Monday, 19 April 2021

Are We Home Yet? by Katy Massey

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

The memoir opens with Massey’s realisation, at the age of eleven, that her mother is using their comfortable home in Leeds as a place from which to sell sex. She marks that as the point at which she split herself in two.

“In the pause, I am falling apart, literally becoming two people. I remain the plump playmate that Sarah takes me for, but I have also become someone else who floats just above us, watchful. Alert. This version of me knows that something has changed forever […] though I can pretend, that simple young girl has gone forever.”

By the time Massey was in her late teens, her mother had graduated from prostituting herself out of their back room to running a spa-cum-brothel in an industrial area of Leeds. Massey finds herself acting as receptionist, spending long hours chatting to the ‘girls’, recognising the sheer banality of the sex industry, “where good looking, decent women who could hold a conversation offered various sexual services in exchange for money. “

But Massey’s story is far more complex than that one eye-catching headline. There’s the sense of loss associated with her all-but non-existent relationship with her absent father; her complicated relationship with food that goes back to a stepfather who fed her sweets to comfort her for the pain caused by his own tormenting; the issues she has faced as a mixed-race child in an otherwise all white family, and the rarely-spoken-of death of her middle-brother.

The memoir braids together three timelines – Massey’s own childhood, her mother’s younger life, and the present day as she tries to piece it all together and come to terms with her own struggles.

Massey’s writing explores her own ongoing depression and her troubled relationship with her mother with razor-sharp clarity. On bad days:

“Even the street beneath my feet feels somehow insubstantial, as if it may melt and I go through the sinking tarmac until the black sludge closes over my waist, my handbag, my necklace and finally my head and there is no trace of me left.”

At other times, “I walk the street towards Mam’s flat with my loneliness attached to my heels, dragging behind like a recently shed skin.”

There is a breath-taking self-awareness in the way she confesses that “I had made my relationships into broken clocks and gleefully reduced them to their parts. Spreading them out on the kitchen table, fascinated with the possibility in those shiny nuts and wheels, I always realised to late that there was no home of reassembling the, turning them back into something of purpose.”

A powerful study of family dynamics and the toxic legacy of secrets. Shortlisted for the 2021 Jhalak Prize

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Lowborn by Kerry Hudson, My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay

Avoid If you Dislike: Memoirs of genteel dysfunctionality.

Perfect Accompaniment: Milky tea and cheese straws

Genre: Memoir, Non-Fiction

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Sunday, 11 April 2021

And the Stars Were Burning Brightly by Danielle Jawando

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Nate’s big brother, Al, had so much to look forward to. He was a straight-A student, a talented artist, and had a conditional place at Cambridge University. So when he commits suicide, Nate, and his whole family, feel as though they have been shattered into pieces.

Nate is consumed with finding out why Al took his own life, even though his quest takes him into some increasingly dark places and everyone – even his mum and his older brother Saul – are begging his to stop.

The only other person who seems to understand is Megan, a friend of Al’s who shares Nate’s guilt for not doing enough to help Al when they still could.

And The Stars Were Burning Brightly shows, with deep compassion, how suicide, especially unexplained suicide, tears a hole through the hearts of friends and family. Nate is an utterly believable character; it is impossible to read this and not care about him deeply. Al too comes to vivid life on the page, despite the fact he dies three days before the story opens.

Jawando brilliantly captures the way that social media can come to dominate the lives of young people: from unrealistic body images it portrays, to the compulsion to share every minute of every day, the constant intrusion of notifications – and above all the savage cruelty that at times it unleashes and enables.

Yet the author also shows how the internet allows voices to be raised up and shared across the world.

And the Stars Were Burning Brightly is an extraordinary book that highlights the appalling and relentless pressures that can be piled onto teenagers in this age of social media. It comes as no surprise to learn that the novel is based in part on the author’s own lived experience.

I can imagine this book might be triggering for some, but for others, it may well help ease them through a difficult time, or to understand friends who are in a difficult place and need their support. It needs to be in every school library.

Shortlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Young Adult and Children’s Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Million Pieces of Neena Gill by Emma Smith Barton; Out of Heart by Irfan Master, Meat Market by Juno Dawson

Avoid If you Dislike: References to suicide and online bullying

Perfect Accompaniment: Images of the night sky 

Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary

Buy This Book Here:

The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Chaya may only be twelve years old, but she has already proved herself a talented thief. Not that she takes things for herself. She only steals to pay for things her struggling neighbours desperately need. And she’s very successful.

Until, that is, she over-reaches herself, goes too far, and brings down disaster on all their heads. From that point on, whatever she does to try and make things better only serves to make things even worse.

But with the help of the royal elephant, Ananda, could Chaya and her friends Neel and Nour actually do something that will bring about real and lasting change, and allow their village and their country to thrive once again?

The Girl Who Stole an Elephant is set in Serendib, a fictionalised version of ancient Sri Lanka. The adventure takes the children from their village just outside the royal palace, deep into the lush jungle, where they will face dangers from leeches to leopards. Friendships and loyalties will be tested to the limit – and Chaya will have to learn that good intentions are not always enough.

A compelling adventure story in a wonderfully realised setting with a brave and resourceful heroine.

Longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Young Adult and Children’s Prize.  

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave; Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan.

Avoid If you Dislike: Leeches. Morally questionable heroines.

Perfect Accompaniment: Papaya

Genre: Children’s (Middle Reader)

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Thursday, 8 April 2021

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Set in Uganda during the time of Idi Amin, the Ugandan-Tanzanian War and their aftermath, The First Woman is the story of Kirabo, a young woman from a rural community walking a tightrope between tradition, Europeanisation, and Amin’s despotism.

When the story opens, in 1975, Kirabo is 12, the youngest of an extended family of young people living in the care of her grandfather while they go to school. A gifted storyteller, Kirabo uses her talent to boost her status among the older children.

Beloved as she is of her grandparents, Kirabo’s greatest frustration is that no one will tell her anything about her mother. So she sneaks off to visit her grandmother’s great rival, Nsuuta, their almost-blind neighbour who is reputed to be a witch.

Nsuutu tells her about women’s original state, when “We were not squeezed inside, we were huge, strong, bold, loud, proud, brave, independent. But it was too much for the world and they got rid of it.” But Kirabo is one of those rare children in which the original state is reborn.

At first, Kirabo rejects the First Woman within her, symbolically burying it in Nsuutu’s yard, but as the story progresses, she begins to understand more of how women are repressed, not just by men, but by other women who have absorbed the values of a patriarchal society. Trapped like hens in a cage too small, they turn and peck at one another.

The First Woman follows Kirabo as she goes to live in the city with her father and her un-welcoming stepmother, via her admission to an elite boarding school run by nuns, through love, loss and rejection to the beginnings of maturity as a young woman.

Makumbi’s masterful text manages to balance regret for the loss of what was good in traditions driven out by Christianity and Europeanisation, with a trenchant critique of the patriarchy and internalised misogyny embedded in traditional Ugandan communities.

The story ends in 1983, but one heart-breaking line seems to foreshadow some of Uganda’s more recent pains. In 1979, Kirabo is in boarding school as the war with Tanzania comes closer and closer, but “No parents had come to fetch their girls because nowhere was safer for them than boarding schools. Even Amin’s men would never attack a school.” Sadly, by 1996, the Lord’s Resistance Army had shown it had no such scruples.

Just as the oral story-telling traditions the young Kirabo aspired to wove life-lessons into spell-binding tales, Makumbi weaves commentaries on colonialism, patriarchy, colourism and internalised misogyny into this tender coming of age story.

Shortlisted for the 2021 Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Girl With A Louding Voice by Abu Dare, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Avoid If you Dislike: Stories of woman reclaiming their power

Perfect Accompaniment:
Groundnut stew

Literary Fiction, Coming-of-Age story, Modern Historical Fiction

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A More Perfect Union by Tammye Huf

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

"Where is the liberty and freedom and rights and justice, when the law says Matthew Johnson owns my child after already owning my wife? What kind of Constitution for the people allows a thing like that? I country can claim that wrong is right, but that’ll never erase the stain of it." 

A More Perfect Union opens with the young Irish labourer, Henry, already driven to the brink of starvation by the venality of his English landlords, facing the horror of another blighted potato crop. When both his parents die within days of each other, he boards a ship for a new life in New York, only to find himself thwarted by yet more anti-Irish prejudice.

Meanwhile, Sarah is sold away from her family on a plantation in Virginia. She narrowly avoids being bought by a man who would clearly use her as a ‘bed-warmer,’ and is taken instead to a plantation run on ‘Christian’ principles, where the slaves are well fed and housed, and whippings are comparatively rare. Yet it remains to case that Sarah’s life is not her own.

When Henry heads south for the life of a travelling blacksmith, their paths cross and there is an immediate (and forbidden) attraction between them – and on one level, more that unites them than divides them. But could Sarah ever see Henry as anything other than another white Master, especially when he is employed to forge shackles to be used on slaves? And can Henry see past the relative security of Sarah’s life and understand what it means that – for Sarah or even her children, or her children’s children – there would never be the faintest possibility of boarding a ship for another life? 

It seems impossible that this story could have a happy ending, but Sarah and Henry find a love so deep that neither is willing to give up until all hope is lost.

Through this deeply personal tale, Huf reveals the desperate tragedy of both the Irish famine and slavery of the Southern plantations – while at the same time demolishing any false equivalence between them.

The novel shows up, too, the ugly hypocrisy of those who preached Christian principles, who claimed that it was ‘benevolent’ slavery was possible, but who viewed an escaping slave as a thief stealing from his master and thought for a white man to want to marry a black woman is “the most immoral proposal ever put.”

A beautiful story made all the more extraordinary with the knowledge that it was inspired by the true story of the author’s own great-great-grandparents. 

Longlisted for the 2021 Jhalak Prize. 

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

Avoid If you Dislike: The demolition of comforting myths about slavery and white complicity.

Perfect Accompaniment:
A picnic in a meadow full of butterflies

Genre: Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here:

Monday, 29 March 2021

When Life Gives You Mangos by Kereen Getten

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Clara is part of a small and close-knit group of friends in a rural, seaside community in Jamaica. But something that happened last summer has stretched friendship to breaking point. Will the arrival of Rudy, a girl from England visiting her grandmother, be Clara’s salvation?

The places where Clara used to play – the river, the hidey-hole under the mango tree – are tainted with the past. And Clara, who used to love the sea, is somehow now terrified of water. So Clara and Rudy strike further out in search of adventure – a ruined fort, the former plantation house where Clara’s reclusive uncle lives…

But then a hurricane brings a twist in the tale that will turn everything upside-down, and make you want to go back and read parts of it again.

Clara’s world is the world the author grew up in. Her evocation of a small community where everyone knows everyone else is both universal and delightfully specific. (No adult could, surely, have made up a game like Pick Leaf?)

The mystery and drama build teasingly in this brilliantly constructed novel. A story about friendship and loss and how we cope with trauma, full of tenderness and compassion.

Shortlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Children’s and Young Adults’ Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Tamarind and the Star of Ishta by Jasbinder Bilan; The Million Pieces of Neena Gill by Emma Smith-Barton (for slightly older readers)

Avoid If you Dislike: Stories about losing a friend

Perfect Accompaniment: Mangos (of course)

Genre: Children’s (middle reader)

Buy This Book Here:

Thursday, 25 March 2021

What’s Left of Me Is Yours by Stephanie Scott

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

All of these stories, photographs and facts reside within me. There are tangible tings that remain: the stub of her plane ticket to Hokkaido, her shoes, her packets of scent, his letters. These things tell the story of a life, of many lives intertwined, but I am the point at which they meet.

Sumiko has always been told that her mother died in a car accident, the year after Sumiko started at school. She has been brought up by her grandfather and has followed his path into a legal career. But just as she is about to qualify as a lawyer, she receives a phone call that changes everything she thinks she knows about her life - because it reveals that her mother was in fact murdered by her lover.

Under Japanese law as it stood at the time of her death (in 1994), very little about a trial was in the public domain, nor was much information made available to the victims’s family - the so-called Forgotten Parties). But Sumiko is determined to find the truth.

From then on, the narrative weaves between Sumiko’s searches, and the story of Rina and Kaitarō, the two lovers. But how much of their story was true? Kaitarō was a Wakaresaseya Agent, a kind of private detective, hired by Rina’s husband not merely to find evidence of adultery but to create that evidence via seduction. So is he truly in love, or is it all part of a cruel deception?

The plot in a large part hinges on the details of a legal framework that will be entirely unfamiliar to many readers. Scott’s research for this book took her so deep into the Japanese legal system that she has actually been made a member of the British Japanese Law association.

But equally, the novel is about love, passion and intimacy. The ability to be completely oneself with another person – and what can happen when that trust is violated. It is also about memory – childhood memory especially – and what the mind chooses to retain and how it interprets it.

Rina and Kaitarō are both photographers, and the visual imagery in the book is spellbinding. A storm is described as “turning the clouds the colour of mussel shells.” A lover’s body is seen “rolling into her like a wave curling on the shore.”

A complex novel that demonstrates the power of crime fiction at its very very best – both revealing something transcendent about human nature, while rooting itself within a specific time and place.

Longlisted for the 2021 Jhalak Prize. Shortlisted for the Author's Club Best First Novel Award 2021.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: All My Lies Are True by Dorothy Koomson

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories exploring relationships that culminate in male violence

Perfect Accompaniment: Skewers of grilled halibut flavoured with yuzu, followed by red bean ice cream

Genre: Crime Fiction

Buy This Book Here