Friday, 15 November 2019

Lowborn by Kerry Hudson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Shall we start with a happy ending? I made it. I rose. I escaped poverty. I escaped bad food because that’s all you can afford. I escaped threadbare clothes and too-tight shoes. I escaped drinking and drugging myself into oblivion because ... because.”

Reading Kerry Hudson’s memoir, Lowborn, straight after Candice Carty-Williams’s novel, Queenie was fascinating and troubling. Hudson’s story doesn’t have the dimensions of race and immigration, but in so many other ways, the parallels are clear. Poverty. Deprivation. Toxic masculinity. Generational Trauma. Deeply damaged women not recognising that they are passing on the same hurts to their daughters and granddaughters. And the consequences for those daughters: night traumas, panic attacks and self esteem that remains desperately fragile even when you have far, far exceeded the low expectations you were set as a child.

The books is, as the author says, “the outcome of questions that still disturb my peace.” It is a journey through all the places – from Aberdeen to Great Yarmouth – where she spent her childhood. Part memoir, part assessment of how things have changed – for better or for worse – for young people growing up in those towns.

It is also a raging protest against all those who have spent the last few years demonising the poor – calling them lazy, work-shy, scroungers. True poverty, she says, is “all-encompassing, grinding, brutal and often dehumanising.”

She describes the hyper-vigilance of a child constantly in foreign environments with strange people. The impact of being constantly told not to utter a word about what was happening in your childhood – your body seizing up, your mouth refusing to form words. “The words I heard spoken to me in my first twenty years are tattooed everywhere under my skin.”

For those of us who grew up in a different kind of world, it can seem as if Hudson is speaking from another planet, such is the divide that has been created and sustained in our society. And recent government policy has done little to improve things and much to make them far, far worse.

A necessary reality check and an antidote to the distorted portrayals of poverty in programmes such as Benefits Street.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Queenie by Candice Carty-Willams, Natives by Akala, Stopping Places by Damian le Bas, Common People (ed Kit de Waal)

Avoid If You Dislike: Being reminded what a desperately unequal society we live in

Perfect Accompaniment: An Aberdeen smokie (smoked kipper)

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Overture (L'Alouette trilogy Book 1) by Vanessa Couchman

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.

I love the way Vanessa Couchman effortlessly breathes life into history, and her latest novel, Overture, is no exception.

Young Marie-Thérèse has a talent for singing but living in a poor family in rural Aveyron, she must work on the farm, and forget her singing dreams.

When tragedy forces Marie-Thérèse and her mother to leave Aveyron and seek refuge with her aunt and uncle in Paris, they are forced to work long, hard hours in their restaurant, Bistrot Mazars.

However, Marie-Thérèse also gets the chance to delve into the world of music and opera in the capital. And, when she meets someone who is certain she has a bright future, she dares to think her childhood dream might come true after all.

The author deftly evokes the contrasts of the countryside of rural Aveyron, with Paris city life at the turn of the last century. Disasters such as the sinking of the Titanic and the build-up to WWI are also woven through the storyline as we accompany Marie-Thérèse in her struggles, despairs and triumphs.

We want her to succeed as much as she does herself.

I was sorry when I reached the end of this beautifully-written and engaging story, but also pleased to see that Overture is the first of L’Alouette trilogy. I’m now looking forward to the second installment, and continuing this story with the characters I’ve come to know and care about.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: historical novels set in France, and tales of chasing your dreams against all odds.

Avoid if you don’t like: Leisurely-paced, coming-of-age historical stories.

Ideal accompaniments: baguette, cheese and French wine.

Genre: Historical Fiction.

Buy this book here

Monday, 28 October 2019

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“I can’t have any love in my life that isn’t completely f***ed by my fear that I’ll be rejected just for being born me. Do you know how that feels?”

On the day she is due to move out of the flat she has shared with the boyfriend she thought she would spend the rest of her life with, Queenie - funny, feisty, troubled young Black woman – finds out she has just had a miscarriage.

This is Fleabag if she came from a background, not of middle-class White privilege, but of working-class Black struggle. This is Fleabag if, in addition to all the pressures of being young and female in London today, she had to deal with everyday racism, White female fragility and male fetishisation of Black women’s bodies.

Queenie’s long-suffering network of friends – her ‘Corgis’ – hold things together via group texts as Queenie drinks too much, lurches through a series of unsuitable relationships, deals with her uncompromising Jamaican grandmother and barely hangs on at work. But sooner or later, something is going to break, and Queenie is going to have find a way to deal with the manifold layers of loss in her life.

Queenie manages to be both hilarious and heart-breaking. In charting Queenie’s breakdown and recovery, Carty-Williams deals with Black Lives Matter, the gentrification of neighbourhoods like Brixton, the capacity White liberalism and White feminism to continually disappoint – all with a bone-dry humour that never feels preachy.

Queenie is a character you will fall in love with and who will remain with you a long time. Oh, and DON'T touch her hair!

