Thursday, 16 May 2019

The Stopping Places: a Journey Through Gypsy Britain by Damian le Bas

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

In a Jhalak Prize longlist dominated this year (2019) by non-fiction books, this one stood out for me. It struck me as I read it that anti-Roma prejudice could be called ‘the last non-taboo’ – a bigotry to which many otherwise liberal members of the white middle classes would still admit to without blushing.

It is also a voice rarely heard. Almost my only other encounter with non-romanticised writing about contemporary Romanies was at the 2011 Sanctuary London event, when New Zealand author Garth Cartwright read from his book Princes Among Men, an account of his travels with the gypsy musicians in the mahalas (ghettos) of Eastern Europe – and even then, that was writing ABOUT Romanies, not the voice of a Roma author. I am sure part of that is my failure to look, but it is certainly a voice is desperate need of boosting.

Damian le Bas comes from a long line of English Romanies based around Surrey. He was raised in a Romany family, speaks the Romani language and has suffered his fair share of anti-Roma prejudice. But because he is of mixed blood – with fair skin and fair hair – even some of his own family don’t fully accept him as a true Gypsy (the word, always capitalised, that he himself most often uses to describe his people).

So one autumn he sets out in a white transit van to discover the aitchin tans – stopping places – used by Romanies and Travellers around the country. He starts with the ones his family have used for generations – Pagham’s Copse, Butler’s Down, Messenger’s Meadow, names that are unlikely to appear on any map.

Then he branches out, travelling around the country, going to famous horse fairs like Horsmonden in Kent and Appleby in Cumbria. He crosses the channel to attend the annual ceremony of Sara-la-Kali in Petit Camargue – where the Manouche (French Romanies) commemorate the arrival of the first Gypsy in Europe. He follows the trail of the Welsh Gypsies of Lake Bala – said to be the home of the purest form of Romani spoken in Britain. (Though why, le Bas asks, is English praised for its ability to adapt, to taken on board words from other languages and to invent new ones, and yet Romani scorned for the same adaptability?) At his furthest point north, finds the site in Scotland of the first recorded Gypsy presence in Britain, at the beginning of the 16thC.

His writing throughout is richly evocative – as in this description, early in the book, of his family’s flower selling business at Petersfield market.

“There were boxes of daffodils packed squeaky tight; tall green buckets of chrysanthemums, yellow and copper and pink, stargazer lilies that burst into purple and white streaked with orange. There were little black buckets of freesias, their buds like fruit humbug sweets sucked to a tight bright core...”


In the course of le Bas’s year long journey discovers the rigours of living on the road through winter, and the joys of the summer. He rediscovers some of the tricks and habits that made such a life possible. He encounters friendliness among settled folk who remember Gypsies as season workers in hop fields and on fruit farms, and rare hostility from fellow Romanies determined to maintain old demarcations.

By the end of the year, le Bas has begun to come to terms with his dual identity, reflecting:

“I am at the roadside, miles from anyone I know, and yet still in my place, inside my home, my own little world. I feel a mounting dislocation form the constant need for an endpoint ... I’ve lost the constant need to get somewhere.
We are all somewhere, I tell myself. I go back to the van and put the key in the igniting, in no great hurry to hear the engine start.”

The way of life that le Bas’s great grandmother, Nan, grew up with is gone, and with it some terrible hardships. Yet le Bas shows there was a time when Romany life slotted in with the seasonal nature of farm work and a kind of coexistence was possible. The present day almost complete lack of tolerance by settled communities of Travellers and Romanies is, in the end , in the interests of no one.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Travels in an Old Tongue by Pamela Petro; Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese, Princes Among Men by Garth Cartwright.

Avoid If You Dislike: Pulling back layers of romanticism and demonisation

Perfect Accompaniment: A cup of tea brewed by the side of the road

Genre: Non-Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

A Stranger in Paris by Karen Webb


Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

What could have been a dull memoir of any British au-pair arriving in France is given a sincere emotional charge by an exceptional heroine. 

The naïvete of the gauche yet observant nanny makes the reader both cringe and smile. The gossamer hopes of her romances set against the expectations of the household set up moments of delight and sadness.

This is a hiccupy, awkward and yet charming insight into the British abroad. There are times when you want to give almost every character a shake. The nuances of cultural difference are mountains not molehills to this young woman. Overconfident, underprepared but always optimistic, our heroine stumbles from situation to situation, slipping from the dangerous to the futile with blithe belief. 

The characterisation is uneven but when it works, the personae leap off the page. Most importantly, this book conveys the pumice stone of cultural interaction. Travelling changes people, almost always for the better. The gradual acclimatisation is a joy. Those were the days. 

This book should be compulsory reading for school-leavers across the UK. More now than ever.



You’ll enjoy this if you liked: A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle or When in Rome by Penelope Green

Avoid if you don’t like: Naïve young Brits, student life, cultural confusion

Ideal accompaniments: Cheap red wine, Chinese takeaway and this version of I Love Paris by Zaz.


Saturday, 27 April 2019

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

Shortlisted for The Jhalak Prize
The Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour, is an annual literary prize awarded to British or British-resident writers. It is the first and only literary prize in the UK to only accept entries by writers of colour.

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Raymond Antrobus’s stunning debut poetry collection, The Perseverance, has been shortlisted for both the 2019 Jhalak Prize and the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize International.

