book review

READ THE WORLD – Serbia: Fear and His Servant by Mirjana Novaković

Translated by Terence McEneny.

Serbia in the eighteenth century is a battleground of empires, with the Ottomans on one side and the Habsburgs on the other. When Count Otto von Hausburg arrives in Belgrade with his trusted servant Novak, they learn of tales of vampires and missing men. In the besieged capital, safe for now behind the fortress walls, Princess Maria Augusta waits for love to save her troubled soul. But who is the strange, charismatic count, and can we trust the story he is telling us? While some call him the Devil, he appears to have all the fears and pettiness of an ordinary man.

It took me over a month to read Fear and His Servant. Not because I didn’t like it, when I was reading it I did enjoy it, but so much was happening in my life that even when I did have free time to read I didn’t have the right mental headspace to actually sit down and read that often. I think some of the issues I had with Fear and His Servant are down to how long it took me to read it. For instance, I’d get confused by who was who and how they were connected because it’d been so long since I’d picked it up that I’d forgotten characters names. Also, the language used and the writing style is very reminiscent of eighteenth century writing even though the book was written in the twenty-first century. It can take a while to get used to it, but it also helps bring you into the story as it makes the setting and the characters feel more alive.

Fear and His Servant is from both von Hausburg’s and Maria Augusta’s point of view, but it isn’t always that clear when it switches between them. Slowly I started to pick up which character was narrating the story as they each have a unique voice. Von Hausburg is sarcastic and blunt and he has a sort of charm about him, even though he is the Devil. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realise the blurb stating “The Devil and Princess Maria Augusta of Thurn and Taxis tell unreliable tales of vampires and political intrigue in eighteenth-century Serbia” isn’t a metaphor and the Devil is actually a main character. It’s quite a fun experience reading a story from the point of view of the Devil, especially as he’s not as fearless or all-powerful as one might think, and every now and then there’s flashbacks to Biblical times as he tells stories of Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene.

Princess Maria’s side of the story is like she’s recounting the events to an unnamed person who prompts her every now and then, but you only have Maria’s responses. She seems to go off on a tangent more often than not and sometimes mentions things that have not yet happened in the main story.

As the story progresses and von Hausburg and Princess Maria journey with a group of men to find the truth about the vampires, their stories start to diverge. You read about events from each of their perspectives and sometimes they’re slightly different and in others they are vastly different. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not, as not only to their accounts differ from each other’s, but at times they contradict themselves. It makes the story both intriguing and confusing.

Fear and His Servant is an interesting story with compelling points of view. It’s sometimes funny, is sometimes eerie, and it’s also sometimes confusing. It’s an interesting premise and it’s certainly a book like nothing I’ve read in recent years, but I think having such large gaps between when I’d pick it up, had a detrimental effect on the overall reading experience.

READ THE WORLD – Rwanda: The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

Narrated by Robin Miles.

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbours began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were thunder. In 1994, she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years wandering through seven African countries, searching for safety – perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive.

When Clemantine was twelve, she and her sister were granted refugee status in the United States, where she embarked on another journey, ultimately graduating from Yale. Yet the years of being treated as less than human, of going hungry and seeing death, could not be erased. She felt at the same time six years old and one hundred years old.

The chapters in The Girl Who Smiled Beads alternate between a chapter set in the 90s when Clemantine was a child refugee, and the 2000s when she’s a teenager learning to acclimatise to her new life in America. It’s equal parts hopeful to see Clemantine’s life gets better but also so sad that even when she is living this new life – perhaps even the American Dream – what she went through has lasting affects on her.

The main thing I’ll take from The Girl Who Smiled Beads is that someone’s life doesn’t automatically get better once they have some semblance of stability, especially when they’ve been to dozens of countries when they are so young, looking for safety. Clemantine doesn’t hold back in describing how what she experienced shaped her as a person and continues to affect her. She takes a long time to trust people and open up to them, because she had to learn to put on a tough exterior when she was a child to protect herself and her family. Her relationship with her sister is interesting and fraught as Clemantine often resents her for some of the choices she made when they were refugees, but also knows she did her best and is so thankful that Claire never abandoned her.

