Wednesday, 8 September 2021

The Waiter by Ajay Chowdhury


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

This was another recommendation from the Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast, and another highly enjoyable read.

In writing his debut novel, theatre director Ajay Chowdhury was mentored by the brilliant Abir Mukherjee. Like his mentor, he has set his crime novel partly in Kolkata, but his is contemporary Kolkata.

In fact, the story divides between Kolkata and London, where disgraced police officer Kamil Rahman is working (illegally) as a waiter in a restaurant on Brick Lane. But when the host of a party catered by Kamil’s boss is found dead by his swimming pool and the host’s wife becomes the obvious suspect, Kamil’s detective skills are called on to prove her innocence.

The novel moves between the London murder and another in Kolkata – the one that lost Kamil his job and drove him to London under a cloud of suspicion. And as the narrative spools out, the two cases begin to look increasingly connected.

The settings give the narrative two distinctly different tones, and like two strands of a piece of music, they blend to make the whole richer. The portrayals of both London and Kolkata feel contemporary and very real.

Chowdhury’s characters – especially Kamil and his London ‘partner’, his boss’s daughter, the irrepressible Anjoli – are a delight. I really hope we are going to see more of this partnership, because it feels as if it has so much further to go.

I am also enjoying the way that some of recent Crime novelists are rediscovering the amateur detective. I love a police procedural as much as the next Crime Fiction reader, but the joy of the classic amateur detective was always that they could go where no policeman could. Like Amer Anwar’s Zaq and Jags, Kamil and Anjoli can slide into places the police could never penetrate. Kamil, in particular, takes full advantage of a waiter’s invisibility - listening and observing without ever being fully seen. A clever, clever choice of role for his main character.

There is plenty of humour here too - for example, in Kamil’s wry observations of Brick Lane’s hipster clientele. (“It wasn’t my fault, but these white people, with their nose rings and tattoos, all looked the same to me.”)

All in all, a great new addition to the contemporary crime genre - can't wait to read more from this author.  

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Amer Anwar, Abir Mukherjee, Vaseem Khan

Avoid If You Dislike: Morally ambiguous endings

Perfect Accompaniment:
Ilish Masher Jhol (Bengali fish curry with mustard oil)

Genre: Crime


Buy This Book Here:

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Splinters of Sunshine by Patrice Lawrence


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Dandelions close at night and open again in the morning, like they’re holding in the sunshine. Some dandelions have two hundred petals. The most I ever counted was a hundred and eighty. It’s like the sun broke into thousands of pieces so everyone can have some shine.

Splinters of Sunshine is the latest YA novel from the award-winning author Patrice Lawrence. Having won the inaugural Jhalak Prize for Children and Young Adults for her novel Eight Pieces of Silva, which dealt with exploitative relationships, Splinters of Sunshine takes on the highly pertinent issue of County Lines drug gangs.

County Lines refers to the practice of grooming vulnerable young people to move drugs from one area (and one police authority) to another in order to avoid detection. The young people involved are often, but not exclusively, in care.

A*student, Spey, used to have a best friend called Dee. She lived with her grandmother and she was obsessed with wildflowers – their names, their colours, the stories behind them. Once, on her sixth birthday, the two of them created a huge collage of flower pictures, and at the end of the day they cut it in two and took one half each. But then Dee’s Nan died, Spey and his mother moved away, and they lost touch.

Spey saw her once or twice after that – just enough to have an uneasy feeling she might be in trouble. But he did nothing (what could he do?). But then, one day, just after Christmas, he receives an envelope, forwarded from his old address, with Dee’s half of the collage in it. And he knows he has to do something to find her.

Spey’s father, who he barely knows, is just out of prison. Spey doesn’t really want anything to do with him. But maybe, just maybe, he is the one person who can help.

This is a heart-breaking story of the exploitation of young people. But it is also a story of courage and resilience and friendship. As with all of Patrice Lawrence’s novels, she tackles contemporary issues with compassion and sensitivity. It’s a book to start a conversation on difficult issues – but that never gets in the way of a great, page-turning story.

Spey and Dee are characters that will creep into your heart and stay there forever.

Beautifully illustrated, too, with line drawings of Dee’s favourite flowers, with their scientific and common names – names which are steeped in folk history. (The cover and illustrations are designed by Michelle Brackenborough at Hachette Kids.)

At the end of the book, resources can be found to support care-leavers, children of prisoners, and those affected by gangs and county lines.


