BLOGGER ON BOOKS (2021) – QUICK TAKES

I do these Quick Takes for books for which I won’t be doing a full review but might still have something to say – this is the first 2021 Quick Takes page. Search Blogger on Books Quick Takes for previous and future installments.

The Talking Mango Tree had me at mango. Full disclosure I also have a children’s book that centers a mango tree and, as with one of the characters in The Talking Mango Tree, song was involved in getting it to bear. Both are Caribbean children’s books and we can’t (and don’t) have nearly enough of those. This one is by international children’s book author since 1987, Algeria-born, England-based A H Benjamin whose latest, published by Caribbean Reads, calls back the folk fantasies of many a Caribbean childhood. This simple but fresh take is tonally joyful with a mystery (or at least reader curiosity if not full blown mystery) driving the plot forward – that and seeing what else the ‘talking’ mango tree will compel the animals, reptiles, birds, and mythical creatures in this menagerie (of sorts) to do. Will will pig skip rope, will dog juggle sticks (instead of simply fetching them), will parrot pirouette – as you can see it’s the stuff of fairytales in the best way, the anthropomorphism being part of the book’s play as the animals act out human behaviour (lizard reciting poetry) that would be unorthodox even for humans in the circumstances. All this for a mango? (and yet as someone who has also written the feats to which one will go for a mango into my latest children’s picture book) Yes, a thousand times yes – anything for this most coveted of all fruits. And the ‘talking’ tree knows it too. Of course, someone has to balk and eventually someone does; so enters Papa Bois. When last have you read about him? Well, be makes an impressive return here (both in terms of his presence in the story and in the bold and beautiful visual rendering of him by Daniel J. O’Brien (p. 30 with him blowing the conch being a particularly favourite image). You may remember O’Brien’s art from a previous Caribbean Reads book reviewed on this site and he does not disappoint here with interesting angles and details (peep the mango bulging out of snake’s neck as he slithers away) and signature sharp, colourful hyperrealism. But let’s talk about the guardian of the woodland realm Papa Bois; a gruff, bear-ish, satyr-ish character from the Afro-Caribbean (particularly French creole) imagination who takes charge and gets the tree to give up its secret. Read the book for that spoiler. Read it with your kids and have them guess, performing it with your class (post-COVID perhaps) and have them attempt the feats; the point is the book is fun and children will enjoy it. The child in me did.

In Time of Need by Shakirah Bourne (audio book) – This was the self-published book length debut of Barbadian writer and filmmaker Shakirah Bourne which I reviewed back in 2017. It’s a testimony to how much I enjoyed that book that I jumped at the chance to read it again – I was originally asked to read two, maybe three, stories, and my active reading, TBR, and wish list of books was already crazy. But what the spirit wants, it wants. And once I started listening to these recordings, almost perfectly produced by Story Shyft in Barbados (which I wouldn’t mind doing one of my audio books, I don’t mind saying), I knew I wanted to return to the sometimes absurdist, darkly humorous, funny, all too real, fabulous world of BIM as seen through the off kilter lens of scribe, Shakirah. Shakirah is having a banner year by the way. Her book Josephine Against the Sea drops this summer (summer 2021) and Publisher’s Weekly has, at this writing, just announced that she’s inked a deal for two more books, Duppy Island, the North American rights to which have gone to Scholastic as has the sequel to Josephine, Josephine versus the Heartman. If you’ve read (or listened in this case) to In Time of Need, you know you can expect good characterization, good voice, and good humour (“Not even Cecille’s glare could compete with Bajans’ love for freeness”). The humor comes through word and situational play, character and action, through a child’s guileless take on big people business, and when she twists that guile toward awakening consciousness to how brutal the world can be, truly, it is truly heartbreaking. The wit is but one quality, there’s dramatic texture as well, that moment when it hits you that this or that situation is not that funny, not funny at all. It disarms, her narrative style -and for all its playfulness, is unvarnished in its truths re life, death, relationships, abuse, sexual exploitation, corruption, and complicity. Reminded of a smiling image of herself in the paper, one woman, in conversation with her friend, remarks, “it’s the same day Leon hit me.” pause pause pause. “Those are some of his best Gucci shirts and Prada pants I donated.” And when her friend asks, “did you see the camera man?” she says, “you know we always smile for photos.” The reader listening to this story is keenly aware of the cycles of abuse in which both women, respectable church women, are ensnared, though at least one of them doesn’t realize she is…and the other is trying to convince herself she isn’t. So many layers to Shakirah’s storytelling and characterization. But this is about the audio book. The Bajan accent and the use of voice generally captures the stories’ various tones with ease. The use of music, pauses, and voice are applaudable, and if I had one criticism it’s that it sometimes overdoes the foley work/the sound effects – mostly it’s fine, sometimes it’s jarring, threatening to overwhelm the storytelling, but for the most part it does what that’s supposed to do, add context, mood, and atmosphere. As I said when I recc’d this book during my Black History Month #bookaday social media project, the audio book is in some way a call back to the on-radio Paul Keens Douglas’ skits…but with gravitas.

The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Daphne Du Maurier (audio book) – a short story collection teetering between mysterious, darkly charming, and unsettling. Several of the book’s characters frustrate with their hubris (a smugness among the men especially, well captured in the British-accented male reader’s delivery) or cluelessness, or both (e.g. the author too certain of his appeal to see he’s being played who I end up having some compassion for). The characters are not aware quite how awful they are with their classism or arrogance or unreasonableness: “He began to resent the fact that she was not being attractive to him. Her face was like any other face.” That they affected me is a good sign though. Though I admit that about six hours in I was finding it all a bit tiresome. But just as it started strong with a compelling whyshedunit triggered by a suicide, the book rallied with the last couple of stories, especially the hauntingly sad, even creepy, final story of the woman who lost her way and, maybe, fell out of time.

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