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CBL wanders through the Commonwealth

Commonwealth Challenge

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Jan 1, 2013, 1:23pm Top

I've completed the Fifty States challenge, the Canadian province challenge, and I have one country left for the Europe Endless challenge. I decided I wasn't quite ready to end my literary travels. I wasn't ready to tackle every country in the world, but I thought that a tour of Commonwealth countries would allow me to "visit" every continent. I'll be using the Wikipedia list of member states, including former members since I have books in my TBR stash for both of them.

Edited: Apr 29, 9:35pm Top

Jan 1, 2013, 2:00pm Top

Thanks for the message Carrie! I am in for this challenge!

Jan 1, 2013, 2:02pm Top

Great! I'll enjoy the company. I was afraid I was going to be wandering around here by myself!

Jan 1, 2013, 2:05pm Top

I'm already working on my first book for the challenge: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, which will be my UK book. Other countries I hope to visit this month include Nigeria (Half of a Yellow Sun), Cyprus (Death in Cyprus), Zambia (Mrs. Pollifax on Safari), and Jamaica (Abeng).

Jan 1, 2013, 3:29pm Top

Oh, you got my star for this thread, Carrie! I was foolish enough to enlist for both the Europe Endless Challenge (what's in a name) in geographic order and Reading Globally in alphabetical almost 3 years ago. I'm still travelling through Europe an globally I've arrived in Bahrein... It's a long way before I will get to Zimbabwe :-) But aren't these challenges rewarding, fun... and inspiring!

Jan 1, 2013, 3:49pm Top

I've always enjoyed books set in unfamiliar places. Looking for books to fit the challenge is almost as much fun as reading them! I'll have to look for your Reading Globally thread. Maybe I can pick up a few ideas!

Jan 1, 2013, 4:55pm Top

I agree wholeheartedly. Looking for that perfect book to fit the challenge is like telling a child she can make a wishlist for a candystore.
And I was thinking I'd be able to snatch a few of your ideas (after all, you're the one who almost finished the EEC).

Jan 3, 2013, 6:46pm Top

Hi Carrie, even though I haven't quite finished with the 50 State Challenge, I have joined this one as I actually think it will be a better fit with my reading. Looking forward to all the great books that we all will be reading!

Jan 3, 2013, 6:50pm Top

That's great, Judy! I'm glad to have you as a traveling companion!

Jan 3, 2013, 6:52pm Top

Starting my tour in the United Kingdom: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

It all started with a chance meeting. If the paper boy hadn't been sick the day Major Ernest Pettigrew learned of his brother's death, Mrs. Ali might never have been anyone other than the village shopkeeper. Shared grief soon blossomed into friendship, and then into something more.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is much more than the story of a romance between mature adults. It examines cultural, generational, social, and gender barriers between people, demonstrating that these barriers are sometimes much thinner than we perceive. Sometimes all it takes to break down those barriers is the courage to appear foolish. Major Pettigrew is often naive, and often grants others the benefit of the doubt even when they clearly don't deserve it. His generous nature will see him through the obstacles in his relationships with Mrs. Ali as well as with his adult son, Roger.

I couldn't help being charmed by the Major. I also grew fond of Grace, a woman of a certain age who also risked social censure to bridge cultural barriers. I wish Simonson would write a sequel focusing on Grace. Of course, the Major and his family would need to make an appearance to let readers know what he's been up to since the end of his story. Warmly recommended.

4.5 stars

Edited: Jan 4, 2013, 11:44am Top

#9 What did you pick for England or haven't you reached that letter yet??

Jan 4, 2013, 11:45am Top

# 14. Merely a suggestion but in the reviews, could you indicate the connection to the country? Where is the book set for example or is the connection to UK, the country of the author?

Jan 4, 2013, 12:39pm Top

Karen, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is set in a fictional village in England. I believe it's supposed to be in Sussex. I believe that Helen Simonson was born in the UK but has lived in the US for quite a while.

Some people in the geographic challenges try to find books written by an author native to that country or state. I'm not that strict with my personal challenges. I choose books based solely on the location/setting. When I list a book under a specific country, that means that the book (or at least the majority of the book) is set in that country.

Jan 5, 2013, 9:59am Top

Yay for first book read.... and a good one that I need to get to sometime. Nice start to your challenge, Carrie!

I admit that for my challenge I am going to give myself the latitude of location/setting or nationality of author as I work my way through the Commonwealth.

Jan 5, 2013, 10:17am Top

# 17 Got it now, thanks Carrie.

Jan 5, 2013, 10:20am Top

Suggestion for Nigeria - Things Fall Apart if you haven't already read it

For Congo -Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou keeps coming up as a recommendation

Jan 5, 2013, 10:32am Top

Thanks for the suggestions, Karen! I read Things Fall Apart last year and enjoyed it very much. I've got Half of a Yellow Sun from the library to read this month for Nigeria.

I don't think Congo is a Commonwealth country, is it? Broken Glass does sound interesting, though, and I'll keep it in mind for April when the 2013 Challenge Group will be reading winners or nominees for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Jan 6, 2013, 5:30am Top

#21 Ah should have checked the list before rushing to share the info re Congo with you...

Jan 6, 2013, 7:52am Top

No problem Karen! It was a recommendation I was glad to get anyway, even though I won't need to read it for this particular challenge.

Jan 6, 2013, 3:21pm Top

You can always save the Congo-book for your Reading Globally Challenge... it's bound to happen one day with the speed you are succeeding the challenges :-)
I decided to give Major Pettigrew's Last Stand a new try, thanks to your review.

Jan 6, 2013, 3:25pm Top

I hope it works better for you this time, Monica!

Jan 7, 2013, 4:52pm Top

I've been playing with Google tools to put a list together so I can see which countries are in Commonwealth and how they overlap with the Equator/Meridian (saves my embarrassing lack of geographic knowledge). see if this works https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0Ata-W3kD5rWCdHhSYXRTbm5VTHRDWlIyT1V...

Jan 7, 2013, 5:26pm Top

>26 Mercury57: Yes, it does! Thanks!

Jan 11, 2013, 2:51pm Top

Nigeria: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

If you want to learn about the short-lived Republic of Biafra, you could turn to a history or reference work for the facts. If you want to know what it felt like to live there, read Half of a Yellow Sun. The novel covers the decade of the 1960s, first in a newly independent Nigeria and then in the Republic of Biafra, which declared its independence from Nigeria in 1967. The story alternates between three perspectives: that of Ugwu, a teenage houseboy newly transplanted from his village to a university town; that of Olanna, a beautiful woman from a privileged background who is in love with a revolutionary university professor; and Richard, an expat from the U.K. who falls in love first with Igbo culture and then with Kainene, Olanna's non-identical twin. Ugwu longs for his master, Odenigbo's respect. Richard longs for Kainene's love. Olanna wants the love and approval of both her lover Odenigbo and her twin Kainene, but it seems like it's not possible to have both at once.

I was hesitant to read a novel about such bleak topics as war and famine, thinking it would be too emotionally and psychologically heavy for me to read. My fears were unfounded. While the characters faced some horrible situations, they were strong and resilient. The conditions they faced during the war exposed both their weaknesses and their virtues. Although the three central characters came from very different backgrounds, they had in common a high value of education and literature. More than anything else, I think the belief in the importance of literature and learning is what connected me to the characters in the book. Highly recommended.

4 stars

Jan 12, 2013, 10:41am Top

Zambia: Mrs. Pollifax on Safari by Dorothy Gilman

Mrs. Emily Pollifax, a New Jersey widow, geranium grower, and occasional spy, has a new assignment from the CIA. An unknown assassin is expected to be among a safari party in Zambia. All Mrs. Pollifax needs to do is take pictures of everyone in the group and the CIA will do the rest. It sounds simple enough until Mrs. Pollifax encounters unexpected difficulties. She’ll have to use all of her considerable resources to get out of the situation alive.

Mrs. Pollifax has the strong personality of an Amelia Peabody combined with the sharp perception of a Miss Marple. The combination makes for entertaining armchair adventures. However, the book isn’t pure fluff. The action in the book takes place after Zambian independence and before Zimbabwean independence. The political situation in Rhodesia and the issue of apartheid form part of the context for the events in the book. There are also oblique references to the political turmoil in the U.S. surrounding the Watergate affair:

Carstairs asked me to tell you very firmly that his department has remained scrupulous to the letter in all its undertakings…At least as scrupulous as can be expected when our business is to gather information by nefarious means, hit troublesome people over the head, and indulge in other interesting forms of skullduggery.

Mrs. Pollifax, recalling certain people that she herself had been forced to hit over the head, did not comment; it was a very modest number, of course, but one of which she was sure neither her garden club nor her pastor would approve.

3 1/2 stars

Jan 19, 2013, 9:45pm Top

Cyprus: Death in Cyprus by M. M. Kaye

Amanda Derington's decision to go to Cyprus on vacation started out as an attempt to assert her independence from her uncle, a wealthy businessman. She couldn't have imagined the danger she would face, starting with the murder of a fellow passenger on the boat that took her to Cyprus. After a second murder and an attempt on Amanda's life, she was afraid to trust anyone except the mysterious but infuriating Steve Howard.

This was a reread for me, but I originally read the book so long ago that I had forgotten everything about it. I had hoped for more local atmosphere, but all of the major characters were either British or American. The few Cypriots who appeared in the book were limited to a few lines of dialogue. The local landscape had a much larger role than the local population. I enjoyed the descriptions of the flowering plants, the coast, and the historic sites. It was fairly easy to figure out who was responsible for the murders and attempted murders, but the motive wasn't obvious. I don't think I enjoyed the book as much this time around, but it was still an entertaining escape to a warmer climate on this cold winter afternoon.

3 stars

Jan 24, 2013, 7:38pm Top

Jamaica: Abeng by Michelle Cliff

Abeng is a coming-of-age story of a mixed race Jamaican girl in the 1950s. Clare's father is from a “white” family (still mixed race, but lighter skinned) while her mother is “red” (darker skinned and thus of a lower social status). Clare isn't sure where she fits in. She feels closer to her father but is disturbed by his racist views. Clare knows that there is a distance in her relationship with her mother. It troubles her, particularly since she's not sure of its cause. Clare lives in the city but spends the summers in the country with her maternal grandmother. Her playmate is a country girl named Zoe. Clare wants to believe she and Zoe are lifelong friends. She's either naïve or willfully blind to the social inequalities that prevent their relationship from being a true friendship. One mistake changes everything in Clare's world.

The book is structured in disjointed narratives. Clare's story occupies the most space. However, there are also sections about her family history (both sides) and Jamaican history. The symbolism is a bit heavy-handed. Clare's father descends from a white slave owner, and they share his family name, Savage. Clare's mother comes from a poor family descended from slaves; her family name is Freeman. The introductory notes explain that “abeng” is an African word for “conch shell”, and that it was used by the Maroons to reach one another. Throughout the novel Clare is trying to figure out how to connect with others, particularly other women such as her mother and her friend Zoe. The book's themes include Jamaican history, colonialism, adolescence, race, family relationships, friendship, feminism, and sexuality, including an undercurrent of lesbian attraction.

