Thursday, 26 November 2020

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

"I don't just want to be having any kind voice . . .
I want a louding voice.

At fourteen, Adunni dreams of getting an education and giving her family a more comfortable home in her small Nigerian village. Instead, Adunni's father sells her off to become the third wife of an old man. When tragedy strikes in her new home, Adunni flees to the wealthy enclaves of Lagos, where she becomes a house-girl to the cruel Big Madam, and prey to Big Madam's husband. But despite her situation continuously going from bad to worse, Adunni refuses to let herself be silenced. And one day, someone hears her."


The Girl With The Louding Voice is a coming of age story set in Nigeria; the story of fifteen year old Adunni, told in her own words, moving from the poverty of a rural village to a different sort of poverty among the affluent classes of the city, where workers are treated almost as slaves.

In many ways it's a disturbing tale, spotlighting the treatment of girls and women as commodities to be traded, in a society where men are of primary importance, and which is drastically divided between rich and poor. First Adunni is effectively sold to a much older man, already married with two wives, when her father can't pay his debts, then she goes to work for a woman in the city but all her wages go to the 'agent', the man who placed Adunni in her job, and her employer's husband feels any of the female servants should be amenable to his sexual advances. 

On the other hand, it's a story of hope, and it's hope that stays with the reader as the overall feel of the book. Whatever her situation, Adunni's resilience and determination shine through. She's adamant that somehow she'll find a way to finish her education, and be able to speak out, in her louding voice, on behalf of girls and women trapped as she is.

It's an amazing debut, told in an original, captivating voice, with Adunni finding humour and compassion in life despite her predicaments. I found myself rather regretting that her attempts to improve her English, seen as the key to bettering her prospects, would result in a watering down of Adunni's lively manners of speech.

Friday, 20 November 2020

Map's Edge by David Hair

 Dash Cowley is a man in disguise. For the past few months he's been passing himself off as a healer, and living as invisibly as possible in Thesveld, a village at the end of the world, but in a previous time he was Raythe Vyre, a nobleman, soldier and sorcerer. Following a failed rebellion against the Bolgravian Empire, he was forced to flee, moving from village to village with his daughter, Zar, until they've ended up by the sea with nowhere further left to run. Till, that is, he hears by chance of a source of riches; istariol, a rare mineral used in sorcery, has been found in the frozen north. There's enough to make the fortunes of all Thesveld's villagers, so they band together and head off on an adventure beyond the limit of the known world.

It's a good mix of adventure, magic, and inventive world-building, as the villagers pack up their lives and travel north, heading for the iceheart where nothing grows and no one lives, or so they believe. Behind them come the Empire's men - soldiers, spies and sorcerers - determined to track down the defiant rebel Vyre and find out what has persuaded a whole village to up and take to the road. Even without these pursuers, the journey isn't easy. There are the expected physical setbacks to overcome, encounters with the remains and the magic of a previous civilization, plus rivalry and treachery amongst the villagers' own numbers. 

Although at the back of your mind you know all will come well in the end - that Vyre will find the source of istariol, that the majority of the villagers will complete the journey unscathed, and the bad guys will eventually be beaten - the story is a compelling, engrossing read you can disappear into for hours at a time. 

The only downside is that Map's Edge is book one of a series, and there'll be a wait before the next installment of the story. 

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

The 2084 Report by James Lawrence Powell

This novel takes the form of a series of interviews with various people from scientists and politicians, to ordinary people, living all over the world, with one thing in common - despair at what went wrong in dealing with climate change.

I was hoping for something a little more inspiring  - something that would encourage me to do more, make changes to my lifestyle which could really help combat climate change. But no. Instead, I found it all quite dull. When covering up to the present day, most of the interviewees were regurgitating facts I was already aware of. Then, as they moved onto what happened post-2020,  I found myself arguing with them, querying why options that everyone has surely heard of, such as solar or wind power, weren't utilised to their fullest.

The answer comes at the end of the book - the author basically wants to champion nuclear power; in fact it's seen as the answer to all our problems. There's no way I'm a fan of that, I think it's just shelving the issue for a while and a price will have to be paid somewhere down the line.

Would I recommend this title? Only to an absolute climate change denier. It might stop them in their tracks and make them think. Anyone who is already concerned about the way things are going will probably, like me, just be irritated. 

Thursday, 12 November 2020

The Betrayals by Bridget Collins

The world renowned Montverre academy has for centuries been a place where promising youngsters are trained in the discipline known simply as the 'grand jeu', a mix of music and mystical moves, but behind its prestige and fame lie secrets and tragedies. Léo Martin was once a student there, a winner of awards, but he gave it up and turned to politics. Now, after a rash comment in the wrong place, he's back at Montverre, in exile, with his promising career in tatters. His old college has changed though; one of their highest teaching posts is held by a woman, Claire Dryden, towards whom Léo is drawn, despite her seeming disdain for him.

As with Collins' previous novel The Binding, this is a multi-layered, multi-faceted story, of love, deception, and betrayals of several kinds, set against a backdrop of a world that isn't quite ours. Montverre in its mountainous setting sounds French but feels like it belongs further east. The government that Léo offends has many of the hallmarks of the early stages of the Nazis rise to power - a leader demanding absolute loyalty, persecution of a religious minority, the shutting down of educational and artistic academies who aren't prepared to support the Party fully. Against this menacing backdrop, the stories of Léo, Claire and others within Montverre play out, moving between 'present day' and Léo's student days which ended in tragedy.

It's captivating and escapist, while at the same time warning of the dangers of allowing arts and education to become twisted for political ends. Since reading The Betrayals, I've watched The Queen's Gambit on Netflix, and I think if you've been gripped by that then this is a book for you.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (The Borough Press)
Genre - Adult fiction

Friday, 30 October 2020

The Thief on the Winged Horse by Kate Mascarenhas

For two hundred years, on a small island just outside Oxford, the Kendrick family have been making exquisite dolls. As each is finished a hex is placed on it, giving it an emotion, from terror to bliss, which can be felt by anyone who touches the doll. It's a close-knit family business, with few outsiders allowed to join (and they are usually marrying into the family) The placing of the hex is a closely guarded secret even within the family, one which, although the company was founded by women, is now guarded by the men of the family; women may design and build houses and sets for the dolls but only men are 'sorcerers' allowed to fix emotions in the dolls.

Into this tight community comes a young man, Larkin, claiming to be a descendant of one of the founding sisters. He too is a maker of dolls, and now wants to claim a rightful place in the family business. Unusually for the Kendrick family, he's accepted on trust and given a position in the company, though no access to the vital magic that makes a Kendrick doll unique. His presence soon causes stirrings in the quiet lives of the Kendricks' world. Persephone Kendrick believes the dolls she creates are as beautiful as any made by the men, but as a woman she's not allowed to make 'Kendrick's' dolls but is relegated to the shop. Through Larkin she sees a way out of her stifling circumstances; a chance of a life where she can follow her ambition to create dolls of her own. 

Meanwhile a valuable irreplaceable doll is stolen, and only a family member with a knowledge of their magic could have executed the theft. There are various suspects, including Persephone's father, but most of the extended family seem happy to blame the fabled 'thief on the winged horse' - a magical character deemed responsible for much of the good - and ill - fortune of the Kendricks. 

I loved this book, from its magical elements to its all-too-real family rivalry and jealousy. Two elements lie at its heart - the daring theft, and the upheaval created by Larkin. At first he seems to slide smoothly into the family's way of things, but soon it's apparent that his arrival has caused a ripple-effect bringing long-held discontents to life.

