book review

READ THE WORLD – Fiji: Memoirs of a Reluctant Traveller by Sudesh Mishra

A poetry collection about travelling and the places and people a traveller encounters.

This is an incredibly short poetry collection at 52 pages and every poem is a dizain stanza – meaning it has ten lines and each are a complete poem. Though, because of the theme of travelling some feel more connected than others. Also, the order of the poems does seem like a conscious choice as some really flow well together.

The poems I enjoyed the most were the ones about the travelling experience; whether that was by plane, train, or bus. I haven’t been to any of the places mentioned in the poems so while they did paint a good picture, I couldn’t connect with them. However, I could relate to the poems where it was full of gripes about travelling and how with each mode of transport there are different things a person experiences. They captured the monotony of travel really well.

There’s nothing else I can really say about this poetry collection because it’s so short. Each poem gives a snapshot of a place or an experience and some of them work better than others for me.

READ THE WORLD – Belize: Beka Lamb by Zee Edgell

Fourteen-year-old Beka and her best friend Toycie (who’s seventeen) are on the cusp of adulthood. They have family, school and boys to contend with as their home and everyone they know have to deal with the political upheaval as Belize strives towards independence.

Beka Lamb is set in the early 1950s and at this point Belize was a British colony. Throughout the novel there’s mentions of different political parties, how products coming from different countries mean different things, and Beka’s grandmother is heavily involved and up to date with the meetings that are happening in town. I knew nothing of Belize’s history before reading Beka Lamb and the way the politics of the country are interwoven in the story made things easy to understand and gave context to the reasons why characters said and did certain things. Having the story be from Beka’s point of view meant that there was almost a naivety to it at times as she had a lot of growing up to do.

As well as the political upheaval Beka’s family are living through there’s also how the Catholic church is a dominating presence in their lives – especially Beka and Toycie’s as the school they go to is run by nuns. The influence the women at the school have over them and the wider society can’t be underestimated. When Beka’s father asks them for help or even understanding when a situation arises, they refuse saying it’s a slight upon the school and their values.

The friendship between Beka and Toycie is the really heart of this story. Even though there’s three years between them they are really close and help each other in different ways. Toycie can help Beka with her school work while Beka will be a sometimes-reluctant alibi when Toycie wants to sneak out to see a boy. The differences in their homelives are glaring but also shows how strong their friendship is as there’s no resentment from Toycie. Beka lives with her parents, young brothers and her grandmother and while not well-off they don’t struggle financially. Toycie on the other hand lives with her aunt and she does struggle to provide for Toycie and is clearly living below the poverty line.

Beka Lamb is a pretty standard coming of age story; Beka tries to find her voice, do well in school, and stop lying. Having this story set in Belize and in a time of political and social upheaval adds extra layers to Beka’s story and while some thing’s are universal, others are deeply personal. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Devil Makes Three by Tori Bovalino

When Tess and Eliot stumble upon an ancient book hidden in a secret tunnel beneath their school library, they accidentally release a devil from his book-bound prison, and he’ll stop at nothing to stay free. He’ll manipulate all the ink in the library books to do his bidding, he’ll murder in the stacks, and he’ll bleed into every inch of Tess’s life until his freedom is permanent. Forced to work together, Tess and Eliot have to find a way to re-trap the devil before he kills everyone they know and love, including, increasingly, each other.

I’ve been getting the book-only Illumicrate subscription for the past six months and this is the first book I’ve actually read from them. That’s not necessarily anything against the books from previous months (especially as I’m just generally not reading as much as I used to) but as soon as I read the blurb for The Devil Makes Three and looked at that beautiful but dark cover, I really wanted to read it as soon as possible. Thankfully, for a book I’d never heard of before and had just piqued my interest – I really did enjoy The Devil Makes Three.

The atmosphere in The Devil Makes Three is incredibly vivid. Even before the devil makes an appearance there’s a sense of foreboding and bleakness to both Tess and Eliot’s lives. As the story progresses you learn more about the two of them and how their relationships with their parents are strained for different reasons. Each of them are going through tough times and with Tess especially it’s made her hard and prickly. She’s been betrayed by the people (her parents) who are supposed to care about her and put her and her younger sister Nat first so she now finds it incredibly difficult to trust and rely on other people. This means that she tries to deal with what’s going on with the devil on her own before opening up to Eliot about what’s been happening to her.

The things Tess ad Eliot experience after the accidentally release the devil are truly creepy and terrible. Things they experience blur the line between dream and reality, making events even more unsettling as they (and you as the reader) are never entirely sure what’s real. There is a bit of gore in The Devil Makes Three but it’s not over the top and instead it’s ink that’s used to give you nightmares. Honestly never thought of ink as creepy/evil but the way it’s described here, how it moves and bleeds from pages and almost devours people, it’s really quite disturbing.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a creepy/horror story and The Devil Makes Three was really very good. The ending was a little sudden and I’d have liked to see more of the consequences of Tess and Eliot’s actions on people in their wider sphere who were affected, but overall, it’s a gripping and atmospheric read. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Chad: Told by Starlight in Chad by Joseph Brahim Seid

Translated by Karen Haire Hoenig.

This very short book, it’s less than 80 pages, contains fourteen short stories.

I found the experience of reading Told by Starlight in Chad really interesting. The writing style is simple and because the stories are the kind that tell the history of a place or a people or are like a fable, even though they weren’t stories I knew, the beats were often familiar. They’re the sort of stories that could’ve been told for generations verbally before being written down as many of them contain some sort of moral or lesson.

There are stories to do with religion, creation, and vengeful gods. There are stories that seem to be based on real historical events – I had to do some googling as there were names of cities and regions of Chad mentioned, how they were created or who ruled them, and they weren’t names I was familiar with. I learnt about the Wadai Empire thanks to this book. An area to the east of Lake Chad that covered present-day Chad and the Central African Republic that was ruled by a sultan in the seventeenth century.

A lot of the stories have an almost fairy-tale quality to them. There are wicked stepmothers, talking animals, giants, kings and princesses. Some stories are sad but most end happily or with those who have suffered getting some sort of justice.

Told by Starlight in Chad is a collection of stories that are like folktales and I found them very easy to read. I also found it interesting to see how while the stories weren’t ones I knew, the kinds of messages they had were ones I learnt from different stories growing up. So while the narrative was different, the morals are universal.

READ THE WORLD – Andorra: The Mysterious Balloon Man by Albert Salvadó

At the end of the eighteenth century, changes abound all over Europe. France is in conflict with its neighbours (and is losing a monarch too), England and Spain struggle for supremacy in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and on the other side of the ocean and new power is starting to emerge – the United States of America. After realising that traditional spies will no longer work in this changing world, civil servant Alfred Gordon propose that the British secret service should employ Thomas Headking – an Englishman living in Spain who is on the run for killing a nobleman’s son in a duel. From using his business acumen Thomas gains information and secrets, while getting embroiled in romantic drama, that the British could find very useful.

I don’t tend to read reviews of books I know I’m going to read (especially for my Read the World Project) but as I discovered The Mysterious Balloon Man via Goodreads when looking for an author from Andorra, I happened to glance at people’s star ratings and they weren’t particularly high. Because of that I went into this book with some trepidation but then was pleasantly surprised to fine I weirdly enjoyed it.

It is an odd book and is very heavy on the history and politics of the time – there’s a handy table at the beginning showing all the real historical figures in The Mysterious Balloon Man and who they were which was helpful. Because The Mysterious Balloon Man is one of those books where it’s set during real historical events and features a lot of people who really existed, Charles IV the King of Spain and William Pitt the British Prime Minister to name a few, but the main character we follow are all fictious; Alfred Gordon, Sir Arthur Blum (head of intelligence services at the Foreign Office), Thomas Headking and the everyday Spanish people he interacts with whether that’s his business partner (who doesn’t know his partner is a spy) or Maria the deaf-mute woman he helps and becomes his source inside the Spanish Prime Minister’s residence.

The Mysterious Balloon Man is the first book in a trilogy and the titular Balloon Man plays a very minor role in this book and doesn’t even show up until the latter half of the story. Really, The Mysterious Balloon Man is about Thomas Headking becoming a reluctant spy/businessman and all the goings on in the British secret service as they try and keep track of what’s going on in Spain and France and have some infighting too. It’s a slow-moving book with a lot of political goings on so if that’s not your thing then it wouldn’t be for you.

What I was surprised to find in The Mysterious Balloon Man was this incredibly wry sense of humour running through it – especially from Alfred Gordon. There’s a lot of him butting heads with his superior and other civil servants and there’s people who you wonder how on Earth they got to positions of such power when they are so incredibly incompetent (very true to life really). This sort of tongue in cheek humour made the stuffier moments easier to take in.

While all in all it’s hard to see whether or not Thomas and the British secret service really achieved what they set out to do, as they were doing it, I was mostly entertained. I’m not sure when I will continue with this trilogy but there was enough in this first book to not give up on this series. I think mainly I’m intrigued to know more about Ali Bey as the trilogy is called The Shadow of Ali Bey and they only made a brief appearance in this book. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – The Marshall Islands: Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter by Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner

A collection of poetry covering themes like history, personal experience, and the Marshallese people and their culture.

I’ve read about a dozen poetry collections for my Read the World Project and I still think it’s an often interesting way to get a snapshot of a poets culture and interests. I think that Iep Jāltok is one of my favourite, and the best, collections I’ve read in a while.

The style of the poems differ. Some are in simple stanzas, others the words meander across the page or is just one big paragraph. There’s a few that are concrete poetry – written in the shape of a boat or a pot.

I knew nothing about the Marshall Islands before picking up Iep Jāltok and even now I still know very little. The poem “History Project” (which is also the name of one of the four sections of the collection) is about how when Jetn̄il-Kijiner was in school she researched how the United States conducted nuclear testing on the Marshall Islands. That in and of itself is something that I never knew about but how the poem goes into the images and statistics she found, the lasting effects on generations of people from the radiation, how Americans protested animals being used as guineapigs but not the people of the islands – it’s all so sad, horrible, but also not that surprising when you consider the history of the USA. It’s a really effective poem and after that one there’s mention of radiation and the sickness it caused in members of Jetn̄il-Kijiner’s family in other poems.

It’s the poems about the history of the Marshall Islands, its people and the effect climate is having on them that I really liked. There are poems about how the Marshallese are lumped together with other people from different small island countries in the Pacific Ocean. The racism Jetn̄il-Kijiner has experienced and how she feels that she and her people are forgotten by the rest of the world – especially when it comes to climate change. “Two Degrees” is about how the increase in temperature of two degrees will affect the Marshall Islands, and how the rising sea levels is already flooding the islands. Terms like rising sea levels often seem abstract and hard to comprehend, whether because you live away from the coast or it’s genuinely hard to image a beach or land no longer being above water. Having the effects of climate change laid out in a poem makes it seem so simple and real.

Iep Jāltok is a thought-provoking poetry collection with a lot of powerful poems. It shows history and issues from a point of view I had not seen before and demonstrates how unfortunately universal things  like racism and climate change affect people differently when they’re from different communities. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Burundi: Baho! by Roland Rugero

Translated by Christopher Schaefer.

When Nyamuragi, an adolescent mute, attempts to ask a young woman in rural Burundi for directions to an appropriate place to relieve himself, his gestures are mistaken as premeditation for rape. To the young woman’s community, his fleeing confirms his guilt, setting off a chain reaction of pursuit, mob justice, and Nyamuragi’s attempts at explanation.

First of all, I got to say I really like how this book is packaged. Bit weird I know but bear with me. Baho! is such a short book, only 90 pages, and the book itself is just tiny and the cover has a buttery feel and it’s just a generally nice book.

Now onto the content of said book. Baho! is told from multiple characters points of view. While most of the time the point of view changes at the start of a new chapter, sometimes it happens during a chapter after a line break and it did take me a little while to figure out who’s head I was now in especially if it was a point of view we hadn’t seen before. I think the one-eyed old lady was my favourite POV as she is one of those characters who seemed to pick up things that others missed but the sections from Nyamuragi’s POV, especially after the misunderstanding and the mob’s reaction to him, were really quite sad. It’s easy to understand his confusion while equally seeing how the young woman misconstrued what he was trying to gesture to her.

Baho! covers so many themes in such a short number of pages. There’s rape culture and mob mentality, how both can be full of contradictions, misogyny and how in a patriarchal society young women are seen as something pure and that needs protecting, generational and class gaps, and just general refusal to try and accept and understand disabled people.

While the misunderstanding with Nyamuragi is happening there are memories and stories told that sometimes feel a little out of place or at least have you wondering where the story’s going for a moment. There’s Nyamuragi’s childhood and how his mutism has affected his life but there’s also a story told by the one-eyed old lady that is more like a cautionary tale rather than anything that has a direct relation to the main story.

Overall, Baho! is an interesting short story with a lot to it that would be worth discussing with others. It’s a story that’s often vivid in its descriptions, so much so that some are unsettling, but equally there’s a few moments that are surprisingly sweet. It certainly fits a lot in.

READ THE WORLD – Dominica: Nature Island Verses by Alick Lazare

A poetry collection split into three parts; Love, Life, and Politics. This collection has a mix of poetry, some rhymes, some don’t and the rhyming schemes used aren’t consistent in the collection.

The first part of this poetry collection had poems about love. Maybe it’s because I’m not a particularly lovey-dovey person but these poems didn’t do a lot for me. I don’t think it’s Lazare’s poems specifically, just love poems generally. The poems about life and politics were more interesting to me.

Of the Life poems, “By the Lake”, “Epitath”, and “Hurricane David (August, 1979)” were what really stood out to me. They seem to encompass the theme of life very well and almost seem to be about different stages of life. “By the Lake” is quite beautiful with its descriptions of nature and belief, it’s almost like rebirth or the start of life – especially in comparison to “Epitath” which is about death and the acceptance of it. “Hurricane David (August, 1979)” paints a vivid picture of the destruction and beauty of a hurricane; before, during, and after it wreaks havoc.

I found the poems in the Politics section interesting though I feel like there was references to people and events that I’m unaware of so some probably didn’t have the same impact as if I did know those bits of Dominican history. “A Chronicle of Events Untold” was a great poem to end the collection on. It’s a narrative, rhyming poem that tells the history of Dominica; the different people who tried to colonise it, Columbus, slavery, independence, the rise and fall of democracy. It’s an interesting and affecting way to get a very broad overview of Dominica’s history and what the people have gone through.

READ THE WORLD – Belarus: The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich

Translated by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. Narrated by Yelena Shmulenson and Julia Emelin.

Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of women to get their first-hand accounts of their experiences in the Second World War. What made them want to fight and what they did – whether that was on the front lines, on the home front or in occupied territories.

Being born and raised in the UK, when it came to learning about the First and Second World War, what British soldiers went through and how the wars affected the British people was the main focus. I did learn about the Allies and how Russia played a big part in the success of both conflicts but never really knew anything about the people on the front lines there.

While most of what I learnt about British Women during WWII was that they worked on the farms or in factories, or maybe became nurses or radio operators in Europe but there was definitely more of a focus on what British women did on British soil.

The women from the Soviet Union, whether they were Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Russian, or whoever were on the front lines. There’s accounts from women in the typical roles like nurses, surgeons and radio operators but then there’s women who were snipers, pilots, anti-aircraft gunners, soldiers. They all had different ranks from privates to lieutenants and many of them were awarded medals and honours for their service. And the majority of these women joined up when they were teenagers, some as young as fourteen but most were between the ages of sixteen to twenty-one during the war. It’s hard to comprehend what these women saw and experienced and how it shaped their lives.

The Unwomanly Face of War is a hard book to get through as it really is often harrowing. These women tell their stories so matter-of-factly even when it concerns dead bodies and men trapped inside a burning tanks. I think listening to it on audio helped as it was easier to take a breather and pull myself out of that dark headspace.

While naturally these women’s accounts were the main focus, I did like how Alexievich inserted a little backstory every now and then as to how she found these women to interview or what the experience was like listening to them talk. I especially found it interesting how she noted that the way these women talked about their experience differed when there was a man in the room. If their husband was there, it was like they didn’t feel as free to talk about things – even if he also fought and had seen and done similar things. I think it’s because these stories are often about how the woman felt in these situations, and some of the things talked about were mundane like how there was no lady’s underwear or boots in the army to begin with and the problems that came with that.

Another thing that’s talked about is love, whether these women found love before, during or after the war and how the war affected them and their relationships. The fact that after the war some men refused to date or marry a young woman who had been at the front, who had fought for her country, because it was seen as unseemly or unladylike was infuriating. Especially as often during the war it seemed like male soldiers treated their female counterparts with respect.

I learnt a lot from The Unwomanly Face of War. I was almost constantly in awe of these women, how they were just teenagers or young women at the time and the things they fought through, is so impressive. I liked how the accounts sometimes contradicted each other, in the sense that it’s clear that while all these women experienced the war, they didn’t experience it or feel about the enemy the same way. Some pitied the fascist soldiers they had to treat while others despised them. It showed how complicated human emotions are and how sometimes in wartime not everything is easy to compartmentalise.

While The Unwomanly Face of War is a tough read, I think it’s an important one. I learnt so much and the fact that it’s an unflinching look at what so many women went through and of the war as a whole makes it more impactful. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Laos: Mother’s Beloved: Stories from Laos by Outhine Bounyavong

Translated by Bounheng Inversin, Roger Rumpf, Jaqui Chagon, Thipason Phimviengkham, and William Galloway.

A collection of short stories about the ordinary people of Laos.

These stories were super short, often no more than five pages long, but they often managed to say a lot. I was frequently surprised by how often the last paragraph or even the last sentence of a story suddenly reframed everything that had come before it, twisting the narrative slightly so you see things from a different point of view. The stories are quite simply written but that just adds to their impact and makes them incredibly readable. This is a collection I read in one sitting and I think that’s because of the length and the writing style.

The stories are often about very mundane things and people, their hopes and dreams, their mistakes and good fortunes. It made how the viewpoint on the characters or the story twist so much more interesting. I really liked how this collection was bookended by stories about mothers. It made the title of the collection work and it gave the collection a sense of completeness that I haven’t always gotten from short story collections.

Some of the stories were sad, talking about the fallout of from war and how the threat of environmental degradation affects people, both individually and collectively, in different ways. It’s an interesting collection and I really appreciated the introduction from Peter Koret as it gave a brief overview of Laos history and how different factors has affected its literature over the decades. To be honest, I don’t often read introductions in books (I’m usually too keen to get to the actual story) so I’m not sure what made me start reading this one, but I’m pleased I did as a lot of it added context to the short stories and made me grasp cultural references I would have otherwise missed. Note to self: read introductions more often.

Something I really appreciated about Mother’s Beloved was the decision to have the stories in the original Lao side by side with the English translation. I’ve seen it before in translated poetry collections like The End of the Dark Era and Looking for Trouble, but I’d not seen this in a short story collection before. Lao is a completely different looking language and alphabet to what I know so I have no hope of reading it but I liked how in the introduction the decision to include both the original text and the translation was because it could mean the stories could be shared with multiple generations of people, no matter if they only knew English or Lao.