Thursday, 17 December 2020

Books of the Year 2020

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

In a bleak year, reading has provided an incredible solace, and a window out into a wider world from a life whose boundaries have contracted dramatically. And oh, my goodness, what a year of reading it has been!

Here, in the order in which I read them, are my books of the year.

The Pact We Made by Layla AlAmmar


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

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

The narrator is Dahlia, one of a trio of life-long friends who, as little girls, once made a promise to get married on the same day. This might be another tale of young women negotiating modern life in a traditional society, but Dahlia, we learn, was abused through her teenage years by her mother’s cousin. And it is the lasting consequences of that abuse that reverberate throughout the book.

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

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara


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

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

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

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

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta, illus Anshika Khullar


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

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

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

An absolute joy to read – this is a book I’d like to put in the hands of every teenager and young person still trying to figure out who they are.

Afropean by Johny Pitts


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

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

He reveals the often buried histories that brought African people to Europe – from the earliest origins of the slave trade via 19th Century colonial empire building to the Cold War battle for ideological dominance.

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

Winner of both the 2020 Jhalak Prize and the 2020 Bread and Roses Prize for Radical Publishing

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste


Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King is a book I haven’t been able to get out of my head since I first read it. Set during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s, it reveals the part played in the war by Ethiopian women

Hirut begins the story as a lowly servant in the household of a wealthy family connection, someone with no power or agency of her own, despised by the lady of the house, treated with intermittent kindness by the master. The only thing she has of her own is a gun, given to her by her late father, who made her promise to keep it always. But when the Italians re-invade the country, it is taken from her, without consultation. She, like all the other women, is expected merely to prepare supplies for the soldiers. It doesn’t occur to anyone that they might fight. But the reality of war against an overwhelmingly powerful enemy changes everything.

Mengiste’s skilful use of language reveals this difference between the almost Homeric view of war when seen from the male point of view, and the direct and personal experience of horror when seen from the female point of view.

A powerful novel about war and colonialism, patriarchy and violence, written from a too-rarely seen point of view, that of a Black African woman.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré


Adunni is born into a poor family in a small village in Nigeria. She wants more than anything else to get an education. 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. Adunni uses every scrap of learning she can to fuel a burning desire for justice

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 Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett


No sooner was The Vanishing Half published in the UK 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.

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.

An exquisite tour de force of a novel, peopled with flawed and unforgettable characters. and brimming with warmth and compassion.

Love in Colour by Bolu Babalola


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.

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.

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.

Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu


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.

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud


What an incredible finish to the year this was.

Reading Love After Love feels like being privileged to dip at intervals into personal diaries of the three protagonists. Their Trini voices ring out strong and true and full of humour.

The narrative is layered and richly. Every time you think you know which way the story is going, it gives itself a little twist and flies off in a new direction – but one that, once you’ve found your feet again, feels completely right and true.

Persaud captures the paradoxes of Trinidad, the beauty side by side with violence. She examines the special nature of the relationship between a single mother and her only son – and what happens when that breaks down. And she picks apart toxic attitudes that encourage, or at least turn a blind eye to, homophobia, domestic violence and alcoholism.

This is a novel that will make you laugh and cry and catch your breath in your throat. If you’ve time to read one more book before ethe end of 2020, it should be this one.

I look forward to sharing more reading with you in 2021!

Thursday, 10 December 2020

Love after Love by Ingrid Persaud


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It

Set in more-or-less present-day Trinidad, with its complex mixture of races and religions - and in particular among the largely Christianised descendants of Indian bonded labourers brought to the island when it was a British colony - Love After Love follows the lives of Miss Betty, her young son Solo, and her gay lodger, Mr Chetan.

Reading it feels like being privileged to dip at intervals into personal diaries of the three protagonists. Their Trini voices ring out strong and true and full of humour.

“If you bounce up your ex after all this time I find God should arrange it to be in a crowded supermarket on a Saturday morning. He and the wife should be vex with one another and the child throwing a tantrum on the floor.”

The narrative is layered and richly textured. Every time you think you know which way the story is going, it gives itself a little twist and flies off in a new direction – but one that, once you’ve found your feet again, feels completely right and true. 

Persaud captures the paradoxes of Trinidad, the beauty side by side with violence.

“We followed the coast road, taking in the beauty of mile after mile of beach lined with coconut trees. If this country didn’t have five hundred plus murders last year alone we would be in paradise.”

She examines the special nature of the relationship between a single mother and her only son – and what happens when that breaks down. And she picks apart toxic attitudes that encourage, or at least turn a blind eye to, homophobia, domestic violence and alcoholism. 

This is a novel that will make you laugh and cry and catch your breath in your throat. So assured are the voices that it is hard to believe that this is Persaud’s debut novel. Mind you, the author has already won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2017 and the BBC National Short Story Award in 2018, so perhaps it should be no surprise that Love After Love is on the shortlist for the 2021 Costa First Novel Award.

An explosively strong debut novel and a welcome addition to the pantheon of fabulous Trinidadian writers like Michelle Innis (She Never Called Me Mother) and Claire Adam (The Golden Child)

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Golden Child by Claire Adam, The Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards

Avoid If You Dislike: Novels writing in dialect

Perfect Accompaniment: Curried cascadoux (Trinidadian fish)

Genre: Contemporary, Caribbean literature, LGBT

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 3 December 2020

Cane Warriors by Alex Wheatle


Reviewer
: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Cane Warriors carves a story for young adults from the same dark material that gave us books such as The Long Song by Andrea Levy and Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton. This, however, is aimed at Young Adult readers.

The novel is rooted in the true story of Tacky’s War – an uprising of Akan slaves that took place in Jamaica in the summer of 1760.

It begins with Moa on the Frontier Plantation, being approached in the middle of the night.

“Louis’ thick fingers dug into my shoulder … ‘We is gonna bruk outta here ‘pon what de white man call Easter Sunday,’ he said, ‘T’ree days time.’”

The Akan people people were taken as slaves from what is now Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. And the Frontier Plantation is a real place, not far from where Wheatle’s mother grew up.

Some readers may be shocked by the violence that ensues. But Wheatle doesn’t shrink from showing us the unrelenting cruelty and brutality that drove the slaves to such extremes. Nor does he pretend that such acts are without cost to those that undertake them.

Moa is only fourteen, an age at which we would now consider him a child soldier. Far from being forced to take part, however, Moa is repeatedly given the chance by the leaders of the rebellion to take a step back. That he chooses to stay – even though he is haunted by the horrors he has seen – is because each and every one is outweighed by the horrors he has seen perpetrated by the slave masters every day of his short life.

This is a time when the elder slaves on the plantation still maintain a connection to their African roots – striving to keep alive a memory of their language, their traditions and their gods. But that knowledge is fast dying out.

A novel about friendship, courage and sacrifice, and how those things can survive even in the face of unimaginable brutality. It also shows that the struggle against slavery and the slave trade did not begin and end in British courtrooms or the battlefields of the American Civil War. As Wheatle reminds us in his foreword, Tacky’s War was only the beginning. Slaves fought for their freedom in subsequent uprisings in Haiti, Grenada, Barbados and again in Jamaica.

By telling the story from the close point of view of one teenager, Wheatle transforms a powerful history lesson into a heartbreaking, page-turning narrative.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Freedom by Catherine Johnson

Avoid If You Dislike: Frank depictions of brutal violence

Perfect Accompaniment: roast chicken with mango, guava and soursop

Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 26 November 2020

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa


Reviewer:
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


Reviewer:
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


Reviewer:
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


Reviewer:
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)

Genre:
Literary Fiction, Modern Historical Fiction,

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 29 October 2020

Boy, Everywhere by A. M. Dassu


Reviewer:
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


Reviewer:
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


Reviewer:
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

Genre:
Children and YA (Middle Reader)

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 8 October 2020

A Secret of Birds and Bone by Kiran Millwood Hargrave


Reviewer:
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

Genre:
Romance, Mythology, Short Stories, Contemporary

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 24 September 2020

Meat Market by Juno Dawson


Reviewer:
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


Reviewer:
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)


Reviewer:
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


Reviewer:
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

Genre:
Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Friday, 14 August 2020

This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Reviewer:
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

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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