Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Ponti by Sharlene Teo

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Ponti is a debut novel by Sharlene Teo, set in Singapore, where Teo was born. The narrative weaves between three timelines. It opens in 2003 with a story that, on the surface, appears to be Mean Girls set in a Singapore high school. Szu is clever but frequently in trouble and her only friend is the equally odd-ball Circe.

“Today marks my sixteenth year on this hot horrible earth. I am stuck in school, standing with my palms presses against a green wall. I am pressing so heard, my fingers ache. I am tethered to this wall by my own shame.”
But Szu is the daughter of Amisa, the star of a trilogy of cult horror films about the Pontianak – a savage, flesh-eating ghost disguised as a hauntingly beautiful woman. The second timeline reveals how Amisa went from village girl in rural Penang via never-quite-realised stardom to embittered motherhood.

“Amisa was a woman pushing a problem. The problem gurgled as they took laps around the park.”
The third brings us into the present day and is Circe’s story, forced to look back on the events of her school days when she becomes involved in promoting a remake of the Pontiniak films.

“Szu and I were sixteen, each other’s only friends in the world. We were symbiotic and that intense, irreplicable way that comes as part and parcel of being careworn teenage girls.”
The fourth key character is Aunt Yunxi – not Szu’s really aunty, but her mother’s oldest friend, who lives with them and runs a questionable business as a medium and spirit healer out of their house.

“The truth is my Aunt Yunxi is half woman, half violin. She screeches, she is narrow and stiff. She holds out her arms at odd angles as if they don’t belong to her.”

Singapore is polyglot and the narrative reflects that. As in Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young, it is up to you whether you want to look up the references to food, clothing and so on, that pepper the text in Mandarin, Hakka, Teochew, Hokkien ... or let them flow past you, teasing you with possibility.

This is a sophisticated coming-of-age story that explores grief, loss, disappointment and their physical manifestations in teenage and young adult bodies. Its rich language vividly evokes a world that will be unfamiliar to many readers, without the need to exoticise it. If your only reference for Singapore is an image of a skyline of glass and concrete tower blocks, this is an entry into a whole different world, that of the city’s ordinary inhabitants.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Harmless Like Me by Rowan Hisayo Buchanon, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Avoid If You Dislike: casual multilingual references

Perfect Accompaniment: Red bean pancake and a diet coke

Genre: Literary Fiction, Coming of Age

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Violence made this city. Those living, born and raised, grow up with it like an older brother.”
Guy Gunaratne’s mad and furious city is London – the rough estates of modern, multi-cultural, working class London.

The story is told through five voices. Three young men who grew up playing football together: Selvon, the athlete, headed for university; Ardan, who watches from the rooftops, spinning Grime lyrics out of the world he observes, and Yusuf, son of an Imam, whose brother has lost his way. Then there is Nelson, wheelchair bound and speechless after a stroke, who lived through the bitter race riots of the 50s and 60s and has seen it all before. And Caroline, the alcoholic Irishwoman, who escaped, deeply scarred, from the sectarian violence of Northern Ireland.

A soldier has been murdered on these streets in broad daylight and the city is turning on itself. Far Right groups are marching, threatening the mosque. And in response, the new Imam is summoning up a vigilante group of young men, the Muhajiroun, to protect, but also to police, their community.

As anger and mistrust rip through their Ends, tearing at the bonds of friendship and stomping on the dreams of the three younger men, the two older ones remember earlier battles, and how violence begats violence, warping those who are caught up in it.

“During a high tide, things come fairly. The people them welcome newcomer like a novelty. Other times the tide is low and them smiles turn to bitterness and hate.”

Gunaratne is a master a voices. Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf’s stories are written in the street slang of modern London, while Nelson’s voice is still rooted in his Caribbean childhood and Caroline’s is straight off Belfast’s Falls Road. Each is distinct and utterly convincing.

A powerful novel that rips a window onto contemporary London in all its multicultural complexity – its violence, its vibrancy and its endurance.

