Thursday, 29 October 2020

Boy, Everywhere by A. M. Dassu


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It

Onjali Rauf’s wonderful The Boy at the Back of the Class has done an incredible job of raising awareness among younger children of what it means to be a refugee. But if there was one small criticism that arguably could be levelled at it, it was that it centred the British children in the class and not the refugee child himself.

A. M. Dassu’s Boy, Everywhere, aimed at slightly older children, makes Sami, the Syrian child forced to flee his country because of civil war, the very heart and centre of the story.

Sami’s life in the opening pages of the book could be the life of a middle-class child anywhere in Europe or North America. He plays on his Xbox and worries about having the latest football boots. His biggest worries are boring school lessons and defending his best mate from the class bully.

The war has been going on in the rest of Syria for a while now, but life in Damascus hasn't changed much. Sami never imagines the war will really affect him. But then one day a bomb goes off that destroys a big shopping mall, narrowly avoiding killing Sami’s mother and leaving his five-year-old sister traumatised. Sami’s parents realise they have no choice but to leave Syria and to try and reach a safe country.

Boy, Everywhere is the story of Sami’s perilous journey from Syria to the UK and what happens to him and his family once they arrive Manchester. It’s a tough story, based on first-person accounts from other young people who have made the journey.

At every turn it demolishes myths about asylum seekers. It shows what it means to put your lives in the hands of smugglers, to survive terrifying boat crossings, to arrive in the UK only to be locked up in a detention centre with other desperate people – and then when you finally begin to make a life for yourself in your new country, to face bigotry and rejection.

Sami is angry and frustrated as any teenager would be at being torn from his home and his friends. But he is terrified and guilty and confused. To read his story is to want to shelter and protect him. And there are so many Samis out there.

A heart-rending story that will open your eyes to the reality of what refugees face on their journeys here and when they arrive – and why they are fleeing their countries in the first place.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Rauf.

Avoid If You Dislike: Graphic accounts of the dangers faced by refugee families

Perfect Accompaniment: Maqluba (“upside down”) a Syrian dish of meat, rice and vegetables

Genre: Older children and Young Teens; Contemporary 

Thursday, 22 October 2020

The Night Bus Hero by Onjali Q Raúf


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

Hector is a bully – someone who openly delights in picking on those smaller and weaker than himself. But when he takes on Thomas, a homeless man who likes to sit on a bench in the middle of the local park – pushing his trolley full of belongings down the hill and into the lake – he soon finds out he has bitten off more than he can chew.

Someone else has decided that rough sleepers are easy targets too. A thief is stealing iconic statues from London landmarks, leaving behind marks from the hobos’ secret code to suggest the homeless are to blame.

Could the two enemies possibly turn allies to track down the real thief?

It’s relatively unusual to have a story told from the point of view of a bully – but this is of course a redemption story. Hector is no cardboard cut-out villain – nor does Raúf take the easy road of having him come from a dysfunctional or abusive family. She knows well enough that bullies – like the homeless – can come from all walks of life.

Many years ago, I volunteered at a night shelter; so I know first-hand how complex the stories can be of how someone ends up on the street, and how far from their stereotypes rough sleepers can be. Raúf’s inspiration springs from more-or-less wordless encounters she had as a child with a homeless man she would see on the streets every summer. Her resulting cast of characters – especially Thomas and Catwoman – are full of warmth and humanity.

In her author’s note, Raúf notes how ironic it was to be writing this book in the middle of a global pandemic, when suddenly, for a short time, resources were found to find shelter for all rough sleepers. Even more ironic, then, that in the month it was published, the government announced that it would start deporting foreign nationals who were found to be homeless. Books like this, that allow us to see the anonymous huddles figures figures we too often just try and avoid, are more important than ever.

Raúf has always been a campaigner as well as an author. Here first book, The Boy At the Back of the Class, was a celebration of refugees, and she backed it up with the establishment of O’s Refugee Aid Team, which raises awareness and funds for refugees and delivers emergency aid. This time, she is similarly throwing her weight behind charities supporting homeless people by doating a portion of her royalties to homeless charities.

Whether at home or in school, this book provides the platform for discussing some important and sensitive issues, and the notes at the back of the book contain child-friendly information about homelessness in the UK and tell the stories of some of the charities helping them. 

But The Night Bus Hero is also a page-turning adventure story that children will love. Onjali Raúf is rapidly becoming the Jacqueline Wilson for a new generation.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Worry Angels by Sita Brahmachari; The Boy At The Back of the Class by Onjali Q Raúf, The Bed and Breakfast Star by Jacqueline Wilson

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories told from a bully’s point of view

Perfect Accompaniment: Homemade chips (skin on) and a donation to a homeless charity

Genre: Children (Middle Reader) , Adventure

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Tamarind and the Star of Ishta by Jasbinder Bilan


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

Like Bilan’s debut novel, Asha and the Spirit Bird, Tamarind and the Star of Ishta is set in the north of India. Unlike Asha, though, Tamarind, the heroine of the book, is an outsider here. Thought she was born in her grandmother’s beautiful summer house in the cool hills below the Himalaya mountains, her father took her away when she was still a baby to live in Bristol, and they have never been back. Now, at eleven years old, she is meeting her mother’s family for the first time. And two questions burn:

What happened to her mother? And why will no one talk about her?

Like Asha and the Spirit Bird, this is a book a communion between generations and beyond the barriers of life and death. It celebrates magic and innocence and friendship.

Bilan captures the strangeness and joy for immigrant children experiencing their parents’ home country for the first time. New foods. Different customs. Relatives who act like they’ve always known you when you’ve only just met. And that one cousin who seems to resent your very presence…

Then there is the mystery of her mother. At first, Tam seems no closer to finding out anything about her. Everyone here seems to think it’s too sad to talk about too. But what about Ishta, the girl she meets in the garden at night, when she really isn’t supposed to be out there at all?

This is a tender book, laced through with a very particular kind of magic, and one that, at the right moment, might help a child coming to terms with the loss of a parent, especially one they have never really known. For others, it is another lyrical evocation of the high hills in the north of India.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan, The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories involving the loss of a parent.

Perfect Accompaniment: Potato and pea samosa with a touch of cardamom

Genre:
Children and YA (Middle Reader)

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 8 October 2020

A Secret of Birds and Bone by Kiran Millwood Hargrave


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

“Bone is impossible. It is the only material that could make such a thing. There are locks that need the strength of metal, the lightness of wood, the warmth of life and the cool of death. Only bone has all these qualities. So only a bone builder can make a skeleton key.”

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s spooky new adventure story is set in Siena, in an alternative past where bone builders can create whole rooms out of bone. Her heroine, Sofia, wakes up in a room with:

“... thin shafts of light flitting in from the slits in the ribcage shutters … a moon-white skull still warm from the night before was cupped over her feet … Over her head draped a canopy of gold-dipped toe bones in great, gilded wreaths.”

You might think from this that Sofia is like someone from The Addams Family or Hotel Transylvania. But apart from the fact that her mother is an ossuarist – a bone builder – she is in fact a very ordinary girl. That is, until the day she decided to break the rules and go into Siena with her little brother to see the Palio – the wild and dangerous horse race for which the city is famous. And there she stumbles on a dark, dark secret. Something which puts her mother in grave danger, and only Sofia can save her.

Perhaps fittingly for a book that has come out in autumn 2020, this is also a world that has been ravaged by a plague: in this case, smallpox. The city’s ruler has closeted herself in her Palazzo, mourning the death of her husband, and the disease has left many, many orphans.

I was a massive fan of Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase series when I was a child, this has book has much the same feel to it. A world that is almost ours but not quite. Cruelty exposed by brave children. The tiniest hint of magic.

A Secret of Birds and Bone is a fast-paced adventure set in a beautifully realised world that will be lapped up by young readers who enjoy a hint of spookiness in their stories. The perfect book to read on  Hallowe’en night, in lieu of potentially-cancelled Trick or Treating.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (etc) by Joan Aiken, The Girl of Ink and Stars (etc) by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Avoid If You Dislike: Skeletons. Birds (especially crows and magpies)

Perfect Accompaniment:
Fresh, clear, cold water

Genre: Children and YA (Middle Reader)


Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 1 October 2020

Love in Colour by Bolu Babalola

 

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

What a joy this book was to read!

Bolu Babalola has taken raw material from folk tales and mythology around the world and spun from it a paeon to romantic love, in all its manifestations.

The mundane mystique of romantic love that is ubiquitous at a glance, but, when you look closer, you notice the tessellations of understanding, patience, friendship and attractions. She sees both the miracle of the spark lighting and also the working, because it takes work, and for the work to work, you have to respect each other, like each other.

In this collection of tales, figures familiar to those with a classic western education (Psyche, Scheherzade, Nefertiti, Thisbe) recount their stories alongside a pantheon of characters from Nigeria, Ghana, Lesotho, China, Korea.

Some have been transported into the modern world – others remain in a version of their original setting. Thus Osun, a Nigerian river deity, becomes a sports star at an elite school. Psyche works in the cut-throat world of the fashion magazine. Nefertiti operates in the criminal underworld of a contemporary-feeling dystopia

As Babalola says in her Author’s Note, many of the original tales were “rife with misogyny and violence and were created within heavily patriarchal contexts.” She has transformed them, placing the women at the centre of their stories; giving them agency, power, discernment.

Here are childhood sweethearts and first date flirtations. Partnerships built up over many years and alliances forged in a red-hot minute. Some of the stories and sexy and others tender, some crackle with wit and some are heartbreaking.

Bablola’s dialogue is wonderful. I would love to see these done as a series of television shorts (directed by Michaela Coel perhaps?). They would surely fizz out of the screen as they fizz off the page.

The last few stories are not grounded in mythology but are Babalola originals, and the last of all, reading between the lines, is a tribute to the author’s parents. If so, no wonder they raised a daughter with such sensitivity to this most transformative of emotions.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Love Across a Broken Map by The Whole Kahani, The Nearness of You by Sareeta Domingo

Avoid This If You Dislike: Happy endings; Celebrating love without a shred of cynicism

Perfect Accompaniment: A glass of rosé

Genre:
Romance, Mythology, Short Stories, Contemporary

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 24 September 2020

Meat Market by Juno Dawson


Reviewer:
David C Dawson

What we thought:

I was excited to read another Juno Dawson novel, especially one that scooped the YA Book Prize in 2020. Dawson has become the most prolifically original YA writer in the UK since her debut novel Hollow Pike in 2012. Could Meat Market deliver the punch of Clean or the wit of Wonderland?

Yes, on both counts. Meat Market is a moving, funny and ultimately uplifting attack on the excesses of the fashion industry.

Jana Novak is a gawky sixteen-year-old about to start her A-levels. She’s the tall, skinny, awkward girl who, when her class performed “An English Country Garden” in front of the whole school, was told to be play a weed.

While on a school trip to Thorpe Park she’s talent spotted by a model agency. With the support of her mum, Jana signs up enthusiastically for what she expects to be a life of glamour and riches.

Jana’s new life starts off glamorous, and she earns more on one assignment than her father earns in a year. But her life quickly tarnishes, and she’s subjected to long working hours, lonely nights staying in hotels and alienation from her schoolfriends.

Meat Market is a sharply incisive story that warns of the exploitation of young, vulnerable people in the fashion industry. As ever, Dawson is not shy of tackling difficult subject matter head on, from the way that sudden wealth distorts a young person’s life, to the difficulties women face in challenging decades of acceptance of sexual abuse by predatory men in positions of power.

As with all Dawson’s books that I’ve read, Meat Market’s opening is witty and funny. Dawson establishes the central characters’ motivations and values and it’s easy to empathise with them and their relationships.

Then Dawson piles on the jeopardy.

Meat Market becomes very dark when Jana is first seduced into drug taking and cheating on her boyfriend. Her lowest point comes when she’s sexually assaulted by a highly respected man in the fashion industry. The rest of the industry rushes to protect him. As Jana stands alone against her assailant she becomes the heroine of a #MeToo inspired plotline.

Highly recommended.

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

Avoid if you don’t like: Some explicit sex, drug references, sexual assault description, eating disorder themes

Ideal accompaniments: Jam tarts

Genre: Young Adult, LGBTQ

Thursday, 17 September 2020

The White Girl by Tony Birch


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

“Welfare? Oh, you’ve looked after the welfare of our young girls for a long time now. Most of them are dead, disappeared, or were sent mad by what you did to them in institutions. That’s not welfare, Sergeant. I think your own law would call that murder.”

For the last few years, I have made a point of searching out and reading books by Canadian indigenous authors. But to the best of my recollection, the only book by an Australian indigenous author I had read before this was the memoir, Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara.

The White Girl is a novel, set in the 1960s, thirty years after the events in Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence. But it was still a time when State police and ‘Welfare Boards’ had extraordinary powers of Australian Aboriginal people, who were not considered citizens and did not have voting rights.

Odette Brown is an Aboriginal woman living in Deane, a fictional mining town in a remote part of Australia, with her granddaughter Sissy. Thanks to her unknown white father, Sissy is blonde and fair-skinned, which makes her of particular interest to the Welfare Board. The local police control where they can travel and can, on the smallest excuse, take Sissy into their custody.

The only escape from this control is a so-called ‘exemption certificate,’ which can be issued by the Welfare Board if character references a provided by two white people of good standing. But it comes at a heavy price – the bearer must promise not to associate with other Aboriginal people, essentially forcing them to renounce their own families.

When the thirteen-year-old Sissy starts to receive unwanted attentions from the local White Trash, Odette is forced take desperate measures to protect her.

The White Girl is a story of love, resilience and family. The relationship between Odette and Sissy, though tinged with sadness, is brimming with warmth and humour. As readers, we are sucked along on the dangerous tightrope Odette must walk in order to live with dignity in a country where she is denied basic human rights.

By the 1960s, Australia might have moved beyond the brutal cruelty that leads Odette to say “Deane carried the blood or so many Aboriginal people on his hands it could never be scrubbed away, not from the man himself or the town that carried his name.” Yet the white settler community could still convince itself that the Aboriginal people were like children, incapable of looking after themselves or making decisions about their own welfare. As with indigenous communities around the world, things have moved on, but there is still a long way to go.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara, The Break by Katherena Vermette

Avoid If You Dislike: Being reminded of the shameful attitude of settle communities towards indigenous peoples

Perfect Accompaniment: A long soak in the bath

Genre: Indigenous Literature, Recent Historical Fiction, Australian Fiction

Buy This Book Here