Thursday, 24 September 2020

Meat Market by Juno Dawson

David C Dawson

What we thought:

I was excited to read another Juno Dawson novel, especially one that scooped the YA Book Prize in 2020. Dawson has become the most prolifically original YA writer in the UK since her debut novel Hollow Pike in 2012. Could Meat Market deliver the punch of Clean or the wit of Wonderland?

Yes, on both counts. Meat Market is a moving, funny and ultimately uplifting attack on the excesses of the fashion industry.

Jana Novak is a gawky sixteen-year-old about to start her A-levels. She’s the tall, skinny, awkward girl who, when her class performed “An English Country Garden” in front of the whole school, was told to be play a weed.

While on a school trip to Thorpe Park she’s talent spotted by a model agency. With the support of her mum, Jana signs up enthusiastically for what she expects to be a life of glamour and riches.

Jana’s new life starts off glamorous, and she earns more on one assignment than her father earns in a year. But her life quickly tarnishes, and she’s subjected to long working hours, lonely nights staying in hotels and alienation from her schoolfriends.

Meat Market is a sharply incisive story that warns of the exploitation of young, vulnerable people in the fashion industry. As ever, Dawson is not shy of tackling difficult subject matter head on, from the way that sudden wealth distorts a young person’s life, to the difficulties women face in challenging decades of acceptance of sexual abuse by predatory men in positions of power.

As with all Dawson’s books that I’ve read, Meat Market’s opening is witty and funny. Dawson establishes the central characters’ motivations and values and it’s easy to empathise with them and their relationships.

Then Dawson piles on the jeopardy.

Meat Market becomes very dark when Jana is first seduced into drug taking and cheating on her boyfriend. Her lowest point comes when she’s sexually assaulted by a highly respected man in the fashion industry. The rest of the industry rushes to protect him. As Jana stands alone against her assailant she becomes the heroine of a #MeToo inspired plotline.

Highly recommended.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Holly Jackson, Sophie McKenzie

Avoid if you don’t like: Some explicit sex, drug references, sexual assault description, eating disorder themes

Ideal accompaniments: Jam tarts

Genre: Young Adult, LGBTQ

Thursday, 17 September 2020

The White Girl by Tony Birch

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

“Welfare? Oh, you’ve looked after the welfare of our young girls for a long time now. Most of them are dead, disappeared, or were sent mad by what you did to them in institutions. That’s not welfare, Sergeant. I think your own law would call that murder.”

For the last few years, I have made a point of searching out and reading books by Canadian indigenous authors. But to the best of my recollection, the only book by an Australian indigenous author I had read before this was the memoir, Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara.

The White Girl is a novel, set in the 1960s, thirty years after the events in Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence. But it was still a time when State police and ‘Welfare Boards’ had extraordinary powers of Australian Aboriginal people, who were not considered citizens and did not have voting rights.

Odette Brown is an Aboriginal woman living in Deane, a fictional mining town in a remote part of Australia, with her granddaughter Sissy. Thanks to her unknown white father, Sissy is blonde and fair-skinned, which makes her of particular interest to the Welfare Board. The local police control where they can travel and can, on the smallest excuse, take Sissy into their custody.

The only escape from this control is a so-called ‘exemption certificate,’ which can be issued by the Welfare Board if character references a provided by two white people of good standing. But it comes at a heavy price – the bearer must promise not to associate with other Aboriginal people, essentially forcing them to renounce their own families.

When the thirteen-year-old Sissy starts to receive unwanted attentions from the local White Trash, Odette is forced take desperate measures to protect her.

The White Girl is a story of love, resilience and family. The relationship between Odette and Sissy, though tinged with sadness, is brimming with warmth and humour. As readers, we are sucked along on the dangerous tightrope Odette must walk in order to live with dignity in a country where she is denied basic human rights.

By the 1960s, Australia might have moved beyond the brutal cruelty that leads Odette to say “Deane carried the blood or so many Aboriginal people on his hands it could never be scrubbed away, not from the man himself or the town that carried his name.” Yet the white settler community could still convince itself that the Aboriginal people were like children, incapable of looking after themselves or making decisions about their own welfare. As with indigenous communities around the world, things have moved on, but there is still a long way to go.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara, The Break by Katherena Vermette

Avoid If You Dislike: Being reminded of the shameful attitude of settle communities towards indigenous peoples

Perfect Accompaniment: A long soak in the bath

Genre: Indigenous Literature, Recent Historical Fiction, Australian Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 10 September 2020

The Affair of the Porcelain Dog by Jess Faraday

Reviewer: David C Dawson

What We Thought:

An original idea, well executed.

A story of blackmail in Victorian London, with a former rent boy as the main protagonist.

Ira Adler is the sexual partner of Cain Goddard, who also happens to run a number of criminal operations across London. Goddard is being blackmailed for his homosexuality. Goddard discovers there’s incriminating evidence inside a porcelain statue of a dog, and he sends Ira to get it back. If Adler fails, he loses the comfortable bed he’s become accustomed to.

And so the intrigue begins.

