Thursday, 2 April 2020

Afropean – Notes from Black Europe by Johny Pitts

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Johny Pitts was born in Sheffield, son of an African-American actor and singer and a white working class mother, and grew up “a Northern Soul baby.” But conscious that European was still being used as a synonym for ‘white’, one cold October morning, he set out in search of “a space where blackness was taking part in shaping European identity at large ... where being black in Europe didn’t necessarily mean being an immigrant.”

If David Olusoga’s Black and British: a Forgotten History encompassed the long history of black People in Britain, going back to the Roman period, Afropean: Notes from Black Europe reaches out geographically, exploring the black Experience in Europe from Stockholm to Lisbon, Moscow to Marseilles.

“What about black Europe ... found in the equivocal and untidy lived experiences of its communities? Black Europe from the streets up?”

Pitts finds communities often isolated from the cities of which they are nominally part – some vibrant but fragile, like the illegal favelas clinging to the fringes of Lisbon, others desperate and alienated, like those the semi-derelict remains of 60s brutalist high-rises in Clichy-sous-Bois in Paris. He finds himself mourning the deliberate undermining of working class solidarity, “spinning the presence of black people as a threat rather than in opportunity.”

“Very often, Europe’s black workforce inhabits the liminal terrain I’d just experienced, as cleaners, taxi drivers, porters, security guards, ticket sellers and nightclub bouncers; they are there and not there.”

Along the way, he draws on the experiences of earlier black writers such as James Baldwin, Franz Fanon, Carol Phillips. He reminds us of figures from the past we often conveniently forget had a black heritage, such as Alexandre Dumas – grandson of an enslaved woman from Haiti – and Alexander Pushkin, whose great-grandfather was kidnapped in Africa and sold to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. And he finds differing attitudes to Blackness in different countries – from outright denial via historical amnesia and structural racism to naked bigotry.

“When a society has so convinced itself it isn’t racist, it feels vindicated and victimized when immigrants who are responding to very real racism raise their voices.”

He reveals the often buried histories that brought African people to Europe – from the earliest origins of the slave trade via 19th Century colonial empire building to the Cold War battle for ideological dominance. He has his illusions shattered in Stockholm, which he’d previously only seen through the lens of a comfortable middle class, and finds at last, in Marseilles, a place to which he knows he will return.

This is a Europe that many of us, as white, middle-class tourists, will never see. It challenges the comfortable  idea of Europe as a tolerant and open society and shines a light on how “the European superiority complex has found its way into your psyche ... transferred through a thousand intimate moments, planted in the fertile, innocent and happy memories of childhood.”

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved
: Black and British: a forgotten history by David Olusoga; Stopping Places by Damian le Bas

Avoid If You Dislike:
Having your idea of a tolerant, post-racist society challenged (but read it anyway).

Perfect Accompaniment:
A fresh baked baguette and a glass of orange juice.

Non-Fiction, Travel Writing

Buy This Book Here

Monday, 30 March 2020

Suncatcher by Romesh Gunesekera

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

It’s 1960. In post-colonial Ceylon, Mrs Bandaranaika, just been elected Prime Minister, making her the world’s first non-hereditary female head of government. Land reforms are coming – reforms that worry the landowning gentry as much as they disappoint others. And by making Sinhal the country’s official language and ignoring Tamil, the foundations are being laid for the sectarian divisions that will later tear the country apart.

But for twelve year old Kairo, out of school and at a loose end, the most exciting thing is the sudden appearance of the charismatic and daring Jay. Jay is a strange mixture of kindness and casual cruelty. His fondness for wild birds does not stop him catching and caging them. Likewise, he picks up friends, binds them to him, only to drop them with a casual disregard when they no longer fit his purposes.

Quite early on, I caught echoes of the Great Gatsby. It’s there in the names – Jay and Kairo – and in the trope of the new neighbour who dazzles with his comparative wealth and a recklessness that seems to court disaster. And it’s there in certain aspects of the unfolding plot too.

The way the story of the two boys interweaves with the politics of newly independent nation – glimpsed and half understood via adult arguments – gives the book the feel of an extended metaphor for post-colonial politics. As Kairo observes about when Jay moved his birds into a larger aviary:

“The whole thing was rocking me with contradictory emotions ... I could see this was not freedom for the birds; merely the exchange of one cage for a bigger one. The fundamental nature of their lives had not changed.”

Unlike, say, Deepa Anappara's Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line,  the story, though told from Kairo’s point of view, is not seen through the eyes of a twelve year old. The voice is that of adult looking back on his life as he hovered on the brink of adolescence. The text is laced with the sadness of foreknowledge, with knowing how it will all end.

