Thursday, 26 November 2020

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

Winner of the 2020 Giller Prize, Canada’s prestigious nations book award, How to Pronounce Knife is a collection of short stories that capture the immigrant experience.

Rooted in the Lao refugee community in Canada, the stories it tells are nonetheless universal. They reveal the day to day racism, sexism and classism immigrants face and their uphill battle against the workings of power and privilege.

In the titular story, a young girl rejects the transparent illogic of the first letter in a word being silent and chooses instead to defend her father’s phonetic pronunciation of knife.

In 'Chick-a-Chee' a family finds a way to create their own holiday tradition from a baffling ritual of the new country.

In 'Picking Worms', a farm labourer finds a young white boy she helped into a job promoted over her head to become the boss.

We find grinding poverty and the impossibility of getting the ingredients to make the food of home. We meet the factory workers who save up for risky plastic surgery to make their noses will look more like those of the white girls who get to work in offices, the ex-boxer turned manicurist who learns that a relationship with a client can never extend beyond the door of the shop, and the mother who watches from afar because her daughter is too embarrassed to acknowledge her.

Like many refugees around the world, many of the families here have given up good jobs and traded status for safety in a new country.

“Back in Laos, the men who worked in this field have been doctors, teachers, framers with their own land, like my mom. None had set out for a life spent crouching down the soft earth, groping for faceless things in the night.”

These are stories steeped in sadness, but they are also wryly funny and highlight the incredible resilience of immigrant communities everywhere.

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

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of grinding poverty

Perfect Accompaniment:
Sticky rice and papaya salad with dried shrimps

Genre: Short Stories

Buy This Book Here

Friday, 20 November 2020

Stone Cold Trouble by Amer Anwar

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It: 

Some time has passed since the events of Amer Anwar’s debut novel, Brothers in Blood, and the villains that Zaq and Jags managed to get set down are banged up in jail. But the two friends are about to walk straight back into trouble.

In the middle of the night, Zaq gets a call to say his brother has been beaten unconscious by a gang of thugs who may or may not have been acting on the orders of the now-jailed kingpin. And though Zaq knows his not-quite-yet girlfriend Nina is right to tell him to leave it to the police to deal with the assailants, he cannot let it lie.

And then if that wasn’t trouble enough, Jags’ uncle asks the boys to help him retrieve a family heirloom he recklessly used as a marker in a high-stakes card game.

Once again, we are taken on a journey through the murkier side of West London, moving between the hand-to-mouth existence of the gig economy, and the wealth that resides a short drive away amongst the greenery of the home counties. A world where the police are rarely trusted and where jealousy, honour and revenge are matters to be taken into your own hands.

There are lines that Zaq and Jags would never cross – but can the same be said of everyone else?

When I reviewed Brothers in Blood, I said that I thought he had reinvented the amateur detective genre from Crime Fiction’s so-called Golden Age. On the face of it, Stone Cold Trouble is a thousand miles from the novels of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers – but think of the way that Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey moves seamlessly through upper-crust society, or Miss Jane Marple through village life in middle England, in a way that the police can never emulate. And that is what Zaq and Jags can do through the close-knit Asian communities of West London.

There is plenty of violence here, but it is the violence of hand-to-hand fighting. – and in the sequences where Zaq sits in vigil by his brother’s bedside, Anwar doesn’t shirk from showing the consequences of violence. He never glorifies it.

The relationship between Zaq and Jags still bubbles with humour and the story grips from beginning to end.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A.A. Dhand, Dreda Say Mitchell

Avoid If You Dislike: Blow by blow descriptions of fights

Perfect Accompaniment: Desi scrambled eggs and chai

Genre: Crime Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Friday, 13 November 2020

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

David C Dawson

What we thought of it:

A friend bought me this book recently. My friend is a dog lover. I have two cats. The book is about a woman writer living in New York who is forced to take in an ageing Great Dane when its owner, her lifelong friend, kills himself.

My mother had recently died when my friend gave me the book.

It was the perfect choice of reading material. It’s only 200 pages long and I read it in one sitting as I remained confined to the house during lockdown, indulging my grief.

Nunez has captured the deep and dark emotions of grief in a way that no other writer has ever done for me. At one point she writes:

“Walking in Midtown, rush hour’s peak, people streaming in both directions, I find myself seething, ready to kill. Who are all these fucking people, and how is it fair, how is it even possible that all of them, these perfectly ordinary people should be alive?”

It was as though she had read my innermost thoughts about my mother’s death as I grumpily walked around the supermarket and put those thoughts on the page for me.

