Thursday, 13 April 2017

Choke Chain by Jason Donald

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

Against a background of apartheid South Africa, Alex's family are poor and helpless. But white. That means their father Bruce gets to be a brute through no other qualification than his skin colour and sense of entitlement.

For a teenage boy attempting to comprehend power and social structure, his father is a role model, if Alex wants the role of liar, cheat and bully. He can play the strongman and protect his brother, fighting in the playground to prove how force can win. Or he can try to understand via a wider lens and break the mould.

Two young white brothers grow up in 1980s' Pretoria, trying to make sense of their place in the world. Who are they? In relation to Dad, to their mother, their peers, their countrymen, each other? Alex is on the cusp of adulthood and has to make a choice of what kind a man he's going to be.

A layered novel with battened down emotions, frustrations and a strange disconnect from the political climate, which rumbles in the background like a low growl. This book encapsulates young adult experience, such as inarticulacy and frustration with his environment, but adds another level of tension via the background of imbalance as the status quo.

Donald writes with exceptional delicacy, using metaphor and understatement with precision and drawing the reader into an unfamiliar world we cannot help but understand.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, Disgrace by JM Coetzee and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.

Avoid if you don’t like:  Dysfunctional families, harsh lives, a teenage perspective.  

Ideal accompaniments: Potjiekos, Rock Shandy and Should I Stay or Should I Go by The Clash

Genre: Literary fiction, coming-of-age

Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Harmless Like You begins and ends with a meeting between mother and son, thirty years after the mother walked out on her family without an explanation.

In the pages between, two timelines unfold towards each other – the mother’s unveiling her damaged life in New York; the son’s, thirty years on, revealing him coping (badly) with both the death of his father and the birth of his daughter.

Yuki is an artist. Each of her chapters begins with the name of an artist’s colour, how it got that name, how it is made and how it is used. Yet for most of her life, Yuki’s artistic vision is stifled, and her sense of self distorted by her relationships with three men – her Japanese father who would never accept ‘artist’ as a valid future for his daughter; her older lover, who veers between off-hand encouragement and a toxic mix of abuse and contempt; and her doggedly loyal friend, whose kindness and support can seem like being smothered in cotton candy.

The book’s title, shared with Yuki’s first photographic exhibition, comes from a remark made by her lover, Lou, talking about his opposition to the Vietnam War.

“I think the cowards are the ones over there, killing harmless little girls like you.”

There is a casual racism in the way her equates her to the Vietnamese girls. Even more, a paternalism in the way he underestimates Yuki. She is not a little girl and she is not harmless!

Yuki’s life apparently contrasts with that of her one-time best friend, Odile. Odile’s outwardly more successful existence as a model is played out in front of the camera rather than behind it. But that life, too, began with an act of male abuse, an act that fractured their friendship.

The other half of the novel is, in essence, the story of two kind men. Men who would never be abusive in the way that Lou was. But is that kindness in itself a form of paternalism? Does it do its own unintentional damage? Or it is the fact that Yuki is already damaged that skews her responses? And what damage did Yuki herself do when she abandoned her son?

Harmless Like You is a study in close focus of the harm we do, casually or deliberately, and how that harm spreads outwards and passes from generation to generation.

It was longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Avoid If You Dislike: Unmotherly mothers

Perfect Accompaniment: New York bagel with lox

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to be a Rebel by Jessica Bell

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:
Jessica Bell’s unflinching and unbridled memoir is set in 1980s Melbourne, where she grew up with rocker parents who encouraged her to play her own guitar and write her own songs. This might sound exotic and exciting, but proved to be just the opposite. Her mother’s medical problems led her to abuse pills, alcohol and, during withdrawals, to suffer terrible anxiety and psychotic attacks. Fearful of these reactions, her step-father retreated into silence. Having no one to confide in, and to rely on, Jessica turned inwards, to her own reflection.

But her mirror proved not to be a friend, but her enemy, and she stumbled into alcoholism, depression and self-destruction. She became a rebel. Until, one day, the alcohol literally almost killed Jessica and she was forced to ask herself honestly, why she kept running from reality. And from herself.

This memoir is a raw and brutally honest account of Jessica’s damaged years, and the inspirational self-determination she was able to muster to break free from this destructive wave. It portrays how her highly creative powers, both in music and writing, helped her rebuild the love, shattered by illness and medication, between a daughter and her mother.

This is a moving, frightening, intense and beautifully-narrated page-turner, where the reader can’t help but sympathise with Jessica, and hope she finds her way out of the black hole. Highly recommended.

You’ll like this if you enjoy:
honest childhood memoirs, or for anyone who’s dealt with disturbed adolescents.

Avoid if you don’t like: highly emotional stories about deeply troubled children and teenagers.

Ideal accompaniments: non-alcoholic beverage and a playlist of Jessica’s songs.

Genre: Memoir

Available on Amazon

Disposable People by Ezekel Alan

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

How do you begin to describe a book like Disposable People?

I bought Disposable People several years ago, when it was the Caribbean regional winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize, and somehow never got around to reading it. At that point, it was a self-published book, though it has since been brought out by Peepal Tree, who also published Jacob Ross’s The Bone Readers, winner of this year’s Jhalak Prize.

Disposable People is fiction, but it is constructed as if it were a memoir, and as Alan himself reveals on his Goodreads Author Page:

“This was a very difficult story for me to write, and for a lot of reasons. Many of the stories in the novel are based on things that happened in the village where I grew up, and were hard to revisit and come to terms with.”

The narrator is Kenny Lovelace, who grew up in rural Jamaica in the 1970s and 80s, in a village he calls only ‘That hateful f –– place.” On one level, Kenny is one of the lucky ones. An escapee, now a successful international business consultant. But ‘that hateful f –– place” does not let go so easily.

Even as a memoir, the book’s construction is not straightforward. Some chapters read like shot stories, some more like ruminations. The narrative is pierced with journal entries, poems, sketches... At times the narrator stares out of the page to address his notional reader, the love of his life, whom he refers to as ‘Semicolon.’

The whole is pieced together like a patchwork quilt, moving apparently randomly back and forth in time, sometimes picking up threads from earlier instalments. The register of the voice slides between standard English and Jamaican patois. Often the (brutal) conclusion of a scene is left to the reader to infer.

Like other recent Caribbean authors, such as Marlon James and Jacob Ross, Alan ruthlessly exposes the dark underbelly of what wealthy tourists imagine to be paradise. The poverty in which his narrator grows up is ugly, grinding, demeaning. Alan does not flinch from showing the result – be it disease, parasites, sexual violence or murder.

Not an easy read but a powerful one. Darkly funny, shocking, and moving, right up to the gut-wrenching conclusion.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Marlon James, Kei Miller, Jacob Ross

Avoid If You Dislike: Visceral description of the brutalising consequences of ingrained poverty

Perfect Accompaniment: Jerk Chicken and Lemonade (home-made)

Genre: Literary Fiction, Caribbean Fiction

Available on Amazon

Friday, 31 March 2017

Displacement by Anne Stormont

Review by JJ Marsh

What We Thought:

A fresh take on the romance genre with a large dollop of intelligence.
Rachel has baggage. Her son died in combat, her marriage collapsed and since her parents' death, she feels very much alone. She works her croft on the Isle of Skye and manages. Just manages.
Jack is an ex-detective, retired early from the force and preparing to do up an old property on the island. He has baggage of his own. After he meets Rachel in unconventional circumstances, a friendship begins, which has the potential to become something more.

Until Rachel goes to Israel.
She decides to discover more about her Jewish heritage and visits her brother in Israel, where she meets Eitan. His charm and interest help thaw the permafrost around her emotions while the political situation arouses her anger.
When she returns to Skye, her nascent relationship with Jack must be rebuilt. However, the foundations have shifted.

A delightful, evocative and believable tale of rediscovery through the eyes of two complex characters. Two-dimensional chick-lit this is most certainly not. Stormont tackles politics, grief, loss, familial love, friendship in rural communities and mature relationships with clear-eyed observations. Her descriptions of Skye and Jerusalem come to full sensory life and a dry humour bubbles through the dialogue, making this an absorbing, enjoyable read you are sorry to leave. I hope this will not be the last of these tales. Like Alexander McCall Smith, I can see this becoming a well-loved series of an unusual community.

You enjoy this if you liked: Emotional Geology by Linda Gillard, The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank or Summer in Tintagel by Amanda James

Avoid if you dislike: Romance, political opinions, relaxed pace

Ideal accompaniments: A glass of Talisker, oatcakes with Lanark Blue and Teardrop by Massive Attack with Liz Fraser

Genre: Romance

Available on Amazon

Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

16 year old Marlon had promised his mother he will never, ever go down the same route as his elder brother.

But he’s on a first date with a girl he secretly knows is out of his league.

And he’s taken his first quarter tab of ecstasy.

When they get on the ghost train at the fair, joking about how lame it’s going to be, Sonya is gloriously, seductively alive.

When it comes to a halt, she’s dead, and Marlon has her stash of pills stuffed down his underpants.

Thus begins Marlon’s voyage down the rabbit hole, into the world that all-but killed his brother. His life is turning into a Tarantino film and everything he’s ever known is under threat

Like the Brooklyn of Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper, the London Lawrence portrays is terrifyingly real, rooted in recognisable streets and surrounded by small details that place it firmly in the present day.

Marlon is an utterly believable character. The banter between him and his best mate Tish is sharp and real and exudes warmth even when they’re fighting. The bond between Marlon, his mother and his wounded brother knocks on the head any notion that young men sucked into such impossible choices are all from broken, dysfunctional families.

It’s a book I read in big, hungry gulps, resenting every intrusion that made me put it down. Lawrence succeeds in creating a threat that is viscerally shocking without crossing a line that would take it beyond what’s appropriate for Young Adult fiction. It well deserves the accolades it has received – shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards, and longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, Londonstani by Gautam Malkani, Feral Youth by Polly Courtney

Avoid If You Dislike: Strong violence in a real world setting

Perfect Accompaniment: Lamb Curry (extra hot)

Genre: Young Adult

Available on Amazon

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