Monday, 10 May 2021

Who’s Loving You? (editor: Sareeta Domingo)

: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

In her introduction to this collection of short stories she has curated, Sareeta Domingo remembers how: “Between the pages of my beloved books, it soon became apparent that neither tales of romantic woe, nor the sexy bonkbusters I’d eye curiously on the shelves {…}, nor even those sophisticated, classically revered literary tales of love and honour, featured any people who looked like me.” Did that mean, she asked herself, that love and desire were not for young people of colour like her?

In response to that, and because she loves the romance genre, Domingo curated this anthology “to create space for British women of colour to write about romantic love in all its many guises.”

If Bolu Babalola’s short story collection, Love in Colour, reached back into folklore for its inspiration, these stories are contemporary – or in some cases futuristic. In Varaizo’s ‘Long Distance’, a love affair with a heart-breaking twist blossoms over a near-future vision of social media. ‘No one is Lonely’ by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan takes place in a London that has been engulfed with floods, “where wilting bunches of flours are tied to posts where the drowned were lost.”

There are gay characters and straight, cis and trans. Sara Collins ‘Brief Encounters’ brings the classic tale to present day London with new energy, while in Daniellé Dash’s ‘The Row’, a woman fleeing a relationship gone wrong finds solace in the tender touch of a hairdresser’s fingers. Dorothy Koomson’s ‘My Heart Beats’, features a couple whose relationship seems to be a sequence of missed opportunities – can they finally connect?

Domingo’s own ‘The Waves Will Carry Us Back’ features a refugee rescued from the sea by a surfer, while Kuchenga’s ‘Rain … Doubtful’ gives us a transwoman finding unqualified love and acceptance.

The stories travel the world too. Returning to Iran for a mother’s funeral results in a meeting of hearts and minds in a wholly unexpected location in Sara Jafari’s ‘Motherland’. In Kelechi Okafor’s ‘The Watchers’, a kind of guardian angel drawn from Nigerian cosmology watches over a pair of souls who meet time after time as they are reincarnated into different lives. In Amna Saleem’s ‘Rani’, a grandmother’s tale of love during Partition interweaves with her granddaughter’s.

These are tales with an edge to them. The women in them are empowered – they choose love, or reject it, on their own terms. There are stories that are tender, erotic, funny and tragic. They are rich with sentences that distil and capture emotion, whether it is Sara Collins on being assailed by grief:

“There is nowhere in the train station where she can scream or pound her knees or keel over, nowhere to make cow-like noises, why don’t they build somewhere like that – like public toilets, but for grief?”

Or Amna Saleem on a child carrying the weight of family expectations:

“Conspicuously linking me to a rich ancestral tapestry where growing up, I half expected to discover I was a latent vampire slayer waiting to become the brown Buffy Summers of Scotland”

There is something, surely, to appeal to everyone. Certainly a heartfelt demonstration that, as Domingo says: “Love is inside us – all of us.”

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Love In Colour by Bolu Babalola, The Nearness of You by Sareeta Domingo

Avoid If you Dislike:  Love in all its shapes and sizes

Perfect Accompaniment: A chilled glass of your favourite bubbly

Genre: Romance, Short Stories

Buy This Book Here:

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Inferno by Catherine Cho

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Three days before the traditional Korean 100-day celebration for the birth of her son, Catherine Cho found herself in hospital, suffering from post-partum psychosis.

Cho writes with acute self-awareness, both about her breakdown and about her life leading up to it. The book travels along parallel lines – one that begins with Cho finding herself on a secure psychiatric ward and chronicles her experience through hospital to her release, and the other which reaches back, to her childhood and early adulthood, searching for the roots of her breakdown.

She remembers life in her near silent home, with a father who vented his volatile temper on her younger brother and disapproved of anything resembling pop culture – delivering a childhood like a 20th Century version of Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son.

“My father wanted his children to be clean thinkers, unpolluted by commercialism. He has a vision of raising us apart from the world, off the grid, away from any pre-dictated rules except his own.”

Then there was the violent domestic abuse of a previous relationship, that left her stranded and isolated, far from home in Hong Kong.

Having risked all to move across the world for one relationship, she does it again – this time to move to London with her husband. She and James are profoundly happy and the birth of their son Cato seems only to put a seal on that happiness. But then they plan a trip of a lifetime to visit family in the US. It’s tiring and stressful – and cultural pressures from their extended Korean families build up, as well-meaning anxieties about mother and child cause them to reach back deep into tradition.

Koreans, she explains, as suspicious of happiness and romantic love. “Koreans believe that happiness can only tempt the fates and that any happiness must be bought with sorrow. As for love, it is thought of as an unfortunate passion, irrational and destructive.”

As the pressures pile on, Cho’s mind begins to blur the boundaries between reality, dreams and mythology. Cho conjures up for us the tragic heroines from the folktales she grew up on – Sim Chung, who sold herself as a human sacrifice to save her blind father; Nong Gae, the courtesan who danced an invading general off a cliff. Perhaps she needs to sacrifice herself for James and Cato?

Cho’s clear and poetic language beguiles us along a path, until her breakdown seems as inevitable to us as it must have done to her.

I have to admit, I approached this book with some trepidation. I had memories of being required to read Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden as a set text in high school and finding fascinating but utterly terrifying. Yet shocking as the scenes are where Cho recalls in detail the hours and minutes of her psychotic break – this is a book that offers a lifeline of hope to those suffering from post-partum psychosis, and to those who love them.

Profound, honest, revealing – and ultimately hopeful.

Shortlisted for the 2021 Jhalak Prize

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg (orig. under the name Hannah Green), Are We Home Yet? by Katy Massey

Avoid If you Dislike: Confronting the vivid details of a psychotic break

Perfect Accompaniment: Seaweed soup

Genre: Non-fiction, Memoir

Buy This Book Here:

Thursday, 29 April 2021

My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

This complex debut poetry collection by Rachel Long is structured in three parts.

