book review

READ THE WORLD – Iceland: The Blue Fox by Sjón

The Blue Fox follows two storylines; one follows a hunter, Reverend Baldur Skuggason, who’s tracking a rare blue fox, and the other follows Fridrik, a man who cares for Abba, a young woman with Down syndrome who he rescued from a shipwreck. It’s not obvious to begin with how they are all connected but as the story progresses, everything becomes clearer in this snowy landscape.

The Blue Fox is set in 1983 in Iceland and the writing is quite beautiful, though sometimes it’s just as harsh as the Icelandic winter the story takes place in. One such harsh moment is how it talks about people with Downs syndrome. Yes, it may be period-typical but it was still a shock, especially when there was writings from a medical journal, theorising how and why someone is born with Down syndrome.

The snowy mountains of Iceland where Skuggason hunts the fox are just as much a character as any of the humans. The atmosphere is chilling, and the writing puts you right there next to the hunter in the snow. The fox is a character as well, as there are some pages devoted to its point of view, making it not just this prize to be won, but a creature that you manage to care about in a few short pages.

The Blue Fox is a short book at just over 100 pages long. I enjoyed the portion about the hunter and the fox more, especially when things go a bit weird and you’re not sure what’s real and what’s not, but when you finally see what the connection is between Fridrik, Abba and Skuggason it makes Fridrik and Abba’s story more interesting. 3/5.

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READ THE WORLD – Samoa: Freelove by Sia Figiel

It is 1985 in Western Samoa and Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” rules the airwaves. Seventeen and a half-year-old Star Trek fanatic Inosia Alofafua Afatasi is sent to the capital, Apia, to buy three giant white threads. As she waits at the bus stop, Mr Ioane Viliamu, her science and maths teacher and the son of the pastor, and in turn, her spiritual brother, stops to offer her a ride in his red pickup truck. Inosia is faced with choice, does she take the ride or wait for the bus?

Freelove is a story of forbidden romance and a young woman who is smart and capable but still has a lot to learn. Inosia is very academically smart and loves science and space, in part thanks to her obsession with Star Trek. I think having a character who is repeatedly told to be beautiful, also be smart and has a nerdy obsession is quite different.

It took a little while to get used to how Freelove is written. There’s no speech marks when characters talk, instead there’s a new paragraph when someone is speaking and there’s no real signifier when it’s back to being Inosia’s thoughts. You definitely have to pay attention and when there are conversations they flow very quickly. I liked how the book features Samoan though. Sometimes when characters talked it would first be in Samoan and then have the English translation next to it.

There is sexual content in Freelove and I appreciated that any sex was consensual, and the characters were constantly talking about how they were feeling, if anything hurt or they wanted to stop, and they listened to one another. The romance between Inosia and Ioane was interesting because both of them knew what they were doing was “wrong” or wouldn’t be accepted in their village. This was because of the age difference, the fact they are spiritually related to one another and the fact that they weren’t traditionally married. They go into things with their eyes open but as you read you can’t help but wonder when or how everything is going to go wrong for them. It gives you a sense of foreboding that’s never really satisfied.

Freelove is a quick and relatively easy read once you get used to the writing style. The descriptions of Idosia’s day to day life and her family are vivid and while the romance felt a bit rushed to begin with, it’s clear that these two care about one another deeply. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD: Norway – One of Us: The Story of a Massacre and its Aftermath by Åsne Seierstad

On 22 July 2011, Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 of his fellow Norwegians in a terrorist attack that shocked the world. Many of his victims were teenagers. Following this atrocity, questions began to appear; how and why could this happen? And who was Anders Breivik? One of Us does it’s best to answer these questions and more with extensive witness testimonies and interviews.

One of Us is a very tough read, but it’s a compelling and emotional one too. The book follows Breivik’s life, from growing up with his single mother and half-sister, to being an adult where his grand plans don’t always work out for him. This way you get an insight into his mind. It is often unsettling as you begin to almost understand why he is the way he is, but it’s still difficult to comprehend how someone can have such a hatred for those with differing political views, religion, and social ideals.

Something that I wasn’t expecting was the book to follow a few of Breivik’s young victims; Bano Rashid, Simon Sæbø, Anders Kristiansen and Viljar Hanssen. By following these teenagers from childhood, Rashid and Sæbø especially, you get to see how their lives and beliefs are the complete opposite to Breivik’s, it makes some uncomfortable and upsetting reading sometimes as all these young people had bright futures in front of them.