You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Eight Pieces of Silva by Patrice Lawrence; And the Stars Were Burning Brightly by Danielle Jawando; Boy, Everywhere by A. M. Dassu; Wonderland by Juno Dawson

Avoid If You Dislike: Confronting issues around drug culture

Perfect Accompaniment:
A quiet hour in a wildflower meadow

Genre: Contemporary, Young Adult

Buy This Book Here:

Tuesday, 17 August 2021

The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

In 1952, merchant seaman and occasional petty thief, Mahmood Mattan is put on trial for the brutal murder of Cardiff shopkeeper Lily Volpert. You wouldn’t hang a dog on the evidence brought before the court – but Mahmood is a Black man in post-war south Wales. He was hanged on 3rd September 1952, the last person to be executed in Wales. Almost half a century later, he became the first person to have his conviction quashed under the newly established Criminal Cases Review Commission.

In this superb novel by Nadifa Mohamed, longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, Mahmood Mattan is finally given the voice he was never afforded in life. Mohamed has immersed herself in the details of Mahmood’s life to give us a fully rounded picture of the man. We don’t just walk beside him through the trial, onto death row and ultimately through the doors of the execution chamber: we are inside his mind. We inhabit his sense of his own innocence and his faith in British justice, his rage when it fails him, the meditative state he reaches (for a time) when contemplating his own death.

The Fortune Men serves to remind us that Cardiff is one of the oldest established multi-ethnic communities in the UK, that is was a place of “robed Yemenis and Somalis marching to celebrate Eid, of elaborate funeral corteges for the last of the rich captains of Loudon Square, of Catholic children clad in white on Corpus Cristi […] of makeshift calypso bands busking to raise enough money to tour the country, of street dice games descending into happy laughter or nasty threats, of birdlike whores preening their feathers to catch a passing punter.”

But it was also a place of entrenched racism, where “a woman had given him a real stinker of a look, a real ‘get back in your mother’s hole’ look. At him! With his three-piece suit and silk scarf, while the old bat had on a rain jacket that hadn’t seen a laundry since the war. It was too much.”

Deep as we are in Mahmood’s mind, the story is not told in the first person, and that gives us the perspective to see the myriad ways in which, in the context of entrenched attitudes, Mahmood becomes the author of his own destruction: when he lies and dissembles and pretends to be something he is not, when simple honesty might have served him better.

We also get to meet Mahmood’s Welsh wife, Laura, with whom relations are strained at time of his arrest, but who remained loyal to him to the very end and who never stopped fighting to clear his name. We get a sense of their relationship, complicated but full of warmth.

Nor does Mohamed forget the victim and her family, for whom justice is not served. What is it like to know that someone you hold dear has been brutally murdered while you sit, on the other side of a wall, eating supper, telling a joke, looking forward to going to a dance? How do you deal with the aftermath of that?

An exceptional novel, grounded in a little-known slice of British history, that lays bare the human consequences of racism and injustice.

It is well worth reading this interview with Mohamed about her inspiration for writing this book, and the process by which she immersed herself in Mahmood’s life.

And for more background on Cardiff’s multicultural history, I can recommend Sean Fletcher’s documentary for S4C: Terfysg yn y Bae [Trouble in the Bay], which covers the Cardiff Race Riots of 1919. (Includes English-language subtitles.)

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, A Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee, The Empty Vessel by JJ Marsh,

Avoid If You Dislike: A close-up perspective of life under a sentence of death

Perfect Accompaniment: A mug of strong tea and ‘We Three’ by the Ink Spots

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here


Wednesday, 11 August 2021

How To Kidnap The Rich by Rahul Raina


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

“The first kidnapping wasn’t my fault. 
The others – they definitely were.”


I have to thank the brilliant Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast for introducing me to this dark and very funny satire on life in contemporary India.

Ramesh Kumar is a not quite a slum kid, but his life is pretty precarious. His father runs a chai stall in Old Delhi, and Ramesh spends most of his days grinding spices rather than attending school.

“My father and I lived in a one-room concrete shell, down an alley, then down another, and another, from the place Western tour guides said was the real India, the one with piles of spices, women in mango-coloured saris, men who smelled of hair oil and incense and dragged cows behind them, stately and fat; the one where whites got out of their AC jeeps and said who overwhelmed they were by the sights and sounds. This India, my India, smells like shit.”

This is Ramesh’s life, until the formidable Sister Claire takes him under his wing. For Ramesh is clever, very clever indeed. Clever enough that he begins taking exams for rich boys too lazy to study for themselves. It’s a nice little earner. Until one day he does just a little too well. He comes top in the All India’s – plunging his client, Rudi, into the national limelight.

Rudi becomes a quiz show host, darling of mothers all over India, and his and Ramesh’s fates become irrevocably bound to one another. But still Ramesh manages to walk a tightrope between success and disaster. Until Rudi offends the son of the wrong man. And the two of them are kidnapped.

The voice of Ramesh, as the first-person narrator of the tale, comes across loud and clear -and very funny. The prime target of his razor-sharp wit is the greed of modern Indian capitalism. But that doesn’t stop him taking some well-aimed swipes at the West, and especially the West’s infatuation with its own notion of ‘India’.

Raina paints a fascinating portrait of the multiple layers of society living cheek by jowl in modern Delhi.

“This was a nice-part, a lower-middle-class striver part of Delhi, on-the-up Delhi, half-filled-metro-hole Delhi […]. I wasn’t even talking about the really foul parts […] where people lived like gnats on a lemur’s ballsack, where everyone was missing teeth or organs or legs and nothing got better even as the GDPs and HDIs were going up, up, up all over United Nations PowerPoint slides.”

But it is Ramesh's escapades with Rudi, as they dig themselves ever deeper in the mess (largely) of their own making that will keep you turning the page deep into the night.

A glorious crime-caper romp wrapped up in a social satire -and a voice I can’t wait to hear more of.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Q&A by Vikas Swarup, East of Hounslow by Khurrum Rhaman

Avoid If You Dislike: A dose of laughter with your peril (or vice versa).

Perfect Accompaniment:
A cup of spiced chai

Genre: Crime, Humour

Buy This Book Here

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

The Dying Day by Vaseem Khan


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

As a lifetime fan of Golden Age Detective Fiction (especially the novels of Dorothy L Sayers) and a bit of a Dante obsessive, this book could have been written for me!

This is the second outing for Persis Wadia, India’s first female police inspector. This time she is summoned to the offices of the Royal Asiatic Society because one of their senior researchers has gone missing – along with a priceless manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy, whose loss has the power to trigger a major diplomatic incidence.

The initial assumption is that Healy, the researcher, must have stolen the manuscript. But if so, why has he left behind a series of cryptic clues? And where are they leading?

At the same time Persis is trying to wrestle with her own complicated feelings towards her rumpled forensic colleague, Archie Blackfinch, as well as the problem of the dead body of a high-class white prostitute, found dismembered by the railway line.

Persis is faced with a range of clues from riddles and cryptic crosswords to full-on book ciphers (a favourite of DL Sayers). We are led from the Divine Comedy via Alice Through the Looking Glass to the King James Bible. Khan, no doubt wisely, avoids getting bogged down in the intricate details of how to solve a book cipher, but leaves plenty to challenge the little grey cells.

Persis Wadia’s debut outing, Midnight at Malabar House, has just won the 2021 Historical Dagger Award for Crime Fiction. This, the second novel in the series, does not disappoint! It is a fascinating and nuanced portrait of a newly independent India, as well as a mystery that would delight the original members of the formidable Detection Club.

(I can highly recommend the excellent Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast, hosted by Khan and his fellow masala-noir author, Abir Mukerjee. If you listen, you might just detect an echo of the bickering of Persis’s father and his friend Dr Aziz in the banter between the two hosts.)

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan; Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers.

Avoid If You Dislike: Literary puzzles

Perfect Accompaniment: Lime and soda

Genre: Crime, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

China Room by Sunjeev Sahota


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:


The premise of Sunjeev Sahota's third novel, China Room, has elements of a fairytale – three brides married to three brothers, but not permitted to know, even after they are married, which brother is which. It’s a recipe for trouble, and trouble does indeed follow. But this is not a fairytale. It is rural India in the 1920s – a village so tightly bound up with tradition it seems out of touch even to its neighbours.

The three brides inhabit the china room – a small building, barely more than a hut, separate from the rest of the farmstead, where a few willow-pattern plates sit on a stone shelf. From there, heavily veiled every time they step outside, they carry on the work of the household. And at night, their mother-in-law sends one son at a time into a darkened room where neither bride nor groom can see each other’s faces.

