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