Thursday, 13 April 2017

Choke Chain by Jason Donald

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

Against a background of apartheid South Africa, Alex's family are poor and helpless. But white. That means their father Bruce gets to be a brute through no other qualification than his skin colour and sense of entitlement.

For a teenage boy attempting to comprehend power and social structure, his father is a role model, if Alex wants the role of liar, cheat and bully. He can play the strongman and protect his brother, fighting in the playground to prove how force can win. Or he can try to understand via a wider lens and break the mould.

Two young white brothers grow up in 1980s' Pretoria, trying to make sense of their place in the world. Who are they? In relation to Dad, to their mother, their peers, their countrymen, each other? Alex is on the cusp of adulthood and has to make a choice of what kind a man he's going to be.

A layered novel with battened down emotions, frustrations and a strange disconnect from the political climate, which rumbles in the background like a low growl. This book encapsulates young adult experience, such as inarticulacy and frustration with his environment, but adds another level of tension via the background of imbalance as the status quo.

Donald writes with exceptional delicacy, using metaphor and understatement with precision and drawing the reader into an unfamiliar world we cannot help but understand.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, Disgrace by JM Coetzee and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.

Avoid if you don’t like:  Dysfunctional families, harsh lives, a teenage perspective.  

Ideal accompaniments: Potjiekos, Rock Shandy and Should I Stay or Should I Go by The Clash

Genre: Literary fiction, coming-of-age

Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Harmless Like You begins and ends with a meeting between mother and son, thirty years after the mother walked out on her family without an explanation.

In the pages between, two timelines unfold towards each other – the mother’s unveiling her damaged life in New York; the son’s, thirty years on, revealing him coping (badly) with both the death of his father and the birth of his daughter.

Yuki is an artist. Each of her chapters begins with the name of an artist’s colour, how it got that name, how it is made and how it is used. Yet for most of her life, Yuki’s artistic vision is stifled, and her sense of self distorted by her relationships with three men – her Japanese father who would never accept ‘artist’ as a valid future for his daughter; her older lover, who veers between off-hand encouragement and a toxic mix of abuse and contempt; and her doggedly loyal friend, whose kindness and support can seem like being smothered in cotton candy.

The book’s title, shared with Yuki’s first photographic exhibition, comes from a remark made by her lover, Lou, talking about his opposition to the Vietnam War.

“I think the cowards are the ones over there, killing harmless little girls like you.”

There is a casual racism in the way her equates her to the Vietnamese girls. Even more, a paternalism in the way he underestimates Yuki. She is not a little girl and she is not harmless!

Yuki’s life apparently contrasts with that of her one-time best friend, Odile. Odile’s outwardly more successful existence as a model is played out in front of the camera rather than behind it. But that life, too, began with an act of male abuse, an act that fractured their friendship.

The other half of the novel is, in essence, the story of two kind men. Men who would never be abusive in the way that Lou was. But is that kindness in itself a form of paternalism? Does it do its own unintentional damage? Or it is the fact that Yuki is already damaged that skews her responses? And what damage did Yuki herself do when she abandoned her son?

Harmless Like You is a study in close focus of the harm we do, casually or deliberately, and how that harm spreads outwards and passes from generation to generation.

It was longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Avoid If You Dislike: Unmotherly mothers

Perfect Accompaniment: New York bagel with lox

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to be a Rebel by Jessica Bell

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and new release, The Silent Kookaburra.

What we thought:
Jessica Bell’s unflinching and unbridled memoir is set in 1980s Melbourne, where she grew up with rocker parents who encouraged her to play her own guitar and write her own songs. This might sound exotic and exciting, but proved to be just the opposite. Her mother’s medical problems led her to abuse pills, alcohol and, during withdrawals, to suffer terrible anxiety and psychotic attacks. Fearful of these reactions, her step-father retreated into silence. Having no one to confide in, and to rely on, Jessica turned inwards, to her own reflection.

But her mirror proved not to be a friend, but her enemy, and she stumbled into alcoholism, depression and self-destruction. She became a rebel. Until, one day, the alcohol literally almost killed Jessica and she was forced to ask herself honestly, why she kept running from reality. And from herself.

This memoir is a raw and brutally honest account of Jessica’s damaged years, and the inspirational self-determination she was able to muster to break free from this destructive wave. It portrays how her highly creative powers, both in music and writing, helped her rebuild the love, shattered by illness and medication, between a daughter and her mother.

