Wednesday, 8 September 2021

The Waiter by Ajay Chowdhury

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

This was another recommendation from the Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast, and another highly enjoyable read.

In writing his debut novel, theatre director Ajay Chowdhury was mentored by the brilliant Abir Mukherjee. Like his mentor, he has set his crime novel partly in Kolkata, but his is contemporary Kolkata.

In fact, the story divides between Kolkata and London, where disgraced police officer Kamil Rahman is working (illegally) as a waiter in a restaurant on Brick Lane. But when the host of a party catered by Kamil’s boss is found dead by his swimming pool and the host’s wife becomes the obvious suspect, Kamil’s detective skills are called on to prove her innocence.

The novel moves between the London murder and another in Kolkata – the one that lost Kamil his job and drove him to London under a cloud of suspicion. And as the narrative spools out, the two cases begin to look increasingly connected.

The settings give the narrative two distinctly different tones, and like two strands of a piece of music, they blend to make the whole richer. The portrayals of both London and Kolkata feel contemporary and very real.

Chowdhury’s characters – especially Kamil and his London ‘partner’, his boss’s daughter, the irrepressible Anjoli – are a delight. I really hope we are going to see more of this partnership, because it feels as if it has so much further to go.

I am also enjoying the way that some of recent Crime novelists are rediscovering the amateur detective. I love a police procedural as much as the next Crime Fiction reader, but the joy of the classic amateur detective was always that they could go where no policeman could. Like Amer Anwar’s Zaq and Jags, Kamil and Anjoli can slide into places the police could never penetrate. Kamil, in particular, takes full advantage of a waiter’s invisibility - listening and observing without ever being fully seen. A clever, clever choice of role for his main character.

There is plenty of humour here too - for example, in Kamil’s wry observations of Brick Lane’s hipster clientele. (“It wasn’t my fault, but these white people, with their nose rings and tattoos, all looked the same to me.”)

All in all, a great new addition to the contemporary crime genre - can't wait to read more from this author.  

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Amer Anwar, Abir Mukherjee, Vaseem Khan

Avoid If You Dislike: Morally ambiguous endings

Perfect Accompaniment:
Ilish Masher Jhol (Bengali fish curry with mustard oil)

Genre: Crime

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Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Splinters of Sunshine by Patrice Lawrence

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Dandelions close at night and open again in the morning, like they’re holding in the sunshine. Some dandelions have two hundred petals. The most I ever counted was a hundred and eighty. It’s like the sun broke into thousands of pieces so everyone can have some shine.

Splinters of Sunshine is the latest YA novel from the award-winning author Patrice Lawrence. Having won the inaugural Jhalak Prize for Children and Young Adults for her novel Eight Pieces of Silva, which dealt with exploitative relationships, Splinters of Sunshine takes on the highly pertinent issue of County Lines drug gangs.

County Lines refers to the practice of grooming vulnerable young people to move drugs from one area (and one police authority) to another in order to avoid detection. The young people involved are often, but not exclusively, in care.

A*student, Spey, used to have a best friend called Dee. She lived with her grandmother and she was obsessed with wildflowers – their names, their colours, the stories behind them. Once, on her sixth birthday, the two of them created a huge collage of flower pictures, and at the end of the day they cut it in two and took one half each. But then Dee’s Nan died, Spey and his mother moved away, and they lost touch.

Spey saw her once or twice after that – just enough to have an uneasy feeling she might be in trouble. But he did nothing (what could he do?). But then, one day, just after Christmas, he receives an envelope, forwarded from his old address, with Dee’s half of the collage in it. And he knows he has to do something to find her.

Spey’s father, who he barely knows, is just out of prison. Spey doesn’t really want anything to do with him. But maybe, just maybe, he is the one person who can help.

This is a heart-breaking story of the exploitation of young people. But it is also a story of courage and resilience and friendship. As with all of Patrice Lawrence’s novels, she tackles contemporary issues with compassion and sensitivity. It’s a book to start a conversation on difficult issues – but that never gets in the way of a great, page-turning story.

Spey and Dee are characters that will creep into your heart and stay there forever.