The three young brides, who could easily have been reduced to fairytale archetypes, instead come dancing off the page, alive and vivid and down to earth. Even Mai, the matriarch who rules her three sons and their brides, is not permitted to become a pantomime villain. These are real people, painted in sparing but telling detail.

“Mehar is not so obedient a fifteen-year-old that she won’t try to uncover which of the three brothers is her husband. Already, the morning after the wedding, and despite nervous, trembling hands, she combines varying amounts of lemon, garlic and spice in their side plates of sliced onions, and then attempts to detect the particular odour on the man who visits later that night, invisible to her in the dark.”

The second, parallel thread of the story takes place seventy years later, when the great-grandson of Mehar is sent back from England in the summer after his A-Levels to break his heroin addiction. At the now deserted farmstead, alone apart from an occasional visitor and a daily delivery of food, he ponders the stories about his great-grandmother, whom he knows only from a single photograph of her holding him as a new-born baby, and reflects on the sometimes brutal racism that led him down his own dark path.

By allowing the story to bridge two continents and seven decades, Sahota shows how each generation faces its own battles – those at home as well as those that migrate. His prose is at times achingly beautiful.

"What remained was a feeling of quiet rapture, of dawn colours slowly involving themselves with the day, a champagne brightness staring to warm my skin and waving across acres of corn and wheat, the soft green hills that followed no pattern, a distant stone hut that held the horizon and a long, tapered track driving on till I could no longer even imagine that I could see it."

Sahota has the gift of inhabiting his characters’ minds, and drawing the reader in there with him. His empathy is extraordinary and it has resulted in a deeply moving book. Its longlisting for the 2021 Booker Prize is richly deserved.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota; Where the River Parts by Radhika Swarup; If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here by Sarayu Srivatsa; A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Avoid If You Dislike: Poetic, thoughtful prose

Perfect Accompaniment: Cauliflower and potato curry

Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction


Buy This Book Here

Monday, 26 July 2021

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

Reviewer: Catriona Troth


What We Thought Of It:


A Kind of Spark is a gem of a novel – one to break your heart, inspire you and fill you with joy.

The central character, Addie, is intelligent, curious, articulate and bursting with heart. She is also, like the author, autistic. That means that she can easily be overwhelmed – by sensory inputs and by emotions, both of which she feels with sometimes unbearable intensity.

Like so many neurodivergent people – including Addie’s older sister, Keedie – Addie learns to deal with the outside world by ‘masking’, hiding who she is from the world on a daily, hourly, minute by minute basis. It’s exhausting.

But when Addie begins to learn about the Scottish ‘witches’ – women persecuted for being different, just like her – she knows she needs to do something. In her own tiny village outside Edinburgh, there are records of women who were murdered on suspicion of being witches. Addie believes they should be remembered and honoured. But not everyone agrees.

This is a book about standing up to bullies. About the determination to do the right thing. About facing up honestly to the wrongs of the past, and understanding that until we do so, we cannot effect real change.

It is also a rare, profound and stereotype-free insight into what it can be like to experience our world as a neurodivergent person. McNicholl writes vividly, drawing on her own experience. Her passion, like Addie’s, is clear.

A book for anyone who wants to change the world a little bit – but especially for all the book-loving autistic girls out there, desperate to find themselves within the pages of a book.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Night Bus Hero by Onjali Rauf; Hetty Feather by Jacqueline Wilson

Avoid If You Dislike: Seeing the world in a whole new way

Perfect Accompaniment: Peace and quiet in the corner of a library

Genre: Young Adult


Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 8 July 2021

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:


From the opening pages, The Other Black Girl presents as a modern-day office comedy – a Black woman’s Working Girl, or The Devil Wears Prada. But all is not quite what it appears.

Yes, this is a take-down of the Whiteness of the publishing industry – an expose of the blunders and gaffes of its narrow demographic of gatekeepers. But there is a surreal element to it too. And that surreal element takes satirical aim at those who choose compliance and adjacency to power over solidarity and the fight for equality.

When Nella first sees that another Black woman has been hired by her exclusive (and very White) publishing house, she is delighted. But almost at once, something starts to feel off. She can’t put her finger on it, but just why is Hazel able to worm her way into everyone’s good graces so quickly? And who is sending Nella anonymous notes? Is she just jealous? Or paranoid? Or is something really wrong here?

And just what is in that special hair grease Hazel is so keen to share?

