Wednesday, 22 January 2020

This Brutal House by Niven Govinden

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Niven Govinden’s This Brutal House is set amongst the New York Drag Ball scene, where rival Houses, led by House Mothers, compete to outdo each other in costume, attitude and above all voguing.

The book opens with a group of the House Mothers staging a silent protest on the steps of City Hall to highlight the lack of response by the authorities to the disappearance of a number of their ‘children’. This section is written in an unusual first-person-plural collective stream of consciousness:

“They have used ‘no’ and ‘unfortunately’ and ‘unable’ as pacifiers, shushing us the way a nanny calms an agitated baby. We are unwanted noise, not to be seen or heard.”

Collective silence has become the most powerful voice they have.

The narrative then passes on to the novel’s main protagonist, Teddy. Teddy was once one of the House Mothers’ children, one of many who fled rejection from their own families and found a home amongst the drag queens. But though he competed for them for a time in the Drag Ball scene, he was never really comfortable as a performer. Instead, he became the devoted follower of one of them, Sherry, while the Mothers supported him in getting the education that would allow him to break free.

Sherry is now one of the missing, and though Teddy believes he knows what happened to her, he will not tell the Mothers because he cannot bring himself to crush their hope.

The education they helped him get has led him to work for City Hall and because of his known connection with the Mothers, he is charged with monitoring the protest and bringing it to a close. He does everything he can so smooth things over – but will a fatal misjudgement destroy everything he has sought to protect?

The voice of the Caller periodically breaks through the narrative, holding forth for pages at a time:

“She walks. She works. She vogues. Triple threat, bitches...”

This Brutal House shows the sadness behind the glamour and flamboyance of the Drag Ball Scene – young people rejected by their biological families and discounted by the authorities; older ‘Mothers,’ nurturing, yet ageing inevitably in a world that values youth and glamour...

Dark, disturbing and hypnotic.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Beasts of Electra Drive by Rohan Quine, Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, POSE (FX TV series)

Avoid If You Dislike: Passages in stream-of-consciousness style

Perfect Accompaniment: Tacos

Genre: Literary Fiction, LGBTQIA+ Fiction

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

The Pact We Made by Layla AlAmmar

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“I realized a long time ago that, in a lot of ways, my body is not strictly mine. It’s a shared entity, something to be criticized, guarded, commented on, and violated.”

The Pact We Made is a stunning debut novel by UK-based, Kuwaiti-born novelist Layla AlAmmar.

AlAmmar slowly peels back the layers of Kuwaiti society – a society in which young men and women drink and take drugs and party - just so long as their parents never find out. Where women go to university and take high-powered jobs, but are not considered adults until they marry. Where the police can be called if a couple is seen embracing in public and where arranged marriage is still the default.

“We like to think of ourselves as a well-traveled, cultured and thoroughly modern people. Xenophiles who welcomed expats long before Dubai ... We’re the ones who brought cellphones and commercial airlines to the Gulf. We’re the ones in constant search for the new, the wondrous the techtastic.

The narrator is Dahlia, one of a trio of life-long friends who, as little girls, once made a promise to get married on the same day. But now they are in their late twenties. Two of them, Mona and Zaina, are married but Dahlia continues to turn down suitor after suitor, to the fury of her increasingly desperate mother.

This might be another tale of young women negotiating modern life in a traditional society, but Dahlia, we learn, was abused through her teenage years by her mother’s cousin. And it is the lasting consequences of that abuse that reverberate throughout the book.

On the surface, all appears to be well, but underneath every day is a struggle.

“It sometimes felt like I as put my past in a hole and spent my time shoveling dirt into it, but like some cheap horror movie, it kept trying to claw its way out ... So, I sailed the world’s longest river; fake it till you make it, and all that. Normal behaviour is a language you can learn”
This balancing act cannot be sustained forever and in the end Dahlia will be driven to a devastating choice.

AlAmmar’s language is fresh and original without ever being flowery. Time and again she catches you with a phrase that takes your breath away. The constant panic Dahlia feels, for example, takes on the form of a demon – the yathoom – who “comes in the night, sits on your chest, feet splayed in a squat, growing heavier and heavier until you wake because you can no longer breathe.”

An extraordinarily powerful, gut-wrenching book that lays out in no uncertain terms the case for  women to have control of their bodies and their lives.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, When I Hit You by Meena Kendasamy

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories centred on the aftermath of sexual abuse

Perfect Accompaniment:
Goya’s Los Caprichos and a cup of saffron tea

Genre: Literary Fiction

Monday, 6 January 2020

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

"No doubt you think this will be one of those slave histories, all sugared over with misery and despair? But who’d want to read one of those?" 

Frannie Langton was born a slave in Jamaica, educated for his own amusement by her master, then brought to London and given by to another man. Now she is in Newgate gaol, accused of murdering that man and his wife. And she is writing her confessions. But is she really the ‘Mulatta Murderess’?

Sara Collins darkly gothic historical novel explores, among other things, the way the institution of slavery distorted every human relationship, even that between mother and child. It exposes the ugliness of the roots of 'race science' and the vile length to which some were prepared to go to disprove the humanity of black people.

While still a young child, Frannie has been compelled to act as assistant to one such ‘scientist’. Being complicit in his experiments allows her a bare edge of privilege over the other slaves, and has given her a kind of Stockholm syndrome, so much so that she is outraged when she is given away to his erstwhile colleague, Benham.

But Benham has a wife, a troubled woman in some ways as trapped in her life as Frannie herself. Their relationship – passionate, sensual but bent out of shape as much by their power-imbalance as by Madam’s opium addiction – will lead Frannie to her cell in Newgate.

As Catherine Johnson’s Freedom did for young readers, The Confessions of Frannie Langton reclaims the long history of Black people in England. It shows up the hypocrisy of some, at least, of the anti-slavers, as well as those, like Benham, who imagine it is possible to ‘reform’ the institution.

"What no one will admit about the anti-slavers is that they’ve got a slaver’s appetite for misery, even if they want to do different things with it."

Even though her life hangs in the balance, Frannie refuses to dish up suffering to satisfy the appetites of the public, or to use her thrall either to opium or to her erstwhile slavemaster as convenient excuse. Whatever she has or has not done, Frannie will own it.

Collins’ writing is rich with period detail without being weighed down by it.From the slave plantation – called, with the bleakest of irony, Paradise – to the Benhams’ London town house, to the city’s brothels and boxing rings, each time and place is vividly evoked.

A stunning debut that is an unsurprising winner of the Costa First Novel Award.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan; The Long Song by Andrea Levy; Beloved by Toni Morrison; Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

Avoid If You Dislike: Gothic Flavoured Historical Fiction

Perfect Accompaniment: Raisin cake, golden and sweet with sugar

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Funny,” he said, “how the poor and the wretched are always being blame for their own misfortunes, isn’t it? As though the Jews who wash up on our shored are responsible for the pogroms against them and the filth that our own poor live in.”

I am always excited by the release of a new Sam Wyndham mystery, but never more so than by this one, the fourth in the series.

This time the story takes place over two time lines, and we see not only the weary Sam Wyndham of 1922, doggedly trying to free himself of opium addiction, but also the young Sam Wyndham, wet behind the ears and newly recruited into the police in London, as two cases at either ends of his career become entangled together.

Even the title operates on several levels – as the word East can be taken as referring simultaneously to Assam, east of Sam’s usual haunts in Calcutta, to Whitechapel in the east end of London – and to the patronising orientalist term for anywhere east of central Europe. 

As Mukherjee explains in his interview in the Hindustani Times “It was going to be my homage to Agatha Christie... where a body is found in a room which is locked from the inside. But I have been very depressed and angered by everything that’s going on in the world, and in Britain. So I couldn’t just write my little locked room mystery. As an author, and just as a person, I had to write something which spoke to what is happening in the world.”

As the quote with which I opened this review indicates, there are close and uncomfortable parallels between attitudes toward the Jewish refugees who found themselves in the East End of London in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and those towards the Muslim communities that live there today. And Mukherjee could not resist drawing out those parallels in this gripping historical crime thriller.

We left Sam at the end of Smoke and Ashes travelling towards Assam to undergo a cure for his opium addiction. But on the last leg of his journey to the ashram, he sees a ghost from his past. Maybe it’s just an opium induced illusion, but as Sam says, it’s hard to forget the face of a man who’s tried to kill you.

From that point, the two timelines weave in and out through the course of the story, giving us not one but two locked room mysteries. 

The book also contains Surendranath’s most direct challenge yet to Sam’s unthinking support of the status quo. The young officer doesn’t appear until towards the end of the book this time, but when he does, he is given charge of the investigation, something his white suspects don’t take kindly to. When Sam upbraids him for the way he speaks to one of them, he responds:

“I addressed him with no derogatory epithets. He on the other hand called me a heathen runt, a jumped up subaltern. You have nothing to say about that?”

The two men's relationship is slowly and irrevocably shifting, just as the relationship between Britain and India is shifting. And Mukherjee’s depiction of it continues to go from strength to strength. He has said that he sees Sam and Surendrenath as two sides of his own character – the Scottish and the Bengali, which is perhaps how he can write both characters so sympathetically. 

All I can say is, roll on 1923! 

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Previous Sam Wyndham mysteries by Abir Mukherjee. Ripper Street (BBC TV) House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

Avoid If You Dislike: Descriptions of addicts going cold turkey

Perfect Accompaniment: Death in the Yeast – Pale Ale specially brewed for the release of Death in the East by Southwark Brewing. Or any fine Pale Ale.

Genre: Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction

Buy this book here:

Thursday, 12 December 2019

The Pearl of Penang by Clare Flynn

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of the French Historical, The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and Australian 1970s series: The Silent Kookaburra and The Swooping Magpie.

What we thought: I thoroughly enjoyed being swept back to the heat, the tropical landscape, the culture and people of Malaya prior to, and during, WWII, in Clare Flynn’s The Pearl of Penang. 

I especially loved how the author wove together an engaging story with well-researched details about Malaya and its rubber plantations.

I found myself fighting for our heroine, Evie every step of the way of her journey, from the beginning when we meet her as a quiet young girl working as rich woman’s companion, through her acceptance of a marriage proposal from a Malay rubber plantation-owner she’d only met once, years ago. 

I was by Evie’s side as she lived through the tragedies and triumphs of her marriage to the cold and unloving, Douglas Barrington, as she endures the often spiteful and cruel British expatriates, and the shallow ex-pat life. I feared for her as the threat of Japanese occupation of Malay became a reality.

With its gripping storyline, very real characters, and easy-to-read prose, I would highly recommend The Pearl of Penang as a novel to lose yourself in.

You’ll like this if you: enjoy plucky heroines and ex-pat tales set in exotic places.

Avoid if you don’t like: male-dominated worlds, oppression of women.

Genre: historical fiction.

Buy the book here

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

The Last Runaway is the story of Honor Bright, who in 1850 emigrates from Bridport in Dorset to a small Quaker community in Ohio, only to find herself caught between the Underground Railroad of slaves escaping slavery in the southern states, and the harsh exigencies of the new Fugitive Slave law.

Chevalier manages to avoid too much White Saviourism, or self congratulation on the Quaker role in the anti-slavery movement. Hope has been brought up to believe slavery is wrong. Yet Chavalier does not shy away showing how the famous Arch Street Meeting in Philadelphia kept a “negroes’ bench” at the back of the room. Nor that many Quakers supported the dubious concept of ‘colonisation’, whereby ex-slaves would be shipped back to Africa, regardless of the fact that many of them had been in America for generations.

Nor does Chevalier over-inflate the Quaker role in the Underground Railroad. Much more important is the role of free Black men and women, like Mrs Reed in the nearby town of Oberlin, who were there long before Honor arrived in Ohio and will be there long after she has moved on. Honor’s naive good intentions are at times as likely to imperil the runaways and their supporters as to help them.

Chevalier paints a vivid picture of life on the frontier – the harsh extremes of the weather, the unfamiliar flora and fauna, the utter necessity to be self-reliant when shops are few and far between and at times beyond reach.

Woven through the book is also the story of quilting – the often over-looked ‘women’s work’ that brought women together and created social bonds as well as something both practical and beautiful. Honor is a master of the largely British tradition of patchwork quilting. As she learns, when the women of Ohio come together in ‘frolics’ to make quilts, they favour appliqué. While Mrs Reed uses yet another style. Chevalier learnt to quilt as part of her preparation for writing this book and her detailed descriptions of quilt and quilting techniques are fascinating.

Absent from this picture of frontier life, however, is any glimpse of what has happened to the indigenous people of this newly colonised land. They are simply gone, both from the land and from the consciousness of the people now occupying it.

None the less this is an absorbing retelling of a broadly familiar story, with all of Chavalier’s trademark attention to the details of women’s day to day lives. And incidentally, for me, it was a joy to read descriptions of Meetings for Worship from a fellow Quaker who actually gets it! Patrick Gage is one of the few others I have read who can really capture what it feels like to sit in that ‘gathered silence’.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier, The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney, Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of frontier life in America that ignore the impact on the indigenous groups

Perfect Accompaniment: Fresh corn on the cob

Genre: Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Monday, 25 November 2019

The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star by Vaseem Kahn

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star is the third book by Vaseem Kahn in his Baby Ganesh Detective series – and possibly the most engaging yet.

Chopra’s beloved wife Poppy is delighted when he manages to get tickets to attend an extravaganza starring Bollywood’s latest hot property, Vicky Verma. But when Verma vanishes from the stage at the end of the show, apparently kidnapped, Chopra is called in to investigate. Before the end, you can be sure that Chopra will have given the long suffering Poppy more than a little cause for anxiety, but that she, their adopted street urchin Irfan and the elephant Baby Ganesh will have combined to come to the rescue.

The sub-plot of the story is even more fascinating, as Chopra’s new assistant, Rangwalla, is forced to go undercover with Mumbai’s eunuchs – the city’s ancient and despised transgender community – and learns to see them in a whole new light.

This all takes place in the build up to the Festival of Holi – the Indian festival that, as Chopra reflects, ‘transcended the barriers that so often kept people apart’, a colourful explosion of madness that Poppy, Ganesh and Irfan all adore - and the ever-digified Chopra merely tolerates.

As always, Kahn’s gentle humour allows him to poke fun some of the absurdities of Mumbai society, while at the same time turning over a few stones and exposing some of the city’s darker elements.

I suspect that if you are familiar with Bollywood films, you might spot references to familiar tropes and plot lines that passed me by. I did enjoy what I’m guessing was a nod to the famous long-running court case at the heart of Dickens Bleak House, as Inspector Chopra takes a similar pot-shot at the slow-moving Indian legal system.

This is the sort of book you curl up with in the expectation of being charmed, entertained, comforted and – just on the sly while you’re not really looking – taught something new. Kahn is a prolific writer, and I am by now well behind with this series. Two more - Murder at the Grand Raj Hotel and Bad Day at the Vulture Club - have already been published.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Honey Trap by JJ Marsh; The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson; anything else in the Baby Ganesh series by Vaseem Khan

Avoid If You Dislike: Warm and cosy Crime Fiction with a soupçon of peril and a flavour of India

Perfect Accompaniment: Chana Masala and saffron rice

Genre: Crime Fiction