Thursday, 24 September 2020

Meat Market by Juno Dawson

David C Dawson

What we thought:

I was excited to read another Juno Dawson novel, especially one that scooped the YA Book Prize in 2020. Dawson has become the most prolifically original YA writer in the UK since her debut novel Hollow Pike in 2012. Could Meat Market deliver the punch of Clean or the wit of Wonderland?

Yes, on both counts. Meat Market is a moving, funny and ultimately uplifting attack on the excesses of the fashion industry.

Jana Novak is a gawky sixteen-year-old about to start her A-levels. She’s the tall, skinny, awkward girl who, when her class performed “An English Country Garden” in front of the whole school, was told to be play a weed.

While on a school trip to Thorpe Park she’s talent spotted by a model agency. With the support of her mum, Jana signs up enthusiastically for what she expects to be a life of glamour and riches.

Jana’s new life starts off glamorous, and she earns more on one assignment than her father earns in a year. But her life quickly tarnishes, and she’s subjected to long working hours, lonely nights staying in hotels and alienation from her schoolfriends.

Meat Market is a sharply incisive story that warns of the exploitation of young, vulnerable people in the fashion industry. As ever, Dawson is not shy of tackling difficult subject matter head on, from the way that sudden wealth distorts a young person’s life, to the difficulties women face in challenging decades of acceptance of sexual abuse by predatory men in positions of power.

As with all Dawson’s books that I’ve read, Meat Market’s opening is witty and funny. Dawson establishes the central characters’ motivations and values and it’s easy to empathise with them and their relationships.

Then Dawson piles on the jeopardy.

Meat Market becomes very dark when Jana is first seduced into drug taking and cheating on her boyfriend. Her lowest point comes when she’s sexually assaulted by a highly respected man in the fashion industry. The rest of the industry rushes to protect him. As Jana stands alone against her assailant she becomes the heroine of a #MeToo inspired plotline.

Highly recommended.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Holly Jackson, Sophie McKenzie

Avoid if you don’t like: Some explicit sex, drug references, sexual assault description, eating disorder themes

Ideal accompaniments: Jam tarts

Genre: Young Adult, LGBTQ

Thursday, 17 September 2020

The White Girl by Tony Birch

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

“Welfare? Oh, you’ve looked after the welfare of our young girls for a long time now. Most of them are dead, disappeared, or were sent mad by what you did to them in institutions. That’s not welfare, Sergeant. I think your own law would call that murder.”

For the last few years, I have made a point of searching out and reading books by Canadian indigenous authors. But to the best of my recollection, the only book by an Australian indigenous author I had read before this was the memoir, Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara.

The White Girl is a novel, set in the 1960s, thirty years after the events in Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence. But it was still a time when State police and ‘Welfare Boards’ had extraordinary powers of Australian Aboriginal people, who were not considered citizens and did not have voting rights.

Odette Brown is an Aboriginal woman living in Deane, a fictional mining town in a remote part of Australia, with her granddaughter Sissy. Thanks to her unknown white father, Sissy is blonde and fair-skinned, which makes her of particular interest to the Welfare Board. The local police control where they can travel and can, on the smallest excuse, take Sissy into their custody.

The only escape from this control is a so-called ‘exemption certificate,’ which can be issued by the Welfare Board if character references a provided by two white people of good standing. But it comes at a heavy price – the bearer must promise not to associate with other Aboriginal people, essentially forcing them to renounce their own families.

When the thirteen-year-old Sissy starts to receive unwanted attentions from the local White Trash, Odette is forced take desperate measures to protect her.

The White Girl is a story of love, resilience and family. The relationship between Odette and Sissy, though tinged with sadness, is brimming with warmth and humour. As readers, we are sucked along on the dangerous tightrope Odette must walk in order to live with dignity in a country where she is denied basic human rights.

By the 1960s, Australia might have moved beyond the brutal cruelty that leads Odette to say “Deane carried the blood or so many Aboriginal people on his hands it could never be scrubbed away, not from the man himself or the town that carried his name.” Yet the white settler community could still convince itself that the Aboriginal people were like children, incapable of looking after themselves or making decisions about their own welfare. As with indigenous communities around the world, things have moved on, but there is still a long way to go.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara, The Break by Katherena Vermette

Avoid If You Dislike: Being reminded of the shameful attitude of settle communities towards indigenous peoples

Perfect Accompaniment: A long soak in the bath

Genre: Indigenous Literature, Recent Historical Fiction, Australian Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 10 September 2020

The Affair of the Porcelain Dog by Jess Faraday

Reviewer: David C Dawson

What We Thought:

An original idea, well executed.

A story of blackmail in Victorian London, with a former rent boy as the main protagonist.

Ira Adler is the sexual partner of Cain Goddard, who also happens to run a number of criminal operations across London. Goddard is being blackmailed for his homosexuality. Goddard discovers there’s incriminating evidence inside a porcelain statue of a dog, and he sends Ira to get it back. If Adler fails, he loses the comfortable bed he’s become accustomed to.

And so the intrigue begins.

This is much more than a good, rollicking Victorian mystery story. Faraday vividly paints a dark picture of Victorian London. Opium dens, anarchists, human trafficking, the deadly gap between rich and poor, and the twilight world that gay men once had to inhabit. But ultimately, The Affair of the Porcelain Dog is a story of revenge. When Ira Adler finally uncovers the mystery, he must choose between the luxurious lifestyle he enjoys, and the principles he knows he should stand by.

Faraday has an easy writing style, and the story bowls along, with all the right cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter, and sometimes half way through a chapter. The book could easily have been published as a periodic serial, in the same way Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first published the Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

It took me a while to warm to several of the characters in this novel. I found it particularly difficult to empathise with Ira Adler until about half way through the book. Faraday paints him as a very cold, calculating chap. But it’s worth persevering. As Adler realises how much he’s been deceived, he becomes vulnerable, and we’re finally completely on his side.

By the way, I listened to this as an audiobook, read by Philip  Battley. He gives an excellent performance, and I strongly recommend it.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Sherlock Holmes, The Sins of Jack Saul

Avoid If You Dislike: Detailed description of Victorian squalor

Perfect Accompaniment: A tot of gin and some jellied eels

Genre: Crime, Historical, LGBTIAQ+

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 3 September 2020

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (trans. Anon)

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Sometimes the only way to convey the true nature of horror is via the surreal.

