book review

READ THE WORLD – Malawi: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

Narrated by Chike Johnson.

William Kamkwamba loved school but when he was just 14 years old, he could no longer attend because his family couldn’t afford the fees. William resorted to borrowing books from the small local library to continue his education. It was there that he discovered a book with a turbine on the front cover, and with the help of that book William began to build a windmill outside his home to get electricity in his home.

I learnt so much about Malawi and its history from The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. While I know there has been, and still is, drought and famine in various countries in Africa I’d never learnt about what happened in Malawi between 2001 and 2002. During those years, floods and then droughts caused an emergency in the country as everyone run out of food. The way the book is written gives you the factual information, like the causes of floods and drought and the different diseases that can plague the country, while also making the stark reality of the situations more affecting because of how they all relate to William and his family. William is the only son in his family, and he has six sisters so that’s a lot of mouths to feed and William never shies away from the dire situation they were all in when they were slowly running out of food. There are vivid descriptions of people losing an extreme amount of weight due to starvation and descriptions of people dying in the street. It’s shocking but never exploitative.

The book provides a lot of context about Malawi, its history, superstitions and the difficulties its people faces. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind follows William’s life as he grows up and gains fame at 19 years old for making a windmill that produces electricity for his family’s home. There is more of a focus on William growing up and the last third with him gaining fame and recognition for what he achieved unfortunately seemed a bit rushed. I did like how it was clear from a very young age that William was interested in finding out how things worked. He would take a part radios and ask people how cars engines would make cars move and was generally curious about everything.

William is an impressive young man. He never gives up and believes in what he was doing when it comes to collecting scraps to make a windmill. People in his village, and even some members of his family, think he’s crazy rummaging around in the scrapyard and saying he’s going to give his home electricity. The doubts people have about him never dents his determination or conviction, and its very satisfying when he’s able to prove people wrong.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is informative and inspiring. William Kamkwamba is a smart man who perseveres even when other people think he’s mad or is using dark magic. Hearing about how he made a windmill to provide electricity for his family, and how he also went on to build other solar or wind-powered devices to improve the lives of his family and the other people in his village was heartening. He’s an inventor and this autobiography captures his inquiring mind and his desire to make life better for his family and his village wonderfully. 4/5.

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READ THE WORLD – Guatemala: Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes

Translated by Ellen Jones

Six interconnected short stories that provide glimpses into the life of Don Henrik, a good man who is constantly struck by misfortune as he confronts the harsh realities of farming life.

The majority of the short stories are told in the first person and you are given very few clues to figure out who this character is and what their connection to the other stories and characters are. Characters, or at least their names, pop up in multiple stories and the stories aren’t exactly in linear order. They jump around in Don Henrik’s life. Sometimes he is the focus of the story while other times he’s only mentioned or appears for one page and that’s it.

There are no speech marks used throughout the stories and this took a little time to get used to. There’s often large paragraphs where someone talks multiple times, as they are moving or taking a swig of beer, so I needed to pay attention so I could follow what was speech and what was action.

The stories paint a lovely picture of the Guatemalan countryside, with the fields, forests and rocky outcrops, but it never glosses over the difficulties of rural life. There’s the problems with crops failing to grow, water not flowing where it should but then there’s also the threat of violence from merciless entrepreneurs and hitmen, who will do anything to get what they perceive is owed to them.

At 97 pages, Trout, Belly Up is a short story collection that I read in one sitting. I think it works better that way as you see how each story or snapshot is a part of someone’s life and how the characters relate to one another. I believe this is the first short story collection I’ve read where the stories are interconnected and I liked that form of short stories more. Even though the stories are between 10 – 30 pages long each, because they’re connected, they paint a richer picture of the setting and the characters you follow.

