book review

READ THE WORLD – Saint Lucia: Poetry by Sassy Ross

As it was difficult to find induvial work by Sassy Ross, or any writer from Saint Lucia, I discovered Coming Up Hot: Eight New Poets from the Caribbean. A poetry collection featuring poems from eight poets who are from Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica, Guyana, St Vincent and St Lucia. This “review” will solely be about Sassy Ross’s work.

I liked the fact that before each poet’s work began, there was a photo of the poet and a short bio. These can add some context for the work you’re about to read and in Coming Up Hot there were fifteen poems by Sassy Ross.

Themes that appeared in a lot of Sassy Ross’s poems are family, childhood, and stiving for connections. The poems are all pretty short, most being only a page long and only a few stanzas long too. A few of the poems are monostich poems – they are comprised of just one (sometimes almost a page long) stanza.

My favourite poems that showed these ideas well were “My Grandmother’s Room” and “Patching Up”. With “My Grandmother’s Room” it’s like she’s searching for reminders of the past, while the way “Patching Up” is written is like a dialogue between siblings. It’s almost two poems in one as one is from the brother to the sister and the other is the other way round. You get to see two sides of a story and how different people can perceive the same situation.

READ THE WORLD – Saint Vincent and the Grenadines: Poetry by Debra Providence

As it was difficult to find induvial work by Debra Providence, or any writer from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, I discovered Coming Up Hot: Eight New Poets from the Caribbean. A poetry collection featuring poems from eight poets who are from Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica, Guyana, St Vincent and St Lucia. This “review” will solely be about Debra Providence’s work.

I liked the fact that before each poet’s work began, there was a photo of the poet and a short bio. These can add some context for the work you’re about to read and in Coming Up Hot there were eight poems by Debra Providence.

These poems are about women and rebirth and a few feature a lot of imagery around nature. The style of poems isn’t consistent. Some rhyme, some are four stanzas long, others have only a word or two per line, hammering the point of them home. It’s an interesting little collection as while the themes of the poems seem quite coherent and some even flow to create a story, the style of poetry varies.

My favourite in this short example of Providence’s work was “Opheliad”. It chronicles how young girls and boys play, how the boy is the aggressor, playing at shooting and killing the girl, and how that can translate to adult romantic relationships. It’s an interesting idea and there’s some effective lines about how girls just want to be loved no matter the potential cost.

I also enjoyed “The Un-Woman Chronicles” as that felt almost like a short story in poetry form. It’s the longest poem by Providence here at ten pages. Most of her other poems were only one or two pages long.

REVIEW: You Can’t Be Serious by Kal Penn

Audiobook narrated by the author.

Kal Penn is an actor and former White House staff member in the Barack Obama administration. I first saw him in the TV show House but knew little about him (except his character was written out of House so he could go work at the White House) so when I heard about his memoir and I had a free audible credit I thought I’d check it out.

I really enjoyed You Can’t Be Serious. It’s narrated by Penn (I always prefer to read memoirs narrated by the author, it just makes it feel more real and accessible) and he is a funny guy so there were many anecdotes that got me smiling or even laughing. Equally, he does a really good job of explaining things. Whether that’s what his job entailed in the White House or how the entertainment industry works and the difference between agents, publicists and managers.

I found it equal parts interesting, disappointing and hopeful hearing about how he broke into acting and the various racist things he encountered from the likes of casting agents along the way. Disappointing and sad because of how used he became to such things but then hopeful and inspiring because of the people he had around him and how other people of colour would give advice when they could and he learnt to do the same. There are instances where a producer thought that Asians don’t watch movies (because of shoddy data) or that white people won’t watch anything that doesn’t have white people in, and while Kal Penn was hearing this in the late 90s and early 2000s, they are unfortunately ideas that are still prevalent today – no matter how many box office success have proved people wrong.

Kal Penn covers a lot of things in his book. His childhood, university years and how he always wanted to be an actor and to do something in public service. How he got into campaigning for Obama in 2007 and then becoming part of his staff was compelling as it was clear to see his passion for what they were doing. I liked that fact that the audiobook actually had the audio from when Penn delivered a speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. It’s a great speech but actually hearing the crowd react to it makes you feel like you’re there with them.

What I wasn’t expecting from listening to You Can’t Be Serious was the urge to watch the Harold & Kumar films. Stoner comedies aren’t really my thing, plus I was a young teen when the first film came out, so they had passed me by. That is until listening to Penn talk about Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. His love and affection for that film and how proud he was of it made me want to watch it (I now have and a review will be coming soon). Listening to him talk about the script and the fact two white guys wrote it specifically with two Asian American leads in mind just amazed him and he never thought it’d get made. But it did and the way he talked about the audition process and being in waiting rooms with people who looked like him rather than being the only Asian was really something.

You Can’t Be Serious is a really entertaining and interesting memoir. Naturally those who are fans of Kal Penn should like it but for people like me who only knew him from one TV show that’s 10 years old, I still found it very enjoyable. It’s both frustrating and inspiring to see the highs and lows of his acting career and he paints such a vivid picture of the people around him, friends, family, co-workers, that it feels like your listening to an old friend telling their story. You Can’t Be Serious is just a lot of fun and I think anyone who’s interested in the entertainment industry and how someone who isn’t white experiences it could get something out of it. There are passages in here I could see being very useful in Film Studies classes on how the industry works – or rather how it shouldn’t and needs to change. 5/5.

Plus, this this the first book I’ve managed to read in like a month so I’m very grateful for it hopefully helping me get out of my reading slump.

READ THE WORLD – Benin: Why the Sky Moved Away from the Earth by Christine Gnimagnon Adjahi

The ebook edition I read was in the original French with Arabic translation by Ibrahim Trad and English translation by Allison Mitcham. The illustrations are by Samia Taqi.

We’re starting to get to some of the countries where I really struggled to find any work that has been translated into English so I was pleased to find this very short children’s book available on kindle.

Why the Sky Moved Away from the Earth is one of those stories that explains why something is the way it is – in this case, why the sky is so far away from Earth. Side note: I googled to see if there was a name for these kinds of stories and there is! It’s called a pourquoi story (pourquoi means “why” in French) though apparently the term “origin story” can be used with stories like these too. Love learning new things like this.

Anyway. As Why the Sky Moved Away from the Earth is a children’s story the writing is simple but there’s still the sort of whimsical feel you often get with children’s stories. There’s also a kind of moral to the story too, like you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Not much else to say about Why the Sky Moved Away from the Earth except that the illustrations are in a water colour style and look lovely, I especially like the colours used, and I thought the explanation of what stars are was equally sad and beautiful – especially with the accompanying illustration.

READ THE WORLD – Qatar: The Girl Who Fell to Earth: A Memoir by Sophia Al-Maria

A funny and wry coming-of-age memoir about growing up in between American and Gulf Arab cultures as Al-Maria shares the struggles of being raised by an American mother and Bedouin father while shuttling between homes in the Pacific Northwest and the Middle East.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth begins with the story of Al-Maria’s parents. Of how her father came to America and how they met, fell in love and were happy for a while. Then in goes to Al-Maria’s childhood and the start of feeling like she belonged in two places and none at all. Growing up she and her young sister spent years with her mother and grandmother in her home on a small farm, then they moved with their mother to Doha to live in a large apartment their father had though they rarely saw him, instead spending time with all the women on their dad’s side of the family; aunts and cousins.

Al-Maria in part doesn’t seem to know who she is because she moves between America and the Middle East at major milestones in her life. As a young teen in America, she tries to express herself but the things she’s interested in (fashion and music) disappoint and sometimes anger her mother. When she goes back to the Middle East as a teen she discovers new restrictions on her life, especially once she starts her period and she’s no longer allowed to go to certain parts of the house where the men are.