In many ways it almost feels as if the book could have been written in the 1960s. One thing that made me slightly uneasy were the casual references to things like ‘warpaint’, ‘teepees’ ‘braves’ and ‘tomahawks’ – commonplaces of many boys’ imaginary games of the period (and since) but which, used carelessly, can be offensive to indigenous people. It’s the familiar dilemma of balancing period accuracy of language with modern-day understanding of racist tropes. Yet it is clear that the choice to retain this language is not something Gunesekera took lightly. His acknowledgements include thanks given to “the Banff centre in the lands of Treaty 7 territory where the past, present and future generations of Stoney Nakoda, Blackfoot, and Tauut’ina Nations and acknowledged and honoured.”

Like Priti Taneja's We That Are Young, Suncatcher is a novel that takes the framework of a English-language classic and transforms it into the means to interrogate the state of a South Asian nation.

Longlisted for the 2020 Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: RK Narayan Swami and Friends, Priti Taneja We That Are Young

Avoid If You Dislike: stories of hunting and caged animals

Perfect Accompaniment: chocolate milkshake and a wild bike ride

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Coming of Age story

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Surge by Jay Bernard

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

In 2004, just as I was working on a book that revolved around events in Coventry and London in the first half of 1981, the second inquest into the New Cross Fire opened. One of the firms of lawyers representing families of some of the deceased posted transcripts every night of the day’s proceedings, and it became routine for me to come home from work, sit down at the computer, and read that day’s testimony. Bit by bit I absorbed the horror of the events of that night in January 1981, which led to the deaths of thirteen youngsters who had been attending a birthday party.

Jay Bernard’s research into those events was carried out another fifteen years later, at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. Their poems reference original source documents “noted, dated, numbered, placed in acid-free Japanese boxes and lovingly (as is tradition) laid without a casket”. Yet some of the voices are achingly familiar. My breath caught in my throat as one of the poems (Clearing) recalled how a key found in a pocket was used as the only way to identify one of the victims – a never-forgotten fragment of a parent’s testimony to the coroner’s court.

Despite how well I thought I knew those events and their aftermath - especially the almost total lack of action or even empathy on behalf of the authorities – I had missed how close the parallels were with what happened with Grenfell Tower in 2017. But the latter part of Bernard’s collection makes those connections only too clear. Another line that made me gasp – bringing together in just five words, two ends of a long history – was from the poem Sentence, which ends: “Not rivers, towers of blood.”

An immensely powerful collection of poems that evokes events seared onto Black British consciousness, while making it abundantly clear why they should never be forgotten and how little has changes in the intervening forty years.

Finally, I must mention the cover design by Lily Jones. Its swirling black and white lines evoke both the smoke from a fire and the twisting lines of paint in Edvard Munch’s The Scream

You’ll Enjoy This If You Love: Linton Kwesi Johnson, Roy McFarlane

Avoid If You Dislike: Mixing poetry and politics

Perfect Accompaniment: A visit to the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton

Genre: Poetry

Buy This Book Here

Monday, 23 March 2020

Golden Child by Claire Adam

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“His mind goes round and round in circles, confused. He cannot understand how he got to this point. He is quite sure that back at the beginning, when the boys were born, he was determined, above all else, to be a good father. Now, somehow, he has ended up here, and there seems to be no going back.”

Peter and Paul are twins, born on the island of Trinidad. Peter, the elder, is the Golden Child – studious, bright beyond his years. Paul, the younger, suffered complications during birth, was a difficult baby, and is considered ‘slightly retarded’ by his family. A problem child.

So when thirteen year old Paul disappears from home, his father’s first reaction is anger. It’s just Paul, causing trouble, like he always does.

Yet the real trouble lies much deeper, in the secrets, lies and jealousies that twist through the fabric of their extended family. In the end, the father must decide just what he is willing to do to protect his family – and the future of his Golden Child.

This is rural Trinidad in the late twentieth century, a long way from the tourist trails. A place of gang leaders and drug lords, where break-ins and kidnappings are common and where even quite ordinary families keep guard dogs and burglar-proof their houses. But Clyde has kept himself away from all that. He has never bothered with a fancy car or a bigger house. Everything has been for his family, and for Peter.

The story of the Deyalsingh family unfolds slowly, our perspective shifting till, just as we have seen enough to form a full picture, the truth is revealed. We feel the dead weight on the father’s shoulders, the impossibility of shifting the whole direction of his life. And the knowledge that, whatever he chooses, he will have to live with it for the rest of his life.

If the golden child, Peter, remains a bit of a cypher, we slowly become privy to Paul's hopes and dreams. His frustration with the constant feeling of failure. With the way letters refuse to arrange themselves on the page when he tries to read, but instead "look like ants crawling around on the page." With Daddy always being mad. He wants to leave school and get a job, to buy Ray-Ban sunglasses and fluorescent short pants, and "hand Mummy a big wad of cash."

A disturbing, uncomfortable and absorbing first novel. Winner of the Desmond Elliot Prize 2019 and Longlisted for the 2020 Jhalak Prize

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Bone Readers by Jacob Ross, Disposable People by Ezekel Alan, What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of missing children

Perfect Accompaniment: Macaroni pie and a glass of rum

Genre: Literary Fiction, Thriller

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“It’s 1910. It’s high time they stop killing our people. If we don’t stop them now, it won’t ever stop.”

It’s hard to read this sentence, at the end of the first chapter of Yvonne Battle-Felton’s Remembered, without feeling the exhaustion and disillusionment of a struggle that is more than century old and still far from over.

The germ of Battle-Felton’s story is a handful of cuttings taken from Philadelphia newspapers at the time of the 1910 general strike. They concern a young black worker, Edward Freeman, mortally injured and lying in hospital, who is suspected of deliberately driving one of the city’s trolley cars into a “No Coloreds Allowed” store front, thereby killing several bystanders.

From there the author imagines his grieving mother, Spring, sitting at his bedside. Outside, a crowd bays for his blood, but inside Spring is compelled to Edward the story of his birth and antecedents, so that her sister’s ghost, Tempe, can guide the boy ‘home’.

It begins with Ella, the twelve year old daughter of free Black family, who in 1843 is snatched from the streets of Philadelphia and taken to a slave plantation in Maryland. The owner, Walker, intends to use her as a broodmare, to break the curse that means that nothing has grown and nothing has been born on his land for over a decade. But the old slave woman, Mama Skins, has other ideas.

Remembered is a story of ghosts and superstitions. Of lives and friendships grubbed out of the small spaces left within the endless strictures of a slave’s life. Of struggles in which, at times, the liberation of death can be a small and bitter victory.

It is also a story that shows how, when mothers and children are treated at commodities to be bought and sold at will, the nature of motherhood – of who is a mother and how she must act in the best interest of her children – is distorted.

Like Frannie in Sara Collins’ The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Spring has a rebuke for those who “ask to see the scars [they] imagined ran up and down my back, to ask how the whip felt o my skin. They want to be close up to pain, until they are.” She knows only too well that if she really reveals how she feels, she becomes the angry Black woman who ought to be grateful to be alive. She knows that these stories need to be kept alive, but that people only want to hear them when they conform to their own prejudices.

An incredibly assured debut novel, peopled with voices that ring across the centuries. Longlisted for both the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction and the 2020 Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, A Tall History of Sugar by Curdella Forbes, Empire of the Wild by Cherie Dimaline

Avoid If You Dislike: Ghosts striding through the pages of a story

Perfect Accompaniment: A handful of blueberries.

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Monday, 16 March 2020

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta, illustrated by Anshika Khullar

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Who is the Black Flamingo? ... He is me, who I have been, who I am, who I hope to become. Someone fabulous, wild and strong.”

Dean Atta’s The Black Flamingo is unlike anything else I have ever read - and I consumed it in two glorious gulps. A joyous celebratory prose poem, it follows the life of a mixed-race (Jamaican / Greek-Cypriot) gay man growing up in London – from a small boy longing for a Barbie to play with, through primary school and high school, to finding a home and family among the Drag Society at University.

It is a story of love and friendship, of acceptance and rejection. Of the complexities of identity. Of the intersections of racism and homophobia, and the strength it takes to overcome them and to be fully and freely yourself.

How to Come Out as Gay
Don’t come out unless you want to.
Don’t come out for anyone else’s sake
Don’t come out because you think society expects you to.
Come out for yourself.
Come out to yourself.

The simplicity of the language is deceptive. By allowing Michael/Michalis/Mikey/Mike to speak to us directly, in his own voice, whatever his age, Atta gives his words a heart-stopping immediacy, while at the same time exploring some profound ideas.

The text is dotted throughout with Anshika Khullar’s beautiful black and white illustrations, which seem to beckon you from page to page. There are WattsApp conversations and facsimiles of notebook pages. There are pages where the text is white on black.

An absolute joy to read – this is a book I’d like to put in the hands of every teenager and young person still trying to figure out who they are. It’s a celebration of acceptance, support and the pleasures of finding what Anna Madrigal would have called your logical family.

Longlisted for the 2020 Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Perseverence by Raymond Antrobus, Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, Moonlight (film)

Avoid If You Dislike: Prose poetry. Explorations of gender and sexuality (but I’d say give it a try anyway – you may surprise yourself!)