After the age of six, Clemantine never gets to be a child. Because her sister Claire needs to work and get money (her resourcefulness and entrepreneurship is to be admired, especially as she founded so many black markets in refugee camps) Clemantine becomes more of a mother to Claire’s children than Claire was. Clemantine was only about nine or ten when she was caring for her baby niece; bathing her, feeding her, keeping her safe. It’s so much to put on a child but you cant hate Claire for it because she had to go from being a normal teenager to sole-caregiver to her kid sister in such a short space of time.

Clemantine must grow up so quickly and it’s incredibly difficult for her to handle all the emotions she’s feeling and the experiences she’s living. It’s not until she’s in America with her “American mom” and life that’s stable, that she can even begin to access what she’s gone through. And even then, she’s angry and scared and jealous and resentful, and so many other emotions that she struggles to put a name to and to express and understand.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a tough read as it is an unflinching look at the realities of being a refugee and of having no home or place to belong for over six years. It’s about the trauma Clemantine experienced, the threat of death, sickness and violence, and the people she met over the years in different refugee camps, in different countries. It’s an incredible story, and it’s so sad that it’s one that so many people have lived through, and are still living through in the refugee camps around the world.

REVIEW: Sherwood by Meagan Spooner

Narrated by Fiona Hardingham.

Robin of Locksley is dead. Maid Marian doesn’t know how she’ll go on, but the people of Locksley town, persecuted by the Sheriff of Nottingham, need a protector. And the dreadful Guy of Gisborne, the Sheriff’s right hand, wishes to step into Robin’s shoes as Lord of Locksley and Marian’s fiancé. Marian never meant to tread in Robin’s footsteps—never intended to stand as a beacon of hope to those awaiting his triumphant return. But with a sweep of his green cloak and the flash of her sword, Marian makes the choice to become her own hero: Robin Hood.

I have such mixed feelings about this book. I listened to it on audio and it took me a while to get into the story because I couldn’t get on with the accents the narrator chose to do. Though, if I had not have been listening to the audiobook, I probably would’ve stopped reading it. Sherwood is quite slow to get going and even when there were fights, they were often predictable.

I had such a love hate relationship with Marian. Sometimes she was kind and thoughtful and clever, but then other times she’s so dense, self-centred and reckless it’s infuriating. She is written to be better than Robin of Locksley in every single way, she’s better at archery, she’s smarter, she’s more loyal. It’s weird and contradictory because she’s constantly putting Robin on a pedestal in her mind but at the same time often says things a long the line of “Robin could never do this”. I liked her relationship with her maid Elena but that’s probably because I liked Elena as a character more than Marian a lot of the time.

The “romance” between Marian and Guy of Gisborne was not good. It’s a problematic relationship from the start as they both use and manipulate one another and Guy is needlessly stupid when it comes to not realising that the Robin Hood he’s chasing, and the girl he’s attempting to woo are one and the same. The author tried to give Guy more of a backstory make him more sympathetic and all the time I was like “Why are you trying to make this bad guy misunderstood?!” and this character development was done so slowly that where his character ends up at the end seems so rushed.

Speaking of rushed, the ending of Sherwood became really rather convoluted as there were too many plot threads that were attempted to be addressed in the big final showdown. It was hard to keep track of where characters were, who knew what, and what they were trying to achieve.

I think my main problem with this book is that it is a retelling, and a retelling of a story and characters that I hold dear. I’ve read and enjoyed retellings before like The Lunar Chronicles, and I’ve read retellings that I didn’t really like, like Frankenstein in Baghdad but my dislike of it wasn’t due to it being a retelling. Previously when I’ve read retellings, they’ve been based on stories I’ve had little to no attachment to and then it’s fun to see the new twists on a well-known story.

