Thursday, 25 June 2020

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It

In the Prologue to her debut novel, The Girl with the Louding Voice, Abi Daré quotes from the Nigerian Book of Facts, 2014:

“Nigeria is the richest country in Africa. Sadly, over 100 million Nigerians live in poverty.”

That dichotomy is at the heart of this book.

Adunni is born into a poor family in a small village in Nigeria. She want more than anything else to get an education

“That day, I tell myself that even if if I am not getting anything in this life, I will go to school I will finish my primary and secondary and university schooling and go to university, because I don’t just want to have any kind of voice...I want a louding voice.”

When her mother dies, that hoped is snatched away. She is married off, aged 14, to a much older man who already has two wives. Yet, on her path from there, via her time as a house girl / domestic slave to a fabulously wealthy Lagos businesswoman, to her ultimate destination, she never loses sight of her passion for learning – and for teaching other Nigerian girls.

Like Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Adunni tells her story in non-standard English – which doesn’t stop her from expressing herself with passion and clarity. Here, she rages against the assumption that she exists just to breed more children.

“Why fill up the world with sad childrens that are not having a chance to go to school? Why make the world to be one big sad, silent place because all the childrens are not having a voice?”

Adunni uses every scrap of learning she can to fuel a burning desire for justice – for herself and for others, like Khadija, her husband’s second wife who have suffered even more. Her curiosity and sense of justice also drive her to find out what happened to Rebecca, her employer’s previous house girl, whom no one seems to want to talk about.

“The Slavery Abolition Act was signed in the year 1822,” I say. [...] “People are still breaking the Act. I want to do something to make it stop [...] to stop slave-trading of the mind, not just of the body.”

Adunni’s story is at times desperately sad, but it is also a glorious celebration of the emancipating effect of female education. Adunni’s louding voice needs to be heard.

The Girl with the Louding Voice won the 2018 Bath Novel Award and is shortlisted for the 2020 Desmond Elliott Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: When Trouble Sleeps by Leye Adenle; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara;

Avoid If You Dislike: Books written largely in non-standard English

Perfect Accompaniment: Spiced meat pie

Genre: Contemporary, Literary

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Wonderland by Juno Dawson



Reviewer: David C Dawson

What we thought:


Amazingly, this is Dawson’s (no relation!) twentieth young adult novel. I gave her debut novel Hollow Pike a rave review here on Bookmuse four years ago.

Dawson’s come a long way since her debut novel in 2012, both personally and in her writing. Wonderland has a hard edge to it, without losing the humour Dawson managed so well in her previous novels.

Alice Dodgson is a privileged young aspirant trans-woman who’s bored with the dreary academia of her expensive private school. Her friend Bunny has gone missing, and Alice goes to find her. That’s when she discovers the elite Wonderland Party, and meets a host of drug and sex addicted characters, including Dinah and the Tweedle Twins.

As you can probably tell already, the references to Lewis Carol’s classic children’s story are prolific, clever and witty. But Dawson uses the rough framework of Carol’s story to explore a host of complex issues, including sexuality, privilege, mental health, and drug taking. At times it’s a very dark and shocking read.

The issues Dawson tackles are highly relevant to young people today, and she deals with them in an honest, and emotionally mature way, which is so refreshing. At several points in the book my middle-aged, middle-class mind had to pause and ask the question: is this appropriate for a young adult? The answer came swiftly: definitely.

Dawson clearly draws on her experience as a trans-woman, and sections of the book feel almost autobiographical. But before you dismiss it as an angsty teenage read, let me reassure you that the writing is tight, and the plot is complex and intriguing.

Highly recommended.

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

Avoid if you don’t like: Some explicit sex, drug references, suicide references

Ideal accompaniments: Jam tarts

Genre: Young Adult, LGBTQ

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 11 June 2020

You People by Nikita Lalwani

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Nikita Lalwani's You People takes place in London, among the marginalised and dispossessed, asylum seekers and “Illegal” immigrants, those with no right to work and no resource to public funds, scrabbling to scratch a living while trying to make the case to be allowed to remain in the UK. It focuses in particular on those still fleeing torture in Sri Lanka.

Freedom from Torture has documented ongoing cases of torture by state officials in Sri Lanka. But survivors continue to find it difficult to prove their cases and to be given refugee status by the UK Home Office. While they try to make their case, they are not allowed to work or to study and they have to live on asylum seeker support allowance of just £35 per week.

You People tells to story of some of those who have fallen through the cracks, or are still struggling to get documented status. One of the two main point-of-view characters is Shan, who has fled Sri Lanka after the murder of his father, leaving behind his wife and child. He, along with several others like him, are working in a restaurant owned by Tuli, fellow Sri Lankan and benefactor who operates in the grey areas of the law.

The other point of view character is Nia, half Welsh, half Indian, white-passing, but with her own troubled past, who works at the restaurant as a waitress. Nia is torn between wanting to help, and horror both at the cool way Tuli ignores the law when it suits him and the god-like way he appears choose who to help.

Nia acts as our eyes and ears, critiquing Tuli’s actions while at the same time being brought face to face with the very real desperation that necessitates them.

Shan on the other hand is fighting for his existence, knowing that to be sent back to Sri Lanka is very likely a death sentence for him, yet torn apart with guilt for the wife and child he abandoned and now cannot contact.

This is a hugely relevant, contemporary story, born out of the UK’s so-called Hostile Environment for those it deems illegal immigrants. It’s a story that reveals the human consequences of those policies, while subtly testing the reader with moral choices. Who do we choose to help? To whom do we give the benefit of the doubt – and why?

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Happiness by Aminatta Forna, The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota, Hostile Environment by Maya Goodfellow, Gifted by Nikita Lalwani

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of people living under the radar

Perfect Accompaniment: Chilli and garlic prawns, and a glass of wine

Genre: Contemporary Ficton , Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 4 June 2020

A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It

Roger Robinson’s collection of poems, A Portable Paradise, begins far from paradise, in the inferno that engulfed Grenfell Tower in London 14th June 2017. These searing poems capture some of the horror of that night – as well as the long struggle for justice that has followed.

How is it I’m begging you for housing, when you burnt my building down?” one voice asks.

In the second section, a series of short, intense poems focuses on artists and writers - from John Milton and George Stubbs, to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Toni Morrison.

The third section is a series of profound reflections on Black History and how slavery and colonialism continue to feed through into the present. The short poem, Beware has, in the last few days, become appallingly timely.

When police place knees
at your throat, you may not live
to tell of choking.


‘It Soon Come’ captures the simmering tensions of the days and hours before anger and injustice boils over on the streets, while in ‘Citizen III’, Robinson gives voice to the Black man who has lived and worked in the UK all his life, only to be told he is to be sent home.

‘The Darkening Red of Your Blood’ is a version of ‘the Talk’ that all Black parents are forced to give their children – especially their sons:

At some point you will be stopped
by the police for no valid reason
They will ask unnecessary questions
They will say something to try
To degrade you
...
Do not fall for it

Do not be the ink of a new obituary

The final section is deeply personal. It deals with such things as an unwanted breakup with a lover and the birth of a severely premature baby with tenderness and love.

The title comes from a poem about Folsom Prison Writing Workshop

Poems can make minds move freely,
Books are a portable paradise
While I am faced with all my guilty freed
om

This book will certainly let your mind move freely. A Portable Paradise is a deeply moving collection and it is not hard to see why it has won both the 2019 TS Eliot Prize and 2020 Ondaatje Prize

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Roy Mc Farlane, The Healing Next Time; Jay Bernard, Surge; Carol Ann Duffy, The World’s Wife

Avoid If You Dislike: Poems that remind you of the fragility of life, or those that force you to confront systemic racism

Perfect Accompaniment: Stormzy: Blinded by your Grace Pt II

Genre: Poetry

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 28 May 2020

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

In 1589, King James VI of Scotland was awaiting the arrival of his bride, Anne of Denmark, when a storm blew up that battered the fleet of ships in which she was failing, with the lost of many lives. He then tried to sail to Denmark himself to bring her home but another storm forced him back to Scotland. James became convinced that the storms were the work of witches trying to prevent his marriage and – taking as his text “suffer not a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18) – he began a campaign of terror, torture and execution against those(mostly women) who were suspected of witchcraft.

This brand of militant Calvinism was exported, not only (famously) to Salem Massachusetts but, as Kiran Millwood Hargraves’ gripping historical novel shows, to places such as Finnmark in northern Norway, where Scottish witchfinders were employed by King Christian of Denmark.

The Mercies begins with another sudden and violent storm – one which wiped out a fishing fleet and more or less the entire male population of the tiny community of Vardø in northeastern Norway. The women are left to fend for themselves, but such radical independence attracts the suspicion of the King and his Lensman is sent to investigate.

The story is told through the eyes of two women. The first is Maren, one of the women of Vardø, who has lost father, brother and betrothed to the storm, and has learnt to take boats out to fish in order to feed her family. The second is Ursa, brought up with her sister in Bergen and newly married to the Scottish commissioner chosen by the Lensman to weed out potential witches.

As suspicion spreads through the once-close community in a well worn path, an unexpected alliance grows between Maren and Ursa . The women’s independence, their sexuality, any traditions not sanctified by the church – all can be used against them. And this compulsion to police women’s bodies is further bound up with racism and bigotry against the Sámi people, who once mingled freely with the rest of the community but whose reluctance to accept Christianity has made them objects of suspicion. Given the terror of witches brewing storms, their once-valued skills of ‘wind-weaving’ become to be seen as the work of the devil.

For all their talk of the mercies of God, the zeal of the Lensman and his commissioner in rooting out witchcraft has no room for mercy at all.

This is Millwood Hargraves’ first adult novel. Just as she did for younger readers with The Island at the End of Everything, she has taken historical events and written a story of extraordinary intimacy, that vividly conjures up a unique community. The story of a witch hunt may be familiar, but by drawing us in so deeply, Millwood Hargraves tells it anew.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, The Break by Katherena Vermette, Blood Rose Angel by Liza Perrat

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of witchcraft and torture

Perfect Accompaniment: Venison stew and a glass of beer

Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, LGBTQIA+

Buy This Book Here:

Thursday, 21 May 2020

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Reviewer: David C. Dawson

What we thought:

“And perhaps it is the greater grief, after all, to be left on earth when another is gone.”

This is a book that divided the critics. Well, it polarised them actually. It won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012 and the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Novel in 2013. But it also had some pretty nasty tongue-lashings from the critics on The New York Times and The Guardian among others.

Well I loved it.

It’s a tragic love story. Miller retells Homer’s heroic story of Achilles in the Trojan Wars from the point of view of his companion Patroclus. The exact nature of the two men’s relationship has been debated through the centuries. In Miller’s novel you are left with no doubt. They were lovers from their teens. The relationship is passionate, strong and long lasting. At least, it lasts until Patroclus is killed in battle (no spoiler alert if you've read your ancient Greek!). The death of Patroclus leaves Miller with a problem, given the novel is narrated by him. Unabashed, she continues his narration from beyond the grave. Surprisingly, it works.

This is such a beautiful book to read. Miller has a wonderfully contemporary style, which sits well in the ancient setting. Critics have attacked the book’s accessibility, accusing it of being “a good beach read in the style of Dawson’s Creek”. A reference not lost on me with my surname! I disagree strongly with this disparaging criticism. I enjoyed Miller’s writing style and the way she gave life to her characters. This is in no way a dry historical novel. It’s rich in emotion and action and ultimately very moving.

A very accessible read that will help many people get into the ancient Greek myths and legends.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Open Arms of the Sea by Jasper Dorgan

Avoid If You Dislike: Some description of gay sex, some bloody battle description

Perfect Accompaniment: An ouzo and olives

Genre: LGBTQI, Historical, Romance



Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 14 May 2020

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste


Reviewer: Catriona Troth 

What We Thought:

When the Italian army invades Ethiopia in 1935 and Emperor Haile Selassie is forced to feel to the England, a Shadow King takes his place, a young lookalike whose guards are female soldiers. This the the little-known story of the women who fought alongside men in the second Italian-Ethiopian war – women including the author’s own grandmother. Ordinary women, peasants and servants, with no previous training, who took up arms to defend their country against an army larger and far better equipped their own.

But if the outward battle is against Italian colonialism, the women are forced to fight on many fronts – against the inequality and patriarchal nature of Ethiopian society of the period, and against sexual violence inflicted by their own sides.

Mengiste has written (in this article published in Lithub in September 2019) about the photographs she has been collecting for years – photographs taken for the most part by young Italian soldiers who thought they were embarking on a foreign adventure. One in particular gave birth to the principal character, Hirut.

“She is in her teens and her hair is pulled away from her face ... I imagine that she is ... doing her best to focus her attention on something besides the intrusive photographer.”

Hirut begins the story as a lowly servant in the household of a wealthy family connection, someone with no power or agency of her own, despised by the lady of the house, treated with intermittent kindness by the master. The only thing she has of her own is a gun, given to her by her late father, who made her promise to keep it always. But when the Italians re-invade the country, it is taken from her, without consultation. She, like all the other women, is expected merely to prepare supplies for the soldiers. It doesn’t occur to anyone that they might fight. But the reality of war against an overwhelmingly powerful enemy changes everything.

In the early stages of the war the battles, scene mostly from a male point of view, are written as if they were part of a Homeric saga – full of heroism and grand gestures.

“Their high-flung arms. That quivering beam of light curving through the field like a god’s mocking defiance. See Fisseha fall, that last son of Samuel. See Girmay stumble, that only child of Mulu [...] Listen to the wind vibrate with spear and flung stone and hoarse shouts and agonised cries.”

The later battles, when Hirut is in the thick of it, the tone changes to a more personal experience of horror:

“Soon she is thrown into the sweep of dust clouds, other figures pushing against her, around her, to make their way to the enemy. She feels like she runs alone, a solitary figure balancing on slippery rocks. Then she trips over grass and find herself helplessly caught in her own momentum.”

The men in the novel – particularly those , both Italian and Ethiopian, who come from their ruling classes – have been conditioned from childhood into a kind of unseeing cruelty – a cruelty capable of even recognising itself for what it is. As Mengiste writes (again in the article from Lithub), "I have come to realize that the history of women in war has often been contested because the bodies of women have also been battlefields on which distorted ideas of manhood were made.”

In the novel, the photographs are taken by Ettore, an Italian soldier whose father is a non-practising Jew. As Nazism closes in on his family back home and census forms arrive from Italy to identify Jewish soldiers, Ettore continues to follow orders to document the atrocities committed by his commanding officer, in the hopes that obedience will save him.

Ettore may himself be a victim, but Mengiste never allows him the easy luxury of forgiveness – he must take responsibility for his own choices.

Finally, a series of Interludes runs through the novel - brief scenes in which the Emperor Haile Selassie listens repeatedly - obsessively even - to a recording of the opera Aida, which tells the story of an Ethiopian princess captured by Egyptians. The way he chafes against the story of how she falls in love with her captor feels like a plea for Ethiopia to tell its own stories.

A powerful novel about war and colonialism, patriarchy and violence, written from a too-rarely seen point of view, that of a Black African woman.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton

Avoid If You Dislike: Close up descriptions of war and sexual violence

Perfect Accompaniment: Daro wat with Injera (Ethiopian spicy stew with fermented pancakes)

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Buy this book here: