Book Review

Book Review: Half of a Yellow Sun

half of a yellow sunHalf of a Yellow Sun (by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

Quick thoughts: One of the better civilian-themed war novels I have read. Highly recommended both for literary merit and as an accessible entry point to modern African literature.

A good number of the books I read and review are the result of book clubs or reading challenges. Sometimes I’m introduced to a hidden gem, and other times I suffer through a complete dud. The one constant that makes everything worth my while is that I am continually exposed to material that would have otherwise escaped my notice. I tend to leave entire literary avenues unexplored because I am afraid of tainting my perception by choosing the “wrong” book as my introductory point. A big reason why I’m so appreciative of my own book clubs and reading challenges is that they force me to get past that first step. In this instance, Half of a Yellow Sun gave me the kick in the pants I needed to begin my foray into African literature.

For those who don’t necessarily follow this blog, I actually prefaced my reading of this book with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. That was a smart move on many levels for me. Achebe is widely regarded as the first example of modern African literature; Adichie is commonly referred to as his literary daughter. BothThings Fall Apart and Half of a Yellow Sun deal with pivotal points in Nigerian history (the introduction of colonialism and the Biafran war, respectively), and I appreciated how the issues raised by Achebe’s book helped to give a wider perspective to this novel.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a fictional retelling of the Nigerian-Biafran Civil War (1967-1970) through the eyes of a small handful of characters. The particular selection of these characters was impressive, as they represented a broad cross-cut of experience: a houseboy raised in the tribal swamps of the Nigerian Delta; twin daughters of an African shipping magnate; a radical university professor; and a white writer whose love causes him to become entwined in the Biafran struggle.

The plot becomes quite harrowing, as many atrocities were committed on both sides in this gruesome war. It’s certainly not a read for the faint of heart. What makes this particular novel worth reading, though, is that it refuses to become a jeremiad. There is weeping and wailing, but the intent is not bitter lamentation. It unerringly remains an exploration of the human condition, and a well-balanced remembrance of an event which should not be forgotten. This is a book that cuts to the quick of human experience rather than taking the easy out of indignation and reproach.

In terms of story elements, one angle that quickly won me over was the character arc of Ugwu, the houseboy. He is introduced to us as a superstitious and naïve bumpkin with little experience of the world beyond his tiny village in the swamps of the delta. Adichie handles his character with wonderful delicacy, without ever demeaning or criticizing his outmoded cultural beliefs. His gradual development allows him to act as a cultural buffer between the modern sensibilities of the urbanites and the superstitions of his home village, providing the reader with an incredible window into what makes the hearts of the Igbo people beat.

It might sound horrible of me to admit this, but I truly think that the addition of the white Western writer (Richard) to the cast of characters was a stroke of genius by Adichie in embracing a global audience. As a white man myself, I will probably never understand what it feels like to experience racial slurs and degradation based only on the colour of my skin. What I can identify with, though, is what it would feel like to have those slurs directed at someone I love. Through Richard’s character, I experienced a swell of emotions that hit me like a sledgehammer, swaying between extremes of violent anger, stunned disbelief and impotent despair. I know that this book will stay with me whenever I think about the lack of Western attitudes toward African struggles. Adichie managed to strike a chord in me that I think shall never remain silent.

The writing is also incredibly smart. Nothing was ever spelled out, yet I never felt lost despite yawning gaps in cultural knowledge. I can also pretty much guarantee that once you find out why the book is titled Half of a Yellow Sun, the reason will be burned in your memory forever. And despite my complete ignorance of the relevant historical events, the simplicity of story and complexity of character made everything work for me on multiple levels. Many of the events recounted in the novel also have a ring of truth that could only have come from personal experience. Adichie was born well after this war ended, but you can tell that she is surrounded by living memory. These ingredients make for a compelling reading experience that remains highly accessible to an outsider such as myself. Highly recommended.

Book Review: The Dragon Whisperer

Dragon WhispererThe Dragon Whisperer
Author: Vanessa Ricci-Thode
Originally Published: 2013
Length: 197 pages
Published by: Iguana Books
Why I read it: Review request
Where I got it: Publisher

Quick thoughts: A solid fantasy debut by a new indie author.

