Thursday, 2 December 2021

The Shadows of Men by Abir Mukherjee

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

"Placing oneself in a position of semi- permanent hypocrisy, that’s what it meant to be an Englishman in India. […] God knows there were enough embittered, broken colonial men and women of good conscience, driving to drink and ruin by the irreconcilable absurdity at the heart of it all: the claim that we were here for the betterment of this land, when all the time we merely sucked it dry."

This is the fifth outing for the redoubtable pairing of Sam Wyndham and Surendranath Banerjee – and the first time Suren has been given his own voice. “Of course that is unlikely to stop [Sam] sharing his two annas worth […] but that is Sam for you, and this is why you require to hear my side of the tale.”

The year is 1923. Gandhi’s general strike has been called off in the wake of a wave of violence. The Indian independence movement has collapsed into ‘a morass of in-fighting and mutual recriminations’ and there are those on all sides who are ready and willing to exploit the simmering tensions between Hindus and Muslims.

At the opening of the novel, Suren has been sent by the Commissioner of Police to tail a Muslim politician from Bombay who has arrived unexpectedly in Calcutta and is suspected by the authorities of being up to no good. Following him to a poor and ramshackle riverside township, Suren is eventually led down a gullee into a trap and knocked out. The first Sam hears of all this is when he learns that Suren has been arrested on a charge of murder.

Before they know it, the two are caught in the beginning of a yet another wave of communal violence and it seems that the harder they try to prevent it, the more they succeed in fanning the flames. Unexpectedly allied with their old nemesis, Colonel Dawson of Section H, Sam and Suren find themselves on their way to Bombay, working outside the law and under assumed identities.

Mukherjee continues to write highly entertaining crime novels that cast a fresh light both on a seminal period in India’s history and on its echoes in the world today. As time has passed for Sam and Suren since the first book, we see ever more clearly the tensions – some inherent and some deliberately stoked – that would make the path to independence so treacherous. This latest book also lifts the lid on the simmering dangers of populism – in India and around world. “My novels reflect what is happening now, what it is that makes me angry,” Mukherjee says [in an interview in The Times, November 2021]

Perhaps the reason that the pairing of Sam and Suren works so well is that they reflect (as Mukherjee told E.S. Thomson at the launch of The Shadows of Men at Portobello Bookshop) the two sides of his own personality – Sam the cynical Scot and Suren the optimistic, questioning Bengali. Suren’s wry observations, given full voice now that he can tell his own half of the story, are something to treasure:

“When an Indian overcharges an Englishman, it is termed fraud, but when an Englishman overcharges an Indian, it’s called capitalism.”

If there is one problem with Mukherjee’s writing, it's that we’ll have so long to wait for the next installment!

You can listen to the whole of Abir Mukerjee’s conversation with E.S. Thomson here.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Vaseem Khan’s Malabar House series; Leye Adenle’s Amaka series; any of the previous books in the series.

Avoid If You Dislike: Poking fun at British arrogance

Perfect Accompaniment: Machher-jhōl (Bengali fish curry with mustard oil)

Genre: Crime, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here:

Monday, 29 November 2021

You Don’t Know Me by Imran Mahmoud

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

“Right now you think, looking at me, that I’m just some foolish kid who go around shooting up people for now reason. I know you think that because I ain’t stupid and you ain’t stupid. […] That’s just what they want you to believe. That want you to think that I’m a no-brain lazy kid who go into some random street and shoot up a next man for nothing. […] But you have to see past all this smoke he’s been creating and see what’s behind it. Trust me you’ll be surprised.”.

The first-person voice of You Don’t Know Me leaps off the page and grabs you by the throat.

He is a young man accused of murder, with apparently overwhelming evidence stacked against him. And at the end of his trial, he has fired his barrister and elected to make his own closing speech for the defence – to tell the truth, against his lawyers’ advice.

Imran Mahmoud is himself a barrister. He knows court procedure. Yet it is hard to imagine any judge allowing the defendant the space to speak, more or less uninterrupted, for several days. The story that unfolds feels more like a modern version of the accounts once written down by the Ordinary of Newgate – the prison chaplain who recorded the last words of prisoners waiting to be hanged. But that is in no way a criticism. Suspend that element of disbelief and allow yourself to be immersed. Mahmoud’s unnamed narrator is an expert storyteller who will keep you on the edge of your seat until you are left, like the jury itself, to decide if he is telling the truth or an elaborately constructed lie.

So confident is the voice, so expert the peeling back of the layers, it is hard to believe this is a debut novel and not a master writer at the peak of his powers. If Mahmoud can keep writing like this, then he is surely destined to take Crime Fiction by storm.

A mini-series adaptation of the story is to air on the BBC in autumn 2021.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
Amer Anwar, Dorothy Koomson

Avoid If You Dislike:
Unreliable narrators and ambiguous conclusions.

Perfect Accompaniment: Pizza from the freezer

Genre: Crime

Thursday, 25 November 2021

What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

 Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Egyptian born Canadian Journalist Omar El Akkad has taken the image of a child’s body washed up on the shores of a Greek island, and from it spun a modern fable.

Winner of this year’s Giller Award, What Strange Paradise is set on a fictionalised version of Crete, where the flora and fauna have been given a mythic quality that edges us away from realism.

The story is split into two interweaving parts.

Before tells the story of how Amir and his family flee their home, first overland to Egypt, then across the Mediterranean on an overcrowded boat, only to meet a storm when in sight of their destination.

Now the men and women who, in undertaking this passage, had shed their belonging and their roots and their safety and their place of purpose and all claim to agency over their own being, had now finally shed their future. There was nothing left of the smuggler’s apprentice to threaten, nothing he could leverage.

In After, Amir’s body is one of dozens thrown upon the shore when the ship breaks apart, but he does not die. He runs for the shelter of the woods above the beach and is found by a young girl, Vänna. She herself is the descendent of immigrants – blond, blue-eyed immigrants who came to open a hotel. Teenaged, restless, unsure of her place in the world, Vänna’s instinct is to help Amir escape from the soldiers who are sent to round up survivors and deliver them to the ex-school turned detention camp.

Neither speaks the other’s language, but slowly they find ways to communicate. As they make their way across the island, pursued by the relentless Colonel Kethros, a modern Inspector Javert determined to let no asylum seeker escape, we learn more of the horrific journey Amir has already survived – and so many others have not.

A powerful laying bare of the human tragedies behind the statistics and rhetoric surrounding asylum seekers. El Akkad’s writing has a deceptive simplicity to it. El Akkad says that he drew inspiration in part from the story of Peter Pan. It reminds me, in its construction, of books such as Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Its use of rhythm and repetition also echoes of traditions of oral storytelling.

An important, beautiful and heart-rending story.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of children in danger

Perfect Accompaniment: Salted almonds and chocolate truffles

Genre: Literary, Fable, Contemporary

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

The Waiter by Ajay Chowdhury

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

This was another recommendation from the Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast, and another highly enjoyable read.

In writing his debut novel, theatre director Ajay Chowdhury was mentored by the brilliant Abir Mukherjee. Like his mentor, he has set his crime novel partly in Kolkata, but his is contemporary Kolkata.

In fact, the story divides between Kolkata and London, where disgraced police officer Kamil Rahman is working (illegally) as a waiter in a restaurant on Brick Lane. But when the host of a party catered by Kamil’s boss is found dead by his swimming pool and the host’s wife becomes the obvious suspect, Kamil’s detective skills are called on to prove her innocence.

The novel moves between the London murder and another in Kolkata – the one that lost Kamil his job and drove him to London under a cloud of suspicion. And as the narrative spools out, the two cases begin to look increasingly connected.

The settings give the narrative two distinctly different tones, and like two strands of a piece of music, they blend to make the whole richer. The portrayals of both London and Kolkata feel contemporary and very real.

Chowdhury’s characters – especially Kamil and his London ‘partner’, his boss’s daughter, the irrepressible Anjoli – are a delight. I really hope we are going to see more of this partnership, because it feels as if it has so much further to go.

I am also enjoying the way that some of recent Crime novelists are rediscovering the amateur detective. I love a police procedural as much as the next Crime Fiction reader, but the joy of the classic amateur detective was always that they could go where no policeman could. Like Amer Anwar’s Zaq and Jags, Kamil and Anjoli can slide into places the police could never penetrate. Kamil, in particular, takes full advantage of a waiter’s invisibility - listening and observing without ever being fully seen. A clever, clever choice of role for his main character.

There is plenty of humour here too - for example, in Kamil’s wry observations of Brick Lane’s hipster clientele. (“It wasn’t my fault, but these white people, with their nose rings and tattoos, all looked the same to me.”)

All in all, a great new addition to the contemporary crime genre - can't wait to read more from this author.  

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Amer Anwar, Abir Mukherjee, Vaseem Khan

Avoid If You Dislike: Morally ambiguous endings

Perfect Accompaniment:
Ilish Masher Jhol (Bengali fish curry with mustard oil)

Genre: Crime

Buy This Book Here:

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Splinters of Sunshine by Patrice Lawrence

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Dandelions close at night and open again in the morning, like they’re holding in the sunshine. Some dandelions have two hundred petals. The most I ever counted was a hundred and eighty. It’s like the sun broke into thousands of pieces so everyone can have some shine.

Splinters of Sunshine is the latest YA novel from the award-winning author Patrice Lawrence. Having won the inaugural Jhalak Prize for Children and Young Adults for her novel Eight Pieces of Silva, which dealt with exploitative relationships, Splinters of Sunshine takes on the highly pertinent issue of County Lines drug gangs.

County Lines refers to the practice of grooming vulnerable young people to move drugs from one area (and one police authority) to another in order to avoid detection. The young people involved are often, but not exclusively, in care.

A*student, Spey, used to have a best friend called Dee. She lived with her grandmother and she was obsessed with wildflowers – their names, their colours, the stories behind them. Once, on her sixth birthday, the two of them created a huge collage of flower pictures, and at the end of the day they cut it in two and took one half each. But then Dee’s Nan died, Spey and his mother moved away, and they lost touch.

Spey saw her once or twice after that – just enough to have an uneasy feeling she might be in trouble. But he did nothing (what could he do?). But then, one day, just after Christmas, he receives an envelope, forwarded from his old address, with Dee’s half of the collage in it. And he knows he has to do something to find her.

Spey’s father, who he barely knows, is just out of prison. Spey doesn’t really want anything to do with him. But maybe, just maybe, he is the one person who can help.

This is a heart-breaking story of the exploitation of young people. But it is also a story of courage and resilience and friendship. As with all of Patrice Lawrence’s novels, she tackles contemporary issues with compassion and sensitivity. It’s a book to start a conversation on difficult issues – but that never gets in the way of a great, page-turning story.

Spey and Dee are characters that will creep into your heart and stay there forever.

Beautifully illustrated, too, with line drawings of Dee’s favourite flowers, with their scientific and common names – names which are steeped in folk history. (The cover and illustrations are designed by Michelle Brackenborough at Hachette Kids.)

At the end of the book, resources can be found to support care-leavers, children of prisoners, and those affected by gangs and county lines.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Eight Pieces of Silva by Patrice Lawrence; And the Stars Were Burning Brightly by Danielle Jawando; Boy, Everywhere by A. M. Dassu; Wonderland by Juno Dawson

Avoid If You Dislike: Confronting issues around drug culture

Perfect Accompaniment:
A quiet hour in a wildflower meadow

Genre: Contemporary, Young Adult

Buy This Book Here:

Tuesday, 17 August 2021

The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

In 1952, merchant seaman and occasional petty thief, Mahmood Mattan is put on trial for the brutal murder of Cardiff shopkeeper Lily Volpert. You wouldn’t hang a dog on the evidence brought before the court – but Mahmood is a Black man in post-war south Wales. He was hanged on 3rd September 1952, the last person to be executed in Wales. Almost half a century later, he became the first person to have his conviction quashed under the newly established Criminal Cases Review Commission.

In this superb novel by Nadifa Mohamed, shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, Mahmood Mattan is finally given the voice he was never afforded in life. Mohamed has immersed herself in the details of Mahmood’s life to give us a fully rounded picture of the man. We don’t just walk beside him through the trial, onto death row and ultimately through the doors of the execution chamber: we are inside his mind. We inhabit his sense of his own innocence and his faith in British justice, his rage when it fails him, the meditative state he reaches (for a time) when contemplating his own death.

The Fortune Men serves to remind us that Cardiff is one of the oldest established multi-ethnic communities in the UK, that is was a place of “robed Yemenis and Somalis marching to celebrate Eid, of elaborate funeral corteges for the last of the rich captains of Loudon Square, of Catholic children clad in white on Corpus Cristi […] of makeshift calypso bands busking to raise enough money to tour the country, of street dice games descending into happy laughter or nasty threats, of birdlike whores preening their feathers to catch a passing punter.”

But it was also a place of entrenched racism, where “a woman had given him a real stinker of a look, a real ‘get back in your mother’s hole’ look. At him! With his three-piece suit and silk scarf, while the old bat had on a rain jacket that hadn’t seen a laundry since the war. It was too much.”

Deep as we are in Mahmood’s mind, the story is not told in the first person, and that gives us the perspective to see the myriad ways in which, in the context of entrenched attitudes, Mahmood becomes the author of his own destruction: when he lies and dissembles and pretends to be something he is not, when simple honesty might have served him better.

We also get to meet Mahmood’s Welsh wife, Laura, with whom relations are strained at time of his arrest, but who remained loyal to him to the very end and who never stopped fighting to clear his name. We get a sense of their relationship, complicated but full of warmth.

Nor does Mohamed forget the victim and her family, for whom justice is not served. What is it like to know that someone you hold dear has been brutally murdered while you sit, on the other side of a wall, eating supper, telling a joke, looking forward to going to a dance? How do you deal with the aftermath of that?

An exceptional novel, grounded in a little-known slice of British history, that lays bare the human consequences of racism and injustice.

It is well worth reading this interview with Mohamed about her inspiration for writing this book, and the process by which she immersed herself in Mahmood’s life.

And for more background on Cardiff’s multicultural history, I can recommend Sean Fletcher’s documentary for S4C: Terfysg yn y Bae [Trouble in the Bay], which covers the Cardiff Race Riots of 1919. (Includes English-language subtitles.)

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, A Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee, The Empty Vessel by JJ Marsh,

Avoid If You Dislike: A close-up perspective of life under a sentence of death

Perfect Accompaniment: A mug of strong tea and ‘We Three’ by the Ink Spots

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

How To Kidnap The Rich by Rahul Raina

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

“The first kidnapping wasn’t my fault. 
The others – they definitely were.”

I have to thank the brilliant Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast for introducing me to this dark and very funny satire on life in contemporary India.

Ramesh Kumar is a not quite a slum kid, but his life is pretty precarious. His father runs a chai stall in Old Delhi, and Ramesh spends most of his days grinding spices rather than attending school.

“My father and I lived in a one-room concrete shell, down an alley, then down another, and another, from the place Western tour guides said was the real India, the one with piles of spices, women in mango-coloured saris, men who smelled of hair oil and incense and dragged cows behind them, stately and fat; the one where whites got out of their AC jeeps and said who overwhelmed they were by the sights and sounds. This India, my India, smells like shit.”

This is Ramesh’s life, until the formidable Sister Claire takes him under his wing. For Ramesh is clever, very clever indeed. Clever enough that he begins taking exams for rich boys too lazy to study for themselves. It’s a nice little earner. Until one day he does just a little too well. He comes top in the All India’s – plunging his client, Rudi, into the national limelight.

Rudi becomes a quiz show host, darling of mothers all over India, and his and Ramesh’s fates become irrevocably bound to one another. But still Ramesh manages to walk a tightrope between success and disaster. Until Rudi offends the son of the wrong man. And the two of them are kidnapped.

The voice of Ramesh, as the first-person narrator of the tale, comes across loud and clear -and very funny. The prime target of his razor-sharp wit is the greed of modern Indian capitalism. But that doesn’t stop him taking some well-aimed swipes at the West, and especially the West’s infatuation with its own notion of ‘India’.

Raina paints a fascinating portrait of the multiple layers of society living cheek by jowl in modern Delhi.

“This was a nice-part, a lower-middle-class striver part of Delhi, on-the-up Delhi, half-filled-metro-hole Delhi […]. I wasn’t even talking about the really foul parts […] where people lived like gnats on a lemur’s ballsack, where everyone was missing teeth or organs or legs and nothing got better even as the GDPs and HDIs were going up, up, up all over United Nations PowerPoint slides.”

But it is Ramesh's escapades with Rudi, as they dig themselves ever deeper in the mess (largely) of their own making that will keep you turning the page deep into the night.

A glorious crime-caper romp wrapped up in a social satire -and a voice I can’t wait to hear more of.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Q&A by Vikas Swarup, East of Hounslow by Khurrum Rhaman

Avoid If You Dislike: A dose of laughter with your peril (or vice versa).

Perfect Accompaniment:
A cup of spiced chai

Genre: Crime, Humour

Buy This Book Here