Blogger on Books IX (2021)

The Blogger on Books Series dates back to my time on My Space. Put a book nerd on social media, what am I going to talk about? Books, of course. And a series was born. I write about books just-read. Not every one; just the ones I want to write about. Catch Blogger on Books IVV , VI , VII , and VIII here on the site, and Blogger on Books 1 through 3 on Wadadli Pen (the online platform for the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize, a programme I launched in 2004 to nurture and showcase the literary arts in Antigua and Barbuda, and which I still coordinate). Reviews migrated from my My Space page are tagged as throwback reviews. Also since I’ve started receiving more of these, going forward I’ll be sure to tag with an (RR) any review or complimentary copies received from the author or publisher – all reviews are still my honest opinion.

Last read … 

(This read was a gift and this review started out as a quick take that ran long – as a ‘few’ of my quick takes have; going forward if they do, I’m just going to make them a full review even if, length aside, they still feel like quick takes as this one does).

Chestnut Street by Maeve Binchy left me with a warming smile on my face at the end, in spite of the hard luck stories throughout (and there are some very sad stories in this one and some very hard done by characters, either being pulled back by obligation, locked in space due to their own blinders, or taken advantage of by expectation, which can make for an exhausting read).

“Everyone knew that Harry had a wandering eye, of course, but Olive didn’t appear to notice.”

Still, the book, a montage of lives (a Binchy feature) on the titular and seemingly neverending Chestnut Street (single setting books being another Binchy feature), strikes an upward note at the end. The quartet of characters in the last story, who have become New Year’s Eve Friends of Gianni’s – Gianni’s being the small Ireland-based (as are most-to-all Binchy stories), Italian owned take out place they stumbled in to because they had no where else to be and no one missing them (hard luck, like I said) – finally made changes to their lives. It took 10 years but they were evolving (a Binchy feature being the transformative power of even casual entanglements with others). Her characters, like her stories, plod along, patiently – and both require patience of the reader. I’ve read a lot of Binchy books and perhaps derivatively (though not intentionally so) described said books as comfort food. But that’s not strictly true and this book is a good example of that. Don’t let the gentleness of the language fool you.

“Annabel had looked at him thoughtfully and wondered whether he had ever loved her. Philip had looked thoughtfully back and wondered whether he could end the conversation and get back to the office without seeming unduly curt.”

Ouch.

Yes, the book is largely peopled with good hearted, small town people, some, like hardworking Bucket whose criminal son resents him, seeming almost quaint in their modernizing world. But their stories are full of bumps and bruises, bad choices and bad luck. And, as a reader, I do feel the emotional pull of their journeys – though I found myself often impatient or fed up with too many of them (even, or especially, the blindly goodhearted ones) this time around. Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy reading the book; there is still always something warm and engaging about how Binchy writes her homeland that suggests that even when she is herself frustrated by the people she meets, she still loves them (I can relate). Her characters often have a charm that’s hard to resist (and it is perhaps because I cared for the people of Chestnut Street that I sometimes felt such anxiety or irritation on their behalf) – hardly comfort food stuff. But still alright.

Older Reads (i.e. books completed)…

The Art of White Roses by Viviana Prado-Nuñez
The Caribbean Writer Volume 32 (RR) (journal edited by Alscess G. E. Lewis-Brown) – Quick Take II
Cold Case by Faye Kellerman
The Festival of San Joaquin by Zee Edgell
Finny the Fairy Fish (RR) by Diana McCaulay (children’s picture book with illustrator Stacey Byer)
How to be a Calypsonian (RR) by Desryn Collins (children’s picture book with illustrator Ricky Sanchez Ayala) – Quick Take III
In Time of Need (RR) by Shakirah Bourne (audio book) – Quick Take
The Lost Sketchbook (RR) by Imam Baksh (children’s picture book with illustrator Stacey Byer) – Quick Take III
The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Daphne Du Maurier (audio book) – Quick Take
The Old Guard: Tales Through Time #1 (of 6) (graphic novel by Greg Rucka and Andrew Wheeler with artists Leandro Fernandez and Jacopo Camagni) – Quick Take II
The Old Guard: Tales Through Time #2 (of 6) (graphic novel by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Eric Trautmann with artist and colourist respectively Valentine De Landro and Mike Henderson, and and Rebecca McConnell nd Daniela Miwa) – Quick Take IV
Skin Deep: Race + Culture: Is this the End? (RR) (journal) – Quick Take II
The Talking Mango Tree (RR) by A H Benjamin (children’s picture book with illustrator Daniel J O’Brien) – Quick Take
Turtle Beach (RR) by Barbara A. Arrindell (children’s picture book with illustrator Zavian Archibald)
The Wonder of the World Leaf (RR) by Summer Edward (children’s picture book with illustrator Sayada Ramdial) – Quick Take II

DNFs – it’s a bit early in the year (April May June 2021) for DNFs, especially as I’m usually committed to finishing what I start, but I’m struggling and I’ve resolved to let some of these books go. It doesn’t mean that I have not enjoyed parts of these books but it’s been a long slog in which I’ve either had to start over or the reading has dragged (what’s new, right? but in the case of any book listed here I don’t see a finish line). I’ve debated with myself whether it’s fair or not to say anything at all about books I haven’t finished. So there’s a chance I might edit these thoughts but, for now, if I have any thoughts-so-far, I’ll share those as these books may well be for someone else or some other version of me in some other time (no slights intended).

37 Poems by Lasana M Sekou

Another Mother (RR) by Ross Kenneth Urken – the author actually sent me this one specifically for review purposes quite a long time ago. And honestly this DNF is more about not having the time to invest than anything else (and finding myself glossing over parts of it, usually parts that feel either too analytical or like information dumps) …though I do think I got about 90+ pages in and some of the writing, when it’s descriptive (not overly descriptive which is sometimes a problem) or narratively driven, is quite lovely. It’s non-fiction about his (Black) Jamaican nanny framed as sort of a Mary Poppins. “Dezna was more than a Jamaican Mary Poppins, of course”, the author has the self-awareness to note, but arguably, at least initially, she is a little too perfect – “Trained as a nurse and a seamstress, she excels at remedying this mishap. She sets an ice pack on my wrist and holds it firm, muttering some healing incantation. I do not ask much but take comfort in knowing she can make the pain go away. I don’t mind being shushed or there-there’d.” She had such a profound impact on this Jewish-American (white) boy that he went looking for her family in the Jamaican countryside as an adult. He establishes that this is about trying to understand her and her culture rather than ownership and appropriation (albeit some of the latter arguably happens). Though social commentary about Jamaican nannies in the US and investigation in to her life beyond this role is built in, is the purpose really of the telling, she does at time have that ‘magical negro’ quality so often seen in the western imagination, via Hollywood and publishing: knowing everything, fixing everything, making the white people around her life better while seeming almost to have no life or purpose of her own. I can’t say how this plays out in the fullness of the book as I did not finish but it is heartening that the author seems to approach his subject with affection, respect, and self-awareness re his role in not just her life but the telling of it – “I am not the ideal teller of this story”. My own failure notwithstanding, I do think others may find this book finishable.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James – It’s a lot to take in right now, a lot of characters and timelines and just too much, and I’m not as invested as I need to be to try to make sense of it all (it feels like a chore, I feel stupid and confused – and no doubt there are fans of this book who would line up to tell me just how stupid I am); there are some great action sequences (the first time we meet those warriors who walk on the ceiling and the Tracker’s mad dash to escape them) and some interesting character dynamics (Tracker and the Leopard). It’s a very ambitious project from a writer who takes on nothing but (you can read my reviews of The Book of Night Women and A Brief History of Seven Killings to see that I generally appreciate, and am often challenge by, the award winning Caribbean writer’s oeuvre) but after several attempts, I have to tap out. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tackle it (James, a rare celebrity author, doesn’t need me to recommend him); the book’s dry humor, action sequences, epic scope and general world building will appeal to readers looking to do a deep dive in to fantasy that is not based in European lore (which is one of the elements that really appealed to me).