Shokoofeh Azar’s novel, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is the account of a family broken apart and eventually destroyed by Iran’s Islamic Revolution. 

It opens on the day the son is executed by the regime. That same hour, the mother climbs a greengage tree in search of enlightenment, while her husband and daughters gather beneath the tree to watch over her.

What slowly becomes apparent is that the younger of the two daughters is also dead – burnt alive in a fire in the family home during the last days of the revolution. The family have escaped Tehran to a remote village in the north of the country, hoping to find peace, but the revolution follows them. Her ghost, watching over them, continues to tell their story.

While the events of the revolution and the repressions that follow it are there, the story continually spins off into fantastical events and encounters with extraordinary characters, drawn in a large part from the rich heritage of Persian mythology. There are jinns and soothsayers, a black snow that lasts one hundred and seventy-seven days, a man that can hear the opening of a flower and a woman who transforms into a mermaid ... The language in these magical passages is lyrical.

"It seemed as though the orphaned mothers had become … the luminous blue butterflies the flitted ahead of the men the whole way – as if trying to distract them from their search with the blue-gold dust they sprinkled on the searchers’ heads and shoulders." 

Azar has written about how she missed her books when she was forced to flee Iran to stat a new life as a refugee in Australia, and books play a huge part in the story. The family are all readers and at one point, when many of their books are destroyed, they spend weeks trying to write down everything they can remember of the contents. Azar catalogues the books like an incantation, and the roll call is fascination. Titles that will be familiar to an Anglo-European reader – such as du Maurier’s Rebecca, Eliot’s The Wasteland, Shakespeare and the Divine Comedy– rub shoulders with titles and authors largely unknown in the West, underlining how narrow our reading can be compared with readers from other parts of the world.

In essence, though, the book is about the brutalising effect of violence and oppression.

“Once your eyes get accustomed to seeing violence in the city streets and squares, they can only become more accustomed. Gradually you’ll turn into your enemy; the very person who spread the violence.”

And about how the regime is, bit by bit, destroying the beauty of an ancient civilisation, even to the oral traditions of folklore..

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree was shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize, a first for a book translated from Farsi. Normally, with translated books, it is considered vital to name the translator, but in this case, for their own safety, the translator has chosen to remain anonymous. The book was also shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize in Australia.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez; The Tin Drum by Günter Grass;  Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie; Celestial Bodies
by Jokha Alharthi; The Secret Letters from X to A by Nasrin Parvaz.

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories that spin off into surrealism

Perfect Accompaniment: Smoked tea

Genre: Literary Fiction, Magic Realism

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Midnight at Malabar house by Vaseem Khan

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Midnight at Malabar House is the start of a brand-new series for Vaseem Khan, featuring Inspector Wadia, India’s first female detective.

Like his hugely popular Inspector Chopra series, this new series is set in Bombay, but this time, Khan has taken a step back in time to 1950. India has only recently won independence and the scars of Partition are still raw.

The chimes of midnight have barely died away at the start of a new decade, when Inspector Wadia receives a call summoning her to Malabar House. There, with a New Year’s Eve party still in full swing, the body of its host, James Herriot, has been found dead in his study, his throat cut and his trousers missing.

It would be easy for Persis to accept a simple solution to the problem in front of her, and indeed her superiors are anxious for her to do just that. But something about the situation just does not add up, and Persis refuses to let things go.

In some ways, Persis’ single-minded pursuit of the truth reminded me of The Bridge’s Saga Noren. Like all the best detectives, she is an outsider. Not only is she a lone woman in a male-dominated world, but she is a Parsee, a follower of Zoarastrianism, a minority religion in a country dominated by tensions between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. She can also be ruthless, blinkered and not a little selfish. But as readers, we see her vulnerabilities, and how much she is prepared to sacrifice in the cause of justice. Like her sometime partner in detection, forensic scientist Archie Blackfinch, we know we are going to hang on for the ride.

Perhaps in honour of the time period in which it is set, Midnight at Malabar House is constructed much like a piece of Golden Age detective fiction, complete with a climactic assembly of all the suspects. But those who have become accustomed to the cosy, humorous style of the Kahn’s Inspector Chopra series may be taken aback by the grittier nature of this new series.

Indeed, those who cling to rosy notions of the benefits Britain brought to India may be less that pleased by Persis' (and Khan’s) uncompromising views. Khan is looking at India’s struggle for independence from the opposite side from the lens from his fellow Red Hot Chilli Writer, Abir Mukherjee, but his criticism of the British is no less trenchant. From the asset stripping by the East India Company, to the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, to the Bengal famine and clumsy handling of Partition, the sins of Empire are laid bare. But at a time when Britain is being called upon to have an honest conversation about its past, a book like this, which slips its history lessons between the pages of a crime thriller, feels necessary and welcome.

I look forward to diving further into the world of Inspector Persis Wadia.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee

Avoid If You Dislike: confronting the sins of Empire

Perfect Accompaniment: a milky tea and a cucumber and chutney sandwich

Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Friday, 14 August 2020

This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It

Many years ago, I read Tsitsi Dangarembga’s debut novel, Nervous Conditions, when it won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It is a book that has stayed with me for a long time. It told the story of Tambudzai, a young girl growing up on a poor homestead in pre-independence Zimbabwe who, like Adunni in Abi Daré’s The Girl With the Louding Voice, burns with a desire for education.

After a long interlude, during which she focused on her career as a film maker, Dangarembga wrote a sequel, The Book of Not. And now, with This Mournable Body, the trilogy reaches the late twentieth century. Tambu, now middle aged, has just thrown away a good job at an advertising agency in Harare because white men on the staff have taken credit for her work. So now, despite the education she fought so hard to achieve, she finds herself once again struggling in the margins.

“Yet how awful it is to admit that closeness to white people at the convent has ruined your heart, and caused your womb, from which you reproduced yourself before you gave birth to anything else, to shrink between your hip bone.”

Unusually, This Mournable Body is written entirely in second person, with Tambu addressed throughout as ‘you’. The usage echoes Tambu’s own dissociative state, as she struggles with her sense of failure and helplessness. Together with recurring metaphors for her mental illness (a hyena howling, ants crawling over her body) it creates an intimate portrait of mental struggle. At the same time, as in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Tambu’s breakdown and fragile recovery can be read as standing for a country suffering collective PTSD after a brutal war and struggle against occupation.