Al-Maria grows up in the 80s and 90s and she’s at university in Egypt when 9/11 happens. Her university is an international school with a whole mixture of Americans, Europeans, and Arabs from different countries, so after the attacks you feel the repercussions on all these people in a different way that white Western people did.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth is really interesting because it seems like Al-Maria not only has a culture clash but a personality clash with her parents, her mother especially. It’s like she’s expected to know how to act in both societies but there are things she’s never taught and neither side of the family rarely think they should – she’s just expected to know things. Her not knowing where she belongs, how she feels like an alien when people can’t easily classify “what” she is based on her looks or her level of English or Arabic, comes out in anger, confusion and just general teenage angst.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth doesn’t offer any simple or easy answers to Al-Maria’s turmoil. Her childhood and upbringing weren’t easy and while as an outside perspective you can think of what you’d have done differently in her position, or even in her parent’s position, these were the choices she made. Sometimes they were reckless or thoughtless while sometimes they were a conscious decision.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth is told with a wry sense of humour. There are things that happen in Al-Maria’s life that are sad or shocking but they are told with a degree of distance to them. It’s is as because she doesn’t feel connected to either part of her heritage, it’s difficult for the reader to connect with what she experienced. 4/5.

REVIEW: King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

There may be vague spoilers for the original Grisha trilogy and the Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom in this review.

Nikolai Lantsov, King of Ravka, is trying to keep his country from the brink of war and ruin, while battling a darkness that has taken hold inside him. Zoya Nazyalensky, Commander of the Second Army and one of Nikolai’s closest allies, will do everything to protect her fellow Grisha and help Nikolai secure the throne. Meanwhile, far north Nina Zenik wages her own war against the people who would see the Grisha destroyed. Each of them will risk everything to save a broken nation but some secrets aren’t meant to stay buried.

While people said you could read Six of Crows without reading the Grisha trilogy you definitely shouldn’t read King of Scars without having read the five previous books. King of Scars takes place three years after the Darkling’s defeat and there’s a lot of references to past events and knowing what these characters have gone through then, makes their highs and lows more affecting now.

King of Scars is told from the point of view of Nikolai, Nina, and Zoya. Nina’s story does kind of feel a bit like a side quest and quite separate from what’s happening with Nikolai and Zoya. She’s in a different country, she doesn’t even know what’s happening back in Ravka, and while she’s being a spy for Nikolai, she’s trying to confront her demons and her grief over losing the man she loved. Nikolai and Zoya’s stories are more entwined so you get what both characters are feeling about the situations they’re in as they’re trying to protect the future of Ravka. There’s political intrigue as Nikolai, Zoya and their allies (Genya, David, and the twins) try to figure out how to make alliances with neighbouring countries and protect their borders. As well as the politics side of things, Nikolai has to deal with a monster that’s living under his skin. The constant threat of him hurting anyone, or their enemies finding out about it and using it against them, always on his mind.

All three of these characters are struggling. They’re struggling with their guilt, their responsibility, their grief, and they’re all handling (or not) to the best of their ability. Reading King of Scars was a bit odd at times as while I like all three characters (Nikolai was my favourite from the original trilogy), they were all more or less side characters in the stories they first appeared in so to have them front and centre now felt a bit strange to begin with. Though, I have to say while I liked her before, King of Scars made Zoya go way up in my estimations. She’s powerful and mean but she’s holding in a lot of pain and the way her powers and inner strength develop is great to see. I also really liked her and Nikolai’s relationship. While they are close and clearly trust one another, there’s hints at there being something more between them, whether they are aware of it or not.

Though I enjoy it, I don’t often YA fantasy as I’m focusing more on my Read the World Project which tends to be more historical/contemporary fiction or non-fiction, and as I read my sixth Leigh Bardugo book of the year, I was reminded how fun and fast-paced YA fantasy can be. Bardugo’s writing is insanely readable with twists and turns, humour and heartfelt moments, and ends the whole book on a bit of a cliffhanger. I’m not too sure what to make of the ending but I’m looking forward to seeing how it all turns out (and if Nina’s story becomes a bit more connected to what’s going on in Ravka).

It was a lot of fun being back in this world with characters I like a whole lot. King of Scars technically might not be a 5-star read but I read it in a couple of days and couldn’t put it down. 5/5.

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.