Tuesday 17 December 2019

Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Funny,” he said, “how the poor and the wretched are always being blame for their own misfortunes, isn’t it? As though the Jews who wash up on our shored are responsible for the pogroms against them and the filth that our own poor live in.”

I am always excited by the release of a new Sam Wyndham mystery, but never more so than by this one, the fourth in the series.

This time the story takes place over two time lines, and we see not only the weary Sam Wyndham of 1922, doggedly trying to free himself of opium addiction, but also the young Sam Wyndham, wet behind the ears and newly recruited into the police in London, as two cases at either ends of his career become entangled together.

Even the title operates on several levels – as the word East can be taken as referring simultaneously to Assam, east of Sam’s usual haunts in Calcutta, to Whitechapel in the east end of London – and to the patronising orientalist term for anywhere east of central Europe. 

As Mukherjee explains in his interview in the Hindustani Times “It was going to be my homage to Agatha Christie... where a body is found in a room which is locked from the inside. But I have been very depressed and angered by everything that’s going on in the world, and in Britain. So I couldn’t just write my little locked room mystery. As an author, and just as a person, I had to write something which spoke to what is happening in the world.”

As the quote with which I opened this review indicates, there are close and uncomfortable parallels between attitudes toward the Jewish refugees who found themselves in the East End of London in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and those towards the Muslim communities that live there today. And Mukherjee could not resist drawing out those parallels in this gripping historical crime thriller.

We left Sam at the end of Smoke and Ashes travelling towards Assam to undergo a cure for his opium addiction. But on the last leg of his journey to the ashram, he sees a ghost from his past. Maybe it’s just an opium induced illusion, but as Sam says, it’s hard to forget the face of a man who’s tried to kill you.

From that point, the two timelines weave in and out through the course of the story, giving us not one but two locked room mysteries. 

The book also contains Surendranath’s most direct challenge yet to Sam’s unthinking support of the status quo. The young officer doesn’t appear until towards the end of the book this time, but when he does, he is given charge of the investigation, something his white suspects don’t take kindly to. When Sam upbraids him for the way he speaks to one of them, he responds:

“I addressed him with no derogatory epithets. He on the other hand called me a heathen runt, a jumped up subaltern. You have nothing to say about that?”

The two men's relationship is slowly and irrevocably shifting, just as the relationship between Britain and India is shifting. And Mukherjee’s depiction of it continues to go from strength to strength. He has said that he sees Sam and Surendrenath as two sides of his own character – the Scottish and the Bengali, which is perhaps how he can write both characters so sympathetically. 

All I can say is, roll on 1923! 

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Previous Sam Wyndham mysteries by Abir Mukherjee. Ripper Street (BBC TV) House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

Avoid If You Dislike: Descriptions of addicts going cold turkey

Perfect Accompaniment: Death in the Yeast – Pale Ale specially brewed for the release of Death in the East by Southwark Brewing. Or any fine Pale Ale.

Genre: Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction

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Thursday 12 December 2019

The Pearl of Penang by Clare Flynn

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of the French Historical, The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and Australian 1970s series: The Silent Kookaburra and The Swooping Magpie.

What we thought: I thoroughly enjoyed being swept back to the heat, the tropical landscape, the culture and people of Malaya prior to, and during, WWII, in Clare Flynn’s The Pearl of Penang. 

I especially loved how the author wove together an engaging story with well-researched details about Malaya and its rubber plantations.

I found myself fighting for our heroine, Evie every step of the way of her journey, from the beginning when we meet her as a quiet young girl working as rich woman’s companion, through her acceptance of a marriage proposal from a Malay rubber plantation-owner she’d only met once, years ago. 

I was by Evie’s side as she lived through the tragedies and triumphs of her marriage to the cold and unloving, Douglas Barrington, as she endures the often spiteful and cruel British expatriates, and the shallow ex-pat life. I feared for her as the threat of Japanese occupation of Malay became a reality.

With its gripping storyline, very real characters, and easy-to-read prose, I would highly recommend The Pearl of Penang as a novel to lose yourself in.

You’ll like this if you: enjoy plucky heroines and ex-pat tales set in exotic places.

Avoid if you don’t like: male-dominated worlds, oppression of women.

Genre: historical fiction.

Buy the book here

Tuesday 3 December 2019

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

The Last Runaway is the story of Honor Bright, who in 1850 emigrates from Bridport in Dorset to a small Quaker community in Ohio, only to find herself caught between the Underground Railroad of slaves escaping slavery in the southern states, and the harsh exigencies of the new Fugitive Slave law.

Chevalier manages to avoid too much White Saviourism, or self congratulation on the Quaker role in the anti-slavery movement. Hope has been brought up to believe slavery is wrong. Yet Chavalier does not shy away showing how the famous Arch Street Meeting in Philadelphia kept a “negroes’ bench” at the back of the room. Nor that many Quakers supported the dubious concept of ‘colonisation’, whereby ex-slaves would be shipped back to Africa, regardless of the fact that many of them had been in America for generations.

Nor does Chevalier over-inflate the Quaker role in the Underground Railroad. Much more important is the role of free Black men and women, like Mrs Reed in the nearby town of Oberlin, who were there long before Honor arrived in Ohio and will be there long after she has moved on. Honor’s naive good intentions are at times as likely to imperil the runaways and their supporters as to help them.

Chevalier paints a vivid picture of life on the frontier – the harsh extremes of the weather, the unfamiliar flora and fauna, the utter necessity to be self-reliant when shops are few and far between and at times beyond reach.

Woven through the book is also the story of quilting – the often over-looked ‘women’s work’ that brought women together and created social bonds as well as something both practical and beautiful. Honor is a master of the largely British tradition of patchwork quilting. As she learns, when the women of Ohio come together in ‘frolics’ to make quilts, they favour appliqué. While Mrs Reed uses yet another style. Chevalier learnt to quilt as part of her preparation for writing this book and her detailed descriptions of quilt and quilting techniques are fascinating.

Absent from this picture of frontier life, however, is any glimpse of what has happened to the indigenous people of this newly colonised land. They are simply gone, both from the land and from the consciousness of the people now occupying it.

None the less this is an absorbing retelling of a broadly familiar story, with all of Chavalier’s trademark attention to the details of women’s day to day lives. And incidentally, for me, it was a joy to read descriptions of Meetings for Worship from a fellow Quaker who actually gets it! Patrick Gage is one of the few others I have read who can really capture what it feels like to sit in that ‘gathered silence’.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier, The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney, Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of frontier life in America that ignore the impact on the indigenous groups

Perfect Accompaniment: Fresh corn on the cob

Genre: Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Monday 25 November 2019

The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star by Vaseem Kahn

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star is the third book by Vaseem Kahn in his Baby Ganesh Detective series – and possibly the most engaging yet.

Chopra’s beloved wife Poppy is delighted when he manages to get tickets to attend an extravaganza starring Bollywood’s latest hot property, Vicky Verma. But when Verma vanishes from the stage at the end of the show, apparently kidnapped, Chopra is called in to investigate. Before the end, you can be sure that Chopra will have given the long suffering Poppy more than a little cause for anxiety, but that she, their adopted street urchin Irfan and the elephant Baby Ganesh will have combined to come to the rescue.

The sub-plot of the story is even more fascinating, as Chopra’s new assistant, Rangwalla, is forced to go undercover with Mumbai’s eunuchs – the city’s ancient and despised transgender community – and learns to see them in a whole new light.

This all takes place in the build up to the Festival of Holi – the Indian festival that, as Chopra reflects, ‘transcended the barriers that so often kept people apart’, a colourful explosion of madness that Poppy, Ganesh and Irfan all adore - and the ever-digified Chopra merely tolerates.

As always, Kahn’s gentle humour allows him to poke fun some of the absurdities of Mumbai society, while at the same time turning over a few stones and exposing some of the city’s darker elements.

I suspect that if you are familiar with Bollywood films, you might spot references to familiar tropes and plot lines that passed me by. I did enjoy what I’m guessing was a nod to the famous long-running court case at the heart of Dickens Bleak House, as Inspector Chopra takes a similar pot-shot at the slow-moving Indian legal system.

This is the sort of book you curl up with in the expectation of being charmed, entertained, comforted and – just on the sly while you’re not really looking – taught something new. Kahn is a prolific writer, and I am by now well behind with this series. Two more - Murder at the Grand Raj Hotel and Bad Day at the Vulture Club - have already been published.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Honey Trap by JJ Marsh; The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson; anything else in the Baby Ganesh series by Vaseem Khan

Avoid If You Dislike: Warm and cosy Crime Fiction with a soupçon of peril and a flavour of India

Perfect Accompaniment: Chana Masala and saffron rice

Genre: Crime Fiction

Friday 15 November 2019

Lowborn by Kerry Hudson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Shall we start with a happy ending? I made it. I rose. I escaped poverty. I escaped bad food because that’s all you can afford. I escaped threadbare clothes and too-tight shoes. I escaped drinking and drugging myself into oblivion because ... because.”

Reading Kerry Hudson’s memoir, Lowborn, straight after Candice Carty-Williams’s novel, Queenie was fascinating and troubling. Hudson’s story doesn’t have the dimensions of race and immigration, but in so many other ways, the parallels are clear. Poverty. Deprivation. Toxic masculinity. Generational Trauma. Deeply damaged women not recognising that they are passing on the same hurts to their daughters and granddaughters. And the consequences for those daughters: night traumas, panic attacks and self esteem that remains desperately fragile even when you have far, far exceeded the low expectations you were set as a child.

The books is, as the author says, “the outcome of questions that still disturb my peace.” It is a journey through all the places – from Aberdeen to Great Yarmouth – where she spent her childhood. Part memoir, part assessment of how things have changed – for better or for worse – for young people growing up in those towns.

It is also a raging protest against all those who have spent the last few years demonising the poor – calling them lazy, work-shy, scroungers. True poverty, she says, is “all-encompassing, grinding, brutal and often dehumanising.”

She describes the hyper-vigilance of a child constantly in foreign environments with strange people. The impact of being constantly told not to utter a word about what was happening in your childhood – your body seizing up, your mouth refusing to form words. “The words I heard spoken to me in my first twenty years are tattooed everywhere under my skin.”

For those of us who grew up in a different kind of world, it can seem as if Hudson is speaking from another planet, such is the divide that has been created and sustained in our society. And recent government policy has done little to improve things and much to make them far, far worse.

A necessary reality check and an antidote to the distorted portrayals of poverty in programmes such as Benefits Street.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Queenie by Candice Carty-Willams, Natives by Akala, Stopping Places by Damian le Bas, Common People (ed Kit de Waal)

Avoid If You Dislike: Being reminded what a desperately unequal society we live in

Perfect Accompaniment: An Aberdeen smokie (smoked kipper)

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Tuesday 5 November 2019

Overture (L'Alouette trilogy Book 1) by Vanessa Couchman

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of the French Historical, The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and Australian 1970s series: The Silent Kookaburra and The Swooping Magpie.

I love the way Vanessa Couchman effortlessly breathes life into history, and her latest novel, Overture, is no exception.

Young Marie-Thérèse has a talent for singing but living in a poor family in rural Aveyron, she must work on the farm, and forget her singing dreams.

When tragedy forces Marie-Thérèse and her mother to leave Aveyron and seek refuge with her aunt and uncle in Paris, they are forced to work long, hard hours in their restaurant, Bistrot Mazars.

However, Marie-Thérèse also gets the chance to delve into the world of music and opera in the capital. And, when she meets someone who is certain she has a bright future, she dares to think her childhood dream might come true after all.

The author deftly evokes the contrasts of the countryside of rural Aveyron, with Paris city life at the turn of the last century. Disasters such as the sinking of the Titanic and the build-up to WWI are also woven through the storyline as we accompany Marie-Thérèse in her struggles, despairs and triumphs.

We want her to succeed as much as she does herself.

I was sorry when I reached the end of this beautifully-written and engaging story, but also pleased to see that Overture is the first of L’Alouette trilogy. I’m now looking forward to the second installment, and continuing this story with the characters I’ve come to know and care about.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: historical novels set in France, and tales of chasing your dreams against all odds.

Avoid if you don’t like: Leisurely-paced, coming-of-age historical stories.

Ideal accompaniments: baguette, cheese and French wine.

Genre: Historical Fiction.

Buy this book here