Death on the Danube (RR) by Jennifer S. Alderson – I can legit say this is not the book’s fault. And I appreciate the author sending me a copy, that as much as anything made me determined to push through but through a number of life challenges this season and last, I cannot. But if you like cozy adventure mysteries (think Knives Out but the travelogue version), you’ll like this. Another me, another time, I might have to but for now, I need to move on.

Dr. Susan Lowes (thesis excerpted on the internet) – What I read of it was very interesting in terms of the social history of Antigua and Barbuda. It includes valuable insights to education (e.g. ‘Once the grammar school began to admit nonwhites in large numbers, a grammar school education became the key prerequisite for all the “middle class” occupations and a virtual passport into the civil service. Thus while at first the white population sent their sons to the Antigua Grammar School, conferring superiority on the institution, once selected nonwhites were allowed in, it was the institution that conferred superiority on the student. …while nonwhite access to education was by no means regardless of social class, the fact that such access was often through scholarships meant that a grammar school education occasionally became available to young men and women who, if strictly social and economic criteria were followed, might not have had access to the new opportunities.’).  The book provides interesting insight to events on the road to civil rights like the 1918 riots (i.e. labour unrest violently suppressed), and the challenges in colonial Antigua and Barbuda of finding jobs, getting promoted, getting equal pay, cracking the colour and gender barrier if you were Black, or even just non-white, and non-male, not of the ‘correct’ class, not ‘legitimate’ by birth etc.

Beneath Lion’s Wings (RR) by Marie Ohanesian Nardin – this was sent to me by the author and came of my interest in revisiting the city of Venice. So, the characters’ ride on the water taxi and seeing Venice for the first time was a nostalgia trip for me. I recognized the landscape with a familiar sense of wonder. There are the romance staples (e.g. the gondolier with eyes as green as the water and the vacationing Hollywood agent in training meet-cute: “They gave each other a smile only fate could have arranged.”). But the descriptions of the location resonated as did the attitudes (“pffft…this is Italy where something is said and another is done” – so Italy is the Caribbean, I knew it!). Good details re the gondola world. The woman is career driven and the love interest/gondolier is a romantic. In conversation with his much more lascivious friend, he says, she “isn’t hot, she’s beautiful”. And when his friend persisted, “Big tits…great ass?” Shut him down with, “Come on man. I’m telling you…when she smiled her face… – her eyes…dark brown…maybe black…and shiny, like her hair. I – couldn’t take my eyes off of her.” Just the guy you want for a rom-com (#notlikeotherguys #sowhatifhestoogoodtobetrue #andhisbehaviourmightbeonthecreepysideinreallife #thatsromance…s). Lovers of modern romance will possibly like this. I couldn’t really get in to it; romances and me still seem to be on a break.

There’s a Cropover arts journal from last year that I was reading but lost in the purge – it was a mix of professional and amateur artists and writers and uneven piece to piece. One that I did like of what I read was Robert Edison Sandiford’s Entangled, a quiet reflection on the frustrations of real connection and the photo by Andrew Brown, which may have you tilting your head, but the upside downness of it captures the chaos of Carnival.

In the Dark Soft Earth (RR) by Frank Watson – this is a collection of poetry of love, nature, spirituality, and dreams. I received this review copy too long ago from Plum White Press, a small press literary publisher. I really have not been able to give this book the attention it deserves since receiving it forever ago; the poetry (though brief; I appreciated that) is not really connecting. The visual imagery (e.g. Eleanor Greenfield’s textured The Promise, with a woman standing in marshy water, hand cupped toward a bird) is soft and alluring, and one of my favourite aspects of the book. The poetry itself has a fair amount of imagery as well, nature imagery obviously though nature is not the subject (e.g. P. 18 “the branches of her desire entangle me wherever I go”). She is, the poetic voice seeking or praising her. Lots of water imagery and the soft earth at the edge of it, and the detritus that finds its way there.

See Blogger on Books VIII
See Blogger on Books VII
See Blogger on Books VI
See Blogger on Books V
See Blogger on Books IV
See Blogger on Books III
See Blogger on Books II
See Blogger on Books I