Fantasy books are often like warm blankets on a cold night. There is something familiar and reassuring in them that comforts the reader, allowing him or her to escape to a world where anything is possible. Yet the very things that make these books so comforting also have the potential to be suffocating. I imagine it’s rather hard to come up with an original story when the framework of classical fantasy is so rigidly defined, and there’s usually not much sympathy from readers when an author tries to be original by breaking the rules. It then becomes a game of how best to bend rather than break the rules. The Dragon Whisperer, Vanessa Ricci-Thode’s debut fantasy novel published by Iguana Books, succeeds in bending a few rules of the classic fantasy genre without breaking them, but my overall opinion is somewhat mixed.

The most visible stake in the ground—at least in terms of departing from classical fantasy—is the emphasis on female characters. Dionelle, a young woman whose “natural” immunity to fire thrusts her into the role of an envoy between humans and dragons, is the protagonist of the piece. Of the three main conflicts in the book, two involve female antagonists and the other is about Dionelle’s struggle to make her husband, Reiser, understand her perspective. The dragon realm is also firmly established as a matriarchal society, where only females have any real power or authority.

In many ways, that strong feminine aspect was a refreshing break from a genre that tends to circumscribe female roles, but I also don’t think it went far enough. The story was still rooted in a patriarchal society where a king is monarch and a husband is expected to be the head of his house. More than once, this juxtaposition of modern feminist attitudes with medieval patriarchal assumptions created a quandary for me. I found it difficult to understand, for example, how Dionelle could expect Reiser to support her quest for personal fulfillment when she was the product of an arranged marriage. There was also a fair amount of irony to be found in the fact that men are ultimately responsible for saving the day. The potential was there to create a real sense of empowerment and self-realization, but it ended up being washed away in a sea of patriarchal norms.

Another step back from the standard fantasy novel, although more subtle, was the internal nature of the quest. Yes, there was some element of saving the world from impending doom, but Dionelle’s personal struggles took on a much greater importance than any other story element. Bringing marital struggles, spiteful sisters and career aspirations to the fore was an interesting gambit, but my personal taste definitely leans more towards the traditional elements of action and adventure.

The strongest element of the novel, in my opinion, was Ricci-Thode’s handling of the dragons, although this really got a lot less time than it deserved. Rather than selfish beasts obsessed with gold, these dragons are creatures obsessed with beauty.  It’s a slight twist that works very well, and serves to make the dragons’ motivations and behaviours quite believable. Unfortunately, the plot had a tendency to veer away from this strong suit on more than one occasion, and I believe the story suffered because of it.

Although my personal response was rather mixed, The Dragon Whisperer is a respectable debut. Moreover, Iguana Books did a bang-up job of publishing, with a gorgeous matte black cover that simply begs to be read. A solid effort overall.

From the Publisher:

Dionelle was born unique: she is immune to fire. Shortly after marrying Reiser, Dionelle’s unique talents catch the attention of a wicked noblewoman, Lady Karth, who is in need of a new dragon whisperer. Dionelle is crudely thrust into the position, but shows a natural talent for dealing with dragons. Reiser is against the idea, but Dionelle loves what she does and grows fond of the dragons, breeding tension between her and Reiser.

Ricci ThodeVanessa has always been a bookaholic, even as a young child—making picture books before she learned to read and write. She has written seven fantasy novels, with an eighth book that only needs an ending to complete yet another. This is her first foray into the world of publishing, at least as an author, and she’s so excited that she hasn’t slept since her book was accepted. Vanessa lives in Waterloo, Ontario, with her husband, daughter, and two dogs and currently makes her living as a freelance fiction editor.

Book Review: Under This Terrible Sun

Under this Terrible SunUnder This Terrible Sun
Author: Carlos Busqued (translated by Megan McDowell )
Originally Published: 2008
Length: 140 pages
Published by: Frisch & Co.
Why I read it: Review request
Where I got it: Publisher

Quick thoughts: A dark, disturbing book that wasn’t necessarily enjoyable, but one which won my applause nonetheless.