The first part, Open explores issues of sexuality, power, exploitation and consent. Poems such as “Night Vigil”, “Apples” and “8” point darkly to child sexual abuse within a church setting.

“During the Three Members prayer, my sister fell asleep
Under a chair, so she never knew
How I sang. Or how I fell silent
When the evangelist with smiling eyes said in his pulpit voice,
Here child”

“Sandwiches” and “Bike” suggest teenage exploration that may or may not have gone to far and exposed the narrator to danger, while in “Helena” a sex worker relives an act of rape by co-worker.

In a sequence of short poems called “Open”, the poem’s narrator wakes in the morning with her mouth open and her hands in her hair, the pose interpreted for her in different ways by different observers.

“What, mum, like screaming?
She says, No, baby, like abandon”

In the second section – A Lineage of Wigs – the poems revolve around Long’s Nigerian mother and Long’s own experiences as a young child.

“Mum’s Snake” tells the story of a curse put on her by her sister, ultimately forcing her to shave off her hair, while “Car Sweetness” captures a moment of tenderness between her parents.

“Some long journeys back,
Mum would lay her hand
Over Dad’s on the gearstick”

There are poems that recall the experience of growing up as a mixed-race child – her schoolmates doubting her fair-haired father is hers, and contrasting her sister’s long, straight hair to hers. Her scalp burning as her mother cornrows her hair.

“All the ‘sheep’s wool’ they love to touch and say eww to at school
has been harvested into rows at the top of my head:
black crown or web.”

The final section, Dolls, is a more generalised exploration of racism. It begins with a pair of poems in which the story of a racist attack is then played out between three dolls – Barbie, Ken, and the dark-skinned Steve. “Black Princess” then painfully reflects the snobbish and racist treatment of Meghan Markle.

Throughout the book there are other poems that are more surreal – their meaning elusive. This isn’t a collection that gives up its secrets easily – but it is one that more than rewards the effort of close reading.

Shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize, Costa Poetry Award, Forward Prize for best first collection, and the 2021 Jhalak Prize

Listen to Rachel Long reading from My Darling From the Lions at the Coronet Theatre, Nottingham.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie

Avoid If you Dislike: Poems that refuse to give up their meaning easily, challenging the reader to work things out for themselves.

Perfect Accompaniment: Sugared almonds

Genre: Poetry

Buy This Book Here:

Monday, 26 April 2021

Antiemetic for Homesickness by Romalyn Ante

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Romalyn Ante's debut collection is full of poems that track the experiences of two generations of Filipino emigrants who have left their country to work abroad, for the NHS and elsewhere.

Romalyn Ante herself came to the UK when she was 16 and is now a nurse practioner. Her mother, like so many others, had previously left her family behind in the Philippines in order to work for the NHS.

Ante’s poetry unveils the truth behind the flippant comment by the Duke of Edinburgh quoted on the opening page (“The Philippines must be half empty; you’re all here running the NHS”) – laying bare the homesickness, the separation from one’s children, the long hours of hard work for little thanks, the racism…

In “Manananggal” she compares the migrant to a creature from Filipino legend which splits itself in two.

I am halved in order to be whole – I rebuild by leaving everything I love.”

The poems also disclose some of the reasons why these workers stay, even in the face of hardship and hostility. They will cannot leave:

“Not until Junior has got his diploma, not until we have nailed a roof on the house and the pen grunts with pigs […] and we have paid off our parents’ grave plots and our children’s …”

In “The Shaman, The Servant” we can see the contrast between the respect shown to a grandfather who was a shaman, a healer, with the image painted “Invisible Woman”of “goddesses of caring and tending, but no one hears when their skulls pound like coconut shells about to crack.”

Ante reminds us that this is a pattern that has been repeated across generations. In the series of short poems scattered through the book, “Tape Recordings for Mama”, she captures the point of view of a child trying to understand why her mother has left.

The poems blend phrases from Tagalog and elements of Filipino culture and tradition with medical jargon and details of hospital procedure. Ante’s use of language is at once challenging and playful. In the ironically titled “Mastering English”, structured like a test paper, she toys with English idioms,

“The phrase a drop in the ocean indicates:

- Very little in comparison with what is expected or needed

- All the migrants who mysteriously vanished at sea.”

There are also poems that mourn the loss of traditional Filipino culture

“When the colonisers came, their brightness bleached the scripts inscribed on our bamboo stems. Our [memory*] was replaced with their hymn.

*written in Babayin script

These poems blend the deeply personal and specific with the universal sense of loss and longing that any immigrant cut off from home would recognise. Shortlisted for the 2021 Jhalak Prize.

Listen to Romalyn Ante reading from Antiemetic for Homesickness here

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

Avoid If you Dislike:  Being reminded of loss and separation

Perfect Accompaniment: A shot of coconut wine

Genre: Poetry

Buy This Book Here:

Monday, 19 April 2021

Are We Home Yet? by Katy Massey

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

The memoir opens with Massey’s realisation, at the age of eleven, that her mother is using their comfortable home in Leeds as a place from which to sell sex. She marks that as the point at which she split herself in two.

“In the pause, I am falling apart, literally becoming two people. I remain the plump playmate that Sarah takes me for, but I have also become someone else who floats just above us, watchful. Alert. This version of me knows that something has changed forever […] though I can pretend, that simple young girl has gone forever.”

By the time Massey was in her late teens, her mother had graduated from prostituting herself out of their back room to running a spa-cum-brothel in an industrial area of Leeds. Massey finds herself acting as receptionist, spending long hours chatting to the ‘girls’, recognising the sheer banality of the sex industry, “where good looking, decent women who could hold a conversation offered various sexual services in exchange for money. “

But Massey’s story is far more complex than that one eye-catching headline. There’s the sense of loss associated with her all-but non-existent relationship with her absent father; her complicated relationship with food that goes back to a stepfather who fed her sweets to comfort her for the pain caused by his own tormenting; the issues she has faced as a mixed-race child in an otherwise all white family, and the rarely-spoken-of death of her middle-brother.