3 stars

Jan 25, 2013, 12:32am Top

Stopping in to see how you are progressing with your challenge, Carrie. Five books finished is great! It has been a long, long time since I have read anything by M.M. Kaye. I need to start thinking about my reading with this challenge in mind, but it might take me another month to get settled in to all the various challenges and organized.

Jan 25, 2013, 6:43am Top

Thanks Lori! I've been working on book lists for this challenge for a couple of years so I had a head start. :)

Jan 25, 2013, 3:47pm Top

You are making much faster progress than I am!

Feb 9, 2013, 10:26am Top

Ireland - Born in Ice by Nora Roberts

After her father's death, Brianna Concannon runs a bed & breakfast in the family home in County Clare, Ireland. Grayson Thane is a best-selling American novelist who writes his books on location. He's chosen to write his next thriller at Brianna's B&B. The mutual attraction between Grayson and Brianna eventually leads to something more, and soon Grayson's characters become almost indistinguishable from Grayson and Brianna. Both of them know from the outset that Grayson will move on as soon as the novel is finished, leaving Brianna behind. Is this how their story is meant to end, or will Grayson find a different ending?

Romance is far from my favorite genre. I picked this one up for a challenge to read a RITA award winner in February. If romance was all there was to this book, I wouldn't have enjoyed it very much. However, there were enough elements of mystery and family secrets to hold my interest. The Irish setting didn't hurt, either.

This is the middle book in a trilogy. The title of the trilogy is a spoiler for one of the plot threads in this book. Brianna and her older sister, Maggie, discover a family secret in this book, starting them on a quest that isn't completed by the end of the book. It's obvious that the thread introduced in this book will be at the center of the final book in the trilogy. I liked the characters well enough and have enough curiosity to read the next book in the trilogy, but I'm not interested enough to go back and read the first book in the set.

3.5 stars

Feb 10, 2013, 5:26pm Top

Canada: Bachelor Brothers' Bed & Breakfast by Bill Richardson

After reading this collection of brief reflections on and reminiscences of life, literature, family, and community, bibliophiles everywhere will want to pack their bags and head for rural Canada and the Bachelor Brothers' Bed & Breakfast. If they can find it. For most guests, their first visit to the B & B happens by chance since the proprietors, middle-aged fraternal twins, have never advertized their accommodations. The guests that do find their way there share a love of reading, and many return again and again. Letters from satisfied customers are interspersed with stories written by each twin, recommended reading lists, poetry, and more. Virgil, the more melancholy twin, provides a list of books to read when you're feeling low. His brother, Hector, shares his list of favorite authors for the bath. There's a glaring omission in both lists. To Virgil's list I would add Bachelor Brothers' Bed & Breakfast, and to Hector's list I would add Bill Richardson.

4 stars

Feb 11, 2013, 2:36pm Top

Your moving along nicely through the challenge, Carrie. I'm glad that the book you read for Canada was set in my part of it, and that you enjoyed it.

Feb 11, 2013, 5:27pm Top

Thanks Judy! I enjoyed my virtual visit to your corner of Canada. If you ever stumble upon the BBB&B, I hope you'll let your LT friends in on the secret!

Feb 13, 2013, 5:53pm Top

Ghana: King Peggy by Peggielene Bartels

How did a female American secretary from Silver Spring, Maryland, become the king of a Ghanian village? Peggielene Bartels tells her story, beginning with a call she received in 2008 informing her that her uncle the king had died and that the ancestors had chosen her as the next king. Over the next several years, Peggy continued to work as a secretary at the Ghanian embassy in Washington, D.C. while making annual trips to Ghana to take care of her village's business.

Peggy quickly discovered that the king had many financial obligations and that the village treasury was empty. Peggy would have to find a way to pay for her enstoolment ceremony and for a funeral for her uncle, the “late king who was in the fridge” in Accra awaiting burial. The palace was practically uninhabitable and needed extensive repairs and renovations.

The challenges facing her weren't just financial. It gradually became clear to Peggy that she could not trust the village elders. The elders who weren't corrupt were weak. The elders expected business to continue as usual and resisted Peggy's attempts to exercise her authority as king. As soon as Peggy resolved one problem, another one arose. Peggy's confidence in her ability grew as she successfully dealt with challenge after challenge.

For me, the most interesting aspect of Peggy's story is her religious syncretism. She mixes a Christian faith with ancestor worship. She prays to God and she prays to her ancestors, pouring out libations and performing other rituals to keep the ancestors happy. This would be worthwhile reading for students of anthropology, religion, and missions.

4 stars

Feb 16, 2013, 8:22pm Top

Mauritius: Georges by Alexandre Dumas

Georges is the youngest son of a wealthy mulatto plantation owner on île de France (now Mauritius). Georges admires his father for his strength and character, but hates his father's sense of inferiority to white society. Georges' father, Pierre Munier, is clearly their equal, if not their better. Georges is small for his age and prefers intellectual pursuits to physical activity. When Georges and his older brother are forced leave the island for their safety, Georges determines to return one day to confront and defeat the island's racial prejudice. To that end, he methodically strengthens his mind, body, and character in preparation for his return home. Although he earns respect and admiration from all segments of society upon his return, his goal of revenge leads to inevitable conflict and great danger.

The first part of the story reminds me of the old Charles Atlas ads where the 90-pound weakling transforms himself into a muscular man able to defend himself. The rest of the story is bit like The Last of the Mohicans if it had been written by Dickens. The action is well-paced and the uncertainty of Georges' fate kept me turning the pages. Some of the characterizations feel weak, though. Georges keeps a mental distance from everyone, including the reader. When he does eventually fall in love, the object of his devotion is a 16-year-old girl who reminds me a little of Lydia Bennet. If she hadn't been a teenager, though, I think she might have acted differently and thus changed the outcome of the novel.

The treatment of race and prejudice is problematic in the novel. Georges despises the inferior treatment he is subjected to by the island's white society. However, Georges' family owns hundreds of slaves, and Georges and his family seem to view the African slaves as inferior in intellect and will. I'd like to find out more about Dumas to see how closely this mirrored his own attitude toward racial issues.

3.5 stars

Feb 17, 2013, 2:33pm Top

Interesting review of Georges, Carrie. Was it Dumas, père or Dumas fils as author? I haven't read any of the son's works and Georges is a new one to me.

Feb 17, 2013, 2:38pm Top

Lori, it's Dumas père. Georges is one of his more obscure works. One of these days I'll get around to reading one of the major ones! So far I've only read Georges and The Black Tulip.

Feb 17, 2013, 6:14pm Top

Good to know, Thanks!

Feb 19, 2013, 3:02pm Top

You're making great progress, Carrie!

Feb 19, 2013, 3:50pm Top

Thanks Dejah! It won't last, of course, but it's nice to be off to a running start.

Edited: Nov 13, 2014, 8:56am Top

Zimbabwe (former member): Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter by J. Nozipo Maraire

As Zenzele leaves Zimbabwe for four years at Harvard, her mother writes her a letter reminding her of her roots, a “curious distillation of traditional African teaching, social commentary, and maternal concern”. Zenzele's mother's generation lived through the civil war that culminated in Zimbabwe's independence and the end of minority white rule. Zenzele's family history is interwoven with Zimbabwe's history.

At the same time, this is a novel about universal themes – the bond between mother and daughter, between sisters, between women; the sacrifices one generation makes so that the next generation can have better standards of living; predestination versus free will. In a way, this is a mother-daughter version of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. It's a beautiful expression of maternal love. It's not what most people would classify as women's fiction, though. It can be enjoyed equally by both sexes. Recommended.

4 stars

Mar 14, 2013, 9:24pm Top

Uganda: Child of Dandelions by Shenaaz Nanji

In 1972 when Ugandan president Idi Amin gave all foreign national Indians 90 days to leave Uganda, Sabine and her family mistakenly think the order doesn't apply to them. They are Ugandan citizens after all. At first things aren't much different. Sabine continues to spend time with her African best friend, Zena. However, their friendship soon shows signs of strain as the ethnic division becomes sharper. By the time Sabine and her family realize they need to leave Uganda, it may be too late.

This YA novel is based on a real historical event. Sabine compares what is happening to the Indians in Uganda to what happened to the Jews in Europe during the Holocaust. Idi Amin's government keeps stripping rights and possessions from the Indian population. After witnessing soldiers' attacks on helpless people, Sabine fears for her own and her family's safety. Sabine's eyes are also opened to things she hasn't noticed before, particularly the racism practiced in the Indian community and in her own family.

As in many children's and YA novels, the reader is immediately plunged into danger. It's there from the beginning of the novel, which opens on the first day of the 90-day countdown. The book will appeal most strongly to teen girls. Educators might want to use it for supplemental reading in social science courses (world history, sociology, etc.) Recommended.

4 stars

Mar 18, 2013, 1:44pm Top

Hi Carrie, in 1972 I was in college in Ottawa, Ontario and my future mother-in-law took in students as borders. One of her borders was of East Indian descent and his family has been expelled from Uganda. They had been successful shopkeepers but didn't get to bring much out of the country with them. I think Child of Dandelions may just be my pick for Uganda as well.

Mar 18, 2013, 5:27pm Top

I think Child of Dandelions would be a good choice for your Uganda book! The author now lives in Canada. Her family probably arrived in Canada at about the same time as your mother-in-law's boarder.

Mar 27, 2013, 6:18pm Top

Botswana: The Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith

It's always a pleasure to visit Botswana's only female private detective agency. These books aren't about crime. They're about life. Precious herself puts it this way:

...I am a lady first and then I am a detective. So I just do the things which we ladies know how to do—I talk to people and find out what has happened. Then I try to solve the problems in people's lives. That is all I do.

In this series installment, a client who believes she was adopted asks the agency for help in finding her real family. Precious also tries to find out who is behind a series of nasty anonymous letters. She solves the case with help from an unexpected source. Mma Makutsi has a problem with a piece of furniture her fiance has purchased in anticipation of their marriage. Precious's husband, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, goes to great lengths to acquire a second opinion on their wheelchair-bound foster daughter's disability.

This is the first book in the series that I've read since my father's death. Precious's love for her late Daddy struck me in a fresh way this time. I loved this passage:

That Obed Ramotswe should be remembered, that people should still speak of him; that touched her. One did not have to be famous to be remembered in Botswana; there was room in history for all of us.

“He was a very good man,” she said. “He loved his cattle. He loved his country.”

She had not intended to utter an epitaph, but that, she realised, was what she had done.

This series probably won't win many literary awards. However, it's among my favorites because I always feel better about the world and the people in it after absorbing Precious's outlook on life. Warmly recommended.

4 stars

Mar 27, 2013, 6:24pm Top

I love that Precious Ramotswe describes herself as "traditionally built".

Mar 27, 2013, 6:25pm Top

Yes. And she's proud of it!

Mar 31, 2013, 5:49am Top

I love the way Mcall conjures up the vibrancy of Botswana.