One of Us is made from Breivik’s own accounts that he published online, as well as interviews from friends, family and any officials that came into contact with Breivik at any point in his life. This gives you a comprehensive picture of Breivik’s mind when he set out to attack the government quarter of Oslo and the AUF-run summer camp on the island of Utøya.

There’s a sense of foreboding as time passes and the account gets closer to the day of the attack. The way the attack is described is both distressing and gripping. It’s a proper page-turner and you need a breather afterwards because of the tension and how graphic the violence is, though there’s an air of distance that allows you some breathing space, however small. There’s also a feeling of frustration as you learn about how the emergency and security services reacted on the day and the failings they had, you get the sense that there could have been less casualties if there’d been better communication between the various services.

One of Us not only covers the lead up to the attacks and that day, but the subsequent trial and how families of those who died and the survivors are, or aren’t, coping with what happened. It allows for a feeling of closure, even if those grieving may never get it themselves. One of Us is an emotional rollercoaster that offers an insight to an event and all those involved that I knew very little about. It’s a tough read but I feel it’s an important one.

READ THE WORLD – Bulgaria: Street Without a Name by Kapka Kassabova

Kapka Kassabova grew up on the outskirts of Sofia during the last years of Cold War Communism in the 1980s until she left as soon as she could. As Bulgaria gets ready to join the EU (the country joined 1 January 2007) Kapka Kassabova returns to her home country, to retrace her childhood steps and discover what’s become of the country, and discovers how much both it – and she – has changed.

Street Without a Name is a mixture of a personal memoir and a study of country’s history. As Kassabova states with a disclaimer at the start of the book, while it is a work of non-fiction and depicts real historic and political events, they are her take on them and how events affected her and her family. The book is split into two parts, the first is Kassabova’s childhood growing up in Sofia, and the second half is when she returns after 15 years away from Bulgaria, living in various countries including New Zealand, exploring both places from her childhood and parts of the country she’d never been to before.

I really enjoyed Street Without a Name. The way Kassabova writes about the effects of growing up in Eastern Europe with Communism being such an overbearing force in their lives is sometimes both uncomfortable and farcical. It is honest in the difficulties her parents faced, the lack of food and clothes available, and the tough examinations she had to go through in school and the dilemma of being so good you get noticed and not doing well enough.

I knew nothing about Bulgaria before I read this book. It was a country I knew the name of, probably because of the Eurovision Song Contest to be honest, but that was it. Street Without a Name is a really great insight into Bulgaria’s history, not only is time as a Cold War Communist country but it’s history in the First and Second World War and conflicts with countries in the region spanning hundreds of years. It’s interesting to see what nationalities and religions make up Bulgaria, the way different people see others and how being way from a country for so long can – or cannot – change your perception of it.

I feel I have learnt a lot from Street Without a Name. It’s an interesting insight into the complexities of nationality, belonging and understanding. Kassabova is a good storyteller, weaving mini history lessons into the places she’s visiting whether that’s a town or a church or any place of historical significance so well that they seldom feel out of place or jarring. I really enjoy this type of non-fiction book, it offers a personal take on a country and its history that makes it more engaging than perhaps reading a proper history book on the same subject.

If you know very little about Bulgaria and the effects of Cold War Communism that are still prevalent today but want to know more, I’d definitely recommend Street Without a Name.

REVIEW: Nasty Women

Nasty Women is a collection of essays and accounts on what it is to be a woman in the twenty-first century, that was originally funded on Kickstarter (I was one of the many backers).

Nasty Women is a really interesting collection of writing. While they could be called essays, the way a lot of them are written feel more like an insight into someone’s like and how their experiences relate to society as a whole. Naturally there is a focus on feminism here, but there’s also writing about racism, sexuality, class, disability and how all those things and more intersect with feminism and what it means to be a woman today.

Naturally there were some essays I related to more due to shared experiences, but it was great to have my eyes opened to things I wouldn’t normally notice as an able-bodied white woman. The thing I really liked though, was each essay managed to make me empathise with the writer as it was clear they were writing from the heart, often sharing personal fears and tragedies. that being said, some of them were quite funny and some were like hearing a friend talk rather than it being a “proper” essay.