The Other Black Girl is playful and at times downright hilarious – but much of the fabric of the story is based on Harris’s own experiences in the publishing industry. It’s not difficult to draw parallels between the book launch at the centre of the story and one or two recent high-profile launches where embarrassing gaffes have been blamed on the lack of having any non-cis/het/white/middle-class staff senior enough to speak up. The absence of what Nella terms “For Us, by Us: the Effect of Black Eyes on Black Ideas.”

A clever and sharp-toothed debut with a sting in its tail. And I love the symbolism of the cover - the broken teeth of the black Afro comb, stark against the rich yellow background.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams; The Yield by Tara June Winch; The Hundred Year Old Man Who Jumped Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonassen;

Avoid If You Dislike: Wondering off the path of realism

Perfect Accompaniment: A luxury hair treatment

Genre: Comedy, satire, contemporary.

Buy This Book Here

Monday, 28 June 2021

At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop, trans Anna Moschovakis


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

“Temporary madness in war is bravery’s sister.”

At Night All Blood Is Black is the English-language title of Frère d'âme (lit, “the brother of my soul”), a novel by the French author of Senegalese extraction, David Diop. With his English translator Anna Moschovakis, Diop won the 2021 International Booker Prize for this – the first French-language novelist to do so.

Set in the trenches of the First World War, the novel reveals the terrible damage war can wreck on the human mind – as well as reminding us that soldiers from colonised Africa (“chocolats” in the French slang of the time) were fighting and dying alongside white soldiers (“toubabs”).

Alfa Ndiaye has witnessed the death of his childhood friend, “my more-than brother”, Mandemba Diop. Mandemba died in agony, his guts spilling out over no-man’s land, but Alfa could not bring himself to do as his friend begged him and slit his throat to put him out of his agony. His guilt at his failure to do so turns him into a kind of avenging spirit, haunting the battlefields and inflicting on the German soldiers “the blue-eyed enemy from the other side” what they inflicted on Mandemba.

Diop uses patterns and tropes of African storytelling in the structure of the novel – patterns that are also reminiscent of Old English sagas like Beowolf. Certain phrases repeat over and over again like the beat of a drum. (God’s truth … my more than brother … I, Alfa Ndiaye, son of the old man…) And Alfa’s feats, at first legendary, slowly turn him from hero in the eyes of his fellow soldiers, into a madman or perhaps a sorcerer.

Alfa’s memories of growing up in Senegal with Mandemba also touch on the impact of colonialism on Africa, as village elders are pressured to turn from subsistence farming to cash crops, leaving them dependent on outside buyers into order to feed their families.

Diop, and his translator, use extraordinarily beautiful language to paint a picture of the extreme ugliness of war. Alfa believes he betrayed his friend, but in truth, he, like the soldiers around him, have been betrayed by those who led them into war and who use them as human sacrifices in the interminable futility of trench warfare.

There have been so many novels set in those First World War trenches, that to write something new and unique is an extraordinary achievement. Diop may very well have done just that.

You Will Enjoy This If You Loved: The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker

Avoid If You Dislike:
Graphic descriptions of war and war wounds

Perfect Accompaniment: A glass of mint tea

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, In Translation

Buy This Book Here

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

 What We Thought of It:

Transcendent Kingdom is the second novel by Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi.

As a child, Gifty searched for answers in the absolutism of her evangelical faith. Yet “when I lost my brother […] God was gone in an instant.”

Now she struggles to balance three things – the evangelical faith she has rejected but cannot wholly let go. Her family’s struggles with addiction and depression. And the neuroscience research she has immersed herself in to try and make sense of it all.

“I had traded the Pentecostalism of my childhood for this new religion, this new quest, knowing I would never fully know.”

Her brother, a brilliant athlete, died of a heroin addiction that began when he was prescribed opiates for a sports injury. Her mother has since suffered cycles of depression that leave her unable to get out of bed. As Gifty sees it, in both cases, there are issues with reward seeking: in depression, there is too much restraint in seeking pleasure; drug addiction, there is not enough.

The mice she experiments on are addicted to the energy drink, Ensure. They will endure repeated electric shocks in the desperate home of getting another dose. Gifty is looking for ways to turn that reward seeking behaviour. At the back of her mind, there is always the question:

“Could it get a brother to set down a needle? Could it get a mother out of bed?”

Gifty’s family emigrated from Ghana to America when she was a small child. The racism they have since experienced undoubtedly plays a part in the scars the family all carry. Their father, who is eventually driven back to Ghana by homesickness, learns early on, “how America changed around big black men.” How he had to “try to shrink to size, his long, proud back hunched as he walked with my mother through Walmart, where he was accused to stealing three times in four months.” Nana endures racist abuse from the parents of other team members when he is playing sport. And Gifty overhears members of her church, which has been her sanctuary, remark how “their kind does seem to have a taste for drugs.”

But this is not primarily a story of the harm caused by racism – personal or institutional. It is about a quest to understand what makes us human. What gives us the spark of life and what causes us, sometimes, to throw that gift away. As we follow Gifty along both paths, Gyasi seems to say that science and religion both have insights to offer – and both have limitations.

As she explains in her Acknowledgements, Gyasi has drawn on the research work of a close friend to provide the details of Gifty’s research. The depth of her understanding allows the science behind Gifty’s research to be woven into the fabric of the story – not simply overlaid on it. The clinical detail plays against the lyrical prose, just as, in the themes of the book, science plays against religion, and Amereica’s culture and tradition plays against Ghana’s. Gyasi holds the tension between them to the end, not allowing either one nor the other to win.

Shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Technologies of the Self by Haris A Durrani, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon

Avoid If You Dislike: Descriptions of experiments on animals.

Perfect Accompaniment: Chin chin (Ghanaian fried spiced pastry crisps)

Genre: Contemporary, Literary

Buy This Book Here:

Monday, 14 June 2021

How Icasia Bloom Touched Happiness by Jessica Bell

 


Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought of it:

A exceptional story of female friendship and a speculative take on what today’s (in)actions might mean for the future. Icasia Bloom and her fellow Globe-dwellers are controlled by the State, where decisions are taken out of one’s hands. Trying to keep herself and her son fed, Icasia is a Tatter, offering services for food. Then she meets Selma, who is struggling to set up a bakery. The two women’s lives become intertwined and redefine the term ‘family’.

Bloom’s world is fully rounded, the characters likeable, damaged and resourceful, while the technique of storytelling as treasured heirloom is beautifully done. This tale appears a critique of government control, disguising philosophical questions about mental health, long-term sickness, lack of agency and how the little people pay for the mistakes of the wealthy.

One thing that struck me about the story is that the state is represented by The Book, and all its intrusive ways into people’s lives. There is nowhere to hide but all is done out of care for its citizens. The forced pregnancies, the accelerated deaths and changing laws imposed upon a meek population who accepted a philanthropic rescuer until they had no choice.

A touching, deceptively deep novel for anyone who ever loved.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, Only Ever Yours

Avoid if you don’t like: Dystopian fiction, female leads, emotional wringers

Ideal accompaniments: Warm milk, From the Flagstones by Cocteau Twins and an apricot Danish.

Genre: Speculative fiction

https://www.vineleavespress.com/how-icasia-bloom-touched-happiness-by-jessica-bell.html



Thursday, 3 June 2021

The Yield by Tara June Winch


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We thought of It:

After a long absence, August is returning to her home in Massacre Plains, a remote part of central Australia, to attend the funeral of her grandfather, Poppy Albert. But when she gets there, she finds that even her families last fragile hold on what used to be their ancestral land is threatened by the development of a tin mine.

The Yield weaves together three narratives. There is August’s story, of reconnecting with her family, of coming to terms with the loss of Poppy Albert, and of her growing conviction that they could fight the incursion of the mine.

The second is an extended letter, written by the white pastor who set up the original mission on Massacre Plains to protect the local Aboriginal people. His letter both documents the extent and brutality of the atrocities committed by white settlers and reveals the some of the damage caused through his own good intentions.

Finally, there are Poppy Albert’s own writings – his attempt to create a dictionary of his people’s original language. Each word that he captures has a story to go with it – and those stories tell something of the traditions of the original inhabitants of Massacre Plains, of their custodianship of the land and of the environmental degradation brought about through ignoring that deep knowledge.  But fragment by fragment they also reveal the devastating truth behind the family tragedy that led to August leaving Massacre Plains.

Poppy’s dictionary underlines the importance of reclaiming language, because a language reveals a whole different way of thinking. As Poppy says, it sings mountains into existence.

Like this year’s Jhalak Prize winner The First Woman, The Yield explores the intergenerational impact of colonialism – but this time through the lens of an Indigenous people who were all but wiped out by white settlers in the course of their insatiable land grab. It also reflects on how ignorance and the wilful rejection of traditional knowledge and practice has led to the destruction of a delicate ecological balance.

Achingly beautiful. A devastating tally of the cost paid by the relentless drive to expand European ‘civilisation,’ yet containing within it a small flame of hope that some of what has been lost can still reclaimed.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, The Break by Katherena Vermette

Avoid If You Dislike: Confronting the devastating impact of colonialism on a land and its people.

Perfect Accompaniment: Freshwater fish, grilled and flavoured with herbs.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Contemporary, Indigenous Writing, Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 27 May 2021

Keeping It Under Wraps, edited by Louise Bryant, Alnaaze Nathoo and Tracy Hope

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought of it: 

I'll read a couple, I told myself, and come back later. 

No. That's not possible. 

These stories are not something you can browse. 

This is pared-down, stripped-back, naked and honest. Don’t look away. 

What happens after ‘fade to black’ is left to the viewer/reader’s imagination and imaginations tend to airbrush experience. Ecstasy, agony, shame, confusion, boredom and laughter are part of intimacy. Sex is all those things and exquisitely personal. 

Keeping It Under Wraps is every conversation we should have had as kids, as teenagers, as middle-aged searchers for the G-spot. Broken hearts and pain, sex toys and laughter, pornography and puzzlement, sex and self-respect, it’s all here. 

I loved the whispered, shouted and clearly stated personal sex lives in this collection. Sex can be joyous or brutal. One of the ways we reframe our experiences is by listening to others. This book opens a door. 

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: True stories about intimacy, in-depth discussions with the likes of Mariella Frostrup or Pamela Stephenson 

Avoid if you don’t like:
 Frank discussions about preferences and unpleasant truths 

Ideal accompaniments: A warm bath, some time alone and a little notebook to record your own feelings. 

Genre: Non-fiction, anthology, short stories

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We thought of It:

From the Ashes is a painful and poignant memoir from Canadian author, Jesse Thistle. Thistle is Michif, or Métis – descended from the offspring of Cree women and French and Scottish fur traders.

Owing to family breakup, Thistle grew up divorced from his heritage, knowing nothing about the history or language of his people. His father, a drug addict, took him and his two brothers away from his mother and her people and then abandoned them. The boys were brought up by their paternal grandparents who, though they loved them, gave them little understanding or affection.

Thistle ended up homeless and drug addicted, living on the streets and moving in and out of prison. That he survived at all is something of a miracle. But survive he did, and as he hit rock bottom and began to claw his way back up again, he began to ask himself why it is that so many young Indigenous men, like him, can be found in Canada’s prisons and homeless shelters.

The answer, for Thistle at least, lay in reclaiming his Métis heritage – understanding how they came to live as they did, forced to squat on narrow strips Crown lands alongside roads and railway lines, the so-called ‘road-allowances’. As he writes in the dedication:

“The pages of this book speak to the damage colonialism can do to Indigenous families, and how, when one’s Indigeneity is stripped away, people can make poor choices informed by pain, loneliness and heartbreak, choices that see them eventually case upon the streets, in jail or wandering the no place to be.”

From the Ashes is not an easy read. Thistle’s path down into his own personal hell was long and tortuous. He doesn’t spare the reader any of the horror of what the dark extremes of drug addiction do to either the body or the mind.

Some of the most arresting moments in the book come in the poems that are dotted between its chapters. Thistle distils his experiences into instants of time captured in free verse.

I had this tiny bag
It had my old life inside
When I finally got the courage to get rid of it, I left it on the bed
Then I jumped out of the window
Down two stories
But the grass broke my fall.


A troubling, necessary and ultimately inspiring book.

Jesse Thistle is now assistant professor in Métis Studies at York University, Toronto. From the Ashes was the top-selling book in Canada in 2020.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Stuart, A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters, Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, Birdie by Tracie Lindberg, The Break by Katherena Vermette

Avoid If You Dislike: Grim details of the physical and mental impacts of extreme drug addiction

Perfect Accompaniment: Bannock and Saskatoon berries

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Indigenous Writing


Buy This Book Here

Monday, 10 May 2021

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


Reviewer
: 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


Reviewer:
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


Reviewer:
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



Reviewer:
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


Reviewer:
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


Reviewer:
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


Reviewer:
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


Reviewer:
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.

WINNER of 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

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

Buy This Book Here:

A More Perfect Union by Tammye Huf


Reviewer:
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


Reviewer:
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


Reviewer:
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


Reviewer:
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


Reviewer:
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


Reviewer:
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. 

WINNER of 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