My Thoughts: The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu is melancholic, slow, ordinary, and thus, beautiful. It was the most perfect book I could have read while trying to come off my excitement high from a fantasy narrative. When I say it is ordinary, I do not mean at all that it is boring. It captured my attention beautifully because of how mundane it is.


The main character, Sepha Stephanos, is so easily recognizable as a real human being – not a hero or villain, neither particularly victim or victor, but just an ordinary man, to whom life happens. Sephanos’s near total indifference to life is terrifying to me precisely because of how close it has often been to my own reality.

“There are those who wake each morning ready to conquer the day, and then there are those of us who wake only because we have to. We live in the shadows of every neighborhood. We own corner stores, live in run-down apartments that get too little light, and walk the same streets day after day. We spend our afternoons gazing lazily out of windows. Somnambulists, all of us. Someone else said it better: we wake to sleep and sleep to wake.” -Sepha Stephanos

Stephanos is a member of the population that may entertain aspirations and dreams occasionally, but inevitably stifles them in deference to the futility of it all. He has not so much resigned himself to his life as simply ceased to actively live it. Occasionally, he performs or neglects to perform actions that amount to self-sabotage, with the startling lack of any significant emotion. At least halfway through the book, I started thinking of him as a type of zombie and it was so unlike most characters I’ve read recently that it kept me hooked.

Not many particularly exciting things happen within this book, but when they do, the ceremony and detail with which they are described make them seem no more momentous than the types of things one might ordinarily not bother to notice. From the narrative, you might not be able to find any significant difference in grandness between the experience of watching a house burn down and the experience of riding a D.C. train. Mengestu is, in my opinion, a fantastic writer. His diction, sentence structure, and narrative style are so absorbingly beautiful to me that it doesn’t even matter that particularly exciting things seldom happen. His writing makes me content enough to simply sit with Stephanos and follow his streams of consciousness, inconsistent narrative timelines, and internal philosophizing. The interior of Stephanos’s mind is made more interesting by the lack of excitement outside it.

The mundane vibe of the book is the kind to lend an unusual intensity to ordinary moments. A kiss, a conversation, the sale of an insignificant item in a corner store. There’s an aching beauty in the recognition of things longed for and things lost; things unattainable and the mere threat of re-developing an interest in life, simply not knowing what to do with the possibility that a part of you long dead might once again come alive. The danger of finding something to finally live for. And life relentlessly being life through it all. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears never lets you miss life relentlessly being life, in favor of more “exciting” narratives. That is, I think, what I loved most about the book.



My Thoughts: Reckless

Author: Cornelia Funke


Sometimes, I get very inconsequential thoughts like, “Ah, I’m too old to be reading this stuff.” I know how to rationalize it, of course: I read children’s fantasy because I hope to one day become an author of children’s fantasy. This, while true, is only a corollary of the truer reason I read this stuff, or why I even want to write this stuff: because I enjoy it.

Cornelia Funke is one of my favorite writers, and I think I can safely conclude now that magic/fantasy is my favorite genre. (Of both books and movies. And if you can consider Jon Bellion’s music magical, then music too.) I’ve read Inkheart (twice), Inkspell, Inkdeath, Dragon Rider and The Thief Lord, and not a single book of hers has disappointed me yet. Reckless is no exception.

Let me start with what drew me to the book in the first place:

  1. Cornelia Funke’s name was on it.
  2. It was at a used book sale section of my city library, for one dollar. Why wouldn’t I buy a Cornelia Funke book for one dollar? (Lowkey, these small-small literary expenses are the things most likely to make me broke in life. Issa weakness.)
  3. The title: Reckless. It’s inviting, it’s exciting, and it’s a freaking cool word. I bought the book without reading the blurb. Quite a reckless move, wouldn’t you say? (That wasn’t funny? Well, okay then.)

As anyone who knows me should expect, I really liked this book. I absolutely adore the idea of remixing fairytales, and this world that Funke has built (it’s called the Mirrorworld, and Reckless is only the first book in the Mirrorworld series) is a world of remixed, mish-mashed but seldom explicitly referenced classic fairytales. I love this perhaps for many of the same reasons I liked Sarah Ockler’s The Summer of Chasing Mermaids and the ABC series Once Upon A Time. But there is something Funke adds to the idea of remixing fairytales that makes it even sexier: her own heritage.

Cornelia Funke really does a good job of owning the world she has made, particularly because she is German. Many Western fairytales, as you may know, came from a collection of stories compiled by two German writers, the Brothers Grimm, and are usually referred to as Grimm fairy tales. These writers are not exactly authors; as the story goes, they travelled through Europe, collecting old stories and folktales from different areas, and simply wrote them down. We will, perhaps, never know how much of their own creativity they applied in the written compilation of their stories. But my point here is that these are tales from Europe collected by Germans/Europeans, and are now being creatively utilized, remixed by a German, who can probably lay more legitimate claim to them than Adam Horowitz or Edward Kitsis (the creators of ABC’s Once Upon A Time).

Cornelia Funke’s Mirrorworld sees no need to translate culture into “American” before it begins to be creatively remixed. Thus, it feels more organic to me. And this feeds into my next comment on how organically she wrote it.

When I began reading it, the book was actually hard to get into; I really didn’t have a bloody clue what was happening. There was no soft process of leading a reader slowly into the magical, easing them comfortably into an unfamiliar world. (It did with Inkheart, which is probably one of the reasons this caught me off guard.) The Mirrorworld saw no need to explain itself; it merely was, as though it had always been, and it was I that had simply never heard of it. When I as a reader stepped in, it was like walking around entirely new territory without a tour guide. Such experiences are so uncomfortable that, although you may find the new world around you fascinating, you can’t help but feel, for the first few moments, that you want to go home, simply because you do not enjoy being lost. That’s how I felt; I temporarily wanted to stop reading because I felt I couldn’t “get into it” fast enough. Which is silly, really, because that transportational (yo, apparently, this is not a word) factor is one of the reasons I like fantasy so much in the first place.

When I eventually did get into it, after being patiently impatient with myself and the book, I found that I really enjoyed it, particularly the main character, Jacob Reckless, with whom I now like to think I have a very healthy platonic relationship. (One-sided, of course, since he is unfortunately fictional.) I didn’t fall recklessly in love with him (pun intended) like I did with Theodore Finch or Artemis Fowl. Instead, it grew on me gradually that this guy is actually a very cool badass. Like, we could be besties if he existed.

With this book, Cornelia Funke did two things that I really appreciate when storytellers, especially those of fantasy, do:

  1. Subtle gender-bending

When it comes to mystic things and fantasy, there are some things that are, unfortunately, classically gendered. I suppose I blame Disney for most, though certainly not all of it. For example, fairies, unicorns, mermaids, are usually thought of as classically feminine things. The usage of them as a marketing tool frequently tends to turn male potential consumers off from whatever is being marketed. Yet, some of my favorite mystic/magic storytellers have handled this problem so well. Eoin Colfer make boys like reading about fairies; in fact, he did it so well that he turned a lot of girls off from the Artemis Fowl series; J. K. Rowling used unicorns in Harry Potter that had nothing cutesy or rainbow-like about them.

It is so interesting to me what Funke did with unicorns and mermaids here. The unicorns were vicious, lethal creatures, not magic wish-granters, but more like deadly security guards. Heck, they aren’t even white. I distinctly remember Jacob Reckless passing an annoyed thought within the narration about how unicorns are so often “whitewashed.” In the Mirrorworld, they are designed to look very much like regular brownish horses, ponies and arses, but just like, with a horn. It’s lit.

The mermaids, referred to as Lorelei, are basically river-based, soulless murderers. Men are their prey. In that way, they remind me very much of the sirens of Greek mythology, whom I met for the first time in the Percy Jackson series. I actually became terrified of the Lorelei too, when after one character killed one, the other Lorelei ate their dead companion. Cannibals too. Ew. I prefer Mami Wata saf.

  1. Very good use of the concept of villains.

In most cases, I am of the opinion that useless villains ruin stories, and that fantastic villains make amazing stories.

If I had, at the times when I was a very young child, understood what the heck was going on in the Batman movies that I watched, I would have considered The Joker a truly phenomenal villain. As it is, the first time I recall becoming conscious of fantastic villains was watching Once Upon A Time several years ago. Aside Rumpelstiltskin being excellently crafted and written (for the most part, or up to a point), I liked how his and Regina’s (the Evil Queen) stories unfolded. It is the first time I remember stories really giving the audience insight into the personhood of villains, so much so that one may generate empathy for them. A fantastic villain, I suspect, is empathized with, or admired, perhaps as much as their villainy is acknowledged.

Reckless’ narration style allows a reader to see into the thoughts of the “bad guys” and I like that there are multiple “bad guys,” although, understandably, we don’t read as much of them as we do of Jacob. Aside that, I like how powerful and unstoppable the villains seem to me. It would, of course, be far less impressive for a hero to triumph over a bunch of trifling idiots. The villains need, in many cases, to seem like they are entirely capable of destroying the heroes – and sometimes, they must succeed.

That being said, I really like how Reckless seemed to end with a near-perfect cross between the tragic tendencies of the actual Grimm fairytale stories, and the hopeful kind of ending that Disney is known for. It makes me excited to seek out the sequel. 😊


My Thoughts: Nervous Conditions

Author: Tsitsi Dangarembga

I can describe this book in one word: legendary.

This is probably just my youth and lack of exposure talking, but I can hardly believe this book was published in the 1980s. It feels way ahead of its time – not in the subject matter itself, because feminism in general is probably as old as the first woman on the planet – but because of how explicitly issues are tackled. I’m talking about the language, the writing, the thoughts and speeches of the characters. This feels like a book that would put its author in serious trouble with her society. And I’m so glad it exists, and very much in awe of Tsitsi Dangarembga, legend herself.

It’s 2017 and I’m now reading Nervous Conditions. It’s even embarrassing. But small by small, I’m coming out from under my metaphorical rocks and trying to keep up with the present at the same time.

Because of the book’s title, Nervous Conditions, I had thought this book was going to be about mental illness. At the end of the day, it turns out it was, but not exactly the way I expected. I’d say the major theme was actually patriarchy. (Is it inappropriate to joke about patriarchy itself being an illness? Yes? Okay, sorry.)


All the female characters seemed to be asking through their actions in the novel, “What does it mean, that I am a woman?” of themselves, while all the male characters seemed to be asking, “What does it mean, that you are a woman?” of all the female characters. The female characters all seemed to be answering their question in different ways, while the male characters seemed to answer it the same way the historically predictable, patriarchal way. What was particularly interesting to me was how Dangarembga managed to achieve that, even though every single character – including the male ones – had a somewhat distinct personality.

The point of that feat, whether it was intentional or not, I believe, is best summarized in this quote from the narration of the main character, Tambu:

“The victimization, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on. Men took it everywhere with them. […] But what I didn’t like was the way all conflicts came back to this question of femaleness. Femaleness as opposed and inferior to maleness.”

The characters were so subtly yet impressively complex. As for Jeremiah, the main character Tambu’s father, he just seemed like a spineless money-chaser, albeit with admirable skill for getting whatever he wanted most times. He never seemed bothered by any kind of guilt or cognitive dissonance, which was scary to me because how do you deal with a human being that appears incorrigibly comfortable with being wrong and never feeling wrong?

More interesting to me, however, was Mainini, mother of Tambu and wife of Jeremiah. At surface level, she seemed ordinary, traditional, unquestioningly submissive to her husband. But she had a spine, and that spine showed up frequently whenever it was time to support Tambu. She didn’t use her spine “disrespectfully,” though; she used it with what seemed like experienced tact, getting her daughter what she’d always wanted through the psychological manipulation of her husband, through words, to make him think it was his idea all along, or making him believe that his ego would reap some benefit from whatever she was making him agree to. It was truly phenomenal.

My favorite character was Lucia, Mainini’s sister and Tambu’s aunt. She was that older, yet still single, sexually liberated badass who knew how to persevere until she got what she came for. With respect to her radicalness, I think it was as extreme as it could have gotten, given the traditional context she grew up in. She’d been through a lot of nonsense from society, from being old, husbandless and childless. She’s been called both a witch, suspected of cursing her own sister, and a “loose” woman because TBH, she got the sex she wanted when she wanted it. And while I admired this about her, I felt sorry for her at the same time – because she had nobody sensible to have sex with, since, in my humble opinion, all the male characters were idiots. (Except, perhaps, Chido, but I didn’t see too much of him.) Sadting. =(

The main character, Tambu, terrified me with her inconsistency. There was something very alarming about her hatred for her brother, Nhamo – or maybe not hatred, but icy distaste, or disregard, or indifference, or something of the sort. I mean, the book literally begins with how she didn’t particularly feel any negative emotions when her brother died. I was just like, “Whoa, okay sis, is everything okay with you though?” (Apparently, it wasn’t. I found out, from an interview of Dangarembga at the back of the book that Tambu was mentally unstable as she was narrating, and that made a lot of things make a lot of sense.) Tambu was so confusing (but realistically so, because humans are truly complex, often contradictory creatures) from her emotions and actions. When she lived in her home village with her nuclear family, she seemed so acutely aware of all the ways the world around her was using her femaleness against her. Then, when she moved to the mission for her foreign education, she seemed so eager and comfortable to bend to societally acceptable roles for womanhood. She seemed to “get” so many things about life and society, and then the rest was rather lost on her.

The foil that allowed me as a reader to see all the things that were lost on Tambu was her cousin, Nyasha, whom I would also describe as a main character, even though she was not a narrator. Nyasha was the most afflicted by “nervous conditions” out of all the characters in the book. It was very subtly depicted in the beginning, a mere confusion about gender roles thanks to culture shock: Though Nyasha too had been born in Rhodesia, unquestionably being raised as a traditional Shona, her parents got the chance to move to England for several years with her and her brother, Chido. They returned when Nyasha was about preteen and there were things Nyasha just couldn’t let go of. After all her exposure to “progressive” thought, all her reading, education and whatnot, her problem became that she was unable now to assimilate into her expected roles back in Rhodesia. She wasn’t stubborn without reason, wasn’t a rebel without a cause; she was simply very matter-of-fact, yet seemed to want to believe the best of everyone, even her father, one of the most egoistic, patriarchal characters I’ve ever read in my life – and for that reason, uncomfortably and unfortunately too familiar in reality.

Particularly the relationship between Nyasha and her father, known respectfully as Babamukuru, was what strained Nyasha mentally, causing so much dissonance that she just about inevitably lost it. This quote from her really struck me:

“I guess he’s right, right to dislike me. It’s not his fault, it’s me. But I can’t help it. Really, I can’t. He makes me so angry. I can’t just shut up when he puts on his God act. I’m just not made that way. Why not? Why can’t I just take it like everybody else does? I ought to take it, but really, I can’t.” -Nyasha

What a burden it must be, to have no one else around you thinking the way you do. It makes so much sense that one would start to wonder if she herself is in the wrong. If everyone around you is mad and you’re the only one who seems to recognize their madness, it’s like you’re the mad one.

A character who was unexpectedly interesting: Maiguru, Nyasha’s mother and Tambu’s aunt. On the surface, she seemed hardly different from Tambu’s mother: submissive and skilled in the art of male manipulation. But this woman lowkey got levels, bro. By far the most educated woman in the novel, Maiguru too had been exposed to whatever culture it was in England that got Nyasha as feminist as she was. The difference, I think, was that Maiguru’s age and upbringing had made it far easier to assimilate back into quietness and what was generally acceptable of a Rhodesian wife, upon her return. Only occasionally did the usually suppressed part of her come to light, through a few unexpected rants to Tambu, and a shockingly independent action she took with regards to her family – if only temporarily. It was the temporariness of it all that was problematic for me, and I did not blame Maiguru for it, but blamed her society.

This is what made me realize that it will never be enough for only individuals to develop sense, awareness and independence of the values and rights of women (or really, any social issue) when the stagnant states of their societies simply won’t allow them to do jack with it. In such societies, women are likely to either end up like Maiguru – takes a few independent actions, recognizes their futility, then melts harmlessly back into the patriarchal mould, or like Nyasha (or even Tambu) – straight-up deranged.

Maiguru said something I liked at some point, so I wrote it down:

“I don’t know what people mean by a loose woman – sometimes she is someone who walks the streets, sometimes she is an educated woman, sometimes she is a successful man’s daughter or she is simply beautiful.” – Maiguru.

LOL, true. The world will call any woman whatever it wants to call her without legitimate reason. Whatever meanings these words have had have expanded so much that it seems they no longer mean anything in particular.

Also from the interview at the back of my copy, which I think is a very legitimate reason why racism wasn’t a major theme in Nervous Conditions, why it is such a tricky theme to tackle when writing anything at all, was this quote:

“I think this is the catch with racism – looked at objectively, it sounds too absurd to be true.” – Tsitsi Dangarembga

And, unfitting anywhere else in this post, a quote by Tambu that I just like because of personal relatability:

“Exclusion held dreadful horrors for me at that time because it suggested superfluity. Exclusion whispered that existence was not necessary, making me no more than an unfortunate by-product of some inexorable natural process.”

I feel like this book is one that should have been able to set societies on fire. I’m a bit disappointed that it doesn’t seem like any fires broke out, though. But this may just be my lack of knowledge of the contexts and history of this book’s reception. Either way, I still think Nervous Conditions is legendary. I liked it a lot.


My Thoughts: The Selection Trilogy

Author: Kiera Cass

I usually have a strategic way of switching around books on my “to read next” list. And I operate mostly on suggestions. But one day, I decided I wasn’t in the mood for any of the books on my very, very long “to read next” list. (As unlikely as this is, it does happen sometimes.) So I went hunting for a book I’d never heard of before. I knew I wanted YA, very modern, and possibly even futuristic. The real reason I was so specific with what kind of book I wanted is that I’d been reading A Storm of Swords (GRRM) for over 2 weeks and I honestly just needed a break.

Thanks to a combination of Goodreads’ algorithms and Tronomie’s judgment, I finally settled on The Selection Trilogy by Kiera Cass. And I loved every second of reading it. No lie. I do this thing where I usually don’t allow myself to read the books in a series back to back, for fear I’ll get bored of the story/the characters too quickly – but I unapologetically devoured the entire Selection trilogy at once. It is hands down my favourite YA trilogy at the moment, for various reasons. And before you ask, yes, I do like it more than the Divergent trilogy and the Hunger Games trilogy. Which is not to say that it is better than all of those other trilogies; it is just to say that I, Akotowaa, like it more.


Reading this series, I actually took real notes so that later, when I wrote about it, I wouldn’t forget any of the important reasons why I liked it. And I must say it was the concepts and themes that attracted me more than anything…once you get past my superficial attraction to the idea of anything remotely Disney-like: a girl and a prince et cetera.



So here we are in Illéa, a country/kingdom/monarchy named after its supposed hero and founding father, Gregory Illéa, who repaired a broken country that was once called the United States of America, after it had dissolved itself in the brutal World War 4, and been colonized by China. There’s a brilliant metaphor that stems from here, but I’ll get to that later.

Things are very different in Illéa. Now we have monarchs in a kingdom, as opposed to Presidents in a Republic. But what really affects the society is the caste system. Just as Hunger Games had districts, Divergent had factions, the Selection has castes. They number from 1 to 8, and if you’re a 1, you’re at the top – a literal royal; and if you’re an 8, you effectively don’t exist. Fill in the gradient by wealth and status. What interested me more than the wealth/status thing about the castes was how inextricably occupation/profession was tied to the caste system.