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Ordinary People by Diana Evans, Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik, The Million Pieces of Nina Gill by Emma Smith-Barton, Fleabag by Pheobe Waller-Bridge

Avoid If You Dislike: Fairly explicit descriptions of casual sex

Perfect Accompaniment: Pizza and Prosecco

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

The Million Pieces of Neena Gill by Emma Smith Barton

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: 

I had the pleasure of hearing Emma Smith Barton read the opening to this, her debut novel, at the 2018 Asian Writer Festival. It perfectly encapsulates the close relationship between Neena and her older brother, as Akash comforts her in the garden while their parents argue loudly in the house. In doing so, it sets the scene for the rest of the book.

The story then fast forwards five years. The teenage Akash has disappeared and the family is broken. Neena, her GCSE exams fast approaching, is just about hanging on at school, but behind her parents’ backs she is going out drinking and partying. Her mother never leaves the house. And her father has become rigid, bordering on tyrannical.

This is the story of a family is broken by the loss of one of its members. In particular, it charts, in painful and believable detail, the mental breakdown Neena suffers under the pressures of grief, exams and the need to chart her own path between the conflicting expectations of her family and the world around her.

Neena is like so many teenagers – intelligent, creative and desperately confused. The loss of her brother has ripped a hole in her life.

“[Your] dreams, the belief that you will live them, propel you forward from day to day ... What part of that picture shatters, slips through your fingers like ice-cold water, you can lose yourself within that loss.”

Emma Smith-Barton knows what she is writing about. In her author’s note at the end, she tells us how she, like Neena, suffered from periods of intense anxiety as a child. And how she was inspired to write the book after nursing someone very close to her through a psychotic episode.

The need for a book like this can hardly be overstated. Recent research shows that one in eight school age young people in Britain today suffer from some form of diagnosable mental health condition. Neena gets the help she needs, but too many young people do not. Less than a third of young people referred to metal health services get treatment within a year. The Million Pieces of Neena Gill shows young people that they are not alone, that there is no such thing as ‘normal’ and that, when you are in crisis, there is a path to recovery.

A wonderful debut novel – a tender and sensitive approach to a difficult and necessary subject.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, Ponti by Sharlene Teo, The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas, Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson

Avoid If You Dislike: Charting the path through mental illness

Perfect Accompaniment: Halva with honey

Genre: Young Adult

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

The Seasoning by Manon Steffan Ross

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Manon Steffan Ross is the author of the haunting Llyfr Glas Nebo – winner of both the Medal at the 2018 Eisteddfod Genedlaethol and the 2019 Welsh Book of the Year.

The Seasoning is an earlier novel, translated from the Welsh (original title Blasu – literally ‘taste’) by the author herself.

It begins with the central character, Pegi, sharing a quiet moment with her son after the party he threw for her eightieth birthday. He gives her a notebook in which he hopes she will record some of her memories, and afterwards she goes for a walk through the little village where she has lived all her life, with shadows of the past lurking in every corner.

From there we are taken straight back into an account of her life – beginning at the age of eight when, filthy and half starved, she flees the house where her mother sits rocking herself in a corner to beg for help from a neighbour.

Each chapter begins with a recipe, and each is recounted by a different person whose life Pegi touched and who interacted with her via food. We meet her grandparents, her husband, her sons, her best friend – but also people whom she met only casually.

Most people fall under the spell of Pegi’s genuine kindness and generosity. But a few sense a darkness within her. Certainly the fact that she nearly starved as a child has left her with an relationship with food that veers at times from the joyous to the unhealthy. And Pegi herself is haunted by the fear that she could one day follow her mother’s terrible path. But it is only in the final pages of the book that we learn the heartbreaking truth at the core of that darkness.

In a series of tender and vivid vignettes, Ross addresses love and friendship, motherhood, nurturing and neglect, mental illness, physical illness and ageing. Her wonderful language conjures up the smells and tastes and textures of the food she describes, as well as the rugged landscapes and changing seasons of North Wales.

I read this book in the original Welsh, which made for a very different experience. In English, I read in great gulps, racing through chapter after chapter. But as a Welsh learner, I am forced to go slowly, unravelling each sentence word by word. Perhaps that is why Ross’s images plant themselves so deeply in my mind. But knowing she herself has translated the book, I have no hesitation in recommending the version in English.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards, Ponti by Sharlene Teo, Smash All the Windows by Jane Davis

Avoid If You Dislike: Novels that address mental illness, particularly eating disorders

Perfect Accompaniment: Cacan Sinsir / Sticky Ginger Cake

Genre: Literary Fiction, Welsh Fiction, Welsh Language Books, Books in Translation

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Secrets at St Bride's by Debbie Young

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of the French Historical, The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and new Australian 1970s series: The Silent Kookaburra and The Swooping Magpie.

What we thought: Secrets at St Bride’s is the first novel in Debbie Young’s exciting new series: Staffroom at St. Bride’s.

This warm-hearted, witty, comic and engaging tale follows the adventures of Gemma Lamb, who flees her controlling boyfriend and goes to work at St. Bride’s, a contemporary English girls’ boarding school.