Antrobus is Deaf. (The capital letter distinguishes between those who are born Deaf and who regard Deafness as part of their culture and identity rather than a disability, and those to become deaf later in life, whose relationship with deafness is primarily medical.)

For Antrobus, late diagnosis as a child led to years of low expectations. When he attended a Deaf School in London attached to a hearing school where he had many of his lessons. There, hearing children mocked him for using sign language, while Deaf pupils mocked him for his lack of fluency. In Echo, A Deaf Sequence, as essay he wrote for poetryfoundation.org, Antrobus writes: “This was when I most needed the nurturing of a Deaf identity, one that wasn’t medical, but philosophical, one that embraced my natural of language and valued Deafness as a way of being."

Many of the poems in this collection address the experience of being Deaf. He rails against the othering of the Deaf – writing poems that respond to Ted Hughes’ Deaf School, and to Charles Dickens writing about Laura Bridgman (a Deaf-Blind woman born fifty years before the more famous Helen Keller) or his sentimental tale, Doctor Marigold.

He confronts the murder of three deaf women street vendors in Haiti in 2016, and the fatal shooting by a state trooper in America of a deaf driver trying to use sign language.

In Dear Hearing World (a poem which plays on Dear White America by Danez Smith), Antrobus challenges reluctance of the education system to recognise the validity of sign language as a means, not a barrier to communication – an attitude that goes right back to Alexander Graham Bell.

The Perseverance of the title refers in part to the pub in Broadway Market in London where his alcoholic father drank. Many of these poems were written shortly after the death of his father, who he nursed through the last two of his life as he suffered from dementia, and explore different aspects of their relationship.

There is ambiguity too in his mixed race identity, which he explores in (Jamaican British / Miami Airport / Maybe I Could Love a Man)

Poetry does not take you by the hand and lead you, as fiction does. It demands work from the reader to chisel out meaning. I found myself spending time delving back into Antrobus’s references before reading the poems again. I also sought out YouTube videos of Antrobus performing his poetry, to hear the spaces he left between words and where he placed the stresses. It was effort well worth putting in, as it opened up layers of understanding and appreciation.

This is an exceptionally talented poet at only the start of his career. As he points out, Deaf culture has too often been silenced, patronised, othered and misrepresented. Antrobus’s cuts through that with shining clarity.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi

Avoid If You Dislike:Having to put a bit of work into your reading 

Perfect Accompaniment: Red snapper, rice and peas, and a few lessons in BSL

Genre: Poetry

Buy the book here.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Happiness by Aminatta Forna

Shortlisted for The Jhalak Prize
The Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour, is an annual literary prize awarded to British or British-resident writers. It is the first and only literary prize in the UK to only accept entries by writers of colour.

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

So many layers of complexity are woven into this story of two lives colliding (literally) on Waterloo Bridge.

Attila is a psychologist from Ghana specialising in trauma resulting from war. Jean is an American biologist who studies human interactions with wild animals. He is in London for a conference; she for a long-term study of urban foxes. Their first encounter, as they both hurry across the bridge, is barely registered by either of them, but then their paths cross again and again.

The core story takes place over a mere handful of days, but through shifting timelines, we see something of Attila’s work in war zones from Bosnia to Sierra Leone, and the three women has loved in his life. And behind Jean’s story lies the history of human response to encroaching predators, from wolves to coyotes to London’s growing population of foxes.

And then there is Tano, the runaway boy, and the army of mostly immigrant workers who comb the city to find him.

This is the London most of us never see. The London of street sweepers, security people, care workers, kitchen staff – those who work when the rest of the city sleeps, behind the elegant facades of theatres and hotels. It is beautifully evoked without being sentimentalised.

Along the way the novel takes on the brutality of the Hostile Environment and the failings of the care system. It challenges the Western notions of ‘normality’ that underpin psychologists’ assumptions about trauma and PTSD. And it questions our relationship with urbanised wild animals like coyotes and foxes.

Even the notion of happiness, captured in the title, is questioned, its place taken instead by the more enduring notion of hope.

One of only two novels to make it to the shortlist of the 2019 Jhalak Prize.


You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Kamila Shamsie, Esi Edugyan, Ruth Ozeki, Elif Shafak

Avoid If You Dislike: Descriptions of late-stage dementia

Perfect Accompaniment: Suya (Nigerian kebabs) and a rumba in the background

Genre: Literary Fiction



Monday, 22 April 2019

Brit(ish) - on race, identity and belonging by Afua Hirsch


Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

This conversation is long overdue: a conversation begun in the spirit of honesty, not defensiveness, or fear, or blindness.”

Afua Hirsch is a British born woman of mixed race. On one side, the father is half Yorkshire, half German Jewish. On the other side, her grandparents were Ghanaian. She grew up in relatively privileged circumstances in the leafy London suburb of Wimbledon, going first to private school and then Oxford University.

While Hirsch acknowledges that her experience is a world away both from the brutal racism faced by her parents’ generation and the life of young black people growing up in places like Tottenham, where poverty and lack of opportunity are rife:

“I didn’t find race, race found me: in the playground, or the classroom, on the street, in the shops.”

Hirsch describes searching for an identity in Africa, first as a new graduate working for a non-profit organisation in Senegal, and later with her young family in her grandparent’s home country of Ghana. Yet what she discovers is that, though Britishness contains the threat of exclusion, there is in fact nowhere else to go. Her identity IS British.

In this wide-ranging book she addresses such topics as our failure to properly address the truth about imperialism and British involvement in the slave trade. She examines the changing policies towards interracial adoption, Home Office attitudes to immigration and the concept of the Good Immigrant. She looks at colourism and the attitudes towards black women’s hair. She looks at riots in the 1980s and the Brixit vote in 2016.

Above all, she castigates white British society for its failure to acknowledge that racism and white privilege are still facts of life – and that this affects all members of society.

“Failing to acknowledge that whiteness exists, means ignoring the burden for a white child born into a culture that tells them they are innately superior, that they are entitled.”

Rarely have I gone through a book highlighting so many passages. Hirsch brilliantly captures both the positive and negative aspects of having multiple cultural identities. On the one hand, it: “offers the possibility of full-body immersion, deep-sea diving; an experience that is difficult to pin down, but feels mystical and profound.”

On the other, “at its worse ... (it) can feel like being helplessly adrift, unable to embrace the beauty of any one place, fearful of the water, awkward on land.”

This feels like a more deeply personal book than Eddo-Lodge’s Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race. As well as her own experiences, Hirsch draws upon individual experience of other black and mixed race people – like Lola who experienced some of the worst aspects of the care system and who now provides a home of teens emerging from that system.

Despite the depth of racism – structural and otherwise – in British society that it exposes, this book feels optimistic. But if we are truly to become a post-racial society, it is vital that we stop trying to pretend that we already are. We have to have the courage to have to difficult conversations, to acknowledge ugly truths about ourselves. To have humility.

LONGLISTED FOR THE 2019 JHALAK PRIZE

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Natives by Akala, Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Avoid If You Dislike: Honestly appraising the role of race in our society

Perfect Accompaniment: Jollof rice and herbal tea

Genre: Non Fiction

Available on Amazon

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Natives – Race and Class in the ruins of Empire, by Akala

Shortlisted for The Jhalak Prize
The Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour, is an annual literary prize awarded to British or British-resident writers. It is the first and only literary prize in the UK to only accept entries by writers of colour.

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“When I say I could have been a statistic – another working-class black man dead or in prison ... people that grew up like us know just how real this statement is, how easily the scales could have been tipped.”


As a white woman on the upper end of middle age, it’s not surprising that I know Akala not from his music, but from his articles and speeches. If I come across a link to one of them on Twitter, I always click on it, knowing that what I will hear / read will be insightful, challenging, thought-provoking and scholarly. This book is no exception.

If David Olusoga’s Black and British was a history of Black people in Britain, Natives takes aspects of modern British society and traces their roots back into Britain’s imperial past – a past which present-day citizens have been taught to see only through blinkers and some heavily rose-tinted spectacles.

Akala was born in 1981, the year that began with the New Cross Fire, in which 13 black children died in what was widely believed at the time to have been an arson attack. The utter indifference of media and the rest of society to their fate led directly to a march on parliament by twenty thousand black people. Together with police’s brutal application of the so-called sus laws in areas like Brixton, it was also one of the triggers for the series of riots that erupted across Britain that spring and summer.

Such outward manifestations of racism may have been less in evidence in the intervening years, but that does not mean that racism has gone away. Akala forensically examines Britain’s role in the slave trade (conveniently forgotten in our haste to pat ourselves on our backs for our part in ending it). It looks at the history of scientific racism and the hypersexualisation of black men in the imaginations of white people. And it connects those things to clearly and directly to language and attitudes prevalent today.

Scholarly as it is, this is also a personal book. Like Afua Hirsch, Akala is mixed race. His mother is white British (half Scottish, half English), and his father is from Jamaica. He grew up in Archway, on the borders between white, leafy, privileged Highgate and the much poorer, rougher area of Tottenham. The year he was twelve, he was stopped and searched by the police for the first time. It was also the first time he witnessed someone more or less of his own age attacked with a meat cleaver.

The picture Akala paints of his childhood – his adolescence in particular – is profoundly shocking to someone who has lived her life in a far more sheltered corner of England. Yet Akala swiftly demolishes the myth of ‘black on black violence,’ showing a correlation between youth violence and poverty, deprivation and lack of expectation that goes back in time hundreds of years and spreads geographically to cities where few Black people live. He shows how class is systematically used to trap white and black people alike – but how the few that break free may escape class, but that race follows them wherever they go.

At the end of the book, he looks forward into the coming century, at the growing economic power of countries outside the Anglo-America/European sphere, and wonders how and if white people will adjust to no long being the dominant world group.

“The shape of the world children born now will inhabit will be determined now just by politicians and billionaires, but by millions of supposedly ordinary people like you and me, who choose whether or not to engage with difficult issues, to try and grasp history, to find their place in it, and who choose whether to act or do nothing when faced with the mundane and mammoth conflicts of everyday life.”

A book that will challenge your world view – particularly those of us who have, however unwittingly, inherited the benefits and privileges of our imperialist forebears.

SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2019 JHALAK PRIZE.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge; Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch

Avoid If You Dislike: Shattering the myths of British imperialism

Perfect Accompaniment: A willingness to address the difficult questions

Genre: Non Fiction

Available on Amazon


Friday, 12 April 2019

The Boy At the Back of the Class by Onjali K Raúf

Shortlisted for The Jhalak Prize

The Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour, is an annual literary prize awarded to British or British-resident writers. It is the first and only literary prize in the UK to only accept entries by writers of colour.

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

The Boy At the Back of the Class is the only children’s book to make it onto this year’s Jhalak Prize longlist, and one that I hope will come to the attention of the Little Rebels judges too.

