A Book Review: Pepperpot – Best New Stories from the Caribbean (assorted authors)

It’s been awhile since I’ve written a book review. Let’s change that!

Preface: I’m part of the Early Reviewers group over on librarything.com; every month, tens of copies of ~100 new books are listed and given away to potential reviewers. Group members can go through this list and select/apply for a book that they think sounds interesting. Then, publishers go through the applicants, look at a person’s profile to examine their previous reviews and reading habits/tastes, and select the “winners” who they think seem most likely to write a thoughtful review for their book. There are usually 10-20 times as many applicants as there are copies of books, so while the odds of winning aren’t terribly low, it’s still exciting to be chosen as a “winner”. So far, I’ve selected a book 15 times and have won 8! times, suggesting that I’ve been exceedingly lucky. (Either that, or publisher’s must think that I have impeccable book reviewin’ capabilities.) And then, if you win, you’re supposed to write a review for the book.

PepperpotLast week, I received an advanced reader’s copy of Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean. This collection includes 13 shorts and is the first in a new series of planned yearly releases which aim to introduce Caribbean literature to a much broader audience. I really do enjoy reading short stories a lot, and anthologies like this one are a perfect way to experience a bunch of new writers without needing to invest a big chunk of time in any single author (in case you encounter someone who isn’t to your liking). This collection was doubly appealing because I really hadn’t had much/any exposure to Caribbean literature, and I was excited to try reading something different.

As I made my way through this collection, I noticed that there were a few themes that many of the stories seemed to share. 1) Warm, humid weather pervades most aspects of the characters’ lives and largely influences their habits and behaviors; 2) the idea that islands, even larger islands like Jamaica, are essentially small communities where secrets are scarce and it is difficult to distance yourself from your past; 3) the fact that a large portion of the population is highly marginalized and subsists on very little; and 4) individuals who deviate from socially accepted behavior are generally swiftly/harshly punished. These similarities between stories really helped to tie things together and made the collection feel very cohesive. I also felt like these shared themes did a wonderful job of highlighting some of the issues/conflicts that are likely central to life in the Caribbean.

Unfortunately, I ended up finding parts of this collection to be fairly underwhelming. I do not mean to suggest that any of the writing was bad, but many of these stories seemed a little underdeveloped. Or overly straightforward? Depending or your tastes, this isn’t even necessarily a bad thing; sometimes a nice, simple story is what you’re in the mood for. However, I was unable to get into/connect with a lot of these stories. That being said, I did enjoy some of them a lot. Below, I’ve mentioned three of my favorites.

Waywardness by Ezekel Alan – This was easily my favorite story of the bunch. Like many of the other stories in this collection, it recounts (in graphic detail) the daily lives of people who are forced to live on the margins of society. It is not a nice story (regularly trivializing rape and equating homosexuality to sexual abuse/bestiality), but I really loved the writing style and the method of storytelling that was used. So much grit! After looking up the author, I noticed that he has written a novel as well… I think I might have to check that out.

Mango Summer by Janice Lynn Mather- Another tragic story, this recounts the disappearance of a young girl (Theresa) from the viewpoint of her older sister (Brenda). Over the course of a summer, several children in a close-knit community slowly begin to disappear. Although many of the adults are wracked with grief and worry, Brenda and Theresa remain largely untouched and naively continue with their summertime activities. And then Theresa disappears. While Brenda recognizes that her sister is almost certainly dead and gone, she prefers to think of her as away on an epic boat journey with all of the other missing girls. “It’s a shame to think of them any other way. It would waste them. And why waste little girls? They are, they can be, such nice things.” This story was very poignant, providing a strikingly sharp contrast between the innocence of childhood and the sometimes horrible harshness of reality.

All the Secret Things No One Ever Knows by Sharon Leach – “Ten years ago, I found out that I wasn’t my father’s only girlfriend.” This is the opening sentence, quickly setting the tone for a very heavy, traumatic story that details the continued sexual and psychological abuse of a daughter by her father. Again, this is an awful, terrible story (I don’t think there is a single story in this collection that is remotely happy…), but it is written in such an artful, compelling fashion. It was not easy to read, but I am glad that I read it.

I also liked Amelia at Devil’s Bridge and The Monkey Trap. If you really enjoy short story collections, or are interested in checkin’ out writing from a new region/area, I don’t think you’d regret perusing these stories. This was a quick read and some of the writing is quite remarkable. However, I would not classify this collection as a “must read”. Overall, I’d give it 3.5 stars (out of 5).

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Miles run in 2014: 132.7
Books read in 2014: 30

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