Thursday, 19 September 2019

The Beautiful Side of the Moon by Leye Adenle

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

For those of you familiar with Adenle’s Amaka series of crime novels set in Lagos, this is a very different book. This is a fantasy – written in part so Adenle’s nieces and nephews might read something he wrote. And it's a fantasy grounded in Nigerian Edo tradition.

Osaretin is an IT guy, working in a typically boring job in downtown Lagos. He is vaguely aware that is father was a magician – the sort who can make money appear in a handkerchief and eggs disappear in the palm of his hand. But then one day he receives a letter written on light purple paper, smelling of lavender, purporting to be from a Most Magnificent Magician of the second to highest level and announcing that he will shortly pay Osaretin a visit to instruct him in the magic his father was famous for.

Of course, to begin with he assumes it is a prank. But then he receives two visits – the first from a beautiful woman called Adesua, the second from a man in a purple fedora who calls himself Brother Moses.

From there begins a journey that will involve a sphere that can turn back time, flying magicians, body swaps, a magnetic, healing garden – and a battle between good and evil. Is Osaretin really his father’s heir – the champion they have all been waiting for? Or have they picked the wrong man?

The Beautiful Side of the Moon is a less tightly plotted that Adenle’s crime novels. It unfolds in a dreamlike way, reminiscent of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Reading it, you experience something of the same sense of dislocation as Osaretin himself. It’s best to just hang on to Osaretin’s coattails and enjoy the ride.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Avoid If You Dislike: Books with a winding, dreamlike plotline.

Perfect Accompaniment: Fireworks and a glass of wine

Genre: Fantasy

Buy a copy here

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Hope by Terry Tyler

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: Hope is a frightening exploration of a not-too-distant, dystopian future, the fourth decade of the 21st century. Frightening, and very disturbing, because this near future is entirely plausible in a world where social media has become even more intrusive than it is today, and where people share their lives online.

UK Prime Minister, Guy Morrissey, his health and fitness fanatic wife, Mona, and their perfect children, have become role models for the entire nation: Brand Morrissey. Any individual who doesn’t conform to Mona’s fitness regime (#FitForWork) finds themselves unemployed.

The power behind Brand Morrissey is the Nutricorp company, founded by Mona’s father, Paul Bettencourt. While it appears, on the surface, that Nutricorp has the nation’s best interests at heart, Nutricorp’s underlying motives are purely financial, through control of the population.

Young woman, Lita Stone earns her living from the profitable adverts people place on her well-known blog, where she posts honest reviews and comments on social issues. She shares accommodation with a sensitive young girl, Kendall, and with Nick, a journalist and anonymous icon behind the satirical and scathing online persona, Widow Skanky.

When the lives of Lita, Nick and Kendall take a downward turn, the trio find themselves homeless. And since there is no place for homelessness in this Brand Morrissey nation, they are sent, along with many others, to a Hope village, all of which are funded by Nutricorp.

The title of the book primarily indicates the Hope villages, which, with their policies of total control over the residents, hold anything but hope. But as we follow the struggles of Lita, Nick and Kendall, the true meaning of “hope” does emerge, as the ending leaves us with hope for the battle against such evil.

Terry Tyler is a skilled and talented writer, her descriptions vividly depicting the people living in this disturbing dystopia she so well imagines: those existing on both sides of the coin. She portrays a wide array of personalities: the ones who thrive in such situations, those who suffer, and those who decide to fight back.

I found Hope a thought-provoking and compelling read. I highly recommend it, not only for readers who enjoy dystopian fiction, but for those seeking a believable, multi-layered and suspenseful psychological thriller.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: Plausible dystopian tales and psychologial thrillers.

Avoid if you don’t like: Believable predictions about our world in the near future.

Ideal accompaniments: any kind of available food, for if you end up in a Hope village, there might not be any!

Genre: Dystopian/Psychological Thriller

Buy a copy here

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is a joyous patchwork quilt of a novel, celebrating seven generations, and over a hundred years, of Black British womanhood.

It begins with Amma, radical lesbian feminist playwright who now, in her fifties, finally has a play on at the National Theatre. From her, the narrative fans out, through family and friends, chance encounters and hidden connections.

There’s Yazz, Amma’s daughter, to whom her radicalism is out-dated and rather quaint. Dominique, her friend, survivor of an abusive relationship with another woman. Carol the successful banker, Bummi her highly educated Nigerian mother who worked as a cleaner to give her daughter the chances she never had. Shirley the uptight teacher. Morgan who self-identifies as gender-free. Hattie who has spent her life running a farm in a remote part of the north of England. Grace, her grandmother, daughter of an Ethiopan sailor she never met...

Evaristo plays with sentence structure – eschewing a lot of punctuation and capitalisation, and instead putting separate sentences and clauses and phrases on separate lines, so the whole thing is presented rather like an extended prose poem. You might think this would make it difficult to read, but in fact the brain adapts and the text flows perfectly .

Just as our eye is drawn across the pattern of a quilt, we are drawn from story to story by juxtaposition, while the bigger picture is formed by harmonies and contrasts of tone and shape. It’s a fascinating book – one that led more than once to my reading far too late into the night, as I finished one story only to be sucked into the next.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker 2019. And I will be sorely disappointed if this book does not make it to the shortlists of both the Women’s Prize and the Jhalak Prize in 2020.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Break by Katherena Vermette, Subjunctive Moods by C G Menon, Smash All The Windows, Jane Davis

Avoid If You Dislike: Defying the rules of punctuation

Perfect Accompaniment: Impossible - each story deserves its own!

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy a copy here.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Celestial Bodies is the Winner of the 2019 Man Booker International – first book in Arabic to do so, and the first book by an Omani woman to be translated into English.

The novel, whose original title translates into English as ‘The Ladies of the Moon', chronicles three generations of an extended Omani family – taking them from not long after the Second World War, when slavery, though illegal, was still commonplace, to the early part of the 21st Century and an uneasy relationship with a world that has changed almost too fast for comprehension.

It is not however told chronologically. The narrative passes back and forth between different characters and different time periods. There is Salima, domestic matriarch with =in a highly patriarchal society. Her husband Azzan and their three daughters: Mayya, the pragmatist, Asma, the scholar and Khawla the romantic. Abdallah, Mayya’s husband, haunted by memories of his brutal father. Their daughter, London, training to be a doctor. Zarifa, born a slave, who has played both substitute mother and substitute wife to the family who ‘owned’ her. Her daughter-in-law Shanna who locks her own mother away in cell, claiming she’s mad...

It’s a fascinating tapestry - a glimpse into a world that, to Western eyes, might belong a century or more in the past, were it not for the periodic intrusions of modern technology. A world that has been informed as much by the belief in the supernatural as much as it is by the rigid structures of the patriarchy.

The translation is beautifully handled. It includes translations of Arabic and Persian poetry, such as the 12th Century love poem, Layla and Manjun, with which Azzad seeks to beguile his Bedouin mistress, Qamar.

If you have never read anything translated from Arabic before, this is the perfect starting point.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela, If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here by Sarayu Srivatsa

Avoid If You Dislike: Fragmented narratives

Perfect Accompaniment: Coffee with cardamom

Genre: Literary Fiction, Fiction in Translation

Buy a copy here.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones was a worthy winner of the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

The novel is the story of a miscarriage of justice. Not the sort that makes headlines, but the banal sort that leads to a man walking out the back door of a prison with his belongings in a bag after serving time for a crime he didn’t commit. It was written in protest against wrongful imprisonment and mass incarceration, endemic among Black men in the US. (One quarter of the world’s prisoners are held in US jails, and Black men are incarcerated at 6 times the rate of white men.)

Ray and Celestial have been married barely a year when they find themselves staying in a motel near his parents’ home in Alabama. They have a foolish quarrel, he goes out to get ice from the dispenser – and a chance encounter with an elderly white woman leads to him being wrongfully accused of rape.

This is Alabama, and even though Celestial can testify to his spending the night beside her in bed, Ray is convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison.

The middle section of the novel is told through the letters Ray and Celestial exchange while he is in prison. Neither she nor anyone in their families doubts his innocence, but the strain placed upon their young marriage is almost unbearably painful to read, as they drift further and further apart in their experience of life. Jones barely hints at the brutal realities of life behind bars – Ray is trying to shield Celestial from all that – but the little we glimpse is horrific enough.

The final section of the novel charts what happens when, after five years, Ray’s conviction is overturned and he is released from prison. As to the final outcome, you will have to read it for yourself. But Jones turns a magnifying glass on what imprisonment does to men and to their families.

As Jones said in her acceptance speech for the 2019 Women’s Prize: “Keep in your hearts and have empathy for the millions of people who are incarcerated around the world ... Hold your governments accountable for those who are held in bondage in our names.”

(Lest those of us in the UK should get too smug – a reminder that we have the highest rate of incarceration of any country in Europe – and one of the highest rates of recidivism.)

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Secret Letters from A to X by Nasrin Parvaz, Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Avoid If You Dislike: Looking at the human cost of at a justice system in crisis

Perfect Accompaniment: A perfectly ripe pear

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy a copy here.

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

The Healing Next Time by Roy McFarlane

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Longlisted for the 2019 Jhalak Prize, The Healing Next Time, by the former Poet Laureate of Birmingham, Roy McFarlane, comprises three sequences of poems that rage against the violence inflicted on Black people by the state. Reminiscent of poems like Di Great Insohrekshan and Inglan is a Bitch by Linton Kwesi Johnson, which were written in the wake of the New Cross Fire and the Brixton Uprisings of 1981, The Healing Next Time moves the story on another 30 or 40 years and, sadly, shows how little has changed.

The first sequence, ‘New Millennium Journal’ records moments – public and private – in the life of a man referred to as ‘the activist’ or ‘the family man’ between 1999 and 2007 – weaving together his relationship with his wife, his lover, his mother and his children with events such as the Brixton bombings and the Bradford riots

The second sequence, ‘...they killed them,’ is written in honour of some of those who have died in police custody – some well known, like Joy Gardner, Cherry Groce, Mark Duggan, Rashan Charles, but many others whose names and stories have been forgotten or were never heard.

In the final sequence, ‘Gospel According to Rasta,’ Rasta becomes a personification of everything that drives McFarlane to write.

One poem in particular in the third sequence jumped out at me. I first saw Chris Ofili’s painting No Woman No Cry when Freedom From Torture’s Write to Life Group were creating poems based on art works in the Tate Gallery. Here it inspires McFarlane just as then it inspired Ugandan torture survivor Jade Amoli Jackson.

Powerful poetry with a voice and rhythm that leaps off the page.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Love: Linton Kwesi Johnson, John Agard

Avoid If You Dislike: Powerful political poetry

Perfect Accompaniment: Roast breadfruit, ackee and saltfish.

Genre: Poetry

Available on Amazon

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