At first glance, Under This Terrible Sun is a book that shouldn’t work. The two intertwining stories which make up the novel are at such ends with each other that it seems like mixing oil and water. Cetarti is a socially stunted underachiever whose only goal in life seems to be watching television documentaries with a stash of marijuana close at hand. On the other end of Argentina (both literally and metaphorically), Duarte is an ex-military officer with some psychopathic tendencies. What brings them together is the murder/suicide of Certarti’s estranged mother and her partner, who happens to be Duarte’s old Air Force buddy. Perhaps “brings together” isn’t quite the term I’m looking for. It’s really more like trying to shoehorn Fast Times at Ridgemont High and American Psycho into the same breathing space. What’s most incredible is that Busqued actually manages to pull it off.

To say I enjoyed the novel, however, might be a bit of a misnomer. Under This Terrible Sun was one of those rarities where I fully appreciated and admired the writing without experiencing any real sense of pleasure or delight. To be frankly honest, this is not a comfortable book. In fact, there are moments of such utter depravity that I fear they may be forever burned into my memory. In some ways, I’m quite at a loss in trying to think of any redeeming qualities in the novel. Then again, sometimes we need a book that forces us to look into the abyss.

The prose, on the other hand, is like nothing I’ve read before. There is a latent primal energy that courses just beneath the surface, but never actually breaks through. It almost feels at times as though the subtext is more important than the story. The incessant mention of giant squid, which seems oddly puzzling at first, begins to take on a special significance in terms of something lurking beneath the surface. There is also a more predatory and sinister motif, a connection between the hunter and the hunted in some abyssal sense, but the thematic connection is always just teasingly out of sight and out of reach. What is clear, however, is that the bestial menagerie that collects throughout the book — squid, elephants, mad dogs, boas, beetles and even axolotls — develops some sort of animal kingdom or law of the jungle ideology that obliquely informs the larger story.

It’s a harrowing journey, but there was something intangible at play which made reading Under This Terrible Sun seem worthwhile in the end. It was an impressive and gutsy choice by Frisch & Co. to add this novel to their nascent series of literature in translation, and one that has earned my respect.

From the Publisher:

Cetarti spends his days in a cloud of pot smoke, watching nature documentaries on television. A call from a stranger, informing him that his mother and brother have been murdered, finally tears him from his lethargy: he must identify the bodies.

After making sure he has enough pot for the trip, he sets out to the remote Argentinian village of Lapachito, an ominous place, where the houses are sinking deeper and deeper into the mud and a lurid, horrific sun is driving everyone crazy. When Duarte, a former military man turned dedicated criminal, ropes Cetarti into a scheme to cash in on his mother’s life insurance, events quickly spiral out of control…

A riveting, thrilling, and shocking read, Under This Terrible Sun paints the portrait of a civilizational in terminal decline, where the border between reality and nightmare has become increasingly blurred.

Carlos BusquedCarlos Busqued was born in the northern Argentinian province of Chaco in 1970. He has produced the radio programmes Vidas Ejemplares, El otoño en Pekín and Prisionero del Planeta Infierno; and he contributes to the magazine El Ojo Con Dientes. He currently lives in Buenos Aires. Under This Terrible Sun is his first novel.

Book Review: Timbuctoo

Author: Tahir Shah
Originally Published: 2012
Length: 544 pages
Published by: Secretum Mundi
Why I read it: Review request
Where I got it: Publisher

Quick thoughts: A historical re-imagining which seems barely able to contain the author’s passion and exuberance.

“WHEN I SAW IT FIRST, I was lost in the bowels of the London Library, searching for an obscure volume on shrunken heads…

“A leather-bound book, an inch thick, jammed up against a water pipe. Without thinking, I reached up and yanked it out. Cupping the book gently in my hands, I pulled it open at the title page and began to read. That was the moment my obsession with The Narrative of Robert Adams began.”

This is how the author prologue begins, and it perfectly sets the stage for the story that follows. You can only imagine the impact of such a serendipitous moment as described here. It’s like finding a long-lost secret, something precious that hints at deeper and more hidden historical knowledge. And aren’t we all, to some degree or another, thrilled by the possibility of hidden knowledge, of an alternate account that questions our assumptions? That same surge of excitement courses through Tahir Shah’s Timbuctoo as he imagines the mania accompanying rumours of a mythical golden city, and the cover-up which could have been effected to hide the truth.