“Now you understand. You arrived on the back of a hyena. 6the treacherous creature dropped you from far above onto the desert floor … You are an ill-made person. You are being unmade. The hyena laugh-howls at your destruction.”

The title, This Mournable Body, is taken from the essay, 'Unmournable Bodies', by Nigerian author Teju Cole, which called into question whose bodies the West decides are worthy of mourning. Throughout the novel, Tambu’s fortunes ebb and flow, while in the background we catch glimpses of the issues that beset the Zimbabwe – residues of white supremacy; the physical and mental scars of those who fought the brutal war of liberation; sexual violence; corruption; suspicion of foreigners…

This is a powerful novel: an intimate story written on a large canvas. Now on the 2020 Booker Prize Longlist.

You’ll Enjoy This if you Loved: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Avoid If You Dislike: Books written in the second person

Perfect Accompaniment: Mealie meal porridge

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Firewatching by Russ Thomas

Reviewer: David C Dawson

What We Thought:

This is a great debut novel in what promises to be a series of mysteries involving a Sheffield-based detective called DS Adam Tyler.

The remains of a wealthy and unpopular businessman are found bricked up in the wall of the Old Vicarage in a quiet Yorkshire town. The man had disappeared six years previously in mysterious circumstances.

DS Adam Tyler is assigned to the case. He’s an ambitious gay detective with a dark secret, and a lot of conflict with the hierarchy in the police force. An attractive young man called Oscar picks him up in a gay bar. Oscar also happens to be the son of the dead businessman.

And then it all gets very complicated…

As well as a murderer to find, there’s an arsonist on the loose. And there are two suspicious aged spinsters who live together and have a connection with Oscar.

Then there’s the gay fire chief Paul Enfield…

Thomas’s debut novel is a conventional detective mystery with a gay hero, or maybe anti-hero at its core. Thomas throws in every possible red herring he can think of, plus an interesting cast of flawed characters, none of whom are entirely trustworthy.

The story is mainly recounted from DS Tyler’s perspective. But Thomas uses multiple points of view to give us some great twists, together with reader prior knowledge, which will keep you on the edge of your seat.

The climax is gripping, and Thomas ties together every loose end in a very satisfying way.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Barbara Vine, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid

Avoid if you don’t like: Some graphic description of cruelty

Ideal accompaniment: A flaming Sambuca

Genre: Crime Fiction, Police procedural, LGBTQ

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

Paul Mendez’s powerful debut Rainbow Milk is fiction, but it draws closely on Mendez’s own life. Indeed, the book began as a life writing exercise before he was persuaded to turn it into fiction.

Jesse has been brought up by his black mother and white stepfather in a strict Jehovah’s Witness community in Swan Village in the West Midlands. Outwardly, he is the perfect Brother, “the darling boy of the congregation, baptised, about to become a ministerial servant, halfway to elderdom, at nineteen.” Inwardly, he is struggling with his sexuality and with his mother’s emotional rejection.

When he is abruptly dis-fellowshipped and consequently ostracised by his family and the Witness community, Jesse escapes to London to lose himself in a mixture of drugs, sex work and the occasional bout of waitering.

Most of Jesse’s clients use him or abuse him, and immediately forget him, but others, like Derrick “rescued him by giving him the space to feel like a normal human being.” And then there is Owen, his newly-divorced gay flatmate, with whom he shares what could have been a bleak and lonely Christmas Day.

The novel is rich in musical references. Many of the scene are scored with music from Joy Division, Mary J Blige, Massive Attack, Public Image Limited...

“He closed his eyes and allowed the music to print images on the back of his eyelids. Derelict foundries; shopping trolleys in the algae covered canals, the gas tank; the disused railways lines choked with stinging nettles, a dustbin for screwed-up, spunked-in porn...”

Mendez’s descriptions of sex work can be brutal and shocking. But he is equally good at conveying moments of profound tenderness. He is adept too at conveying the intensity of a crowded restaurant service – the demands of the customers, the petty jealousies of the staff, the things that go wrong and the fleeting connections.

Rainbow Milk opens, though, with a young West Indian couple arriving in England’s industrial Black Country in the 1950s. It shows the poverty and prejudice they faces, but also the tenderness of a father to his young children and his tentative but growing relationship with his white neighbour. For most of the book, this section appears to stand alone, before it’s woven back into Jesse’s story towards the end.

Until recently, the lives of Black gay men have often been all-but invisible With films like Moonlight, television programmes like I May Destroy You and books like Dean Atta's The Black Flamingo, that is starting to change. Rainbow Milk is a deeply moving addition. It's the story of an exceptional journey – out of one world and into another, and from rejection and intolerance to acceptance and love. Parts of it are hard to read but it is ultimately brimming of hope and vibrant with life.

Listen to Paul Mendez talking to Okechukwe Nzelu, author of The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney, on the Cabin Fever podcast, as they discuss writing, their different backgrounds and their experiences as Black gay men in Britain.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead

Avoid If You Dislike: Graphic depictions of sexual activity.

Perfect Accompaniment: ‘Disorder’ by Joy Division

Genre: Contemporary, LGBTQIA+

Buy This Book Here:

Thursday, 23 July 2020

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Underground Railroad is a powerful and intentionally disturbing novel about slave-era America.

His main character, Cora, was born onto the Randall slave plantation in Georgia, the daughter of Mabel – the only slave ever to have runaway from Randall and evade recapture. Left to fend for herself when she was only nine years old, she has developed a toughness unusual even among slave women.

Whitehead does not shirk from showing the sickening violence and cruelty of life on the plantation, and the way it strips its victims of their humanity and reduces everything to the necessity of survival.

“There was an order of misery, misery tucked inside miseries, and you were meant to keep track.”

And yet the first time fellow slave, Caesar, asks Cora to escape with him, she says no. It is only after she is savagely beaten for her impulsive defence of a child that she allows him to persuade her to ride the Underground Railroad with him.

I don’t always read the blurbs of books before I dive in, so I was unprepared for the touch of surrealism when Whitehead flips the metaphor of the Underground Railroad and gives us a literal railroad running underground from State to State. As their first station agent tells them:

“If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through and you’ll find the true face of America.”

