Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
Genres: Young Adult, Historical Fiction
Pub date: Sep. 4, 2018 (read Oct. 2018)

The most overwhelming feeling I have upon finishing this book is that I’m just so glad it exists. Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree is about Boko Haram and the many girls and children they have abducted to their cause since 2009. You may recall in 2014 when Boko Haram kidnapped 276 female students from their dormitory in Chibok, Nigeria. Because of the large number of girls that were kidnapped, the crisis finally garnered international attention and forced the Nigerian Government to take real action in rescuing the stolen girls.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t a one off event. Boko Harem has been pillaging and killing in the North of Nigeria since 2009 and while many of the Chibok girls have escaped, been released, or been rescued since then, many have not. Boko Haram is a radical Islamic group that believe in Sharia law and absolute Islamic government. They kill men and kidnap girls, women, and children, forcing them to convert to islam and act as slaves in their outposts hidden deep in the Sambisa Forest. The boys are radicalized and the girls either act as slaves or are married off to Boko Haram fighters called the Rijale.

Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree is a short book told from the point of view of a kidnapped young girl. She is not one of the Chibok girls, but she was stolen from her village along with several of her friends. She dreams of winning a scholarship to attend university and become educated, but instead she is forced to convert to Islam, change her name, and marry one of the Rijale and attend to his home. Her dreams sustain her through the ordeal and remind her of who she is and that Boko Harem does not adequately represent Islam. But it kills her to watch her best friend lose her grip on reality, fall for her new husband, and begins touting the benefits of Boko Harem and Sharia Law.

There’s nothing I would change about this book. I thought it struck a wonderful balance between introducing us to Nigerian village life and the hopes and dreams of these young girls to the devastating contrast of life under Boko Haram. It’s easy for Westerners to become desensitized to these stories, and I loved that Nwaubani spent the first half of the book developing characters before focusing on the girls kidnapping. It’s an upsetting read, to be sure, but an important one to remind us of the atrocities that Boko Harem has committed, and that are still ongoing.

Thanks to HarperCollins Canada and HCC Frenzy for providing me with a free review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree is currently available in stores.

Advertisements

The Lost Queen

Rating: 
Author: Signe Pike
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub Date: Sept. 2018 (read Sept. 2018)

Thanks to Touchstone for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

My blog has been pretty silent over the past week. I’ve been on vacation, so you’ll have to forgive me for my continued absence next week. As a result I haven’t been doing that much reading, but I did finish The Lost Queen, which I received back in August from Touchstone and have finally found time to read.

The Lost Queen is the first book in a trilogy set in 6th century Scotland. It’s recommended for fans of Outlander (which I love) and Philippa Gregory books (which I’ve been meaning to try). It features Langoreth, one of Scotland’s former queens, who has mostly been lost to history. Langoreth was the twin sister of the man who inspired the well known character, Merlin, and had a huge impact on Scotland herself. Signe Pike delves into the histories of both Langoreth and her brother, Lailoken, starting with their childhood and formative coming of age years.

I have mixed feelings about the book. The authors note at the end was fascinating – I love historical novels that explore the history of lesser known figures, especially women because women’s history is rarely recorded and often lost. But I struggled to stay engaged in the book. I’ve had this problem with several books this year (Naomi Novik’s, Uprooted, and Madeline Miller’s, Circe, come to mind), reflecting on the book, I generally enjoyed it and learned a lot, but it wasn’t that enjoyable a reading experience.

I did find this book a bit better than previous books in that I got pretty into it in the last 30 percent and I am interested to see what happens to these characters. We’re told in the book summary that both Langoreth and Lailoken led remarkable lives, but we don’t discover in this book what made their lives so remarkable. This might be why the book read a little slower and may have lended itself better to a single volume instead of a trilogy. It was pretty slow moving and served mainly to introduce us to the characters and the setting. I think it has the potential to get much better in subsequent books.

However, the setting was pretty great. I can say for sure that I’ve never read a book set in 6th century Scotland. I’m not sure I’ve even ever read a book set in the 6th century. I haven’t read a lot of old, old history, so I found this fascinating in that the history is so ancient that England and Scotland don’t remotely resemble the countries they are today. This was a time when Christianity was starting to spread. Scotland had always practiced the “old ways”, but in an effort to gain support from powerful Rome, Christianity comes to the country, creating tension between this new religion and the old ways. It’s incredibly frustrating to read about the injustices committed in this book in the name of Christianity, but still relatable to today.