This is a moving, frightening, intense and beautifully-narrated page-turner, where the reader can’t help but sympathise with Jessica, and hope she finds her way out of the black hole. Highly recommended.

You’ll like this if you enjoy:
honest childhood memoirs, or for anyone who’s dealt with disturbed adolescents.

Avoid if you don’t like: highly emotional stories about deeply troubled children and teenagers.

Ideal accompaniments: non-alcoholic beverage and a playlist of Jessica’s songs.

Genre: Memoir

Available on Amazon

Disposable People by Ezekel Alan

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

How do you begin to describe a book like Disposable People?

I bought Disposable People several years ago, when it was the Caribbean regional winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize, and somehow never got around to reading it. At that point, it was a self-published book, though it has since been brought out by Peepal Tree, who also published Jacob Ross’s The Bone Readers, winner of this year’s Jhalak Prize.

Disposable People is fiction, but it is constructed as if it were a memoir, and as Alan himself reveals on his Goodreads Author Page:

“This was a very difficult story for me to write, and for a lot of reasons. Many of the stories in the novel are based on things that happened in the village where I grew up, and were hard to revisit and come to terms with.”

The narrator is Kenny Lovelace, who grew up in rural Jamaica in the 1970s and 80s, in a village he calls only ‘That hateful f –– place.” On one level, Kenny is one of the lucky ones. An escapee, now a successful international business consultant. But ‘that hateful f –– place” does not let go so easily.

Even as a memoir, the book’s construction is not straightforward. Some chapters read like shot stories, some more like ruminations. The narrative is pierced with journal entries, poems, sketches... At times the narrator stares out of the page to address his notional reader, the love of his life, whom he refers to as ‘Semicolon.’

The whole is pieced together like a patchwork quilt, moving apparently randomly back and forth in time, sometimes picking up threads from earlier instalments. The register of the voice slides between standard English and Jamaican patois. Often the (brutal) conclusion of a scene is left to the reader to infer.

Like other recent Caribbean authors, such as Marlon James and Jacob Ross, Alan ruthlessly exposes the dark underbelly of what wealthy tourists imagine to be paradise. The poverty in which his narrator grows up is ugly, grinding, demeaning. Alan does not flinch from showing the result – be it disease, parasites, sexual violence or murder.

Not an easy read but a powerful one. Darkly funny, shocking, and moving, right up to the gut-wrenching conclusion.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Marlon James, Kei Miller, Jacob Ross

Avoid If You Dislike: Visceral description of the brutalising consequences of ingrained poverty

Perfect Accompaniment: Jerk Chicken and Lemonade (home-made)

Genre: Literary Fiction, Caribbean Fiction

Available on Amazon

Friday, 31 March 2017

Displacement by Anne Stormont

Review by JJ Marsh

What We Thought:

A fresh take on the romance genre with a large dollop of intelligence.
Rachel has baggage. Her son died in combat, her marriage collapsed and since her parents' death, she feels very much alone. She works her croft on the Isle of Skye and manages. Just manages.
Jack is an ex-detective, retired early from the force and preparing to do up an old property on the island. He has baggage of his own. After he meets Rachel in unconventional circumstances, a friendship begins, which has the potential to become something more.

Until Rachel goes to Israel.
She decides to discover more about her Jewish heritage and visits her brother in Israel, where she meets Eitan. His charm and interest help thaw the permafrost around her emotions while the political situation arouses her anger.
When she returns to Skye, her nascent relationship with Jack must be rebuilt. However, the foundations have shifted.

A delightful, evocative and believable tale of rediscovery through the eyes of two complex characters. Two-dimensional chick-lit this is most certainly not. Stormont tackles politics, grief, loss, familial love, friendship in rural communities and mature relationships with clear-eyed observations. Her descriptions of Skye and Jerusalem come to full sensory life and a dry humour bubbles through the dialogue, making this an absorbing, enjoyable read you are sorry to leave. I hope this will not be the last of these tales. Like Alexander McCall Smith, I can see this becoming a well-loved series of an unusual community.

You enjoy this if you liked: Emotional Geology by Linda Gillard, The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank or Summer in Tintagel by Amanda James

Avoid if you dislike: Romance, political opinions, relaxed pace

Ideal accompaniments: A glass of Talisker, oatcakes with Lanark Blue and Teardrop by Massive Attack with Liz Fraser

Genre: Romance

Available on Amazon

Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

16 year old Marlon had promised his mother he will never, ever go down the same route as his elder brother.