It is a story that centres on Ahmet, a refugee child from Syria. But it is not the story of his perilous journey escaping a war zone and making his way to England. Rather it is the story of four friends at the primary school he starts to attend and how they react to learning his story.

The story is told by nine year old Alexa, who doesn’t understand why with the new boy at the back of the class doesn’t speak or smile, or why he disappears every break and lunchtime. And she certainly doesn’t understand the way some adults talk about him – what is a refugee kid anyway? Nonetheless, she is determined to make friends.

As the barriers between them begin to break down, and she learns that he and his family escaped from bullies who bombed their home back in Syria, that Ahmet made it safely to England, but that his sister has drowned in the sea and his mother and father are still missing. Thus emerges The Greatest Idea In The World – a plan to find Ahmet’s parents and reunite the family.

Although it is clearly aimed at younger children, the book this most reminded me of was The Hate U Give. by Angie Thomas. Like Starr, Alexa finds herself having to deal with the consequences of taking a stand for what she believes in. Those consequences can be frightening and overwhelming, but they can also be amazingly rewarding.

Raúf does not shy away from showing the ugliness of some adults’ views. Teachers, neighbours and the Press are all among those who show Alexa just how cruel and unfeeling the world can be. But there are also heroes and acts of kindness, and people who learn to change their minds.

At the back of the book, Raúf provides information for children about refugees, as well as questions that might be used in class – or within the family – to provoke discussion. A portion of her royalties are also going towards supporting refugee charities.

A joyous, life-affirming book about acceptance and the power to change the world

SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2019 JHALAK PRIZE

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Worry Angels by Sita Brahmachari, The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Avoid If You Don’t believe every child deserves a safe place to grow up in.

Perfect Accompaniment: A pomegranate

Genre: Children’s, Middle Readers (typically 8-11 years olds)


Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Built by Roma Agrawal

Shortlisted for The Jhalak Prize
The Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour, is an annual literary prize awarded to British or British-resident writers. It is the first and only literary prize in the UK to only accept entries by writers of colour.

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

The opening lines of this book sent me straight back to an afternoon years ago when I was doing my A Levels. On Friday afternoons, we would periodically have speakers come in to talk to us on something our teachers thought would interest us. I don’t think any of us were particularly enthused at the prospect of a talk on the history of London Bridge – yet by the end of that afternoon, half the year group were studying their UCAS forms and wondering if they could change to studying Civil Engineering.

Roma Agrawal’s Built is full of the same infectious enthusiasm. A structural engineer who has worked on bridges and buildings including London’s iconic Shard, she takes you on a journey under the skin of city skylines and deep into their infrastructure. She shows how engineers use physics and maths to grapple with the complex intersection of forces from gravity and wind. She explains the difference between load bearing and frame bearing constructions, between tension and compression. She studies the nature of brick and steel and concrete and how those three materials determine so much of our built environment. She compares buildings that rely for their strength on an inner core to those that use an exoskeleton. She shows how the world’s tallest buildings have to be damped to prevent them from swaying. She explores at the challenges involved in providing our buildings with water and in taking away our waste.

In doing so, she looks at structures that have suffered catastrophic failure and others that have survived thousands of years. She takes us from the Taipei Tower in Taiwan, to an underground city in Anatolia; from a bridge in Japan that is a modern development of the ancient rope bridge, to a Cathedral in Mexico City that has been saved from collapse due to subsidence. (And imagine my delight when a run-through of five of her favourite bridges takes in Old London Bridge.)

Towards the end, she peers into the future of our built environment, imagining the possibilities opened up by developments such as 3D printing, bio-mimicry and self-healing materials.

This book was a joy to read! All the principles are explained simply and accessibly (with diagrams). And even if you don’t grasp some of the details, enthusiasm and wonder will carry you through. Agrawal will leave you with a profound respect for engineers and the magic they weave – magic that most of us scarcely give a passing thought to as we go about our daily lives.



You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Science of the Discworld series; Bill Bryson; Jared Diamond; Jacob Bronowski

Avoid If You Dislike: Getting excited about science and engineering

Perfect Accompaniment: A glass of bubbly to toast the minds behind some of the world’s greatest buildings

Genre: Non-Fiction.

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

My Conversations with Canadians by Lee Maracle

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“The question of why settler Canadians get a better life off my continent does not pop into white men’s heads, nor into the heads of other nice white women either.”

Like Why I Am Not Talking to White People About Race, and Between the World and Me, My Conversations with Canadians is a challenge to the dominant social group – most especially those who consider themselves to be liberal and enlightened – to wake up and realise the harm they are unwittingly doing.

Maracle is a member of the Stó:lō Nation, part of the Coastal Salish Confederacy, from the Fraser Valley region of British Colombia; the daughter of a Métis mother and Salish father. As well as being an author and a poet, Maracle is an Instructor in Indigenous Nations Studies at the University of Toronto and a Traditional Teacher at First Nations House

To being with, she quietly demolishes the illusions of Canadians like me of being the ‘nice’ settlers.

“In line with having no clue about their world, Canadians continue to insist that they are ‘better then America.”

Yet American reservations are on average 300 times the size of Canadian reserves. Canada’s residential school programme has been recognised as an act of cultural genocide. Indigenous women continue to be murdered at a rate of four times that of any other ethnic group. Indigenous children are still taken into care at a disproportionate rate.