And so Whitehead takes Cora, and the reader, on a journey from state to state that reveals the diverse and ugly conditions of different pre-Civil War States.

From the Georgia plantation we are taken to South Carolina, where an apparently benevolent system hides living museum exhibits (something that also characterised the Britain’s Great Exhibition in 1851) and compulsory sterilisation. Across the border in North Carolina, they have ‘solved’ the negro problem by abolishing negroes – for a Black person merely to be found in the state is a capital crime, their bodies strung up as a gruesome warning along the ‘Freedom Trail’. Then there is Tennessee, blighted by poverty, draught, brushfires and sickness. And lastly, Indiana, no longer a slave state, where for a time a mixture of free Blacks and runaways try and establish a model community alongside the farms of the White settlers.

The slave catcher, Ridgeway, sums up the sense of entitlement and manifest destiny embedded in the American Dream. “If n***s were meant to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to taken this new world, he wouldn’t own in now.”

If the literal Underground Railway is a fiction, the conditions Whitehead describes in the different States are not. His depiction of each of Cora’s destinations is firmly rooted in fact. He has no need to embroider – the truth is horrific enough. It is the long history of glossing over those facts, on both side of the Atlantic, that has been and continues to be so damaging.

“The newspapers like to impress the fantasy of the happy plantation and the contented slave who sang and danced and loved Massa. Folks enjoyed that sort of thing and it was politically useful.”

An important and necessary book that helps to rebalance the scales against lies and fictions still too often being found politically-useful.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize 2017 and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton, The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Avoid If You Dislike: Confronting the realities of slave-era America

Perfect Accompaniment: An apple, and pumpernickel bread

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 16 July 2020

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

No sooner was The Vanishing Half published in the UK, barely a few weeks ago, than my timeline began to fill up with people saying how extraordinary it was. And my goodness, it doesn’t disappoint! From the minute that Desiree Vignes strides onto the page, battered suitcase in one hand, her daughter in the other, the characters fizzle and sizzle and the story zips along.

That opening scene takes place a few days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, in a town in Louisiana, too tiny to appear on any maps, called Mallard. Mallard was founded by the freed son of a slave owner. “A town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes ... He imagined his children’s children’s children, lighter still, like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream ... Each generation lighter than before.”

And therein lies bore the core dream of Mallard and the core theme of the novel – the insidious nature of colorism.

Desiree is one of two twin girls who, years ago, ran away from Mallard to make a life for themselves far away. But while Desiree defied Mallard to marry a dark skinned Black man and have a child “blue black, like she flown direct from Africa”, her twin, Stella, has achieved the seeming impossible, ‘passed over’ as white and vanished.

Yet both twins have reason to know how impossible the Mallard dream is. As children, they witnessed their light-skinned father lynched by a mob of white men, for no other reason, it seemed, than to remind Mallard they could never by white.

“White folk kill you if you want too much, kill you if you want too little ... You gotta follow they rules but they change them when they feel. Devilish, you ask me.”

The novel tracks the stories of Desiree and Stella and their two daughters, Jude and Kennedy. Stella’s life may exemplify how being white has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with what is in the eye of the beholder. But it also shows how, in different ways, colorism internalises racism – turning Stella against her colored neighbours when she fears they might expose her, or teaching Jude see her own dark skin as “a fly in the milk, contaminating everything.”
The novel also introduces a trans character – Jude’s boyfriend Reese, completely and tenderly accepted for who he is, by Jude and by the narrator, even while he himself is still struggling with his identity.

An exquisite tour de force of a novel, peopled with flawed and unforgettable characters. and brimming with warmth and compassion.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Girl Woman Other by Bernardine Evaristo, When We Speak of Nothing by Olumide Popoola, Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton, A Tall History of Sugar by Curdella Forbes, The Mother by Yvvette Edwards

Avoid If You Dislike: Being reminded that both race and gender are constructs.

Perfect Accompaniment: Cornbread and milk

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here:

Thursday, 9 July 2020

That Reminds Me by Derek Owusu

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Those who annually drag out the tired old cliché that “the English novel is dead” should perhaps lift up their eyes: they would find so much exciting experimentation beyond familiar horizons. Just this year, for instance, I have read three very different novels which play with the boundaries between poetry. The first two were Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl Woman Other, the second Dean Atta’s The Black Flamingo and the third is Derek Owusu’s That Reminds Me, winner of the 2020 Desmond Elliot Prize.

That Reminds Me
is the story of K, London born child of Ghanaian parents. His life is recounted in a series of vignettes, most less than a page in length: moments captured in prose so tight it verges on poetry. It begins with K being fostered out to a white family who live in the countryside – an experience that mixes love with harsh discipline. Then, after a return to the family home, with an often-absent father and a mother who gets up a dawn to clean the local school, a baby brother is born. K has an ambivalent relationship with the church that is so important in his mother’s life. And both brothers experience, in different ways, the pressures of growing up poor and black in London.

The book is divided into five sections, each opening with a drawing of a tiny spider and an invocation to Anansi – trickster, story teller and spider god – and each dealing with a different period of K’s life. We see, almost frame by frame, how the world chips away at K’s sense of self. One of the books most shocking moments comes when K removes jacket to wash away a tiny stain on the front of his shirt, to reveal a sleeve soaked in blood from acts of self harm.

The novel is scattered with small details of the Ghanaian culture of K’s family. Chasing up some of the references (like the Nyame Mwu na Mawu symbol worn by mourners at a funeral – meaning “God never dies, therefore I cannot die”) is worth it to enrich understanding.

With writing so spare, a whole history can be tied up in a single sentence whose meaning is left to be unpacked - such as when he writes “My dark skin saved my father from social services but no one saved me.” At times that meaning can be elusive, but the text bears patient rereading.

That Reminds Me is the first novel published by Stormzy’s imprint, Merky Books. It’s a bold, adventurous start that promises great riches to come.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay; This Brutal House by Niven Govinden; In Our Mad and Dangerous City by Guy Gunaratne

Avoid If You Dislike: fragmented narratives

Perfect Accompaniment: Ghanaian pepper soup

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 2 July 2020

The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney by Okechukwu Nzelu

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Nnenna is the only child of single mother and Cambridge Classics graduate Joanie and a Nigerian father she has never met. She and her mother are close, but Nnenna has never been able to get her mother to talk about her father. So when she begins to explore her Igbo heritage, she does so in secrecy.