With its mix of family secrets, betrayals and love, the tracking down of whoever committed the theft, of  Persephone's determination to challenge the status quo and follow her dream, there's something for almost everyone. This isn't 'fantasy' as such; the influence of 'magic' is slight, and for me the appeal was in its characters and their loves and deceits. The characters are well-drawn and realistically brought to life (more so then even a Kendricks' doll), while underpinning their action and the story is a knowledge of human frailties and desires.


Wednesday, 21 October 2020

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

 Growing up in a small Ugandan village in the seventies, Kirabo's world is far removed from modern 'western' life. Her father, Tom, and Aunt Abi visit from the city but life at home in Nattetta is still strongly traditional, following a way of life that has remained largely unchanged. Tribal hierarchies are still firmly in place, with men in charge as the owners of the land and animals which represent wealth, but the women still tell stories, passed through the generations from mother to daughter, of when they were as powerful, if not more so, than men. Kirabo wants more from life than her village can offer, and when her father sends her to boarding school she looks well on the way to achieving it, but two things still unsettle her - the identity of her unknown mother, and her love for a village boy, Sio.

The First Woman is a coming of age tale with strong themes of women's friendship and independence. It's one of those titles that you start out assuming it refers to the heroine, Kirabo, but could equally belong to others - the Ugandan version of Eve in the creation myth, Kirabo's mother (as the mother of Tom's first child), Nsuuta the first love of Kirabo's grandfather, or the country's first female president ( a role Nsuuta believes Kirabo could achieve). As the titled is multi-layered, so is the story itself.

 The story centres on Kirabo, on one girl finding her own way to adulthood, and understanding her place in the world by discovering both her past through her mother's identity, and that of her family through the friendship and rivalry of grandmother Alikisa and the 'witch' Nsuuta. On the side though I learned a lot about Ugandan history - from the influence of missionaries, Idi Amin's dictatorship and the war which ended it, to its culture and traditional way of life, and the conflict, at both a personal and wider level, between that culture and the new 'modern society' of the cities.

I hadn't heard of Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi before I caught her event at this year's online Edinburgh Book Festival. Hearing her talk about and read from The First Woman, I decided to track it down and explore more by this author billed by the festival as 'Uganda's First Woman of Fiction'. I'm really glad I did.

Maryom's review -  5 stars
Publisher - Oneworld Publictions 
Genre - adult fiction, literary fiction, African fiction 

Friday, 9 October 2020

World Burn Down by Steve Cole

 illustrated by Oriol Vidal

Carlos is at home, impatiently waiting for his mum to return from work, when door of his flat is broken down, and he is kidnapped. His mother's job with IBAMA, Brazil's Environmental Authority, involves protecting the Amazon forest from illegal clearing by farmers or miners, and her actions have annoyed some very ruthless men. Carlos is taken far into the Amazon forest where his abductors plan to hold him to teach his mother a lesson, but an accident gives him chance to escape. He isn't safe though as fires are raging out of control all around him. Will he be able to outrun them? or will he find himself running straight back into the clutches of his kidnappers?

This latest book from well-known children's author Steve Cole is a fast-paced adventure set against a backdrop of the destruction of the Amazon forest. Primarily it's an action story, with Carlos attempting to escape his captors, but seeming to run from one danger straight to the next. Behind the action though are important things to be learned about the destruction of the rainforest, and the reader gets to share Carlos' horror at what he sees, and his realisation of the importance of the work done by people like his mother. Till now he's seen it as just a job, something that takes her away for long hours, without maybe fully realising its global significance. His previous experience of the forest has been of sanitised tourist-trails designed to delight and enthrall; now he's seeing first hand the realities of land-grabbing, the fires which lay waste to huge areas each day, and the gold mines which turn jungle into a sterile moon-scape. It's an excellent mix of fact and fiction which will both entertain and educate.

Aimed at 8 year olds and over, as always with titles from Barrington Stoke, the presentation - font, colour, chapter length - is designed with reluctant and dyslexic readers in mind, but none of this detracts from it being a gripping, nail-biting read, with Oriol Vidal's illustrations bringing the story vividly to life.