Wednesday 23 September 2020

Short Story Review: Anabasis by Amal El-Mohtar


Anabasis by Amal El-Mohtar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this as part of the collection Nevertheless, She Persisted: Flash Fiction Project .
This story can be found online

First, I thought I had better check what "anabasis" meant - "Anabasis (from Greek ana = "upward", bainein = "to step or march") is an expedition from a coastline up into the interior of a country" according to Wikipedia.

Upon starting to read this I was completely entranced by an early section which I found rivetingly poetic -

"My real mouth is full of sharp teeth and a sharper tongue, three languages coiled like snakes in my throat, scaly and silent. My real mouth is an armoury of words forged in the furnace of my chest, hot as a spitted sun. My real mouth is a storm, and my voice is thunder.
To pass among you I wear a different mouth: full lips unparted, always smiling. I paint it pretty colours. It speaks only when spoken to, softly. To pass among you, it tells you stories: I am sweetness. I am sunshine. I am here to hold your hand through the horror of my name. My mouth is a coin, and I spend it. "

According to the publishers , the story was inspired by a 2017 news story about the trecherous border crossing in the snow into Manitoba for refugees seeking Canada which reports that "A two-year-old member of a large group of refugees who walked into Manitoba from Minnesota ..told his mom he wanted to die instead of finish the walk". Heartbreaking.

El-Moktar's writing is stunning, she uses the Sumarian poem, Inanna's Descent into the Underworld to contrast with the mother's walk across the snow "Borders are shape-shifters,too: they change what goes through them. Time was, the only border worth crossing was into the underworld, to fetch back a lover's life" That writer is Canadian is extremely relevant to this piece - her passport, her struggle to remain Canadian in light of the border guard eyeing her as Arab, as Muslim. Her empathy with the predicament of those crossing
"If I could take each of my words and lay them in the snow at her feet. If I could.. eat this distance between us. If I could devour this border, if I could tell it to smile while I broke its teeth, if I could unsheathe the sword of my mouth and strike it down, if I could thread the needle of my mouth and stitch good shoes for her baby, if I could cut a path into this country with the sharpness of my tongue..." 
Unbelievably poignant.

I am very impressed by this piece, my mouth, my words fails to convey how much. 5 stars are not enough.

View all my reviews

Sunday 20 September 2020

Short Story Review: Pockets by Amal El-Mohtar

Pockets by Amal El-Mohtar
I've been meaning to read this author for some time when CR book club buddy gave me the heads up re this short story of hers from back in 2015.

It starts of pretty much like a mystery about surprising strange things being found in a woman's pocket. She calls on her girl friends for help to solve this mystery. By the end ****SPOILER ALERT**** the story has transformed into a piece about the art of writing and its readers, the author might never meet or get to know her readers but keeps producing her work anyway. The final letter Nadia finds in her pocket is a love letter from any writer to any reader. Neat.

View all my reviews

Saturday 19 September 2020

Short Story Review: As the Last I May Know by S L Huang

As the Last I May Know As the Last I May Know by S.L. Huang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This Hugo 2020 Award Winning Short Story originally published by is "an alternative history short story looking at decisions and consequences and what it takes to pull the trigger".

11 year old Nyma is a budding poet but she is also the chosen one. Inside her surgeons have planted a capsule containing codes to the most destructive bombs. If the newly elected president wishes to bomb the other warring party he has to first got these codes. This is the dilemma that The Order has put in motion to test the country's leaders in time of war since the massive destruction of 200 years before. Nyma has a choice but that is weighed aganst duty. The President also has a choice. Is he wiling to reisk the total destruction of his capital, the annihilation of everyone? Nyma is a fan of the ancient poet who had written "echoes have no tombs", she herself writes "I am here to make you doubt". The power plays between the Order and the Presidency play out in this story as war rages ever closer, as decisions surge toward its players.

I found the use of poetry in this short story quite evocative. It call to Nyma, it called to her tutor Tej, to called to the President and it called to the people. But will it be enough?

The author S L Huang has website, it informs me she is a MIT graduate, and Hollywood stuntwoman, who writes "eccentric mathematical superhero fiction"

View all my reviews

Monday 14 September 2020

Book Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, narrated by Weruche Opia

My Sister, the Serial Killer My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite,  narrated by Weruche Opia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved this book, listening to the audio I felt re-submersed in Nigeria, the culture, the colour, the language, the way women are with their hair, their clothes and with the relationships between Nigerian women and Nigerian men, be they fathers or lovers or predators. For many dependency still rules, for many the man still rules hard in the home, for many the route to education and success has many obstacles. Sisters Korede and Ayoola have and always will have only each other, it is a beyond sisterly bond ++++SPOILER ALERT ****forged in the darkness of a hinted at, but never fully enunciated, episode which straddled the domestic and business worlds where a girl child is safeguarded at all costs until the price or prize is too great to ignore, the business deal worth too much.