But he’s on a first date with a girl he secretly knows is out of his league.

And he’s taken his first quarter tab of ecstasy.

When they get on the ghost train at the fair, joking about how lame it’s going to be, Sonya is gloriously, seductively alive.

When it comes to a halt, she’s dead, and Marlon has her stash of pills stuffed down his underpants.

Thus begins Marlon’s voyage down the rabbit hole, into the world that all-but killed his brother. His life is turning into a Tarantino film and everything he’s ever known is under threat

Like the Brooklyn of Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper, the London Lawrence portrays is terrifyingly real, rooted in recognisable streets and surrounded by small details that place it firmly in the present day.

Marlon is an utterly believable character. The banter between him and his best mate Tish is sharp and real and exudes warmth even when they’re fighting. The bond between Marlon, his mother and his wounded brother knocks on the head any notion that young men sucked into such impossible choices are all from broken, dysfunctional families.

It’s a book I read in big, hungry gulps, resenting every intrusion that made me put it down. Lawrence succeeds in creating a threat that is viscerally shocking without crossing a line that would take it beyond what’s appropriate for Young Adult fiction. It well deserves the accolades it has received – shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards, and longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, Londonstani by Gautam Malkani, Feral Youth by Polly Courtney

Avoid If You Dislike: Strong violence in a real world setting

Perfect Accompaniment: Lamb Curry (extra hot)

Genre: Young Adult

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: I’d been hearing about Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper for months, but I had to wait for it to be available in the UK before I could read it for myself. I wasn’t disappointed.

Sierra’s grandfather is a shadowshaper, someone who can channel spirits and give them form through his paintings. But his stubborn old-school machismo has stopped him from passing on the secret to Sierra. Instead he has inducted one of her schoolmates, a young graffiti artist called Robbie. But now all the murals they painted are fading, the whole world of the shadowshapers is under threat, and Sierra may be the only one who can save them.

From the streets of brownstone houses, to the walls covered in giant murals and old men playing dominos in an old junkyard, Shadowshaper is firmly rooted in the present-day streets of Bed-Stuy – the Bedford–Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn, New York. Its teenage characters come from a Puerto Rican and Haitian community slowly being squeezed out of Bed-Stuy by gentrification.

Sierra loves her family, but her life is a constant battle against biases that would constrain - her grandfather’s affectionate misogyny, her mother’s rejection of her spiritual inheritance, even her aunt’s bias against dark skin and her ‘wild, nappy hair’. But with the help of her friends, Sierra will prove far stronger than she ever imagined herself to be.

Older’s brilliantly original fantasy has roots that reach deep into the history of Puerto Rico and Haiti – to the Taino Indians indigenous to both places and the Black Africans who were brought there as slaves. That history is literally written on the body of Robbie, in the form of elaborate tattoos.

Older also takes a well-aimed swipe at those (largely white) anthropologists and others who appropriate, distort and exploit aspects of culture under the guise of study.

A many layered story that makes for a great read for adults and teens alike.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Technologies of the Self by Haris Durrani (adult), Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence (YA)

Avoid if You Dislike: Fantasy in a contemporary setting

Perfect Accompaniment: Arroz con Pollo, a set of paints and a blank wall

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

Available on Amazon

Why Did You Lie, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

Recommended by a fellow crime writer, this book was a real discovery. Described as Icelandic Noir, this atmospheric, taut thriller had me completely absorbed and I finished it in one weekend.

The narrative consists of three strands, apparently independent until certain threads draw them closer. Each carries its own brand of tension. Switching between the three is leaping from frying pan to fire to electric fence.

Nina’s husband is in a coma after his suicide attempt went wrong. She spends nights beside his bed and days at work in Reykjavik’s police station. Since her complaint of sexism against a fellow officer, she is relegated to the basement to sort through old files.

On a remote lighthouse crag, four strangers are dropped by helicopter to do their jobs. Three are engineers and the other is photographer Helgi. Bad weather hits and the claustrophobic conditions bring the storm inside.

Noi and his family return from their holiday in Florida to find the house swap has not been a success. The cat is starving, items are missing and all the outside lights are broken.

Gradually, through the minutiae of daily existence, strange occurrences increase the tension in the freezing climate and then the letters begin to arrive.

A terrifically plotted detective story with more than one shocking twist, believable characters and a setting second to none, I’ll be buying more of Sigurdardottir’s work. But only reading in the daytime.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Death of the Demon by Anne Holt, Snow Blind by PJ Tracy or the TV series The Killing.

Avoid if you don’t like: Suspense, details of death, crime procedure, cold

Ideal accompaniments: Salted fish dipped in Skyr, sparkling water with lime juice and Sigur Rós.

Genre: Crime

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Shining Sea, by Anne Korkeakivi

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

With an epic sweep following one family over half a century, through loss, adventure, success and love, this is a story of adaptation. From the latter half of the last millennium to the modern day, Korkeakivi’s characters mature, rebel and learn to accept themselves and each other against the backdrop of unprecedented social change.

The Gannon family are thrown into uncharted waters when patriarch Michael dies suddenly at the age of forty-three. Identities and personalities thus far fixed need to realign and shift to fill the gaps.

Told largely through the eyes of Michael’s widow, Barbara, and her son Francis, their individual experiences are varied and character-forming, and vividly real. Francis’s sailing adventure in the Hebrides will stay with me a long time.

Woodstock and freedom; Vietnam and death; AIDS and counterculture; this is an evocative yet concise American novel of self-discovery in which successive generations try to define themselves and their notions of home.

No character escapes the shadow of war and its repercussions. Nor does anyone manage to disentangle themselves entirely from the family web.

A wonderfully sensory journey through the last fifty years, this book feels like looking at old family video footage while privy to its secrets. Hugely readable and somehow ominous in the light of current events.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, Spilt Milk by Amanda Hodgkinson or The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Avoid if you don’t like: Changing narrators, a broad canvas, time jumps

Ideal accompaniments: Pancakes with maple syrup and bacon, a cold beer and The Joni Mitchell Tribute Album.

Genre: Literary fiction

Available on Amazon

Augustown by Kei Miller

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Augustown is a poor suburb of Kingston, Jamaica, set up by the slaves set free by royal decree on 1st August 1838. It is also closely associated with Alexander Bedward, the preacher who inspired Bedwardism, the roots from which Rastafarianism grew.

Kei Miller’s novel takes place largely in 1982, when most of those who remember Bedward are dead or dying and the events of his life have become tales told by grandmothers like Ma Taffy. Those events might seem incredible, but the narrator (whose identity we do not learn until the end of the book) defies the reader to classify this as ‘magic realism.’

"Look, this isn’t magic realism. This is not another story about primitive island people and their superstitious beliefs. No. You don’t get off that easy."

On the day that Ma Taffy sits up straight on her verandah and smells something high and ripe in the air, she knows an autoclapse is coming. ( Autoclapse: (Noun) Jamaican Dialect. An impending disaster; Calamity; Trouble on top of trouble.)

From that point, the novel moves back and forth across the timelines. As all the pieces slot into place, the picture revealed is an allegory Jamaica’s long struggle to free itself from the bonds of slavery.

The march of the bobo shanties becomes the march of Augustown – another inching, another ‘trodding’ towards someplace they have been trying to reach for over a hundred and fifty years.

Miller’s gorgeous prose immerses us in the world of Augustown, tantalising every sense.

It is parakeets that announce the evening. They fill the Augustown sky, flying from mango tree to mango tree and dropping their green feathers on the ground. They screech what sounds almost like a song: Evening time, work is over now is evening time!

A stunning novel that takes modern Jamaican history (and the history of Rastafarianism in particular) and spins from it a fable the might stand for any people suffering from ingrained economic disadvantage and religious intolerance. Longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Disposable People by Ezekel Alan, Technologies of the Self by Haris Durrani, Birdie by Tracey Lindberg

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories that sidle over the edge of realism

Perfect Accompaniment: Callaloo, ugli fruit and sweet, sweet oranges

Genre: Literary Fiction, Fiction from the Caribbean

Available on Amazon

Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Fate chose the victims; time shapes the narrative.”

This is not the story of the high profile killings that gave birth to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The day in question happened four months after the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida and nine months before Michael Brown was killed in Fergusson, Missouri.

This is a day (23rd November 2013) chosen at random – unremarkable in any way, including for the number of young people to die of gunshot wounds in a 24 hour period. “The truth is it’s happening every day, only most do not see it.”

Younge is a British journalist who spent ten years living, working and raising children in the USA. “I had skin in the game. Black skin in a game where the odds are stacked against it.”