This is much more than a good, rollicking Victorian mystery story. Faraday vividly paints a dark picture of Victorian London. Opium dens, anarchists, human trafficking, the deadly gap between rich and poor, and the twilight world that gay men once had to inhabit. But ultimately, The Affair of the Porcelain Dog is a story of revenge. When Ira Adler finally uncovers the mystery, he must choose between the luxurious lifestyle he enjoys, and the principles he knows he should stand by.

Faraday has an easy writing style, and the story bowls along, with all the right cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter, and sometimes half way through a chapter. The book could easily have been published as a periodic serial, in the same way Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first published the Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

It took me a while to warm to several of the characters in this novel. I found it particularly difficult to empathise with Ira Adler until about half way through the book. Faraday paints him as a very cold, calculating chap. But it’s worth persevering. As Adler realises how much he’s been deceived, he becomes vulnerable, and we’re finally completely on his side.

By the way, I listened to this as an audiobook, read by Philip  Battley. He gives an excellent performance, and I strongly recommend it.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Sherlock Holmes, The Sins of Jack Saul

Avoid If You Dislike: Detailed description of Victorian squalor

Perfect Accompaniment: A tot of gin and some jellied eels

Genre: Crime, Historical, LGBTIAQ+

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 3 September 2020

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (trans. Anon)

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Sometimes the only way to convey the true nature of horror is via the surreal.

Shokoofeh Azar’s novel, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is the account of a family broken apart and eventually destroyed by Iran’s Islamic Revolution. 

It opens on the day the son is executed by the regime. That same hour, the mother climbs a greengage tree in search of enlightenment, while her husband and daughters gather beneath the tree to watch over her.

What slowly becomes apparent is that the younger of the two daughters is also dead – burnt alive in a fire in the family home during the last days of the revolution. The family have escaped Tehran to a remote village in the north of the country, hoping to find peace, but the revolution follows them. Her ghost, watching over them, continues to tell their story.

While the events of the revolution and the repressions that follow it are there, the story continually spins off into fantastical events and encounters with extraordinary characters, drawn in a large part from the rich heritage of Persian mythology. There are jinns and soothsayers, a black snow that lasts one hundred and seventy-seven days, a man that can hear the opening of a flower and a woman who transforms into a mermaid ... The language in these magical passages is lyrical.

"It seemed as though the orphaned mothers had become … the luminous blue butterflies the flitted ahead of the men the whole way – as if trying to distract them from their search with the blue-gold dust they sprinkled on the searchers’ heads and shoulders." 

Azar has written about how she missed her books when she was forced to flee Iran to stat a new life as a refugee in Australia, and books play a huge part in the story. The family are all readers and at one point, when many of their books are destroyed, they spend weeks trying to write down everything they can remember of the contents. Azar catalogues the books like an incantation, and the roll call is fascination. Titles that will be familiar to an Anglo-European reader – such as du Maurier’s Rebecca, Eliot’s The Wasteland, Shakespeare and the Divine Comedy– rub shoulders with titles and authors largely unknown in the West, underlining how narrow our reading can be compared with readers from other parts of the world.

In essence, though, the book is about the brutalising effect of violence and oppression.

“Once your eyes get accustomed to seeing violence in the city streets and squares, they can only become more accustomed. Gradually you’ll turn into your enemy; the very person who spread the violence.”

And about how the regime is, bit by bit, destroying the beauty of an ancient civilisation, even to the oral traditions of folklore..

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree was shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize, a first for a book translated from Farsi. Normally, with translated books, it is considered vital to name the translator, but in this case, for their own safety, the translator has chosen to remain anonymous. The book was also shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize in Australia.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez; The Tin Drum by Günter Grass;  Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie; Celestial Bodies
by Jokha Alharthi; The Secret Letters from X to A by Nasrin Parvaz.

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories that spin off into surrealism

Perfect Accompaniment: Smoked tea

Genre: Literary Fiction, Magic Realism

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Midnight at Malabar house by Vaseem Khan

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Midnight at Malabar House is the start of a brand-new series for Vaseem Khan, featuring Inspector Wadia, India’s first female detective.

Like his hugely popular Inspector Chopra series, this new series is set in Bombay, but this time, Khan has taken a step back in time to 1950. India has only recently won independence and the scars of Partition are still raw.

The chimes of midnight have barely died away at the start of a new decade, when Inspector Wadia receives a call summoning her to Malabar House. There, with a New Year’s Eve party still in full swing, the body of its host, James Herriot, has been found dead in his study, his throat cut and his trousers missing.

It would be easy for Persis to accept a simple solution to the problem in front of her, and indeed her superiors are anxious for her to do just that. But something about the situation just does not add up, and Persis refuses to let things go.

In some ways, Persis’ single-minded pursuit of the truth reminded me of The Bridge’s Saga Noren. Like all the best detectives, she is an outsider. Not only is she a lone woman in a male-dominated world, but she is a Parsee, a follower of Zoarastrianism, a minority religion in a country dominated by tensions between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. She can also be ruthless, blinkered and not a little selfish. But as readers, we see her vulnerabilities, and how much she is prepared to sacrifice in the cause of justice. Like her sometime partner in detection, forensic scientist Archie Blackfinch, we know we are going to hang on for the ride.

Perhaps in honour of the time period in which it is set, Midnight at Malabar House is constructed much like a piece of Golden Age detective fiction, complete with a climactic assembly of all the suspects. But those who have become accustomed to the cosy, humorous style of the Kahn’s Inspector Chopra series may be taken aback by the grittier nature of this new series.

Indeed, those who cling to rosy notions of the benefits Britain brought to India may be less that pleased by Persis' (and Khan’s) uncompromising views. Khan is looking at India’s struggle for independence from the opposite side from the lens from his fellow Red Hot Chilli Writer, Abir Mukherjee, but his criticism of the British is no less trenchant. From the asset stripping by the East India Company, to the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, to the Bengal famine and clumsy handling of Partition, the sins of Empire are laid bare. But at a time when Britain is being called upon to have an honest conversation about its past, a book like this, which slips its history lessons between the pages of a crime thriller, feels necessary and welcome.

I look forward to diving further into the world of Inspector Persis Wadia.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee

Avoid If You Dislike: confronting the sins of Empire

Perfect Accompaniment: a milky tea and a cucumber and chutney sandwich

Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Friday, 14 August 2020

This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It

Many years ago, I read Tsitsi Dangarembga’s debut novel, Nervous Conditions, when it won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It is a book that has stayed with me for a long time. It told the story of Tambudzai, a young girl growing up on a poor homestead in pre-independence Zimbabwe who, like Adunni in Abi Daré’s The Girl With the Louding Voice, burns with a desire for education.

After a long interlude, during which she focused on her career as a film maker, Dangarembga wrote a sequel, The Book of Not. And now, with This Mournable Body, the trilogy reaches the late twentieth century. Tambu, now middle aged, has just thrown away a good job at an advertising agency in Harare because white men on the staff have taken credit for her work. So now, despite the education she fought so hard to achieve, she finds herself once again struggling in the margins.

“Yet how awful it is to admit that closeness to white people at the convent has ruined your heart, and caused your womb, from which you reproduced yourself before you gave birth to anything else, to shrink between your hip bone.”

Unusually, This Mournable Body is written entirely in second person, with Tambu addressed throughout as ‘you’. The usage echoes Tambu’s own dissociative state, as she struggles with her sense of failure and helplessness. Together with recurring metaphors for her mental illness (a hyena howling, ants crawling over her body) it creates an intimate portrait of mental struggle. At the same time, as in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Tambu’s breakdown and fragile recovery can be read as standing for a country suffering collective PTSD after a brutal war and struggle against occupation.

“Now you understand. You arrived on the back of a hyena. 6the treacherous creature dropped you from far above onto the desert floor … You are an ill-made person. You are being unmade. The hyena laugh-howls at your destruction.”

The title, This Mournable Body, is taken from the essay, 'Unmournable Bodies', by Nigerian author Teju Cole, which called into question whose bodies the West decides are worthy of mourning. Throughout the novel, Tambu’s fortunes ebb and flow, while in the background we catch glimpses of the issues that beset the Zimbabwe – residues of white supremacy; the physical and mental scars of those who fought the brutal war of liberation; sexual violence; corruption; suspicion of foreigners…

This is a powerful novel: an intimate story written on a large canvas. Now on the 2020 Booker Prize Longlist.

You’ll Enjoy This if you Loved: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Avoid If You Dislike: Books written in the second person

Perfect Accompaniment: Mealie meal porridge

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Firewatching by Russ Thomas

Reviewer: David C Dawson

What We Thought:

This is a great debut novel in what promises to be a series of mysteries involving a Sheffield-based detective called DS Adam Tyler.

The remains of a wealthy and unpopular businessman are found bricked up in the wall of the Old Vicarage in a quiet Yorkshire town. The man had disappeared six years previously in mysterious circumstances.

DS Adam Tyler is assigned to the case. He’s an ambitious gay detective with a dark secret, and a lot of conflict with the hierarchy in the police force. An attractive young man called Oscar picks him up in a gay bar. Oscar also happens to be the son of the dead businessman.

And then it all gets very complicated…

As well as a murderer to find, there’s an arsonist on the loose. And there are two suspicious aged spinsters who live together and have a connection with Oscar.

Then there’s the gay fire chief Paul Enfield…

Thomas’s debut novel is a conventional detective mystery with a gay hero, or maybe anti-hero at its core. Thomas throws in every possible red herring he can think of, plus an interesting cast of flawed characters, none of whom are entirely trustworthy.

The story is mainly recounted from DS Tyler’s perspective. But Thomas uses multiple points of view to give us some great twists, together with reader prior knowledge, which will keep you on the edge of your seat.

The climax is gripping, and Thomas ties together every loose end in a very satisfying way.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Barbara Vine, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid

Avoid if you don’t like: Some graphic description of cruelty

Ideal accompaniment: A flaming Sambuca

Genre: Crime Fiction, Police procedural, LGBTQ

Buy This Book Here