The memoir braids together three timelines – Massey’s own childhood, her mother’s younger life, and the present day as she tries to piece it all together and come to terms with her own struggles.

Massey’s writing explores her own ongoing depression and her troubled relationship with her mother with razor-sharp clarity. On bad days:

“Even the street beneath my feet feels somehow insubstantial, as if it may melt and I go through the sinking tarmac until the black sludge closes over my waist, my handbag, my necklace and finally my head and there is no trace of me left.”

At other times, “I walk the street towards Mam’s flat with my loneliness attached to my heels, dragging behind like a recently shed skin.”

There is a breath-taking self-awareness in the way she confesses that “I had made my relationships into broken clocks and gleefully reduced them to their parts. Spreading them out on the kitchen table, fascinated with the possibility in those shiny nuts and wheels, I always realised to late that there was no home of reassembling the, turning them back into something of purpose.”

A powerful study of family dynamics and the toxic legacy of secrets. Shortlisted for the 2021 Jhalak Prize

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Lowborn by Kerry Hudson, My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay

Avoid If you Dislike: Memoirs of genteel dysfunctionality.

Perfect Accompaniment: Milky tea and cheese straws

Genre: Memoir, Non-Fiction

Buy This Book Here:

Sunday, 11 April 2021

And the Stars Were Burning Brightly by Danielle Jawando

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Nate’s big brother, Al, had so much to look forward to. He was a straight-A student, a talented artist, and had a conditional place at Cambridge University. So when he commits suicide, Nate, and his whole family, feel as though they have been shattered into pieces.

Nate is consumed with finding out why Al took his own life, even though his quest takes him into some increasingly dark places and everyone – even his mum and his older brother Saul – are begging his to stop.

The only other person who seems to understand is Megan, a friend of Al’s who shares Nate’s guilt for not doing enough to help Al when they still could.

And The Stars Were Burning Brightly shows, with deep compassion, how suicide, especially unexplained suicide, tears a hole through the hearts of friends and family. Nate is an utterly believable character; it is impossible to read this and not care about him deeply. Al too comes to vivid life on the page, despite the fact he dies three days before the story opens.

Jawando brilliantly captures the way that social media can come to dominate the lives of young people: from unrealistic body images it portrays, to the compulsion to share every minute of every day, the constant intrusion of notifications – and above all the savage cruelty that at times it unleashes and enables.

Yet the author also shows how the internet allows voices to be raised up and shared across the world.

And the Stars Were Burning Brightly is an extraordinary book that highlights the appalling and relentless pressures that can be piled onto teenagers in this age of social media. It comes as no surprise to learn that the novel is based in part on the author’s own lived experience.

I can imagine this book might be triggering for some, but for others, it may well help ease them through a difficult time, or to understand friends who are in a difficult place and need their support. It needs to be in every school library.

Shortlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Young Adult and Children’s Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Million Pieces of Neena Gill by Emma Smith Barton; Out of Heart by Irfan Master, Meat Market by Juno Dawson

Avoid If you Dislike: References to suicide and online bullying

Perfect Accompaniment: Images of the night sky 

Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary

Buy This Book Here:

The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Chaya may only be twelve years old, but she has already proved herself a talented thief. Not that she takes things for herself. She only steals to pay for things her struggling neighbours desperately need. And she’s very successful.

Until, that is, she over-reaches herself, goes too far, and brings down disaster on all their heads. From that point on, whatever she does to try and make things better only serves to make things even worse.

But with the help of the royal elephant, Ananda, could Chaya and her friends Neel and Nour actually do something that will bring about real and lasting change, and allow their village and their country to thrive once again?

The Girl Who Stole an Elephant is set in Serendib, a fictionalised version of ancient Sri Lanka. The adventure takes the children from their village just outside the royal palace, deep into the lush jungle, where they will face dangers from leeches to leopards. Friendships and loyalties will be tested to the limit – and Chaya will have to learn that good intentions are not always enough.

A compelling adventure story in a wonderfully realised setting with a brave and resourceful heroine.

Longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Young Adult and Children’s Prize.  

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave; Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan.

Avoid If you Dislike: Leeches. Morally questionable heroines.

Perfect Accompaniment: Papaya

Genre: Children’s (Middle Reader)

Buy This Book Here:

Thursday, 8 April 2021

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Set in Uganda during the time of Idi Amin, the Ugandan-Tanzanian War and their aftermath, The First Woman is the story of Kirabo, a young woman from a rural community walking a tightrope between tradition, Europeanisation, and Amin’s despotism.

When the story opens, in 1975, Kirabo is 12, the youngest of an extended family of young people living in the care of her grandfather while they go to school. A gifted storyteller, Kirabo uses her talent to boost her status among the older children.

Beloved as she is of her grandparents, Kirabo’s greatest frustration is that no one will tell her anything about her mother. So she sneaks off to visit her grandmother’s great rival, Nsuuta, their almost-blind neighbour who is reputed to be a witch.

Nsuutu tells her about women’s original state, when “We were not squeezed inside, we were huge, strong, bold, loud, proud, brave, independent. But it was too much for the world and they got rid of it.” But Kirabo is one of those rare children in which the original state is reborn.

At first, Kirabo rejects the First Woman within her, symbolically burying it in Nsuutu’s yard, but as the story progresses, she begins to understand more of how women are repressed, not just by men, but by other women who have absorbed the values of a patriarchal society. Trapped like hens in a cage too small, they turn and peck at one another.

The First Woman follows Kirabo as she goes to live in the city with her father and her un-welcoming stepmother, via her admission to an elite boarding school run by nuns, through love, loss and rejection to the beginnings of maturity as a young woman.

Makumbi’s masterful text manages to balance regret for the loss of what was good in traditions driven out by Christianity and Europeanisation, with a trenchant critique of the patriarchy and internalised misogyny embedded in traditional Ugandan communities.

The story ends in 1983, but one heart-breaking line seems to foreshadow some of Uganda’s more recent pains. In 1979, Kirabo is in boarding school as the war with Tanzania comes closer and closer, but “No parents had come to fetch their girls because nowhere was safer for them than boarding schools. Even Amin’s men would never attack a school.” Sadly, by 1996, the Lord’s Resistance Army had shown it had no such scruples.

Just as the oral story-telling traditions the young Kirabo aspired to wove life-lessons into spell-binding tales, Makumbi weaves commentaries on colonialism, patriarchy, colourism and internalised misogyny into this tender coming of age story.

Shortlisted for the 2021 Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Girl With A Louding Voice by Abu Dare, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Avoid If you Dislike: Stories of woman reclaiming their power

Perfect Accompaniment:
Groundnut stew

Literary Fiction, Coming-of-Age story, Modern Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here:

A More Perfect Union by Tammye Huf

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

"Where is the liberty and freedom and rights and justice, when the law says Matthew Johnson owns my child after already owning my wife? What kind of Constitution for the people allows a thing like that? I country can claim that wrong is right, but that’ll never erase the stain of it." 

A More Perfect Union opens with the young Irish labourer, Henry, already driven to the brink of starvation by the venality of his English landlords, facing the horror of another blighted potato crop. When both his parents die within days of each other, he boards a ship for a new life in New York, only to find himself thwarted by yet more anti-Irish prejudice.

Meanwhile, Sarah is sold away from her family on a plantation in Virginia. She narrowly avoids being bought by a man who would clearly use her as a ‘bed-warmer,’ and is taken instead to a plantation run on ‘Christian’ principles, where the slaves are well fed and housed, and whippings are comparatively rare. Yet it remains to case that Sarah’s life is not her own.

When Henry heads south for the life of a travelling blacksmith, their paths cross and there is an immediate (and forbidden) attraction between them – and on one level, more that unites them than divides them. But could Sarah ever see Henry as anything other than another white Master, especially when he is employed to forge shackles to be used on slaves? And can Henry see past the relative security of Sarah’s life and understand what it means that – for Sarah or even her children, or her children’s children – there would never be the faintest possibility of boarding a ship for another life? 

It seems impossible that this story could have a happy ending, but Sarah and Henry find a love so deep that neither is willing to give up until all hope is lost.

Through this deeply personal tale, Huf reveals the desperate tragedy of both the Irish famine and slavery of the Southern plantations – while at the same time demolishing any false equivalence between them.

The novel shows up, too, the ugly hypocrisy of those who preached Christian principles, who claimed that it was ‘benevolent’ slavery was possible, but who viewed an escaping slave as a thief stealing from his master and thought for a white man to want to marry a black woman is “the most immoral proposal ever put.”

A beautiful story made all the more extraordinary with the knowledge that it was inspired by the true story of the author’s own great-great-grandparents. 

Longlisted for the 2021 Jhalak Prize. 

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

Avoid If you Dislike: The demolition of comforting myths about slavery and white complicity.

Perfect Accompaniment:
A picnic in a meadow full of butterflies

Genre: Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here:

Monday, 29 March 2021

When Life Gives You Mangos by Kereen Getten

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Clara is part of a small and close-knit group of friends in a rural, seaside community in Jamaica. But something that happened last summer has stretched friendship to breaking point. Will the arrival of Rudy, a girl from England visiting her grandmother, be Clara’s salvation?

The places where Clara used to play – the river, the hidey-hole under the mango tree – are tainted with the past. And Clara, who used to love the sea, is somehow now terrified of water. So Clara and Rudy strike further out in search of adventure – a ruined fort, the former plantation house where Clara’s reclusive uncle lives…

But then a hurricane brings a twist in the tale that will turn everything upside-down, and make you want to go back and read parts of it again.

Clara’s world is the world the author grew up in. Her evocation of a small community where everyone knows everyone else is both universal and delightfully specific. (No adult could, surely, have made up a game like Pick Leaf?)

The mystery and drama build teasingly in this brilliantly constructed novel. A story about friendship and loss and how we cope with trauma, full of tenderness and compassion.

Shortlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Children’s and Young Adults’ Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Tamarind and the Star of Ishta by Jasbinder Bilan; The Million Pieces of Neena Gill by Emma Smith-Barton (for slightly older readers)

Avoid If you Dislike: Stories about losing a friend

Perfect Accompaniment: Mangos (of course)

Genre: Children’s (middle reader)

Buy This Book Here:

Thursday, 25 March 2021

What’s Left of Me Is Yours by Stephanie Scott

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

All of these stories, photographs and facts reside within me. There are tangible tings that remain: the stub of her plane ticket to Hokkaido, her shoes, her packets of scent, his letters. These things tell the story of a life, of many lives intertwined, but I am the point at which they meet.

Sumiko has always been told that her mother died in a car accident, the year after Sumiko started at school. She has been brought up by her grandfather and has followed his path into a legal career. But just as she is about to qualify as a lawyer, she receives a phone call that changes everything she thinks she knows about her life - because it reveals that her mother was in fact murdered by her lover.

Under Japanese law as it stood at the time of her death (in 1994), very little about a trial was in the public domain, nor was much information made available to the victims’s family - the so-called Forgotten Parties). But Sumiko is determined to find the truth.

From then on, the narrative weaves between Sumiko’s searches, and the story of Rina and Kaitarō, the two lovers. But how much of their story was true? Kaitarō was a Wakaresaseya Agent, a kind of private detective, hired by Rina’s husband not merely to find evidence of adultery but to create that evidence via seduction. So is he truly in love, or is it all part of a cruel deception?

The plot in a large part hinges on the details of a legal framework that will be entirely unfamiliar to many readers. Scott’s research for this book took her so deep into the Japanese legal system that she has actually been made a member of the British Japanese Law association.

But equally, the novel is about love, passion and intimacy. The ability to be completely oneself with another person – and what can happen when that trust is violated. It is also about memory – childhood memory especially – and what the mind chooses to retain and how it interprets it.

Rina and Kaitarō are both photographers, and the visual imagery in the book is spellbinding. A storm is described as “turning the clouds the colour of mussel shells.” A lover’s body is seen “rolling into her like a wave curling on the shore.”

A complex novel that demonstrates the power of crime fiction at its very very best – both revealing something transcendent about human nature, while rooting itself within a specific time and place.

Longlisted for the 2021 Jhalak Prize. Shortlisted for the Author's Club Best First Novel Award 2021.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: All My Lies Are True by Dorothy Koomson

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories exploring relationships that culminate in male violence

Perfect Accompaniment: Skewers of grilled halibut flavoured with yuzu, followed by red bean ice cream

Genre: Crime Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Monday, 22 March 2021

The Address Book by Deirdre Mask

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

If it hadn’t been for the Jhalak Prize Longlist, I doubt if I would have picked up a book about street addressing. But I am so glad I did! Deirdre Mask takes what sounds like a dry, niche subject and turns it into a fascinating exploration of something most of us take for granted and which in fact impacts every corner of our life.

Why do so many of us live in numbered properties along named streets? Is it inevitable that that’s how addresses should work? What impact do our addresses have on our lives? And what happens when you don’t have one at all?

Mask travels the world in search of the answers to those questions. She visits places from Kolkata to West Virginia that have no addresses. She looks at the different processes that used to acquire / impose them. She goes to Japan to show how, instead of named streets, they have numbered cho, or blocks, with the sequence of numbers often determined chronologically rather than geographically.

She reminds us that the very idea of street numbering was once radical and hugely controversial.

From Victorian London to 21st C Haiti, she shows how addresses have been a vital tool in tracing the sources of disease and contain their spread.

She shows how politics, race and class affect how street names are chosen – but also how the names themselves then impact on how the streets are perceived and how well they prosper.

And she looks at the way that people are using modern technology to address the problem of people and places that have no addresses.

This book is a fascinating mixture of history, geography and sociology – with disparate ideas drawn together in an engaging and accessible way. Hurrah for the Jhalak Prize for bringing it to my attention.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Built by Roma Agrawal, Afropean by Johny Pitts

Avoid If You Dislike: Deep dives into small aspects of our lives

Perfect Accompaniment: A range of city maps from around the world, a cup of tea and a quiet afternoon

Genre: Non-Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 18 March 2021

Queen of Freedom by Catherine Johnson

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

She wished she knew a way to stop time: to keep the world just as it was at that moment – the shouts of the children, the music. She would have given anything to stop the setting and rising of the sun, the moon changing.

Like Alex Wheatle’s Cane Warriors, Queen of Freedom takes the true story of a slave uprising – in this case the Maroons in Jamaica – and retells is for a young audience.

Nanny is a real historical figure – if one shadowed in mystery and legend. She was a leader of the Maroons, escaped slaves from plantations in Jamaica who set up communities in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries and successfully defended them against the British until a peace treaty was signed, allowing them to continue to live as free people. Nanny herself is credited with freeing over a thousand slaves.

The book opens with a shockingly violent incident, when Nanny and a young boy are escaping British soldiers after their community made a raid for food.

The British are outraged that their ‘property’ has been allowed to escape, and they mount ever larger military campaigns to destroy the Maroons’ communities and recapture the slaves. But the inhabitants of Nanny Town know the mountains better than the British. And Nanny knows how to exploit their fear of her as an Obeah women – someone imbued with magic. But for how long can tricks and guerrilla tactics hold the might of the British army at bay? And at what cost to Nanny herself?

A story that lays bare human cost of the demand for sugar, and shows that – a hundred years before the abolition of the slave trade – there were those who were willing to fight for and win their own freedom.

Beautifully illustrated by Amerigo Pinelli. Shortlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize for Children and Young Adults.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Cane Warriors by Alex Wheatle, Freedom by Catherine Johnson

Avoid If You Dislike: Frank descriptions of violence

Perfect Accompaniment: Yam and callaloo

Genre: Children’s (middle reader) Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Monday, 15 March 2021

Eight Pieces of Silva by Patrice Lawrence

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

What do you do if your mum and stepdad have just jetted off on honeymoon and your big step-sister, who is supposed to be looking after you, disappears?

This is the dilemma facing 16 year old Becks. Of course she could just kick back and enjoy the freedom, but she actually cares about Silva. And her instinct is telling her that something is very, very wrong. So she does the unthinkable and roots around in the forbidden territory of Silva’s room for clues.

What she finds only deepens the mystery. And now she has to wonder if she ever knew Silva at all.

Lawrence has written another wonderful, page-turning thriller. Her teenage protagonist is spikey, passionate, caring – sometimes blind to the obvious, but nonetheless determined to do the right thing.

At the centre of the mystery is an exploitative relationship – one that takes advantage of a vulnerable young woman, playing on her emotions with scant regard for the consequences. It may not be grooming as we read about it in tabloid headlines, but it’s nonetheless insidious and damaging.

Much as Becks feels herself to be alone, she does in fact have those around her who care about her and who will support her when she really needs it.

There is lots of wonderful detail here about teenage life (for which Lawrence credits her own teenage daughter). Becks is passionate about K-pop, Lord of the Rings and Black Panther. She is also into girls, which is never portrayed as an issue; it’s just a part of her identity. (Becks “didn't come out because she was never in.”)

A great book to open up conversations about healthy and unhealthy relationships. And just as importantly, a thoroughly gripping read. 

Shortlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Children's and Young Adult Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence, The Million Pieces of Neena Gill by Emma Smith-Barton, The Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories involving the loss of a parent

Perfect Accompaniment: K-pop and your favourite smoothie

Genre: Young Adult, LGBT, Contemporary, Thriller 

Buy This Book Here

Saturday, 13 March 2021

Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

On the morning that I sit down to write this review, there is an article in the Guardian about the depth of abuse Sathnam Sanghera has faced since the publication of Empireland. That such a balanced and measured book could make its author the subject of vitriol is as clear an indication as any of just how blind we, the British public, are to our own history and how necessary this book is.

After a light-hearted opening, where the author imagines a revived Empire Day, repurposed to teach the history and ongoing ramifications of the British Empire, Sanghera goes on to look honestly at his own connections, through his Sikh ancestry, with Empire, both the positive and the negative. He concludes:

“Having faced up to how British [Empire] has shaped and defined my life in deep ways, I had never realised, I can’t help but wonder how imperialism may have shaped Britain itself.”

He then immerses himself in historic research, only to discover how difficult it is to fix precisely where the British Empire began. Arguably it goes back as far as 1497, when John Cabot sailed across the Atlantic to ‘discover’ Newfoundland, or it could be as comparatively recently as 1858, when the Government of India Act abolished the East India Company and established the supremacy of the British Crown. He points out how, over that time, the tone and culture of empire varied wildly. And he shows how, throughout much of its history, there were those who were deeply critical of the imperial ‘project’: to be critical of Empire is not simply a case of applying the values of the present to actions of the past.

Sanghera doesn’t shy away from what is perhaps for many the most discomfiting fact of the British Empire – that between 1660 and 1807, Britain profiteered from the slave trade, shipping around 3 million Africans to the Americas.

Another aspect many in the present day find profoundly uncomfortable is the question of loot. Precious items stolen from colonised lands vastly enriched some and became the foundation of many of our best-known and most beloved museums. Even more disturbingly, sacred items, including human remains, were treated with scant respect and never returned.

Empire is the reason that, long before the famous Empire Windrush docked in Southampton, people of Indian and African heritage were living and working in Britain. There were servants and doctors, café owners and tradespeople, nurses, lawyers and actors. The first MP of Indian heritage was elected in Finsbury in 1892. 

An understanding of all that ought, one might think, lead to a greater understanding and tolerance of our multicultural, multi-ethnic society. But Sanghera also shows how the need to justify slavery and the appalling abuses that accompanied it led, if not to the invention of racism, then at least to its codification. And until we recognise that, it will continue to haunt us.

We are very good at comparing ourselves to other European empires of the 19th and 20th Centuries and persuading ourselves that we were much more benign. But we have conveniently buried the stories of some of the most brutal episodes of our Imperial history. Until we are willing to face up to that – until someone like Sanghera can write a book about Empire and face, not death threats and abuse, but honest reflection - we are never going to be able to move on from Empire and become the tolerant, diverse and non-racist society we like to imagine ourselves to be.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch; Natives - Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala

Avoid If You Dislike: Taking off your rose-tinted spectacles and seeing Britain’s role in the world clearly.

Perfect Accompaniment: What could be a more perfect expression of Empireland than a cup of tea?

Genre: Non-Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Friday, 5 March 2021

Diary of a Film by Niven Govinden

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

“In making this and other films, no one had ever questioned my right to tell a story and present it in the way that sang to me.”

A film director, referred to only as Maestro, arrives in town for the premiere showing of his latest film at a film festival. The film is a loose adaptation of William Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf, but the director has transported to story from the American Midwest to a European location.

A close relationship has developed between the director and the two stars of the film – one established and one up-and-coming. But all three are aware of shifting dynamics as the process of making the film comes to an end, and the final product is released into the world.

And then there is the woman the director meets on the eve of the premiere – who takes the Maestro to see some intriguing wall art and tells him the story that lies behind it.

Arguably, Diary of a Film is a slight misnomer. More accurately, this is the diary of a film festival, from the point of view of a director who is up for a prestigious Jury Award. It is also the diary of a three-day period in which a creator lets go of an old project as a new potential one takes root in their mind.

Diary of a Film explores the vexed question of creative freedom, particularly in the context of the conflicting rights of two creative minds. How does the right of one creator to re-imagine a story (as when a written work is adapted for screen) balance with the right of the original creator to ownership and control of their own work? For all his  care and civility, the Maestro's language betrays how rapacious the creative mind can be in pursuit of its own aims.

“For now I wanted to keep picking the bones for all remaining flesh from her story, because there was truth in the contrary view: that the story was more important than she was, and I would do what it took to secure it.”

The book is subdivided into chapters, but within the chapters there is no paragraphing and no punctuation of dialogue – just as if someone were pouring words into a journal. Style-wise, it feels like a book that could have been written somewhere in the early to mid-twentieth century. Although it is clearly set in the present day, something about its tone reminded me of authors such as Doris Lessing, Thomas Mann or Virginia Woolf. 

A tender and intimate portrait of that peculiar mixture of insecurity and arrogance that makes up the creative mind.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:  Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy

Avoid If You Dislike: Reading long unbroken blocks of text

Perfect Accompaniment: Un doppio (double espresso)

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Friday, 26 February 2021

All My Lies Are True by Dorothy Koomson

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

I am, I’m sorry to say, a late comer to Dorothy Koomson. But over the last year or so, I had heard so much praise of her, I felt it was high time I rectified the gap in my reading.

I chose All My Lies Are True simply because it was her most recent book. But one of the perils of buying an ebook though is that they tend to open on the first page of the first chapter, bypassing little things like author’s notes. So I had no idea, for most of the novel, that this was in fact a sequel to Koomson’s earlier novel, The Ice Cream Girls. Not that that in any way detracted from my enjoyment of this tense psychological thriller.

Poppy and Serena were the Ice Cream Girls – two schoolgirls groomed and sexually abused by their teacher, and then subsequently tried for his murder. Poppy was found guilty and send to prison. Serena was acquitted. Now, thirty years later, Serena is married with a grown-up daughter, Verity, who knows nothing of her past. Poppy has a young daughter too, but she is still struggling with the aftermath of her years spent in prison. And her brother, Logan, is determined that there has been a miscarriage of justice.

So what happens if Logan and Verity meet and start a relationship?

Much as Michaela Cole’s masterful I May Destroy You examines the idea of consent from multiple different angles, All My Lies Are True explores the different forms that grooming and domestic abuse can take and shows insidious it can be and how difficult to recognise from inside a relationship. And also how difficult, from the outside, to tell the victim from a manipulative, truth-twisting perpetrator.

In this novel, we are privy to the points of view of Poppy, Serena and Verity, and a timeline that shifts, teasingly, between the present day and events that unfolded over the past three years. But not until right at the very end can we be sure who is telling the truth and who is lying, perhaps even to themselves.

This is a clever, powerful novel that, once you pick up, you won’t want to put down again.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories centred on grooming and abuse

Perfect Accompaniment: Ice Cream

Genre: Crime Fiction, Psychological Thriller

Buy This Book Here

Monday, 22 February 2021

Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

"Stories twist through the past like hair in a plait. Each strand different, weaving its own."

Fragile Monsters tells the often parallel stories of a grandmother and granddaughter, growing up either side of the Japanese occupation during the Second World War and the Emergency that followed, as the British colony of Malaya struggled to become independent Malaysia.

Durga is a lecturer in mathematics who has recently come back to Malaysia from Canada following an unhappy end to a love affair. She pays a dutiful visit to her Ammuma’s (grandmother’s) home for Diwali. But when an accident with cheap market-bought Diwali fireworks lands Ammuma in hospital, Durga is forced to confront ghosts from both of their pasts.

Durga was brought up by Ammuma after her mother died when she was a baby – or at least that’s what she’s always believed. But then why has she found an obviously much more recent notebook with her mother’s name and address written in a childish hand?

And then there is Tom, now a doctor in the same hospital, with whom Durga shares the guilt of an accident which killed one of their schoolfriends.

The book is laced through with dry-as-bone humour that underlines the prickly relationship between grandmother and granddaughter. (“Granddaughters, she thinks, should stay where they’ve been put.”)

Equally, the mastery of language that was displayed in Menon’s short story collection, Subjunctive Moods, is used here to evoke the atmosphere of Malaysia – from the sticky heat to the class-and-race ridden society that is the legacy of British efforts to divide and rule.

Menon herself is a mathematician, and the text is sprinkled, too, with mathematical metaphors that sent me right back to my student days.

“We leave this as an inference for the reader,’ a mathematician will happily write. Too trustful, these mathematicians. Too trustful by half” she writes - a joke perhaps perhaps only someone who has sat through First Year Maths lectures will fully appreciate. 

A complex and tender story that manages to blend maths with folk legend, and complicated human relationships with scars of war and colonialism.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Ponti by Sharlene Teo, Suncatcher by Romesh Gunesekera, Subjunctive Moods by Catherine Menon (writing as CG Menon)

Avoid If You Dislike: Overlapping timelines

Perfect Accompaniment:
Rendang curry and tea

Genre: Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Friday, 12 February 2021

Mayflies by Andrew O'Hagan

David C. Dawson

What we thought of it:

Only occasionally does a book come along whose every page contains at least one quotable phrase, at least one pithily worded exposition of the human condition that makes you stop and think.

is such a book.

On the surface it's a story about what happens to two friends from a small, nondescript Scottish town. The book starts in their optimistic late teens when they are carefree, daring, and rebellious. Then it jumps forward thirty years to when they are jaded in middle age.

But Mayflies is about far more than that. Woven lightly into this witty story of friendship are significant issues that may at some point affect all of us.

James, the narrator, is eighteen and his best mate Tully Dawson is twenty. They live in Scotland -  “Irvine New Town, east of eternity.”

Tully “had innate charisma, a brilliant record collection, complete fearlessness in political argument, and he knew how to love you more than anybody else.” James is in awe of him.

The first half of the book follows a reckless weekend in Manchester, when the two young men go to the G-Mex for a music festival headlined by The Smiths. Over the weekend they meet up with their friends and reveal dreams, ambitions and their rejection of practically every aspect of conventional life. 

“What we had that day was our story. We didn't have the other bit, the future, and we had no way of knowing what that would be like. Perhaps it would change our memory of all this, or perhaps it would draw from it, nobody knew." 

Thirty years later some of them are married, some of them are divorced. And Tully is about to reveal a major twist in the story. It puts James in an ethical quandary. Its resolution left me thinking for a long time after I’d finished the book.

O’Hagan’s story is genuinely unpredictable. He writes deceptively simple prose, which gives deep insights into our relationships with each other on every page. One of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Trainspotting by Irvine Walsh

Avoid if you don’t like: References to euthanasia

Ideal accompaniments: An indie soundtrack from the 1980s and a pint of Black & Tan

Genre: Contemporary

Thursday, 4 February 2021

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

How do you even begin to talk about a book like Salena Godden’s Mrs Death Misses Death? It is a book that defies description, let alone comparison.

It is, at its core, an uplifting meditation on the nature of death. Structured more like a mind-map than a novel, it branches out in multiple directions, using poetry and prose, narrative, monologues and conversations.

At the heart of the story are Wolf, and Mrs Death. One Christmas Eve, Wolf uses the rent money to buy an antique desk with a dusty red leather top. But the desk used to belong to Mrs Death. And sitting at her desk, Wolf begins to hear her stories.

Mrs Death is fed up of the way the world has imagined Death as a man. “For surely only she who bears it, she who gave you life, can be she who has the power to take it. […] And only she who is invisible, ore readily talked over, ignored, betrayed or easily walked past then a woman: a poor old black woman, a homeless black beggar-woman with knotty, natty hair, broken back, walking ever so slowly…”

And she tells her stories to Wolf. Wolf who met her once before, the night a fire swept through their block of flats. The night Wolf's mother died and Wolf didn’t.

As well as listening in on the conversations between Wolf and Mrs Death, we find ourselves in the slums of Victorian England, in 15th Century Spain and 18th C Edinburgh, in Holloway Prison and the Australian Outback. As Wolf says, “This work has a very high dead and death count.”

The book captures the sense of existential crisis so many of us felt, even before Covid-19 took over our lives. “What is wrong with everyone?” Wolf rails. “I am not catastrophising. This is a f*** catastrophe. […] Maybe I’m crying because you aren’t crying with me right now, because you just aren’t mad enough.”

But the book is also incredibly life affirming. Because if life is short and death is inevitable, then is up to us to live it in the best way be can. As Mrs Death exhorts us, “you all need to be heroes, to step up, to speak up, to support each other.”

It is extraordinary, in hindsight, that this book, which must have been completed before the end of 2019, should come to be published just when the whole world has been forced to come to terms with the nearness of death. But though the victims of Covid-19 play no role in the text, Godden has found a way to remember “all we are losing and have lost to the corona virus pandemic [as well as] the murdered, the disappeared, the stolen and the erased. The fallen and the pushed.” The last six pages of the book are left blank, and in her final section, Godden invites her readers to “add your loved one’s name on one of these blank pages, maybe add a date, a memory or a prayer. In this one act of remembrance, we will be united. From now on every single person who reads this book will know their copy contains their own dead. As time passes, if this book is borrowed or passed along, their names will live on.”

In my head, I imagine readers, fifty or a hundred years from now, searching second-hand bookstalls for copies of this book, just to find the secret memorials hidden in each one. Please make it so.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton, American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Avoid If You Dislike: In the author’s own words, “If you are sensitive or allergic to talk of the dead or non-living things, use this work in small doses.”

Perfect Accompaniment: “The spicy aroma of jerk chicken and rice and pea. The sizzle of plantain. Curried Goat.”

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 28 January 2021

A River Called Time by Courttia Newland

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

A River Called Time, Courttia Newland’s latest novel, is unlike anything he has written before. It may well be unlike anything you have read before – even if you are familiar with the genre of speculative fiction.

In his Afterword to this book, Newland writes that he set out to write, “a decolonised novel, freed of any adherence to the race-fixated, identity-based reality we live every day. I would mentally free myself from the White Gaze.”

To do so, he constructed a world – in fact, a series of parallel worlds – in which “the Transatlantic Slave Trade, colonisation and the genocide known as Maafa … hadn’t ever taken plate, one in which Europeans treaded Africa as the ancient Greeks once treated Kemit, coming not to pillage, rape and murder, but to learn.”

But these worlds are no Utopias. Most of the parallels contain a version of London (Dinium) in which a large area of the centre has been destroyed by a catastrophic event and replaced by a giant monolith in which millions of inhabitants live their lives without ever emerging from its hermetic space. Within that monolith, there are lives of privilege, lives of poverty and gruelling labour,  and pretty much everything in between.

As we move between the different world, the same cast of characters is reconfigured again and again, playing different roles and standing in different relationships to one another. We even briefly find ourselves in a world that seems indistinguishable from our own. Each one is fully realised, the differences between them sometimes minute and sometimes vast.

The book has been a long time coming. Newland describes how he struggled, first to find a way to write the book he knew he wanted to write, and then to find anyone who was willing to publish it. There were those who thought he should stick with the urban stories he was previously known for. But finally, the book found its publishing home, with Canongate Books.

It is a slippery book – one that refuses to give up easy explanations. Each section is enthralling in its own right - the connections between them elusive but intriguing. Yet the author offers no moral compass. There are no clear ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’. Like Markriss, the character we follow from world to world, we are left to work out for ourselves what constitutes the right choice.

Powerful, liberating and challenging, this book is an explosive new entry to the canon of speculative fiction.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Technologies of the Self by Haris A Durrani, Shadowshaper by Daniel J Older, An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obiama, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

Avoid If You Dislike: Books that stubbornly refuse to give up easy explanations..

Perfect Accompaniment:  Spaghetti Bolognaise (if you read the Afterword, you’ll know why!)

Genre: Speculative Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

The Family Tree by Sairish Hussain

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

Spanning almost thirty years, The Family Tree is a portrait of a family riven by a mother’s death in childbirth, by the pressures on Muslim family life of 9/11 and its aftermath, but most of all by a vicious assault that leaves a close friend lying in a coma.

It begins with the father, Amjad, newly bereaved and struggling to cope, trying to comfort his frantically wailing baby girl and his lost and heart-sore son. The profound tenderness in that opening scene will be tested to breaking point in the years that follow, but that little family of three will remain at the core of the story.

It’s a story of love within a family, how it can fracture and what is needed to repair it. And of how, following trauma, friendships can shatter and reform along lines that were previously unimaginable. It encompasses both private grief and public tragedy, and examines what can happen when those two things collide and exert unendurable pressure on a young person on the threshold of life.

Through the story runs image of the shawl that belonged to Neelam, the mother who died giving birth to her daughter. It’s a teal blue pashmina with the mustard-coloured blossom tree stretching along its full length, with birds that flit from branch to branch. In Amjad’s mind, the tree becomes their family tree, and when the children are little, he teaches them to identify the birds with each member of the family. It becomes the golden thread through which the family can find itself again.

This is a novel wide in scope and straightforward in its narrative style. An impressive debut.

Shortlisted for the 2020 Costa First Novel Award.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
Dear Infidel by Tamim Sadikali

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories involving homelessness, drug addiction and serious assault

Perfect Accompaniment:
Home-made roti

Genre: Contemporary