Beautifully illustrated, too, with line drawings of Dee’s favourite flowers, with their scientific and common names – names which are steeped in folk history. (The cover and illustrations are designed by Michelle Brackenborough at Hachette Kids.)

At the end of the book, resources can be found to support care-leavers, children of prisoners, and those affected by gangs and county lines.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Eight Pieces of Silva by Patrice Lawrence; And the Stars Were Burning Brightly by Danielle Jawando; Boy, Everywhere by A. M. Dassu; Wonderland by Juno Dawson

Avoid If You Dislike: Confronting issues around drug culture

Perfect Accompaniment:
A quiet hour in a wildflower meadow

Genre: Contemporary, Young Adult

Buy This Book Here:

Tuesday, 17 August 2021

The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

In 1952, merchant seaman and occasional petty thief, Mahmood Mattan is put on trial for the brutal murder of Cardiff shopkeeper Lily Volpert. You wouldn’t hang a dog on the evidence brought before the court – but Mahmood is a Black man in post-war south Wales. He was hanged on 3rd September 1952, the last person to be executed in Wales. Almost half a century later, he became the first person to have his conviction quashed under the newly established Criminal Cases Review Commission.

In this superb novel by Nadifa Mohamed, longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, Mahmood Mattan is finally given the voice he was never afforded in life. Mohamed has immersed herself in the details of Mahmood’s life to give us a fully rounded picture of the man. We don’t just walk beside him through the trial, onto death row and ultimately through the doors of the execution chamber: we are inside his mind. We inhabit his sense of his own innocence and his faith in British justice, his rage when it fails him, the meditative state he reaches (for a time) when contemplating his own death.

The Fortune Men serves to remind us that Cardiff is one of the oldest established multi-ethnic communities in the UK, that is was a place of “robed Yemenis and Somalis marching to celebrate Eid, of elaborate funeral corteges for the last of the rich captains of Loudon Square, of Catholic children clad in white on Corpus Cristi […] of makeshift calypso bands busking to raise enough money to tour the country, of street dice games descending into happy laughter or nasty threats, of birdlike whores preening their feathers to catch a passing punter.”

But it was also a place of entrenched racism, where “a woman had given him a real stinker of a look, a real ‘get back in your mother’s hole’ look. At him! With his three-piece suit and silk scarf, while the old bat had on a rain jacket that hadn’t seen a laundry since the war. It was too much.”

Deep as we are in Mahmood’s mind, the story is not told in the first person, and that gives us the perspective to see the myriad ways in which, in the context of entrenched attitudes, Mahmood becomes the author of his own destruction: when he lies and dissembles and pretends to be something he is not, when simple honesty might have served him better.

We also get to meet Mahmood’s Welsh wife, Laura, with whom relations are strained at time of his arrest, but who remained loyal to him to the very end and who never stopped fighting to clear his name. We get a sense of their relationship, complicated but full of warmth.

Nor does Mohamed forget the victim and her family, for whom justice is not served. What is it like to know that someone you hold dear has been brutally murdered while you sit, on the other side of a wall, eating supper, telling a joke, looking forward to going to a dance? How do you deal with the aftermath of that?

An exceptional novel, grounded in a little-known slice of British history, that lays bare the human consequences of racism and injustice.

It is well worth reading this interview with Mohamed about her inspiration for writing this book, and the process by which she immersed herself in Mahmood’s life.

And for more background on Cardiff’s multicultural history, I can recommend Sean Fletcher’s documentary for S4C: Terfysg yn y Bae [Trouble in the Bay], which covers the Cardiff Race Riots of 1919. (Includes English-language subtitles.)

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, A Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee, The Empty Vessel by JJ Marsh,

Avoid If You Dislike: A close-up perspective of life under a sentence of death

Perfect Accompaniment: A mug of strong tea and ‘We Three’ by the Ink Spots

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

How To Kidnap The Rich by Rahul Raina

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

“The first kidnapping wasn’t my fault. 
The others – they definitely were.”

I have to thank the brilliant Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast for introducing me to this dark and very funny satire on life in contemporary India.

