Thursday 30 April 2020

The Guesthouse by Abbie Frost

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: The Guesthouse is a dark, suspenseful and intriguing mystery by Abbie Frost. Before her boyfriend died, Hannah had planned a trip to The Guesthouse, but she decides to go anyway, to relax and to get her life back.

However, as a group of strangers come together in this house on the isolated Irish coast, she soon discovers this will be no relaxing holiday.

Dark secrets abound in this spooky, ghostly setting, which Hannah will need to figure out before it’s too late. Nothing is as it seems, and what is real? And who should she trust?

There are several novels out now that use this storyline of a group of strangers trapped, and in danger, but the many twists and turns of The Guesthouse had me gripped from the start, and guessing right till the end.

The characters are skillfully drawn, their stories entirely credible, and it was hard to figure out which one I should have sympathy for.

I look forward to more dark tales of suspense and tension from this talented new author.

You'll enjoy this if you like: Dark, suspenseful tales.

Avoid if you dislike: spooky settings and things that go bump in the night.
Genre: Psychological thriller

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Thursday 23 April 2020

Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy

Reviewer: Catriona Troth 

What We Thought of it:

In 2017, Kendasamy published When I Hit You Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife. She made it clear it was not a memoir. Nevertheless, many insisted on focusing on the parallels to Kandasamy’s own short but brutal marriage and ignoring the pyrotechnic brilliance of her prose or the intricacy of the novel’s structure.

“No one discusses the process with us. No one discussion our work in the framework of the movel as an evolving form. No one treats us as writers.”

Exquisite Cadavers is Kandasamy’s attempt to reclaim her right to set the boundaries between her life and her fiction. The title references the game of Consequences, sometimes called Exquisite Cadaver, where each player writes a section of a story, knowing only the final word of the previous section. The novel is structured in two parts – the fiction, centred on the marriage of two people deliberately as different from Kandasamy and her husband as possible, and a parallel set of marginalia, a glimpse into the author’s reflections and inspirations, journal entries of what is happening in her life as the novel is taking shape on the page.

Karim, the fictional husband, is a Tunisian film student, living in London, frustrated by the casual expectation that he can only make certain kinds of films, tell certain kinds of stories. Maya, his wife, is English, sometimes blind to his struggles. We as readers become privy to the minutiae of their daily lives, to the banality of domesticity, even as Karim asks himself if he should return to Tunis to join its political struggles.

“Nothing hides mutual disdain as well as a marriage. Noting hides a marriage-in-shambles as well as a spruced up, orderly home.”

In the marginalia, by contrast, we get a mixture of diary entries from Kandasamy’s own domestic life and a furious commentary – on her own writing process and on the unfolding political situation in India.

If you love the privilege of dipping into a writer’s notebooks, of rummaging in the “messy attics” of their minds and observing the process of creation, then this novel is for you.

One word of warning, though – I do not recommend buying this as an ebook. The careful formatting of side-by-side narratives is entirely lost, leaving you with two broken sequences that force you constantly to go back and forth to pick up the thread you last dropped. It is a pity that the publisher did not treat the book at they might a graphic novel and ensure that the formatting remained as intended.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
Ordinary People by Diana Evans, glimpses of author's notebooks

Avoid If You Dislike: Throwing away the conventional rules of story-telling

Perfect Accompaniment: Darjeeling tea

Genre: Literary Fiction

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Thursday 16 April 2020

Darkness Comes by John Lynch

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 don’t think I’m smart enough to understand everything about John Lynch’s clever novel, Darkness Comes.  

But, at the end of the day, I found this a highly entertaining read and thoroughly enjoyed this judgement-day-style trial of Ted Bailey’s life.

Ted is about as flawed a person as you could get –– womanizer, drug dealer, arms seller, murderer. Hardly a likeable character. But somehow the author evokes in us, sympathy for him. Perhaps we can all see some of ourselves in Ted? 

In the end, I found myself fighting in Ted’s corner as –– now on the verge of death –– each part of his life is exposed, and judged. I found myself wanting him to win, whatever that means. Judged worthy of Heaven, or sent to Hell? Or perhaps neither, if they don’t exist?

The vast cast of characters –– people who have featured in Ted Bailey’s life –– is not, as I first imagined, difficult to follow, as each one is transient (like most of the people we meet in life), making an almost ethereal appearance, and I just enjoyed each fleeting moment with the different characters. Which, so “they” say, we should do in real life. 

I felt the author was drawing parallels with all of us, through each character; that they represented a type of living individual to whom we can all relate.

I did wonder if Ted Bailey represented our human conscience. However that’s something for each reader to decide for him/herself.

Apart from being an extremely well-written novel, with its quirky storyline, very real, and flawed, characters, and easy-to-read, lyrical prose, I would highly recommend Darkness Comes as an entertaining, ingenious look at life and its many nuances.

You’ll like this if you: flawed characters and out-of-the-ordinary tales.

Avoid if you don’t like: political and religious content.

Genre: Contemporary Fiction.

Buy this book here

Thursday 9 April 2020

Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

As Irenosen Okojie explains in the opening to the titular story in this, her second short story collection, a nudibranch is “a soft-bodied, marine Gastropod mollusc, which shed their shells after their larval stage ... known for their often extraordinary colours and striking forms.” It’s a fair enough description of these often mind-bending stories that explore humans at their most vulnerable.

Okojie has said that she was inspired by Nigerian oral story telling tradition – by memories of her grandmother telling stories that were often surreal, always with a moral. The stories may be rooted in that tradition but they are both modern and global. Her settings range from London to Martinique, Llanberis to Mozambique, via Berlin, Japan and Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

The subjects are equally varied. A paintballing weekend becomes the scene of a revenge tragedy. A homeless Japanese man searches for his lost lover. A hip-hop artist recovering from a nervous breakdown finds temporary solace with a trans woman called Dee-light ...

Yet such one-line descriptions fail to give any true sense of these stories, which spool out each time in unexpected directions – surreal often violent, full of images of flesh being devoured, of body parts functioning autonomously.

These are not stories that give up their meaning easily. You have to work at them, and even then the author’s intent may elude you. In that way, the experience is closer to walking through a gallery of expressionist paintings, where the symbolism remains always just beyond your grasp.

Longlisted for the 2020 Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Speak Gigantular by Irenosen Okojie, The Beautiful Side of the Moon by Leye Adenle

Avoid If You Dislike: Surrealism and violence

Perfect Accompaniment: Pressed tongue

Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction, Surrealism

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Monday 6 April 2020

Flèche by Mary Jean Chan

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Mary Jean Chan’s poetry collection, Flèche, was the Winner of the 2019 Costa Poetry Award and is now longlisted for the 2020 Jhalak Prize.

As a youngster in Hong Kong, Mary Jean Chan was a member of a fencing team and in fencing, flèche is an attacking move. But Chan plays too with its original meaning in French – arrow – as well as its homophone, flesh.

In ‘Practice’ she describes how the androgynous nature of the fencing uniform gave her ‘the closest thing I knew to desire,’ allowing the girls to become ‘princes in a fairytale with a twist, since there were no princesses to be taken, wed.’ Other poems deal with awkwardness of falling in love and the everyday joys Chan shares with her partner.

Chan’s mother grew up in China during the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution and the sequence, ‘My Mother’s Fables’ deals with the brutalities and deprivations she experienced, the hunger that never entirely left her.

Many of the poems deal with her mother’s struggle to accept Chan’s sexuality and the strain that creates between them. In ‘Conversation with Fantasy Mother’ for example, she imagines a mother who took her coming out “as calmly as a pond accept a stone flung into its depth / You sieved my tears, added an egg, then baked a beautiful cake.” But ‘The Window’ reveals the truth, when she tells herself ‘you will refuse your mother’s rage, her spit, her tongue heavy like the heaviest of stones.’ And with the sequence ‘Twenty-four Filial Exemplars,’ based on a classic Chinese text on filial piety, you feel the weight of expectation that a child should be ready to sacrifice themselves for their parent.

Each poem is a vignette, pared down to its bare essentials, each syllable feeling as if it has been carefully chosen and placed. As she writes in ‘Calligraphy,’ a poem on the instructions for creating perfect Chinese characters,

Seeds of in unfurl suddenly from
Your wrist, blooming into time.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta,

Avoid If You Dislike: Reading about difficult mother-daughter relationships

Perfect Accompaniment: salted egg and pickled carrot

Genre: Poetry, LGBTQIA+

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Thursday 2 April 2020

Afropean – Notes from Black Europe by Johny Pitts

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

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

Johny Pitts was born in Sheffield, son of an African-American actor and singer and a white working class mother, and grew up “a Northern Soul baby.” But conscious that European was still being used as a synonym for ‘white’, one cold October morning, he set out in search of “a space where blackness was taking part in shaping European identity at large ... where being black in Europe didn’t necessarily mean being an immigrant.”

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.

“What about black Europe ... found in the equivocal and untidy lived experiences of its communities? Black Europe from the streets up?”

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.”

“Very often, Europe’s black workforce inhabits the liminal terrain I’d just experienced, as cleaners, taxi drivers, porters, security guards, ticket sellers and nightclub bouncers; they are there and not there.”

Along the way, he draws on the experiences of earlier black writers such as James Baldwin, Franz Fanon, Carol Phillips. He reminds us of figures from the past we often conveniently forget had a black heritage, such as Alexandre Dumas – grandson of an enslaved woman from Haiti – and Alexander Pushkin, whose great-grandfather was kidnapped in Africa and sold to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. And he finds differing attitudes to Blackness in different countries – from outright denial via historical amnesia and structural racism to naked bigotry.

“When a society has so convinced itself it isn’t racist, it feels vindicated and victimized when immigrants who are responding to very real racism raise their voices.”

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. He has his illusions shattered in Stockholm, which he’d previously only seen through the lens of a comfortable middle class, and finds at last, in Marseilles, a place to which he knows he will return.

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.”

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved
: Black and British: a forgotten history by David Olusoga; Stopping Places by Damian le Bas

Avoid If You Dislike:
Having your idea of a tolerant, post-racist society challenged (but read it anyway).

Perfect Accompaniment:
A fresh baked baguette and a glass of orange juice.

Non-Fiction, Travel Writing

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