Thursday, 26 November 2020

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

Winner of the 2020 Giller Prize, Canada’s prestigious nations book award, How to Pronounce Knife is a collection of short stories that capture the immigrant experience.

Rooted in the Lao refugee community in Canada, the stories it tells are nonetheless universal. They reveal the day to day racism, sexism and classism immigrants face and their uphill battle against the workings of power and privilege.

In the titular story, a young girl rejects the transparent illogic of the first letter in a word being silent and chooses instead to defend her father’s phonetic pronunciation of knife.

In 'Chick-a-Chee' a family finds a way to create their own holiday tradition from a baffling ritual of the new country.

In 'Picking Worms', a farm labourer finds a young white boy she helped into a job promoted over her head to become the boss.

We find grinding poverty and the impossibility of getting the ingredients to make the food of home. We meet the factory workers who save up for risky plastic surgery to make their noses will look more like those of the white girls who get to work in offices, the ex-boxer turned manicurist who learns that a relationship with a client can never extend beyond the door of the shop, and the mother who watches from afar because her daughter is too embarrassed to acknowledge her.

Like many refugees around the world, many of the families here have given up good jobs and traded status for safety in a new country.

“Back in Laos, the men who worked in this field have been doctors, teachers, framers with their own land, like my mom. None had set out for a life spent crouching down the soft earth, groping for faceless things in the night.”

These are stories steeped in sadness, but they are also wryly funny and highlight the incredible resilience of immigrant communities everywhere.

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

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of grinding poverty

Perfect Accompaniment:
Sticky rice and papaya salad with dried shrimps

Genre: Short Stories

Buy This Book Here

Friday, 20 November 2020

Stone Cold Trouble by Amer Anwar

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It: 

Some time has passed since the events of Amer Anwar’s debut novel, Brothers in Blood, and the villains that Zaq and Jags managed to get set down are banged up in jail. But the two friends are about to walk straight back into trouble.

In the middle of the night, Zaq gets a call to say his brother has been beaten unconscious by a gang of thugs who may or may not have been acting on the orders of the now-jailed kingpin. And though Zaq knows his not-quite-yet girlfriend Nina is right to tell him to leave it to the police to deal with the assailants, he cannot let it lie.

And then if that wasn’t trouble enough, Jags’ uncle asks the boys to help him retrieve a family heirloom he recklessly used as a marker in a high-stakes card game.

Once again, we are taken on a journey through the murkier side of West London, moving between the hand-to-mouth existence of the gig economy, and the wealth that resides a short drive away amongst the greenery of the home counties. A world where the police are rarely trusted and where jealousy, honour and revenge are matters to be taken into your own hands.

There are lines that Zaq and Jags would never cross – but can the same be said of everyone else?

When I reviewed Brothers in Blood, I said that I thought he had reinvented the amateur detective genre from Crime Fiction’s so-called Golden Age. On the face of it, Stone Cold Trouble is a thousand miles from the novels of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers – but think of the way that Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey moves seamlessly through upper-crust society, or Miss Jane Marple through village life in middle England, in a way that the police can never emulate. And that is what Zaq and Jags can do through the close-knit Asian communities of West London.

There is plenty of violence here, but it is the violence of hand-to-hand fighting. – and in the sequences where Zaq sits in vigil by his brother’s bedside, Anwar doesn’t shirk from showing the consequences of violence. He never glorifies it.

The relationship between Zaq and Jags still bubbles with humour and the story grips from beginning to end.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A.A. Dhand, Dreda Say Mitchell

Avoid If You Dislike: Blow by blow descriptions of fights

Perfect Accompaniment: Desi scrambled eggs and chai

Genre: Crime Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Friday, 13 November 2020

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

David C Dawson

What we thought of it:

A friend bought me this book recently. My friend is a dog lover. I have two cats. The book is about a woman writer living in New York who is forced to take in an ageing Great Dane when its owner, her lifelong friend, kills himself.

My mother had recently died when my friend gave me the book.