Ramesh Kumar is a not quite a slum kid, but his life is pretty precarious. His father runs a chai stall in Old Delhi, and Ramesh spends most of his days grinding spices rather than attending school.

“My father and I lived in a one-room concrete shell, down an alley, then down another, and another, from the place Western tour guides said was the real India, the one with piles of spices, women in mango-coloured saris, men who smelled of hair oil and incense and dragged cows behind them, stately and fat; the one where whites got out of their AC jeeps and said who overwhelmed they were by the sights and sounds. This India, my India, smells like shit.”

This is Ramesh’s life, until the formidable Sister Claire takes him under his wing. For Ramesh is clever, very clever indeed. Clever enough that he begins taking exams for rich boys too lazy to study for themselves. It’s a nice little earner. Until one day he does just a little too well. He comes top in the All India’s – plunging his client, Rudi, into the national limelight.

Rudi becomes a quiz show host, darling of mothers all over India, and his and Ramesh’s fates become irrevocably bound to one another. But still Ramesh manages to walk a tightrope between success and disaster. Until Rudi offends the son of the wrong man. And the two of them are kidnapped.

The voice of Ramesh, as the first-person narrator of the tale, comes across loud and clear -and very funny. The prime target of his razor-sharp wit is the greed of modern Indian capitalism. But that doesn’t stop him taking some well-aimed swipes at the West, and especially the West’s infatuation with its own notion of ‘India’.

Raina paints a fascinating portrait of the multiple layers of society living cheek by jowl in modern Delhi.

“This was a nice-part, a lower-middle-class striver part of Delhi, on-the-up Delhi, half-filled-metro-hole Delhi […]. I wasn’t even talking about the really foul parts […] where people lived like gnats on a lemur’s ballsack, where everyone was missing teeth or organs or legs and nothing got better even as the GDPs and HDIs were going up, up, up all over United Nations PowerPoint slides.”

But it is Ramesh's escapades with Rudi, as they dig themselves ever deeper in the mess (largely) of their own making that will keep you turning the page deep into the night.

A glorious crime-caper romp wrapped up in a social satire -and a voice I can’t wait to hear more of.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Q&A by Vikas Swarup, East of Hounslow by Khurrum Rhaman

Avoid If You Dislike: A dose of laughter with your peril (or vice versa).

Perfect Accompaniment:
A cup of spiced chai

Genre: Crime, Humour

Buy This Book Here

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

The Dying Day by Vaseem Khan

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

As a lifetime fan of Golden Age Detective Fiction (especially the novels of Dorothy L Sayers) and a bit of a Dante obsessive, this book could have been written for me!

This is the second outing for Persis Wadia, India’s first female police inspector. This time she is summoned to the offices of the Royal Asiatic Society because one of their senior researchers has gone missing – along with a priceless manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy, whose loss has the power to trigger a major diplomatic incidence.

The initial assumption is that Healy, the researcher, must have stolen the manuscript. But if so, why has he left behind a series of cryptic clues? And where are they leading?

At the same time Persis is trying to wrestle with her own complicated feelings towards her rumpled forensic colleague, Archie Blackfinch, as well as the problem of the dead body of a high-class white prostitute, found dismembered by the railway line.

Persis is faced with a range of clues from riddles and cryptic crosswords to full-on book ciphers (a favourite of DL Sayers). We are led from the Divine Comedy via Alice Through the Looking Glass to the King James Bible. Khan, no doubt wisely, avoids getting bogged down in the intricate details of how to solve a book cipher, but leaves plenty to challenge the little grey cells.

Persis Wadia’s debut outing, Midnight at Malabar House, has just won the 2021 Historical Dagger Award for Crime Fiction. This, the second novel in the series, does not disappoint! It is a fascinating and nuanced portrait of a newly independent India, as well as a mystery that would delight the original members of the formidable Detection Club.

(I can highly recommend the excellent Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast, hosted by Khan and his fellow masala-noir author, Abir Mukerjee. If you listen, you might just detect an echo of the bickering of Persis’s father and his friend Dr Aziz in the banter between the two hosts.)

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan; Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers.

Avoid If You Dislike: Literary puzzles

Perfect Accompaniment: Lime and soda

Genre: Crime, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

The premise of Sunjeev Sahota's third novel, China Room, has elements of a fairytale – three brides married to three brothers, but not permitted to know, even after they are married, which brother is which. It’s a recipe for trouble, and trouble does indeed follow. But this is not a fairytale. It is rural India in the 1920s – a village so tightly bound up with tradition it seems out of touch even to its neighbours.

The three brides inhabit the china room – a small building, barely more than a hut, separate from the rest of the farmstead, where a few willow-pattern plates sit on a stone shelf. From there, heavily veiled every time they step outside, they carry on the work of the household. And at night, their mother-in-law sends one son at a time into a darkened room where neither bride nor groom can see each other’s faces.

The three young brides, who could easily have been reduced to fairytale archetypes, instead come dancing off the page, alive and vivid and down to earth. Even Mai, the matriarch who rules her three sons and their brides, is not permitted to become a pantomime villain. These are real people, painted in sparing but telling detail.

“Mehar is not so obedient a fifteen-year-old that she won’t try to uncover which of the three brothers is her husband. Already, the morning after the wedding, and despite nervous, trembling hands, she combines varying amounts of lemon, garlic and spice in their side plates of sliced onions, and then attempts to detect the particular odour on the man who visits later that night, invisible to her in the dark.”

The second, parallel thread of the story takes place seventy years later, when the great-grandson of Mehar is sent back from England in the summer after his A-Levels to break his heroin addiction. At the now deserted farmstead, alone apart from an occasional visitor and a daily delivery of food, he ponders the stories about his great-grandmother, whom he knows only from a single photograph of her holding him as a new-born baby, and reflects on the sometimes brutal racism that led him down his own dark path.

By allowing the story to bridge two continents and seven decades, Sahota shows how each generation faces its own battles – those at home as well as those that migrate. His prose is at times achingly beautiful.

"What remained was a feeling of quiet rapture, of dawn colours slowly involving themselves with the day, a champagne brightness staring to warm my skin and waving across acres of corn and wheat, the soft green hills that followed no pattern, a distant stone hut that held the horizon and a long, tapered track driving on till I could no longer even imagine that I could see it."

Sahota has the gift of inhabiting his characters’ minds, and drawing the reader in there with him. His empathy is extraordinary and it has resulted in a deeply moving book. Its longlisting for the 2021 Booker Prize is richly deserved.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota; Where the River Parts by Radhika Swarup; If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here by Sarayu Srivatsa; A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Avoid If You Dislike: Poetic, thoughtful prose

Perfect Accompaniment: Cauliflower and potato curry

Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Monday, 26 July 2021

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

A Kind of Spark is a gem of a novel – one to break your heart, inspire you and fill you with joy.

The central character, Addie, is intelligent, curious, articulate and bursting with heart. She is also, like the author, autistic. That means that she can easily be overwhelmed – by sensory inputs and by emotions, both of which she feels with sometimes unbearable intensity.

Like so many neurodivergent people – including Addie’s older sister, Keedie – Addie learns to deal with the outside world by ‘masking’, hiding who she is from the world on a daily, hourly, minute by minute basis. It’s exhausting.

But when Addie begins to learn about the Scottish ‘witches’ – women persecuted for being different, just like her – she knows she needs to do something. In her own tiny village outside Edinburgh, there are records of women who were murdered on suspicion of being witches. Addie believes they should be remembered and honoured. But not everyone agrees.

This is a book about standing up to bullies. About the determination to do the right thing. About facing up honestly to the wrongs of the past, and understanding that until we do so, we cannot effect real change.

It is also a rare, profound and stereotype-free insight into what it can be like to experience our world as a neurodivergent person. McNicholl writes vividly, drawing on her own experience. Her passion, like Addie’s, is clear.

A book for anyone who wants to change the world a little bit – but especially for all the book-loving autistic girls out there, desperate to find themselves within the pages of a book.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Night Bus Hero by Onjali Rauf; Hetty Feather by Jacqueline Wilson

Avoid If You Dislike: Seeing the world in a whole new way

Perfect Accompaniment: Peace and quiet in the corner of a library

Genre: Young Adult

Buy This Book Here