The Read The World Project

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.

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.

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.

READ THE WORLD – Ecuador: On Friday Night by Luz Argentina Chiriboga

Translated by Paulette A. Ramsay and Anne-Maria Bankay.

Susana grows up with her parents living next door to the Manns family – Susana and her parents are Black, the Manns are white. She spent her childhood playing with Jamie and Margarita next door and as she becomes a young woman, she’s unaware of how their father, Marvin, becomes infatuated with her.

I think On Friday Night is one of those books that would’ve worked better for me as an audiobook. That’s mainly down to how this book was written. It was written in both the first and third person and it took me a long time to realise the when it was in first person it was from Susana’s point of view. There’s no chapters or line breaks or anything to help show when the narrative has gone from one character’s point of view to another; it could change from one paragraph to the next. This made it difficult to follow to begin with, especially as there was no blurb on my copy of On Friday Night so I had no idea what the story could be about before starting it.

All I knew before starting On Friday Night was the author Luz Argentina Chiriboga is known for writing about the Afro-Hispanic cultural identity and that certainly came into play in this book. Susana’s family comes from a working-class background but Susana is smart and is able to go to university and get a job working at the bank where Marvin Manns is the manager. The Manns are Hispanic and much more affluent. There’s a blurring of the lines when Susana, Jamie, and Margarita are children as they just like having neighbours to play with but as they grow older there’s more frequent comments about Susana being Black, even from Margarita.

This cultural and class divide is even stronger once Marvin makes his feelings about Susana known. Their whole romance and situation just felt very messy to me. He’s at least thirty years older than her, she’s the same age as his children so any respect for her as a mother figure would be impossible to find, and while he is besotted with her, he also is quick to believe other people’s lies about her. I don’t know if it was down to the story, the writing, my brain or a combination of all three but at times I really didn’t understand what was going on with some characters motivations and choices. At one point Susana and Marvin break up and I was really unsure how they ended up back together as he never seemed to apologise for his accusations.

Besides from the “love story” between Marvin and Susana there’s the history of their parents that’s mentioned – again without any type of indication that we’re going to suddenly go into the past – and Susana’s first love who is a conman. Susana is so naïve in many ways and it can be frustrating to see how she reacts to different situations. I mean, at one point she truly seems to believe she could be a mother to Jamie and Margarita when she’s the same age as Jamie and maybe a year or two younger than Margarita.

The writing style in On Friday Night really didn’t really work for me but once I’d got my head around it, the story was fairly easy to follow – even if the point of view changes still got me every now and then. This all made a 150-page book take me longer to read than it should. If there had been line breaks or anything to make the reading experience easier, I probably would’ve enjoyed the story more. Though the whole relationship dynamic between Susana and Marvin still often made me feel uncomfortable.

READ THE WORLD – Cape Verde: The Madwoman of Serrano by Dina Salústio

Translated by Jethro Soutar.

Serrano is an isolated village where a so-called madwoman roams. One day a young woman is found in the forest by Jerónimo and though the villagers are suspicious of this foreigner Jerónimo falls in love with her. When she gives birth and then disappears, Jerónimo raises and loves her daughter who he names Filipa. Years later the two are estranged and as Filipa becomes a business woman in the city, the village of Serrano is under threat by plans to build a dam. As villagers are forced to move, will Jerónimo and Filipa be able to reconnect?

The Madwoman of Serrano is a book that slowly grew on me and the last couple of chapters surprised me when there were some impactful moments there that I wasn’t expecting and actually made me realise how invested I was in some of these characters.

I think what I struggled to begin with with The Madwoman of Serrano was the narrative structure. It bounces between different characters points of view (not that confusing) and different time periods (what did throw me). To begin with there was no mention of Jerónimo and then when he does meet the mysterious woman, after that the time shifts from decades in the future where Filipa is an adult with her own teen daughter, to back when she’s five years old, to when she’s a teenager and back again. Tracking Filipa’s age is one of the only ways I could try and orientate myself. Especially once I realised what was happening because when it went from an adult-Filipa point of view chapter to a Jerónimo point of view I’d think they were in the same time period until there’s mentions of young-Filipa who appears to be mute, still living with Jerónimo in the village.

The village of Serrano are full of people who are not happy and seem to relish in the misfortune of others. They don’t like Filipa when she’s mute, the men of the village judge the women and the women can be mean towards anyone else they see as lesser than. The madwoman, a woman who is probably seen as mad as she’s independent and wise and perhaps a bit magical, lives at the edge of this society. She strikes up a friendship with young Filipa when no one but Jerónimo cares for her, which in turn does make Filipa more shunned as what sane child would spend time with a madwoman.

The Madwoman of Serrano does a good job of showing the toxicity of the small town (or in this case village) mentality, and how the patriarchy can harm the men as well as the women. Though the midwife of the village is the most important figure, men in the village see sex as their right and will beat any woman who refuses for whatever reason.

Some of the characters in the village are so horrible it’s a wonder that someone like Jerónimo manages to be so kind – though he’s not always kind, how he treats his wife is horrible but does feed into how the people of the village, the men especially, never talk about their emotions.

The Madwoman of Serrano is a strangely captivating book once I’d gotten my head around the time jumps. Slowly backstories are revealed and minor events mentioned in passing chapters before suddenly have meaning The Madwoman of Serrano is mostly a story about family, and the family you choose whether that’s friends or adoptive family. There’s also the idea of fate having a hand in characters lives, and there’s the odd unexplainable moment that can only be put down to magic.

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.