I also appreciated the familial relationships. So often in this time period, women were seen as little more than property. But I liked how both her father and brother respected and treated Langoreth. Everyone was forced to acknowledge that despite their wishes that things could be different, Langoreth would need to wed to form political alliances for their kingdom. Both the King and Lailoken see value and strengths in Langoreth outside of being a wife, but they also acknowledge that in their time and age, marrying is one of her greatest strengths as well.

Like I said, I struggled with the book in the first half, but ultimately I am interested to see what happens to Langoreth in the next 2 books and to discover what makes her such a remarkable woman. I think this book could have been shorter and I’m hoping for more action in the next book, but I really liked learning about the spread of Christianity and the tension it created in it’s condemnation of the old ways.

Women Talking

Rating: 
Author: Miriam Toews
Genres: Fiction, Historical fiction
Pub Date: Aug. 2018 (read Aug. 2018)

How do I review this book? It’s just so damn important and something everyone should read.

I saw Women Talking on display at Chapters and as soon as I opened it up and read the forward, I knew I had to read it (plus I’ve been walking to read some Miriam Toews). Women Talking is a fictional account of the real life crimes committed against mennonite Bolivian women. Between 2005 and 2009, in a remote Bolivian community, women were repeatedly waking up having been attacked in the middle of the night. The attacks were attributed to demons punishing the women for their sins, but it was later discovered 8 men were sneaking in the the rooms of women all over the village, knocking them out with an animal aesthetic, and then raping them. Horrifying.

Women Talking focuses on some of the victims of these attacks, women from 3 generations of the Loewen and Friesen families. The rapists have been jailed in a nearby town and the rest of the men in the community have taken livestock to the town to try and sell to post their bail money. While the men are away, 8 women of the Loewen and Friesen families call a meeting (on behalf of all the women) to discuss what to do. When the men return home, the women will be called upon to forgive them, so as they see it, they have 3 choices:

1. Do Nothing
2. Stay and Fight
3. Leave

The entire novel consists of these women talking through these 3 choices and deciding on a course of action, and boy are their conversations illuminating. They discuss many philosophical questions about what each of these choices means and how their village got to this point. Some of the women are hurt, some of them are angry, and some of them are afraid. But while this is an upsetting story, it is also filled with love and even humour. The novel is only a short 200 pages, but I loved getting to know each of these women, watching them talk and relate with each other, share experiences, and share laughter. It is a brilliantly written novel and such a thought provoking piece of fiction. This book matters. Women matter.

There was so much of this book that I loved that it’s hard to pinpoint specific pieces. But one part I found particularly striking was when one of the women (can’t remember who… Ona maybe?) voices that maybe they should consider a 4th choice: asking the men to leave. It’s such an obvious solution. Absolutely the men should be the ones to leave. They are the ones that have violated and torn their community apart, they should no longer be permitted to participate in community life. But the option never really catches any traction with the women and they even openly laugh at it because it really is an outlandish idea to think that the men would consider leaving or even that the rest of the men and community would support the women in forcing these men to leave. It’s a sad truth, but these women understood (and I’m sure most other women do to), that even though it was the option that made the most sense, it would never really be an option.

I don’t want to give too much away about the book, so I’ll just say, please please please go to the library or the bookstore and pick yourself up a copy of this book!

The Map of Salt and Stars

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: May 2018 (read July 2018)

The Map of Salt and Stars is another one of those books that I wanted to love, but I just didn’t. Books like this are super important, so it’s hard to give them a bad review because I’m really glad that someone has written a split modern day/historical story about Syria. But unfortunately this novel just didn’t work for me at all.

The Map of Salt and Stars tells two stories simultaneously. The first is about Nour, an eleven year old Syrian-American who grew up in America, but whose family has just returned to Syria only to be bombed out of their house and forced to flee the country. The second story is set 800 years in the past and features a young girl Rawiya, who seeks her fortune as a map maker with the famous (and real-life person) Al-Idrisi.

