Thursday, 16 December 2021

Books of the Year 2021

2021 been another incredibly difficult year for so many. Some of our Books of the Year confront those difficulties head on - others offer a glorious escape. All are jewels in their own right.  

With links to our full reviews.


Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden



How do you even begin to talk about a book like 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.

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.”

https://bookmuseuk.blogspot.com/2021/02/mrs-death-misses-death-by-salena-godden.html



And the Stars Were Burning Brightly by Danielle Jawando



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.

https://bookmuseuk.blogspot.com/2021/04/and-stars-were-burning-brightly-by.html


First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi


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.

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.

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.

https://bookmuseuk.blogspot.com/2021/04/the-first-woman-by-jennifer-nansubuga.html


The Yield by Tara June Winch


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.

Written by indigenous author, Tara June Winch, 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.

https://bookmuseuk.blogspot.com/2021/06/the-yield-by-tara-june-winch.html


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


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”).

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.

https://bookmuseuk.blogspot.com/2021/06/at-night-all-blood-is-black-by-david.html


A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll



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.

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.

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.

https://bookmuseuk.blogspot.com/2021/07/a-kind-of-spark-by-elle-mcnicoll.html



How to Kidnap the Rich by Rahul Raina



In a year that has had more of its share of darkness, many of our books of the year also have dark themes. But here is something completely different: A glorious crime-caper romp wrapped up in a social satire.

Ramesh Kumar is a not quite a slum kid, but his life is pretty precarious - until, that is, 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.

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’.

Quite the funniest book we read all year.

https://bookmuseuk.blogspot.com/2021/08/how-to-kidnap-rich-by-rahul-raina.html


The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed


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, shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, Mahmood Mattan is finally given the voice he was never afforded in life. We don’t simply 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.

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.

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

Shortlisted for both the 2021 Booker Prize and the 2021 Costa Novel Award.

https://bookmuseuk.blogspot.com/2021/08/the-fortune-men-by-nadifa-mohamed.html


What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

Our final Book of the Year could not be more timely.

Egyptian born Canadian Journalist Omar El Akkad took the terrible image of a child’s body washed up on the shores of a Greek island, and from it spun a modern fable.

Winner of this year’s Giller Award, What Strange Paradise is set on a fictionalised version of Crete, where the flora and fauna have been given a mythic quality that edges us away from realism.

The story is split into two interweaving parts. Before tells the story of how Amir comes to be an overcrowded boat crossing the Mediterranean. After takes us from the moment when, surrounded by dead bodies on the sand, he scrambles to his feet and runs for the woods. There he meets Vänna, a girl not much older than he is. Neither speaks the other's language, but bit by bit, they learn to communicate, as Vänna leads him across the island, to the promise of freedom.

A powerful laying bare of the human tragedies behind the statistics and rhetoric surrounding asylum seekers. El Akkad’s writing has a deceptive simplicity to it. El Akkad says that he drew inspiration in part from the story of Peter Pan. Its use of rhythm and repetition also echoes of traditions of oral storytelling. 

An important, beautiful and heart-rending story.

https://bookmuseuk.blogspot.com/2021/11/what-strange-paradise-by-omar-el-akkad.html

Monday, 13 December 2021

A Nest of Vipers by Catherine Johnson


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:


I grew up loving the novels of Leon Garfield – with a special fondness for Smith. Catherine Johnson’s A Nest of Vipers plunges the reader into the same world of 18th Century London – but populated this time with a rich cast of characters reflecting the diversity that most of us are only now learning was the reality in London at that time.

Cato is a member of a gang of con artists who live at the Nest of Vipers (‘the best inn in London’), making a living from tricking wealthy fools of their money. They are led by Mother Hopkins, who has taken them all under her wing and given them a home. But now she’s getting older and she dreams of one last con – one so big they will be able to escape London, buy a house in the country and live out their days in peace.

But things have got out of hand. Cato has been caught – his gang, who he thought of as family – apparently abandoning him to the hangman’s noose. All that is left for him now is to tell his story to the Ordinary of Newgate – the prison chaplain whose job it was to record the last words of condemned prisoners and then sell them to an eager public, like the true-crime podcasts of their day.

Full of humour, colour and rich historical detail. We visit the Frost Fair on a frozen River Thames and learn about the sedan chairs that were the antecedents of modern taxis. We also come face to face with the uncomfortable true that there were house slaves bought and sold in the middle of London itself, and made to wear silver collars as a badge of ownership.

A book to delight any young history buffs out there.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Freedom by Catherine Johnson; Smith by Leon Garfield; Black Hearts Over Battersea by Joan Aitkin; Black and British: a short essential history, by David Olusoga

Avoid If You Dislike:
Heroes from the wrong side of the law

Perfect Accompaniment: Hot pie with gravy.

Genre:
Middle Reader, Historical


Buy This Book Here:



Thursday, 9 December 2021

Lemon by Kwon Yeo-Sun; Translated by Janet Hong


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:


“For over sixteen years, I’ve pondered, prodded, and worked every detail embroiled in the case known as ‘The High School Beauty Murder.’”


Lemon is a highly unusual psychological thriller, by Korean author Kwon Yeo-Sun.

Told from the perspective of three former schoolmates, it recounts the events around the brutal and unsolved murder of a fourth – a breathtakingly beautiful young woman called Kim Hae-on.

The three are Kim Hae-on’s younger sister, still obsessed with uncovering the truth of what happened; the troubled girlfriend of the one of the two chief suspects, and a third, who was in the same class as Kim Hae-on. Between the three of them we see partial, overlapping accounts of what happened, then and in the years that followed.

The mesmeric quality of Hae-on’s beauty is such that, even in life, she appears doll-like, perhaps even to herself. She seems only to exist in terms of the – often unhealthy - effect her beauty has on other people.

The colour yellow is a recurring note in the book - the yellow dress worn by the victim the day she died, and then later by her young sister; the yellow of the eggs yolks. The imagined revenge of a yellow angel...   

As the narrative proceeds, each new piece of the puzzle obscures as much as it reveals. It’s as if we are glimpsing things in fragments of a broken mirror. Even at the end of the book nothing is settled, nothing is sure – and as readers, we are left to piece together events and decide for ourselves whether or not we have understood who the real murderer is.

This is a slim novel – you could read it in a couple of sittings. But while each character may be sparing in terms of what they reveal in facts, they expose themselves, in what they say and in what they choose not to disclose.

Intriguing, illusive. Not quite like anything else I’ve read – so often one of the chief pleasures of reading books in translation.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: What’s Left of Me is Yours by Stephanie Scott; Ponti by Sharlene Teo

Avoid If You Dislike: Unresolved endings.

Perfect Accompaniment: 'Han o Baek Nyeon,' song by Aeran Oh

Genre: Psychological Thriller, In Translation


Buy This Book Here:



Monday, 6 December 2021

Shadow City – A Woman Walks Kabul by Taran N Khan


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:


“In this ‘amnesiac city’ I found that walking offered a way to exhume history – a kind of bipedal archaeology – as well as an excavation of the present.”


This is a view of Kabul very different from the ones that we in the West typically read.

Beginning in 2006, five years after the overthrow of the Taliban government, Taran N Khan began a series of extended visits to Kabul, teaching video production techniques to employees of a government TV and radio station. Ignoring security advice never to walk anywhere in the city, she began to explore the city on foot, discovering things she would never have seen through the windows of a taxi or an armoured vehicle.

Khan is not Afghan. She was born in Aligarh in India. But her family are Pashtun (or Pathans, as they are known in India), part of the same family as one of the main ethnic groups of Afghanistan, and her arrival in Kabul feels like a return to a place she has never known. So though she views Kabul as an outsider, she comes to it through very different perspective than the typical western journalist or foreign aid worker.

The book is organised thematically – it begins with an exploration of bookshops, searching for books to read during the long evenings in a city with no nightlife. She finds the Public Library that survived, depleted, both the civil war and Taliban rule. She moves on to graveyards - some formal, like those built to inter foreign soldiers who died in colonial-era wars; others scattered, graves dotted wherever space can be found. She finds names without graves, graves without bodies.

She witnesses how heritage is erased, not only through deliberate destruction, but sometimes just through neglect, through looking away and doing nothing.

She explores the history of cinema in Afghanistan – from the film makers trying to create an Afghan Bollywood, to those who risked everything to hide and preserve precious documentary footage of modern Afghan history.

She discovers hidden epidemic of mental health issues – unsurprising in a country that has suffered decades of civil war, but still considered a matter of shame. She uncovers the complex rituals of courtship in a city where it is difficult for young men and women to meet as couples – and also the over-the-top culture of wedding extravaganza. “If love is a secret language, a code tapped out beneath the surface of the city, Kabuli weddings are the opposite. They are declarations of love and manifestations of romance on a monumental scale.”

Khan’s familiarity with the history of Kabul enables her to portray its present reality against the rich tapestry of its cultural heritage, of its poets and storytellers. Its reformers, who fought to bring modernisation and liberal ideas long before the West marched in in 2001. And its record of once offering sanctuary to those caught up in wars and conflict.

“To call Kabul an amnesiac city […] could also refer, I realised, to its obscured culture, to the vanishing of the very idea of Kabul as a city with history; with a specific, cosmopolitan way of life.”

Through Khan, we are also privy to the ways in which Kabul changed between 2006 and Khan’s final trip in 2014. How the early euphoria of liberation became bogged down in corruption and disillusionment. How more and more of the city barricaded itself of behind high security walls, while in other parts homelessness and drug use spiralled.

“With each return to Kabul, I saw the city retreating into itself. […] A patina of disillusionment […] lay over Kabul’s streets, which were increasingly difficult to walk on.”


Just a week or so after I finished reading this book, the evacuation of US and UK troops from Kabul began. I felt this book had prepared me to understand, much more clearly, how what followed was not a surprise, how the path to the ‘fall’ of Kabul has been clearly written over many years.

“In the space between what I saw and what I wrote, Kabul twisted its shape and changed. It has changed again, even as you read it. Bood, nabood. It appears and vanishes with the shift of the kaleidoscope, with the way of seeing.


I marked dozens of passages throughout this book as I read. Khan’s language is beautiful, her sympathy for the people of Kabul manifest. This may be a last glimpse of a city that will soon no longer recognisably exist – or it may chart just another turn of the wheel in a long, long history.

Winner of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year 2021  

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Afropean – Notes from Black Europe by Johny Pitts; Around the World in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh; No More Mulberries by Mary Smith

Avoid If You Dislike: Travelogues that challenge your preconceptions

Perfect Accompaniment: Kawah - green tea with cardamom, cinnamon bark and saffron.

Genre: Non Fiction, Travelogue



Buy This Book Here:

Thursday, 2 December 2021

The Shadows of Men by Abir Mukherjee


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

"Placing oneself in a position of semi- permanent hypocrisy, that’s what it meant to be an Englishman in India. […] God knows there were enough embittered, broken colonial men and women of good conscience, driving to drink and ruin by the irreconcilable absurdity at the heart of it all: the claim that we were here for the betterment of this land, when all the time we merely sucked it dry."

This is the fifth outing for the redoubtable pairing of Sam Wyndham and Surendranath Banerjee – and the first time Suren has been given his own voice. “Of course that is unlikely to stop [Sam] sharing his two annas worth […] but that is Sam for you, and this is why you require to hear my side of the tale.”

The year is 1923. Gandhi’s general strike has been called off in the wake of a wave of violence. The Indian independence movement has collapsed into ‘a morass of in-fighting and mutual recriminations’ and there are those on all sides who are ready and willing to exploit the simmering tensions between Hindus and Muslims.

At the opening of the novel, Suren has been sent by the Commissioner of Police to tail a Muslim politician from Bombay who has arrived unexpectedly in Calcutta and is suspected by the authorities of being up to no good. Following him to a poor and ramshackle riverside township, Suren is eventually led down a gullee into a trap and knocked out. The first Sam hears of all this is when he learns that Suren has been arrested on a charge of murder.

Before they know it, the two are caught in the beginning of a yet another wave of communal violence and it seems that the harder they try to prevent it, the more they succeed in fanning the flames. Unexpectedly allied with their old nemesis, Colonel Dawson of Section H, Sam and Suren find themselves on their way to Bombay, working outside the law and under assumed identities.

Mukherjee continues to write highly entertaining crime novels that cast a fresh light both on a seminal period in India’s history and on its echoes in the world today. As time has passed for Sam and Suren since the first book, we see ever more clearly the tensions – some inherent and some deliberately stoked – that would make the path to independence so treacherous. This latest book also lifts the lid on the simmering dangers of populism – in India and around world. “My novels reflect what is happening now, what it is that makes me angry,” Mukherjee says [in an interview in The Times, November 2021]

Perhaps the reason that the pairing of Sam and Suren works so well is that they reflect (as Mukherjee told E.S. Thomson at the launch of The Shadows of Men at Portobello Bookshop) the two sides of his own personality – Sam the cynical Scot and Suren the optimistic, questioning Bengali. Suren’s wry observations, given full voice now that he can tell his own half of the story, are something to treasure:

“When an Indian overcharges an Englishman, it is termed fraud, but when an Englishman overcharges an Indian, it’s called capitalism.”

If there is one problem with Mukherjee’s writing, it's that we’ll have so long to wait for the next installment!

You can listen to the whole of Abir Mukerjee’s conversation with E.S. Thomson here.


You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Vaseem Khan’s Malabar House series; Leye Adenle’s Amaka series; any of the previous books in the series.

Avoid If You Dislike: Poking fun at British arrogance

Perfect Accompaniment: Machher-jhōl (Bengali fish curry with mustard oil)

Genre: Crime, Historical Fiction


Buy This Book Here:

Monday, 29 November 2021

You Don’t Know Me by Imran Mahmoud


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

“Right now you think, looking at me, that I’m just some foolish kid who go around shooting up people for now reason. I know you think that because I ain’t stupid and you ain’t stupid. […] That’s just what they want you to believe. That want you to think that I’m a no-brain lazy kid who go into some random street and shoot up a next man for nothing. […] But you have to see past all this smoke he’s been creating and see what’s behind it. Trust me you’ll be surprised.”.

The first-person voice of You Don’t Know Me leaps off the page and grabs you by the throat.

He is a young man accused of murder, with apparently overwhelming evidence stacked against him. And at the end of his trial, he has fired his barrister and elected to make his own closing speech for the defence – to tell the truth, against his lawyers’ advice.

Imran Mahmoud is himself a barrister. He knows court procedure. Yet it is hard to imagine any judge allowing the defendant the space to speak, more or less uninterrupted, for several days. The story that unfolds feels more like a modern version of the accounts once written down by the Ordinary of Newgate – the prison chaplain who recorded the last words of prisoners waiting to be hanged. But that is in no way a criticism. Suspend that element of disbelief and allow yourself to be immersed. Mahmoud’s unnamed narrator is an expert storyteller who will keep you on the edge of your seat until you are left, like the jury itself, to decide if he is telling the truth or an elaborately constructed lie.

So confident is the voice, so expert the peeling back of the layers, it is hard to believe this is a debut novel and not a master writer at the peak of his powers. If Mahmoud can keep writing like this, then he is surely destined to take Crime Fiction by storm.

A mini-series adaptation of the story is to air on the BBC in autumn 2021.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
Amer Anwar, Dorothy Koomson

Avoid If You Dislike:
Unreliable narrators and ambiguous conclusions.

Perfect Accompaniment: Pizza from the freezer

Genre: Crime

Thursday, 25 November 2021

What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad


 Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Egyptian born Canadian Journalist Omar El Akkad has taken the image of a child’s body washed up on the shores of a Greek island, and from it spun a modern fable.

Winner of this year’s Giller Award, What Strange Paradise is set on a fictionalised version of Crete, where the flora and fauna have been given a mythic quality that edges us away from realism.

The story is split into two interweaving parts.

Before tells the story of how Amir and his family flee their home, first overland to Egypt, then across the Mediterranean on an overcrowded boat, only to meet a storm when in sight of their destination.

Now the men and women who, in undertaking this passage, had shed their belonging and their roots and their safety and their place of purpose and all claim to agency over their own being, had now finally shed their future. There was nothing left of the smuggler’s apprentice to threaten, nothing he could leverage.

In After, Amir’s body is one of dozens thrown upon the shore when the ship breaks apart, but he does not die. He runs for the shelter of the woods above the beach and is found by a young girl, Vänna. She herself is the descendent of immigrants – blond, blue-eyed immigrants who came to open a hotel. Teenaged, restless, unsure of her place in the world, Vänna’s instinct is to help Amir escape from the soldiers who are sent to round up survivors and deliver them to the ex-school turned detention camp.

Neither speaks the other’s language, but slowly they find ways to communicate. As they make their way across the island, pursued by the relentless Colonel Kethros, a modern Inspector Javert determined to let no asylum seeker escape, we learn more of the horrific journey Amir has already survived – and so many others have not.

A powerful laying bare of the human tragedies behind the statistics and rhetoric surrounding asylum seekers. El Akkad’s writing has a deceptive simplicity to it. El Akkad says that he drew inspiration in part from the story of Peter Pan. It reminds me, in its construction, of books such as Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Its use of rhythm and repetition also echoes of traditions of oral storytelling.

An important, beautiful and heart-rending story.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of children in danger

Perfect Accompaniment: Salted almonds and chocolate truffles

Genre: Literary, Fable, Contemporary

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, shortlisted 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

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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

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