Tuesday, 9 July 2019

It’s Not About the Burqa (ed. Mariam Khan)

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

“Being among peers asks us [...] to delve into the granularity of our experiences as Muslim women beyond the obvious.”

This quote from ‘Life Was Easier Before I Was Woke’ by Yassmin Midhat Abdel-Magied sums up why this collection of essays, put together by Mariam Khan, makes it possible to present a rarely seen complex and nuanced picture of Muslim women in Britain today.

There are women here who wear the hijab, the veil or other forms of Islamic dress, and others who reject it entirely. There are women whose families came originally to Britain from all parts of Africa and Asia, as well as those with complex combinations of heritage. They include journalists, poets, novelists, publishers, lawyers, an engineer, a comedian ...

In the course of these essays they take on the fashion industry, toxic masculinity, White Feminism, mental health, sexuality and women’s legal rights (to name just a few).

Some of the stories show how savage the backlash can be from society when Muslim women step outside the bounds of what is defined as a Good Immigrant and dare to speak up for themselves. And yet they continue to do so.

As Afsham D’souza-Lodhi says in 'Hijabi (R)evolution': “I’m done engaging in conversation with people who don’t understand that human beings are complex. That I can wear a hijab and a dress. That I can be queer and Muslim. That I can exist.”

A book that smashes into smithereens every stereotype of Muslim women so assiduously pursued by our mainstream media. Read it!

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Good Immigrant (ed. Nikesh Shukla), The Things I Would Tell You (ed. Sabrian Mahfouz)

Avoid If You Dislike: Seeing your preconceptions torn to shreds

Perfect Accompaniment: An open mind and a listening ear

Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children (ed. Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff)

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

It is the bitterest of ironies that the Windrush Scandal blew up in the year that was supposed to have been a celebration of the 70th Anniversary of the arrival of the “Windrush Generation” – those British subjects from colonies and former colonies who answered the cry of the “Mother Country” to come and fill the massive labour shortage resulting from years of war.

There is a lot to unpick in that oversimplified summary of the situation, and Mother Country, telling as it does the individual stories of twenty-two of those immigrants and their descendents, does a lot to show the true complexity of their history. It includes stories from David Lammy, Lenny Henry, Sharmaine Lovegrove, Corinne Bailey Rae and Jamz Supernova among others.

The Empire Windrush was not the only ship – nor even the first – to bring workers from the Caribbean to these shores. Nor was it just young men who came. Women came, on their own or with their families. Children came, as children did in those days, travelling on their mother’s passports.

Those who came were only in the Caribbean because their ancestors were transported there by the British – whether as chattel slaves from Africa or as indentured servants from other parts of the Empire. They had been taught to think of Britain as the ‘Mother Country’, and they answered her call for help.

And they are far from a monolith, as these stories show. There were those who come from desperately poor backgrounds and those who came from comfortable homes. Those who were highly educated and forced to take much more lowly work than they had been doing back home, and those for whom the Caribbean of the post-War years had nothing to offer.

I wept over the description of the funeral in Natasha Gordon’s 'Nine Nights', and salivated over Riaz Phillips’ celebration of Caribbean food. There were recurring themes, too. Like the house parties “centred on the pulsating ska rhythms of the day – accompanied by rice and peas, curried meats fried dumplings and run – [that] ran deep into the night.” Parties that took place in people’s homes because they were not welcome in any of the public spaces where white people socialised.

And then there was the notion of ‘barrel children.’ As so often with immigrant families, part of the motivation for coming to Britain was to be able to try and make life better for those back home. So families would scrimp and save and send what they could. And they would keep a barrel which they would gradually fill with clothes and toys and other goods. And then they would seal it up and send it back home to be distributed to those who needed them.

The Windrush Generation are often celebrated as immigration ‘success stories’. Academic Maria del Pilar Kaladeen might be regarded as one of those successes, but the story she tells of her two brothers shows how some were broken by the racism they faced in this country. Gail Lewis evokes the term ‘natal alienation’. “You are natally alienated both from your nation of origin and your culture, and you are alienated from your mother. Quite literally.” That is part of this story too.

The shocking death of Joy Gardner in 1993 (recalled here by her mother, Myrna Simpson) reminds us that the roots of the Hostile Environment go back long before 2017. If her tragedy is not to be repeated, we need a fundamental change in our attitude to immigration. But that will require us to acknowledge the roots of our present-day multi-ethnic society lie deep in Britain’s past

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Good Immigrant (ed. Nikesh Shukla), A Country of Refuge (ed. Lucy Popescu)

Avoid If You Dislike: Facing up to the human consequences of  Britain's past

Perfect Accompaniment: A dish of rice and peas

Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays

Available on Amazon

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Breaking the Lore by Andy Redsmith

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

Inspector Nick Paris doesn’t believe in fairies. Until he finds one crucified at the bottom of a garden. How is he supposed to investigate the murder of something that doesn’t exist?

He needs help and his intellectually challenged sergeant is more of a hindrance. Instead, he must put his faith in a talking crow with a nicotine addition, Tergil the elf, a rock troll and assorted other magical creatures from another realm. He is not ready for this and doubts he ever will be, no matter how much whisky he drinks.

This is a wonderful mash-up of crime caper and comic fairytale, with a laugh on every page. Redsmith has created a thoroughly enjoyable cast of characters, including the deadly Vanethria and his unexpected ally, a witch called Cassandra. The pace is crackling and this tone witty and dry, making this light-hearted adventure one to relish.
I hope we see more of Inspector Paris and his unusual companions.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Anything by Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams

Avoid if you don’t like: Urban fantasy and so-bad-they’re-good puns

Ideal accompaniments: Toast with crunchy peanut butter, ginger ale and Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King

Genre: Comedy, crime

Available on Amazon

Saturday, 1 June 2019

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Ayoola summons me with these words – Koreda, I killed him. I had hoped I would never here these words again.

There are so many amazing authors, Nigerian or of Nigerian heritage, who today are providing an antidote to what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called ‘the dangers of the single story.’ Leye Adenle, Olumide Popoola, Chinelo Okparanta and Tomi Adeyemi, to name but a few, are creating stories that paint a far more nuanced picture of Nigeria than we in the West usually see, or drawing on traditional culture – be it Yoruba, Edo, Hausa – to create entirely new kinds of fantasy worlds.

The latest of these, for me, is Oyinkan Braithwaite. My Sister the Serial Killer is a fantastically original crime thriller. Like Leye Adenla’s Easy Motion Tourist it is set in Lagos, but in tone, style and setting, the two could hardly be more different.

This is the story of two sisters, Koreda and Ayoola, tied to one another by a secret that just keeps on getting darker. Ayoola is a fashion designer, spoilt and beautiful, the kind of person everyone falls in love with. Koreda is older, a senior nurse in a Lagos hospital, forever in her sister’s shadow.

There are shades here of Dexter (from the television series of that name or the crime series by Jeff Lindsay) – but Ayoola is no Dexter. She is chaotic, unpredictable and a nightmare for her sister. Koreda is the one who must think ahead. Spot dangers. And clean up after her sister.

The chapters here are very short – almost as if they were journal entries, or brief glimpses into Koreda’s mind, as Ayoola rocks her world again and again. There are flashbacks to a brutal upbringing with a tyrannical, abusive father, revealing the roots of a loyalty that goes deeper than self-preservation.

A darkly hilarious crime thriller, shortlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for literature.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenla, Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

Avoid If You Dislike: Amoral Crime Thrillers.

Perfect Accompaniment: Pineapple upside down cake.

Genre: Crime

Available on Amazon

Friday, 31 May 2019

Circe by Madeline Miller

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Of all the mortals on the earth, there are only a few the gods will ever hear of. Consider the practicalities. By the time we learn their names, they are dead. They must be meteors indeed to catch out attention.
Like many children in the Anglosphere, I grew up on retellings of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In them, as a rule, heroes are allowed but one fatal flaw. And gods are either cardboard cut-outs or petulant humans with super-powers. Madeline Miller’s gift is to flesh out those stereotypes of myth and legend and give them fully formed lives of their own.

Seven years ago, when I reviewed Miller's The Song of Achilles, I ended by looking forward to her promised retelling of the Odyssey, with Odysseus – one of The Song’s most intriguing characters – as its central character. What Miller has delivered instead is a tale told by Circe, the nymph – or witch – who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs. In doing so, she reveals Odysseus in a fresh perspective – both hero and, in his own way, monster.

But Circe’s story stretches back long before her meeting with Odysseus and survives well after his death. Miller picks up the multiple threads of her life from different myths and weaves them into a rich and complex tapestry. What is it life to be born the daughter of a Titan – a lesser god, immortal yet all but powerless, subject to the whims of Titans and Olympians alike? What does it mean that she becomes a witch? And how, and why?

And what of those whose lives intertwine with hers? Prometheus. Scylla. Pasiphae. Daedalus. Odysseus, Telemachus and Penelope. Miller delivers them all as fully realised, complex characters.

Miller succeeds in finding a balance between Circe as someone we can relate to, but also someone who is not merely human. You can look at Circe as someone who survives an abusive childhood, sexual assault and abandonment. Who is deeply wounded and draws on her own resources to heal herself.

“All my life had been murk and depth, but I was not part of that dark water. I was a creature within it.”

Yet we are never allowed to forget that her immortality gives her both powers and limitations .

“Guilt and shame, remorse, ambivalence, those are foreign countries to our kind, which must be learned stone by stone.”

An even greater achievement than The Song of Achilles, the breadth and scope of Miller’s imaginings here are breathtaking.

Shortlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Literature

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. The Bees by Laila Paul

Avoid If You Dislike: Myths given depth and form

Perfect Accompaniment: Olives, cheese and wine

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Sometimes in the lives of ordinary people, there is a great halt, a revelation, a moment of change. It occurs under low metal skies, never when one is happy.

Diana Evans' Ordinary People is the slow meandering study of the dissolution of two marriages.

It’s been done before, of course. But these four people are not the usual white suburbanites of such tales. They are Black Londoners. And that changes the texture of the story and the nature of the strains upon their marriage. Michael and Melissa, Damian and Stephanie come from the kind of backgrounds that Afua Hirsch writes about in Brit(ish) or Akala in Natives. Melissa’s mother is a Nigerian women, who still carries with her elements of her traditional beliefs. Damian’s father is a Jamaican man who was often too wrapped up in the struggle against racism to remember to be a father ...

The story opens with the election of Obama and is rocked by the death of Michael Jackson. Over and above the usual strains on married life - money, work, bringing up children - lie  whole other set of pressures. When a young black kid is stabbed on Michael and Melissa’s patch, there is a tension between Melissa’s visceral need to get away from London’s knife crime and the threat it poses to her children, and Michael’s need to live among people who look like him.

Yet this is very much London. Michael and Melissa live on the edge of Crystal Park, and the slow disintegration of the once magnificent Great Exhibition becomes a metaphor for the disintegration of their marriage – even as it reminds us of the role of Empire in bringing Black people to live in Britain. (“We are here because you were there,” as Stuart Hall once said.) It manifests itself in a kind of haunting of their house, where they both feel increasingly out of place.

Evans’ situation may be domestic, but her language is lyrical: “Long clouds lay out, some moving and pink and slipping away, and at one end, in the south, the mood slid full, round and golden into a case of silver wisps, until it was swallowed, whole.”

The style of the writing is close and intimate – and yet at the same time, slightly detached, as if we were a roving camera following the four characters around, without ever quite slipping inside them.

“His love for her was still deep and wide, it shattered him, it was destroying him.”

In the end, the pathos of the story lies in the fact that love on its own is not always enough to sustain a marriage.

Shortlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Literature

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Celeste Ng, Carole Shields, Anne Tyler

Avoid If You Dislike:
Intimate inspections of a marriage

Perfect Accompaniment: Barbecued pork belly and rather too much beer

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

The String Games by Gail Aldwin

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

Nim’s family life is shifting. Dad has left and Mum’s happiness revolves around her new friend Dee. That summer holiday in France, Nim’s life changes forever. She notices boys. They notice her. Her little brother Josh is annoying and embarrassing and always underfoot. Until he disappears.

That childhood trauma imprints itself on her adult psyche, shrouding her outlook in grief and endless questions. Finally, she chooses to return to the scene and find some answers.

The String Games is aptly titled, drawing the reader into the world of Imogen/Nim, Josh and Maxime, while leaving us up in the air and uncertain. The reader feels every bit as clueless and on shifting sands as the characters themselves.

This is a psychological drama a cut above the average in that the story is more about reaction than action, process rather than procedure. Aldwin blends her dark and light with an artistic touch, leaving the reader with just enough detail to ask ‘What would I do?’

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, Spilt Milk by Amanda Hodgkinson, A Child in Time by Iain McEwan

Avoid if you don’t like: Long-term grief, loss, a child’s point of view

Ideal accompaniments: Vanilla ice cream, a cider shandy and Les N√©gresses Vertes with C’est pas la mer √† boire

Genre: Literary fiction, Coming of Age

Available here