Thursday, 24 September 2020

Meat Market by Juno Dawson

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

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)

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