Mar 31, 2013, 6:27am Top

Yes, I feel like I'm there when I read his books.

Apr 1, 2013, 2:58am Top

Have you read any of his other series - I haven't so am curious.

Apr 1, 2013, 6:52am Top

I've read a few of the Sunday Philosophy Club books. They're OK, but I don't enjoy them nearly as much. I've read the first book in the 44 Scotland Street series and liked it but haven't read any more yet. I intend to continue that series. I love the von Igelfeld books, particularly The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs.

Apr 3, 2013, 2:48am Top

the Scotland Street series was the only one that interested me.

Apr 12, 2013, 10:28pm Top

Another Canada book: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Grace Marks was a real person, an Irish immigrant to Canada in the first half of the 19th century. By the time she was 16, she had been tried and convicted of the murder of her employer and his housekeeper. Public opinion was mixed, and there were enough influential people who believed that Grace was wrongly convicted to keep her from being hanged. Margaret Atwood developed Grace's story into a historical novel that raises as many questions as it answers. Atwood probes the lines between fantasy and reality, memory and illusion, truth and falsehood, sanity and insanity. There isn't much black and white here – only shades of (often very dark gray. Grace doesn't reveal her secrets easily, and many readers will find themselves reading long past the point they intended to stop in the hope that Grace will reward them with some new detail that she's been keeping to herself.

4 stars

Edited: Nov 13, 2014, 8:56am Top

Another United Kingdom book, this one set in the Shetland Islands: Red Bones by Ann Cleeves

Two deaths on Whalsay, one of the Shetland Islands. One appears to be an accident, the other suicide. Nothing to warrant a criminal investigation that would require calling in a team from Inverness. Yet Jimmy Perez is troubled by too many coincidences. Both bodies were found on the same croft, the site of an archaeological dig where ancient bones have recently been uncovered. Maybe the bones aren't as old as is supposed. Perez's colleague, Sandy Wilson, has a personal connection to one of the victims, and together they pick at threads to uncover the real story about what's been happening on the island.

I love the atmosphere of this series and its strong sense of place. I see the Shetland Islands as I read, and I feel the chill of the damp fog. Jimmy Perez carries the series well as a local with the air of an outside observer. He has the loner personality common in fictional detectives without their usual vices of alcoholism, womanizing, etc. I've been trying to stretch these books out since originally there were only going to be four of them. I hated the thought of not having any more new ones to look forward to. However, the author has now written a fifth book in the series, so it appears she must like writing the books as much as I enjoy reading them.

4.5 stars

Apr 30, 2013, 1:22pm Top

This month I only managed to visit countries I had already visited. I do have a couple of new destinations lined up for May. I've already started In Other Rooms, Other Wonders for Pakistan, and I have a library copy of The Colour for New Zealand.

May 6, 2013, 6:13pm Top

Pakistan: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin

The stories in this collection layer to form a picture of Pakistan's social structure. The local society and economy is centered in a few landowners, who often live in one of Pakistan's larger cities like Lahore or Islamabad and have managers who oversee their country estates. In most of the stories, the main characters are trying to improve their living conditions by securing positions within a landowner's household as employees, servants, or, in the case of some of the women, as mistresses.

Most of the stories have a tone of hopelessness or resignation. Security is tenuous, dependent on the health and financial stability of the landowner/employer. Most of the protagonists must decide whether to cast their lot with another person; once the choice is made, they rise or fall with that person's fortune. Even the wealthy characters have limited choices since their responsibilities are defined by society.

“About a Burning Girl” stands out from the rest of the stories with its first-person narrator and its humorous tone. This was the most enjoyable story to read. The one that may haunt me longest is “A Spoiled Man”, in which the thoughtless kindnesses of an American woman set in motion a cruel chain of events. There's not a weak story in the collection. Highly recommended.

4.5 stars

May 6, 2013, 7:40pm Top

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders sounds like a winner. My local library doesn't have it in their collection but it would be worthwhile to search it out.

What a fun challenge this is turning out to be! Thanks for creating it.

May 6, 2013, 7:43pm Top

I don't often read short story collections, but I might read more if they were all like this! I'm glad you're having fun with the challenge.

May 9, 2013, 7:57pm Top

Kenya: 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy

September 11, 2001 was a defining moment in U.S. history. I'll never forget where I was and what I was doing when I heard of the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. I'll also never forget the outpouring of compassion from all over the world in the days that followed. This children's book tells of the generosity of a small Maasai village in Kenya when they heard the account of one of their own, a young man studying in the U.S. who was in New York on that fateful day in September. He was moved to offer his only cow, the most valued possession in Maasai culture, to the people of America as an act of healing. Others followed his example and offered their own precious cows, fourteen in all.

This is a children's picture book so the story is simply told, but it evokes strong emotions. Not too long ago, another American city was attacked, and the aftermath still fills our daily news. It's important to hear stories like 14 Cows for America to remind us that people of good will far outnumber those with evil intent.

4.5 stars

May 9, 2013, 11:27pm Top

Heartwarming indeed. Thanks for sharing.

May 11, 2013, 8:11am Top

New Zealand: The Colour by Rose Tremain

Joseph and Harriet Blackstone's marriage seems to be doomed before it begins. Shortly after their marriage, the 30-something couple leaves England to homestead in New Zealand. Joseph's mother, Lilian, accompanies them. Joseph builds a temporary cob house (which sounds a lot like the sod houses of the U.S. plains) to shelter them through the first winter. Before the farm is established, Joseph catches gold fever and heads off for the west coast of New Zealand's South Island to find his fortune. Joseph's absence results in some unimaginable challenges for Harriet.

New Zealand's geography and climate seem to drive the plot of the novel. That was a good thing for me, since I chose it for the New Zealand setting. I didn't find any of the human characters particularly likeable. Joseph is ruled by his passions, particularly fear, greed, and lust. Harriet might seem like a saint in comparison, but she isn't. She is more coldly calculating. Although she usually has the self-discipline to do the right thing, it's clear that she is capable of great wrong but has the will to avoid courses of action are not in her best interest in the long run. Neither Joseph nor Harriet seem to wrestle with moral questions. While the New Zealand history was fascinating, by the time I reached the end of the book I'd had more of Joseph and Harriet than I could comfortably stand.

3.5 stars

Jun 15, 2013, 1:17pm Top

Another United Kingdom book: What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn

A bright but lonely 10-year-old girl disappeared without a trace in 1984, and the incident continues to affect the lives of several individuals almost twenty years later. Kate Meaney was a solitary child who spent a good part of her days honing her detective skills at the new shopping mall built on the ruins of an industrial estate. Twenty years later, Lisa Palmer, sister of the prime suspect in Kate's disappearance, works as a mid-level manager at a music store in the mall. Kurt, a mall security guard, had played among the factory ruins before the mall was built. When Kurt and Lisa meet, their friendship may provide answers to the long-ago mystery.

What Was Lost is as much as anything a story about the lost innocence of childhood. Although Kurt and Lisa are adults when readers meet them, their characters were shaped by significant events in their childhood. Kate's personality dominates the story. Kurt and Lisa seem more like echoes of Kate than characters with their own personalities. There is too much similarity between their voices.

The book captures the feel of the Midlands with the decline of industry and the rise of consumer culture. I think What Was Lost would have the same attraction for mall workers that Last Night at the Lobster has for restaurant workers. The novel has enough mystery to appeal to readers of crime fiction, but not enough to alienate readers who dislike that genre. Although the book has its flaws, it's a promising first novel and I can see why it caught the attention of several literary award committees.

3.5 stars

Jun 30, 2013, 7:07pm Top

Bangladesh: A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

Dear Husband,
I lost our children today.

Rehana Haque, a widow and mother of two, lived through the loss of her children after her husband's sudden death. When war comes to East Pakistan in 1971, Rehana is determined not to lose her children again. Maya and Sohail, her children, are now young adults and are caught up in the independence movement. Rehana isn't interested in the political aspects of the war, but she loves her children and becomes involved in the resistance efforts for their sakes.

Although Tahmima Anam wasn't yet born during the Bangladesh War for Independence, she writes about it as if she was there. Maybe it's because many aspects of the novel are based on her own family's history and she grew up with their stories of the war. While the war provides the backdrop for the novel, it's not a war novel. The story is driven by relationships – a mother's love for her children, an immigrant's love for her adopted country, and friendship that transcends cultural and religious differences. The edition I read includes an annotated bibliography of Anam's favorite books about Bangladesh. I wouldn't be surprised if this book shows up on other readers' lists of favorite South Asian books.

4 stars

Edited: Jun 30, 2013, 7:33pm Top

A Golden Age sounds excellent. For me, it was another toss-up for Bangladesh and I chose the one that was available at the library that day (Scenes from early life by Hensher). I might go back to Tahmima Anam's book another time. I'm old enough to remember the war in Bangladesh, although at the time I didn't really take in all the details.

Jun 30, 2013, 7:44pm Top

I guess I'm technically old enough to remember it, but I don't. I'm not sure how much coverage it got in the U.S. news, if any. Most of the news coverage focused on the war in Vietnam.

Jul 1, 2013, 1:32am Top

Of course. And living in the UK, the Vietnam war was mostly a mystery to me.

Jul 6, 2013, 2:57pm Top

I guess as Canada is a commonwealth country and because of it's closeness to the U.S., I remember both these events receiving a fair amount of coverage on the news. Of course, Viet Nam was the main event, holding the number one news spot for years.

Jul 20, 2013, 3:09pm Top

Wow, you've really made progress since I last visited your thread. And what a list of books to choose from for my own (everlasting) gloal challenge. It seems you liked A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam better than I did. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but there was something about the book I did not like. Glad to see you enjoyed it though.

Jul 20, 2013, 4:15pm Top

I thought it was a good story, but it lacks some quality that would make it an outstanding book. Maybe not enough development of the secondary characters?

Jul 28, 2013, 3:45pm Top

Mozambique - Bundu by Chris Barnard
It's not precisely clear whether the story's setting is in Mozambique or South Africa, but I'm counting it as Mozambique since that's where the refugees in the book are from

That deep concealed place to which everything is connected and where everything interlocks and from which everything radiates in invisible trajectories may be unreachably far. My purpose had always been gradually to learn to understand more of the cohesion of all the disparate elements of nature. Somewhere, someday, research would bring us to the symbiosis that contains all things. The drought was destroying the little that conservation had achieved in fifty years in the region. Was there a reason for this or was it just happening because it was happening? The little that I knew had time after time confirmed that nature had no use for chance. Theologians would talk of a Divine Plan – but that was not what I meant by my Great Process, even though I did spell it with capital letters, and even though it could be one and the same thing. But too many people tend to place the so-called Divine Plan stamp on everything they don't understand and then regard it as settled.

Brand de la Rey is an environmental researcher in the bundu region on the South Africa-Mozambique border. His closest neighbor is a Catholic mission station staffed by a barely competent doctor, a nurse, two or three nuns, and a handyman. Three years of drought have taken a toll and precipitated a crisis. Starving people arrive daily at the mission, and the small facility is soon stretched beyond its capacity to feed and care for so many people. Something must be done to relieve the mission of this unbearable burden. There is usually a reason when people choose to live at the ends of civilization. Somehow the loners who inhabit the region will have to work with each other to secure outside help.

It's difficult to read descriptions of sick and starving people, yet it seems that Barnard has spared readers from its worst horrors. Brand, the first-person narrator, is a scientist, not a philosopher, and while his descriptions can be graphic, he doesn't dwell on the images. The short novel focuses more action than thought, which I suppose reflects how we often handle crises. We do what's required in an emergency and think about it later, after it's all over. If there's a weakness in the book, it's that Barnard raises issues but doesn't take time to explore them – governmental responsibility for humanitarian assistance; the role of non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross; the psychology of aid workers; language, cultural, and gender barriers in communication; and the eternal theological questions surrounding God's role in permitting, causing, or alleviating suffering.

I would recommend this to readers preparing for careers in international aid/disaster relief or in medical missions. I think it would also work well as a reading group selection since it's a fairly quick read and provides a lot of fodder for discussion.

3.5 stars

Aug 11, 2013, 5:45pm Top

Another Canada book: Unless by Carol Shields

Norah had been a good, docile baby and then she became a good, obedient little girl. Now, at nineteen, she's so brimming with goodness that she sits on a Toronto street corner...cross-legged with a begging bowl in her lap and asks nothing of the world. Nine-tenths of what she gathers she distributes at the end of the day to other street people. She wears a cardboard sign on her chest: a single word printed in black marker—GOODNESS.

Reta Winters, her husband, Tom, and the two daughters still at home attempt to maintain a normal life while keeping track of Norah and trying to understand why she has voluntarily withdrawn from the world. Reta is increasingly convinced that the motivating force was Norah's realization of her powerlessness as a female. Goodness is possible, but not greatness. Reta's husband, Tom, a medical doctor, has a different theory. Reta maintains some sense of balance through her writing, perhaps because she has control over the words and characters that she doesn't have over her own life story.

The Stone Diaries was my first Shields novel and this one was the second. I love the quality of her writing. I don't think she'll ever be among my favorite authors, though, unless the strong feminist theme in these novels is uncharacteristic of the rest of her work. As Reta processes what has happened to her daughter, she reflects on the powerlessness of women and the exclusion of women's voices in intellectual discourse. It's hard for me to identify with Reta because I've never felt powerless or voiceless. Maybe it comes from growing up in the South, where we have a tradition of strong women, or from the many strong Midwestern female role models in my family who were neither voiceless nor powerless even though many of them never worked outside the home.

Reta is troubled by the absence of women in the literary canon. They're not absent in the canon of Southern literature – Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Margaret Mitchell, Zora Neale Hurston. Is it possible to graduate from any Southern high school without first reading Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird? The works of these authors seem to resonate with both sexes. On the other hand, Shields' feminist themes won't resonate with all women, let alone many men. By focusing so strongly on women's issues, Shields seems to place herself in the category of “great women authors” rather than the more inclusive “great authors” category.

4 stars

Edited: Sep 5, 2013, 6:02pm Top

Tanzania: The Book of Secrets by M. G. Vassanji
(parts of the book are set in Kenya, but I have lots of other choices for Kenya!)

In Dar es Salaam in the late 1980s, Pius Fernandes, a retired teacher who has fallen on hard times, is taken in by a former student. The younger man is curious about an old book he has found in his store and he asks Fernandes to study it and see what he can make of it. The book is a diary from the colonial era, written during the early career of a man who later rose in the ranks of British administration in its colonies. How did his diary end up in a store in Dar es Salaam?

I would – I told myself – recreate the world of that book. I would breathe life into the many spirits captured in its pages so long ago and tell their stories; and I would revive the spirit of the book itself, tell its own story. And so I would construct a history, a living tapestry to join the past to the present, to defy the blistering shimmering dusty bustle of city life outside which makes transients of us all.

Thus begins a journey into the past, to a small settlement in British East Africa near the border with German East Africa, to a time just before the Great War, and to a clash of cultures and loyalties. A chain of events begins that will affect later generations in different places. Exactly what happened all those years ago? Will the book reveal its secrets, or will they remain forever out of reach?

I was quickly drawn into the world of the novel through the diary of Alfred Corbin, a minor official in British East Africa (now Kenya) just before the outbreak of World War I. The novel starts with the contents of the diary, viewing people and events through Corbin's eyes. Then the perspective shifts as Fernandes learns about the same people and events from other sources. The location also shifts, first from one side of the border to the other, and finally to Dar es Salaam in what is now Tanzania. The more Fernandes learns, the more difficult it becomes to determine where the truth lies.

Migration and displacement are recurring themes in this novel. The main characters are all immigrants in Africa, either from India or from Great Britain. The Indian Muslim sect that made up the heart of the settlement in British East Africa had stronger ties to other ethnic settlements on both sides of the border than to the British colony in which their settlement was located. Characters who establish themselves in a location find themselves rebuilding careers, businesses and personal lives as a result of political changes.

Even though I quite liked this book, some aspects of its structure didn't quite work for me. The first part of the novel is based on Alfred Corbin's diary, and part of his story is told in first person. However, an omniscient narrator adds details that were not in Corbin's diary. The narrator may be Fernandes, who is adding information he gathered from other sources. It's not clear enough for my liking. Fernandes becomes a protagonist toward the end of the novel, and the story lost some of its momentum for me then. It seems fragmented and the ending has an unfinished feel. I'll remember it most of all for its unusual location and time period – British East Africa and German East Africa during World War I.

4 stars

Edited: Sep 8, 2013, 2:02pm Top

Yet another book for Canada: How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny

When Myrna Landers' friend fails to arrive in Three Pines for Christmas as expected, Myrna naturally turns to another friend for assistance – Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté. Gamache's homicide department is barely functioning since, except for Isabelle Lacoste, his trusted personnel have been transferred to other departments. Corruption is spreading inside the Sûreté, and Gamache knows that a confrontation with those at its source is imminent. Nevertheless, he agrees to look for Myrna's missing friend even though the case, if there is one, is outside his jurisdiction. It's fitting that these events take place as the winter solstice approaches, when the days are at their shortest and the darkness of night is at its longest.

Louise Penny's novels are not typical whodunnits or police procedurals. They're a study of good and evil, light and dark, kindness and cruelty. Gamache explores the darkest parts of the human soul in his daily routine, yet he is able to keep the darkness from infesting his own soul by respecting life, keeping his loved ones close, and treating others with kindness.

Since the last book in the series was set away from Three Pines, it felt like a homecoming to be back among its familiar characters, homes, and businesses. Even though (or perhaps because) many of the residents have been suspects in previous cases, the bond of friendship formed between Gamache and the villagers is real and deep. The village gives him the strength to face the events that are coming to a head.

Three Pines, he knew, was not immune to dreadful loss. To sorrow and pain. What Three Pines had wasn't immunity but a rare ability to heal. And that's what they offered him... Space and time to heal.

And comfort.

But, like peace, comfort didn't come from hiding away or running away. Comfort first demanded courage.

This is a book long-time fans have been waiting for. However, it's not a stand-alone. While each book in the series has a self-contained criminal investigation, each book also contributes to a larger story arc that Penny has plotted as carefully as each individual novel. The series needs to be read in order to get its full benefit.

5 stars

Sep 8, 2013, 2:30pm Top

Did you hear that there is an upcoming TV series based on the Louise Penny books? Sorry, I can't remember which station will air it. I wonder how it will compare to the books.

How the Light Gets In must have been an exceptional read to earn five stars. Thanks for the excellent review! I will have to catch up on the series, so there will be a lot of Three Pines reading ahead.

Sep 8, 2013, 2:57pm Top

I heard about the TV movie last year. I hope it airs in the US. Surely it will since the books are best-sellers here.

My favorite in the series is still Bury Your Dead. I'd give that one more than 5 stars if I could!

Sep 8, 2013, 3:13pm Top

Maybe I will avoid the TV show until I've read the books. I wouldn't want to spoil the experience.

Oct 7, 2013, 9:19pm Top

Malaysia: The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Recently retired judge Yun Ling Teoh returns to Malaysia's Cameron Highlands and the garden that helped her recover from her experience as a Japanese prisoner of war. In the early 1950s, Yun Ling went to Yugiri to ask its Japanese gardener to create a memorial garden for her sister who died during the war. Despite her anger toward the Japanese for the suffering she endured during the war, she stayed on as Aritomo's apprentice. Their mutual respect grew into something more, complicated by each one's deeply held secrets. Revisiting memories from that period of her life leads Yun Ling to recognize truths that had been hidden from her for decades.

Yun Ling (and readers) wrestle with uncomfortable attitudes and feelings. All of Yun Ling's relationships with family, friends, and lovers are complicated by ethnic differences, political allegiances, the atrocities of war, and shifts in power and control. While World War II is over, Malaya is in the midst of a guerrilla war between the government and the Communist party.

This isn't a book to rush through. It's a book to savor. Yun Ling has reached a contemplative period of her life. The remote mountain setting and the themes of gardening, art, tradition, and religion that run through the book made me want to linger in its pages. I think this book will stick with me for a long time because of its unique location, setting, and themes. Highly recommended.

4.5 stars

Oct 8, 2013, 6:26pm Top

Carrie, this book sounds wonderful. It's another one I will have to watch out for.

Oct 30, 2013, 9:10pm Top

Saint Lucia: Tiepolo's Hound by Derek Walcott

Poet and painter Derek Walcott uses one form of artistic expression to contemplate the other in a book-length poem. Walcott compares and contrasts himself as an artist with 19th-century impressionist Camille Pissaro, who, like Walcott, was born in the West Indies. Themes that run through the poem include nature, time, inspiration, Old vs. New world, and the legacies of slavery and colonialism. Reading poetry is harder work than reading prose, and I found that reading aloud to my dog helped maintain my concentration and enhanced my appreciation of the work.

3.5 stars

Oct 31, 2013, 2:16pm Top

"Reading poetry is harder work than reading prose, and I found that reading aloud to my dog helped maintain my concentration and enhanced my appreciation of the work."

I loved that! I'm sure your dog believes he/she is getting very special attention. It creates a beautiful image.

Nov 30, 2013, 5:55pm Top

Antigua and Barbuda: A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

If you're thinking of going to Antigua on vacation, you probably shouldn't read this before you go. You might end up canceling your reservations. This isn't a sentimental reminiscence about the author's native country. It's full of anger at tourists, at the former colonial government, and at corruption in the post-colonial government. I don't know what Kincaid intended to accomplish with this extended essay, but it seems like she means to discourage North American and European tourists from visiting, and she would rather have Antigua left to the Antiguans. Since Antigua's economy is based largely on tourism, I'm not sure how discouraging visitors will improve things. There are enough interesting facts interspersed with the rants to make me feel like I gained something from reading it.

3.5 stars

Nov 30, 2013, 7:20pm Top

I experienced the same feeling with most of the reading set in the Caribbean - don't go there!

