Especially as things spiralled out of control for Guy, I just couldn’t comprehend why he was acting that way or see what had tipped him over the edge. The writing style and the story made character motivations unclear to me.

QuixotiQ is the only book I found by a Bahraini author in English. If I wasn’t doing my Read the World Project I would’ve probably DNF’d it as I found it muddled and uninteresting. The bright side was that the chapters were often very short so it was easy to pause and take a break when the strangeness and unclear character motivations got too frustrating.

READ THE WORLD – South Sudan: Making Peace and Nurturing Life: An African Woman’s Journey of Struggle and Hope by Julia Aker Duany

Julia Aker Duany’s life growing up in South Sudan, moving to America with her husband and children, and then returning to South Sudan in the 1990s to see how life has changed due to war and learning how best to help people.

Making Peace and Nurturing Life is the kind of memoir that’s very informative, not just about one person’s life and experiences but about so much more like the culture they grew up in and their country’s politics and conflicts. Julia Aker Duany describes herself as “an African, a Sudanese, a Nilotic from southern Sudan, a Nuer from Lou, a Gon from Rumjok section, a woman, a mother” and by the end of the book you really do have a decent understanding of what all those different aspects of her identity mean to her and how they have shaped her when growing up.

I found the culture shock between America and Sudan interesting because the things that she was surprised about weren’t necessarily ones that I’d seen mentioned in other memoirs or immigrant stories. Just generally Julia Aker Duany had a really interesting take on life, family, and responsibility and it was always interesting to see the connections between what was important to her as an adult to what she was taught by her mother and wider community.

Julia Aker Duany is a professor and academic who loves learning so it’s interesting and invaluable to have a woman from Sudan explain things that are usually generalised by white/Western academics. She makes a point to criticise the textbooks she learnt from in America as the were titled things like “Women in the Third World” and didn’t really differentiate between the women in these “Third World” countries, cultures, or tribes. She has an in-depth knowledge of both places and how she used her knowledge of women’s traditions to help empower women and solve conflicts in Sudan was really impressive.

Making Peace and Nurturing Life is a very readable book and it explains complex things in an accessible way. I’ve learnt a lot about many different countries and their histories through my Read the World Project but this is one where I really feel I have a firm understanding of what started the conflict between northern and southern Sudan and how events have had knock on affects for its people.

READ THE WORLD – Kiribati: Poetry by Teweiariki Teaero

This is where working at a university whose library boasts it has a copy of every book ever published in English, whether digitally or physically, comes in handy. This is where I found some texts for the smaller countries, especially those in the Pacific. A book called Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia edited by Evelyn Flores, Emelihter Kihleng and Craig Santos Perez proved to be invaluable. It’s a collection of poetry, short stories, critical and creative essays, chants, and excerpts of plays by over seventy different Indigenous Micronesian authors and it tells you which country each of the authors are from including Marshall Islands, Guam, Nauru, Kiribati, Palau, and Kosrae, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Yap, the four states of the Federated States of Micronesia.

There were a few writers from Kiribati featured in the book but I picked Teweiariki Teaero poetry to feature as he had three poems in the collection and they each were quite different. The poems were “Garlanding”, “Nareau’s Return” and “Merry Ancestors”.

Of the three “Merry Ancestors” is the one I liked the most. It’s almost like a children’s story as the sounds of thunder and lighting and a storm is explained as their ancestors having a party. I generally love when there are stories explaining stuff like storms to children to make them less scary or to connect the thing that’s happening to the past or spirituality.

“Garlanding” didn’t really have as much impact or interest to me as the other two but I still liked how it’s a poem about flowers and an act of giving and love.

“Nareau’s Return” is a poem where a little googling led me to understand it more as it had cultural reference in it that I was unaware of. The Nareau in question is the creator deity in the mythology of the Gilbert Islands, of which Kiribati is a part of. Reading the poem again knowing that Nareau is a god rather than simply an old man like he’s described adds extra layers to the poem and makes his confusion of how the country has become industrialised more understandable. He doesn’t recognise his home and the sounds of things like cars overwhelms him.

READ THE WORLD Timor-Leste: From Timor-Leste to Australia: Seven Families, Three Generations Tell Their Stories edited by Jan Tresize

A collection of stories and poems from seven families who recount their lives in Timor-Leste and how events like the Japanese invasion during WWII, being a Portuguese colony for almost 500 years, civil war between different political parties once Timor-Leste is decolonised, Indonesia invading, and finally the country gaining its independence after the people vote for it in a referendum in 1999.

Like many countries I’ve read about in my Read the World Project, Timor-Leste is one that I didn’t know anything about so From Timor-Leste to Australia was a real eye-opening and informative read. For each of the seven families there’s at least two people telling their story; sometimes their siblings, or more commonly it’s a parent and then a child. That way the reader can see how these huge events affected different generations as sometime the children were ten years old or younger when they were forced to flee their homes and move to countries far from home so for some it seemed like an adventure and the realities on their situation was lost on them.

