Review | A Country to Call Home (ed.) Lucy Popescu | Book of the Week

So refugee week is over. The fact that the UK is the only country in Europe where refugees who arrive looking for a safe haven are detained indefinitely, and are often sent back home to face persecution, torture or death, will be kicked into the long grass once again. Certain politicians continue to use the language of disaster and provoke fear by swelling numbers of arrivals, backed by box-ticking Home Office officials.

Refugees are individuals seeking asylum for humanitarian reasons and suffer trauma, broken dreams, love and loss as a consequence. They are not amorphous groups to be rendered and processed and imprisoned in detention centres like criminals. Such a hostile environment is anything but a welcoming new home, and some go crazy with grief.  

As Alex Preston – journalist and author of In Love and War – put it during talk host Lucy Popescu’s rousing panel discussion ‘On Refuge’ at Waterstones in Tottenham Court Road last week: “The UK has changed and many of us do not recognise it any more. This is a good country, with good people and a history of being good and welcoming to refugees. The current political climate is an aberration.

lucy popescu event on refuge waterstones tcr 20_6_19 photo copyright bookblast

During the panel discussion, Christy Lefteri, author of debut novel, The Bee Keeper of Aleppo, Dina Nayeri winner of the O. Henry Prize and author of non-fiction book, The Ungrateful Refugee, and Sita Brahmachari whose latest book, Where the River Runs Gold, is for children age 9 to 11, all radiated varying degrees of embattled frustration in the face of the current global refugee crisis. It is a worldwide problem — one whose scale and severity is unmatched since World War II.

Bees are symbol of hope: where there are bees there are flowers, where there are flowers there is new life” Christy Lefteri

Sita Brahmachari described how her migrant father’s stories about faraway places allowed her to have an imagined space to step into where she did not quite fit in, be it here or back there, but in an imagined space, which is what migrants bring to whatever landscape they go to. “We don’t write stories on our own, they come out of the landscape we live in.

Such is the spirit behind Lucy Popescu’s two superb collections: A Country to Call Home: An anthology on the experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers and A Country of Refuge: An Anthology of Writing on Asylum Seekers.

“I write children’s books because I believe they’re the books that change people’s lives,” S. F. Said

A Country to Call Home

Lucy Popescu writes in her introduction: “Over half of the world’s refugees are children. Many arrive on our shores utterly alone. Some don’t make it. Remember that image of Alan Kurdi, the small Syrian boy, just a toddler? His tiny body, face down, washed up on a Turkish beach? The photograph was reproduced worldwide and helped temper the negative media for a short while. It was this image that made me think of putting together an anthology that explores the reality for child refugees and unaccompanied young adults making these harrowing journeys in search of safety.

A Country to Call Home includes previously unpublished stories, flash fiction, poetry by leading young adult authors, and original illustrations by Chris Riddel. It features contributions from Brian Conaghan, Bali Rai, Christine Pullein-Thompson, Tony Bradman, Anna Perera, Kit de Waal, Sue Reid, Michael Morpurgo, Moniza Alvi, Tracy Brabin, Hassan Abdulrazzak, Moniza Alvi, Jon Walter, Fiona Dunbar, Peter Kalu, Eoin Colfer, Sita Brahmachari, Patrice Lawrence, Miriam Halahmy, David Almond, S. F. Said, Adam Barnard, Simon Armitage . . . and Lucy Popescu’s interview with children’s author, the late Judith Kerr who was born in Berlin in 1923, but escaped from Hitler’s Germany with her parents and brother in 1933 when she was nine years old.

Judith Kerr’s words describe a very different Britain to how it is today: “People were so kind to us during the war. Even though we were German and my parents spoke very little English, we never witnessed any unkindness. There was an official name for Germans who were classed as enemy aliens, but people like us were officially called ‘friendly enemy aliens’ because we were German but also known to be anti-Hitler. We had to report to the police if we went more than five miles away, so we knew the police well and they were so kind. My father once said that if he left England he would have to take the whole population with him. England is my home. I owe this country so much.”

There has been a hardening of hearts. What do we owe to each other as human beings, what kind of society do we want to live in?

So in this 21st century, what does a person forced to flee their homeland have to endure, both on their journey and – if they survive – in a new homeland?

The Sea, The Sea

tourists and migrants copyright solarpix
Dream or nightmare? Tourists look on as refugees land on a beach

The vast majority of people arriving in Europe by sea are fleeing persecution, war and famine, a quarter of which are children. Bali Rai’s story, Mermaid, focuses on the fate of a little girl and her father from Damascus – an English teacher – destined for Denmark. “I will never know how long we floated in the cold and the darkness. I will only ever remember Papa holding me close, begging me to stay awake. I was so tired, so empty, but he did not give up on me. ‘Remember the film,’ he whispered. ‘Remember the stories we made up. You are Ariel and this water is your kingdom. I will save you, just like the prince in our stories, Nadia. Soon you will reach the shore . . .’.”