Herman Wouk's book Don't stop the carnival was funny, but just as off-putting, especially when I read the first-hand account of a tourist that was eerily similar to Wouk's story.

I've only tried one of Kincaid's books and I didn't find her writing appealed. I intend to try more at another time.

Nov 30, 2013, 7:52pm Top

I guess I have more of this to look forward to then! I still have several Caribbean nations to "visit".

Nov 30, 2013, 8:54pm Top

At least the Grenadines has the island of Mustique where the super-rich go - and are welcomed :) Previously a favourite spot of Princess Margaret's.

Dec 21, 2013, 9:51pm Top

Another book for Ireland: A Christmas Grace by Anne Perry

Since Charlotte Pitt is sick, her sister, Emily Radley, responds to their aunt's summons to Charlotte to come to her in Ireland. Their Aunt Susannah is dying and may not last until Christmas. When Emily arrives, she finds that the small Irish village is also dying under the weight of an unsolved murder. Then another stranger arrives and stirs up memories of the murdered man. Will history repeat itself? Or will Emily be able to uncover the truth, and in so doing restore life to the village?

I've always liked Emily, who has sometimes assisted Thomas Pitt in delicate murder investigations among the upper class. This was one of the more enjoyable Christmas novellas for me since it features Emily. However, the plot relies on an improbable coincidence and illogical assumptions that I found difficult to accept. Recommended with reservations to fans of Perry's Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series.

3 stars

Dec 21, 2013, 9:53pm Top

And another one for the United Kingdom: A Killer's Christmas in Wales by Elizabeth J. Duncan

Things are busy for manicurist Penny Brannigan in the weeks before Christmas. Penny and her business partner, Victoria, plan to open their new spa in time for Christmas. They've also agreed to judge the Christmas window display competition among the Welsh village's merchants. They still don't know the identity of the decades-old remains found in the spa during the building's renovation. Penny gets even busier when a newcomer to the village is murdered at Conwy Castle. The prime suspect is one of Penny's customers, and she asks Penny to look into the murder to make sure that the police don't overlook any other suspects. Since Penny and her art group were touring the castle when the murder occurred, it's possible that she noticed some unusual detail that would point to the murderer's identity. On top of everything else, a petty thief is on the prowl in the village and Penny is dismayed when she finds that she's become one of the thief's victims.

The mysteries in this series aren't terribly complicated or cleverly plotted. The Welsh village setting and the pleasant characters are what continue to attract me. I've been to Conwy Castle so it was fun for me to “return” there with Penny and other characters in the book. This series is a lot like another cozy village series I enjoy – the Dorothy Martin series by Jeanne Dams. I think Dorothy Martin's fans would also enjoy this series and its surprising connection to this book.

3.5 stars

Dec 22, 2013, 3:04am Top

I read both of those books this month too and I believe I rated them the same way. I enjoy Anne Perry's stories, this one included, but it wasn't a favourite. Elizabeth Duncan's mysteries are implausible, but fun. For some reason a Christmas-themed cozy mystery is always acceptable at this time of year.

Dec 22, 2013, 6:39am Top

I love reading Christmas cozies during the Christmas season, even if the mystery component isn't up to par. It wouldn't seem like Christmas without at least one or two!

Dec 30, 2013, 1:57pm Top

# 86 - Interesting what you mentioned about Jamaica Kincaid's book, Carrie. I read My Brother (I believe it was you who suggested it to me for the RG-Challenge) and I remember there was a lot of anger in her prose as well (towards her family then). I start to see a pattern here.

Dec 30, 2013, 4:20pm Top

Hmm. Maybe her fiction isn't quite so angry? I still have Mr. Potter in my TBR stash but I'll have to be in the right mood for it.

Dec 30, 2013, 4:54pm Top

Yes, I just read Lori's review of Mr. Potter and she does not mention it to be an "angry" book.

Dec 30, 2013, 5:48pm Top

Well.... Mr. Potter does has some deep-seated resentments that bubble to the surface from time to time focused on the father figure of the title so I am looking forward to seeing if it comes across with the same tone Carrie found in A Small Place.

Jan 13, 2014, 10:02am Top

Grenada: Praisesong for the Widow by Paule Marshall

"What's your nation?" he asked her, his manner curious, interested, even friendly all of a sudden. "Arada . . . ? Is you an Arada?" He waited. "Cromanti maybe . . . ?" And he again waited. "Yarraba then . . . ? Moko . . . ?"

On and on he recited the list of names, pausing after each one to give her time to answer.

"Temne . . . ? Is you a Temne maybe? Banda . . . ?"

What was the man going on about? What were these names? Each one made her head ache all the more. She thought she heard in them the faint rattle of the necklace of cowrie shells and amber Marion always wore. Africa? Did they have something to do with Africa?

Sixty-something widow Avey Johnson is on a Caribbean cruise with a couple of friends, an annual event since the death of her husband some four years earlier. Something happens to Avey on this cruise. She has a sudden urge to leave the ship and take the next plane home, so she disembarks at Grenada, the ship's next port of call. Instead of flying home immediately, Avey is drawn into the annual excursion from Grenada to the out island of Carriacou - a sort of ritual homecoming for the islanders who now make their homes on Grenada. The experience becomes a spiritual and cultural homecoming for Avey.

This novel explores collective memory as expressed through religious and cultural rituals and oral traditions in the United States and the Caribbean. Recommended for readers with an interest in African American literature, Caribbean literature, the African diaspora, women's studies, and religious studies.

4 stars

Mar 15, 2014, 11:13am Top

Barbados: Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl by Kate McCafferty

After her arrest for aiding a slave insurrection on Barbados, middle aged Cot Daley is subjected to a lengthy interrogation. She agrees to provide information on the rebellious slaves only if she is allowed to tell her story in her own way. Beginning with her Irish childhood, Cot tells of her kidnapping and transport to Barbados, her sale as an indentured servant, the many extensions to her years of indenture that gave her no hope of freedom until she reached middle age, and her marriage to an African slave, a Coromantee Muslim.

The book is essentially a long monologue only occasionally broken by the thoughts and actions of the interrogator, Peter Coote. By the end of the book, my sympathies were with Coote. I just wanted her to get to the end of her story. Cot didn't have the charisma to carry off such a long tale. I think I would have liked this better as a movie, since in a movie other characters would get to speak for themselves instead of through Cot.

2.5 stars

Mar 22, 2014, 12:36pm Top

Sorry to hear Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl was such a dud, I was planning on reading it as well, will have to rethink that idea!

Mar 22, 2014, 12:40pm Top

>100 DeltaQueen50: I was looking forward to that one, so maybe that's why I was so disappointed when it didn't live up to my expectations.

Edited: Mar 27, 2014, 8:52pm Top

Belize: How to Cook a Tapir by Joan Fry

As a newlywed in the early 1960s, Joan Fry spent a year in a Kekchi Maya village in British Honduras (now Belize) with her then-husband, an anthropology graduate student. Fry was just twenty years old when they set out on their adventure. The couple lived in a house very similar to their Mayan neighbors, and Joan had to learn basic survival skills, like cooking whatever was available over a fire, carrying water for their daily needs, doing laundry in the river, etc. The village was at least nominally Catholic, and the Catholic priest hired Joan to teach the village children. Readers see the village and its residents through Joan's eyes as she makes mistakes but eventually learns to fit in and even makes friends from among her neighbors.

The publisher's book summary is a little misleading. Although Fry now knows how to cook the foods she describes using the recipes she shares, she didn't seem to do more than basic cooking during the year she lived in Belize. Most of the food described in the book was cooked by her neighbors and shared with her. Fry seemed to spend more time with the neighbors than did her anthropologist husband, and I'd guess that she had a better understanding of them, too. Fry doesn't overshare personal details of her relationship with her husband, but it's apparent from what she does say that the couple were ill suited for each other and probably married too young. I also suspect that her husband was depressed and might have been better off in a different field of study. I wasn't surprised to learn from the afterword that their marriage didn't last long after their return to the U.S. Their relationship brought to mind The Egg and I, Betty MacDonald's memoir about starting a poultry farm in rural Washington State as a young bride. That marriage didn't last, either. Recommended for readers with an interest in Mayan culture, readers preparing for cross-cultural living, and readers of survival narratives.

3.5 stars

Mar 28, 2014, 8:53pm Top

Interesting! Did the book give you a feel for what life was like in Belize? I have read a couple of "I lived a year in_____" kind of stories and as can be expected, some were better than others for given the armchair travel a flavour for the place.

Mar 28, 2014, 9:18pm Top

Yes, I think it did give a pretty good feel for life in a Maya village.

Apr 3, 2014, 8:31pm Top

Saint Kitts and Nevis: A State of Independence by Caryl Phillips

After a 20-year absence, Bertram Francis returns to his home in Saint Kitts on the eve of its independence. As he visits his old haunts, Bertram begins to feel like the 19-year-old he was when he left with a scholarship to study in England. He had expected the island to look different upon his return, but he wasn't prepared for the change in the attitudes of his family and friends. Bertram didn't realize he had burned so many bridges when he left. He was an outsider in England, and now he is an outsider in his childhood home.

There is a sense in which Saint Kitts is like the 19-year-old Bertram of twenty years ago, with hope in vague opportunities that will surely come its way with its new independent status. What will the nation look like twenty years from now? Will the tiny nation achieve any more than Bertram did with his independence? Phillips raises many questions and gives hints about his opinions, but he leaves the resolution up to his readers.

3.5 stars

Apr 4, 2014, 3:44pm Top

I liked A State of Independence, The portrayal of him being an outsider in England as well as on his return to his country of origin was well done. I sympathize with him as I know a lot of immigrants experience the same thing.

Apr 4, 2014, 6:31pm Top

>106 VivienneR: Yes, he seemed stateless at the end of the novel. He didn't realize at age 19 that he was making a choice to side with Great Britain, and now that Saint Kitts was gaining its independence he didn't have a home to go back to.

May 4, 2014, 12:30pm Top

Another book for the United Kingdom: Paperboy by Tony Macaulay

I'm usually wary of books that have subtitles like this: “an enchanting true story of a Belfast paperboy coming to terms with the Troubles”. However, in this case the subtitle didn't over-promise. I was truly enchanted by the story of “the only pacifist paperboy in West Belfast”, so I was. Maybe it's because I grew up in the same era, and his reminiscences of mid-1970s pop culture struck a chord with me. The Bay City Rollers, ABBA, Donny Osmond, David Cassidy, Farrah Fawcett, Olivia Newton-John, Monty Python, and Star Wars were popular here, too. It did help that I lived in the U.K. for a few years so I understood the difference between terraced houses and semi-detached houses, I know what hire purchase is, I know about Blue Peter, etc.

Macaulay's peers have a larger role in his memoir than his parents and his two brothers. He writes about a time of life when your peer group has more influence than your family. It's a time of life when your choice of peers is restricted to your neighborhood – people who live within walking distance – and school classmates. They're not necessarily the friends you would choose if your choice was unlimited, but learning to get along and fit in with peers whose interests are different from yours serves to build your social skills.

Readers in the author's age group will likely experience the strongest connection to this book, as well as readers in the UK, and particularly in Belfast. Readers whose interest is mainly in the history of the conflict between Protestants and Catholics may be disappointed. The Troubles are in the background of wee Tony's life, but they don't define his story. He didn't let it define him.

This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

4.5 stars

May 5, 2014, 1:32pm Top

That sounds like a book I'd enjoy (given my heritage). I wish it had been available to Canadian LTers. This one goes on the wishlist.

May 5, 2014, 3:54pm Top

>108 cbl_tn: - Paperboy does sound like a good read, Carrie. Wonderful review!

>109 VivienneR: - That explains why I didn't remember seeing that one when I surfed the ER offerings.

May 5, 2014, 5:50pm Top

>109 VivienneR: >110 lkernagh: It would have made sense for Paperboy to have been offered to Canadian members. The edition I received was published in the UK by HarperCollins and has British spellings where it differs from American spellings. I hope it's available in Canada. If the book description interests you, there's a good chance that you'll enjoy the book. It's one of the best books I've received through the Early Reviewers program.

May 5, 2014, 6:12pm Top

>111 cbl_tn: - I was wondering about that myself so I did a little bit of on-line sleuthing. Apparently, Paperboy is already available in Canada (with a January 2011 release date) so the LTER must be in line with a US release. Now that I know the book has been available for some time here, I am off to see if my local library has a copy!

May 5, 2014, 6:30pm Top

>112 lkernagh: I hope your library has it!

Edited: May 5, 2014, 7:33pm Top

>111 cbl_tn: >112 lkernagh: My local library didn't have Paperboy but I found a used copy at Abe's. Thanks Carrie, I'm pretty happy that you posted your review here.

May 5, 2014, 7:39pm Top

>114 VivienneR: I'm glad you found a copy! I think you'll like it.

Edited: May 20, 2014, 9:09pm Top

India: Sold by Patricia McCormick

13-year-old Lakshmi lives in the mountains of Nepal with her mother, stepfather, and baby brother. Like most families, they are very poor, but Lakshmi is happy going to school, playing games with her friends, and tending her cucumbers, all of which she has named. Whenever her stepfather gets money, he spends it on himself or gambles it away, so that there are always things the family needs that are just out of reach. One day a woman gives him money to take Lakshmi with her. Lakshmi believes she is going to the city to be a maid for a rich woman, and that the money she earns will provide things her family needs, like a new tin roof. Instead, Lakshmi is taken to a brothel in Calcutta called Happiness House, where life is anything but happy for the young girls who are forced into the sex trade.

Although Lakshmi and Happiness House are fictional, they represent thousands of young Nepali girls who are victims of sex trafficking. McCormick gets the tone just right. Lakshmi's story is realistic but not overly sensational or graphic. Lakshmi experiences appalling treatment, yet she never completely loses hope of returning home. I was angry and sad for Lakshmi, but ultimately I was inspired by her inner strength, courage, and dignity. There are several organizations that work to rescue girls like Lakshmi from forced participation in the sex trade and to change or enforce laws to reduce the prevalence of sex trafficking. I can't go to India to rescue other Lakshmis, but I can donate to organizations that do.

Most teens will be mature enough to handle the subject matter, which is tastefully handled. It would be a good reading choice for raising awareness of this issue that affects so many women and girls worldwide.

4 stars

May 27, 2014, 5:44pm Top

Another book for India: Bengal Fire by Lawrence Blochman

I wouldn't have come across this book if I hadn't been looking for a classic/Golden Age mystery set in India. I was hoping for a forgotten classic. I discovered that this book has been forgotten for good reason. It doesn't match the quality of Golden Age mysteries by authors like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, Rex Stout, and others of their era whose works are still in print.

Blochman gives more attention to physical descriptions of the characters than to the development of the mystery plot. The third person narration switches points of view between several characters, resulting in a non-linear time frame. Sometimes an event or clue is mentioned as if it had already been introduced to the reader, only to be described later in the text. Inspector Leonidas Prike regularly blurts out information he's acquired outside the reader's view and has been withholding from the reader as well as from other characters. The difficulty of trying to solve the case alongside the Inspector combined with the overt racism typical of many works written in that area made for an unsatisfactory reading experience.

2 stars

May 30, 2014, 7:53pm Top

Sri Lanka: The Beach at Galle Road by Joanna Luloff

These loosely connected stories of Sri Lanka are mostly undated, but they seem to be set in the 1970s to early 1980s. The stories explore all areas of the island nation, including the capital city, coastal towns in the southern part of the country, towns in the interior, and towns in the north where civil war is brewing. American Peace Corps workers and international aid workers feature in many of the stories in the first half of the book. The Americans are absent from the last few stories in the collection. All of the stories share themes of loneliness, cultural barriers, and class or status differences. The stories are individually strong, yet the collection lacks something. Civil war looms in the background, yet the stories skirt the issues central to the war. It seems as if the author has deliberately avoided the political issues that resulted in war. That might work for a well-known conflict like the Vietnam War, but most American readers will have little familiarity with Sri Lanka's civil war.

3.5 stars

May 30, 2014, 10:33pm Top

You are making excellent progress with your challenge, Carrie!

May 31, 2014, 7:59am Top

Thanks Lori! I'm just about halfway - I've "visited" 27 countries and I have 28 left. I'm hoping to "visit" the Bahamas in June.

May 31, 2014, 10:39am Top

I have decided to take an alphabetical approach to my Commonwealth reading for now and just checked out a book for Belize from the library. They didn't have the Fry book you read for your Belize 'visit'. I find it interesting that the only books my local library has with Belize as a subject or topic are either travel books, crime/spy fiction or romance. ;-)

May 31, 2014, 10:44am Top

The Fry book is kind of a travel book. I've got another book from that series in mind for July's polar regions GeoCAT, about the food eaten by Antarctic explorers.

So which direction are you going - travel, crime/spy or romance? Or a combination?

May 31, 2014, 10:51am Top

Good question. I brought home a copy of Janice Weber's Hot Ticket. It sounds a little cheesie....
"Super-secret agent Leslie Frost, a concert violinist who rides Harleys and breaks men's hearts, begins her assignment in Washington with a black-tie concert at the White House. Withing an hour of her last encore, she is dangling from a ninth-floor balcony at Watergate as murderers make off with the body of Agent Barnard, a brilliant fellow operative who last reported to Controller Maxine from a bubble bath - with President Bobby Marvel. "
I have decided that, if anything, it may make for an entertaining read. Probably not much of an informative read.

May 31, 2014, 11:03am Top

It does sound entertaining. You'd better start it soon so that you can release her from dangling from the balcony. She's probably getting tired by now. ;)

May 31, 2014, 9:54pm Top

>108 cbl_tn: My copy of Tony Macaulay's Paperboy arrived and was immediately snatched up by my husband who was also a Belfast paperboy over fifty years ago. It was interrupted many times so that he could tell me stories of when he delivered papers with the help of his little sister. He thoroughly enjoyed it, then lent it to a friend. I'll have to wait my turn.

May 31, 2014, 10:29pm Top

I'm glad your husband enjoyed the book. I hope your turn comes soon!

Jun 1, 2014, 8:44pm Top

Bahamas: A Royal Murder by Elliott Roosevelt

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is the unlikely detective in this mystery set in Nassau in 1940. The Duke of Windsor has recently taken up the post of governor of the Bahamas. It is known that the Duke and Duchess have pro-German sympathies, although not pro-Nazi, and that they want to visit the U.S. to promote their views. Mrs. Roosevelt's visit to the Bahamas is intended to preempt the Duke and Duchess's visit, as well as to allow American intelligence officers to assess the situation before the establishment of a U.S. naval base on one of the islands. Shortly after the arrival of the American entourage, a wealthy Swedish industrialist is murdered during a party on his yacht with the First Lady, the Duke and Duchess, and several others in attendance. The First Lady puts her logical mind to work to solve the crime, discovering in the process that even those in her official entourage are suspects.

Roosevelt does a lot of name dropping in the book. In addition to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the First Lady encounters a number of historical prominent individuals including Alfred P. Sloan, Errol Flynn, and Judy Garland. It's a little challenging to separate fact from fiction. Despite the convoluted plot, I enjoyed the blend of history, travel, amateur detection, and espionage. This book might appeal to readers who enjoy Dorothy Gilman's Mrs. Pollifax series.

3.5 stars

Jun 21, 2014, 6:38am Top

Another one for Ireland: The Likeness by Tana French

Cassie Maddox no longer works in homicide, so she is puzzled when she is called to a murder scene by her boyfriend, Sam O'Neill. She's even more puzzled when she sees her old boss, Frank Mackey, at the scene. Frank isn't homicide; he's undercover. Then Cassie gets a look at the murder victim...and sees herself. Not only does the victim look like her, she is using an identity that Frank and Cassie created when Cassie worked in undercover. Frank convinces Cassie to work with him one more time, going undercover as the victim to flush out her killer.

This was a slight disappointment after In the Woods. The book's main problem is pacing The build-up lasts too long, and I almost gave up on the book before it finally became a page-turning story. The plot climaxes too early, and the denouement lasts too long. The middle of the book is what makes it worth reading. I was just as enthralled with Lexie's world as Cassie was, and the psychological tension in that section is just right. I found I liked Cassie better as Lexie than as herself.

3.5 stars

Jul 20, 2014, 4:36pm Top

Malawi: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is an inspirational memoir of a young Malawian whose curiosity, ingenuity, and persistence brought wind-powered electricity to his family and his village. William's family were subsistence farmers. William had a happy childhood until a famine depleted the family's savings and forced him to drop out of school. William still had several things going for him. He was allowed to use the library at his old primary school, where he found science books explaining electricity and other scientific principles. Even though he could have used William's help in the fields, William's father allowed him time for his independent studies. Although they didn't completely understand what William was trying to build, his best friend Gilbert and his cousin Geoffrey lent their support to his project, with Gilbert even paying for necessary materials that William could not afford. William's completed windmill soon attracted journalists to see it, and the resulting publicity caught the eye of people with influence. William accepted an invitation to a TED conference where he made more contacts that would help him in the future. William was able to finish secondary school and to eventually enroll in Dartmouth to continue his education.

I wasn't expecting such a large section on the famine and its effects. It was especially difficult for me to read about William's dog, knowing what was coming when he was no longer able to spare food to feed him. My dog is usually either curled up next to me or on my lap while I read, and I ended up skimming quickly over that passage. As a librarian, I was encouraged by the importance of libraries to William's education. When he lost access to formal schooling, William still had access to a library. Library funding is important wherever you live. Every society, no matter how wealthy, has a disenfranchised sector for whom libraries are an essential resource for self-education and self-improvement.

4.5 stars

Jul 21, 2014, 2:36pm Top

I am planning on reading The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind for Malawi as well, so I am very happy to see 4.5 stars!

Jul 21, 2014, 3:16pm Top

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Aug 17, 2014, 8:08pm Top

Malta: A Dead Man in Malta by Michael Pearce

Three unexplained deaths in a Navy hospital in Malta arouse enough suspicion for Scotland Yard to send a man to investigate. Two of the dead men were British sailors. The third was a German balloonist. Might his death have something to do with the state of relations between Germany and Great Britain in 1913? But how would that explain the death of the two sailors? Inspector Seymour's visit coincides with that of women from a British St. John's Ambulance group, whose leader believes that the hospital's inadequate nursing practices caused the three deaths. Inspector Seymour's questions soon reveal the uneasy relations between the Maltese and the British colonial administration.

I have a fondness for both historical mysteries and mysteries set in unusual locations. This book succeeds with its location but fails as a historical mystery. The behavior of the characters seems more like late 20th century than early 20th century. The mystery plot has a number of weaknesses, including the opaqueness of the Inspector's plans for his investigation and underdeveloped red herrings. The description of Malta and its history, including the history of the St. John Ambulance service, was enough to sustain my interest. I won't actively search out another book from this series, but if I happen to run across another one, I'll probably add it to my TBR stash to read when I'm in the mood to visit its location.

3 stars

Aug 24, 2014, 10:41pm Top

I am currently reading my Malta book. The Information Officer by Mark Mills. I am really liking this one.

Sep 29, 2014, 9:33pm Top

Sierra Leone: The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

People think that war is the worst this country has ever seen; they have no idea what peace is like. The courage it takes simply to endure.

British psychologist Adrian Lockheart has accepted a one-year appointment in Sierra Leone, thinking he can make a difference in this country recovering from a brutal civil war. Initially he has only two patients at the hospital – a woman, Agnes, and a dying man, Elias Cole. Cole doesn't want to talk about the recent war, but about the woman he loved 30 years ago and how his desire for her affected his life. Adrian forms a friendship with a young surgeon, Kai, despite Kai's skepticism that Adrian can accomplish anything there. Adrian doesn't know what it's like to live there and to have lived through the war. How could Adrian hope to understand the survivors, and what does he think he can offer them? Adrian is persistent and he gradually finds a place to use his skills. As Elias, Kai, and others tell Adrian parts of their stories, the pieces begin to take shape in an unexpected way.

This book required more effort to read than I was expecting. It is more complex than Forna's earlier novel, Ancestor Stones. It was worth the effort. Although the story is told from multiple perspectives, I experienced it mainly from Adrian's perspective – an outsider who gradually made sense of the unfamiliar surroundings until it began to feel like home. However, Kai was the character I was most drawn to. Although Adrian believed he could help individuals cope with the psychological trauma left from the war, his motive for being there wasn't exactly altruistic. He was looking for excitement that was missing from his life at home. He could leave any time he wanted to. Kai was born there and could not easily leave.

This is the first book I've read that focuses on mental health issues in developing countries. Adrian's goal is to reintegrate the psychologically wounded into normal society, but he has no idea what normal means in this place and time. Adrian isn't able to help anyone until he adjusts his expectations. As challenging as provision of and access to mental health care can be in the developed world, the challenges are even greater in a developing country just emerging from a decade of civil war. Psychiatric referrals don't seem to be a consideration for hospital staff.

Kai has never once treated a would-be suicide. War had the effect of encouraging people to try to stay alive. Poverty, too. Survival was simply too hard-won to be given up lightly.

Recommended, particularly for readers preparing for careers in relief and international development.

4 stars

Oct 5, 2014, 6:57pm Top

Solomon Islands: Devil-Devil by Graeme Kent

Ben Kella is both a sergeant in the Solomon Islands police force and an aofia, one chosen to keep the peace between the clans on the island of Malaita. Sister Conchita is a newly arrived American nun assigned to a mission school on Malaita. Their paths cross after the disappearance of a white anthropologist and the discovery of a skeleton near the mission. Both of their lives are in danger until they figure out who is behind the crimes on Malaita. Kella must balance his job as a policeman with his spiritual role among his people.

The location and time both contribute to the appeal of this unusual first-in-series police procedural. It's 1960, and many of the male characters fought against the Japanese in World War II. The police headquarters is in the capital, Honiara, on Guadalcanal. The Solomon Islands are still under British control, but there is a growing awareness that independence won't be long in coming. Many expect that Kella will become the head of the police force once that happens. Kella realizes that his successes are a threat to his superiors and that he can't entirely trust them.

Traditional beliefs and customs drive much of the action in the novel. However, the emphasis on the supernatural is slight. Most of the events related to traditional religious beliefs are of human agency. Some Catholic readers might be bothered by one priest's acceptance and even promotion of traditional religion.

Recommended for readers who enjoy mysteries set in exotic locations.

4 stars

Oct 30, 2014, 7:24pm Top

Guyana: The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya

Guyana had the feel of an accidental place. Partly it was the epic indolence. Partly it was the ethnic composition. In the slang of the street there were chinee, putagee, buck, coolie, blackman, and the combinations emanating from these, a separate and large lexicon. On the ramble in such a land you could encounter a story every day.

The twenty-something Indian narrator returns to Guyana, where he once spent a week, seeking relief from his restlessness. He plans to spend a year there and then return to India. He doesn't have a goal other than to observe the culture and see as much of the country as possible. Over the course of the year he forms loose partnerships with a string of individuals who become short-term traveling companions.

Parts of the book are very good, and the rest is either over my head or ineffective. Most of the conversations are written in Guyanese street slang and it makes very difficult reading. There are frequent references to alternative music genres that are completely unfamiliar to me. The book has won some literary prizes and been shortlisted for others, so maybe it's just me. I know I'm not the right audience for the book. However, I'm having trouble deciding who would be in the target audience. I'm not certain that even readers who read mostly from among the short- or long-lists for literary prizes will have the patience for this one. I stuck it out because of its descriptions of Guyana, which is why I wanted to read it in the first place. I couldn't help wondering why the author chose to write this as a novel when it would have made a very good literary travel book. Guyana is a very small nation, with a population of less than 1 million. Perhaps the author thought it would be safer to distance himself from his Guyanese acquaintances through fiction.

2.5 stars

Nov 13, 2014, 8:54am Top

Australia: Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood

A father's concern for his daughter's welfare is the impetus for the Honourable Phryne Fisher's return to her native Australia. Although her father is titled now, that wasn't always the case. Phryne is more than capable of mixing with both upper and lower classes. Phryne's discreet investigation into Lydia Andrews' marriage and health is sidetracked by her accidental involvement with a Russian family searching for the King of Snow – a ruthless cocaine dealer.

I had seen the television adaptation before reading the book. I like the television series so I was predisposed to like the book. It's a little more risque than I prefer, but it never exceeded what I can tolerate. There aren't many historical mystery series set in Australia, and the unusual location will draw me back from time to time.

3.5 stars

Nov 30, 2014, 6:31pm Top

Another book for Pakistan: I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai, a Pashtun teenager from Pakistan's Swat valley, had an international following before she reached her teens. At age 11, Malala was chosen to write a blog for the BBC about life under the Taliban. Although the blog was written under a pseudonym, it eventually became known that Malala was the author. At age 12 she was nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize by Desmond Tutu. She met with national and international leaders as part of delegations from her region. As Malala's reputation grew, her family was aware that she might be targeted by the Taliban and like minded individuals. However, Malala believed that her father was the more likely target. She learned that she was wrong when the bus she was riding home from school was stopped and she was shot in the head. Malala survived to tell her story in this book. Since its publication she has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Malala's father, the founder of the girls' school that Malala attended, undoubtedly contributed to this book. He must be the source for many of the personal details and the conversations quoted in the book. Malala couldn't have known these things unless her father had shared them with her. Journalist Christina Lamb is credited for her contributions to the book. It's hard to discern how far those contributions extend. In any case, the voice is that of an intelligent teenager.

Malala's story added depth to my perception of Pakistan and the world events that have played out in that part of the world over the last decade. It's one thing to read a news story about a Taliban stronghold in an area between Afghanistan and Pakistan that doesn't have a strong allegiance to either nation. Malala's description of the Swat Valley and her explanation of the social structure and mores gave me a new perspective on the events of the last ten years.

Malala seems destined for politics. She already has more international influence than many elected officials. I hope she has a long and successful career and that the first attempt on her life will also be the last.

4 stars

Dec 13, 2014, 7:53pm Top

South Africa: Dead at Daybreak by Deon Meyer

Hope Beneke is running out of time. With only a week to find a missing will for her client, the mistress of a murdered man, she turns to private investigator Zatopek van Heerden. Van Heerden had been a police officer, but he left the force five years earlier after a trauma so terrible that he has suppressed the memories. While combing through the police reports from the murder investigation, van Heerden spots an angle that the police didn't investigate. Since it seems to be the only lead, van Heerden follows it. The trail leads to unexpected revelations about the dead man and to some very dangerous associates from his past. Now van Heerden isn't just racing against the clock. He's also trying to catch a killer before the killer catches him.

This book seems like a cross between Tom Clancy and Tana French. Although van Heerden used to be a policeman and there are police investigators involved in the criminal investigation, most of the action revolves around military, special forces, and mercenaries. Meyer's novels seem to be related to each other in the same way that Tana French's are. While the same characters appear in many of the novels, the protagonist changes with each novel. Thobela Mpayipheli and Mat Joubert have supporting roles in this novel, and each has a central role in another of Meyer's novels. The high body count, the profanity, and the sexual content may be too much for some readers. It exceeded my comfort level so I probably won't seek out any more books by this author. Although the book contains many elements I didn't like, I was impressed by the author's skill. The race against time to find the missing will alternates with van Heerden's back story, gradually revealing the cause of his psychological damage. The construction of the plot and the pacing are very effective. Readers who enjoy this type of crime thriller should add Meyer to their list of must-read authors.

4 stars

Jan 1, 2015, 10:11am Top

Another book for Botswana: Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith

Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, takes on an unusual case for the owner of a football team. Once the best football team in Botswana, the Kalahari Swoopers are on a prolonged losing streak. The owner believes someone on the team is deliberately causing the team to lose. It's Mma Ramotswe's job to find out who. She will need help from her assistant, Grace Makutsi, to interview the many team members in a timely fashion. However, Mma Makutsi is distracted by her nemesis from the Botswana Secretarial College, Violet Sephotho, who has just been hired by Mma Makutsi's fiance, Phuti Radiphuti, to sell beds in his Double Comfort Furniture Shop. Mma Ramotswe must also deal with the loss of her beloved white van.

Nothing much happens in these gentle African mysteries, yet I find these books difficult to put down once I start reading. Precious Ramotswe's musings about her beloved Botswana, her late father Obed Ramotswe, and human nature in general, always remind me of the non-material blessings I enjoy in my own small corner of the world – health, a comfortable home, a supportive family, good friends and neighbors, and the companionship of my sweet dog.

4 stars

Jan 23, 2015, 10:16pm Top

Rwanda: Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

”Rwanda has suffered a terrible thing. Terrible, … bad, bad, bad. Many of the hearts here are filled with pain. Many of the eyes here have seen terrible things. Terrible! But many of those same hearts are now brave enough to hope, and many of those same eyes have begun to look towards the future instead of the past. Life is going on, every day. And for us the pluses of coming here are many more than the minuses.”