Shah’s love for the Regency era is blindingly obvious, and he fills every nook and cranny of the story with tender detail. The world he creates is lush, vibrant and altogether plausible. He also weaves in plot elements from across the social spectrum, creating a veritable tapestry of Regency life. The manifold plot lines were a distinct source of pleasure in that they seemed so unnecessary and superfluous at the outset, yet each thread of the story proved to be in some way essential by the end.

Although I personally prefer historical fiction where the author assiduously sticks to known facts, Shah’s exuberance begins to take on an appeal of its own. It’s not often that I let myself be swept away by a story with this much artistic license, but that tended to be the case here. It wasn’t just that the story moved along so fast, or that the constant intercutting of story lines always kept my attention engaged. It may sound a bit silly to say, but I think what made it work was the feeling that Shah actually cared about his creation. It was so pronounced as to be tangible, and most definitely contagious — like how you can’t keep yourself from smiling when you witness someone so utterly consumed by their own happiness that they are oblivious to the world around them. In the same way, I couldn’t help but smile even though the blurring of facts would normally trip me up.

That sense of care and devotion also extends to the physical presentation, where the end product is practically wrapped with a bow. While the size makes it a little inconvenient to tote about or read in the lunchroom, it really is quite stunning. The old-fashioned gold embossing on a faux-leather cover is eye-catching, and the gorgeously rendered fold-out maps occupied my attention for hours on end. Timbuctoo is undeniably a labour of love from Tahir Shah, and his passion for the material threatens to burst out of every seam.

As a sort of footnote, there’s also an accompanying website which serves as a complement to the novel. It’s worth checking out, and the attention to detail there will give a pretty good idea of what you can expect of the book.

From the publisher: Inspired by a true story…

In October 1815, an illiterate American sailor named Robert Adams was discovered roaming the streets of London, half-naked and starving. In the months that followed, high society was rocked by his tale.

At a time when the European powers were posturing for empire, there was one quest above all else, one destination to which no Christian had ever ventured and returned alive – Timbuctoo.

Regarded as a golden metropolis par excellence, an African Eldorado, fashioned from the purest gold, it was for centuries a European obsession. The British, Germans, French, and others, dispatched their most capable explorers to seek it out and to sack it.

Most of them never returned alive.

The only nation uninterested in the mania for Timbuctoo was the fledgling United States. And so, when a young American sailor claimed to have visited the city as a guest of its king, while a white slave in Africa, it caused uproar on an unknown scale.

More shocking still was the sailor’s description of the Eldorado – as a poverty-stricken and wretched place – and the fact that he seemed blasé and uninterested at having been there at all.

Set against a backdrop of the British Regency, a time of ultimate decadence and avarice, of haves and have-nots, Robert Adams’ tale has been all but forgotten, until now.

An astonishing story of survival and hardship, it’s a one touched with irony. A man who had set out to make his fame and fortune through trade, Robert Adams gained both, but by selling the tale of his journey.

Almost twenty years ago, Tahir Shah noticed an inch-thick quarto-sized book propping up a water pipe in the basement of the London Library. Pulling it out, he first set eyes on Robert Adams’ Narrative, published by John Murray in 1816.

The book became an obsession to Shah, just as Regency London was itself fixated with the golden metropolis of Timbuctoo. Packed with well-researched detail of the time, and inspired by Adams’ ordeal, TIMBUCTOO is a fast-past and compelling read. It’s a tale of treachery, greed, love, betrayal and, above all else, of survival in the face of insurmountable odds.

Tahir ShahTahir Shah’s books have appeared in thirty languages and in more than seventy editions. They are celebrated for their original viewpoint, and for combining hardship with vivid description.

He also makes documentary films, which are shown worldwide on National Geographical Television, and The History Channel. The latest, LOST TREASURE OF AFGHANISTAN, has been screened on British TV and shown worldwide. While researching the programme Shah was arrested along with his film crew and incarcerated in a Pakistani torture jail, where they spent sixteen terrifying days and nights.