Perfect Accompaniment: Back to Black by Beyoncé

Genre: Defies classification. Poetry. Lit Fic. YA. LGBTIAQ+

Buy this book here

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Hostile Environment by Maya Goodfellow

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Hostile Environment is the name given to a raft of measures initially implemented by Theresa May as Home Secretary under David Cameron, designed to deter so-called “illegal immigrants” from coming to the UK and to make life as difficult as possible for them if they did enter the country.

But as Maya Goodfellow’s meticulously researched book shows, these policies did not spring out of nothing, but are the culmination of decades of policies by governments from the right and from the left who, in one way or another, have sought to control and demonise those they choose to label as outsiders.

Exactly who is marked out in this way has varied over time. The ‘Other’ has been variously Irish, Jewish, Black, Brown – or from a country that is in some unspoken way considered ‘less than White’. At times, ‘economic migrants’ have been lauded as ‘coming here to work and contribute,’ while refugees have been suspect, presumed to be ‘bogus’ or ‘scroungers’. At other times, it is ‘genuine refugees’ who are said to be in need of our protection, while ‘economic migrants’ are accused of taking jobs and driving down wages while simultaneously scrounging off our benefit system.

What has been consistent, as Goodfellow shows only too clearly, is that migrants of one sort of another have been used as scapegoats by successive governments for their own failures to produce a more equal society, and who choose to ignore the historic and goppolitical reasons that bring people to our shores. A constant dripfeed of what Goodfellow calls xenoracism (the peculiarly toxic mixture of racism and xenophobia) has been fed to the general populace by politicians and the media, who then use people’s resulting ‘legitimate concerns about immigration’ as an excuse for further demonisation and even stricter immigration controls.

This is a book that left me shaking with fury. Not that there was much in it that I didn’t already know - but to see it all laid out so clearly in one place makes it clear how relentless it has all been. Seventy years after my father, as a young Masters student, began documenting the impact racism was having on the lives of Liverpool’s Black community, the public discourse is as toxic and institutionally divisive as it has been at any point in my lifetime. Goodfellow’s vision of a better , more open world, set out in her Conclusion, seems an impossible dream.

But as she also shows, that fear of the other is not as innate. There are plenty of examples of communities coming together in defence of those the authorities try to ‘other’ - for example to prevent deportations. Perhaps therein lies hope.

Longlisted for the 2020 Jhalak Prize, this is a book that lifts the veil on our immigration system and reveals the lies on which it is based and the human consequences of its controls.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Country of Refuge (ed Lucy Popescu) The Good Immigrant (ed Nikesh Shukla) Natives by Akala

Avoid If You Dislike: Having your preconceptions of immigrants and refugees challenged (but read it anyway!)

Perfect Accompaniment: A pot of tea made with leaves grown in India or Africa on plants brought from China by the merchants and soldiers of the British Empire

Genre: Non Fiction

Buy This Book Here:

Monday, 9 March 2020

Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Winner of the Costa Children’s Book Award 2019, and now longlisted for the 2020 Jhalak Prize, Asha and the Spirit Bird is a wonderful adventure tale for young readers 9 and older.

Asha’s father is away, working in a factory in the big city to make money for his family. But no one has heard from him in months, and now thugs are demanding repayment of the loan her mother was forced to take out. If they can’t repay the loan by Divali – just seven weeks away – they will be forced to sell the family farm and join Asha’s uncle in England, away from everything they know.

Convinced that her nana-ji has been reincarnated in a lamagaia – one of the huge bearded vultures who live among the mountains of the Himalayas – and that her spirit is guiding her, Asha decides to take matters into her own hands. She and her best friend Jeevan set out for the city to find her father and bring him home.

This joyous adventure tale, gilded with the touch of magic, takes the reader from the fields of sugar cane in the foothills of the Himalayas, up into the snow-covered mountains where wolves and tigers prowl, to the pilgrim temple at the source of the holy Ganges and on into the slums of the city, among the street children who might have slipped from the pages of Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line.

Asha and Jeevan are a youthful Mulder and Scully – with Jeevan the sceptic questioning Asha’s faith in her spirit bird while remaining utterly loyal.

This book is grounded in the author’s family tales and memories of holidays on the family farm where she was born. And it takes inspiration – as does its young heroine – from the warrior goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, like Durga, who fought off demons while riding a tiger.

A thoroughly modern fairytale and a true page turner – a pleasure for young readers and young-at-heart adults alike.

You Will Enjoy This If You Loved: The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargraves; The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of lost fathers and families in danger.

Perfect Accompaniment: Cinnamon milk

Genre: Children’s 9+

Buy This Book Here

Friday, 6 March 2020

Rage and Retribution by Lorraine Mace

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 have thoroughly enjoyed all three of Lorraine Mace's dark psychological thrillers starring Detective Inspector Paolo Sterling: Retriever of Souls, Children in Chains, Injections of Insanity, but I must say that this fourth in the series––Rage and Retribution––surpasses them all.