Set on a stunning estate in the Cotswolds, Gemma hopes to establish a new and independent future for herself at St Bride’s.

However, enclosed in a false net of security, Gemma soon discovers that the other staff members are all hiding some kind of secret. Even the school cat! With the author’s easy blending of romance, mystery, comedy and suspense, I really enjoyed accompanying Gemma as she discovered each different secret.

In this first book of the series, the author deftly sets up the engaging character of Gemma Lamb, as well as the other characters, and the beautiful school setting, for future stories. And I’m really looking forward to the next one, which I believe should be released very soon!

You’ll like this if you: grew up on classic children’s school stories like Chalet School, Malory Towers and St Clare's.

Avoid if you don’t like: light-hearted, entertaining, escapism stories.

Genre: Blend of cozy mystery and romantic comedy.

Buy a copy here

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

A Good Girl's Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

There is a lesser known novel by Dorothy L Sayers called The Documents in the Case. The greater part of the book is made up of transcripts of interviews and affidavits handed over to an investigator after a coroner has delivered a verdict of accidental death that one person simply doesn’t believe.

Holly Jackson’s debut crime novel for young adults fits in this same tradition. In this case, a young man, Sal, is presumed to have committed suicide after murdering his girlfriend. Five years later, Pippa is doing her A Levels and has to pick a topic for her Extended Project. She knew Sal and never believed the verdict that everyone else in the town accepted. Under cover of research for her Extended Project, she sets out to prove he was innocent.

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder is a genuinely tense and exciting read, especially once the real murderer cottons on to what Pippa is up to and the jeopardy ramps up. But she also brings in the human side of the miscarriage of justice – through Ravi, the brother of the supposed murderer, who has not only lost his brother, but has become an outcast by association.

As with The Documents in the Case, the narrative here is interspersed with interview transcripts, diary entries, maps, records of texts and other things that Pippa is recording in her research log. Jackson sets out the clues that enable the reader to follow Pippa’s investigation – teasing us with a range of suspects and neither flagging up the solution too early, nor pulling the wool over our eyes by withholding information. And she manages to avoid the biggest potential pitfall with having a teenage detective – that of falling right off a cliff edge of plausibility.

Being only a few years out of high school herself, Jackson presents a high school world that is grounded in contemporary reality – albeit that of the leafy shires rather than deprived inner cities. The issues her teenagers face are those many of her audience will recognise from their own school days. If I have one criticism, it would be that Jackson’s attempt to provide diversity in her cast of characters lacks real depth.

A promising and enjoyable debut from a young author.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L Sayers, Snow Angel by JJ Marsh

Avoid If You Dislike:
School kid detectives

Perfect Accompaniment: Tea and home-made muffins

Genre: Crime Fiction, Young Adult

Buy a copy here

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Freedom by Catherine Johnson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

A couple of years ago, through reading David Olusogo’s wonderful history, Black and British, I was introduced to the story of Olaudah Equiano, the ex-slave who bought his own freedom. To the horrific story of the Zong massacre, and to Granville Sharp, the lawyer who worked with Equiano and others to prosecute the ship’s owners. These abolitionists – many of them Africans and ex-slaves – preceded the more famous Wilberforce by several decades and laid the foundations (not least in the court of public opinion) for the subsequent abolition of the slave trade.

These stories are not taught in schools and are far too little known in Britain. It is therefore a delight to find that the winner of the 2019 Little Rebels Award for Radical Children’s Fiction is Catherine Johnson’s Freedom. Through the engaging tale of Nat, a boy born into slavery in Jamaica and brought to Britain by his owners, Johnson brings the brutalities of the slave trade and the courage and determination of these early abolitionists vividly to life.

Set in 1783 – over twenty years before Britain gave up the slave trade and fifty years before slavery was abolished in British held territories in the Caribbean - the story opens on the morning that Nat’s mother and baby sister are sold away from the plantation where he was born, without him even being able to say goodbye properly. Nat works in the garden of the big house – a relatively easy job compared with being a field hand like his mother. But Johnson doesn’t shirk from showing the brutalities of the regime. Old Thomas, the head gardener, once tried to run away and had half his foot off to make sure he never tried it again.

Nat finds himself on a ship to England with his master, entrusted with the care of the precious pineapple plants they are taking as a gift for the master’s bride. From one of the ship hands, he learns the story of the Zong – the notorious ship, overcrowded with slaves, overcome with illness, whose owners jettisoned over 140 slaves – murdering them in order to save water – and then tried to claim insurance on their lost ‘property’.

Once in London, circumstances – and his own bravery and ingenuity – draw him further into the story, as we meet Equiano, Sharp and others.

This is a fabulous adventure tale, with the added edge of being grounded in real history. Should be read by adults and children alike.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:  [Children]Dodger by Terry Pratchett, The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave / [Adults] The Long Song by Andrea Levy, Washington Black by Esi Edugyan, Black and British by David Olusogo

Avoid If You Dislike: Being reminded of Britain’s central role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Perfect Accompaniment: A slice of fresh pineapple.

Genre: Fiction for 9-12 year olds