Tanzanian Angel Tangaraza is in Rwanda with her husband, Pius, a Special Consultant at the university. Both of the Tangarazas' children have died and they are raising their five grandchildren. To bring in some extra money, Angel has a cake business. A special occasion wouldn't be complete without one of Angel's cakes, and people of all backgrounds and walks of life come to her to order cakes – from diplomats to prostitutes. As they fill in their Cake Order Forms over a cup of tea, they unburden themselves to Angel. She takes an active interest in her clients' lives and she keeps her eyes open for opportunities to make them better.

The author captures Rwanda's capital as its residents begin to heal from the horrors of the 1994 genocide. Angel's position as an outsider who knows the pain of loss has the effect of inspiring confidences. Angel and her cakes become the glue that unites the international residents of her compound and its neighborhood. Angel is a lot like Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe, and I think fans of the No. 1 Detective Agency novels will want to meet Angel, too.

4 stars

Apr 18, 2015, 6:50pm Top

Samoa: The Trembling of a Leaf by W. Somerset Maugham

This collection of short stories, mainly set in Samoa, was my introduction to the works of W. Somerset Maugham. If this is representative of the quality of his writing, I have much to look forward to. Although the stories are almost a century old, the issues and emotions they explore are timeless. They explore clashes of culture, social conventions, religion, and race. Maugham's descriptive prose is refreshingly original, as a couple of my favorite passages illustrate:

Self-sacrifice appealed so keenly to his imagination that the inability to exercise it gave him a sense of disillusion. He was like the philanthropist who with altruistic motives builds model dwellings for the poor and finds that he has made a lucrative investment. He cannot prevent the satisfaction he feels in the ten per cent which rewards the bread he had cast upon the waters, but he has an awkward feeling that it detracts somewhat from the savour of his virtue. (From “The Fall of Edward Barnard”)

The place seemed to belong not to the modern, bustling world that I had left in the bright street outside, but to one that was dying. It had the savour of the day before yesterday. Dingy and dimly lit, it had a vaguely mysterious air and you could imagine that it would be a fit scene for shady transactions. It suggested a more lurid time, when ruthless men carried their lives in their hands, and violent deeds diapered the monotony of life. (From “Honolulu”)

Highly recommended.

4.5 stars

Jun 19, 2015, 10:07pm Top

Vanuatu: King of the Cannibals: The Story of John G. Paton, Missionary to the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) by Jim Cromarty

John G. Paton was a Scottish Presbyterian missionary to the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in the 19th century. Cromarty's biography seems to be based largely on Paton's autobiography and on Paton's wife, Margaret's, published collection of letters and sketches. Cromarty's retelling of Paton's life story is hagiographic, with little to no reference to sources other than Paton family members. Each chapter concludes with a summary and reflection questions. Teenagers are the target audience for this book, and many of the questions are meant to encourage teenagers to consider missions as a vocation. As an adult reader, I found the tone too condescending. I would have preferred to draw my own inferences from Paton's life and not had lessons pointed out to me in every chapter. I probably would have liked Paton's autobiography better than this book, and I wish I had read it instead.

2.5 stars

Apr 30, 2016, 8:32pm Top

Dominica: The Orchid House by Phyllis Shand Allfrey

This autobiographical novel is set during the decline of the colonial era on an unnamed Caribbean island which, if it isn't Dominica, is modeled on it. The story is mostly narrated by an English-speaking (as opposed to French-speaking) black nurse, Lally. She is called out of retirement to care for the sons of two of the three daughters she had nursed for the family when they were children. Life changed for the family after the World War I. The Master, when he finally returned, was suffering from what would today be called post-traumatic stress, from which he never recovered. The three daughters left the island when they reached adulthood. Years later, they're all returning. First comes Stella and her son, with her romantic/nostalgic bent. Then Joan with her son, bent on organizing the island's black laborers. Finally the wealthy widow, Natalie, arrives. Each daughter tries to save what's left of the family in her own way.

Although Allfrey descended from the white colonial ruling class, her sympathies were with the black laborers. Her life was much like that of the novel's middle daughter, Joan. Allfrey's novel depicts the shifting balance of power between the downwardly mobile European colonial rulers, the upwardly mobile mixed race population, the black population still stuck at the bottom, and the Catholic Church.

4 stars

Sep 4, 2016, 8:55pm Top

Swaziland: When Hoopoes Go to Heaven by Gaile Parkin

Baking Cakes in Kigali introduced Tanzanian Angel Tungaraza and the cake baking business she established in Rwanda while her husband worked there as a Special Consultant at the University. In When Hoopoes Go to Heaven, Angel's husband, Pius, has a new consulting assignment in Swaziland. The Tungarazas and the five grandchildren they're raising live on a farm. The story is told mainly through the eyes of ten-year-old Benedict, the oldest of the three boys. As the oldest, he feels the burden of responsibility, especially when his Baba has to travel. Benedict is a sensitive boy with a love for animals and learning. When he's not outdoors watching birds or insects, he's indoors reading the encyclopedia. Benedict seems to have inherited his grandmother's observant and thoughtful nature. Although he doesn't understand the problems that weigh on the adults and older children around him, he's able to help them see things from a different perspective and often find a solution to their problems.

I quickly fell under Benedict's spell. He's not precocious, and his innocence and sweetness are endearing. Writing from the perspective of a 10-year-old allows Parkin to indirectly comment on Swaziland's social problems, such as the status of women and the AIDS epidemic. (According to UNICEF, Swaziland has the world's highest HIV prevalence rate.) Both Baking Cakes in Kigali and When Hoopoes Go to Heaven show Africans and African nations not as the recipients of Western aid, but as agents in solving their social problems. I highly recommend both books.

I'll leave you with a sample of Benedict's wisdom:

Benedict wasn't sure that he liked the idea of a separate Heaven for dogs. Say you loved your dog and then you both got an accident and went to Heaven, but your dog had to go to a separate Heaven. Wouldn't being without your dog feel more like being in Hell? What if the Heaven for dogs was next door, and you had to speak to our dog through a fence and you could never hold him? Eh! God had made people and animals, all creatures great and small, and He had put them all together here on Earth. Why would He put them in separate Heavens afterwards? It didn't make sense.

5 stars

Sep 21, 2016, 8:22pm Top

Maldives: The Strode Venturer by Hammond Innes

March, 1963. Looking back through my diary, as I begin this account of the strange means by which the prosperity of the company I now serve was founded, I find it difficult to realize that there was a time when I had never been to the Maldives, had scarcely ever heard of Addu Atoll. The island we now call Ran-a-Maari had only recently been born the night I flew into London from Singapore.

So begins this mid-20th century naval/boardroom adventure. Commander Geoffrey Bailey of the Royal Navy is at a crossroads in his life, poised to retire from his commission and return to England. A series of events sweeps him into the affairs of Strode Orient, the company that had taken over his father's shipping line three decades earlier. He can secure a position in the company by locating the wayward Strode brother whom he met several years earlier overseas. His search takes him to the Maldives, where he finds Peter Strode involved in a secret project with the citizens of Addu Atoll. Bailey follows Peter Strode into a dangerous, uncharted region of the Indian Ocean where he will discover the secret that Strode is so closely guarding. Bailey must also stand his ground against an opposing faction in the London boardroom of the Strode corporation. This proves to be nearly as dangerous as his ocean adventure.

This thriller is representative of the postcolonial era that saw the fragmentation of the former British empire into independent states. I'm not a frequent science fiction reader/viewer, but I did watch Star Trek regularly as a child. The section of the book in uncharted waters has a similar feel to a Star Trek episode, with shore parties stranded and in need of rescue. A transporter would have come in handy. Recommended for readers who enjoy vintage thrillers.

4 stars

Oct 14, 2016, 10:39pm Top

Hi Carrie, I'm just cruising through to see how you are doing. I read a self-published chick-lit book for the Maldives but I was lucky in that I quite enjoyed it.

Oct 15, 2016, 11:02am Top

Hi Judy! I've stalled on my Trinidad & Tobago book I started A House for Mr. Biswas during the summer and I still haven't managed to finish it.

Oct 16, 2016, 1:59pm Top

For some reason I had the most trouble finding books for the various Caribbean Islands, and, once found, I then had trouble enjoying them. Of course I did settle for a few self-published books and that is always a huge risk!

Jun 26, 2017, 8:25pm Top

Namibia: Mama Namibia by Mari Serebrov

Jahohora is a Herero girl on the brink of womanhood in German South West Africa. Kov is a Jewish German whose ambition is to become a military doctor to gain acceptance among his German peers. Their lives intersect during the Herero uprising and subsequent genocide in the early 20th century. The first-person narration alternates between Jahohora and Kov as both are uprooted from familiar comforts and the security of family and friends and thrust into the desert and the nearly waterless veld. Although they are on opposite sides of the conflict, Jahohora and Kov share a horror of German cruelty toward the Herero and other indigenous peoples.

It took me a long time to make my way through the book because of the intensity of the suffering of its characters. Starvation, torture, and massacres don't make pleasant reading. However, the book as a whole is more inspirational than depressing. It illustrates the difference that simple acts of kindness can make. Most readers of historical fiction, survival stories, coming of age stories, and stories with an African setting will find it worth the effort to seek this one out.

This review is based on an electronic advance reading copy provided by the publisher through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

4 stars

Jan 11, 10:47pm Top

Cameroon - The Bafut Beagles by Gerald Durrell

This book is an account of naturalist/zookeeper Gerald Durrell’s trip to Cameroon to collect animal specimens. An official suggests that Bafut would be a good place to collect specimens, so Durrell contacts the Fon of Bafut, who proves to be an eager host. Durrell employs several local hunters who become known as the Bafut Beagles. Durrell and the Beagles hunt for several species on Durrell’s wishlist. Many of the locals also bring wildlife to sell to Durrell. By the end of his stay, he has dozens of specimens to transport back to England, including monkeys, large cats, rodents, and frogs, and snakes.

Durrell and the Africans converse in pidgin English, and the dialogue in the book uses pidgin. The book reflects the colonial era in which it was lived and written. 21st century readers will cringe when Durrell is addressed as Masa by his African colleagues. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the book for this reason.

3.5 stars

Apr 30, 3:59pm Top

Nauru - Island Exiles by Jemima Garrett

Pacific island Nauru is one of the smallest nations in the world. At the beginning of World War II, Nauru was under Australian administration. It was occupied by the Japanese during the war. The Japanese deported about two thirds of Nauru’s indigenous population to Truk, where Japan had a large base. Nauruans in both locations suffered during the war years, both from ill treatment by the Japanese and from malnourishment due to severe food shortages. Australian journalist Garrett interviewed survivors about their memories of the war years. Most of the Nauruans who spoke to Garrett were children or young adults during the war. Those who survived the war relied on the older generation’s memory of traditional methods of gathering and preparing local foods. One wonders if reliance on outside food sources has grown to the extent that the loss of life would be much greater under similar circumstances today.

3.5 stars

Group: Commonwealth Challenge

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