Tag Archives: January 2019 Reads

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

BLRW Title: Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Dark Star Trilogy)
Author: Marlon James
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241315583
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 640
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Black Leopard Red Wolf is a piece of art – it needs to be read with such intensity and focus. This came to be as I went along with the read, it sort of grows on you and then you are hooked. I might gush right now, however, you just cannot read it in one sitting – you need time to devour it, embrace it, and most importantly love it. A lot of people have compared it to Tolkien or GRR Martin’s works but let me also tell you that it is extremely different from any of those writers’ creation. It is for one set in several worlds – each complete in their own and not so much – it challenges the reader at every step to figure and know more, only to turn back the pages to make the connect between places and people.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf may not also be everyone’s cup of tea. Having said that, I would urge everyone who has little interest in literature to read it – only to be aware of what literature is and what it can achieve. With the sheer style of writing, that almost changes with every chapter, the crumbs of information left here and there for the reader to pick up on, and more than anything else it achieves to bring out a lot of emotions in the reader. From love to envy to desire (raging at that), to sometimes even anger towards situations and people caught in it, you just can’t get enough of BLRW.

BLRW is high-fantasy, it is also a book that challenges you, your world, the way you think, and how you most commonly perceive the world to be. It makes you see ancient worlds seeped in African myths that perhaps you weren’t aware of. So in that sense, it also makes you go down the rabbit hole of mythology that makes you a more-aware person at the end of it. For instance, the way James writes about the Anansi Tales or the Sundiata Epic and makes it a part of his story, is what most writers might have struggled with. And it is only the beginning – the first in the Dark Star trilogy, at around six hundred and twenty pages.

What is the book about?

The book is set in several ancient kingdoms. It is the quest for a missing boy. Tracker is one of the questers who has been hired by a mysterious figure to bring the boy back, given the fate of a kingdom. You get to realize this only when you are halfway through the book. So wait for it, and even then James doesn’t give it all away. Tracker isn’t the only one who has been hired. It is a motley crew – a chatty giant, a shape-shifting leopard, a witch, a buffalo, a girl raised to be the food of the ogres, and a water goddess who melts into puddles. Tracker is known for his nose. His nose is known to lead him to any missing person. This is all I shall reveal about him for now. Also, where Tracker is from? Where are the other characters, what is their role to play in this quest, etc are questions that I am sure will be answered in the remaining two parts of the trilogy.

The group dynamics are what one would expect – there is humour, there is conflict – sometimes with little or no resolution, and there is a camaraderie of sorts between them. Marlon’s Tracker and Leopard might be linked to Achilles and Patroclus, but they have so much more rage, fury, and desire.

Also, might I add that the start of the book gives you a list of 80 characters that will appear and reappear throughout the book or the trilogy in this case. While this is intimidating, it is most certainly very helpful to go back to time and again. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is violent, it is not your usual comfort-food story that is based on folktales that heal you. Men, women, and children are raped to death and that in a way only brings out the tenderness of the protagonist. While African mythology is largely at its base, plot, and structure, it is also earthy, salted with stunning chase and fight scenes, unfolding at a very leisurely pace. Marlon James’ world is superlatively unique and that’s what makes Black Leopard, Red Wolf so darn refreshing. I honestly don’t think that it can be compared to any works of high-fantasy. The worlds built – shape and reshape as you the reader, goes along with the book. There are surprises and shocks along the way that make the story tumble on its head, making you wonder as the reader if you ever got it right to begin with.

Might I also add that the queer perspective of the book is brilliant. I have not in my reading of fantasy literature come across a prominent queer protagonist (there are many on the surface and as sidebars to the protagonist, but just someone as complete as Tracker for sure, I haven’t) and Marlon James nails it down pat. The love so to say between Tracker and Leopard is of magnanimous proportions and that can only be understood once you are one-third into the book. For me as a queer reader, it was overwhelming, and full of love. It was the kind of love that I was searching for in fantasy literature but hardly found it and I am extremely glad that Marlon James wrote about it.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a novel that resists categorisation and classification of any kind and rightly so. It is set in a world that is researched brilliantly given the myths handed down from Central and West Africa. It is a world that does not conform to gender. It breaks it to the core. It is a world of political corruption, queer identity, and love and some glorious sex while we are at it, between black men.

A lot of care and thought has gone in the making of these characters. Marlon James really couldn’t be bothered with the relatability aspect, and yet as a reader he leaves it all up to you. Queer love to me is at the heart of this novel – it is beautiful in every single way and stands up against patriarchy. Also, the following two books are versions of the same elements told by other characters – almost like a Rashomon style of telling the story. Yes, there are black fantasy writers such as N.K. Jemisin (whose Broken Earth trilogy also has queer characters), and Walter Mosley, and even Nalo Hopkinson to name a few, however none of them were or are able to bring out the aspect of race and queer identity in the same way that James has.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is to be read for its dejected women – who are brave and fearless and will make their voices heard. Read it for the thrill, adventure, and quest that will grab you by the throat at every single page and not let you go. The plot intricacies that will make you want to reread it at least once more. Read it because it is subtle, in your face, loud, violent, and sexy. You must read it because it is the best you will read this year. Or at least, one of the best. 

I Am Young by M. Dean

i am young 3Title: I Am Young
Author: M. Dean
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 978-1683961390
Genre: Comics, Graphic Novels
Pages: 108
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Graphic novels that are intertwined with music are a big bonus. I Am Young by M. Dean is about two teenagers who meet and fall in love after a Beatles concert in 1964. It is so much more and the Beatles are everywhere in this character-driven book of stories, interspersed with music all along by the very talented M. Dean.

i am young 1I Am Young is the kind of book that you must take to bed on a day when nothing has gone right and it all seems futile. It is the kind of book that will cheer you and will also make you sad as their relationship soars, doesn’t, falls, sustains, and then is on the rocks as the decade ends. What remains though is the shared love of the one night in 1964, when they saw Beatles perform.

i am young 2

I Am Young is what dreams are made of. M. Dean’s art is stunning (for lack of a better word really). It is the graphic novel that eases you in to the story of teenagers, of their love, against the backdrop of several years, with one of course being the most important to them. You just get taken into the story of Miriam and George and nothing else will then matter, but how their lives progress over the next hundred-odd pages or so. The impact of culture is a strong basis of this book, with how relationships function and grow over time.

M. Dean’s storytelling capability is extremely sensitive and shows brilliantly in her art and plot. And mind you it isn’t easy drawing about music with a whole lot of charm – it comes across so trippy (had to use it, forgive me) throughout the book. The 60s and 70s had their own thrill and M. Dean does a brilliant job of pulling the reader into that world.

Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector. Translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser.

hour of the star Title: Hour of the Star
Author: Clarice Lispector
Translated from the Portuguese by
Publisher: Penguin Classics
ISBN: 978-0141392035
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 96
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 stars

Clarice Lispector’s works burst on the literary scene a couple of years ago. Her books were republished, retranslated to English (I think), and read and loved by all. Whether understood or not is secondary, and I don’t mean this in a condescending or patronising manner. The truth of the matter is: Sometimes it is hard to read Lispector, because there is so much to make of what she has written. I am only happy that more people are discovering her and reading her. It is always so important to read new authors, to break your reading mould, and experience new terrains, cultures, and lives you wouldn’t have thought about in the past.

Hour of the Star is a strange book, in the classic good-strange kind of way. It was one of her last few works published and it clearly to me is one of her best. I have read most of her books and every time I read a Lispector, my head is in a dizzy. It is like I cannot read anything else for days after reading her. That’s the effect she has with her words, her characters, and the stories she chose to tell.

Hour of the Star is a small book with some very big ideas, all along the read. The book focuses on the life of an uneducated woman and her struggle to survive in a sexist society. Sadly, this doesn’t sound very alien, does it? Hour of the Star is also about abject poverty and the class differences we witness every single day.  At the same time, Lispector’s Macabéa, the 19-year-old impoverished girl living in Rio de Janeiro doesn’t feel for once that she leads a difficult life. The story is told through the narrator, Rodrigo S.M., and he starts the book with how to tell a story and what goes into it. The fourth wall is broken. Lispector’s themes are broad and large in scope. In all of this, there is also a fortune-teller named Madame Carlota and you should read the book also for all of the secondary characters.

Lispector writes more so inwardly – there is a stream of consciousness and then there isn’t. She constantly challenges the reader to read better, if there is something like that, if not then there should be. Macabéa’s traits are so well-etched, that in all of the loving of Coca-Cola, Marilyn Monroe, and her boyfriend (scum, by the way), Lispector cuts away at her heroine’s happiness, thereby jolting the reader’s notions of poverty, identity, and love.

You can sense the dichotomy of the well-off Rodrigo writing about the poverty of Macabéa. It is this power-dynamics that Lispector chose to write about? Is it this Brazil that Lispector wanted to show her readers where the lives of the impoverished is for all to see and write about? Hour of the Star is a tragic comedy about a girl living in poverty and has literally no clue about her state. She certainly makes no impact on anyone and never even knows love, but she has her small joys and as a reader, I couldn’t help but hoot for her through it all.

The brilliance of Hour of the Star is what each reader takes away from it. Don’t be deceived by it’s size of 96 pages. There is so much more to it. Moser’s translation is crisp, and on point. There is no detailing that isn’t needed to begin with. It is a story deeply, starkly, and told rooted in reality, with dreams that can never be fulfilled.

Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

hey, kiddo by jarrett j. krosoczka Title: Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction
Author: Jarrett J. Krosoczka
Publisher: Graphix, Scholastic
ISBN: 978-0545902472
Genre: Graphic Memoirs, Comics
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I love graphic memoirs. They make the pain of the protagonist bearable to the reader. It doesn’t feel all that much to handle, but it is. Because it is done in the form of pictures and that makes it even more real. Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka is a graphic memoir that will cut like a knife and make you see the true brilliance of the graphic memoir.

Jarrett is in kindergarten when his teacher asks him to draw his family. We all know that some of us have more complicated families than others. Jarrett’s mom is an addict, his father is a mystery and Jarrett doesn’t know where to search for him, or even his name for that matter. He lives with his grandparents who are old and don’t know how to take care of a child anymore, but they try their best. In all of this is Jarrett trying to go through childhood – making his life more real and normal, and finally leading to his teenage years when he wants to know more about his family.

Hey, Kiddo is ironically hilarious. It is the kind of book that is feel-good and not-so-feel-good at the same time. The trauma that one goes through if one parent is an addict is unimaginable, and to add to that a father who isn’t around, just makes it worse. This book is like a support group in itself – in a strange way it just helps you soldier on.

Hey, Kiddo is one of those graphic memoirs that will help conversations in families – where relatives are stand-in parents, where there can be hope for the young, and more than anything else what does family really mean. I know a lot of memoirs perhaps have been written of this nature, and yet to me this book stood out and struck a chord even though I have never gone through something like this. That’s the power of good storytelling, I guess.

Call Them By Their True Names: American Crises (And Essays) by Rebecca Solnit

call them by their true names- american crises (and essays) by rebecca solnit Title: Call Them By Their True Names: American Crises (And Essays)
Author: Rebecca Solnit
Publisher: Granta Books
ISBN: 978-1783784974
Genre: Political Science, Feminist Criticism, Essays
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I think I would read Solnit even if she would write in a greeting card. She is that powerful as a writer, and I am sure a great human being. Rebecca Solnit has written on a varied number of topics – from the history of walking, to space and how to maintain it, to bow to get lost, to how men explain things to women – she has touched every single surface when it comes to writing (more or less), and this time this collection of essays is her masterstroke.

These essays are telling of our times and it is scary to observe the world we live in. Solnit speaks of the election of Donald Trump and makes no bones about her disagreement. Her essays more than being timely or savage are honest and backed with facts. The insights are spot-on and attempt to diagnose what ails the American culture. Right from the MeToo movement to the incarceration of African-American men, to the misleading speech of President Trump, Solnit emerges as one of the most powerful cultural critics that the world of literature possesses.

Solnit’s writing is powerful, stark and a representation of the times we live in. This collection of essays ends with the injustice Americans (mostly) face every single day – from the cynicism, to police shootings, the gentrification, and the crises that ultimately define America today. As she so eloquently puts it, ““Being careful and precise about language is one way to oppose the disintegration of meaning, to encourage the beloved community and the conversations that inculcate hope and vision. Calling things by their true names is the work I have tried to do in the essays here.”

The primary ideas behind the book are the naming and precision of language which somehow also tends to fall short somewhere, more so in alignment with what Solnit is trying to talk about. Sure it is from a very personal space and she acknowledges that. My favourite essays were: “Twenty Million Missing Storytellers”, which is on voter suppression, “Milestones in Misogyny” about the 2016 presidential election is sympathetic to Clinton and I thought was written with a lot of force.

“Call Them By Their True Names” is a powerful read, the one that makes you question, stand up, take notice and see what is going on with America and therefore with the rest of the world. The one that deserves to be read right now!