Everything about this synopsis seems like a story that I would absolutely love, but the writing and characters both fell flat to me. I thought the relationships between Nour and her mother and sisters were underdeveloped and the story of Rawiya and Al-Idrisi was not engaging. I was a little more interested when I realized that Al-Idrisi was a real person, but even though Rawiya’s part of the story includes fantastical elements, it was really boring to read and I was disappointed every time the chapters switched because I didn’t want to go back to reading about her.

Likewise, Nour’s story had the potential to be super interesting, but I thought there were a lot of really weak and clumsy metaphors interspersed throughout the story and I wanted more developed relationships between all of the characters. Both stories are progressing on a road trip of sorts that align with one another, but I was never really sure what the point of pairing these two stories together was. I thought the whole secret map metaphor between Nour and her mother was laboured and ineffective. I feel like either of these stories could have been a standalone, but together neither was developed enough to really work.

I do applaud the author for what she tried to accomplish in this book and I think she has some great ideas, she just needs to keep writing and developing them into something stronger than what this book had to offer.

Rust & Stardust

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author:
T. Greenwood
Genres: Historical Fiction, True Crime
Pub Date: Aug. 7th, 2018 (read July 2018)

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I got an ARC of Rust & Stardust a while ago, but I was never really in the mood to read it, so I kept postponing. But I finally started it last week and totally powered through it in 3 days.

As is my style, I knew very little about this book going in, except that it was about the true crime that inspired Nabokov’s classic, Lolita. Disclaimer: I haven’t read Lolita, so I’m not really sure what intrigued me so much about this one, but I’m glad I requested it because it was a really interesting fictional account, based on the true kidnapping of 11 year old Sally Horner.

Rust & Stardust features a series of narrators from Sally’s family and from individuals that crossed paths with Sally during her kidnapping, but it is predominantly narrated by Sally herself. I don’t often like child narrators that much, but I thought Sally’s voice in this book, and Greenwood’s style of writing, we’re perfect for this time setting and plot. Sally reads a copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn throughout this story (one of my personal favourite books), and I thought that the writing and narration style were very similar to Betty Smith’s classic and I thought it was such a fitting comparison to have Sally relate to Francie’s experience.

For some context, this story starts when Sally gets caught trying to shoplift a notebook by Mr. Warner, a customer in the store. However, he convinces Sally that he actually works for the FBI and that she is in big trouble for trying to steal. He essentially blackmails her into coming to Atlantic City with him so that she can clear her name before a judge and convinces her she needs to keep this shame secret from her mother and sister.

What follows is 2 years of captivity for Sally at the hands of the perverted Mr. Warner (Frank La Salle in real life). While her family is desperate to find her and slowly starts to fall apart in her absence, Sally is coming of age in extremely horrifying and abusive circumstances. Her kidnapping is pretty horrifying, but I appreciated the author for not being overly graphic in her descriptions. I thought the author totally nailed Sally’s voice. As the reader, you just want to rage at Mr. Warner, but you can also understand Sally’s confusion at the turn of events, her inner guilt and shame at what she’s done and what’s been done to her, and how her thoughts get so turned around by Mr. Warner’s constant gaslighting.

In reality, almost all of this story is fabricated, but the bones of the novel are based on true events. It is mostly unknown what actually happened between Sally and Frank La Salle during the 2 years of her captivity, but Greenwood has appropriately conveyed how evil Frank La Salle is (even if some of the events are fabricated). He was a character that made me so mad, mostly because of how he mentally abuses and gaslights Sally throughout the entirety of the book. He is so manipulative and aside from physically abusing her, he really gets inside her head and makes her question everything about her family and the world. It was so heartbreaking to watch a young girl have to come of age (something that can be traumatizing enough for an 11 year old) without her mother and sister for support.

There’s also a whole side story going on with Sally’s mother, Ella, and her sister and husband, Susan and Al. I didn’t find the side plot as compelling as Sally’s story, but it did add an interesting dimension to the story.

Mostly I just liked that I learned something new from this book, and my enjoyment was greatly aided by Sally’s voice in this novel. I thought the writing fit the time period perfectly. I felt like I had been transported to 1950 and even though I thought the writing was told in a slightly detached kind of way, it conveyed so well Sally’s horror and confusion and how a single event can compound and become unimaginably bad and seemingly insurmountable without proper emotional support.

A good (but upsetting) read, I liked this a lot more than anticipated.