Kit de Waal’s superb piece of fatal flash fiction, Did You See Me?, asks terrible questions: “Did you see me when the waves bounced me up and away? Did you hear me shout? Did you see me running in the water?

The Crossing

Before World War I in 1914, there were virtually no border controls or restrictions to moving around the European mainland. In the 1950s, freedom of movement of qualified industrial workers was included in the treaties founding the European Economic Community (EEC), the predecessor of the current European Union, in 1957.

With the current rise of far-right populism, and failure of mainstream political parties to find humane solutions, border controls are overwhelmed and in disarray. Italy is refusing or delaying disembarkation of individuals recovered by rescue ships, and Hungary makes it almost impossible for asylum seekers to enter the country to seek protection.

truthout newsgeek

A boy returns home to look after his grandma the late Christine Pullein-Thompson’s story, I Want the Truth, set on the eve of the Romanian revolution in 1989 . . . “There was a lorry parked near him now full of sacks. He could climb inside and hide. The driver had disappeared in the direction of the frontier, leaving the engine running. For a moment Ion’s legs refused to move. Then he bounded across the road and clambered into the lorry.”

While Sue Reid, in Our Bridge to Freedom, evokes the turmoil of Hungary in 1956. “He didn’t know how they managed to get on the train. What a scrum! People shoving and pushing each other, desperate to find room for themselves and their families. That should tell the Soviets something [. . .] He was a refugee too now. It was easy to forget that. A refugee had always been something other people were. Someone who had no country to call home.”

Road to Nowhere

The terror of leaving the place where you grew up, not being able to return home, or knowing how the journey will end is brought alive by Michael Morpurgo in his story about a little Afghan boy’s escape with his mother in The Little Red Train.I counted twelve of us in all, mostly from Iran, and a family – mother, father and a little boy – from Pakistan, and beside us an old couple from Afghanistan, from Kabul . . . The smell, I’ll never forget the smell. After that I think I must have lost consciousness because I don’t remember much more. When I woke up – it was probably days later, I don’t know – the lorry had stopped.”

Moniza Alvi’s The Camp is an extract from a book-length poem based on a family story set at the time of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Thousands of people were killed in civil unrest and millions were displaced. “Holes in shelters. Holes in families . . . The nothingness was palpable – you could pluck it from the air.”

The Front Line

The reality of today’s Britain is a different one to the refugee fairy tale peddled by people smugglers. People go through hell just to be believed, the bureaucratic process appears to want to find fault with applications so people can be sent home regardless of the persecution or death waiting at the end of the line.

Tracy Brabin, in Dawn Raiders, describes an asylum-seeker’s nightmare when the family home is raided at dawn. “Mr Kizende, I am arresting you on suspicion of illegally overstaying in the UK. You and your family will be prepared for immediate removal.

While Michael Morpurgo, in Locked Up, writes about children imprisoned in a Yarl’s Wood, “Then they were shouting at Mother, telling her we had five minutes to get ready, that we were illegal asylum seekers, that they were going to take us to a detention centre, and then we’d be going back to Afghanistan. That was when I suddenly became more angry than frightened. I shouted back at them. I told them that we’d been living here six years, that it was our home.

And Jon Walter, in Every Day Is Christmas, writes through the eyes of a child from Addis Ababa interned in a camp on Christmas Island off the coast of Australia. As with the UK, those seeking asylum in Australia can be held in detention indefinitely. “Mother says that stories fill you up with all the goodness in the world. That they help to make sense of who you are. But now all the stories they tell me are of their past.”

Home Sweet Home

The pieces by Sita Brahmachari, Fiona Dunbar, Miriam Halahmy, Patrice Lawrence, David Almond and Simon Armitage show the traps and pitfalls of trying to adapt and learn a new language, the humiliation of relying on handouts of clothes, the stress, isolation and disempowerment. The trauma of exile can turn murderous, as concluded by Adam Barnard in Learning to Laugh Again, about a group of teenage refugees going to a farm in Devon for a sort of therapeutic activity holiday. It’s a roll of the dice.

The young survivor of the Sri Lankan Civil war ends up working in a service station in Anna Perera’s  Gowsika Auntie. Her colleagues are oblivious to historical violence and the contradiction of seeing certain tourism spots as must-visit destinations. “I hate the smell of petrol but have a job in a service station in Essex. One day a woman with spiky brown hair and a ring through her nose was buried in pictures of beautiful hotels, idyllic beaches, tea gardens and heritage sites of my home country, Sri Lanka. She smiled to herself as she turned the pages of the magazine.”

Peter Kalu’s tale is about Sana, a Kurdish asylum seeker who works in a kitchen. She is the referee in the annual football match of Kitchen vs. Servers which seems harmless enough but there is a profoundly dark undertow. Whereas Eoin Colfer, in Christopher, conjures the Lord of the Flies type cruelty of little boys, “Marco felt sick to his stomach and wished that he could just go home. But he knew he must return to the factory.”

chris riddell copyright illus Country to Call HomeA Country to Call Home is not devoid of hope though. Hassan Abdulrazzak’s love story, The Good Girl in the All-Terrain Boots, between a Mexican girl and a Syrian boy rescued by a veteran rescue dog called Frida is touching and imbued with dark humour. “War happened in Hazem’s country. It was sudden and unexpected. I sort of understand war. I guess it’s like when two packs fight over a turf. One side says this is my domain, I’ve pissed all over it, and the other side says no, it was I who pissed over it first. Then both sides jump at each other and begin snarling and biting. Come to think of it, you people don’t do much biting, you prefer to blow things up instead.”

Lucy Popescu’s A Country to Call Home is a tremendous collection which brings into sharp relief the plight faced by thousands of children facing an uncertain future, and reveals how writers are responding to our challenging times. There’s something for everyone – fatalism, death and despair; humour, romance and poetic licence. Relevant and empathic, this book would enrich school classrooms and could go towards creating book clubs to make reading interesting and topical.

Being genuinely good to one another means displaying compassion and kindness and finding ways to engage with and support “the most voiceless our society who are locked up and treated abominably for no reason.Why not show you care all year round, rather than for just a week? There are plenty of ways to help, and numerous organisations trying to make a difference. Here are a few:

Kent Refugee Help

NCVO

Support Refugees

English PEN Writers in Prison

The Children’s Society – Young Refugees and Migrants

A Country to Call Home (ed.) Lucy Popescu | 256 pages Unbound, London | ISBN 978-1-78352-604-8 (trade pbk) ISBN 978-1-78352-606-2 (ebook)

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BookBlast® France | Top 5 French Reads January, 2019

New year, and news could be better from France. Over 600 small businesses have been destroyed or damaged in Paris alone since the yellow vests protests at the end of last year. President Macron’s open letter to French citizens seems to have done little to quell dissent; ditto for his tour of the regions in an attempt to get Mayors and their communities to share what’s on their mind. The EU’s political landscape is set to change after the elections in May 2019. Thank goodness for books, films and music offering an essential breath of fresh air!

Here is our list of top 5 reads in French creating a buzz across the Channel for all you Francophiles out there . . . Continue reading BookBlast® France | Top 5 French Reads January, 2019

Interview | Peter Kalu, author

Meet Peter Kalu in person at the BookBlast 10×10 Tour event, Waterstones, Bristol Galleries: 11A Union Galleries, Broadmead BS1 3XD 6.30 p.m. Thursday 18 October. Theme: Trading Places: Bright City, Dark Secrets. In conversation with Rosemarie Hudson, HopeRoad Publishing, (chair), and author Qaisra Shahraz. Book Tickets

What is your favorite quality?  Brevity.

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?  Earth. Ditto.

What sorts of books were in your family home? Paper ones.

Who were early formative influences as a writer? Tom & Jerry.

Do you write every day, and do you write many drafts? Yes. Yes.

As an author, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of writing? Words. (Words).

Books that changed your life? Cicero: Murder Trials.

Your views on book publishing? Vague.
Continue reading Interview | Peter Kalu, author

BookBlasts® | Top 5 Reads for Independent Minds | September 2018

This month’s top 5 reads features titles by some of the #indiepubs being showcased in the  #bookblast10x10tour at talks being held in Waterstones’ flagship stores across the regions of England. Starting from Gower Street we have visited Newcastle, Leeds, Nottingham so far . . . and will be in Brighton next week Thursday, and Norwich the Thursday after . . . details & tickets HERE

Listing in alphabetical order  @commapress @carcanetpress @galleybeggars @hoperoadpublish @AnthonyGardnerA

The Book of Birmingham: A City in Short Fiction, edited by Kavita Bhanot, is part of Comma’s popular ‘Reading the City’ series (September 2018) buy here

Contributors: Alan Beard. Jendella Benson,  Balvinder Banga,  Sharon Duggal,  Malachi McIntosh, Bobby Nayyar,  C.D. Rose, Sibyl Ruth, Kit de Waal

 “At one time connected to every other corner of the nation through a latticework of canals which facilitated the transport of raw goods in and finished goods out of the city, and across the world, Birmingham has been shaped by its industrial history – in particular by the working-class roots of so many of its inhabitants who gave their professional lives to these industries. This working-class foundation is inseparable from the city’s literature, reflected in the voices of its best-known contemporary authors: Jonathan Coe, Catherine O’Flynn, Benjamin Zephaniah, Kit de Waal, Joel Lane . . . to name just a few. [. . .] Continue reading BookBlasts® | Top 5 Reads for Independent Minds | September 2018

BookBlasts® | Top 10 Reads for Independent Minds | July 2018

This month’s top 10 reads come late since preparations for the hugely exciting  #bookblast10x10tour have eaten up time . . . we bring you a sequel to the lodestar of Modernist writing, mind games, posh boys, big spenders and African dreamers, among other delights.