DI Sterling investigates a particularly depraved series of male rape and torture victims. To make things even more difficult, the victims refuse to admit they were imprisoned and treated with such cruelty. Storey knows that if he can uncover the reason these attacks are taking place, he’ll be closer to discovering the perpetrator. But can he do this in time to save someone close to him?

Paolo Sterling is, as always, a flawed and empathetic character with whom we can readily identify in his personal, as well as his working life. The supporting characters too, as well as the perpetrator, are masterfully-evoked.

With its many plot twists and turns, Rage and Retribution had me guessing right up to the end. Another brilliantly plotted and engaging crime story to add to this excellent series, I would highly recommend it for readers who love dark, psychological crime fiction, and staying up all night reading.

You'll enjoy this if you like: The other three Paolo Sterling novels, dark and gritty crime stories.

Avoid if you dislike: reading about depraved and violent crimes

Ideal accompaniments: fish 'n chips 'n cold beer

Genre: Psychological crime fiction

Buy this book here

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It

Yet another spellbinding book of which I first heard an extract at the Asian Writers Festival 2018.

Deepa Anappara is a journalist who spent a long time investigating cases of children going missing in the bastis (or slums) of Indian cities – where (as Anappara notes in her Afterward) as many as 180 children are said to go missing every day. But within the restrictions of news articles, she could never find a way of conveying the “resilience, cheerfulness and swagger” of the children she encountered during her investigations.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is her attempt to put that record straight. When their friends from school start to go missing, and the police seem wholly uninterested in helping the distressed families, nine-year-old Jai and his friends Pari and Faiz decide to take matters into their own hands and conduct their own investigation. Jai is an avid watcher of police dramas on television and is sure that he knows exactly what needs to be done. But will their zeal just bring them into danger themselves?

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line takes horrifying statistics of missing children and personalises them, reminding us that, for each and every one, there is a family grieving.

“Inside that house sadness sticks to me like a shirt damp with sweat on a hot summer’s day.”

The child viewpoint here is wonderfully drawn and Anappara has indeed captured the irrepressible cheekiness of her protagonists. But don’t be fooled. This is not the Famous Five transported to a unnamed Indian city, and the evil that lurks in the basti is no comic book villain who could have got away with it if it wasn’t for those pesky kids. The journalist in Anappara knows the truth is far darker than that.

As the story unfolds, it takes in the vast gulfs of inequality in modern Indian society, the fragility of life in the basti, and how suspicion leads only too easily to sectarian mistrust and, ultimately, violence.

A heart-breaking story that nonetheless captures the joyous resilience of children living on the brink.

Longlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction

You Will Enjoy This If You Loved: The Baby Ganesh Agency series by Vaseem Khan, Freedom by Catherine Johnson, Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of missing children; child narrators

Perfect Accompaniment: Dahl and roti

Genre: Literary Fiction, Crime Fiction

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

A Tall History of Sugar by Curdella Forbes

Reviewer: Catriona Troth 

What We Thought of It

A Tall History of Sugar, set in Jamaica, tells the story of Moshe, a foundling child discovered floating in basket of reeds among the sea grapes, and Arrii, the girl just one year older who becomes his friend, protector and interpreter. When they are little, the two are so close they can read each other’ thoughts. But life has a habit of getting in the way.

The novel opens in 1958 and ends in the present day, explicitly in the era of Trump and Brexit. It is a close up view of rural, post-independence Jamaica and its struggles to shake off the suffocating ties of the ‘Mother Country’.

“England was all around us, all the time. Right next door. Not just any door, but a glass door you could push and go straight through to the other side.”

Moshe is a misfit. Not just a foundling but racially impossible to classify. His skin his pale as clotted cream and desperately fragile, his features African, and his hair and eyes a strange two tone. He is also a talented artist, destined for international recognition.

Moshe’s sexuality, as well as his race, is ambiguous. His relationship with the avowedly gay character, Alva, reflects Jamaica’s own struggle coming to terms with gay relationships – another legacy of colonialism.

The politics is of the time is there. And the music. But also a sense of magic. It’s in the two children’s ability to read each other’s minds. In the mysterious way they track down the old woman who can tell Moshe something about his birth, and in the duppies that haunt a clearing near Moshe’s home, “spending their nights quarrelling and cooking insatiable meals in three-footed Dutch pots”. Yet Forbes herself rejects the label of Magic Realism and calls the book instead a Fairytale.

This use of a fairytale form allows Forbes to reflect the deeper history of Jamaica – such as the lasting scar of slavery, symbolised in Arrii’s family curse– a birthmark that torments them to agony at the start of every sugar harvest – and Moshe’s inability to tolerate even a trace of sugar.

The story is ostensibly told by Arrii, yet the voice of the novel shifts back and forth, easy as breathing, between first and third person, and between standard English and Jamaican patois. It’s unsettling at first, but fascinating, shifting our perspective in and out. At one point, between sections, there is even a wry step outside the frame of the novel, as the author notes that, “There are now too many spelling and grammatical errors in A Tall History of Sugar to make automatic corrections ... Oh, Lord, what is the correct and singular language to carry this freight, this translations of griefs?”

Forbes does indeed seem to be creating the language in which to tell the stories of her country. A bold and fascinating novel that weaves a spell around the reader.

You Will Enjoy This If You Loved: Empire of the Wild by Cherie Dimaline, Augustown by Kei Miller

Avoid If You Dislike: A somewhat ambivalent relationship with male homosexuality

Perfect Accompaniment: Bean stew with callaloo and Bob Marley’s Redemption Song

Genre: Literary Fiction, Adult Fairy Tale

Buy This Book Here

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

I read Year of the Monkey in those in-between days after Christmas and before New Year, when you don’t really know what day it is and don’t really care. The intention was to read a little each day and soak up Smith’s account of her 2016, digesting her inimitable blend of fact, fiction and flights of fancy.

I read it in one day.

She’s freewheeling in every sense. Her poetic prose swoops between dreams and waking; she hitches rides with the silent and the verbose; those lost to her are present in thoughts and strange shifts in the political landscape draw both cool observation and heated reaction.

The references to what she reads, sees, photographs and experiences with one foot in the past and another in the present draws the reader into her lighthouse, scanning the cultural and political landscape like a kaleidoscope.

This is a book in which to lose yourself, let go and see what happens. After you’ve finished, it will feel like the most extraordinary dream.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: M Train, Jack Kerouac, Naked Lunch

Avoid if you don’t like: Fractured narratives, internal monologues, dreams

Ideal accompaniments: Huevos rancheros, black coffee and a shot of tequila

Genre: Memoir

Available on Amazon

Saturday, 15 February 2020

The Empire of the Wild by Cherie Dimaline

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Joan had been searching for her lost husband for eleven months and six days, since last October, when they’d fought about selling the land she’d inherited from her father and he’d put on his grey jacket and walked out, then screen door banging behind him.”

Earlier this year I reviewed Cherie Dimaline’s Marrow Thieves, her brilliant dystopia for Young Adults. The Empire of the Wild, by contrast, is definitely a book for adults. Nevertheless, it retains a strong element of magic realism.

Hungover and on the edge of despair, Joan stumbles on a tent set up in the supermarket car park. It belongs to a revival group doing the rounds of Métis communities. And the charismatic preacher leading the service is her husband Victor. Except that he insists that he isn’t. He is the Rev Eugene Wolff and there isn’t so much as a flicker of recognition in his eyes.

But Joan refuses to give up. She believes that Victor has become a victim of the Rogarou – a werewolf-like beasts that, in Metis tradition, haunts roads and woods.

“He was a wolf, a man, a wolf. He was clothed, he was naked in his fur, he wore moccasins to jig. He was whatever made you shiver, but was always there, standing by the road, whistling to the stars ... as close and distant as ancestors.”

And no matter what it costs, Joan is determined to get her husband back.

Dimaline has woven a powerful tale from the warp of daily life in Métis communities and the weft of traditions that reach back deep into history. She captures the visceral longing for a missing partner, for the touch of their hands, the smell of their skin. She shows up, too, the cynical use of religion as a tool to manipulate Indigenous and Métis communities.

Joan is tough, funny, resilient – maybe a little bit crazy but you’d definitely want her on your side. And you wouldn’t bet against her.

The Empire of the Wild is the book you get when a writer takes control of their own stories, their own traditions. It embodies the struggle for survival of Indigenous and Metis cultures against the unstoppable march of Western settler society. It’s hilarious, scary, fascinating and unputtdownable.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Son of the Trickster by Eden Robinson, Birdie by Tracey Lindberg, Augustown by Kei Miller, American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Avoid If You Dislike: Magic Realism

Perfect Accompaniment: Labatts beer and a Johnny Cash soundtrack

Genre: Literary Fiction, Indigenous Authors, Magic Realism

Buy This Book Here

Saturday, 8 February 2020

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

Through her novel about a family home crumbling, Kingsolver addresses many contemporary issues with subtlety and nuance. At the centre of the story is a house in New Jersey. Inherited by Willa Knox in modern-day America, it seems like a sanctuary for her family until she discovers it is collapsing.

Her only hope is a grant, by proving how the house has 19th century historical value. Enter the second thread – a science teacher who believes in Darwin and his biologist neighbour.