I liked that there were essays I didn’t really expect. A few of them talked about the Punk scene, whether that was being a part of a band or just enjoying the music and atmosphere, and there was one essay, Foraging and Feminism: Hedge-witchcraft in the 21st Century by Alice Tarbuck, that talked about wise women and witches from the past to modern day – it was something I’d never really thought about before.

One line from The Dark Girl’s Enlightenment by Joelle A. Owusu, the final essay in the collection, that stuck with me was the following: ““Not everything is about race.” “Not everything is sexist.” Perhaps not. But enough of it is for it to be an ongoing problem that we simply cannot sweep under the carpet anymore.” It encapsulates that there is so much still to be done for women in this world, even in the West where sometimes the narrative is “women in X country have got it worse than you” Women around the world suffer in different ways, some may seem small to outsiders looking in, but it all hurts.

Nasty Women is a great collection of writing from twenty-two different women. Those essays that talked about Trump’s election or living in a post-Brexit Britain were often the ones that hit home for me, but there are so many touching and interesting essays in here and they are accessible too. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – France: The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

Guylain Vignolles lives a dull life and barely interacts with anything. His job at a book-pulping factory leaves him feeling empty and feeling sick. But each day, sitting on the 6.27 train each day to go to a job he hates, he reads aloud to fellow passenger’s scraps of pages he’s saved from the pulping machine. It is his one pleasure in life. But when Guylain discovers a dairy belonging to a woman named Julie – a woman who appears to feel as lost in the world as he does – Guylain feels inspired to try and find her.

I found The Reader on the 6.27 quite a slow read for the first half of the book but then sped through the last 100 pages. I think it’s because the book is kind of split in two – before Guylain has read Julie’s diary and after. Before, he lives a life where he’s very apathetic towards everything, he hates his job and doesn’t have anyone except his goldfish – he, much like his life, was a bit boring. Once he reads Julie’s diary it’s like he has a new lease of life. He becomes more motivated and, to me, a lot more interesting.

The Reader on the 6.27 has moments of pretty dark humour which was a surprise, especially as the book is from Guylain’s perspective and he doesn’t really come across as a witty or humorous guy. The description of the book-pulping factory is very vivid and often quite disgusting. There’s mentions of rats that have got squished in the book-pulping machines teeth and the machine does seem to be its own ominous character. It feels like a real threat not only to Guylain’s safety but to his sanity as well.

The Reader on the 6.27 is a short book and is well-written but it’s not a story that will stay with me, especially as for most of the book the main character was impassive and bland. Though I do realise Guylain’s boringness was probably intended as it was clear there was a marked difference in him not only when he read Julie’s diary, but when he started to socialise with people in general. Still, it was too little too late for me.

READ THE WORLD – Democratic Republic of the Congo: Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou

It’s 1970, and in the People’s Republic of Congo, a Marxist-Leninist revolution is heralding a new age. But in the orphanage where Moses has grown up, they have terror and corruption in the form of the orphanage’s director. When Moses makes his escape, he finds a new home in busy Pointe-Noire with petty thieves and Z airian prostitutes. His new life is thrown into chaos when he authorities want to remove the city’s underbelly, and as they do so, Moses starts to lose grip on reality.

Black Moses is a captivating and well-written read. The language used paints a vivid picture of Moses and his life, growing up from child orphan to teenage thief and to an adult who has his own family unit. The interesting thing is that Moses’ life is so often shaped by political turmoil but it’s something that neither he nor the book really comments on, events happen and sometimes Moses doesn’t even really notice them.

There are a lot of references to various political leaders and the repressive politics of the Congo, having an understanding of that may have made the book more enjoyable, but it was still an accessible read. It has a lot of themes you can connect to, regardless of your knowledge of what life was like in 1970s Congo. There’s themes of loss, family, friendship and being forced to grow up fast.

The story is a quick read and there’s many funny moments. Whether that’s the situations Moses finds himself in, especially his antics in the orphanage, or through the dialogue between characters. The dialogue is quick, sharp and witty and is a great indicator as to what these characters and like and what they value.

Black Moses is an enjoyable read. At just under 200 pages the story speeds along as you follow Moses through his childhood to adulthood, leaning more about him and those he loves and loses along the way. 4/5.