READ THE WORLD – Spain: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Pulp fiction writer David Martín is holed up in an abandoned mansion in the heart of Barcelona, desperately writing story after story while becoming increasingly frustrate and disillusioned. When he is approached by a mysterious publisher, Andreas Corelli, makes him an enticing offer David leaps at the chance. But as he begins to research and write this novel, and after a visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, David realises there’s a connection between his book and the shadows that surround his dilapidated home, and maybe his publisher might be hiding secrets of his own.

The Angel’s Game is set in the same universe as The Shadow of the Wind, but I don’t think it matters if you haven’t read that book or if you haven’t read it for a while. I read and reviewed The Shadow of the Wind four years ago so naturally I can’t really remember much about the book, but the only connections I noticed was the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and the dilapidated tower home the main character in this novel came to live in. (After writing this review I googled the series and realised that The Angel’s Game is in fact a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind though apparently each book in the series is supposed to be able to stand on its own from the others, so it really doesn’t matter what order you read them in.)

Set in the 1920s and early 1930s, The Angel’s Game really makes use of both the time period and the city its set in to add to the mystery and eeriness of the story. Not being able to get hold of a character, or instances of mistaken identity are rife, and both increase the tension at key moments. The city of Barcelona truly becomes a character in its own right in The Angel’s Game. The narrow alleyways, abandoned houses, tiny shops and the often-bleak weather, makes the city a wonderful setting for a gripping mystery. The descriptions of the city are vivid making the few times characters venture elsewhere, even more stark and different to what we already know.

David is an interesting man. He’s often unlikable as he pushes away those who care about him when he’s obsessed with writing and is unsure how to love or be loved in return. He’s always had affection for the daughter of a friend’s driver, Cristina, but circumstance and society keeps them a part. His reluctant friendship with Isabella, an inspiring writer who is many years younger than him is surprisingly sweet and while their relationship isn’t without its troubles and miscommunications, their honesty with one another is truly needed by both of them.

The mystery of the tower house, its previous owner and what happened to them kicks in about the third of the way through the book. Andreas Corelli seems to be connected to it all though it takes a long time for David to figure things out. David becomes obsessive, both about his writing and the secrets his home holds, looking for reasons behind the deaths and strangeness that appears to be following him. The Angel’s Game is told in the first person from David’s point of view, meaning that as the story progresses and things get weirder, you begin to doubt what you’ve been told so far as David’s grip on reality seems to slip.

I shan’t say I picked up all the threads of the mystery before they were explained to me, nor that I totally understood the ending, but that didn’t make me like this story any less. The Angel’s Game was a very readable book and the whole gothic take on Barcelona fully pulled me into the story. Would it have been nice if the story wasn’t quite so convoluted and weird? Yes, but it’s still a book that I ended up enjoying more than I remembered enjoying its predecessor. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Morocco: Secret Son by Laila Lalami

Nineteen-year-old Youssef El-Mekki grew up in a one-room home with his mother down the stinking alleys of Casablanca. He’s always dreamed of escape and then one day, when the father he presumed was dead turns out to be very much alive and very wealthy, Youssef is whisked away from the slums to the luxurious life of Casablanca’s elite. But as he leaves the poverty of his childhood behind, he finds some harsh truths and difficulties he must face.

Secret Son is a traditional coming of age story as Youssef grows a lot as a person as he explores who he is and where he’s come from. Once he finds out about his father, Youssef is quick to leave all he’s known to live what he feels is a better life. He leaves his mother and his friends and moves to a new apartment where every one of his whims are catered for as his father promises him many new things. While Youssef can be criticised for dumping those who had card about him for so long, chapters or passages from other characters points of view show how the people surrounding him, including his mother and his friends, have lied to him many times.

Whereas his mother wants Youssef to get a good education and go to university to better himself, he lacks the drive or ambition to do that. especially once he learns who his father is. Once Youssef and his father get to know one another, Youssef doesn’t see the point of studying as his father can just get him a good job on his word alone. Once again proving the phrase, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Youssef is very naïve really. He’s dreamed of a better life for so long that when he gets that opportunity, he never questions what it might cost him.

Secret Son has a good mix of personal and political drama and it takes the time to examine how the two can overlap. Youssef is Muslim and as he grows up in the slums, he becomes aware of a political party that make a lot of promises to the people who live there. At first, they seem to be a force for good but as time goes on corruption is clear on both sides of the political spectrum. When Yousef’s friends begin to work for the party, Youssef gets tangled up in plans bigger than himself.

Another major aspect of Secret Son is the class divide. Youssef might go from the slums to a penthouse, but he never really fits in with the rich life, and when he visits his mother and friends, he no longer fits there either. The sad thing is that Youssef doesn’t seem to notice how after experiencing his father’s wealth, he no longer fits in either class. The novel definitely doesn’t shy away from the realities of Casablanca and how peoples lives are so different to one another even when they live just a few streets apart.

Secret Son is a very engaging and easy to read book. The writing is simple yet never juvenile and Youssef makes a frustrating, complicated and interesting main character. 4/5.

REVIEW: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Zélie remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls. But everything changed the night magic disappeared as under orders of the ruthless king, all maji were killed including Zélie’s mother. Now she has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of her brother Tzain and rogue princess Amari, Zélie must outrun crown prince Inan who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good. But she’s not only got to learn to control her powers, but she must also control her growing feelings for the enemy.

Children of Blood and Bone is told from three perspectives; Zélie’s, Amari’s and Inan’s and each of them had a distinct voice. Zélie is a divîner, which is someone who has dark skin and white hair which is a sign of the magic that would run through her veins if magic hadn’t had been destroyed. Divîner’s are an oppressed people, they are poor and are often abused and belittled by the King’s guards. Amarai and Inan are siblings who have both been brought up in the castle and, in Amari’s case especially, sheltered from what happens in their country.

I liked Zélie a lot, she’s fierce but impulsive and she cares fiercely for her loved ones. Amari was my favourite character and is probably the one who goes through the most consistent character arc. She’s lived a sheltered life, but she has a strong sense of morals and when she gets the chance to change things and stop her father she takes it, putting her life on the line. She is sweet and naïve to begin with but as she learns how the world works and how people act, she gets smarter and she’s more resilient than she realises. Inan is a character that I never really warmed to. He is desperate to show his father what a great soldier he is, and how he will be a worthy king, but then he also flip flops on his beliefs multiple times throughout the book. He doesn’t have a strong sense of self, will change his mind on things depending on who he’s with, and is generally a disaster and not in a fun, appealing way.

I read almost 400 pages of this 535-page book in the space of two days but then I got to a point, where I got so annoyed with what some characters were doing that I put it down for five days and had to make myself continue with it. Children of Blood and Bone has an enemies to lovers romance and while the foundations of this relationship were interesting, at that 400ish page mark, there was some serious instalove as these characters went from hating one another to barely being able to keep their hands off of one another in the space of about three pages. It was way too fast and seemed needless. Their romance caused conflict with other characters, but that conflict could’ve still happened with them being reluctant allies instead of being in love. Also, their sudden infatuation with one another seemed out of character for both parties and it was a detriment to Zélie’s character especially.

Besides from the romance which I hated, I really enjoyed pretty much everything else about Children of Blood and Bone. I liked the writing style, it’s has vivid descriptions of this world and culture without being overly flowery, and how the friendship grew between Tzain, Amari and Zélie was great. I especially liked how Zélie slowly opened up to Amari, and how Amari figured out her own inner strength.

Children of Blood and Bone is a fast-paced and action-packed story. The world and its magic system are interesting, and the mythology that is introduced can only grow in future books. As a first book in a series, it’s a great introduction to the characters and the world, but I wish it had taken its time with the romance as that did sour my experience of the last quarter of the book. I do plan to continue reading this series though and I’m intrigued to see where everything will go from that ending. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Sweden: A Fortune Foretold by Agneta Pleijel

Translated by Marlaine Delargy.

Opening in the 1950s in the quiet university town of Lund, Sweden, A Fortune Foretold follows Neta, a shy and intuitive girl who turns to books whenever life gets difficult. When her Aunt Ricky has her fortune told, Neta becomes fascinated with prophesies, fate and what life could be. By thinking of this she starts to make sense of the chaos of her parents failing marriage.

A Fortune Foretold is a story of childhood, and not a particularly happy one. I didn’t realise straightaway but Neta is a stand in for the author Agneta Pleijel and the book is based on her childhood. Throughout the book there’s times when the narrative voice is like the adult Neta, looking back on events with hindsight and giving her thoughts on what happened now.

The language used throughout the book is melancholy, and the words are often more grown up than Neta is at the time. This fits in with the way it feels like an adult is telling the story of her childhood and has a mature way to express what she at ten years old might be feeling. With the use of more complicated language and Neta’s quietness, it feels like she’s constantly out of sync with the rest of her family. Her parents are both outgoing people and as the oldest of three girls, Neta is sometimes too old for them but not old enough to be around adults.

Neither of Neta’s parents seem to particularly like or want their children. They both are selfish in different ways but as it’s largely told from a child’s point of view, it never really passes judgement on it. Instead, that’s just what Neta’s life and parents are like.

A Fortune Foretold is quite sad as it shows how an emotionally neglectful upbringing can have ramifications for a child as they grow up. From a very young age Neta shuts herself off from the world and becomes quite distant towards others and seeing how a parent’s marriage can fall a part due to secrets and lies has a lasting affect in her.

There are some moving scenes in A Fortune Foretold about growing up and family, but it’s quite a slow story and at times the characters do feel flat and is they are just going through the motions. This may because of the way it was told, like someone recounting past events to a listener, so everything had already happened and so there was no suspense or surprises. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Myanmar: Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi

A collection of letters from the Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, about her experience as a political prisoner, her countries traditions and the affects of inflation and corruption on its people.

The letters span about a year after her release from house arrest in 1995. Some are reflective on her experiences of being a political dissident and that of those of various other members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), while others are about the broader affects of being a political prisoner. How it can seriously affect children who only get to see a parent for 15 minutes every fortnight, or how the interrogations and solitary confinement can have mental and physical repercussions.

Each of the fifty-two letters are accompanied by an illustration by Heinn Hter. These illustrations are simple yet beautiful and help paint a vivid picture of the people and the country that Aung San Suu Kyi talks about in each of her letters.

The way Aung San Suu Kyi describes her country, its traditions and its people, is often quite poignant. Her writing is simple yet affecting and the way she can go from describing the beautiful and joyful moments, to the harsher reality that people live in when their wages can’t afford food and they must buy petrol on the black market.

I knew very little about Aung San Suu Kyi before reading this book, only that since she was no longer a political prisoner, she and her party didn’t necessarily live up to people’s expectations and there are some controversies surrounding them. As these letters are from the mid-90s, there’s still a lot of hope and belief in what the future can bring. In this moment of time at least, Aung San Suu Kyi is an eloquent and confident public speaker who doesn’t let the system stand in her way. Multiple times her street is barricaded for differing amounts of time, sometimes the soldiers let people pass to go to her house, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they allow her to leave, when others they don’t. There’s no real reasoning behind it and it’s one of the many odd things that has become a part of her life.

Letters from Burma paints Myanmar to be a beautiful country, but one with a difficult future ahead. The way these letters are a combination of discussions of big political and social upheaval in the country, along with really mundane things like Aung San Suu Kyi being concerned with her home’s leaky roof; makes her seem like a down to earth and also very smart.

Letters from Burma is charming though perhaps a little idealistic. While Aung San Suu Kyi may have had the best intentions in the 1990s, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everything went as planned. I’m interested in reading more about Myanmar’s history and what Aung San Suu Kyi has done in the years since her release from house arrest. Still, I think Letters from Burma is a good place to get an overview of what the country was like in the mid-1990s and before.