The twin narratives flip back and forth, each shining a light on past and present dilemmas and in particular, the frustration with popular opinion.

The novel addresses social structure then and now, with some alarming parallels. Anti-evolution mobs baying for Darwin to be hanged versus political rallies chanting similar punitive measures.

Willa is a middle-aged woman whose sense of confusion as to generational attitudes and shifting sands makes it one of those books you need to stop reading and think.

My favourite kind.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Lacuna, The Travelling Horn-Player by Barbara Trapido

Avoid if you don’t like: Contemporary reflections on politics and social issues, historical and contemporary blends

Ideal accompaniments: Mint tea, love soup and Billie Holiday singing God Bless the Child

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy this book here

Thursday, 30 January 2020

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Nonso is a Nigerian poultry farmer, living alone, still grieving the death of his father. One day, returning from market, where he has bought some new hens and a fine white cockerel, he saves the life a woman who appears on the verge of throwing herself from a bridge. Months later, he runs into her again, at a petrol station. They fall in love, but the social gulf between them places an impossible burden on his shoulders and leads him to choices that will have terrible consequences.

An Orchestra of Minorities is rooted deep in Igbo cosmology. The narrator is Nonso’s chi, or spirit – closer perhaps to what Europeans might term a guardian angel, but dwelling within the person rather than watching over them from on high. He recounts the story of Nonso’s life – testifying to the great celestial court of Bechukwu.

The chi has passed through many human lifetimes, which allows him to refer to things far beyond Nonso’s knowledge - such as slavery - and also to the values of traditional Igbo society, that are being overrun by the values of the White Man.

“It is the White Man who has trampled on your traditions. It is he who has seduced the slept with your ancestral spirits. It is to him that the gods of your land have submitted their hears, and he has shaved them clean, down to the skin of their scalps ... He has spat in the face of your wisdoms, and your valiant mythologies are silent before him.”

The Orchestra of Minorities in the title describes the mournful crying of the hens when one of their flock has been snatched by the hawk. Yet his lover, Ndali, is quick to draw parallels to how the powerful exploit the weak.

“They were the minorities of this world whose only recourse was to join this universal orchestra in which all there was to do was cry and wail.”
Nonso is a punchbag to the whole world, suffering blow after blow, indignity after indignity, until he can take no more - which is what has led his chi to plead for him in the celestial court.

Obioma’s language is full of poetic richness while at the same time being grounded in day to day realities – from Nonso’s brutal reaction to an attacking hawk to his worries about dirty clothes and dirty dishes when Ndali first comes to visit.

Shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories with a supernatural element

Perfect Accompaniment: Ugba (traditional Igbo dish)

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

This Brutal House by Niven Govinden

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Niven Govinden’s This Brutal House is set amongst the New York Drag Ball scene, where rival Houses, led by House Mothers, compete to outdo each other in costume, attitude and above all voguing.

The book opens with a group of the House Mothers staging a silent protest on the steps of City Hall to highlight the lack of response by the authorities to the disappearance of a number of their ‘children’. This section is written in an unusual first-person-plural collective stream of consciousness:

“They have used ‘no’ and ‘unfortunately’ and ‘unable’ as pacifiers, shushing us the way a nanny calms an agitated baby. We are unwanted noise, not to be seen or heard.”

Collective silence has become the most powerful voice they have.

The narrative then passes on to the novel’s main protagonist, Teddy. Teddy was once one of the House Mothers’ children, one of many who fled rejection from their own families and found a home amongst the drag queens. But though he competed for them for a time in the Drag Ball scene, he was never really comfortable as a performer. Instead, he became the devoted follower of one of them, Sherry, while the Mothers supported him in getting the education that would allow him to break free.

Sherry is now one of the missing, and though Teddy believes he knows what happened to her, he will not tell the Mothers because he cannot bring himself to crush their hope.

The education they helped him get has led him to work for City Hall and because of his known connection with the Mothers, he is charged with monitoring the protest and bringing it to a close. He does everything he can so smooth things over – but will a fatal misjudgement destroy everything he has sought to protect?

The voice of the Caller periodically breaks through the narrative, holding forth for pages at a time:

“She walks. She works. She vogues. Triple threat, bitches...”

This Brutal House shows the sadness behind the glamour and flamboyance of the Drag Ball Scene – young people rejected by their biological families and discounted by the authorities; older ‘Mothers,’ nurturing, yet ageing inevitably in a world that values youth and glamour...

Dark, disturbing and hypnotic.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Beasts of Electra Drive by Rohan Quine, Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, POSE (FX TV series)

Avoid If You Dislike: Passages in stream-of-consciousness style

Perfect Accompaniment: Tacos

Genre: Literary Fiction, LGBTQIA+ Fiction

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

The Pact We Made by Layla AlAmmar

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“I realized a long time ago that, in a lot of ways, my body is not strictly mine. It’s a shared entity, something to be criticized, guarded, commented on, and violated.”

The Pact We Made is a stunning debut novel by UK-based, Kuwaiti-born novelist Layla AlAmmar.

AlAmmar slowly peels back the layers of Kuwaiti society – a society in which young men and women drink and take drugs and party - just so long as their parents never find out. Where women go to university and take high-powered jobs, but are not considered adults until they marry. Where the police can be called if a couple is seen embracing in public and where arranged marriage is still the default.

“We like to think of ourselves as a well-traveled, cultured and thoroughly modern people. Xenophiles who welcomed expats long before Dubai ... We’re the ones who brought cellphones and commercial airlines to the Gulf. We’re the ones in constant search for the new, the wondrous the techtastic.

The narrator is Dahlia, one of a trio of life-long friends who, as little girls, once made a promise to get married on the same day. But now they are in their late twenties. Two of them, Mona and Zaina, are married but Dahlia continues to turn down suitor after suitor, to the fury of her increasingly desperate mother.

This might be another tale of young women negotiating modern life in a traditional society, but Dahlia, we learn, was abused through her teenage years by her mother’s cousin. And it is the lasting consequences of that abuse that reverberate throughout the book.

On the surface, all appears to be well, but underneath every day is a struggle.

“It sometimes felt like I as put my past in a hole and spent my time shoveling dirt into it, but like some cheap horror movie, it kept trying to claw its way out ... So, I sailed the world’s longest river; fake it till you make it, and all that. Normal behaviour is a language you can learn”
This balancing act cannot be sustained forever and in the end Dahlia will be driven to a devastating choice.

AlAmmar’s language is fresh and original without ever being flowery. Time and again she catches you with a phrase that takes your breath away. The constant panic Dahlia feels, for example, takes on the form of a demon – the yathoom – who “comes in the night, sits on your chest, feet splayed in a squat, growing heavier and heavier until you wake because you can no longer breathe.”

An extraordinarily powerful, gut-wrenching book that lays out in no uncertain terms the case for  women to have control of their bodies and their lives.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, When I Hit You by Meena Kendasamy

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories centred on the aftermath of sexual abuse

Perfect Accompaniment:
Goya’s Los Caprichos and a cup of saffron tea

Genre: Literary Fiction

Monday, 6 January 2020

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

"No doubt you think this will be one of those slave histories, all sugared over with misery and despair? But who’d want to read one of those?" 

Frannie Langton was born a slave in Jamaica, educated for his own amusement by her master, then brought to London and given by to another man. Now she is in Newgate gaol, accused of murdering that man and his wife. And she is writing her confessions. But is she really the ‘Mulatta Murderess’?

Sara Collins darkly gothic historical novel explores, among other things, the way the institution of slavery distorted every human relationship, even that between mother and child. It exposes the ugliness of the roots of 'race science' and the vile length to which some were prepared to go to disprove the humanity of black people.

While still a young child, Frannie has been compelled to act as assistant to one such ‘scientist’. Being complicit in his experiments allows her a bare edge of privilege over the other slaves, and has given her a kind of Stockholm syndrome, so much so that she is outraged when she is given away to his erstwhile colleague, Benham.

But Benham has a wife, a troubled woman in some ways as trapped in her life as Frannie herself. Their relationship – passionate, sensual but bent out of shape as much by their power-imbalance as by Madam’s opium addiction – will lead Frannie to her cell in Newgate.

As Catherine Johnson’s Freedom did for young readers, The Confessions of Frannie Langton reclaims the long history of Black people in England. It shows up the hypocrisy of some, at least, of the anti-slavers, as well as those, like Benham, who imagine it is possible to ‘reform’ the institution.

"What no one will admit about the anti-slavers is that they’ve got a slaver’s appetite for misery, even if they want to do different things with it."

Even though her life hangs in the balance, Frannie refuses to dish up suffering to satisfy the appetites of the public, or to use her thrall either to opium or to her erstwhile slavemaster as convenient excuse. Whatever she has or has not done, Frannie will own it.

Collins’ writing is rich with period detail without being weighed down by it.From the slave plantation – called, with the bleakest of irony, Paradise – to the Benhams’ London town house, to the city’s brothels and boxing rings, each time and place is vividly evoked.

A stunning debut that is an unsurprising winner of the Costa First Novel Award.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan; The Long Song by Andrea Levy; Beloved by Toni Morrison; Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

Avoid If You Dislike: Gothic Flavoured Historical Fiction

Perfect Accompaniment: Raisin cake, golden and sweet with sugar

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here