We know from the beginning, indeed from the title, that Ayoola, the beautiful, is a killer, a serial killer, prone to knocking off her suitors. The novel opens with the line “Korede, I killed him.” We quickly find out that Korede her elder, plainer sister, helps clean up her mess and is complicit in body disposal of at least one of Ayoola's victims. The true extent of her involvement becomes apparant only as the book progresses. But who really is the victim here, and a victim of what? Who is exploiting who? The story line answers these questions in part and leaves the reader pondering them further even at the end of the book.

The novels oscillates rapidly in its scences, its chapters are small, tiny compare with what is more usual length. But the characters are just as full, their story just as powerful - Karode's father confessor type relationship with the comatose Muhtar, her admiration and love for Tade, the doctor and her fruitless attempts to keep her work life, and Dr Tade, apart from her home life and her sister. She is an extremely competent woman, used to thinking on her feet, handling the bureaucracy and corruption of Nigerian officials, dealing with and managing all types - skills you feel she learnt at a very early age from her dodgy deals father.

This is begging to be made into a movie under the deft hands of a good scriptwriter who gets the sharp humour, the situational comedy, but also its serious sociopolitical backdrop and, not least, the psychological profile of each of the sisters and their unique bond. As a first novel I though this was excellent and no surprise that it was longlisted for the 2019 Booker.

View all my reviews

Wednesday 9 September 2020

Book Review: The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier translated by Harriet de Onís


The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very interesting to finally get an opportunity to read this book. There is a new, reportedly better, translation out, but my second hand copy is the one translated by Harriet de Onis.

It is difficult to know where to start, on the one hand this is supposedly a pivotal piece of writing from the early days, if not originator of magical realism, but having read so much Latin American Magical Realism I found it in many ways a bit light. Light with respect to storyline and character, but full of poetic, visual, ethereal, musical and lush passages. It is a short novella and therein is where I think lies the problem, I wanted more detail.

Having said that, Carpentier's writing, in this translation really gets into full flow and is at its best in my opinion in the later part of the book where he really takes senses and makes history coming alive in stunning imagery. Part 3 Chapter IV The Immured is for me where it really takes off when the protagonist Ti Noel re-enters the Cap and finds the "whole city in a death watch" The way Carpentier writes sound as political upheaval is in my opinion brilliant. Likewise in the following chapter V Chronical of August 15 he writes sound as hostility, threat and panic. This continues into the following chapter VI Ultima Ratio Regum which depicts the mutiny against Henri Christophe and his suicide. And it is colour and smells that he uses to write about the building of what will be the "mausoleum to the first king of Haiti" where flesh and blood, turn mortar red. And finally touch as memory and madness as Soliman is confronted with the corpse of his beloved Pauline Bonaparte in Part 4 Chapter 1 The Night of the Statues.

The other thing that came to me when reading this was its use of Voodoo, and of African gods and mythology, which must have been quite novel in any Western Literature at the time this book was written but which today is much more commonplace with the rise of "the African Novel" - only this week BBC 4 TV had a programme entitled Africa Turns the Page: The Novels that shaped a continent> and with the reawakening of the graphic novel genre onto the big screen with the like of "Black Panther" and the rise of Afrofuturism speculative fiction, all of which place African dieties central to their mythology and storytelling.

The final aspect which is worthy of noting, lies in the fact that this is a historical novel, steeped inthe history of Haiti. I only have a broad brush awareness of that countries history but it felt enugh to follow the novel as long as I went with the flow and didn't worry too much about the names which were dropped in, whether they were real of fictional. But I kept remembering reading Gabriel García Márquez's The General in His Labyrinth which is brilliant reimaging of the final days of Simon Bolivar and as a historical fiction Kingdom of this World comes in a distinct second.

So all in all mixed views on the novella, but still worth the afternoon spent reading it.

View all my reviews

Tuesday 8 September 2020

Short Story Review: Impatient Griselda by Margaret Atwood

Impatient Griselda by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Only from the pen of Atwood!! She is such a wicked lady :) disturbing the folkloric Griselda tale used in the original Decameron and playing to the current global pandemic's feelings of alienation. The narrator's octupus-like alien on a intergalactical-crises aid mission struggles to communicate with the native bi-ped population, has overtones of third world aid condescension, faces all the linguistic and cultural issues of understanding the stories of the Other and although they are trying their best can't wait to get home and back to a 'normal' life. Brilliant. 

Available online

View all my reviews