The main character, America Singer, was a 5. The 5s were artists. And pretty low down, I must say. And you had other fixed things, like how 4s were mostly teachers, 6s were mostly labourers or servants. Hmm. This ranking gave me plenty food for thought. And it occurred to me that while we have no governmentally defined caste-by-occupation systems in the version of the real world I know, it resembles this fictional one very much. I love this thing about especially dystopian YA: it is like exaggerated reality. And another thing: it is much easier to move down in caste than the nearly impossible task of working your way up.



In every generation, the royal son who is to become the next king, has to find a wife. The problem? He’s lived is whole life sheltered in the palace and has had no time to date. The solution? A competition worthy of the 21st century’s E! channel. 35 girls from all the castes (except from of course 1, and I think 8, though I may be wrong about the latter), fighting to become queen, or a 1, or the prince’s wife. In truth, all of them come as a package, but the girls have different goals. Also, there’s no real scheduled elimination. If and when you’re sacked, you gotta bounce.

The entire process of choosing a wife, the next regent, the idea of one teenage man legally dating so many girls at once, is very questionable. Which is what makes it all so interesting to think about – even though the reasons for the method may be somewhat legit.



There is a character named Aspen. He shows up in the series as America’s boyfriend. He made me tired. He was a 6, one caste below America’s 5. And by default, he was poorer and worse off in society. And because I thought he was such a nice, sensible person before, he really made me upset when he started flipping out when America provided for him when he was lacking. Or even the idea of it. Explain it away all you want, but it really came down to one thing for me: male ego. After that, I was more or less done with Aspen, even if America/the story wasn’t. I wasn’t feeling the back and forth romance between Aspen and America at all.



This is possibly my favourite theme in fiction because I think it’s such an integral part of how and why we become who we are. Parenting is a tricky thing. Growing up is a terrifying one. Then you think about favouritism, disparities, aspiration, and most importantly, misguided parental concern.

The relationship most interesting to me here was the one between Maxon (the Prince,) and his father, the King. It was so absurd, the consistent disregard of someone who really could have so much to contribute, for the sake of his/her youth – even when this person is royal and about to be handed the reins to rule an entire kingdom. But whatever, right?



This was not a major theme at all. But I appreciate it because it was as present and as oddly placed in the books as it is in reality. In particular, there was a maid called Lucy who suffered from panic attacks, and had a backstory of trauma that triggered them.

Oh, and there is a reason Maxon reminds me of Tobias Eaton from Divergent. *winks *



This is a real thing that happens. Think Tiananmen Square. Think Biafran War. Think all of African history, pre- and even post-colonial. Think of all the things the politically altered history books don’t want you to know. Why wouldn’t Illéa (read: the United States) do it to itself? Of course – save your people from knowing the truth about the person you call a national savior.

My lexivist self likes this whole idea because of how the truth is preserved and discovered: through writing. Now that’s wassup.



She’s a hotheaded, impulsive, very intelligent idiot, with a talent for screwing things up while aiming for a very beneficial goal. I have never seen anyone who makes such Akotowaa-worthy bad moves! Reading her was so much fun. Except the love triangle part. I have no problems telling people I love that I love them. The fact that America couldn’t do that was highly irritating.



Two major things that I liked:

  1. All of the characters’ names were, in my opinion, fantastic. I’m going to recycle many of them in obscure places.
  2. It’s like when Kiera Cass could no longer find use for characters, she casually killed them off, or somewhat unceremoniously drove them out of the story. That was kind of amusing.



I love that the main character was called America, a symbol of the past, of rebellion. But this is the metaphor concerning the history of Illéa which I said earlier in this post that I’d get to later: The Selection trilogy is lowkey about the fall and eventual rise of…America. That was a fascinating epiphany.

This series is relevant. (And also slightly sappy and frustrating at times. But it’s lit!) Read it, because I said so. =D