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 IV, V , VI , VII, VIII, and IX 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 whether for review purposes or not – all reviews are still my honest opinion. Also-also, a ‘few’ of my quick takes have become lengthier than anticipated. So, 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 to me.
Who am I? Author, Journalist, Editor, Producer, Columnist, Course/Workshop Facilitator, #gyalfromOttosAntigua
Last read …
The Mermaid of Black Concb by Monique Roffey (RR)
Mermaids are not white – just for the record, given the hysteria around the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel, of The Little Mermaid, adapted from Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen’s reportedly much darker fairytale. They are mythological and belong to no race in particular, and, little as it’s known, we in Africa and the African diaspora, and in my specific case, Africa-Caribbean, have our own mermaid lore, the most prominent of which is Mami Wata, one of (or a catch-all for) several ancient African water goddesses.
And Caribbean people continue to add to the mermaid lore…
(re image above – see CREATIVE SPACE #24 of 2022: ARTING AROUND)
& then there’s the Taino inspired mermaid of Black conch.
The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey is an intriguing tale of a mermaid cursed eons ago because of jealousy related to her womanhood, is hooked from the sea by adventure fishermen from up North, is rescued by an islander with whom she has a brief affair, before being re-imprisoned in the scales she had shed, once again by malice. The Trinidad born writer casts nature as a main character (“Next day, rain was pelting down hard like the sky had opened its mouth and was letting out everything”) in this meditation on what it is to be human, especially but not exclusively woman, alive, in love, free. The meditation is not just the mermaid Aycayia’s but the other people orbiting her, especially David. The book is a masterful balance of well-rendered action, authentic human interaction, interior musings, and outright magic (because, yes, this is an invented mythology about a mermaid and curses and the assault of the various actors by nature); no wonder it won the Costa book of the year for 2020 for being “utterly original” and “a classic”.
I even found myself using a scene from it in one of my workshops during 2022 – while I was still reading. This is unusual but I just found the scene to be a perfect illustration for the dialogue notes I was trying to impart – about listening for what’s unsaid as much as what’s said in understanding character. I agree that this could be a classic because the lore reads totally plausible (all lore has a beginning). The writing as carefully pulled together as it is has a wildness to it, e.g. in its startling descriptions of everything from the body to sex to nature itself – “the whoreish flamboyant”. The story itself hooked me right away and the mermaid’s tragic OTP immediately charms the reader with his earnestness. As a reader I became quickly invested in their fates – the scene where she was hooked was particularly harrowing.
“I swam away then dive deep/my terror was ENORMOUS/I swam but I still ketch/I want to go down to die”
The geography of the setting – without looking it up (or re-reading) – is one of the things that confused me a bit as I read (where is Black conch?), as it doesn’t seem to be Trinidad proper and at one point there is mention of Jamaica, but the story itself is so engrossing that my brain is okay with treating it as part of the fantasy of the piece, though its insistence on the class and racial history of the Caribbean very much grounds the story and creates (or re-creates) the tensions you can feel in our islands.
“Her family had not been owners of slaves, but they had benefited from the whole damn thing, like it or not; they were part of it, and the house, crumbling though it was, said it all.” (p. 123)
Tensions that fuel resentments still about who really has power.
“Porthos John straightened up and they both gazed hard at the small white woman who owned everything from centuries back.”
It’s complicated, though, as presented, as the idea that the Black woman islander and Black police are searching for the white man’s ‘property’, the mermaid, a sentient being, a woman, to cash in on while conjuring history in their interaction with Ms Rain, the white propertied woman on the island is an ironic echoe of the past.
And yet, these characters, all of them, are more than ideas, and the author takes the time to fill in each’s backstory – for good or bad – so that you feel invested (for me, less so in Ms. Rain and Life’s melodrama, which I didn’t know how to really feel about when he first came back, though I liked his presence there at the end).
I literally exclaimed “nooo” when Aycayia’s scales started coming back, though conflicted about the limitations that being a woman would impose on her – something she herself was contemplating as she transitioned from one life to the other…and then back again, mournfully. It’s the paradox of the thing you’re not sure you want, until you have to let it go, a part of your heart breaking at the loss.
The ending felt abrupt to me but maybe that’s because I was still hoping for a different outcome…but this book wasn’t here to cuddle me, and clearly I’ve made peace with that.
Older Reads (i.e. books completed)…
The 2021 Perito Prize Anthology (RR)- Quick Takes II
Harriet’s Daughter by Marlene Nourbese Philip
Heart and Soul by Maeve Binchy – Quick Takes II
A History of Barbuda under the Codringtons 1783-1883 by Margaret T Tweedy – Quick Takes I
The Manchester Writing Competition 2021 Manchester Fiction Prize Short List – Quick Take III
New Daughters of Africa edited by Margaret Busby
Selected Poems by Lorna Goodison – Quick Takes I
Songs of Silence by Curdella Forbes
Speak Out! Issue 1 edited by Peter Sipeli
Speak Out! Issue 2 edited by Beatrice Lamwaka – Quick Take III
Victoire: My Mother’s Mother by Maryse Conde (translated by Richard Philcox)
What a Mother’s Love don’t Teach You (RR) by Sharma Taylor
Yemoja’s Anansi: A Short Story (RR) by Christal Clashing
DNFs (the books I did not finish) –
Quicksand by Nella Larson – This is more a pause than a DNF. “Her mind trails off” the narrative says of the character and, honestly, same. I struggle with audio books. I do still want to read this one but I’ll need a book-book.
Kirkus Reviews LXXXVIII, No. 24 December 2020 – This is actually a keepsake for me as it includes the Kirkus Review of my book Musical Youth, selected as one of its top indies of 2020 – and I was reading it to find out about other books favoured by Kirkus but time constraints force me to shelve it (for now?) but I will keep it because, well, for me, it’s a keepsake.
Managers’ First Aid Kit: A Practical Guide to Remedy the Three Most Common Managerial Challenges (RR) by Joan H Underwood – This would be a good read for management trainees or new managers, some of it is even applicable to life outside of the organization as it’s about shifting how you do things. As my own obligations pile up, however, and my reading tanks, I had to make another cut and this was it. ETA some notes I made before DNF’ing: While it has a particular audience, the language is fairly accessible beyond that group and the use of case studies (storytelling) helps make it so. Also, its larger points about how mood and energy can affect your team, about how nonverbals and behaviour communicate as surely as verbal instruction, about self-checks (know thyself) are applicable to those of us who are the bosses only of ourselves – “Please bear in mind that even your silence is communication that will be interpretated by others.” It also has homework for those who learn better by doing.
Rise up, Sista (RR) by Kristine Simelda – As with most of my DNFs, this is not meant as a knock against the book but at this time I need to make some cuts because there’s only so much time and I’m not really connecting with this one. For anyone who might be interested in the tale of a reggae artist and British rocker in the 1960s, definitely check it out though.