On the day he chose to write about, seven of those killed were black, two Hispanic and one white. The oldest was nineteen; the youngest nine. The deaths happened in dense urban areas, pretty suburbs, and rural environments with a population density lower than Finland’s. They happened in relatively comfortable areas, areas that have undergone recent decline and areas that have been depressed for decades. By the time the book was finished, only five of the ten perpetrators had been identified. In one – in Newark, New Jersey – police failed to provide even an autopsy or incident report.

“You won’t find another Western country with a murder rate on par with Black America – for comparable rates, you have to look to Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria or Rwanda.”

Heartbreakingly, Younge points out that, “To raise children <in parts of certain cities> is to incorporate those odds <that they will be affected by gun violence> in their daily lives. Every black parent of a teenage child...had factored in the possibility that this might happen to their kid.” But as each of the individual stories shows, knowing that it might happen to your child does nothing to soften the blow when it actually does.

Each chapter is both a personal account of a young person whose life and death would otherwise have passed unremarked by anyone outside their immediate neighbourhood, and an essay on the factors that create this appalling death rate.

Two of the deaths were accidental. One was by an ‘amok man’ – a family member on a path of self destruction. One is a straight up case of mistaken identity. The rest could be described, very loosely, as related to gang affiliation. But as Younge points out, in many neighbourhoods gang affiliation among the young is like Communist Party membership in the Soviet era – something that is necessary in order to get on with your life. As Younge says, “To treat all affiliation as complicity is to write off children in entire communities for being born in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Younge rails against the trap of focusing on the ‘innocent victim’ (such as the children of Sandy Hook), and the danger it creates of implicitly suggesting that those who are less than angels are in some way deserving of their fate. He takes us inside an NRA conference and gives us an insight into a mindset on gun ownership that seems, to most Europeans, to be a form of collective insanity. He breaks down myths – pointing out that crime stats have actually been going down in recent years and demolishing the idea (often internalised by the parents themselves) that poor black parenting is at fault.

He shows how poverty, racism and deliberate policy have created a profoundly segregated country. This segregation creates two separate worlds – one in which youthful rash decisions and experimentation are ‘just a phase’ and one in which they may very well prove fatal.

That segregation also creates a numbing distance across which empathy becomes all-but impossible. This book, which (as Irvine Welsh says on the cover) “breaks the unwritten law: thou shall not humanize the victims of this ongoing carnage,” may be one strut in a bridge across that divide.

Shortlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates; Always Running by Luis Rodriguez

Avoid if you dislike: Honest portraits of grieving families

Perfect Accompaniment: A minute’s silence for each unremarked death

Genre: Non-Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The Devil You Know by Terry Tyler

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and new release, The Silent Kookaburra.

What we thought: I adored The Devil You Know, reading it in almost a single sitting, but what I enjoyed most was its refreshing and different approach to the often saturated and clichéd crime thriller genre. Yes, there is a serial killer on the rampage, murdering young women in the Lincolnshire town of Lyndford, but no, the reader is not witness to a long-winded police procedural, which is almost incidental. It is the reader who gathers the clues, pieces together the evidence and finally, tries to guess who the killer is.

Because this story is all about the characters, and it’s wonderful to see such great characterization in a crime story which explores the question: do any of us really know the people in our lives, or what they’re capable of?

Told from the perspective of five different people, we are introduced to the different suspects.

There is Juliet who, upon seeing a profile of the average serial killer, realizes her abusive husband, Paul, ticks all the boxes. We have Maisie, who suspects her mother’s boyfriend, Gary. And Tamsin, whose crush on work colleague, Jake, turns to fear and suspicion. Steve suspects his childhood friend, Dan and, finally, Dorothy learns that her son, Orlando, is keeping a secret from her.

Chapters juggle between the killings, and the lives of each of these well-rounded and sympathetic characters, as their suspicions unfold and escalate. And finally, when the killer is caught, the author carries on each person’s story, and we discover what happens to all of them - outcomes which are not short of their own surprises, before the shocking twist at the end.

The Devil You Know
is a compelling and absorbing read that had me hooked right from the beginning, and guessing right to the end. It also made me think about how well I really know my friends, colleagues and family.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: character-driven psychological crime with an original approach.

Avoid if you don’t like: non-police procedural crime stories.

Ideal accompaniments: fish and chips and a sturdy beer.

Genre: Psychological thriller

Available on Amazon