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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Monday, 13 December 2021

A Nest of Vipers by Catherine Johnson

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.

Middle Reader, Historical

Buy This Book Here:

Thursday, 9 December 2021

Lemon by Kwon Yeo-Sun; Translated by Janet Hong

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

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

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: