Monday, 29 March 2021

When Life Gives You Mangos by Kereen Getten

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoid If you Dislike: Stories about losing a friend

Perfect Accompaniment: Mangos (of course)

Genre: Children’s (middle reader)

Buy This Book Here:

Thursday, 25 March 2021

What’s Left of Me Is Yours by Stephanie Scott

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genre: Crime Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Monday, 22 March 2021

The Address Book by Deirdre Mask

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genre: Non-Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 18 March 2021

Queen of Freedom by Catherine Johnson

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoid If You Dislike: Frank descriptions of violence

Perfect Accompaniment: Yam and callaloo

Genre: Children’s (middle reader) Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Monday, 15 March 2021

Eight Pieces of Silva by Patrice Lawrence

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 13 March 2021

Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genre: Non-Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Friday, 5 March 2021

Diary of a Film by Niven Govinden

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoid If You Dislike: Reading long unbroken blocks of text

Perfect Accompaniment: Un doppio (double espresso)

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here