Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: I’d been hearing about Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper for months, but I had to wait for it to be available in the UK before I could read it for myself. I wasn’t disappointed.

Sierra’s grandfather is a shadowshaper, someone who can channel spirits and give them form through his paintings. But his stubborn old-school machismo has stopped him from passing on the secret to Sierra. Instead he has inducted one of her schoolmates, a young graffiti artist called Robbie. But now all the murals they painted are fading, the whole world of the shadowshapers is under threat, and Sierra may be the only one who can save them.

From the streets of brownstone houses, to the walls covered in giant murals and old men playing dominos in an old junkyard, Shadowshaper is firmly rooted in the present-day streets of Bed-Stuy – the Bedford–Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn, New York. Its teenage characters come from a Puerto Rican and Haitian community slowly being squeezed out of Bed-Stuy by gentrification.

Sierra loves her family, but her life is a constant battle against biases that would constrain - her grandfather’s affectionate misogyny, her mother’s rejection of her spiritual inheritance, even her aunt’s bias against dark skin and her ‘wild, nappy hair’. But with the help of her friends, Sierra will prove far stronger than she ever imagined herself to be.

Older’s brilliantly original fantasy has roots that reach deep into the history of Puerto Rico and Haiti – to the Taino Indians indigenous to both places and the Black Africans who were brought there as slaves. That history is literally written on the body of Robbie, in the form of elaborate tattoos.

Older also takes a well-aimed swipe at those (largely white) anthropologists and others who appropriate, distort and exploit aspects of culture under the guise of study.

A many layered story that makes for a great read for adults and teens alike.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Technologies of the Self by Haris Durrani (adult), Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence (YA)

Avoid if You Dislike: Fantasy in a contemporary setting

Perfect Accompaniment: Arroz con Pollo, a set of paints and a blank wall

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

Available on Amazon

Why Did You Lie, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

Recommended by a fellow crime writer, this book was a real discovery. Described as Icelandic Noir, this atmospheric, taut thriller had me completely absorbed and I finished it in one weekend.

The narrative consists of three strands, apparently independent until certain threads draw them closer. Each carries its own brand of tension. Switching between the three is leaping from frying pan to fire to electric fence.

Nina’s husband is in a coma after his suicide attempt went wrong. She spends nights beside his bed and days at work in Reykjavik’s police station. Since her complaint of sexism against a fellow officer, she is relegated to the basement to sort through old files.

On a remote lighthouse crag, four strangers are dropped by helicopter to do their jobs. Three are engineers and the other is photographer Helgi. Bad weather hits and the claustrophobic conditions bring the storm inside.

Noi and his family return from their holiday in Florida to find the house swap has not been a success. The cat is starving, items are missing and all the outside lights are broken.

Gradually, through the minutiae of daily existence, strange occurrences increase the tension in the freezing climate and then the letters begin to arrive.

A terrifically plotted detective story with more than one shocking twist, believable characters and a setting second to none, I’ll be buying more of Sigurdardottir’s work. But only reading in the daytime.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Death of the Demon by Anne Holt, Snow Blind by PJ Tracy or the TV series The Killing.

Avoid if you don’t like: Suspense, details of death, crime procedure, cold

Ideal accompaniments: Salted fish dipped in Skyr, sparkling water with lime juice and Sigur Rós.

Genre: Crime

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Shining Sea, by Anne Korkeakivi

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

With an epic sweep following one family over half a century, through loss, adventure, success and love, this is a story of adaptation. From the latter half of the last millennium to the modern day, Korkeakivi’s characters mature, rebel and learn to accept themselves and each other against the backdrop of unprecedented social change.

The Gannon family are thrown into uncharted waters when patriarch Michael dies suddenly at the age of forty-three. Identities and personalities thus far fixed need to realign and shift to fill the gaps.

Told largely through the eyes of Michael’s widow, Barbara, and her son Francis, their individual experiences are varied and character-forming, and vividly real. Francis’s sailing adventure in the Hebrides will stay with me a long time.

Woodstock and freedom; Vietnam and death; AIDS and counterculture; this is an evocative yet concise American novel of self-discovery in which successive generations try to define themselves and their notions of home.

No character escapes the shadow of war and its repercussions. Nor does anyone manage to disentangle themselves entirely from the family web.

A wonderfully sensory journey through the last fifty years, this book feels like looking at old family video footage while privy to its secrets. Hugely readable and somehow ominous in the light of current events.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, Spilt Milk by Amanda Hodgkinson or The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Avoid if you don’t like: Changing narrators, a broad canvas, time jumps

Ideal accompaniments: Pancakes with maple syrup and bacon, a cold beer and The Joni Mitchell Tribute Album.

Genre: Literary fiction

Available on Amazon

Augustown by Kei Miller

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Augustown is a poor suburb of Kingston, Jamaica, set up by the slaves set free by royal decree on 1st August 1838. It is also closely associated with Alexander Bedward, the preacher who inspired Bedwardism, the roots from which Rastafarianism grew.

Kei Miller’s novel takes place largely in 1982, when most of those who remember Bedward are dead or dying and the events of his life have become tales told by grandmothers like Ma Taffy. Those events might seem incredible, but the narrator (whose identity we do not learn until the end of the book) defies the reader to classify this as ‘magic realism.’

"Look, this isn’t magic realism. This is not another story about primitive island people and their superstitious beliefs. No. You don’t get off that easy."

On the day that Ma Taffy sits up straight on her verandah and smells something high and ripe in the air, she knows an autoclapse is coming. ( Autoclapse: (Noun) Jamaican Dialect. An impending disaster; Calamity; Trouble on top of trouble.)

From that point, the novel moves back and forth across the timelines. As all the pieces slot into place, the picture revealed is an allegory Jamaica’s long struggle to free itself from the bonds of slavery.

The march of the bobo shanties becomes the march of Augustown – another inching, another ‘trodding’ towards someplace they have been trying to reach for over a hundred and fifty years.

Miller’s gorgeous prose immerses us in the world of Augustown, tantalising every sense.

It is parakeets that announce the evening. They fill the Augustown sky, flying from mango tree to mango tree and dropping their green feathers on the ground. They screech what sounds almost like a song: Evening time, work is over now is evening time!

A stunning novel that takes modern Jamaican history (and the history of Rastafarianism in particular) and spins from it a fable the might stand for any people suffering from ingrained economic disadvantage and religious intolerance. Longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Disposable People by Ezekel Alan, Technologies of the Self by Haris Durrani, Birdie by Tracey Lindberg

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories that sidle over the edge of realism

Perfect Accompaniment: Callaloo, ugli fruit and sweet, sweet oranges

Genre: Literary Fiction, Fiction from the Caribbean

Available on Amazon

Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Fate chose the victims; time shapes the narrative.”

This is not the story of the high profile killings that gave birth to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The day in question happened four months after the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida and nine months before Michael Brown was killed in Fergusson, Missouri.

This is a day (23rd November 2013) chosen at random – unremarkable in any way, including for the number of young people to die of gunshot wounds in a 24 hour period. “The truth is it’s happening every day, only most do not see it.”

Younge is a British journalist who spent ten years living, working and raising children in the USA. “I had skin in the game. Black skin in a game where the odds are stacked against it.”

On the day he chose to write about, seven of those killed were black, two Hispanic and one white. The oldest was nineteen; the youngest nine. The deaths happened in dense urban areas, pretty suburbs, and rural environments with a population density lower than Finland’s. They happened in relatively comfortable areas, areas that have undergone recent decline and areas that have been depressed for decades. By the time the book was finished, only five of the ten perpetrators had been identified. In one – in Newark, New Jersey – police failed to provide even an autopsy or incident report.

“You won’t find another Western country with a murder rate on par with Black America – for comparable rates, you have to look to Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria or Rwanda.”

Heartbreakingly, Younge points out that, “To raise children <in parts of certain cities> is to incorporate those odds <that they will be affected by gun violence> in their daily lives. Every black parent of a teenage child...had factored in the possibility that this might happen to their kid.” But as each of the individual stories shows, knowing that it might happen to your child does nothing to soften the blow when it actually does.

Each chapter is both a personal account of a young person whose life and death would otherwise have passed unremarked by anyone outside their immediate neighbourhood, and an essay on the factors that create this appalling death rate.

Two of the deaths were accidental. One was by an ‘amok man’ – a family member on a path of self destruction. One is a straight up case of mistaken identity. The rest could be described, very loosely, as related to gang affiliation. But as Younge points out, in many neighbourhoods gang affiliation among the young is like Communist Party membership in the Soviet era – something that is necessary in order to get on with your life. As Younge says, “To treat all affiliation as complicity is to write off children in entire communities for being born in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Younge rails against the trap of focusing on the ‘innocent victim’ (such as the children of Sandy Hook), and the danger it creates of implicitly suggesting that those who are less than angels are in some way deserving of their fate. He takes us inside an NRA conference and gives us an insight into a mindset on gun ownership that seems, to most Europeans, to be a form of collective insanity. He breaks down myths – pointing out that crime stats have actually been going down in recent years and demolishing the idea (often internalised by the parents themselves) that poor black parenting is at fault.

He shows how poverty, racism and deliberate policy have created a profoundly segregated country. This segregation creates two separate worlds – one in which youthful rash decisions and experimentation are ‘just a phase’ and one in which they may very well prove fatal.

That segregation also creates a numbing distance across which empathy becomes all-but impossible. This book, which (as Irvine Welsh says on the cover) “breaks the unwritten law: thou shall not humanize the victims of this ongoing carnage,” may be one strut in a bridge across that divide.

Shortlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates; Always Running by Luis Rodriguez

Avoid if you dislike: Honest portraits of grieving families

Perfect Accompaniment: A minute’s silence for each unremarked death

Genre: Non-Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The Devil You Know by Terry Tyler

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and new release, The Silent Kookaburra.

What we thought: I adored The Devil You Know, reading it in almost a single sitting, but what I enjoyed most was its refreshing and different approach to the often saturated and clichéd crime thriller genre. Yes, there is a serial killer on the rampage, murdering young women in the Lincolnshire town of Lyndford, but no, the reader is not witness to a long-winded police procedural, which is almost incidental. It is the reader who gathers the clues, pieces together the evidence and finally, tries to guess who the killer is.

Because this story is all about the characters, and it’s wonderful to see such great characterization in a crime story which explores the question: do any of us really know the people in our lives, or what they’re capable of?

Told from the perspective of five different people, we are introduced to the different suspects.

There is Juliet who, upon seeing a profile of the average serial killer, realizes her abusive husband, Paul, ticks all the boxes. We have Maisie, who suspects her mother’s boyfriend, Gary. And Tamsin, whose crush on work colleague, Jake, turns to fear and suspicion. Steve suspects his childhood friend, Dan and, finally, Dorothy learns that her son, Orlando, is keeping a secret from her.

Chapters juggle between the killings, and the lives of each of these well-rounded and sympathetic characters, as their suspicions unfold and escalate. And finally, when the killer is caught, the author carries on each person’s story, and we discover what happens to all of them - outcomes which are not short of their own surprises, before the shocking twist at the end.

The Devil You Know
is a compelling and absorbing read that had me hooked right from the beginning, and guessing right to the end. It also made me think about how well I really know my friends, colleagues and family.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: character-driven psychological crime with an original approach.

Avoid if you don’t like: non-police procedural crime stories.

Ideal accompaniments: fish and chips and a sturdy beer.

Genre: Psychological thriller

Available on Amazon

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett ( author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn, The Land Beyond Goodbye, and Don’t Look Down.

What We Thought: It is 1838 and the Goodenough family have been working the difficult land at Black Swamp, Ohio for almost a decade. They must create an orchard of fifty trees to stake their claim over their patch. The apple trees they grow are partly ‘spitters’ used for making cider and partly delicious ‘eaters’. James Goodenough is a taciturn man who works hard and loves his trees. His wife Sadie is a raucous drunk who cares only that the spitters can provide her with cider and applejack. Many of their children have died of the swamp fever that comes around each year. Those left are divided in their loyalties between their father and mother, though most of the time there is little love evident from either parent.

Into this dysfunctional household comes occasionally a real historical character, John Chapman, known as Johnny Appleseed. Appleseed sells saplings and seedlings and disagrees with James Goodenough’s ideas on grafting believing it’s interfering with nature. Sadie enjoys his company and the applejack he brings.

The story of this family is told through a variety of voices one of which is the youngest son Robert’s. Robert has left home for unspecified reasons and travels west picking up odd jobs until he meets William Lobb, a seed agent (and another real historical character). Once again trees, this time giant sequoias and redwoods, enter the tale. Robert has a secret which is not revealed until well into the novel and his desertion of home stems from this traumatic incident in his childhood. When this event is finally revealed it is both shocking and inevitable.

The writing is superb, of course, being at times lyrical and at times gritty. The characters are well drawn, particularly James and Sadie, opposites determined to fight to the bitter end, yet sometimes strangely loyal. Information about trees is presented in a fascinating and never stodgy manner and the hardships of the period are shown realistically. A wonderful book which I got free from NetGalley in return for an honest review.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Accounts of harsh lives with not always happy endings.

Avoid if you dislike: Accounts of bad parenting.

Ideal accompaniments: A draught of hard cider.

Genre: Literary/Historical Fiction