It was the perfect choice of reading material. It’s only 200 pages long and I read it in one sitting as I remained confined to the house during lockdown, indulging my grief.

Nunez has captured the deep and dark emotions of grief in a way that no other writer has ever done for me. At one point she writes:

“Walking in Midtown, rush hour’s peak, people streaming in both directions, I find myself seething, ready to kill. Who are all these fucking people, and how is it fair, how is it even possible that all of them, these perfectly ordinary people should be alive?”

It was as though she had read my innermost thoughts about my mother’s death as I grumpily walked around the supermarket and put those thoughts on the page for me.

That’s not to say this is a sombre book. I have never owned a dog, but I can only conclude that Nunez has done. Her description of the central character’s developing relationship with a lumbering giant of an animal called Apollo, with its bad breath, flatulence and clumsiness through arthritis created a vivid image in my mind’s eye that stayed with me long after I’d closed the book. There is humour, pathos, anger, frustration, and so much love, inside this slim volume.

Nunez reflects on the nature of human relationships with a poignancy and accuracy I have rarely encountered in literature. It’s no wonder that The Friend won the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction in the US, and was shortlisted for the Dublin International Literary Award.

Highly recommended.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: My Dog Tulip by J R Ackerley

Avoid if you don’t like: suicide references

Ideal accompaniments: A four-legged friend

Genre: Divorce fiction, animal fiction

Thursday, 5 November 2020

Aria by Nazanine Hozar

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

“My girl, there’s a lot you still need to learn about this country, about its people. It is seven thousand years old, maybe more. When something is that old, it begins to crack. It beings to rot. The oldest tree is the first to burn, right?”

This is the second book I have read this year by an Iranian author in exile and spanning the period of the Iran’s Islamic revolution. But Nazanine Hozar’s Aria is a very different kind of novel to Shookefeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. Azar’s book, which opens in the middle of the revolution and brings us close the present day, is woven with Persian folklore. Hozar’s novel, on the other hand, begins in the 1950s and draws together the threads that brought about the revolution and created its fanatics.

Aria is a baby girl abandoned in an alleyway by her desperate mother and found by chance by a man in a childless and loveless marriage. He is determined to save the baby, but his wife is less than impressed with his philanthropy.

It is the twists and turns of Aria’s life that we follow for the rest of the novel, as she leaves the desperately poor South City to live with a family who were once silversmiths to the Shahs. Around her are a panoply of characters – there are Aria’s three ‘mothers’, Mehri, Zahra and Fereshteh. Her father and his friend Rameen. Kamran, the boy with the harelip, who befriends her when she needs it most. Her schoolfriends, Mitra and Hamlet.

Through them, we glimpse the different religious groups that make up Iran’s diverse society – the Zoroastrians, the Christians, the Jews, all living in an uneasy relationship with the Muslim majority. And we witness the swelling of different forces opposed to the Shah – forces who briefly imagine they are forming a coalition, only to discover that fanaticism has no allies, and that they are swapping one form of oppression and cruelty for another.

One of the things that Hozar does brilliantly is to capture ambiguity. None of her characters are wholly good or wholly bad. They all tread a path of difficult decisions, for which individually there are no perfect choices, but which collectively can lead them in some very dark directions. Aria’s father sums this up well:

“Years ago, Rameen had read to him about the Mona Lisa, saying the reason everyone cherished the painting so much was because of the duplicitous nature it depicted, containing within the curve of a half smile, love and hatred, good and bad. Now he was beginning to see all of life like this, too.”

A deeply moving novel, and one that explains much that I remembered but never fully understood about the events that unfolded in Iran  between 1979 and 1981.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shookefeh Azar, The Secret Letters from X to A by Nasrin Parvaz.

Avoid If You Dislike: Depictions of childhood poverty and deprivation

Perfect Accompaniment:
Abgoosht (Persian stew of lamb and childpeas)

Literary Fiction, Modern Historical Fiction,

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 29 October 2020

Boy, Everywhere by A. M. Dassu

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

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

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

Children and YA (Middle Reader)

Buy This Book Here