Thursday, 22 March 2018

Snow Blind by Ragnar Jonasson

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter, Closure, Complicit, Crimson Shore, False Lights & Sacred Lake. (

What we thought: As an avid crime reader, I have been meaning to read this author for some time, and I decided it would be best to start at the beginning of the series with book one, Snow Blind. Here we are introduced to rookie new recruit policeman Ari Thór Arason on his first posting to a bleak town in northern Iceland, forcing him to leave behind his girlfriend and comfortable life in Reykjavik.

When a young woman is found lying half-naked in the snow, bleeding and unconscious, and an elderly writer falls to his death in the local theatre, all in his first week, Ari is dragged straight into the middle of a town where he can trust no one, and secrets and lies appear to be a way of life.

After an avalanche closes the mountain pass and the 24-hour darkness threatens to push Ari over the edge, the locals become more hostile, and his investigation becomes increasingly complex, chilling and personal. Who or what will break first – the conclusion of the case or Ari’s reputation?

The writing here is page turning and as in many Nordic Noir novels the locations add atmosphere to the story. I connected with the characters and already plan on downloading the next in the series. 

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Karin Slaughter, Peter James, David Hewson.

Avoid if you don’t like : Snow and secrets.

Ideal accompaniments: Fish pie with greens and mulled wine.

Genre : Crime.

Available on Amazon

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

"I think we all wait for that one time, that one time when it ends right."

Starr remembers having ‘the talk’ with her parents – the talk every Black parent must have with their child, about what to do if you are stopped by the police.

“Starr-Starr, you do whatever they tell you to do. Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you.”

But either her friend, Khalil, never had the talk, or he didn’t pay attention.

The Hate U Give is a fictional account of what has become an all too common story – the shooting dead of a young black man by a police officer because he was wrongly perceived as a threat.

But this time there is a witness. Starr was in the car with Khalil when they were stopped. And Starr has a voice. A voice that is going to be heard.

Everyone has an opinion about Khalil, even if they’d never heard of him before the night of the shooting. Starr’s largely Black neighbourhood is ready to explode with anger. While to the white kids at her school, he’s either a drug dealer who got what was coming, or an excuse for a protest that gets them out of class. Can anyone – even her parents, ever her best friends, even her boyfriend – understand how she feels or who Khalil really was?

The novel is replete with details that sing of lived experience. From the attitude of her Black parents, and the role of the religion, to the tightrope Starr walks between her Black neighbourhood and her mostly white school. Thomas perfectly captures that stage of adolescence when the stubborn defiance is still all there, but awareness is growing that maybe you don’t quite know everything yet.

The title comes from a line written by the rapper, Tupac. ‘The hate u give little infants f***s everyone.’ (THUG LIFE). This might sound like Larkin’s ‘The f*** you up, your mum and dad.’ But as the book shows, it has a much wider meaning too – that hurting or oppressing anyone harms the whole world.

If Ta-Nahisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is the voice of a Black parent desperate to protect their child, here is the voice of a child growing up in that world. Someone who has seen two friends die by the time their sixteen. Someone with a burning sense of injustice who wants things to change.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Orange Boy by Patrice Lawrence; Out of Heart by Irfan Master; The Mother by Yvvette Edwards; Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge

Avoid If You Dislike: Depiction of the impact of violence on young lives

Perfect Accompaniment: A stack of pancakes and Cupid Shuffle by Cupid

Genre: Young Adult

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I love listening to poetry in performance, but I am not always good at reading it on the page. Too often, inside my head, the poet’s voice turns into a meaningless sing-song. Fortunately for me, the voice in Kayo Chingonyi’s Kumukanda was strong enough to override even my cloth ear.

Chinogonyi was born in Zambia in 1987 and came to the UK in 1993. The title of this debut volume of poetry, Kumukanda, refers to the initiation rites that young boys of the Luvale, Chokwe, Luchazi and Mbunda people in north western Zambia must pass through to be considered a man.

“Tata’s people would think me unfinished – a child who never sloughed off the childish estate to cross the river boys of our tribe must cross in order to die and come back grown.”

As the author says, ‘This book approximates such rites of passage in the absence of my original culture.’

The book begins with poems about growing up in south London and a ‘white flight’ town outside London, about his relationship with music and rap and how that helped forge his identity. But Chingonyi moves on from that. In poems such as The ‘N’ word, Casting and Callbacks, he addresses casual racism. In Legerdemain and How To Build Cathedrals, he confronts colonialism and in Kung’anda (home) the Western eye view of Africa reduced to the image of a dying child.

The Nod, Loch Long by Ardarten, Argyll and In Defence of Darkness are love poems of breathtaking tenderness and sensuality. In Curfew, he glimpses the rebellious young woman who is now is Auntie.

A whole group of poems, including the title poem, Kumukanda, address the loss at a young age of both his mother and his father. There is humour here as in the description of his father, “him stood, sequoia among lesser trees, looking good in denim.” And heartbreak, as when he writes of his terminally ill mother, “She’s dying but I won’t call her dead, can’t let mum become a body, a stone, an empty hospital bed.”

Chingonyi said, in an interview with the ICA Bulletin in 2016, that one of his aims in writing is to “chip away at the motion that whiteness is the normative unmediated position from which all other subjectivities deviate.” Which makes him a perfect fit for the Jhalak Prize shortlist.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Lemn Sissay, Tendai Huchu, Malika Booker

Avoid If You Dislike: Poems that combine lyrical beauty with razor-sharp political commentary

Perfect Accompaniment: Mussels and dry white wine

Genre: Poetry

Available on Amazon

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

Where do I start? This is huge. Not only a broad range of geopolitical considerations, but stuffed with thematic issues and dense with cultural references. If this were a cake, you’d pour brandy on it and set it on fire.

In the historic New York district of The Gardens, a stranger moves in. He seems to have no past and has reinvented himself and his three sons. Nero Golden is a powerful, rich widower, who has adopted Roman monikers for himself and his family.

Against a backdrop of an America electing its first black president, there is a sense of “Yes, we can!” both in the country and this particular family.

The reader gains a unique insight as to how the Goldens (mal)function from their neighbour/friend Rene, orphan, documentary-maker and narrator of this tale. Tragedy in the classical sense alters the fate of the Golden boys while Rene falls victims to cynical manipulation, binding him inextricably to the figure of Nero.

Then a new election looms and this time the front runner is The Joker, a super villain who can work a crowd. Does Batwoman have a chance against such a highly coloured, grinning, bouffant showman?

Rushdie is in his element, cramming in fruity phrases and toothsome allusions, tackling identity, freedom of speech, the American Dream, globalisation, image and delusions of how much control anyone has over their destiny.

Commenting on his Booker of Bookers prizewinner Midnight’s Children, Rushdie said he could not use the cool English of Forster because India was hot. He needed to use language in a way that reflected that. In The Golden House, he has taken the US and the whimsical mood of social media and concocted a rich reflection of itself. A portrait you might put up on Instagram, revealing far more than you realise.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: A Bonfire of the Vanities, Midnight’s Children

Avoid if you don’t like: Epic sagas with contemporary references, a sense of tragedy which will come for you too

Ideal accompaniments: A litre of mineral water and an eight-hour flight east

Genre: Literary fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

When I Hit You Or Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I climb into the incredible sadness of silence. Wrap its slowness around my shoulders, conceal its shame within the folds of my sari.

If Winnie M Li’s award winning Dark Chapter is the fictionalised account of the author’s brutal rape by a stranger, this is a fictionalised account of another, perhaps more common type of sexual abuse – domestic violence and rape within a marriage.

Kandasamy wrote about the abuse within her own short but brutal marriage in an article for Outlook magazine in 2012. This is not, however, a memoir. Like her unnamed narrator, Kandasamy is a writer – articulate, politically aware, a feminist. As her narrator uses the tools of the writer to survive, to plot her escape and eventually to get away and start life again, so Kandasamy uses fiction to make it possible to tell her story fully and intimately. As the narrator says towards the end of the book:

I am the woman who stands in place of the woman who loathes to enter this story in any of its narrations ... I am the woman conjured up to take on the life of a woman afraid of facing her own reality.

The story is told through many different lenses. It begins with the mother recounting, over and over, the state of her daughter’s feet when she fled home. It covers letters written to imaginary lovers, and deleted before her husband can come home and read them. It goes through story boards of films she will make of her experiences, before dropping, intermittently into unvarnished accounts of a classic pattern of domestic abuse – control, isolation, verbal abuse, physical, sexual, and finally death threats.

This male psychological logic looks at penetration as punishment. This is the rape that disciplines, the rape that penalizes me for the life I have presumably led. This is the rape that tames, the rape that puts me on the path of being a good wife.

There is poetry in this prose, and a humour so dark it’s like pepper on the tongue.

When the narrator finally escapes and speaks about what has happened to her, she faces the shaming women in her position so often meet. Why did she not run away? Why did she stay, if things were as bad as she says? How much of this was really not consensual? Kandasamy answers these questions squarely within the narrative, taking you so deep inside her narrator's head you are forced to understand, to acknowledge the funnelling of her choices into just one, narrow conduit.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li,  A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards, Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo, Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Avoid If You Dislike:
Frank and intimate depiction of domestic and sexual violence

Perfect Accompaniment: Cumin and coconut, turmeric and chilli flakes, cinnamon and star anise

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Once Upon A Time in the East by Xiaolu Guo

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize 2018, this is a memoir of growing up in China, of peasant existence in the 1970s, and the immense changes that have swept over China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. It is also the story of a struggle to develop an identity and a creative voice, first in a collective society, and then later, marooned and isolated as an immigrant in a foreign country.

The memoir overlaps, chronologically, with Madeleine Thien’s sweeping epic, Do Not Say We Have Nothing. But Xiaolu Guo’s family was not one with a long cultural and artistic heritage. Although her father was a state-sanctioned artist, for the most part, her family were illiterate peasants and fishermen, living in the rural and industrial fringes of China, far away from the cultural centres of Shanghai and Beijing.

Despite the declared feminism of Communist doctrine, this was a society where women were treated brutally. Domestic and sexual abuse was rife. Her grandmother, who brought her up for the first few years of her life, was regularly and savagely beaten by her grandfather, and nobody thought it was anything unusual. And when Xiaolu speaks up about her own sexual abuse at the hands of a colleague of her father’s, she finds every one of her university dorm-mates has a parallel story to tell.

Fascinating as Guo’s account of her life in China is, it is her struggle to find a creative voice in a strange country and in an unknown tongue that I found most absorbing. It always seems extraordinary to us stubbornly monoglot Anglophones when someone expresses themselves creatively in a language they did not grow up with. But the gulf that Guo had to cross was far more than merely linguistic. It required an entirely new mode of thinking.

“How could someone who had grown up in a collective society get used to using the first person singular all the time? The habitual use of ‘I’ requires thinking of yourself as a separate entity in a society of separate entities.”

I haven’t read any of Guo’s novels, but I am excited to try one now.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Avoid if You Dislike: Frank discussion of sexual and domestic abuse

Perfect Accompaniment: Noodles and tofu

Genre: Autobiography, Memoir, Non-Fiction

Available on Amazon