In Our Mad and Furious City was longlisted for both the Man Booker and the Not the Booker prizes in 2018. Disappointingly, it failed to make the cut in either. I sincerely hope to see it on the Jhalak Prize shortlist next year, as it thoroughly deserved the recognition.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, When We Speak of Nothing by Olumide Poloola, An Unreliable Guide to London (ed Kit Caless)

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories told in strong dialect

Perfect Accompaniment: Gang Signs and Prayers by Stormzy

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

The Stolen Child by Sanjida Kay


Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter, Closure, Complicit, Crimson Shore, False Lights & Sacred Lake (www.gillianhamer.com)

This is the first book I’ve read of this author and I must admit I was totally gripped by both the writing and the story. In the vein of some of the best of the modern-day thrillers from Gillian Flynn and Clare Mackintosh, The Stolen Child is the riveting story of one couples attempt to stop themselves, and their whole lives, falling apart when their adopted child, Evie, goes missing after school one day.
Zoe and Ollie Morley tried for years to have a child of their own and when it seemed their only route was adoption, they took on a tiny girl called Evie, and never looked back. Even after the birth of the own natural son, Ben, Evie was an integral part of their family, and other than long working hours keeping them apart, their lives were everything they had dreamed.
But after moving back to Zoe’s home county of Yorkshire and setting up a home on the edge of her beloved moors, Evie’s personality begins to change. Strange packages are left from Evie’s natural father, and when one day she disappears after school, the Morley’s life is shattered into a million unconscionable pieces.
The author cleverly gives us enough clues and red herrings to keep us guessing and on the edge of our seats right up until the exhilarating climax of the story. A personal favourite of mine was the description of the moors and the landscape, which I feel always adds another layer to the depth of the story. The characters were superbly drawn, no emotion felt awkward or contrived, I felt from start to finish that I was in the hands of a talented storyteller and let myself go to enjoy the journey.

Highly recommended!
You’ll enjoy this if you like: Kate Hamer, Jenny Blackhurst, Erin Kelly.
Avoid if you don’t like: High emotion and gripping plots.
Ideal accompaniments: Cheeseburger, fries and cola.
Genre: Contemporary


Available on Amazon

Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

This third outing for Sam Wyndham and his redoubtable sergeant Surrender-not in 1920s Calcutta does not disappoint, from its shocking opening in Calcutta's Chinatown to the tense ending, blending fact and fiction.

It’s almost Christmas Day 1921, the end of the year in which Gandhi’s non-violent non-cooperation movement really got going. It’s also the year that the King Emperor George V decided to send his son, the Prince of Wales, on an ill-advised tour of India. Then, in the midst of seething unrest and with all the security implications of an impending royal visit, mutilated corpses start to turn up – apparently unconnected but bearing startlingly similar wounds. Section H, the military police, are convinced it must be the work of terrorists from the Independence Movement, but Sam is far from sure.

This is case that will test Surrender-not’s painfully divided loyalties to the limit. It will also force Sam to confront his own growing dependence on opium.

Mukherjee continues to paint a vivid picture of Calcutta as India lurches closer to independence, weaving fiction around real events and people. Chitta Ranjan Das, Gandhi’s chief lieutenant in Bengal, his wife Basanti Devi and his disciple and future hero of the movement Subhash Bose all appear in this novel, as Sam starts to appreciate both the genius of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance and the untenable nature of the British position.

“To see a man as your enemy, you needed to hate him, and while it was easy to hate a man who fought you with bullets and bombs, it was bloody difficult to hate a man who opposed you by appealing to your own moral compass.”


Mukherjee’s choice of Sam as his point of view character – an outsider who is part of the British Raj without being fully of it – provides a fascinating lens through which to see this troubled and pivotal period in India’s history. At the same time, he draws the thriller elements of the story from little known scraps of background history – in this case, a particularly shameful episode in British treatment of its colonial subjects.

This absorbing series just keeps getting better and batter. I am thrilled by its success – not least because it means should be plenty more to come for Sam and Surrender-not.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee, The Devil’s Porridge by Chris Longmuir, The Golden  Scales by Parker Bilal

Avoid If You Dislike: Facing up to the realities of Britain’s colonial past

Perfect Accompaniment: A stiff whisky

Genre: Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon