Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid — Reread Review

Annie John was exactly the kind of book I was looking for when I signed up to take a module on Caribbean fiction. It’s not hard to see what called to me about a character growing up on a Caribbean island, all while studying a British curriculum. That experience of reciting ‘I wondered lonely as a cloud’ but never having seen a daffodil was something I could definitely relate to. It’s not an experience many of my friends have had, so even seeing it reflected in fiction was exciting to me, both in my twenties and now.

The piano teacher, a shrivelled-up old spinster from Lancashire, England, soon asked me not to come back, since I seemed unable to resist eating from the bowl of plums she had placed on the piano purely for decoration.

Annie John, Jamaica Kincaid

You could say that not very much happens in Annie John, but I was never bored. It felt like a different kind of coming-of-age story, one that reminded me of Spinning Straw into Gold. (Reading Annie John through the lens of pubescent transformation would almost certainly be interesting!) I found Annie’s desperation for change particularly effective, in this post-lockdown world and yet, for all that, I didn’t feel her emotions as strongly as I have in some other books. Maybe the very similarities between parts of our lives made the differences seem much more divisive.

My father could hardly get a few words out of his mouth before she was a jellyfish of laughter.

Annie John, Jamaica Kincaid

I’m finding these books I first read at university quite difficult to review. There’s a sense, I think, that I still don’t fully understand them because they have so many different layers. I want to keep coming back to them with more experience, more literary awareness, and that makes me feel as though I can’t comprehensively review them. Like Song of Solomon, Annie John will definitely go back on the shelf to be reread as my older and wiser future self.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K S Villoso — New Review, Bookclub Edition

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro got off to a fairly strong start: Tali’s first person perspective was engaging, I was intrigued to discover what had actually happened between her and her husband Rai, and I liked how she kept trying to get to know her guards and maids on a personal level. For me, things got even more exciting when she bumped into Khine, who introduced himself unrepentantly as a con man. I love a fantasy heist, and involving the queen in even a small con definitely ticked all sorts of boxes.

The world K S Villoso created felt very real, in part because Tali reacted like a human to periods of hunger or adverse weather. In books, these things are often mentioned, but you very rarely see someone actually acting stupid because they haven’t had a meal or day, or becoming more weak and susceptible to pain when they’re outside in the cold. K S Villoso created interesting contrasts between the way Tali was brought up and the world she was exploring for most of the book’s beginning.

You could not be queen and wife and queen and mother at the same time. There were always sacrifices to make, and none of us can be more than one person.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, K S Villoso

The threats that Tali faced were certainly realistic, too. Maybe a little too much so. It’s not at all unreasonable that a woman would face sexual violence three or more times in the kind of society depicted by The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, but it did start to feel a little grating. While this played into the theme of how difficult it was for Tali to rule single-handed, it just wasn’t very pleasant to keep reading. It probably didn’t help that Tali’s consensual relationships with men (who weren’t related to her) nearly all revolved around sex, too.

Towards the end, I started to struggle with the plot of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. Despite internally questioning at least one prior note that seemed to be in her husband’s handwriting, Tali jumps to the conclusion that a second note must absolutely be from him. In real life, that’s probably perfectly realistic, but in a narrative, unfortunately, it makes her certainty feel unconvincing. It’s the same kind of ‘but why did you jump to that conclusion?’ problem that I had with Under the Pendulum Sun. It doesn’t ruin the book entirely, but it did affect my enjoyment of the last third of the story.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro was interesting enough, and reading K S Villoso’s thoughts on the next book in the series intrigued me enough that I think I’ll get around to it one of these days, but it wasn’t something I think I’ll reread over and over.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Little Men by Louisa May Alcott — Reread Review

Cover: bookshop.org

Previous in the series: Little Women.

Finally, I get to revisit the March family. I was particularly excited to reread Little Men because all I remember about reading it the first time was a confusion of boys’ names. Like the younger siblings in What Katy Did, I struggled to remember which name was attached to which personality, and which children were related, friends, or connected to which others and which adult. I’m glad to say that, this time around, I managed to keep much better track!

Given my marked preference for character development, it will be unsurprising that I most loved the characters who went on a definite journey: Dan, Nat and Jack. The other children — Demi and Daisy and Stuffy and Nan — are all interesting or amusing enough, but they don’t stand out to me the way in quite the same way. And yet, as much as I like characters who learn and grow, what I really appreciated about Little Men was all the hints at continuity. Jo is still the same Jo we left at the end of Little Women, the one who loves to exclaim and romp with Laurie and write down stories. Mr and Mrs March are still the wise presence that they’ve always been.

He seldom spoke of his loss, but Aunt Jo often heard a stifled sobbing in the little bed at night; and when she went to comfort him, all his cry was, “I want my Father! oh, I want my father!” for the tie between the two had been a very tender one, and the child’s heart bled when it was broken.”

Little Men, Louisa May Alcott

Though I don’t love Little Men as much as Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s writing can still make me tear up. I was particularly touched, this time around, by Nat’s story and all the descriptions of music and singing, especially as I’ve just been back to choir for the first time in eighteen months. It really is a joy to be able to sing with people and not worry about bothering my neighbours or being criticised for sounding ‘weird’ when I’m singing the harmony rather than the tune.

They chose a song he knew; and after one or two false starts they got going, and violin, flute, and piano led a chorus of boyish voices that made the old roof ring again.

Little Men, Louisa May Alcott

It feels weird to review Little Men now, knowing that the stories continue in Jo’s Boys. It definitely feels as though something is missing, which hopefully will be delivered when I reread that final volume. I think, compared to Little Women, Little Men is a little more shallow, as it would almost have to be, with its much larger cast of main characters. Still, it was nice to dip back into Louisa May Alcott’s writing, and I look forward to doing so again before too long.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Next in the series: Jo’s Boys.

Just as Well I’m Leaving by Michael Booth — New Review

My ‘reread reviews’ have finally caught up with my ‘new reviews’, which means I’m allowed to pick new books to read, that aren’t dictated by my book club! (I realise that permission to break this self-imposed rule is unnecessary and a little ridiculous: that’s just the way my brain works.) I was excited to pick Michal Booth because, as well as being a present from another Michael, I absolutely loved his book Sushi and Beyond. I’ve read a number of his books since, trying to find that same level of delight in his writings about other places, cultures and foods. I’ve mostly been unsuccessful, which does make me wonder whether perhaps that one book was exactly that, a one-off. I was especially doubtful at the beginning of Just As Well I’m Leaving, because Michael Booth seemed pretty dour about not only his location, but the main topic of the book: Hans Christian Andersen.

I was on my own, with only my unflinching resolve to fall back on.
I gave up.

Just as Well I’m Leaving, Michael Booth

Things did pick up once Booth started reading some of Andersen’s stories, realising that there was more to be enjoyed in the originals than in whatever English translations he’d previously come across. Which did, of course, make me want to seek out a decent translation myself. As with Charlotte Street, the slightly whiny beginning gave way to a better middle and end, even if Just as Well I’m Leaving doesn’t reach the height of Sushi and Beyond (which I need to reread, now, in case it’s not the book but my memory that’s responsible).

Without a companion to whinge at and bore with his various ailments and fears, he seems to have just got on with things and coped so much better; by looking outward at the world, he found a brief inner peace.

Just as Well I’m Leaving, Michael Booth

Having read a number of Michael Booth’s books now, I’d say Just as Well I’m Leaving falls solidly in the middle of the pack. It’s better than Eat, Pray, Eat and The Almost Nearly Perfect People, not as good as Sushi and Beyond, at about the same level as Doing Without Delia, albeit on rather a different subject matter. There’s not much food in Just as Well I’m Leaving, which is perhaps the problem for me, as what I enjoyed most about Sushi and Beyond was the descriptions of Japanese chefs and restaurants. But I do like fairy tales, so Just as Well I’m Leaving managed to hold my interest, and I learned a great deal about Hans Christian Andersen that I wouldn’t otherwise have known. It also got me thinking about travel, which I haven’t done much of lately, so I can give it an extra half star for that.

Rating: 3 out of 5.