The book captures the intensity of the relationship between a single mother and her only daughter, and the peculiar pain (for both of them) of the daughter’s first adolescent rebellion. It examines what it means to grow up without knowing about a significant part of your heritage, and how a white parent, however well-intentioned, can be blind to the impact that has on their child.

The story is peppered with examples of the sort of everyday sexism and racism women of colour face every day. (“I’m not normally attracted to girls like you but...”) You can see how these begin to chip away at Nnenna’s sense of self, as she imagines the conversations her teachers might be having about her behind her back.

This book was not quite what I was expecting when I first opened it, and as when you step onto something that is moving in a way you don’t expect, it can take a little while to get used to the direction of travel. The tone early on reminded me of books like Frederic Raphael’s Glittering Prizes, which looked at the lives of Cambridge graduates in the 1950s to 70s. And though Nnenna is central to the story, the narrative is divided between her, her parents and their group of Cambridge friends in the 1990s, and in the present day, her mother, one of those friends (a gay West Indian man) and a couple of Nnenna’s friends. Through those additional characters, the book also explores generational, class and cultural attitudes to gay men, and shines a light on exploitation within the gay community too.

There is an interesting comparison to be made between this and Olumide Popoola’s When We Speak of Nothing, which shares some of the same themes. Nnenna’s world, among largely well-off pupils at a high-achieving school in Manchester, is a long way from Abu and Karl’s London comprehensive. But teenage dilemmas remain much the same, regardless of background.

A witty, troubling tale of coming of age as a mixed-race child of a single, white mother.

The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney was shortlisted for the 2020 Desmond Elliott Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Olumide Popoola’s When We Speak of Nothing

Avoid If You Dislike: Narratives shared among a large number of characters

Perfect Accompaniment: Groundrice and fried plantain

Genre: Contemporary, Coming of Age, LGBTQ

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 25 June 2020

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It

In the Prologue to her debut novel, The Girl with the Louding Voice, Abi Daré quotes from the Nigerian Book of Facts, 2014:

“Nigeria is the richest country in Africa. Sadly, over 100 million Nigerians live in poverty.”

That dichotomy is at the heart of this book.

Adunni is born into a poor family in a small village in Nigeria. She want more than anything else to get an education

“That day, I tell myself that even if if I am not getting anything in this life, I will go to school I will finish my primary and secondary and university schooling and go to university, because I don’t just want to have any kind of voice...I want a louding voice.”

When her mother dies, that hoped is snatched away. She is married off, aged 14, to a much older man who already has two wives. Yet, on her path from there, via her time as a house girl / domestic slave to a fabulously wealthy Lagos businesswoman, to her ultimate destination, she never loses sight of her passion for learning – and for teaching other Nigerian girls.

Like Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Adunni tells her story in non-standard English – which doesn’t stop her from expressing herself with passion and clarity. Here, she rages against the assumption that she exists just to breed more children.

“Why fill up the world with sad childrens that are not having a chance to go to school? Why make the world to be one big sad, silent place because all the childrens are not having a voice?”

Adunni uses every scrap of learning she can to fuel a burning desire for justice – for herself and for others, like Khadija, her husband’s second wife who have suffered even more. Her curiosity and sense of justice also drive her to find out what happened to Rebecca, her employer’s previous house girl, whom no one seems to want to talk about.

“The Slavery Abolition Act was signed in the year 1822,” I say. [...] “People are still breaking the Act. I want to do something to make it stop [...] to stop slave-trading of the mind, not just of the body.”

Adunni’s story is at times desperately sad, but it is also a glorious celebration of the emancipating effect of female education. Adunni’s louding voice needs to be heard.

The Girl with the Louding Voice won the 2018 Bath Novel Award and is shortlisted for the 2020 Desmond Elliott Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: When Trouble Sleeps by Leye Adenle; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara;

Avoid If You Dislike: Books written largely in non-standard English

Perfect Accompaniment: Spiced meat pie

Genre: Contemporary, Literary

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Wonderland by Juno Dawson

Reviewer: David C Dawson

What we thought:

Amazingly, this is Dawson’s (no relation!) twentieth young adult novel. I gave her debut novel Hollow Pike a rave review here on Bookmuse four years ago.

Dawson’s come a long way since her debut novel in 2012, both personally and in her writing. Wonderland has a hard edge to it, without losing the humour Dawson managed so well in her previous novels.

Alice Dodgson is a privileged young aspirant trans-woman who’s bored with the dreary academia of her expensive private school. Her friend Bunny has gone missing, and Alice goes to find her. That’s when she discovers the elite Wonderland Party, and meets a host of drug and sex addicted characters, including Dinah and the Tweedle Twins.

As you can probably tell already, the references to Lewis Carol’s classic children’s story are prolific, clever and witty. But Dawson uses the rough framework of Carol’s story to explore a host of complex issues, including sexuality, privilege, mental health, and drug taking. At times it’s a very dark and shocking read.

The issues Dawson tackles are highly relevant to young people today, and she deals with them in an honest, and emotionally mature way, which is so refreshing. At several points in the book my middle-aged, middle-class mind had to pause and ask the question: is this appropriate for a young adult? The answer came swiftly: definitely.

Dawson clearly draws on her experience as a trans-woman, and sections of the book feel almost autobiographical. But before you dismiss it as an angsty teenage read, let me reassure you that the writing is tight, and the plot is complex and intriguing.

Highly recommended.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Holly Jackson, Sophie McKenzie

Avoid if you don’t like: Some explicit sex, drug references, suicide references

Ideal accompaniments: Jam tarts

Genre: Young Adult, LGBTQ

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 11 June 2020

You People by Nikita Lalwani

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Nikita Lalwani's You People takes place in London, among the marginalised and dispossessed, asylum seekers and “Illegal” immigrants, those with no right to work and no resource to public funds, scrabbling to scratch a living while trying to make the case to be allowed to remain in the UK. It focuses in particular on those still fleeing torture in Sri Lanka.

Freedom from Torture has documented ongoing cases of torture by state officials in Sri Lanka. But survivors continue to find it difficult to prove their cases and to be given refugee status by the UK Home Office. While they try to make their case, they are not allowed to work or to study and they have to live on asylum seeker support allowance of just £35 per week.

You People tells to story of some of those who have fallen through the cracks, or are still struggling to get documented status. One of the two main point-of-view characters is Shan, who has fled Sri Lanka after the murder of his father, leaving behind his wife and child. He, along with several others like him, are working in a restaurant owned by Tuli, fellow Sri Lankan and benefactor who operates in the grey areas of the law.

The other point of view character is Nia, half Welsh, half Indian, white-passing, but with her own troubled past, who works at the restaurant as a waitress. Nia is torn between wanting to help, and horror both at the cool way Tuli ignores the law when it suits him and the god-like way he appears choose who to help.

Nia acts as our eyes and ears, critiquing Tuli’s actions while at the same time being brought face to face with the very real desperation that necessitates them.

Shan on the other hand is fighting for his existence, knowing that to be sent back to Sri Lanka is very likely a death sentence for him, yet torn apart with guilt for the wife and child he abandoned and now cannot contact.

This is a hugely relevant, contemporary story, born out of the UK’s so-called Hostile Environment for those it deems illegal immigrants. It’s a story that reveals the human consequences of those policies, while subtly testing the reader with moral choices. Who do we choose to help? To whom do we give the benefit of the doubt – and why?

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Happiness by Aminatta Forna, The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota, Hostile Environment by Maya Goodfellow, Gifted by Nikita Lalwani

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of people living under the radar

Perfect Accompaniment: Chilli and garlic prawns, and a glass of wine

Genre: Contemporary Ficton , Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 4 June 2020

A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It

Roger Robinson’s collection of poems, A Portable Paradise, begins far from paradise, in the inferno that engulfed Grenfell Tower in London 14th June 2017. These searing poems capture some of the horror of that night – as well as the long struggle for justice that has followed.

How is it I’m begging you for housing, when you burnt my building down?” one voice asks.

In the second section, a series of short, intense poems focuses on artists and writers - from John Milton and George Stubbs, to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Toni Morrison.

The third section is a series of profound reflections on Black History and how slavery and colonialism continue to feed through into the present. The short poem, Beware has, in the last few days, become appallingly timely.

When police place knees
at your throat, you may not live
to tell of choking.

‘It Soon Come’ captures the simmering tensions of the days and hours before anger and injustice boils over on the streets, while in ‘Citizen III’, Robinson gives voice to the Black man who has lived and worked in the UK all his life, only to be told he is to be sent home.

‘The Darkening Red of Your Blood’ is a version of ‘the Talk’ that all Black parents are forced to give their children – especially their sons:

At some point you will be stopped
by the police for no valid reason
They will ask unnecessary questions
They will say something to try
To degrade you
Do not fall for it

Do not be the ink of a new obituary

The final section is deeply personal. It deals with such things as an unwanted breakup with a lover and the birth of a severely premature baby with tenderness and love.

The title comes from a poem about Folsom Prison Writing Workshop

Poems can make minds move freely,
Books are a portable paradise
While I am faced with all my guilty freed

This book will certainly let your mind move freely. A Portable Paradise is a deeply moving collection and it is not hard to see why it has won both the 2019 TS Eliot Prize and 2020 Ondaatje Prize

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Roy Mc Farlane, The Healing Next Time; Jay Bernard, Surge; Carol Ann Duffy, The World’s Wife

Avoid If You Dislike: Poems that remind you of the fragility of life, or those that force you to confront systemic racism

Perfect Accompaniment: Stormzy: Blinded by your Grace Pt II

Genre: Poetry

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 28 May 2020

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

In 1589, King James VI of Scotland was awaiting the arrival of his bride, Anne of Denmark, when a storm blew up that battered the fleet of ships in which she was failing, with the lost of many lives. He then tried to sail to Denmark himself to bring her home but another storm forced him back to Scotland. James became convinced that the storms were the work of witches trying to prevent his marriage and – taking as his text “suffer not a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18) – he began a campaign of terror, torture and execution against those(mostly women) who were suspected of witchcraft.

This brand of militant Calvinism was exported, not only (famously) to Salem Massachusetts but, as Kiran Millwood Hargraves’ gripping historical novel shows, to places such as Finnmark in northern Norway, where Scottish witchfinders were employed by King Christian of Denmark.

The Mercies begins with another sudden and violent storm – one which wiped out a fishing fleet and more or less the entire male population of the tiny community of Vardø in northeastern Norway. The women are left to fend for themselves, but such radical independence attracts the suspicion of the King and his Lensman is sent to investigate.

The story is told through the eyes of two women. The first is Maren, one of the women of Vardø, who has lost father, brother and betrothed to the storm, and has learnt to take boats out to fish in order to feed her family. The second is Ursa, brought up with her sister in Bergen and newly married to the Scottish commissioner chosen by the Lensman to weed out potential witches.

As suspicion spreads through the once-close community in a well worn path, an unexpected alliance grows between Maren and Ursa . The women’s independence, their sexuality, any traditions not sanctified by the church – all can be used against them. And this compulsion to police women’s bodies is further bound up with racism and bigotry against the Sámi people, who once mingled freely with the rest of the community but whose reluctance to accept Christianity has made them objects of suspicion. Given the terror of witches brewing storms, their once-valued skills of ‘wind-weaving’ become to be seen as the work of the devil.

For all their talk of the mercies of God, the zeal of the Lensman and his commissioner in rooting out witchcraft has no room for mercy at all.

This is Millwood Hargraves’ first adult novel. Just as she did for younger readers with The Island at the End of Everything, she has taken historical events and written a story of extraordinary intimacy, that vividly conjures up a unique community. The story of a witch hunt may be familiar, but by drawing us in so deeply, Millwood Hargraves tells it anew.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, The Break by Katherena Vermette, Blood Rose Angel by Liza Perrat

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of witchcraft and torture

Perfect Accompaniment: Venison stew and a glass of beer

Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, LGBTQIA+

Buy This Book Here:

Thursday, 21 May 2020

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Reviewer: David C. Dawson

What we thought:

“And perhaps it is the greater grief, after all, to be left on earth when another is gone.”

This is a book that divided the critics. Well, it polarised them actually. It won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012 and the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Novel in 2013. But it also had some pretty nasty tongue-lashings from the critics on The New York Times and The Guardian among others.

Well I loved it.

It’s a tragic love story. Miller retells Homer’s heroic story of Achilles in the Trojan Wars from the point of view of his companion Patroclus. The exact nature of the two men’s relationship has been debated through the centuries. In Miller’s novel you are left with no doubt. They were lovers from their teens. The relationship is passionate, strong and long lasting. At least, it lasts until Patroclus is killed in battle (no spoiler alert if you've read your ancient Greek!). The death of Patroclus leaves Miller with a problem, given the novel is narrated by him. Unabashed, she continues his narration from beyond the grave. Surprisingly, it works.

This is such a beautiful book to read. Miller has a wonderfully contemporary style, which sits well in the ancient setting. Critics have attacked the book’s accessibility, accusing it of being “a good beach read in the style of Dawson’s Creek”. A reference not lost on me with my surname! I disagree strongly with this disparaging criticism. I enjoyed Miller’s writing style and the way she gave life to her characters. This is in no way a dry historical novel. It’s rich in emotion and action and ultimately very moving.

A very accessible read that will help many people get into the ancient Greek myths and legends.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Open Arms of the Sea by Jasper Dorgan

Avoid If You Dislike: Some description of gay sex, some bloody battle description

Perfect Accompaniment: An ouzo and olives

Genre: LGBTQI, Historical, Romance

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 14 May 2020

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

Reviewer: Catriona Troth 

What We Thought:

When the Italian army invades Ethiopia in 1935 and Emperor Haile Selassie is forced to feel to the England, a Shadow King takes his place, a young lookalike whose guards are female soldiers. This the the little-known story of the women who fought alongside men in the second Italian-Ethiopian war – women including the author’s own grandmother. Ordinary women, peasants and servants, with no previous training, who took up arms to defend their country against an army larger and far better equipped their own.

But if the outward battle is against Italian colonialism, the women are forced to fight on many fronts – against the inequality and patriarchal nature of Ethiopian society of the period, and against sexual violence inflicted by their own sides.

Mengiste has written (in this article published in Lithub in September 2019) about the photographs she has been collecting for years – photographs taken for the most part by young Italian soldiers who thought they were embarking on a foreign adventure. One in particular gave birth to the principal character, Hirut.

“She is in her teens and her hair is pulled away from her face ... I imagine that she is ... doing her best to focus her attention on something besides the intrusive photographer.”

Hirut begins the story as a lowly servant in the household of a wealthy family connection, someone with no power or agency of her own, despised by the lady of the house, treated with intermittent kindness by the master. The only thing she has of her own is a gun, given to her by her late father, who made her promise to keep it always. But when the Italians re-invade the country, it is taken from her, without consultation. She, like all the other women, is expected merely to prepare supplies for the soldiers. It doesn’t occur to anyone that they might fight. But the reality of war against an overwhelmingly powerful enemy changes everything.

In the early stages of the war the battles, scene mostly from a male point of view, are written as if they were part of a Homeric saga – full of heroism and grand gestures.

“Their high-flung arms. That quivering beam of light curving through the field like a god’s mocking defiance. See Fisseha fall, that last son of Samuel. See Girmay stumble, that only child of Mulu [...] Listen to the wind vibrate with spear and flung stone and hoarse shouts and agonised cries.”

The later battles, when Hirut is in the thick of it, the tone changes to a more personal experience of horror:

“Soon she is thrown into the sweep of dust clouds, other figures pushing against her, around her, to make their way to the enemy. She feels like she runs alone, a solitary figure balancing on slippery rocks. Then she trips over grass and find herself helplessly caught in her own momentum.”

The men in the novel – particularly those , both Italian and Ethiopian, who come from their ruling classes – have been conditioned from childhood into a kind of unseeing cruelty – a cruelty capable of even recognising itself for what it is. As Mengiste writes (again in the article from Lithub), "I have come to realize that the history of women in war has often been contested because the bodies of women have also been battlefields on which distorted ideas of manhood were made.”

In the novel, the photographs are taken by Ettore, an Italian soldier whose father is a non-practising Jew. As Nazism closes in on his family back home and census forms arrive from Italy to identify Jewish soldiers, Ettore continues to follow orders to document the atrocities committed by his commanding officer, in the hopes that obedience will save him.

Ettore may himself be a victim, but Mengiste never allows him the easy luxury of forgiveness – he must take responsibility for his own choices.

Finally, a series of Interludes runs through the novel - brief scenes in which the Emperor Haile Selassie listens repeatedly - obsessively even - to a recording of the opera Aida, which tells the story of an Ethiopian princess captured by Egyptians. The way he chafes against the story of how she falls in love with her captor feels like a plea for Ethiopia to tell its own stories.

A powerful novel about war and colonialism, patriarchy and violence, written from a too-rarely seen point of view, that of a Black African woman.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton

Avoid If You Dislike: Close up descriptions of war and sexual violence

Perfect Accompaniment: Daro wat with Injera (Ethiopian spicy stew with fermented pancakes)

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Buy this book here:

Thursday, 7 May 2020

My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay

Reviewer: Catriona Troth 

What We Thought of It

“My mother is from the Amhara people in Ethiopia. It is a tradition of the Amhara to leave messages in the first name of a child. In Amharic, the name Lemn means Why?”

Lemn Sissay’s My Name is Why is a forensic analysis of his own case files – the case files of a Black child taken into care, his name changed to make it all-but impossible for his birth mother to trace him.

Every one of those files is measured against his own memories. Together they paint a picture of a family who take in a child they believe to have been abandoned, who make him part of the family and who appear to love him – but who reject him brutally at the first sign of adolescent rebellion. Thereafter, Sissay (by now called ‘Norman’) is shunted between children’s homes with little care for his actual needs, reaching at last a place that is little better than a prison in disguise..

As Sissay himself says, “the most institutionalised people in the care system are the workers.”On the whole, those social workers who come into direct contact with the young ‘Norman’ come across as caring and concerned, if somewhat blinkered. (And the consistency of care he receives, being in the charge of just two principal social workers through his childhood seems downright remarkable by recent standards.) But those higher up, those with the power to make decisions about his life, show little or no understanding of his needs, nor of the day-to-day impact racism is having on the developing adolescent.

I first saw Lemn Sissay on stage in Trafalgar Square, at the party to celebrate the first ever World Book Night in 2011 , where he gave a tour de force performance of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’. I knew nothing about his background at the time, but just a year earlier he had made a radio documentary, Child of the State, where he returned to Wigan to try and access his own files, only to be told they were lost. It was only in 2015 that the files were finally recovered and he was able to read them and unpick the lies he had been told.

Out of that experience grew the stage show, The Report, in which Sissay responded to a reading, by Julie Hesmondhalgh of the psychologist’s report into the impact on him of his abuse.

The book can never be as raw as that theatre experience must have been. Yet Sissay’s pain and anger and still clear on every page. Even choosing to read the files, having fought to see them, was a not an easy decision.

“A friend burned her files when she received them from the Authority. Another cannot read them to this say. I’ll start by simply recording my reactions to the first early documents and we’ll see how it unfolds.”

A book so personal it feels almost intrusive to be reading it. Yet essential to understand how a child can be taken from his mother by the agents of the State – something which we now know has been replicated over and over with different groups of mothers and children around the world, with devastating consequences.

“I am not defined by scars,” writes Sissay, “But by the incredible ability to heal.”

You Will Enjoy This If You Loved: Lowborn by Kerry Hudson, Natives by Akala, My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal, Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

Perfect Accompaniment: Bacon butty and hot tea

Avoid If You Dislike: Unvarnished descriptions of a child’s life in the care system

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 30 April 2020

The Guesthouse by Abbie Frost

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: The Guesthouse is a dark, suspenseful and intriguing mystery by Abbie Frost. Before her boyfriend died, Hannah had planned a trip to The Guesthouse, but she decides to go anyway, to relax and to get her life back.

However, as a group of strangers come together in this house on the isolated Irish coast, she soon discovers this will be no relaxing holiday.

Dark secrets abound in this spooky, ghostly setting, which Hannah will need to figure out before it’s too late. Nothing is as it seems, and what is real? And who should she trust?

There are several novels out now that use this storyline of a group of strangers trapped, and in danger, but the many twists and turns of The Guesthouse had me gripped from the start, and guessing right till the end.

The characters are skillfully drawn, their stories entirely credible, and it was hard to figure out which one I should have sympathy for.

I look forward to more dark tales of suspense and tension from this talented new author.

You'll enjoy this if you like: Dark, suspenseful tales.

Avoid if you dislike: spooky settings and things that go bump in the night.
Genre: Psychological thriller

Buy this book here

Thursday, 23 April 2020

Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy

Reviewer: Catriona Troth 

What We Thought of it:

In 2017, Kendasamy published When I Hit You Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife. She made it clear it was not a memoir. Nevertheless, many insisted on focusing on the parallels to Kandasamy’s own short but brutal marriage and ignoring the pyrotechnic brilliance of her prose or the intricacy of the novel’s structure.

“No one discusses the process with us. No one discussion our work in the framework of the movel as an evolving form. No one treats us as writers.”

Exquisite Cadavers is Kandasamy’s attempt to reclaim her right to set the boundaries between her life and her fiction. The title references the game of Consequences, sometimes called Exquisite Cadaver, where each player writes a section of a story, knowing only the final word of the previous section. The novel is structured in two parts – the fiction, centred on the marriage of two people deliberately as different from Kandasamy and her husband as possible, and a parallel set of marginalia, a glimpse into the author’s reflections and inspirations, journal entries of what is happening in her life as the novel is taking shape on the page.

Karim, the fictional husband, is a Tunisian film student, living in London, frustrated by the casual expectation that he can only make certain kinds of films, tell certain kinds of stories. Maya, his wife, is English, sometimes blind to his struggles. We as readers become privy to the minutiae of their daily lives, to the banality of domesticity, even as Karim asks himself if he should return to Tunis to join its political struggles.

“Nothing hides mutual disdain as well as a marriage. Noting hides a marriage-in-shambles as well as a spruced up, orderly home.”

In the marginalia, by contrast, we get a mixture of diary entries from Kandasamy’s own domestic life and a furious commentary – on her own writing process and on the unfolding political situation in India.

If you love the privilege of dipping into a writer’s notebooks, of rummaging in the “messy attics” of their minds and observing the process of creation, then this novel is for you.

One word of warning, though – I do not recommend buying this as an ebook. The careful formatting of side-by-side narratives is entirely lost, leaving you with two broken sequences that force you constantly to go back and forth to pick up the thread you last dropped. It is a pity that the publisher did not treat the book at they might a graphic novel and ensure that the formatting remained as intended.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
Ordinary People by Diana Evans, glimpses of author's notebooks

Avoid If You Dislike: Throwing away the conventional rules of story-telling

Perfect Accompaniment: Darjeeling tea

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Darkness Comes by John Lynch

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 don’t think I’m smart enough to understand everything about John Lynch’s clever novel, Darkness Comes.  

But, at the end of the day, I found this a highly entertaining read and thoroughly enjoyed this judgement-day-style trial of Ted Bailey’s life.

Ted is about as flawed a person as you could get –– womanizer, drug dealer, arms seller, murderer. Hardly a likeable character. But somehow the author evokes in us, sympathy for him. Perhaps we can all see some of ourselves in Ted? 

In the end, I found myself fighting in Ted’s corner as –– now on the verge of death –– each part of his life is exposed, and judged. I found myself wanting him to win, whatever that means. Judged worthy of Heaven, or sent to Hell? Or perhaps neither, if they don’t exist?

The vast cast of characters –– people who have featured in Ted Bailey’s life –– is not, as I first imagined, difficult to follow, as each one is transient (like most of the people we meet in life), making an almost ethereal appearance, and I just enjoyed each fleeting moment with the different characters. Which, so “they” say, we should do in real life. 

I felt the author was drawing parallels with all of us, through each character; that they represented a type of living individual to whom we can all relate.

I did wonder if Ted Bailey represented our human conscience. However that’s something for each reader to decide for him/herself.

Apart from being an extremely well-written novel, with its quirky storyline, very real, and flawed, characters, and easy-to-read, lyrical prose, I would highly recommend Darkness Comes as an entertaining, ingenious look at life and its many nuances.

You’ll like this if you: flawed characters and out-of-the-ordinary tales.

Avoid if you don’t like: political and religious content.

Genre: Contemporary Fiction.

Buy this book here