Friday, 28 August 2015

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

Reviewer: JJ Marsh(audiobook edition, read by Alex Jennings)

What we thought: Reading this book is like dropping pebbles in a pond and watching the ripples bounce off one another, creating new patterns until they fade to nothing.

Atkinson’s deft hand with storytelling is well-established in both crime and literary fiction. In Life After Life, she played with the conventions of narrative, so that each ending was a beginning. A God in Ruins she says, is not a sequel but a companion piece to Ursula Todd’s myriad experiences in Life After Life. Yet you can read (or listen to) this book with no knowledge of the former and relish it for itself.

Once again, it’s an unconventional approach. This is Teddy’s story, about himself and those in his circle of influence. Family, fellow fighters, children, grandchildren and brief encounters. It stretches from his youth to his death with the Second World War at its centre. Each character is firmly attached to his or her period in time: his parents to the 1920s, Teddy to the war, his daughter Viola who seems to epitomise the ‘You’ve Never Had It So Good’ era and her children’s experiences echoing recent history. The story leaps back and forth in time, leaving the readers a colourful and engaging series of jigsaw pieces to assemble into our own story.

This could make for frustrating reading, but via Atkinson’s sly humour, visceral immediacy and perfectly realised characters, it is not. It’s like growing up hearing family stories told over and over, first from one perspective and then another.

Because this is what the book is about. Telling stories, fiction, how we perceive ourselves, how we interpret our history and the ways we erect walls in which we believe. Hence the extraordinary end.

The novel is shockingly good and the audiobook is only enhanced by the performance skills of Alex Jennings, whose subtle nuances denote class, regional accents, mood and humour.

This is my book of the year so far.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Life After Life, Human Croquet, The Assault by Harry Mulisch

Avoid if you don’t like: Fractured narratives, WWII, meandering plots

Ideal accompaniments: Cheese and pickle sandwiches, Stone’s Ginger Wine and There’s Something in the Air by The Squadronaires

Available on Amazon

Holes by Louis Sachar

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

What We Thought: According to family legend, Stanley Yelnats’ great great grandfather, also called Stanley Yelnats, was cursed by a one-legged Gypsy for stealing a pig. Generations on, the Yelnats family is still dogged by bad luck and trouble. Our Stanley, an overweight teenager, is convicted for a small crime he did not commit and sent to Camp Green Lake Juvenile Correctional Facility. There is no lake at Camp Green Lake, and no green either.

Along with the other ‘bad boys’, Stanley has to dig a hole five foot wide and five foot deep every day out in the burning desert. Stanley accepts this fate philosophically, despite the many injustices heaped upon him. Soon it becomes apparent to him that the hole-digging is not simply a random punishment set by the dreaded Warden; there is a reason for it which he alone has realised.

As he grows leaner and fitter, Stanley finds himself able to fit in with and stand up to the other young offenders. When his friend Zero gets into trouble and runs off into the desert, Stanley decides to try to find him. There’s a big rocky outcrop that looks like it’s giving him the thumbs up way in the distance and he’s sure it’s connected with his great great grandfather. Stanley sets off on his quest to solve the riddle of the holes, lift the family curse, and save Zero from dying (if he’s still alive, that is).

This is a wonderfully quirky book, funny and fantastical. The teenage protagonist may make it seem a book for younger readers but the writing, language and twisted plot will draw in adults without any problem. The heat of the desert is palpable, the characters are great, and Stanley may just steal your heart.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: If You’re Reading this I’m Already Dead; The 100 Year Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared; and such like.

Avoid if you dislike: Teenage protagonists.

Ideal accompaniments: Lots of cool clear water and some fermented peach ‘Sploosh’.

Genre: Literary/General Fiction, Mystery, Young Adult.

Available on Amazon

Pyschoraag by Suhayl Saadi

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: Let me first say, this is not the sort of book you take to the beach to relax. If you pick this up when you’re in that sort of mood, you’ll throw it aside and probably never pick it up again, which would be a shame.

Like Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, Psychoraag is written in broad Glaswegian dialect, but on top of that, it is peppered with expressions in Urdu, Arabic, Punjabi and even Gaelic. Sometimes, with a book like that, you can glide over the words in another language, picking up the gist as you go along. But not here. Sometimes the author gives you a helping hand – as when he takes an easily recognisable expression and changes just one word [‘she would follow him even unto the gates of jahannam’]. Other times, he plays with the sound of words, juxtaposing an English word with an almost-homonym in Urdu and teasing the reader with their different meaning [‘Quaitch dreams. Jaams. Jams.’]). But most of the time, you will find yourself flicking back and forth to the extensive glossary, just to make sure you are not missing one ounce of the nuance Saadi is conveying.

The book all takes place in the course of one evening. It is the last night of broadcasting for an Asian radio station in Glasgow. For three months, Zaf has been filling the graveyard shift, from midnight to six am, with his Junnune (Madness) Show and this is his last broadcast. Downstairs there is a wrap party going on, but Zaf is alone in his little cubicle. We get to hear his playlist (from the Beatles to Asian Dub Foundation to rare early recordings from Hindi films), what he says to his listeners, and everything that goes through his head.

Zaf’s thoughts range over the changing nature of the South Asian community who are his audience, his parents’ long journey from Pakistan to Glasgow, his sometimes rocky relationship with his girlfriend Babs, and his even rockier relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Zilla, whom he may or may not have started on a path that led to drug-addiction and prostitution.

As the long night wears on, it becomes harder and harder to work out what is really happening and what is the product of Zaf’s exhausted brain. Does Zilla really turn up at the studio? Does she inject him with drugs? And does Zafar the gangster exist, or is he just another aspect of Zaf himself?

An exhausting, fascinating, thought-provoking book. Not for the faint-hearted but for those willing to take on the challenge, definitely worth it.

You'll enjoy this if you liked: Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, Londonstani by Gautam Malkani

Avoid if you dislike: Language heavily layered with dialect and expressions on other languages; surreal, dreamlike narratives

Perfect Accompaniment: A pint of heavy and a wee dram

Genre:  Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Friday, 21 August 2015

The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: 1066 and you’re right in the middle of it. You may have learned all about Hastings, Harold and the Bayeux Tapestry before, but this book shakes off the classroom dust and catapults you into the action. This is historical fact, fiction and action in one beautifully written novel.

Thrusting the reader onto a bloody battlefield, the book picks out two characters from this cast of thousands and tells the story from the perspective of a bishop and a seamstress. Through their eyes we hate, grieve, love and judge. The Norman invasion places Bishop Odo in an extraordinarily powerful position through the might of the church. Saxon handmaid Gytha plans silent retaliation against these new masters yet finds herself wrong-footed by the kindness of the man she sees as so brutal.

The texture of this piece is enthralling, with all the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of mediaeval England vividly described. Bower pulls no punches with violence, sex and physical harshness of survival and echoes Hilary Mantel in her understanding of political intrigue.

It’s a long book with a vast cast and occasionally the pacing falters, but the people and place and even the period get under your skin. This book draws you into its bloody, fierce, heartbreaking world and refuses to let you go. Next time someone mentions 1066, I’ll say, “I know. I've been there.”

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier

Avoid if you don’t like: Mediaeval realities, blood, violence, sex and British history

Ideal accompaniments: Gnaw on a roasted goose leg, swill cloudy ale and listen to L’Amour de Lonh by Ensemble Gilles Binchois

Genre: Historical Fiction

Available from Amazon

My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought:

“My name is hard, like ocean ice grinding at the shore or wind pounding the tundra or sun so bright ion the snow it hurts your eyes.”

It is the start of the school year and three brothers are about to travel hundreds of miles away from home to start a new life at a boarding school. But this is no Hogwarts. It’s a fictional example of a very real phenomenon – residential schools where Native Canadian and American children were sent to be ‘re-educated’ as model citizens.

It is only recently, through processes such as Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that the harm caused by these policies has been acknowledged. But in My Name is Not Easy, Edwardson captures, at times with exquisite poetry, the experience of a handful of Alaskan Iñupiaq and Athabaskan children.

In the background of the story are real events of the early 1960s – including the forced adoption of native children, the testing of Inuit children with radioactive Iodine-131 to determine how they were able to adapt to living in Arctic conditions, and an abortive plan to create a new harbour in traditional hunting areas by detonating hundreds of nuclear bombs. But the power of the book lies in the way that Edwardson allows us to see the world through the eyes of those children.

We follow them over four years, from the first shock of their dislocation in a new environment:

“You’re supposed to be able to see things when you’re outside. You’re supposed to be able to look out across the tundra and see caribou ... the edge of the sun running around you like the rim of a bowl ... How can you even tell where you’re going in a place like this? How can you see the weather far enough to tell what’s coming?”

...through the dawning of complicated adolescent feelings:

“All I cared about was Bunna’s hand holding mine, our fingers lacing together, learning a new language all the way to Fairbanks. It was a language of love – holding on and letting go, holding on and letting go.” an understanding of the power they can wield through working together and standing up for what is right.

“Legal name? He puts the pen right there on that line and signs his name, his real Iñupiaq name, the one he left behind... Aamaugak, Luke thinks. What’s so hard about that?”

Children at the residential school were taken from their families, stripped of their names, forbidden to speak their own languages and expected to leave their tradition cultures and ways of life behind. But as Edwardson acknowledges, the long years at school also forged alliances that lasted into adulthood, and have helped native peoples join forces and fight for their rights and land titles to be recognised.

Based on the experiences of the author’s husband and his brothers, this is a heart-breaking, beautiful and inspiring book.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Nation by Terry Pratchett

Avoid if you dislike: School stories, teenage heroes, having your preconception of native people challenged

Perfect accompaniment: Milk and cookies

Genre: Young Adult

Available from Amazon

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed

Reviewer: Rebecca Johnson Bista (currently writing a novel set in India).

What we thought: A dark, passionately angry account of the human cost of the war for Kashmir. The unfolding horrors are seen through the eyes of a young boy growing up in a lush valley near Kashmir’s Line of Control between India and Pakistan, among corpses, army crackdowns, gunfire and fear.

Mirza Waheed is a Kashmiri now living and working in London. His first novel, The Collaborator, is written with a barely veiled rage and hatred toward the Indian army and its political masters who set military policy in Kashmir. The unnamed boy who tells his story was, in happier days, one of a small group of lads who learnt to swim in Kashmir’s crystal mountain streams, and played cricket on their banks, who wandered in the forests with their dog, and were well known in their small settlement, a village built from scratch by a tribal group of people who once roamed the mountains with their flocks. Their families build homes, shops, including an essential tobacco shop, and a mosque, before war forces the whole village, except for the narrator and his family, to flee for safety.

The boy’s friends leave first, in secret. This an abandonment and betrayal from which he never fully recovers. Much of the story is driven by the narrator’s search for his childhood companions and to find out what happened to them – something that is ultimately revealed to him only in hallucinatory dreams. He discovers that they took the dangerous route across the border, helped by a local ‘guide’, to become trainee jihadis in Pakistani-Kashmiri groups who raid the borderlands. The trauma of this loss, and his horror at the possibility that he will find their mutilated bodies somewhere in the valley where the Indian soldiers fling rebels they have killed, infects the whole story. The narrative twists and turns in repetitive, barely differing scenes between his imagination and reality, his memories and present events, in an obsessive circling that brings the reader back again and again to confront his grief, his rage, his horror in a way that mimics the process of trauma itself. For him it is made all the worse by the fact that he is forced to work for the Indian army, stripping rebel corpses of valuables, ID and weapons amid the stench of death, terrified each day that the bodies he turns over will be those of his friends. Sometimes he imagines that the corpses of his compatriots speak to him.

This was quite an intense, harrowing read, with wonderful portraits of local characters in the village, and yet for me there was one part I wished had been more explicitly outlined and justified. There is no disguising this novel’s partisanship, but the sources of the conflict in Kashmir are never discussed or explained, nor why the youths feel they have to turn against India in the first place. There is just a gut loathing. I would have liked something more nuanced, and the “bad guys “– the Indian politicians and army staff, particularly Captain Kadian, the commanding officer – to be less utterly bad and more complex and sympathetic. The viscerally felt cultural division between Muslim and Hindu is also never really explored – it just exists on the page without any justifying initial incidents or counterweight. A narrative of this type where the bad guys were all of some other single racial group would ring alarm bells that would necessitate a much subtler approach and the raising of all kinds of questions over prejudice and racism. What the narrator witnesses is horrific. His own emotional experience justifies his personal hatred. But the opposite perspective or the ideological foundations of the conflict are never adequately presented. Nevertheless, as a first-hand portrayal of the civilian experience of war, it’s gut-wrenchingly matchless.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Kamila Shamsie, Nadeem Aslam, Salman Rushdie, sensitive war stories, India.

Avoid if you don’t like: graphic descriptions of brutality, torture and death; mutilated corpses; black and white moral and political views, with baddies who literally foam at the mouth.

Ideal accompaniments: chai from a thermos or samovar; a hookah; Capstan filters; grass.

Genre: literary fiction

Available from Amazon

Sunrise at An Lac by Alex Rushton

Reviewer: JW Hicks

What we thought: This deeply moving imagining of how the world might end delivers not only the sternest of warnings, but also an enlightening hope of redemption.

This novel foretells the death of civilisation; the world ending not with a bang, but a prolonged, tormented whimper. It speaks to us, opens eyes to the reality of life today and the state of our world as seen through future, backward looking eyes. Reading it we see a world divided: on one hand are citizens whose only aim in life is hedonistic; on the other, the nons, the hurting scrabblers.

The world portrayed, our world, is one where sharing, where living with nature and not agin it, is anathema.

In this world, belief becomes fired into iron-hard conviction, forged into a weapon of war.

An Lac ashram is home to guru Ajahn Annando and his followers who live by Buddhist precepts: a self-sufficient lifestyle depending on sustainable resources. As the community grows, groups hive off into smaller groups, keeping to a sustainable size, pooling assets and sharing resources. Annando aims to establish a world of spiritual communities and foster the inner reality that lies in the heart of all true religions in a world dominated by consumerism, a world being destroyed by greed.

The greatest threat to An Lac is the rise of the New Islamists, who threaten forced acceptance of their interpretation of Mohammed’s preachings. This New Islam is spreading like wildfire, burning through Europe and threatening the peace of An Lac.

With an army advancing on their peaceful communities, Annando and his followers prepare for attack. It is Annando’s belief that on the battlefield there can be no victory, only suffering. This belief, bolstered by his certainty that killing is wrong, gives rise to the only solution possible – they have to remove their enemies will to fight.

The outcome of this clash of ideologies comes at the novel’s end, an ending I raced to read, an ending I found absolutely worthy of this tremendous book.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Survivor by Octavia E Butler. Earth Abides by George R Stewart.

Avoid if you don’t like: Conflict, sexual scenes and merciless killing.

Ideal accompaniments: A pot of oolong loose leaf tea and cucumber sandwiches cut into triangles.

Genre: Post-apocalyptic novel

Alex Rushton has had a varied career as a design researcher, therapist, counsellor and psychologist among other roles. Further information can be found at her website:

Available from Amazon

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Theriault (trans. Liedewy Hawke)

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

What We Thought: Bilodo, a postman in Montreal, has been opening other people’s letters for some time. After he has read them he always seals them up and delivers them, so he considers this secret vice to be a hobby rather than a crime. He only opens personal correspondence – the real letters, the handwritten ones – and this way he encounters Ségolène.

Ségolène lives in Guadaloupe and regularly sends haikus to a local poet, Gaston Grandpré. Bilodo finds her letters thrilling and chastely arousing. So taken is he with this unknown and far off woman, he fails to register the interest of the very real Tania, a waitress at his favourite lunchtime haunt.

When Grandpré is knocked down in the act of attempting to post a letter to Ségolène, Bilodo’s life changes and what was a ritualistic pleasure becomes a dangerous obsession. Driven by the desire to take over the correspondence with Ségolène, he has to learn everything he can about the art of the seventeen-syllable haiku and the longer more sensual tanka. As Bilodo immerses himself in the poetic forms, the reader too learns about Japanese culture and poetry.

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman is a strangely delightful little book. Though told mainly in prose, sometimes the short poems themselves carry the story. The torrid lovemaking shown entirely through a series of exchanged tankas has to be the funniest literary orgasm since the Nausicca scene in Ulysses. I do hope the emphasis on poetry doesn’t put anyone off, though – this little novel is a fast read and it sweeps nimbly along to its inevitable conclusion. Philosophical, circular and implacable it reflects Bilodo’s life and the lives of those who may emulate him. Step off the wheel, it seems to say, and avoid the mistakes of repetition and blinkered infatuation with that which is not real.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Quirky flights of fancy with a touch of zen.

Avoid if you dislike: Japanese poetry.

Ideal accompaniments: Ceremonial tea taken while wearing a kimono; traditional Japanese koto music.

Genre: Literary Fiction. Poetry.

Available from Amazon

The Winged Horse (Legends of the Five Directions Book 2: East) by C.P. Lesley

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of Spirit of Lost Angels and Wolfsangel

What we thought: Like C.P. Lesley’s first book, The Golden Lynx, of her Legends Of The Five Directions series, the author once again brings to life 16th century Russia via a Mongol horde, in this exciting tale of marriage, murder and mysticism.

Upon his deathbed, Bahadur Bey, leader of a horde of nomadic Tatars, makes the clan leaders swear to accept Ogodai, son of his blood brother Bulat Khan (descendent of Genghis Khan), as the horde’s new overlord. It is also agreed that Bahadur Bey’s daughter, Firuza will become Ogodai’s chief wife.

Tulpar, Bulat’s estranged son, arrives on the scene, and attempts to stake claim to the horde and also to Firuza. The conflict, plotting and intrigue begins: brother against brother in a struggle for both power and wife.

Firuza, no great beauty, but determined and intelligent, can choose either Ogodai or Tulpar, but the man who wins her must also accept her on an equal footing. Firuza’s struggle evokes the feisty women of this era, who refused to be treated as pawns, preferring to control their own destiny.

The Winged Horse sweeps the reader five centuries into the past in a well-told and swiftly-paced tale rich with culture and evocative description. It is also a tale of romance, and of horses. Amongst other horse lore, there is Firuza’s Turkmen palomino and Tulpar, the winged horse, who carried dying souls to the celestial hunting grounds.

As with C.P. Lesley’s first book in this series, I have once again thoroughly enjoyed learning more about the Tatars of 16th century Russia, and I would highly recommend The Winged Horse to historical fiction fans.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: murder mysteries and tales of romance and adventure that feature strong women, wrestling, horse races, and an Arabic-chanting shaman dressed in ragged skins.

Avoid if you don’t like: action-packed, fast-paced historical political intrigue.

Ideal accompaniments: hot soup (şulpa) washed down with a large glass of vodka.

Genre: Historical Fiction.

Available from Amazon

Any Other Mouth by Anneliese Mackintosh

Reviewer: John D Rutter

What we thought: You’ve arrived in Manchester, it’s raining of course, so you dash into the Cornerhouse because that’s where culturally aware people like you drink their lattes and herbal tea. You take off the coat that makes you look like a writer (you hope) and drape your scarf over the back of an uncomfortable chair. As you open your copy of the latest critically acclaimed book by that great new author that you are obliged to read your eyes catch a splinter of colour from the young woman at the next table.

She too is pretending to read and doing it with such conviction that you wonder if she might be an actor. She has short hair in a bold bottled colour which you guess changes frequently. Her extravagant tattoos clash with the neatness of her teeth. You realise you have been staring when she says, “hello” in a voice that suggests expensive schools.

Moments later you have moved closer together and are engaged in conversation. You don’t know what colour to call her eyes but with the reflection of the artificial light they flicker like a pair of small screens playing art house films.

She tells you her name is Gretchen and for some reason you don’t believe it’s her real name, later she refers to herself as Greta. You tell her your full name, quickly realising that the surname is redundant and that you are slightly intimidated. Perhaps it’s the overt sex of her vermillion lips or her yellow coat, but more likely it’s that you already know this is an unusual conversation for you.

She tells you about her life so far. Her skin says 25 but her eyes and the maturity of her vocal tone seem older. She has been an actor, a poet and a burlesque dancer. You picture her dancing half-naked.

She isn’t really from anywhere, this university and that, lots of addresses; Scotland, Manchester, the South. Her father died a while ago and small details remind her. There is sadness in her eyes but she isn’t acting sad. Perhaps she cries when she’s alone. She articulates that feeling you have yourself about not-loving-your-mother-as-much-as-you-are-supposed-to and tells you of her dad’s drunken pronouncements on her mum’s infidelities. She may have a disorder she tells you. She like blueberries.

You realise that you’ve finished your coffee and a bottle of white wine has appeared on the table next to her empty teacup.

“Magic exists,” she announces. “Don’t forget where you put it.”

You listen to her memories. The time she told her flatmates she’d be naked at home from now on; the key-ring she bought; porn in Dad’s shed (she didn’t even know he smoked); the first time you have an orgasm – with someone of the same sex; being a vegan and quickly becoming bored with it; that threesome that just sort of happened; the short-term relationships and how easy it is to run two affairs concurrently; drinking till the money ran out and she had to stop altogether for a while. These are the sort of quirky tales you’ve only ever heard before from Miranda July only with more sex.

By your third glass you realise that you haven’t given a thought to your husband / wife / live-in boyfriend / short-term partner and that you won’t be able to think about anything or anyone else for a time. Her images might pop into your dreams. You know clever, creative people but none with a voice so musical. You don’t know anyone who has had such a bohemian life.

Then she leans over and beckons you with a hand gesture straight from the stage. She whispers that she has a secret to tell you, it’s something she has to reveal to Anyone Who Wants to Be Friends with Her.

You need to hear it.

She tells you her Most Personal Story. You have no idea whether any or all of her tales are fact or fiction. You believe about 68% of them will be true. This story will render you dumb. Christmas in the toilets of the pub, a sea of faces. “It’s at about this point that my memory gets very, very cloudy indeed.” She tells you the graphic details in a way that makes Ian McEwan’s early short stories sound like bedtime stories for toddlers. She recalls Noddy Holder singing all through the episode, arriving home, tights round her neck, being casual about it with her mum, being sick the next day, the irony of her old uncle’s comments.

“I thought you should know,” she says.

What the fuck could you possibly say after that?

She sips her wine and licks her lips.

You have no idea which of your conflicted emotions to feel. You resolve that when you get home you will write that truly personal story that will finally elevate you from competent prose to real writing. Writing that is vibrant and savage and funny and true, like Gretchen.

When this conversation is over and you are spat back out into the drizzle, slightly dizzy, you will be left with two thoughts. Firstly that you’ll never forget this brief interlude in your life, her dozens of piercing insights described in a way that no-one else speaks, and secondly that whatever else happens you hope that one day you will hear more of her stories.

Any Other Mouth is published by Freight Books.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Edgy dark short stories, Miranda July, David Foster Wallace, Ian McEwan (short stories)

Avoid if you don’t like: Personal confessional styles of writing, graphic sexual content, honesty.

Ideal accompaniments: Any strong alcoholic beverage, a naked stranger.

Genre: Short stories, literary fiction

The Assault by Harry Mulisch (translated by Claire Nicolas White)

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought:

A pensive reflection on the nature of memory and experience, this novel deserves to be far better known than it is outside the Netherlands. The story takes place over five time periods, the latter four shedding further light and adjusting perspective on the first – the eponymous assault of 1945. One night during the bitter winter of starvation, an infamously cruel Nazi collaborator is shot dead in a Haarlem street. The repercussions are instant – the family outside whose home the body lies are killed. All except the youngest, Anton Steenwijk, who is taken to a police cell and left in total darkness with a fellow prisoner, a woman.

The events of that night cannot be fully comprehended by the traumatised twelve year old, who tries to turn away from the recollection, doggedly pursuing a respectable life in postwar Europe. Yet over the years, fate brings him into contact with others involved in that particular act of resistance and its fallout. Each encounter adds more context to the incident, ripples of cause and effect, guilt and blame. The reader becomes a detective, piecing together the clues, hoping the complete picture will deliver resolution.

In a way, it does. Anton comes to understand much more about the individual and community, how moral choices are justified or regretted, how a small group of people’s actions illustrate in microcosm events on the larger stage, and how easily cracked is the veneer of civilisation. Even in the final scene, the merest hint of the far right cuts a horizontal line across the vertical march for peace.

This book, I say again, deserves to be read.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson, The Outsider by Albert Camus

Avoid if you don’t like: WWII, politics, small novels with big questions

Ideal accompaniments: Bitter coffee with a glass of jenever, dark bread smeared with goosefat, Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt

Genre: Literary fiction, historical fiction, in translation

Available from Amazon

If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:
It’s September 1975 and Lewis is about to start his second year of junior high. As the only Indian kid from his reservation who made it into the top stream, his first year was lonely, to say the least, and he has no great expectation that this year will be any better.

But then he meets George, who is almost as lonely as he is. In many ways, the two are opposites. George, the son of a military officer, rarely gets to stay in one place long enough to make friends. Lewis expects to spend the rest of his life on the reservation. But somehow a shared love of music draws them together.

For a few months, Lewis’s life takes a turn for the better. Then he stumbles across the path of Ewan, school bully and Indian hater. What follows will put an even greater pressure on Lewis and George’s friendship. It will take the blizzard of the century to finally bring their families together and break down the last barriers between the boys.

Gansworth’s portrait of a boy on edge of puberty is one any teenager could relate to. But he also gives a revealing glimpse of life ‘on the res’ – from the joyous (the Summer Picnic and the ‘Nu Yah’ celebrations) to the grim (Lewis’s decaying home, with its outdoor latrine and no running water).

Lewis is from the Tuscarora tribe*, part of the Iroquois Six Nations, living in northern New York State. The tribe, originally from North Carolina, was driven north in the 18th Century, when their land was taken from them and their numbers depleted by disease. As Lewis explains, their culture was further eroded in his grandparents’ generation, when children were taken from their homes and placed in residential schools where they were physically abused and forbidden to speak their language or practice traditional customs. All this has left a legacy of almost equal parts pride, suffering and mistrust.

If I Ever Get Out of Here is about negotiating friendship and trust from across a chasm of cultural differences, from the subtleties of telephone etiquette to the logistics of using a two-hole privy in sub-zero temperatures. It also brims over with a love of music – especially the Beatles, Wings and Queen.

With Canada and the US finally facing up to the legacy of the residential school system through Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, this book has a contemporary resonance, despite the forty year old setting.

(*You can read more about Gansworth’s background here. )

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Finding Violet Park by Jenny Valentine, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, My Name is not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson

Avoid if you don’t like: Teenage heroes, school bullies

Ideal accompaniments: Indian corn soup with home-made bread

Genre: Young Adult

Available from Amazon