That’s not to say this is a sombre book. I have never owned a dog, but I can only conclude that Nunez has done. Her description of the central character’s developing relationship with a lumbering giant of an animal called Apollo, with its bad breath, flatulence and clumsiness through arthritis created a vivid image in my mind’s eye that stayed with me long after I’d closed the book. There is humour, pathos, anger, frustration, and so much love, inside this slim volume.

Nunez reflects on the nature of human relationships with a poignancy and accuracy I have rarely encountered in literature. It’s no wonder that The Friend won the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction in the US, and was shortlisted for the Dublin International Literary Award.

Highly recommended.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: My Dog Tulip by J R Ackerley

Avoid if you don’t like: suicide references

Ideal accompaniments: A four-legged friend

Genre: Divorce fiction, animal fiction

Thursday, 5 November 2020

Aria by Nazanine Hozar

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

“My girl, there’s a lot you still need to learn about this country, about its people. It is seven thousand years old, maybe more. When something is that old, it begins to crack. It beings to rot. The oldest tree is the first to burn, right?”

This is the second book I have read this year by an Iranian author in exile and spanning the period of the Iran’s Islamic revolution. But Nazanine Hozar’s Aria is a very different kind of novel to Shookefeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. Azar’s book, which opens in the middle of the revolution and brings us close the present day, is woven with Persian folklore. Hozar’s novel, on the other hand, begins in the 1950s and draws together the threads that brought about the revolution and created its fanatics.

Aria is a baby girl abandoned in an alleyway by her desperate mother and found by chance by a man in a childless and loveless marriage. He is determined to save the baby, but his wife is less than impressed with his philanthropy.

It is the twists and turns of Aria’s life that we follow for the rest of the novel, as she leaves the desperately poor South City to live with a family who were once silversmiths to the Shahs. Around her are a panoply of characters – there are Aria’s three ‘mothers’, Mehri, Zahra and Fereshteh. Her father and his friend Rameen. Kamran, the boy with the harelip, who befriends her when she needs it most. Her schoolfriends, Mitra and Hamlet.

Through them, we glimpse the different religious groups that make up Iran’s diverse society – the Zoroastrians, the Christians, the Jews, all living in an uneasy relationship with the Muslim majority. And we witness the swelling of different forces opposed to the Shah – forces who briefly imagine they are forming a coalition, only to discover that fanaticism has no allies, and that they are swapping one form of oppression and cruelty for another.

One of the things that Hozar does brilliantly is to capture ambiguity. None of her characters are wholly good or wholly bad. They all tread a path of difficult decisions, for which individually there are no perfect choices, but which collectively can lead them in some very dark directions. Aria’s father sums this up well:

“Years ago, Rameen had read to him about the Mona Lisa, saying the reason everyone cherished the painting so much was because of the duplicitous nature it depicted, containing within the curve of a half smile, love and hatred, good and bad. Now he was beginning to see all of life like this, too.”

A deeply moving novel, and one that explains much that I remembered but never fully understood about the events that unfolded in Iran  between 1979 and 1981.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shookefeh Azar, The Secret Letters from X to A by Nasrin Parvaz.

Avoid If You Dislike: Depictions of childhood poverty and deprivation

Perfect Accompaniment:
Abgoosht (Persian stew of lamb and childpeas)

Literary Fiction, Modern Historical Fiction,

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 29 October 2020

Boy, Everywhere by A. M. Dassu

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It

Onjali Rauf’s wonderful The Boy at the Back of the Class has done an incredible job of raising awareness among younger children of what it means to be a refugee. But if there was one small criticism that arguably could be levelled at it, it was that it centred the British children in the class and not the refugee child himself.

A. M. Dassu’s Boy, Everywhere, aimed at slightly older children, makes Sami, the Syrian child forced to flee his country because of civil war, the very heart and centre of the story.

Sami’s life in the opening pages of the book could be the life of a middle-class child anywhere in Europe or North America. He plays on his Xbox and worries about having the latest football boots. His biggest worries are boring school lessons and defending his best mate from the class bully.

The war has been going on in the rest of Syria for a while now, but life in Damascus hasn't changed much. Sami never imagines the war will really affect him. But then one day a bomb goes off that destroys a big shopping mall, narrowly avoiding killing Sami’s mother and leaving his five-year-old sister traumatised. Sami’s parents realise they have no choice but to leave Syria and to try and reach a safe country.

Boy, Everywhere is the story of Sami’s perilous journey from Syria to the UK and what happens to him and his family once they arrive Manchester. It’s a tough story, based on first-person accounts from other young people who have made the journey.

