Friday, 27 July 2018

The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh Shukla

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of it:
I first came across Nikesh Shukla in a yurt on the banks of the River Thames. It was Refugee Week 2011, and I had come to hear members of the Write to Life group from Freedom from Torture perform their poetry. Shukla was there to read from his debut novel, Coconut Unlimited. The reading, which was very funny, stuck with me because Shukla’s description of hearing his grandmother speaking Gujarati peppered with modern English words like ‘television’ was exactly like my memories of hearing my grandmother speaking Welsh. I bought the book the next day.

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, and The One Who Wrote Destiny is a very different book to Coconut Unlimited. This is one of several books I have read recently where the narrative passes from one hand to another. It begins with a father, Mukesh, retelling – as we later found out – a story he has repeated s often it has driven his children mad. It’s the story of how he met their mother, at Diwali, and how together they fought off racists trying to stop the celebrations. 

It then passes to the daughter, Neha – mathematician, programmer, obsessed with numbers and patterns. She shares the fatal genetic flaw that killed her mother before she really had time to get to know her. And now, dying herself, she is trying to find out if she can predict the destinies of the rest of the family.

From Neha it passes to her twin brother Raks – a stand-up comedian who needs to please, returning to Kenya to trace the grandmother he and his sister stayed with only once.

And finally to Ba, the grandmother, dealing with two small children who are foisted upon her when all she wants is to be left alone to mourn.

Each of the characters has their own take on what destiny means – whether it be written in our DNA or our stars. But for me, at least, the book is about coming to terms with death, whether our own or that of a loved one. And the recognition that the final step is one that one must always take on one’s own

Almost incidentally, the narrative also traces the paths of British immigrants (especially Kenyan Asians) and their descendents, showing how their experience alters (and doesn’t) over time, and the tensions that creates between generations. (Being made complicit in the telling of a racist joke may be a small thing compared with being beaten to death in the streets, but it still shows what a long way this country has to go.)

There were snippets of the narrative that I recognised, either from having read The Good Immigrant, which was edited by Shukla, or from following him on Twitter, which made it feel a little like reading a book by an friend whose back stories I was privy to.

A moving and reflective novel from an author who has done more than anyone else in the last few years to change the landscape for BAME authors in Britain.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Birdie by Tracey Lindberg, If You Look For Me I am Not Here by Sarayu Srivatsa, The Good Immigrant (ed Nikesh Shukla)

Avoid If You Dislike: narratives about death and dying

Perfect Accompaniment: Mango and sugar rotli

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Nikesh Shukla is the editor of The Good Immigrant, co-founder of the Jhalak Prize and founder of The Good Literary Agency

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett – author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn and other books

What We Thought: Set in 1666 at the time of the Great Fire of London, this is a wonderfully atmospheric novel. We feel the heat of the fire scorching us in the opening chapter, and wipe the sooty sweat from our brows. There are two protagonist in this book and though they encounter each other briefly while watching the fire in that opening chapter, they don't meet properly until much later in the story.

James Marwood is a clerk to an Under Secretary of State at the Palace of Whitehall. James' father is a believer in 'King Jesus', a Republican and member of a Protestant sect who believe that getting rid of the earthly king will bring about King Jesus's reign more quickly. Only his age and increasing dementia saves him from the ultimate penalty. Let out of prison, he lives out of London, in Chelsea, and is safe as long as he keeps out of trouble.

Through his work James is involved in the investigation of a series of deaths that look very much like murders. It is a dangerous time: those who had demanded the killing of Charles I - the Regicides as they were known - were hunted down when his son, Charles II, reclaimed the throne. Is someone picking off former Republicans who have managed to hide their involvement in the king's downfall?

Catherine Lovett lives with her wealthy aunt and uncle who have betrothed her to Sir Denzil Croughton, a man much older than she is. Her father, also a follower of King Jesus and wanted as a Regicide, is on the run. Lovett has been abroad but there are rumours he is now in London. Cat longs to find him and creeps out of the house under cover of darkness to seek him out.

The lives of the two protagonists intertwine but this is not a love story. Cat wants to be an architect and have a life of her own. James is drawn ever further into the service of powerful men and ultimately into helping the king, on whose benevolence his father's freedom depends.

This is an entertaining and exciting book. It is part murder mystery, part political intrigue. It's a page-turner which is also a well researched and fully believable historical novel.

I received a free ebook from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel.

Avoid If You Dislike: Occasional graphic cruelty

Perfect Accompaniment: A long cold ale.

Genre: Historical Mystery

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Subjunctive Moods by C G Menon

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I first read ‘Watermelon Seeds’ by C G Menon in the anthology Love Across a Broken Map by The Whole Kahani collective, also published by Dahlia Books. It was one of my favourite stories in the book, so I had high hopes for Subjunctive Moods, Menon’s own collection, and it did not disappoint.

The definition of a subjunctive mood is ‘a grammatical construction with expresses a condition which is doubtful or not factual.’ A common thread running through this collection is imagining lives as they could have been, if things had turned out just a little differently, or sometimes as they might still turn out to be. For one hour each year, as the clocks go back, one woman constructs an imaginary affair with a man she broke up with at university. Another dabbles with an actual affair, whilst in yet another returns to a secret place from her childhood to lay to rest her longing for a life where her son did not die.

The collection moves back and forth between Malaysia and Britain (with a single foray into Australia thrown in for good measure). The British stories take place in the hard, rocky corners of these islands – on the slag heaps of South Wales, the moorlands around Middlesborough, the coast by the Farne Islands.

Menon has a gift for finding fresh and arresting turns of phrase. The wife of a man with a wandering eye watches a beautiful woman as “her reflection swims up into his empty hands.” A troubled young mother who has already had one child taken from her contemplates, “a lifetime of trudging up her terraced street with a pram and a hangover and her mistakes dragging behind her like a sodden length of rope.”

Even before I found the first story set in Wales, Menon’s language was reminding me of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. Her description of a faithless husband sloping off back to his mistress, “to be checked off her lists and hung up in her kitchen with the dinner menus, where he will dangle uselessly for several years,” is irresistibly reminiscent of Mr and Mrs Ogmore Pritchard.

Menon weaves threads of old beliefs – Malayan, Welsh, Hindu – into some of the stories to give a hint of magic realism. By coincidence, I had just finished reading Sharlene Teo’s Ponti, which introduced me to pontianaks – the malign, vampire-like female ghosts of Malaysia – before finding them again here, in two of Menon’s stories. But here too is the makara, the Hindu sea monster, and the piece of iron that keeps Welsh goblins at bay so your baby can’t be stolen away.

An utterly beguiling collection of stories by an author who weaves spells with language around the lives of ordinary people.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Love Across a Broken Map by The Whole Kahani, Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, Speak Gigantular by Irenosen Okojie 

Avoid If You Dislike: Spinning poetry out of ordinary lives.

Perfect Accompaniment: Each story has a flavour of its own – from Bara Brith to Nasi Lemak

Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

I'll Keep You Safe by Peter May

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter, Closure, Complicit, Crimson Shore, False Lights & Sacred Lake. (

What we thought: For those who follow Bookmuse reviews, you will know I am a huge fan of Peter May and think he’s one of the best new crime fiction writers of a generation. So, I was hugely excited to hear that in this latest novel he had returned to his Hebridean roots – a setting I think he handles best of all.

However, the story starts in Paris, with a shock car bomb explosion, that at first made me think we were going down the terrorism route, but no – Hebridean wool is at the heart of this crime not international terrorism.

Niamh and Ruairidh Macfarlane co-own the Hebridean company Ranish Tweed and are in Paris for a high-profile fashion show when the explosion kills Ruairidh and leaves Niamh a widow, alone in a foreign country to cope with the tragedy and its after effects. On her return home to the island of Lewis, and the beautiful house she shared with her husband, a series of events terrify Niamh and it becomes clear that she may have been the intended victim all along.

The landscape itself is a standalone character and the atmosphere of the islands is, as ever, evoked superbly well. Also, it’s nice to meet up again with old friends like DS George Gunn. The characters are brought to life in detail, real and vivid, and there is a large enough cast to hold a number of suspects. The pace and flow of the story is as good as I have come to expect from this author and grips you until the final pages. 

Next please, Mr May!

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Ann Cleeves, Peter James, Ian Rankin.

Avoid if you don’t like : Remote Scottish landscapes.

Ideal accompaniments: Haggis, peas and gravy.

Genre : Crime

Available on Amazon