Kid Moses (Tanzania)

book cover

by Mark R. Thornton

9-year-old Moses lives on the streets of Dar, as he calls Dar es Salaam. When he and his friend Kioso hop in the back of a lorry one day, he hopes it will take them away from the poverty and danger of their lives in the big city.

Moses’ father came from a farm in the countryside for “the good life” and always wanted to move back. When he was killed, Moses’ mother ran away.

Now Moses is on his own, with only his wits to support him. He dreams of riding a bicycle beside lush green crops, of having enough to eat and clean clothes. But adventuring through the bush as he and Kioso set off to do is dangerous. There are snakes. There are men who are a little too friendly. There is nothing to eat, and no stalls to steal from.

Good Writing Makes for Quick Reading

Dar es Salaam
Dar es Salaam

“Moses thought of their options. Jump out now or stay longer? They were scared of being discovered and scared of the men. Boys like Moses and Kioso didn’t like men or trust them either. To boys like Moses and Kioso, men only meant getting yelled at and kicked and beaten.

“There were a few decent men at the harbor, mainly the old ones, who were just too old to be trouble. The phantoms who just minded their own business and hobbled along the streets, waiting for their day to die…”

truck in DarThis novel is well-paced: the writing is spare, lean, and brilliant. The author has captured the feel of a 9-year-old’s narration: his aimlessness, his lack of foresight, his inability to understand abstraction. I might have hoped for a stronger resolution in the end, but perhaps this was more realistic.

Rating: Two thumbs up: the hitch-hiking ones.


Wife of the Gods (Ghana)

book coverby Kwei Quartey

The blurb from Booklist on the back of this murder mystery compares the series to the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, perhaps because it is also set in Africa. They are just plain wrong. This book is darker. Like dark coffee compared to a lighter version.

Unlike Precious Ramsotwe of Botswana, Detective Darko Dawson of Ghana goes around beating the daylights out of perps he doesn’t like. It’s kind of refreshing, actually, since they’re wife beaters, fake healers, and other bad guys.

But this style of policing only works if your policeman is halfway competent. Another policeman with similar methods, out in the bush, beats a young man almost to death to “make him confess”  because he’s convinced that he murdered a young woman. The village policeman just” knows” this because the young man once stole fruit from the market.

Ghana men fishingIt’s a Kind of Magic

In Ghana, people still believe in magic and traditional healing. It’s mostly a good thing. Unfortunately, some of the traditional beliefs don’t seem to be in the best interests of women. The trokosi, or wives of the gods. for example. Virgins given to fetish priests as second, third, and fourth wives to ameliorate “crimes” their family has committed. Young human sacrifices to dissolute men old enough to be their grandfathers. Ugh.

There is a lot of Ghana in this book…culture, countryside, beliefs, food. I enjoyed the relationships between the characters and how complex they were. I loved the book and can’t wait for the next Darko novel to come out.  (I’m kind of on pins and needles to see if he’s going to get suspended for not controlling his temper!)

Rating: 5 heaping helpings of Auntie Osewa’s delicious cooking!


The Cost of Sugar (Suriname)

Suriname Mapby Cynthia McLeod

1765. Suriname. Jewish plantation owners in a Dutch colony. Slavery.

A cracking great read; heartbreaking and infuriating by turns to people with modern sensibilities. It was a bit like Gone With the Wind, only set in South America. Instead of Scarlett O’Hara, you have Sarith A’haron, a spoiled and selfish Jewish plantation heiress who poaches every man she sees, including her own stepsister’s husband.

The role of meek Melanie Wilkes is played by Elza A’Aharon, who shares a father with Sarith. Elza isn’t Jewish because her mother wasn’t a Jew. Unlike Sarith, who thinks nothing of having a slave whipped to death for displeasing her, Elza actually considers other people’s feelings–and she considers slaves as almost people.

She and her husband Rutger see the terrible human cost of sugar (and coffee and cocoa).

Maroon village, modern
Maroon village, modern

Meanwhile, the Maroons–a group of escaped slaves who live free in the jungle and raid the plantations, are wreaking havoc on Suriname society. It is a society in which the Jewish planters are walking on quicksand, because while they are considered white here, they still aren’t as good as the Gentile planters.

The Writing

It’s a page-turner. The pace is terrific; it’s an easy read with some characters you love and some you don’t. (I couldn’t wait for Sarith to get her come-uppance for example.)

The Author

Dutch ParamiraboCynthia McLeod knows a ton about Surinamese history. Her father was the first president of Suriname. In the foreword, she says that when she wrote the novel in the 1980s, she was told that it wouldn’t sell, because “there was no tradition of literature in Suriname”. (One wonders if this is because she is a Black author. Hmm.) Anyway, there is now, and the novel is still the most popular novel in the Dutch-Surinamese literature.

Deservedly. A cracking good read.


Into the Bermuda Triangle (Bermuda)

Map of Bermuda
Where the heck is Bermuda?