At every turn it demolishes myths about asylum seekers. It shows what it means to put your lives in the hands of smugglers, to survive terrifying boat crossings, to arrive in the UK only to be locked up in a detention centre with other desperate people – and then when you finally begin to make a life for yourself in your new country, to face bigotry and rejection.

Sami is angry and frustrated as any teenager would be at being torn from his home and his friends. But he is terrified and guilty and confused. To read his story is to want to shelter and protect him. And there are so many Samis out there.

A heart-rending story that will open your eyes to the reality of what refugees face on their journeys here and when they arrive – and why they are fleeing their countries in the first place.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Rauf.

Avoid If You Dislike: Graphic accounts of the dangers faced by refugee families

Perfect Accompaniment: Maqluba (“upside down”) a Syrian dish of meat, rice and vegetables

Genre: Older children and Young Teens; Contemporary 

Thursday, 22 October 2020

The Night Bus Hero by Onjali Q Raúf

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

Hector is a bully – someone who openly delights in picking on those smaller and weaker than himself. But when he takes on Thomas, a homeless man who likes to sit on a bench in the middle of the local park – pushing his trolley full of belongings down the hill and into the lake – he soon finds out he has bitten off more than he can chew.

Someone else has decided that rough sleepers are easy targets too. A thief is stealing iconic statues from London landmarks, leaving behind marks from the hobos’ secret code to suggest the homeless are to blame.

Could the two enemies possibly turn allies to track down the real thief?

It’s relatively unusual to have a story told from the point of view of a bully – but this is of course a redemption story. Hector is no cardboard cut-out villain – nor does Raúf take the easy road of having him come from a dysfunctional or abusive family. She knows well enough that bullies – like the homeless – can come from all walks of life.

Many years ago, I volunteered at a night shelter; so I know first-hand how complex the stories can be of how someone ends up on the street, and how far from their stereotypes rough sleepers can be. Raúf’s inspiration springs from more-or-less wordless encounters she had as a child with a homeless man she would see on the streets every summer. Her resulting cast of characters – especially Thomas and Catwoman – are full of warmth and humanity.

In her author’s note, Raúf notes how ironic it was to be writing this book in the middle of a global pandemic, when suddenly, for a short time, resources were found to find shelter for all rough sleepers. Even more ironic, then, that in the month it was published, the government announced that it would start deporting foreign nationals who were found to be homeless. Books like this, that allow us to see the anonymous huddles figures figures we too often just try and avoid, are more important than ever.

Raúf has always been a campaigner as well as an author. Here first book, The Boy At the Back of the Class, was a celebration of refugees, and she backed it up with the establishment of O’s Refugee Aid Team, which raises awareness and funds for refugees and delivers emergency aid. This time, she is similarly throwing her weight behind charities supporting homeless people by doating a portion of her royalties to homeless charities.

Whether at home or in school, this book provides the platform for discussing some important and sensitive issues, and the notes at the back of the book contain child-friendly information about homelessness in the UK and tell the stories of some of the charities helping them. 

But The Night Bus Hero is also a page-turning adventure story that children will love. Onjali Raúf is rapidly becoming the Jacqueline Wilson for a new generation.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Worry Angels by Sita Brahmachari; The Boy At The Back of the Class by Onjali Q Raúf, The Bed and Breakfast Star by Jacqueline Wilson

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories told from a bully’s point of view

Perfect Accompaniment: Homemade chips (skin on) and a donation to a homeless charity

Genre: Children (Middle Reader) , Adventure

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Tamarind and the Star of Ishta by Jasbinder Bilan

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

Like Bilan’s debut novel, Asha and the Spirit Bird, Tamarind and the Star of Ishta is set in the north of India. Unlike Asha, though, Tamarind, the heroine of the book, is an outsider here. Thought she was born in her grandmother’s beautiful summer house in the cool hills below the Himalaya mountains, her father took her away when she was still a baby to live in Bristol, and they have never been back. Now, at eleven years old, she is meeting her mother’s family for the first time. And two questions burn:

What happened to her mother? And why will no one talk about her?

Like Asha and the Spirit Bird, this is a book a communion between generations and beyond the barriers of life and death. It celebrates magic and innocence and friendship.

Bilan captures the strangeness and joy for immigrant children experiencing their parents’ home country for the first time. New foods. Different customs. Relatives who act like they’ve always known you when you’ve only just met. And that one cousin who seems to resent your very presence…

Then there is the mystery of her mother. At first, Tam seems no closer to finding out anything about her. Everyone here seems to think it’s too sad to talk about too. But what about Ishta, the girl she meets in the garden at night, when she really isn’t supposed to be out there at all?

This is a tender book, laced through with a very particular kind of magic, and one that, at the right moment, might help a child coming to terms with the loss of a parent, especially one they have never really known. For others, it is another lyrical evocation of the high hills in the north of India.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan, The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories involving the loss of a parent.

Perfect Accompaniment: Potato and pea samosa with a touch of cardamom

Children and YA (Middle Reader)

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 8 October 2020

A Secret of Birds and Bone by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

“Bone is impossible. It is the only material that could make such a thing. There are locks that need the strength of metal, the lightness of wood, the warmth of life and the cool of death. Only bone has all these qualities. So only a bone builder can make a skeleton key.”

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s spooky new adventure story is set in Siena, in an alternative past where bone builders can create whole rooms out of bone. Her heroine, Sofia, wakes up in a room with:

“... thin shafts of light flitting in from the slits in the ribcage shutters … a moon-white skull still warm from the night before was cupped over her feet … Over her head draped a canopy of gold-dipped toe bones in great, gilded wreaths.”

You might think from this that Sofia is like someone from The Addams Family or Hotel Transylvania. But apart from the fact that her mother is an ossuarist – a bone builder – she is in fact a very ordinary girl. That is, until the day she decided to break the rules and go into Siena with her little brother to see the Palio – the wild and dangerous horse race for which the city is famous. And there she stumbles on a dark, dark secret. Something which puts her mother in grave danger, and only Sofia can save her.

Perhaps fittingly for a book that has come out in autumn 2020, this is also a world that has been ravaged by a plague: in this case, smallpox. The city’s ruler has closeted herself in her Palazzo, mourning the death of her husband, and the disease has left many, many orphans.

I was a massive fan of Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase series when I was a child, this has book has much the same feel to it. A world that is almost ours but not quite. Cruelty exposed by brave children. The tiniest hint of magic.

A Secret of Birds and Bone is a fast-paced adventure set in a beautifully realised world that will be lapped up by young readers who enjoy a hint of spookiness in their stories. The perfect book to read on  Hallowe’en night, in lieu of potentially-cancelled Trick or Treating.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (etc) by Joan Aiken, The Girl of Ink and Stars (etc) by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Avoid If You Dislike: Skeletons. Birds (especially crows and magpies)

Perfect Accompaniment:
Fresh, clear, cold water

Genre: Children and YA (Middle Reader)

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 1 October 2020

Love in Colour by Bolu Babalola


Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

What a joy this book was to read!

Bolu Babalola has taken raw material from folk tales and mythology around the world and spun from it a paeon to romantic love, in all its manifestations.

The mundane mystique of romantic love that is ubiquitous at a glance, but, when you look closer, you notice the tessellations of understanding, patience, friendship and attractions. She sees both the miracle of the spark lighting and also the working, because it takes work, and for the work to work, you have to respect each other, like each other.

In this collection of tales, figures familiar to those with a classic western education (Psyche, Scheherzade, Nefertiti, Thisbe) recount their stories alongside a pantheon of characters from Nigeria, Ghana, Lesotho, China, Korea.

Some have been transported into the modern world – others remain in a version of their original setting. Thus Osun, a Nigerian river deity, becomes a sports star at an elite school. Psyche works in the cut-throat world of the fashion magazine. Nefertiti operates in the criminal underworld of a contemporary-feeling dystopia

As Babalola says in her Author’s Note, many of the original tales were “rife with misogyny and violence and were created within heavily patriarchal contexts.” She has transformed them, placing the women at the centre of their stories; giving them agency, power, discernment.

Here are childhood sweethearts and first date flirtations. Partnerships built up over many years and alliances forged in a red-hot minute. Some of the stories and sexy and others tender, some crackle with wit and some are heartbreaking.

Bablola’s dialogue is wonderful. I would love to see these done as a series of television shorts (directed by Michaela Coel perhaps?). They would surely fizz out of the screen as they fizz off the page.

The last few stories are not grounded in mythology but are Babalola originals, and the last of all, reading between the lines, is a tribute to the author’s parents. If so, no wonder they raised a daughter with such sensitivity to this most transformative of emotions.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Love Across a Broken Map by The Whole Kahani, The Nearness of You by Sareeta Domingo

Avoid This If You Dislike: Happy endings; Celebrating love without a shred of cynicism

Perfect Accompaniment: A glass of rosé

Romance, Mythology, Short Stories, Contemporary

Buy This Book Here

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 wants more than anything else to get an education

“That day, I tell myself that even 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