The chapter that spoke particularly strongly to me was the one about Cultural Appropriation. This is a term that has been treated with undisguised contempt by some in the literary and art worlds. Maracle explains how, among her people, land and physical objects were not considered that property of individuals but something over which they shared stewardship. Knowledge, on the other hand, was personal. You passed it on the members of your family – but you traded for it with those outside your family. And knowledge was not written down but passed on orally, often in the form of story. People were trained in the art of remembering to ensure accuracy.

“Colonial white society assigned itself some crazy Knower’s Chair and handed white people the authority to sit in it They alone get to sit in this chair and decide what is true knowledge and what is false.”

When the white settlers came along, they took what knowledge it suited them and wrote it down. They packaged it up in books and university courses that had to be paid for. At the same time, they separated indigenous children from their parents and grandparents through the residential schools system, thus destroying the natural flow of knowledge down through families, forcing them to buy it back from the settlers who had appropriated it.

Small wonder then, that now First Nations people have the opportunity to revive their traditional skills, knowledge and languages, they are wary of settlers who once again want to repackage these things for commercial gain.

Since 2008, Canada has been going through a process of Truth and Reconciliation. When asked what reconciliation means to her, Maracle answers acerbically – “Well, stop killing us would be a good place to begin. Then maybe stop plundering our resources, stop robbing us of our children, end colonial domination – return our lands, and then maybe we can talk about being friends.”

And yet, it is clear that, despite everything, Maracle does want to find a route to that friendship.

“Some of our people wish Canadians would move back to their original homelands. Not me – I hope they fall in love with the land the way I have – fully, responsibly and committed for life.”

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Why I Am Not Talking To White People About Race by Renni Eddo Lodge, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Avoid If You Dislike: Checking Your Privilege

Perfect Accompaniment: A willingness to give up the Knower’s Chair.

Genre: Non-fiction, Essays, Indigenous Writings

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

This book seems to reflect what undercover work in wartime must have been like. Much drudgery and the occasional drama. Yet when you have a cast of characters as well developed as this and Atkinson's flair with luring the reader in via a chopped-up timeline, your curiosity is piqued.

Juliet works for MI5. Sounds glamorous, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Her job is transcribing conversations between a British agent posing as a German spy and a gaggle of humdrum Nazi sympathisers. Recruited by Peregrine Gibbons, she half hopes he’ll try to seduce her, but he’s got other ideas. The job is dull and monotonous, leading her to wander down thought processes at her own received expressions.

The narrative flits back and forth between the 1940s and the post-war period when Juliet is working for the BBC. Ghosts from the past reappear and she begins to realise that she can never truly leave it all behind.

Juliet is a character one warms to, if slowly. She’s pragmatic, given to fanciful whims but essentially rolls up her sleeves and gets on with the job.

Each character reflects that wartime sense of no one being who they pretend to be and the façade is flimsy to the point of transparency. Everyone knows everyone else is lying, hiding and deceiving, but determined to get on with it anyway.

This is a different Atkinson to Jackson Brodie or Life After Life, yet still with the sparkling wit, light touch with deep characters, atmospheric evocation of time and place, underpinned by a resigned fatality.



You’ll enjoy this if you liked: A God in Ruins, The Night Watch by Sarah Waters or Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks

Avoid if you don’t like: Detail of transcribed conversations, changing timelines, London in wartime

Ideal accompaniments: A strong cup of tea, some hot buttered toast and Vera Lynn’s version of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square



Available on Amazon

















You’ll enjoy this if you liked:




Avoid if you don’t like:




Ideal accompaniments:

This Green and Pleasant Land by Ayisha Malik

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Ayisha Malik has a way of luring you in with a book that appears to be a comedy of manners and then sucker punching you with something much deeper.

This time, Malik takes us away from cosmopolitan London to a sleepy English village of Babbel’s End where Bilal has moved with his young wife and step-son, and where apparently little has changed for hundreds of years

Bilal is the model of what Nikesh Shukla has dubbed the Good Immigrant – educated, integrated, a member of the parish council. His neighbours even call him Bill. But all that changes when a deathbed promise to his mother prompts Bilal to propose building a mosque in the village.

There are echoes here of two much-loved comedy programmes – Little Mosque on the Prairie and The Vicar of Dibley. But as always, inside the velvet glove of Malik’s humour is an iron fist of social commentary. She ruthlessly exposes that veneer that glosses over what Afua Hirsch describes in Brit(ish) as “classic British racism, only half said and half implied a kind of polite prejudice that is only more pernicious for its subtlety.”

Straight after Bilal’s announcement, Shelley, the doyen of the parish council, swings into action. Of course she’s not a racist. It has nothing to do with Bilal’s skin colour. But there was a certain way of doing things in these parts and it doesn’t include the building of mosques!

As the village takes sides between Shelley and Bilal,and the protests get nastier, things are complicated by the arrival of Khala, Bilal’s auntie, recovering after a fall. Khala is everything that Bilal and his wife were not – a visibly Muslim woman with limited English who has lived much of her life in Britain without apparently 'integrating' at all. Yet could she be the one who succeeds in building the bridges that will heal this fractured community?

Malik’s humour is as tender and bittersweet as ever. And the book is surely a foretaste of things to come, as the diversity of Britain’s big cities spreads inexorably out into the countryside. Here’s hoping that voices like Malik’s will help convince everyone that there is nothing to fear from this and everything to celebrate.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved
: Sofia Kahn is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik, The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling, Little Mosque on the Prairie (Canadian television show)

Avoid If You Dislike: Exploring the seamier side of English country life

Perfect Accompaniment: Zarda (sweet rice dish with raisins and almonds)

Genre: Literary Fiction, Humour

Available on Amazon

Friday, 22 March 2019

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Tomi Adeyemi is a part of a new wave of authors who – like Cherie Dimaline and Daniel Jose Older –are creating fantasy novels not rooted in Western European folklore and mythology but which draw upon their own particular heritage. In doing do, they are breathing a new and exciting life into the genre.

In Adeyemi’s case, this is a Yoruba heritage from Nigeria.

The story takes place in Orïsha, a beautiful but dystopian world, divided between dark-skinned, white haired divîners and the lighter skinned kosidán. The divîners were once majis, the descendents of ten clans who could control the natural forces of the world. But magic has been stolen from the world, destroyed by the King, Saran, who fears its power and hates those that wield it. And now divîners are little more than slaves, despised, abused – referred to as maggots.

But then the king’s daughter, Amari, finds there are three artefacts that could bring magic back into the world. When she stumbles into the arms of Zélie, the daughter of a powerful maji killed by Saran when he tried to wipe magic from the earth, the two of them may just have a chance to change Orïsha forever.

It is not only traditional Yoruba stories that Adeyemi has drawn on in creating this story. As she makes clear in her Afterword, everything that happens to her characters has been visited upon Black bodies in the not-so-distant past and much of it is still being visited upon them today.

No one is the villain of their own story. And some of the power of Adeyemi’s story telling is the credible fear of magic she creates through the point of view of Inan, Saran’s son and Amari’s sister. He too wants to change Orïsha, but his vision is very different from Zélie’s.

It is the mutual fear and distrust between divîners and kosidán– between those with the power to wield magic and those who have used brute force to suppress it – that will stand in the path of a new and more equal Orïsha.

A fresh new new voice in the fantasy genre - and a powerful and beautiful allegorical tale for our times.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Avoid If You Dislike: Scenes of violence and torture

Perfect Accompaniment: Fried plantain and jollof rice

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

The Secret Letters from X to A by Nasrin Parvaz

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

It is about a year now since I read Nasrin Parvaz’s powerful memo of her experience of torture and imprisonment in Iran, One Woman’s Struggle in Iran.

Parvaz’s memoir showed how the humanity of the women in prison nonetheless survived. It was a story of friendship and mutual support, of how the women drew strength from one another and found endless small ways to show kindness and even find tiny specks of joy.

This novel is drawn from the same brutal experience, but is necessarily a different beast. It takes as its starting point the decision of the Iranian government to turn its centre for interrogation and torture into a museum – erasing its own role and showing only how torture was used in the same building by the Shah’s regime, overthrown in 1979.

Faraz is a young history teacher whose cousin was turned in by his own father and executed by the regime of the Islamic Republic. When his uncle offers him a job helping to prepare the building for its transformation into a museum, his family are horrified – won’t he be collaborating in the erasure of history? But believing this may be his only chance to find out what happened to his cousin, Faraz accepts the job.

What he finds inside the prison is not a trace of his cousin, but a series of secret letters, written by a young woman X to her husband A, and hidden in cracks in the walls and under the floor. As Faraz uncovers more and more of the tiny, fragile hand-sewn notebooks, he pieces together a picture of X’s terrible treatment inside the prison. But will he ever find out her final fate? And what will happen if he unveils the truth behind the regime's banal lies?

X’s letters to her husband are full of tenderness and love – a love that gives her courage and keeps her going in the darkest of circumstances. Like Faraz, we are drawn into her story, as desperate as he to find the next cache of letters. And we know that Parvaz is writing from the depths of her own experience, the details drawn from her own eight years in prison.

The Secret Letters from X to A not only unmasks what happened inside one of Iran’s notorious prisons (the Joint Committee Interrogation Centre, also known as Towhid), and the hypocrisy of the regime in trying to cover it up. It shows the pressures facing young people in Iran today, trying to cling onto some kind of normal life. And it portrays Iran as a deeply divided society, with rules that only apply to those not part of the privileged elite.

Nonetheless, we in the West should be careful not to place ourselves on some kind of blame-free moral high ground. From complicity in torture to indefinite detention to our whitewashing of atrocities from our Imperial past, our hands are far from clean. This book has lessons for us all.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: One Woman’s Struggle in Iran by Nasrin Parvaz, Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of imprisonment and torture

Perfect Accompaniment: Coffee and Mirzagasemi (smoked aubergine and garlic)

Genre: Literary Fiction, Epistolary Novel

Available on Amazon

Lindisfarne 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: I love Terry Tyler’s books, she’s a great storyteller and develops very real characters. That’s why, even though I’m not generally a fan of post-apocalyptic/dystopian stories, I read Tipping Point, book 1 in the author’s Project Renova series (My review of Tipping Point). And I’m so glad I did. It was scarily plausible and realistic, and in this second novel in the series, Lindisfarne, the fear that this could actually happen, is once again evoked.

The series begins, in Tipping Point, when a lethal virus reaches the UK, and a nationwide vaccination programme is announced. However, it soon becomes obvious that not everyone is being offered the vaccination, for example, the ill, old, mentally ill and unemployed are not entitled.

Six months down the track, the people we met in Tipping Point ––Vicky and her group –– have left their safe house in Northumberland, and have reached the island of Lindisfarne, where they join an existing community.

We are introduced to Dex, Vicky’s partner, and to other old, and new, relationships. And, as with all Terry Tyler’s excellently-drawn characters, we grow to love, like or loathe them.

The new colony seems fairly organized and efficient under the leadership of Marcus. The survivors find the strength to adapt to their new world, but for those who cannot accept that the rules have changed, the opportunity to seize power is too great. Then, when one of the Northumberland group is elected leader, everything falls apart.

Another gripping read that had me turning the pages with each turn of events, Lindisfarne shows us that with power comes responsibility, but that it also comes with the opportunity for corruption.

Like Tipping Point, Lindisfarne is far from a simple dystopian horror story. It rather evokes the very real side of human behaviour when society as we know it breaks down: both positive and negative,

Lindisfarne is an outstanding read; a compelling addition to the Project Renova series and I look forward to reading the next one, UK2.

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

Avoid if you don’t like: What might truly happen to our world in the near future.

Ideal accompaniments: just any kind of food that is available, as tomorrow there may be none.

Genre: Post Apocalyptic/Dystopian

Available on Amazon


Monday, 18 March 2019

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Dreams get caught in the webs woven in your bones. That’s where they live, in that marrow there.”

It’s the mid 21st Century and the world’s freshwater supplies have been polluted beyond repair. The icecaps have melted, swallowing both the coastal cities and much of traditional lands of indigenous people. And now people have stopped dreaming – all that is except indigenous people. Not being able to dream has induced a kind of madness – and the world has turned to indigenous people to try to find a cure. To begin with, they come with curiosity, seeking to learn. But then scientists discover that the secret may lie in bone marrow. And they will take it, by any means necessary.

Settlers turn back to the infamous system of residential schools, where children were snatched from their parents and housed far away, with the aim of stripping them of their Indian identity. Only now, what the revived ‘schools’ want to strip is bone marrow.

French and his brother have already lost their parents. They are running for their lives, using everything they have ever learnt to stay ahead of the terrifying Recruiters.

“It probably started with the first pop of air against metallic plastic, no louder than a champagne cork. I imagined the school truancy officers – Recruiters, we called them – coming for us, noses to the wind, sunglasses reflecting the row of house behind which we were nestled.”

French will lose more, and gain more, than he can possibly imagine before a reckoning becomes possible.

Cherie Dimaline is from the Georgian Bay Metis community in Canada. I suspect if a non-indigenous author had written about Ceremony (for example), they would have felt they had to describe and explain. Dimaline, by contrast, treats it as part of the fabric of life. She doesn’t need to spell it out; she concentrates instead on how her characters relate to it – emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

Dark as the central theme is, The Marrow Thieves is also about family – the families we are born into and the families we make for ourselves – about loyalty and sacrifice in extreme circumstances, and about the agonies and ecstasies of young love.

“How could anything be as bad as it was when this moment existed in the span of eternity? How could I have fear when this girl would allow me this close? How could anything matter but this small miracle of having someone I could love?”

The Marrow Thieves a truly terrifying dystopia that is also an indictment of the on-going exploitation of indigenous people by settler communities. It demonstrates how voices that have traditionally been ignored have entirely new stories to tell. And how important it is that those stories are told by those to whom they belong.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Technologies of the Self by Haris A Durrani, Shadow Shaper by Daniel Jose Older, Rats by JW Hicks, Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese.

Avoid If You Dislike: Post-apocalyptic dystopias

Perfect Accompaniment: A glass of fresh, clean water – while we still can!

Genre: Young Adult, SciFi


Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman


Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

One of those books which gently washes away your expectations and impatience, drawing you into a strange and semi-familiar world of souls and stories. I confess, I started this, gave up and tried again. The prose is lyrical and the style almost magical realism or fable, and if it catches you in the right mood, you will fall into its pools.

Marvellous Ways lives in a caravan in Cornwall. She’s lived a long life and seen many extraordinary things. Her relationship to the world around her is fluid, making the reader wonder what is real and what is imaginary. Thoughts and speech sometimes blur into one another which feels entirely natural once you get used to the convention.

Francis Drake, back from the war, is looking for someone else when he encounters Marvellous Ways. A friendship and understanding develops between the two allowing an exceptional exchange.

Winman’s prose is the definition of mindfulness. She slows down, looks and really sees. Her imaginative language weaves itself into nature, so that the book feels like the movement of the water up the creek.

Not a book to rush, this is like a poem. Sit down, relax and let this writer work her magic.


You’ll enjoy this if you liked: When God Was A Rabbit, Spilt Milk by Amanda Hodgkinson, or The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

Avoid if you don’t like: Non-linear narratives, magical realism, relaxed pace

Ideal accompaniments: Sparkling water, crab cakes and whalesong

Genre: Literary fiction



Available on Amazon




East of Hounslow by Khurrum Rhaman

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Somewhere in the territory between The Little Drummer Girl and Kingsman lies East of Hounslow by Khurrum Rhaman.

This is the story of hapless small-time drug dealer, Javid (‘call me Jay’) Qasim who, against all probability, is recruited by MI5 to infiltrate what they believe is a dangerous terrorist cell at his local mosque.

He is – apparently – the perfect candidate. At a turning point in his life. Credible as someone who could be sucked into extremism. But why did MI5 pick him over all other candidates? And why exactly is the leader of the cell so keen to have him along?

Rhaman’s MI5 is a bit shoddy and rundown – nothing like the hi-tech world of programmes like Spooks. And his terrorists are a long way from the extremist stereotypes and the bogeymen of the tabloid press. And yet the threat they pose is real enough. Will Jay be able to stop them? And at what cost to himself?

Rhaman’s world is an uneasy balance between the absurd and the all-too-probable – a reflection of our society and its fears that creates a kind of uncanny valley. You’ll laugh, and then wonder maybe if you should be laughing – and then laugh again because sometimes laughter is the best weapon against fear.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Dear Infidel by Tamim Sadikali, Brothers in Blood by Amer Anwar, Three Lions (film).

Avoid If You Dislike: Finding humour in terrorism and counter-terrorism

Perfect Accompaniment: A pint of San Miguel

Genre: Thriller, Humour

Available on Amazon

Thursday, 7 March 2019

The Other Half of Happiness by Ayisha Malik

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

If Sofia Khan thought dating was hard, she is about to find out that marriage is even harder – especially when you haven’t spend quite enough time finding out about each other before tying the knot in a Karachi mosque.

Sofia’s mother won’t believe she is married unless they have a proper wedding ceremony back home, her husband is turning out to be a much more complicated creature than she’d imagined and now her publisher wants her to follow her book about Muslim dating with one about Muslim marriage. Just how many more problems can Sofia handle?

As ever, it is Sofia’s circle of irrepressible friends, Suj, Foz, Hannah and her sister Maars, who uphold her and sustain her through what will turn out to be the toughest time of her life.

Sofia Khan continues to demolish every stereotype of Muslim women. She is sexy, funny, with a huge heart - and just as confused about life as any modern woman. And she is absolutely nobody’s pushover.

Along the way, The Other Half of Happiness encompasses the pitfalls of book promotion for a Muslim woman, the manners and mores of Asian weddings and several things-you-never-knew about Ramadan.

From the opening lines to its unexpected ending, The Other Half of Happiness veers from bittersweet to laugh-out-loud funny. At the end, Sofia appears to be poised on the edge of another new adventure. But it may be a while (if ever) before we find out what happens next. Ayisha Malik is working on new book about building a mosque in an English country village that, sadly, doesn’t feature Sofia at all.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Sofia Khan is not Obliged by Ayisha Malik, Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee by Meera Syall, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Avoid If You Dislike: Romantic Comedy tinged with an edge of sadness

Perfect Accompaniment: Masala chai and a lot of biscuits

Genre: Romance, Comedy


Available on Amazon

Saturday, 2 March 2019

The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer



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

What we thought: Another fabulous read from this talented writer! After the success of her debut novel, there was a lot of expectation on the author to deliver with her second novel and she does not disappoint.

There are elements of the supernatural, historical, crime … all wound into a superbly crafted character driven novel that wraps you in its embrace from the opening page and doesn’t let you go until you arrive bruised and shaken at the final chapter.

The main protagonist is Ruby – a troubled teenage girl living an unhappy half-life existence as the adopted daughter of Mick and Barbara. Ruby has long ago learned to hide her bruises and mask her pain. When she creates imaginary childhood friends therefore – is it any real surprise? But who or what is Shadow? Is he real or a figment of Ruby’s scarred imagination?

The novel leads us on a journey through Ruby’s formative years and the search for her real family which leads to some shocking revelations. The dramas and characters she encounters along the way are brilliantly written in this author’s engaging style. I thought each character was so perfectly crafted they could have stepped straight from the page. Pace was handled to perfection – the highs and lows matched the tone of the novel so no section every felt too rushed or too slow.

There’s not an emotion left unexplored in this novel and you will turn the final page with a mixture of regret and joy. I admire this author’s writing even more so now and the topics she chooses to confront take real bravery.

Highly recommended!

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Joanna Cannon, Gail Honeyman, Celia Imrie.

Avoid if you don’t like : Teenage angst and family secrets.

Ideal accompaniments: Cheese platter and crackers with a glass of Pinot Noir.

Genre : Contemporary.

Available on Amazon



Wednesday, 20 February 2019

All The Little Lies by Chris Curran


Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

A chance email with a casual link to a newspaper article about an artist triggers a revelation for Eve. A new mother herself, her emotions are more vulnerable when she realises that artist is her birth mother. The one her parents apparently knew nothing about.

The long-buried secret trope is much overdone and despite my admiration for this writer, I approached this book with concerns. Two nights later, I'd forgotten what I was worried about. 

This is a perfectly wrought psychological drama times two. The dual narrative of Eve and her mother puts the reader into the uncertainty and naïveté of both women.  The characters, voices and relationships are so sharp they could have been cut with a Stanley knife. Right until the end, I was still unsure who to trust.

In addition to the well-woven, tense and emotionally literate narratives, Curran evokes her locations with an expressionistic flair. The characters' perspectives are reflected in their physical environment, used to stunning effect in the dénouement. Hills, steps, bridges and levels of a gallery echo internal landscapes. This is a film-maker's dream.

This is a tense, intelligent and layered thriller which makes you ask yourself why you believe the stories you've been told. This is a writer who just gets better.


You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Don't Look Now by Nicolas Roeg, Cry by Helen Fitzgerald or Mindsight by Chris Curran

Avoid if you don’t like: Dual narratives, time shifts, stories of adoption

Ideal accompaniments: Ginger beer, pomegranate seeds and a view of the Tyne