With Sherwood, I didn’t like what the new twists did to characters I like. My Robin Hood story is Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and I’ll admit the versions of the characters in that film are the ones I know and love. Here, none of the Merry Men get any sort of character development. Will Scarlett is nothing more than a wet weekend while Little John, Alan-a-Dale and Much are only recognisable by their names. I liked the idea of Marian being good with a sword and independent, but it becomes far too close to her being Not Like Other Girls that it’s cringey.

Perhaps Sherwood would’ve worked if it hadn’t had been a retelling. If it was the story of a noble young lady wanting to help people and making friends and having adventures separate from the Robin Hood myth it might’ve worked. Because naturally Sherwood lends itself to comparisons of not only the original story but to the many adaptations that have come before it, and in those comparisons it is found severely lacking.

When I started writing this review I thought I’d give it two stars, but as I was writing I came to the realisation that there was far more that I disliked about Sherwood than liked, and if I hadn’t had it on audio from my library, I definitely would’ve given up on it.

I love the premise of Sherwood but the execution leaves much to be desired, especially when it tears down other characters to make its lead a Strong Female Character, and unfortunately the majority of the story and its characters fall flat. 1/5.

READ THE WORLD: Lithuania – Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė

Translated by Delija Valiukenas.

In 1941, 14-year-old Dalia and her family are deported from their native Lithuania to a labour camp in Siberia. As the strongest member of her family she submits to twelve hours a day of manual labour. At the age of 21, she escapes the gulag and returns to Lithuania. She writes her memories on scraps of paper and buries them in the garden, fearing they might be discovered by the KGB. They are not found until 1991, four years after her death. This is the story Dalia buried.

Again, my Read the World Project is opening my eyes to parts of world history I never knew about. I didn’t know that the Soviet Union deported hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians to either Gulags (prison camps) or to sparsely populated areas of the Soviet Union to provide free labour. Other people from different countries were also deported by the Soviet Union including Poles, Estonians and Latvians. Dalia’s account is tough to read but an important insight into a part of history that perhaps isn’t as well-known as it should be.

Shadows on the Tundra is about Dalia’s experience being deported with her mother and brother, the people they meet, and the terrible conditions they face in a work camp. The account spans a couple of years as Dalia and her fellow deportees are taken from their homes in trains, with no idea where they are going or why, to struggling to survive in the long icy winters in Siberia. The fact that people had the hope that they were being taken to America for a better life, especially when they were put onto boats, made what they were actually forced to experience even worse.

Dalia’s account doesn’t pull any punches. Her matter of fact way of describing the hardships they faced, the excruciating and thankless work they had to do in inhumane conditions and the way they were mistreated by those in charge, it all paints a vivid picture of human suffering.

There are moments though, how ever small and fleeting, in Shadows on the Tundra that show that Dalia and the friends and allies she made, had moments of fun or respite. They don’t last long though. With the malnourishment, the sickness, the frostbite, and the storms that bury everyone in the small barracks that they built themselves, everything looks incredibly bleak.

Shadows on the Tundra is often hard to read, in fact it’s truly devastating at times. It’s hard to imagine how anyone survived living in such terrible conditions on the edge of the Artic circle, having to steal wood in order to stay warm when the punishments for being caught was so severe. Shadows on the Tundra is an incredible account of how a young girl is forced to grow older than her years in order to survive. It will send a chill down your spine more than once.

REVIEW: Internment by Samira Ahmed

It’s been one year since the census landed seventeen-year-old Layla Amin and her parents on the registry. And one month since the President declared that “Muslims are now a threat to America”. now, Layla and her parents are suddenly taken from their home and forced into an internment camp in the desert for Muslim American citizens. With the help of newly made friends trapped within the internment camp with her, her Jewish boyfriend on the outside, and an unexpected alliance, Layla begins to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the internment camp’s Director and his guards.

Part of the reason why Internment is so affecting from the first few pages, is how close it is to our reality now. The rhetoric that comes from the fictional President, and the reactions of white nationalistic people in this story, mirrors what we’ve seen ourselves over the past few years. It’s unsettling because it’s as if the events in Internment could happen, or maybe something very similar already is.

Layla gets frustrated with her parents conforming to societies new rules (her dad gets fired from his job, and she gets suspended from school for kissing her Jewish boyfriend) before they even end up in the internment camp but it’s out of fear and wanting to protect themselves and their child that they do this. In the camp everyone is under constant surveillance and Layla gets more frustrated about how her parents are acting. It’s a self-preservation tactic but Layla is so angry about the injustice she’s experiencing because of her religion that she doesn’t care.

Ayesha, Layla’s new friend in the camp, is great and she makes just the right number of pop culture references without it being too on the nose or cringey. How the two of them lift each other up in such dark times is wonderful to see, and together they make plans for how they can resist and fight for their freedom.

The only minor quibbles I have with Internment concerns David, Layla’s boyfriend, and Corporal Jake, a guard in the camp. Layla almost seems obsessed with David and the risks she puts herself, and others, through to make contact with him is reckless. He is her one piece of normalcy and a connection to the world outside of the camps electric fences, but it almost gets a little unbelievable at times. Corporal Jake is an unlikely ally for Layla, but it’s never really explained why she trusts him so quickly, or how he seems to have so much power and respect in the camp when he’s still pretty young himself at only a few years older than Layla. Those issues can be forgiven though as the messages in Internment and how resilient Layla is to be commended.

Internment touches on a lot of themes to different extents. Islamophobia, racism, fascism, the power of the media, how women and girls who decide to wear the hijab or men who wear traditional dress can have different experiences as they are more “visibly” Muslim. Layla doesn’t wear the hijab and even she must reflect on some of the unconscious stereotypes she believes as first about those who do.

The last third of Internment had me all choked up. Layla is put through so much pain – mental, emotional and physical – as she and her friends and her parents are constantly threatened, but she still manages to stay strong and resolute in her aims. It’s as more and more people from different backgrounds join Layla in her protests that it shows how powerful protests, even peaceful ones can be. The way social media is used to spread the word of what is happening in the camp, and how people outside of it react feels true to life and shows Layla and her fellow prisoners aren’t as alone as they might’ve feared.

Internment is a tough yet powerful read. It showcases the true horrors of human nature, how fear or greed can make people turn on each other, but it also shows the strength people have, how people can fight for what’s right and protect one another. It’s (unfortunately) a timely read but that makes it all the more affecting. 5/5.

REVIEW: Roger Federer & Rafael Nadal: The Lives and Careers of Two Tennis Legends by Sebastián Fest

Non-fiction book about the two men who have dominated men’s tennis since 2004: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Each player is legendary in his own right. The Spanish Nadal is the winner of fourteen Grand Slam titles, including five consecutive French Open singles titles from 2010 to 2014, and is the only player ever to win a Grand Slam for ten straight years. Federer, from Switzerland, has spent over three hundred weeks of his career ranked as the number-one player in the world and has won seventeen Grand Slam titles and two Olympic medals. But neither player’s career would have been nearly as successful without the decade-long rivalry that pushed them to excel to the peak of tennis excellence.

This book, being first published in 2015 is naturally a little out of date, Federer currently has twenty Grand Slam titles while Nadal won his nineteenth Grand Slam title earlier this month, but it does a good job covering ten years of their careers, how they intersect and gives you some background on their childhoods, families and philosophies. The edition I read was “revised and updated” and it did touch on 2017 and how it was a comeback year for both Federer and Nadal. They finished the year with two Grand Slams each and in the number one and two spots in the rankings – the first time they both had those rankings since 2010.

The book isn’t in any real chronological order which can be a bit confusing, instead each chapter is focused on a theme or an event and how that affects Federer or Nadal, or both of them. Some chapters are focused on one man and then they next few are on the other, while other chapters are about an event or theme that affects them both. As the chapters jump back and forth in time, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out where we are in terms of what year it is and what’s going on in the two men’s careers. As someone who has followed Federer and Nadal’s careers since 2008 but has never really known about the ins and outs of tennis politics, it was sometimes difficult to figure out the context of what was going on.

I did like how this book was a balanced account about both men – though that could be down to how much respect Nadal and Federer have for each other and the sport. That’s not to say they don’t have differences of opinion and the period in 2012 when they clashed on the players council is covered. Reading about how they had such differing opinions and strong feelings about different subjects then, makes the fact that Federer and Nadal have rejoined the ATP players council together this year all the more interesting and shows how their relationship has continued to evolve.

The sections where other tennis players from throughout history, people like Rod Laver and Martina Navratilova, offer an insight into the sport and the affects Federer and Nadal have had on it were very interesting. It was nice to hear how other tennis legends viewed them, and how their rivalry compared to rivalries of the past.

If you’re interested in Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, their achievements and their rivalry, then this book is worth picking up. It might help to have more than a basic knowledge of tennis and the bureaucracy around it but for the most part the author does a good job at explaining who everyone is. Naturally there’s some chapters that aren’t as interesting as others, and a few are a little dry, but it’s nice to read a book where Federer and Nadal’s personalities shine through and the main thing you can take from it is how humble and respectful the two men are. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Haiti: Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

Narrated by Robin Miles.

Trigger warnings for sexual abuse, child abuse, eating disorders (bulimia), suicide, self-harm, breast cancer and rape.

Sophie is raised by her aunt in an impoverished village in Haiti but when she is twelve years old her mother sends for her and she moves from all she knows to New York City to be with a mother she barely remembers. As Sophie grows up, she clashes with her mother over the “testing” and she tries to find her own way.

“Testing” is a Haitian tradition where a mother would test to see if their daughter is still a virgin by inserting their finger into their daughter’s vagina to check that the hymen is intact. Sophie is mentally and physically scarred by the ordeal as she would have to go through the testing every night once she was in her late teens. It naturally puts a strain on her relationship with her mother, but her mother feels it’s her duty to make sure her daughter stays pure and virtuous, plus it’s something her mother and her aunt was subjected to as well. When Sophie returns to Haiti with her own five-month year old daughter, she learns that the testing happened to her grandmother and her grandmother has no regrets over testing her children even though she knew the pain and humiliation well. The testing is a tradition and is framed as a mother’s job to do to make sure her daughter stays a virgin until she’s married.

Breath, Eyes, Memory is quite a sad book really. It tackles a lot of tough topics (please do heed the trigger warnings) though it doesn’t give all of them the time they deserve to develop. It seems almost impossible how much pain and suffering the women in one family can go through. All the women in Sophie’s family have been hurt in different ways but they are all incredibly resilient because of it. That doesn’t mean they don’t hurt each other though; Sophie and her mother clash a lot and Sophie’s grandmother can be cruel to her daughters.

I found Sophie’s forgiveness of her mother to be too quick for what Sophie had been through. I liked how Sophie struggled with what her mother had done to her, but at the same time understood that her mother tested her out of her version of love and because it’s what happened to her. Still, it didn’t seem like their reconciliation took long at all when Sophie was well in her right to continue to keep her distance from her mother, no matter the pressure her grandmother put on her to forgive her. The ending of Breath, Eyes, Memory felt rushed as another problem or tragedy was added to Sophie and her mother’s lives, taking up the time that could’ve been spent on giving their reconciliation more time to feel natural.

The audio book of Breath, Eyes, Memory is narrated well but the language used in the book is quite simple. It adds some distance from the drama and serious topics do not feel as hard-hitting as they could. Breath, Eyes, Memory is a tough read about family, shared trauma, gender and sexual identity. It’s a lot to cram into a relatively short book and somethings do get lost along the way. 3/5.