His other documentaries include: HOUSE OF THE TIGER KING, SEARCH FOR THE LOST CITY OF GOLD, and THE SEARCH FOR KING SOLOMON’S MINES. And, in addition to documentaries, Shah writes for the big screen. His best known work in this genre is the award-winning Imax feature JOURNEY TO MECCA, telling the tale of the fourteenth century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta’s first pilgrimage to Mecca.

Tahir Shah lives at Dar Khalifa, a sprawling mansion set squarely in the middle of a Casablanca shantytown. He’s married to the graphic designer, Rachana Shah, and has two children, Ariane and Timur. His father was the Sufi writer, Idries Shah.

Book Review: Dirt Music

Dirt MusicDirt Music
Author: Tim Winton
Originally Published: 2002
Length: 411 pages
Why I read it: Book club selection
Where I got it: Library

Quick thoughts: An exceptional evocation of the Australian land with a riveting story to pull everything together.

“Dirt music” isn’t a term I’m at all familiar with, and I’m still not sure whether it is common Australian slang or just something Tim Winton came up with on his own. Regardless of the term’s provenance, it ends up being a fitting choice for the title of this novel. Before venturing into the why, however, it’s probably best to start off with the definition as given in the book: “Anything you could play on a verandah. You know, without electricity. Dirt music.”

Oddly enough, music doesn’t even begin to enter the picture until the story is well underway. We begin in an isolated fishing village on the west coast of Australia, where a glut of foreign money spent on the rock lobster harvest has made life very comfortable for residents. So comfortable, in fact, that they think nothing of discouraging interlopers and poachers with lawless displays of armed violence. Thrown into this mix is a love triangle of sorts: Jim, the leader of the fishing community; Georgie, the outsider who is filling the void left by Jim’s dead wife; and Luther, the poacher who sparks in her the need to escape the life she has come to accept.

It’s only when Luther is being run out of town that we really discover his musical background, along with the devastating reason why he left that music behind. In his subsequent travels through the outback, the theme of music begins to take on a much more elemental connotation – as though the land itself is thrumming with some vibrating note or chord. “Dirt music” might be described in the book as acoustic sound, but Luther’s journey into the wild begins to give it a different meaning, as though the dirt itself is possessed of some primeval music that echoes melodies from millennia past. In many ways, the land itself becomes a character which looms large over the story.

As Luther’s purgatorial journey into the outback moves toward a featured role in the narrative, it begins to take on take on echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – something which seems intentional based on a few references to that novella early on in the book. There is also a strong connection to the romantic notion of a walkabout, that lone journey into the bush that is both spiritual and sacred. Of course, that’s not the sort of writing that will appeal to readers looking for a gripping story. For those who enjoy revelling in the creative use of language and literary themes, though, this might be right up your alley. Dirt Music is full of prose that resonates with terrestrial harmonies. Some moments are vast and expansive. Others are painfully intimate. Scattered between are moments of levity and biting humour. It’s a symphony in words—an oratorio celebrating the wondrous beauty of the Australian land, and a requiem for the death of innocence.

From the Publisher:
Luther Fox, a loner, haunted by his past, makes his living as an illegal fisherman — a shamateur. Before everyone in his family was killed in a freak rollover, he grew melons and played guitar in the family band. Robbed of all that, he has turned his back on music. There’s too much emotion in it, too much memory and pain.

One morning Fox is observed poaching by Georgie Jutland. Chance, or a kind of willed recklessness, has brought Georgie into the life and home of Jim Buckridge, the most prosperous fisherman in the area and a man who loathes poachers, Fox above all. But she’s never fully settled into Jim’s grand house on the water or into the inbred community with its history of violent secrets. After Georgie encounters Fox, her tentative hold on conventional life is severed. Neither of them would call it love, but they can’t stay away from each other no matter how dangerous it is — and out on White Point it is very dangerous.

Set in the dramatic landscape of Western Australia, “Dirt Music” is a love story about people stifled by grief and regret; a novel about the odds of breaking with the past and about the lure of music. Dirt music, Fox tells Georgie, is “anything you can play on a verandah or porch, without electricity.” Even in the wild, Luther cannot escape it. There is, he discovers, no silence in nature.

Ambitious, perfectly calibrated, “Dirt Music” resonates with suspense and supercharged emotion — and it confirms Tim Winton’s status as the preeminent Australian novelist of his generation.