Book Review: Breadfruit by Célestine Hitiura Vaite

Around the World for a Good Book selection for French Polynesia

Author: Célestine Hitiura Vaite
Title: Breadfruit
Publication Info: Auckland, N.Z. : Vintage, 2000.

Set in Tahiti, this novel is the story of Materena, a young woman in Tahiti who lives with her somewhat shiftless boyfriend Pito and their children.  At the beginning of the book Pito drunkenly proposes to Materena and she dreams about the wedding while wondering if he really meant it.  The book is episodic linking together vignettes of everyday life in Tahiti, usually with Materena being visited by family and friends who share their adventures.  The novel is mostly light and funny, but there’s an undercurrent of the reveal poverty and effects of colonialism (which manifests in the book primarily through the French police officers).  It’s a delightful and charming book and Vaite does a great job in creating the characters and their dialogue.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

Author: Ray Bradbury
Title: Dandelion Wine
Narrator: Stephen Hoye
Publication Info: Tantor Media, Inc., 2010 [Originally published in 1957]
Other Books I’ve Read By the Same Author:


I read Dandelion Wine 30+ years ago and it swiftly became one of my all-time favorite books.  However, there’s actually very little I remember of the book. My main memory is the scene where the main character’s grandfather is indignant when someone tries to convince him to get a lawn where dandelions won’t grow, and thus lose the main ingredient in the titular beverage (By the way, since this book is set in 1928, does making dandelion wine violate the Volstead Act?).

This book is a more personal work for Ray Bradbury, based on his childhood memories of summers in his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois (which he calls “Green Town”). Bradbury admits in the introduction that Waukegan is an unattractive, industrial city but for a child it was full of wonders, something the jibes with my own experience of growing up in a mundane Connecticut suburb.  The main characters of the book are 12-year-old Douglas, his younger brother Tom, and their friend Charlie.  But it’s not a novel as much as it is an interconnected collection of short stories, several of which don’t involve the children at all.

The book is not science fiction or horror as it typical of Bradbury’s work, but contains aspects of these things.  Douglas finds magic in the feeling of being alive in the summer and an elderly neighbor is considered a “time machine” because of the stories he can tell.  While rooted in childhood, this book is very much an adult’s perspective on ideas of mortality.  An elderly woman is convinced by children who believe she was never young to let go of her memories, while Douglas’ great grandmother predicts the hour of her death.  There’s also the horror of a serial killer known as The Lonely One stalking the town.

Bradbury’s work is filled with nostalgia and poetic language, but it is not divorced from cold reality.  It embraces the magic of every day life while not shying away from the fact that one day everyone will die.  Through all the change, there are always things that will remain the same.

Rating: ****

Book Review: She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore

Around the World for a Good Book selection for Liberia

Author: Wayétu Moore
Title: She Would Be King
Publication Info: Minneapolis, Minnesota : Graywolf Press, [2018]

This fictional origin story for the nation of Liberia brings together three characters with unique talents. Gbessa, born with red hair in the West African village of Lai, is considered to be cursed and ostracized.  June Dey is born into slavery in Virginia under miraculous circumstances and develops superhuman strength.  Norman Aragon is the child of an enslaved woman and a white British slaveholder who gains an ability to fade from sight.  All three end up in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia founded by the American Colonization Society to resettle freed Black people.  The summary makes it sound like a comic book superhero team, but the book is more nuanced than that.  The book works well as an examination of the ongoing trauma of slavery, Liberia’s intricate ties with the United States, and the interaction of the American Blacks with the indigenous people of that part of Africa.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Reviews: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Around the World for a Good Book selection for Malaysia

Author: Zen Cho
Title: Black Water Sister
Narrator: Catherine Ho
Publication Info: [Prince Frederick] : Recorded Books Incorporated, 2021.

Jessamyn Teoh, a recent college graduate who grew up in the United States after her family emigrated there from Malaysia during her early childhood, faces an uncertain future.  She is moving back to Malaysia with her parents where she has to adjust to an unfamiliar culture, find work, and maintain a long-distance relationship with her girlfriend while hiding that she’s lesbian from her parents.  Things grow more complicated when Jess begins hearing the voice of her deceased grandmother Ah Ma.  Soon Jess finds herself plunged into an adventure featuring a powerful real estate developer, gangsters, and gods.  To put things right, and to find justice for Ah Ma, Jess must become a medium for a vengeful goddess known as Black Water Sister.

Black Water Sister is a unique novel that blends elements of fantasy, mystery, and fish out of water story to tell a story of contemporary Malaysia.  Facets of Malaysian culture such as tradition, religion, and family are woven into the narrative.  Unfortunately for Jess (and others like her), homophobia is also a part of the Malaysian culture.  It’s an interesting and well-written story that I enjoyed.
Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique

Around the World for a Good Book selection for the United States Virgin Islands

Author: Tiphanie Yanique
Title: Land of Love and Drowning
Narrator: Cherise Boothe, Korey Jackson, Rachel Leslie, and Myra Lucretia Taylor
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, MD : Recorded Books, [2014]

This historical novel is a multi-generational saga about the Bradshaw family of the United States Virgin Islands.  The story begins in 1917 with the transfer of the islands from Denmark to the United States and the ongoing theme of the narrative is how the Virgin Islands are American but treated as something tangential.  Events withing the story include the enlistment of V.I. men to World War II and the Korean War, the rise of tourism and resort hotels, Hollywood using the islands as a filming locale, and the Civil Rights movement which inspires a movement to occupy the beaches that are being privatized by white American property owners and hotels.

The Bradshaw’s story starts with Owen Arthur Bradshaw, a ship’s captain, and his wife Antoinette, who are part of highly-respectable family on St. Thomas.  They have two daughters, Eona and Anette.  Owen also  fathers a son named Jacob Esau with his mistress. When their parents die (Owen in a traumatic shipwreck), Eona is forced to put aside her desires to raise Anette.  The novel alternates among the three children’s points of view as it follows their story up until the 1970s.  Yanique’s writing feels inspired by Toni Morrison and has touches of magical realism.  There’s also a lot of incest, both knowing and unknowing.

There are parts of this book that are very interesting but also some parts I found quite absurd (the Hollywood movie ends up being a pornographic film, in the 1950s?) and other times that I just wished that Yanique would get on with the story instead of circling around a point.  So, consider this a mixed review.

Recommended books:

  • Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
  • Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge
  • Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Author: Charles Dickens
Title:A Christmas Carol
Publication Info: Chapman & Hall, 1843

Over the course of December, I’ve participated in an online book club called A Dickens December where Charles Dickens’ classic story of Christmas redemption was released in short chunks for each day up until December 26.  I am, like most people in the English-speaking world (and beyond), very familiar with the story of the greedy and self-interested old Ebeneezer Scrooge who is transformed by spirits of the Past, Present, and Yet to Come.  Not only have I seen this story adapted into several films, but also I participated in two different stage productions in my childhood!

And yet this is the first time I’ve actually read the book.  The adaptations tend to get it right, adding embellishments more than leaving anything out.  The big thing about reading the book though is seeing Dickens way with words.  I’ve included several of my favorite passages below that show Dickens’ talent with a turn of the phrase.  As always it’s nice to revisit something familiar and see it in a new light.

Favorite Passages:

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade.

Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.

The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slily down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards, as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there.

Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.

You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

The sky was gloomy, and the shortest streets were choked up with a dingy mist, half thawed, half frozen, whose heavier particles descended in a shower of sooty atoms, as if all the chimneys in Great Britain had, by one consent, caught fire, and were blazing away to their dear hearts’ content. There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or the town, and yet was there an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavoured to diffuse in vain.

They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!”

He broke down all at once. He couldn’t help it. If he could have helped it, he and his child would have been farther apart, perhaps, than they were.

Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs!

Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and, knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections by Eva Jurczyk

Author: Eva Jurczyk 
Title: The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections
Narrator: Hannah Cabell
Publication Info: Poisoned Pen Press (2022)

Liesl Weiss is no sooner named the interim director of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at a university in Toronto when things start to go wrong.  A rare Plantin Polyglot Bible is supposed to be the library’s latest prize acquisition but it is missing and the only one who had seen it is the previous director who was incapacitated by a stroke.  Liesl comes to the realization that the Plantin was stolen and it could’ve been an inside job.  Was it Miriam, a librarian who suddenly stops showing up for work just before the book went missing?  Or could it be Francis Churchill, a rare books expert who Liesl is rumored to have had a fling with?

In addition to trying to solve the mystery, Liesl has to deal with people questioning her ability to do the job as a woman.  The university president certainly doesn’t want to make the theft made public because it would frighten off donors.  Working in an academic library myself, the absolute most accurate part of the book is the university’s need for reputation management and placating wealthy donors above everything else.  But it’s also a great mystery with a very satisfying conclusion.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Cat Who Saved Books by Sôsuke Natsukawa

Author: Sôsuke Natsukawa
Title: The Cat Who Saved Books
Narrator: Kevin Shen
Translator: The Cat Who Saved Books
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2021)

High school student Rintaro Natsuki is orphaned after the death of his bookseller grandfather.  Already shy and nerdy, Rintaro stops going to school and isolates himself from the world as he prepares to close up his grandfather’s bookshop and move in with an aunt.  He is surprised by Tiger, a sarcastic talking tabby cat, who tells him that he is needed to save books and leads him into a magical labyrinth within the bookshop.

On three adventures, Rintaro engages in metaphorical confrontations with a collector who keeps books behind glass, a scholar who disfigures books with notations, and an Amazon-style corporate president who treats books as a commodity.  Rintaro also starts forming a connection with a girl from his high school named Sayo.  It’s a sweet narrative that anyone who enjoys books, cats, and coming of age stories should enjoy.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Around the World for a Good Book selection for Vietnam

Author: Ocean Vuong
Title: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Narrator: Ocean Vuong
Publication Info: [New York, NY] : Penguin Audio, 2019

In this poetic, nonlinear narrative, the narrator – nicknamed Little Dog – writes a letter explaining his life to his mother, Hong.  The story is based on Vuong’s own life, who like Little Dog is the grandchild of a Vietnamese woman and a white American soldier, emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut as a refugee, and is raised by a single mother.  The center of the narrative is Little Dog’s teenage experience of coming out gay and his first relationship with a boy named Trevor.  The language in this book is beautifully deployed in describing ugly things, from Little Dog’s grandmother Lan’s experiences in the Vietnam War to Trevor’s narcotics addiction. From the pain, Vuong is able to extract a novel of beauty.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam

Around the World for a Good Book selection for Bangladesh

Author: Tahmima Anam
Title: The Startup Wife 
Narrator: Tanha Dil
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2021

Asha Ray, the child of immigrants grows up feeling like an outsider in the United States, but blossom into adulthood as a talented computer scientist.  While working on her PhD, she is reunited with her high school crush, a white American named Cyrus.  They fall in love, get married, and begin working on an app built on Cyrus’ idea of creating rituals around non-religious things that people are passionate about.  Working in a startup incubator in New York City, Cyrus begins to emerge as a charismatic celebrity tech guru, while Asha and her work are pushed to the side.

I have to say I waited too long after finishing reading to write this review because I’m forgetting the details.  But I do recall initially enjoying the book but losing interest as it went along.  Nevertheless it is an interesting take on “bro culture” in the tech world that discriminates against women and people of color as well as the immigrant experience.  There are also parts of it that oddly reminiscent of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.  I suspect that my engagement problems with this book were more my fault than the authors so your mileage may vary.

Rating: ***