Book coverby Gian J. Quasar

Atlantis and aliens and vortices, oh my! This book is not at all what I was expecting, although maybe I should have. It is strangely structured:

  1. Planes missing in the Triangle
  2. Derelict ships in the Triangle
  3. Debunking of pilot Larry Kusche’s 1975 book The Bermuda Triangle Solved
  4. Possible explanations including weather, pilot error, the spinning vortex which may or may not be a wormhole, Atlantis, crystals, Edgar Cayce’s psychic predictions, aliens and UFOs…
  5. The Devil's Sea off the East coast of Japan protected the islanders from invasion by Kublai Kahn, among others.
    The Devil’s Sea off the East coast of Japan protected the islanders from invasion by Kublai Kahn, among others.

    Comparison with the “Devil’s Sea” in Japan where similar events are common (and a strangely illogical presentation of East v.s. West)

  6. Debunking of classical geology theories like strata layering (uniformitarianism) and radio carbon dating in favor of cataclysmic theory, resulting in an oddly Creationist approach to the age of the earth (6,000 years)
  7. Transcripts between planes that have disappeared and the Towers that had last contact with them

Despite my huge problems with the research and presentation of the ideas in this book, I simply couldn’t put it down.

The Good Bits

This picture creeped the crap out of me.
This picture creeped the crap out of me.

When presenting a classic Triangle mystery, the author presents the most likely explanations, then does a “But what about…”. For example, the disappearance of everyone on board the Mary Celeste, a derelict ship found abandoned in 1872 off the Azores Islands in the Triangle.

Photo Credit:

Pink sand beach in Bermuda
It’s a shame the crew and passengers on the Mary Celeste (the Captain’s family) didn’t make it to the pink sands of Bermuda

I have a special feeling for the Mary Celeste, because the ship’s story was also a Nova I.C.I. (Tokyo English-language school) Quest lesson for intermediate English speakers. Level 5, I believe.

  • It could have been piracy (But then why were valuables left on board?)
  • It could have been insurance fraud (But then why did none of the passengers ever turn up again?)
  • It could have been sickness or they could have been overcome by fumes from their cargo of denatured alcohol (But then where did the bodies go?)
  • It could have been mutiny by the crew (But then again, where did the mutineers go?)
  • It could have been an attack by a giant squid (But…oh, never mind.)
Bahams pirate stamps
In 1872, New Providence Island in the Bahamas was a refuge for notorious pirates like Captain Kidd and Edward Teach (Blackbeard).

(My smart husband, when confronted with this puzzle, immediately said: “Forget the Captain’s possessions and those of his family which were found aboard. In 1872, the items of greatest value on board a ship would have been the people.” He theorizes that pirates took the ship and sold the captives into slavery. And it is telling that Triangle disappearances of planes seem to have stopped cold since 2008. Could this be because we now have satellites that can see most everything?)

The Bad Bits

  • UFO
    UFO in the Triangle

    Text: Too much at once. Pages and pages of black lines stretching to infinity.

  • Lists: Given in paragraph form. Pretty dry.
  • Photographs: Tiny, black and white photos are said to “prove” beyond a shadow of a doubt and to be “obvious that”…Well, I couldn’t see anything!
    • Recommendation: Reissue with update (since book was first published 20 years ago) and highlight 3 or 4 juicy disappearances. Summarize the rest in a table, chart, or bar graph. Use larger, color photographs or link to You Tube.

The Ugly Bits

Although the book contains extensive endnotes, the number of outrageous claims made in the main body could have used footnotes. The author makes sweeping globalizations such as “Nobody could believe…” or “It is obvious that everybody would think…” In addition, he frequently uses “we” before a globalization, assuming that everybody is a white (non-Native) American for whom the Bible is a cultural heritage.

Rating: 3 UFOs

*Note: Bermuda is a British Independent Overseas Territory. The island was uninhabited when a Spanish explorer “discovered” it in 1503. The noise made by wild hogs and wild birds convinced the Spanish that it was a “Devil’s Isle” full of spirits and neither they nor the Portuguese attempted to colonize it. Unfortunately, the British weren’t so reticent and immediately began importing slaves. Ugh.


Land of Love and Drowning (UVI)

Book coverby Tiphanie Yanique

UVI = US Virgin Islands

Eona’s mother’s people come from Anegada, an island known for shipwrecks. (Around 150 between 1654 and 1899.) “The Drowned Land” also:

  • has no electricity
  • contains more crabs and lobsters than people
  • is a place where everyone knows (and is usually related to) everyone else

Eona means He Owns Her. The girl’s owner (father) is a ship’s captain based on St. Thomas — Owen Arthur Bradshaw, who steals Eona’s mother away from a local lobsterman. Like most people in the Virgin Islands, Owen is a mixture of European, indigenous West Indian, and African. Now, Captain Bradshaw has a mistress, Rebekah, an obeah woman — a spellcaster. But the Bradshaw women are not without magic of their own. No-one in the islands, it turns out, is just one thing.Obeah description from Wiki

Daughter Eona is raised on stories of the mythical Duene — an ocean people in Caribbean folklore whose feet face backward. There is also the spider god/man Anancy, who bears a strong resemblance to one of her future lovers. It is good that young Eona has the stories to sustain her, because she is soon orphaned when her father’s ship, The Homecoming, goes down and her mother dies of pneumonia. Now she has to raise her baby sister Anette.

Lobsterman on Anegada
The best lobster in the Carribean come from Anegada, the drowned land, or so they say

AVI on the World Stage

Anagada, St. Thomas, and similar Caribbean islands were originally the home of the Ciboney, Carib, and Arawak peoples. Then came Christopher Columbus — misnaming the islands for St. Ursula and her virgin followers — colonization, sugarcane and slavery.

Some time later, Denmark ended up owning the islands that became the AVI. After that country freed its slaves in the 1800s, it could no longer squeeze a hefty profit from its overseas islands. Revenues declined to the point where Denmark sold the islands to the US in 1917 for $25 million. (We were worried about German submarines, thus our interest.)

Transfer Day

US Virgin Islands photoOur fictional story begins in 1917, as Denmark transfers its “ownership” to the United States and the occupants of St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix, etc. became technical Americans.

Transfer Day is celebrated with a big Bacchanal, or party of celebration. But just a few decades later, all the VI men (plus most in the islands of Puerto Rico) get drafted to go fight WWII for “their” country. But the worst of all the white people are not the politicians…they are the tourists.

the town of Charlotte AmalieEona’s and Anette’s childhood home, Villa by the Sea, is purchased and turned into the Hibiscus Hotel and Resort. The beaches are chained off and marked “Private Property”. Worst of all, Eona’s little sister Anette, the daughter of a man with a landed name, is propositioned on the road by a white lady whose chambermaid has been deported back to Antilla or Antigua–she doesn’t know the difference. The “Contenentals” are not only rude but clueless.

In the 1960s Eona’s baby sister Anette sparks a series of beach “lime-ins” and other protests, eventually making the beaches accessible to everyone. Anette’s oldest daughter Ronalda, another rebellious woman making for freedom, goes to school in the States.

Reclaiming the Stories

Author Yanique, who was raised in the VI, says she wrote this novel as a rebuttal to Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival. Wouk’s VI farce was published in 1965 and is, in Yanique’s words, full of stereotypical Carribean characters. Buffoons as seen from the white male American’s view. Blech.

Blackbeards Castle
Blackbeard’s Castle: Built by the Danes in 1679 and commandeered by Edward Teach in the 1800s. this is one of 5 National Historic Landmarks in the VI.

Yanique said that as a Virgin Islander, she doesn’t feel Wouk’s book shows her and her experiences. (In her novel, Rolanda says she is impressed with how “real” American Blacks feel…because she sees their portraits in magazines, newspapers and on TV whereas the Virgin Islands are basically invisible. This observation resonated with me after living in Japan in the late 1990s where the big TV and movie stars were never Japanese. )

In Land of Love and Drowning, Wouk’s hotel cook, Sheila, gets the last name and inner agency Wouk didn’t write for her. A talented but violent handyman named Hippolyte (Mr. Lyte) reappears, now more the holy fool, less the dangerous lunatic. The hotel itself reflects the views of the islanders on the development inflicted on them by obnoxious, greedy Continentals who seem to exist only to buy land and drink guavaberry rum.

Land of Love and Drowning is also a response to a soft-porn film called “Girls Are for Loving,” which was shot in the Virgin Islands in the 1970s. The film crew employed local people as extras, Yanique says, but did not inform them of the film’s sexual content. (Since she was told this story by her grandmother, I have to wonder whether Grandma was editing a bit. Lol.)

the author book photo
Tiphanie Yanique based her book on family history

Unlike the Wouk, Yanique’s work is a real-feeling inter-generational magical realism–a historical novel in which the strong female characters dominate the weak-willed male, despite the women’s apparent lack of power. The women are intermeshed with each other through myth, love, incest, family, history and story. Living on a chain of 52 islands turns out to be a lot like growing up in a small town where everyone is up in your business and you have to be careful about dating because someone could be your cousin…You not knowing, could create a baby with said cousin, falling in lifetime love.

Like Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, this historical novel is a tale centered on ordinary people, people like you and me who are caught up in huge historical events beyond their comprehension or control.

Rating: Five Conch Shells

I really enjoyed the novel. One criticism: the narrator was omnipresent most of the time, but the few times they slipped into a “We” voice, it was jarring. The “we” sounds like an old person narrating events from his or her youth. But trying to figure out if the narrator was slutty Annette, resentfully proper Eona, an amalgam of ancestors or something else was jarring. Still, I couldn’t put the novel down and it was so well written…

I give it 5 conch shells. For more on Anagada, see my blog on Sun, Sand, Murder.