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

Thursday, 19 September 2019

The Beautiful Side of the Moon by Leye Adenle

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

For those of you familiar with Adenle’s Amaka series of crime novels set in Lagos, this is a very different book. This is a fantasy – written in part so Adenle’s nieces and nephews might read something he wrote. And it's a fantasy grounded in Nigerian Edo tradition.

Osaretin is an IT guy, working in a typically boring job in downtown Lagos. He is vaguely aware that is father was a magician – the sort who can make money appear in a handkerchief and eggs disappear in the palm of his hand. But then one day he receives a letter written on light purple paper, smelling of lavender, purporting to be from a Most Magnificent Magician of the second to highest level and announcing that he will shortly pay Osaretin a visit to instruct him in the magic his father was famous for.

Of course, to begin with he assumes it is a prank. But then he receives two visits – the first from a beautiful woman called Adesua, the second from a man in a purple fedora who calls himself Brother Moses.

From there begins a journey that will involve a sphere that can turn back time, flying magicians, body swaps, a magnetic, healing garden – and a battle between good and evil. Is Osaretin really his father’s heir – the champion they have all been waiting for? Or have they picked the wrong man?

The Beautiful Side of the Moon is a less tightly plotted that Adenle’s crime novels. It unfolds in a dreamlike way, reminiscent of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Reading it, you experience something of the same sense of dislocation as Osaretin himself. It’s best to just hang on to Osaretin’s coattails and enjoy the ride.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Avoid If You Dislike: Books with a winding, dreamlike plotline.

Perfect Accompaniment: Fireworks and a glass of wine

Genre: Fantasy

Buy a copy here

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Hope 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: Hope is a frightening exploration of a not-too-distant, dystopian future, the fourth decade of the 21st century. Frightening, and very disturbing, because this near future is entirely plausible in a world where social media has become even more intrusive than it is today, and where people share their lives online.

UK Prime Minister, Guy Morrissey, his health and fitness fanatic wife, Mona, and their perfect children, have become role models for the entire nation: Brand Morrissey. Any individual who doesn’t conform to Mona’s fitness regime (#FitForWork) finds themselves unemployed.




The power behind Brand Morrissey is the Nutricorp company, founded by Mona’s father, Paul Bettencourt. While it appears, on the surface, that Nutricorp has the nation’s best interests at heart, Nutricorp’s underlying motives are purely financial, through control of the population.

Young woman, Lita Stone earns her living from the profitable adverts people place on her well-known blog, where she posts honest reviews and comments on social issues. She shares accommodation with a sensitive young girl, Kendall, and with Nick, a journalist and anonymous icon behind the satirical and scathing online persona, Widow Skanky.

When the lives of Lita, Nick and Kendall take a downward turn, the trio find themselves homeless. And since there is no place for homelessness in this Brand Morrissey nation, they are sent, along with many others, to a Hope village, all of which are funded by Nutricorp.

The title of the book primarily indicates the Hope villages, which, with their policies of total control over the residents, hold anything but hope. But as we follow the struggles of Lita, Nick and Kendall, the true meaning of “hope” does emerge, as the ending leaves us with hope for the battle against such evil.

Terry Tyler is a skilled and talented writer, her descriptions vividly depicting the people living in this disturbing dystopia she so well imagines: those existing on both sides of the coin. She portrays a wide array of personalities: the ones who thrive in such situations, those who suffer, and those who decide to fight back.

I found Hope a thought-provoking and compelling read. I highly recommend it, not only for readers who enjoy dystopian fiction, but for those seeking a believable, multi-layered and suspenseful psychological thriller.

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

Avoid if you don’t like: Believable predictions about our world in the near future.

Ideal accompaniments: any kind of available food, for if you end up in a Hope village, there might not be any!

Genre: Dystopian/Psychological Thriller

Buy a copy here


Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is a joyous patchwork quilt of a novel, celebrating seven generations, and over a hundred years, of Black British womanhood.

It begins with Amma, radical lesbian feminist playwright who now, in her fifties, finally has a play on at the National Theatre. From her, the narrative fans out, through family and friends, chance encounters and hidden connections.

There’s Yazz, Amma’s daughter, to whom her radicalism is out-dated and rather quaint. Dominique, her friend, survivor of an abusive relationship with another woman. Carol the successful banker, Bummi her highly educated Nigerian mother who worked as a cleaner to give her daughter the chances she never had. Shirley the uptight teacher. Morgan who self-identifies as gender-free. Hattie who has spent her life running a farm in a remote part of the north of England. Grace, her grandmother, daughter of an Ethiopan sailor she never met...

Evaristo plays with sentence structure – eschewing a lot of punctuation and capitalisation, and instead putting separate sentences and clauses and phrases on separate lines, so the whole thing is presented rather like an extended prose poem. You might think this would make it difficult to read, but in fact the brain adapts and the text flows perfectly .

Just as our eye is drawn across the pattern of a quilt, we are drawn from story to story by juxtaposition, while the bigger picture is formed by harmonies and contrasts of tone and shape. It’s a fascinating book – one that led more than once to my reading far too late into the night, as I finished one story only to be sucked into the next.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker 2019. And I will be sorely disappointed if this book does not make it to the shortlists of both the Women’s Prize and the Jhalak Prize in 2020.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Break by Katherena Vermette, Subjunctive Moods by C G Menon, Smash All The Windows, Jane Davis

Avoid If You Dislike: Defying the rules of punctuation

Perfect Accompaniment: Impossible - each story deserves its own!

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy a copy here.