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