Having members of seven different families share their experience is a good way to get a broad idea of what happened to the Timorese people. Some families were wealthier or had connections to the government while others were poor and had little support, but often they all ended up in similar situations, running from their homes and uncertain of what the future held. Those who stayed in Timor-Leste throughout the Indonesian invasion naturally had different experiences to those who managed to get to other countries. So many people still wanted to get back to their home country though, and how some of these people described what they feel is their nationality was interesting. Some now are Australian residents but feel more Portuguese because they spent their formative years there, others feel Timorese first and foremost but still feel at home in Australia or Portugal.

It was interesting to see how these families got displaced with some being separated by loved ones for years and how they adapted to their new countries. One family was in Mozambique for a time as that was also a former Portuguese colony before the revolution there forced them to flee to Portugal. A lot of the families ended up in Portugal for years, sometimes over a decade or more. This was because Timor-Leste was a form Portuguese colony and some of the families had Portuguese parents or grandparents so had connections in the country that could vouch for them. Others ended up there as it was where was deemed to be safest, living in refugee camps for years.

By the end of each of the families’ stories, most of them had ended up settled in Australia, where communities of Timorese people had begun to thrive. This was due to the Australians fighting against the Japanese in WWII and Timorese people would often hide and protect Australian soldiers when the country was occupied by the Japanese.

From Timor-Leste to Australia was quite a sad read at times as so many people in these families were imprisoned, killed, or separated from loved ones for years. People wen through such hardships and nearly every time it seemed like things would get better for the Timorese, something else would happen. The relief and joy when the people of Timor-Leste successfully voted for their country’s independence was palpable in every family member’s recollection. But the resilience of these people and how families managed to stay connected even across oceans was impressive – especially as lot of this happened from around 1942-1999, a time where phones and technology to keep in touch were not how it is today.

READ THE WORLD – Mauritania: The Desert and the Drum by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk

Trigger warning for rape and loss of a child.

Translated by Rachael McGill.

Everything changes for Rayhana when foreigners with strange machines arrive to mine for metal near her Bedouin camp. One of them is the enigmatic Yahya. Her association with him leads Rayhana to abandon all that she has ever known and flee alone to the city. But when her tribe discover she has stolen their sacred drum, they pursue her to exact their revenge.

I feel like I’ve learnt a lot during my Read the World Project and had a lot of firsts and The Desert and the Drum is another one as it’s the first novel ever to be translated into English from Mauritania. It’s a pretty short and easily readable story with a character that you can’t help but empathise with.

Rayhana is a part of a nomadic tribe that’s big on tradition and honour. As her mother is the tribe leader’s sister, she feels she has a place of importance and honour and will do anything to protect it, even if that means hurting her daughter. While the Bedouin camp is completely different to what I have experience, the whole “keeping up appearances” thing is so universal it was sad to see the way Rayhana was treated by those who supposedly cared about her just to save face.

The chapters tend to alternate between the present when Rayhana is running away, meeting new people, and going into the city for the first time, and the past where she was a part of the tribe, taken advantage of by Yahya and then shunned by her mother. From these chapters in the past, you get to understand more of why Rayhana hates he mother so much but the reasons why she wants to hurt the tribe by stealing their sacred drum are more blurred. I think it’s because she sees her mother as a product of the tribe’s rules and culture so feels everyone is to blame and should suffer but I’m not sure. Are the traditions wrong when only one person is slighted but the others are content with what’s around them?

The Desert and the Drum does end quite abruptly and gives neither the reader nor Rayhana any sort of closure. It’s a bit of a sad story really, and though Rayhana does find help from some people (mostly women) she never truly feels safe as she’s so naïve by how things work in a town or city and some of the men she meets appear to have ulterior motives.

REVIEW: Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road by Kyle Buchanan

A full-speed-ahead oral history of the nearly two-decade making of the cultural phenomenon Mad Max: Fury Road – with more than 130 new interviews with key members of the cast and crew, including Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, and director George Miller, from the pop culture reporter for The New York Times, Kyle Buchanan.

While I generally love films and learning titbits about how they were made, there’s very few that I’d read a whole book on. In fact, Blood, Sweat & Chrome is only the second book I’ve read about a film’s journey to the big screen. The first was The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood by Kristin Thompson which I read when I was at university and thoroughly enjoyed. I think the reasons I sought out, read and enjoyed these two books are pretty much the same. The Lord of the Rings is one of my favourite films of all time and a formative influence as I saw the first one when I was 10 years old and while I haven’t watched Mad Max: Fury Road as many times, it’s a film that blew me away when I first saw it and every time I rewatch it I’m even more impressed by its attention to detail. They are both films that in some ways shouldn’t exist, or if they did, they have almost no right to be as excellent as they are, so hearing from the people who were involved with making them, sometimes for years, even decades, is just fascinating.

Blood, Sweat & Chrome is a book I got in the post on Saturday and if I’d started it earlier that day, I would’ve read it all in one sitting. From the get go it was just so interesting and incredibly readable. Buchanan adds context and description where needed but mostly the story of how this film was made is told from various people’s perspective. Just about everyone is interviewed for this book, cast and crew, including the kind of people you’d never normally hear from like VFX data wrangler Shyam “Toast” Yadav.

So many times, I found myself with a smile on my face as the stories about the ingenuity of the crew who were making these huge vehicles or the stunt team as they worked with the cast and crew to make things look as real as possible. The fact no one was killed or even seriously hurt during the production is a testament to the director and the stunt team as while they wanted these magnificent and ridiculous stunts, they also wanted to make it safe for everyone.

Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road is a great book for anyone who enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road and wants to learn more about it, but I also think it’s a great book for people who are introduced in the film industry in general. It’s not shy about how studio interference can cause conflict between the director and their vision, or how long a film can take to be made and all the setbacks that a cast and crew can face. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Uganda: Child Soldier by China Keitetsi

China Keietsi’s story of her life as a child conscript in the Ugandan National Resistance Army starts at age eight and continues for ten years of terror, humiliation and sexual assault. After re-joining the army years later, she serves as bodyguard to the Minister for Records who is disgraced and eventually, she manages to make a new life for herself in Denmark.

Child Soldier is an incredibly difficult read. Keitetsi doesn’t shy away from the abuse she went through when recounting her story. The thing that kind of surprised me about Child Soldier is that half the book was about Keitetsi’s childhood and mistreatment before she was even recruited into the National Resistance Army. Her father and grandmother would beat her and treat her differently to her father’s other children just because her mother gave birth to a daughter and not a son. Some of her half and stepsiblings also weren’t treated well but the physical abuse Keitetsi went through by the people who are supposed to love you was heart breaking.

Through my Read the World Project I’ve read a few different memoirs from people who have gone through war and become refugees but the thing that made Child Soldier stick out in a way was her family life before she got caught up in war. The other memoirs I’ve read have had these young people have normal, caring families and a home life that a lot of people could relate to before tragedy struck. With Keitetsi’s story, it’s like the poor girl never had a proper childhood. She was abused before she even got tangled up in a war and was forced to fight and kill.

Keitetsi doesn’t shy away from describing the horrors she saw and experienced but it was interesting to see how it was written. Even though she was forced to grow up quickly, there was still only a childlike understanding of some things. She had to grow up and adapt quickly and no matter how high a rank she got in the army as she got older, there were still a lot of men who saw her a young woman that they could do with as they wish.

READ THE WORLD – Seychelles: 40 years: For my 40th Birthday, I pause to share 40 poems then I shall be on my way by Ritah

A collection of 40 poems where the poet offers a round trip from childhood to the age of 40. Through the 40 poems, Ritah colours her childhood with her family, school, growing up, travelling, bright and shaded sides of the Seychelles, soul searching and her wishes.

From a pure aesthetic point of view, I thought how each poem was numbered was very quirky. Each poem starts with its title and what number it is in the collection, and the number is made out of a small lizard drawing. Whether that’s two lizards’ side by side for the number 11 or a few curled around each other into different shapes for numbers like 25. I thought that it was cute and an interesting touch.

The poems themselves are super short, only a page or two long. Most of them don’t rhyme so they read like short snapshots of a time in Ritah’s life. The poems cover everything from family to just observations about things seen on the beach. Some are pretty obvious about what they mean while others have more layers to them.

I liked how this collection is bookended by poems about dancing and the joy and freedom of it. The collection starts with “Dance, Mother, Laugh” which sees the narrator imitating her mothers laughter and movements and ends with “I Dance” which has the narrator getting lost in her own dance. It shows while Ritah has grown up, there’s joy to be had and some thing’s in life are happen in a cycle.

The poems I enjoyed the most were “Grandparents” which is basically an ode to grandparents and where they fit in a family, “Woman, I am – Part 1” and “Woman, I am – Part 2”. As the titles suggests these poems work well together and are like two sides of the same coin, the first is about what a woman is told to be and act like and how going against that can hurt her, while the second is about the woman embracing all parts of her, standing up for herself and forging her own path.

40 years: For my 40th Birthday, I pause to share 40 poems then I shall be on my way is an interesting collection of poems and the way they’re framed to give insight to the poets life makes them meaningful.

READ THE WORLD – Suriname: The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia McLeod

Trigger warnings for slavery and all the mistreatment that comes with that.

Set in Suriname between 1965 and 1979, The Cost of Sugar is the story of two Jewish step sisters, Elza and Sarith, descendants of Dutch settlers and the children of a plantation owner. Their pampered existences become intertwined with the fate of the plantations as the slaves decide to fight against the violent repression they have endured for too long.

The Cost of Sugar begins when Elza and Sarith are teenagers. They’d grown up with each other since they were children and were close until they started to think about marriage. They’re two very different people; Elza is kind and sometimes a bit of a doormat whereas Sarith is strong-willed and flighty. That’s kind of a nice way to describe Sarith to be honest.

I think this is the first book I’ve ever read that had a narcissist protagonist, or maybe I’m more aware of what the characteristics of a narcissist are so could actually name and somewhat understand Sarith’s actions. To begin with, Sarith seems like a typical rebellious and jealous teen. She’s beautiful and gets a lot of attention and had sex when doing so before marriage is obviously a big no no but when Elza meets a man and apparently finds love and marriage, Sarith gets jealous. She can’t stand someone else being the centre of attention or getting something she doesn’t have. It isn’t even a case of something she wants, it’s like Sarith doesn’t know what she wants, or she wants something just because someone else has it.

As the years go on it’s clear that Sarith is incredibly self-centred and craves attention. She wants to socialise and go to parties, even when she does get a husband and has a child. She wants to be able to have affairs but as soon as her husband seeks attention elsewhere and maybe even falls in love she does everything in her power to destroy it.

It’s not just the sisters attitudes to love and relationships that is different but also their attitude towards slaves. They’ve both grown up with house girls and slaves and are used to others doing things for them but where Sarith is cruel and sees the servants as lesser than, Elza cares about them and loves those who have been a part of her family for so long. Sure, as they’re slaves it can be argued they don’t have much of a choice about being kind towards Elza but there is a different amount of respect between Elza and her slaves and that of Sarith and hers.

While all the family drama is going on (Elza is content to be a wife and mother while Sarith implodes her life in different ways) there’s also the uprising of runaway slaves who attack plantations, killing the white owners, setting the slaves free and looting and burning what’s left. As The Cost of Sugar is almost always from the white characters points of view, these attacks are seen as a looming threat and it’s almost like a ticking timebomb for how long their life of privilege can last. There are few “good” white characters. Elza’s husband for instance came from the Netherlands to Suriname as an adult so has a different idea of how slaves should be treated as he’s so used to what is seen as the norm there. He teaches his houseboy how to read and write and speak Dutch and gives him the opportunity to earn his freedom. Still, any white character who has slaves and does nothing to change things isn’t that good.

The Cost of Sugar is an interesting look at the that time period and the dynamic between plantation owners and slaves outside of North America. I don’t think I’d read a story that focused on white European slave owners rather than American ones before. While there are certainly a lot of similarities, there were some cultural differences too which was interesting. For instance, the bigotry towards Jewish white people from the protestant white people is brought up throughout the novel. The Cost of Sugar is a pretty engaging read and the short chapters and different characters points of view help make it a quick read. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Palestine: Palestine+100 edited by Basma Ghalayini

A collection of twelve short science-fiction stories from twelve different Palestinian writers answering the question, what might their country look like in the year 2048? A century afterwards the tragedies and trauma of what has come to be called the Nakba, which saw the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes.

Naturally there were some stories I liked more than others but I was always intrigued by what kind of sci-fi spin each story would have. Stories feature pretty much any sci-fi trope you could think of; virtual reality, drone swarms, aliens, AI. How they use these elements is often interesting. There are not only the sci-fi story elements but different genres of sci-fi in this collection too. There is almost a noir story with a sci-fi edge, (a journalist tries to find out the truth when an academic is murdered) as well as farce and dystopia.

While a few of the stories imagine a time where peace has been reached and Palestinians are content and thriving in this new peace, a lot of the stories aren’t happy. There’s a few out and out dystopian stories, ones where different parts of the country are walled off or there’s too much pollution so everyone has to wear gasmasks in order to survive. There’s a technical aspect to the dystopia too, whether it’s the AI going out of control or the realisation that what characters are experiencing isn’t real and they’re living inside a simulation where everything is fine and good.

While some stories seem to have more hope to them, others are more pessimistic (or maybe realistic) and show that in the future Palestinians will continue to suffer and the evolving technology will amplify that.

Some of the stories drop you right in with the characters and what they’re going through with little context of the kind of world they live in, so those can be a bit hard to follow – especially if you’re reading a few of the stories in a row. Others drop in things like a treaty of 2025 and how that’s changed their lives. I thought how some of these stories set 26 years in the future referenced both real historical events and fictional historical events was a lot of fun and made the time the story was set feel more concrete.

Palestine+100 is a great collection of sci-fi stories that often made me think. It was just interesting how these stories combined the real and imaginary to make stories that were sometimes weird but also believable. With the way the world is some of these scenarios aren’t too far out of the realm of possibility. 4/5.