Listing in alphabetical order according to publisher @carcanet @HenninghamPress @maclehosepress @myriadeditions @noexiteditions @oneworldnews @papillotepress @saqibooks

Rough Breathing by Harry Gilonis bookblast diaryRough Breathing by Harry Gilonis (Carcanet) buy here

Roland Barthes speaking of the ‘grain of the voice’ describes movement deep down in the cavities, the muscles, the membranes; the way the voice bears out the materiality of the body with its checkings and releasings of breath. Simple breath holds no interest; the lungs are stupid organs. That graininess, for Barthes, inheres in friction, that sign of resistance: the body made manifest in the voice. As also in the hand as it writes. Rough breathing, then, is where writing, as well as speech, begins. Words must be shaggy as well as combed smooth.” – from the Introduction by Harry Gilonis

Rough Breathing is the first substantial gathering of poems by Harry Gilonis whose work has previously appeared in small-press publications, or literary avant-garde magazines on both sides of the Atlantic; some are published here for the first time. He picks up and renews tradition with experimental forms and is radically open to poets, artists and thinkers across continents and across time, from William Carlos Williams to Li Shan-Yi, from Trakl to Zukovsky, Lorine Ledecker and Tom Raworth; from Klee to Wittgenstein. His use of language is meticulous and he delights in word play. The versatility and range of Rough Breathing makes it a fine collection – for readers, performers, teachers and students alike.

amnesia nights skinner bookblast diaryAmnesia Nights by Quinton Skinner (Fentum) buy here

It didn’t take long to unearth an intimidating lore of mythology surrounding Karl. I found admiring portraits in back issues of Money and Forbes, a long listing in a brazenly ruling­ class fetishizing book called Sketches of the Lions of American Business, and various mentions in Time and The Wall Street Journal. Most of the straight business notices dealt with his banking interests and real estate development ventures; all regarded him as an imposing, powerful and, (reading between the lines now), shadowy figure. His family was from Austria, but they emigrated during the apocalypse of World War I for a life as outsiders in Britain. In Newcastle, Karl’s father, Jan, opened his own cobbler’s shop in the respite between the wars. The family’s business was arduous and demanding, and it was expected that young Karl would work in the shop and, one day, run it himself. Instead, surely to his parents’ frustration, Karl left his family when he was sixteen.”

Jack comes from a humble background however he is determined and ambitious, and leaves an alcoholic home in Indiana well behind him when he heads for Harvard University. There, he makes his first and only friend, and lands a beautiful and extremely wealthy girlfriend, Iris Kateran, who becomes his fiancée. Jack, Iris, and Jack’s friend, Frank Lee, decided shortly before graduation to move to Los Angeles. Although daunted by the presence of Iris’s overbearing father, Jack agreed to the move because the three friends plan to set up a small investment company backed by Karl Kateran.

Soon after their engagement, Iris and John’s relationship deteriorates and the serpent of envy insinuates itself into their love nest. Jack flies into a jealous rage and tries to kill Iris, and she vanishes. The police never find her body.  Jack remembers deadly violence but doesn’t specifically remember killing Iris. His mind plays tricks on him. He sees people he thinks he knows, but they are an illusion. His memory flickers in and out of focus. He leaves town. What became of Iris Kateran?

Moving between past and present, Amnesia Nights is a clever, skilfully plotted, sophisticated psychological thriller about money and class, love and fear, which will keep you hooked until the very last page.

Dedalus by Chris McCabe (Henningham Family Press) buy here

His wet trousers clung to the back of the chair, slacklegs swinging. Seasand and airdew. Those trousers which were not his own. Bracken on his breks. Along the dawn blue bay he’d walked back from Bloom’s, and mishearing his name the name had stuck: Leonard. Stephen thought sleepily of the silent couple asleep in a double dream of catpurrs and silences. In the sourbreath of parental love.”

Friday 17th June 1904. Stephen Dedalus wakes up in a Dublin Martello tower, hungover but with winnings in the pocket of his borrowed trousers. Dedalus goes about his day. Settling scores and debts. Pursued by the ghosts of his mother, Hamlet, and now a man called Leopold Bloom who has woken up with plans for him. The young poet weaves hopes and ideas into burning wings of ambition. Can he elude death in the passages of books?

Dedalus is the debut novel of a respected and much-loved poet, and a sequel to the lodestar of Modernist writing. Chris McCabe’s iconoclastic tribute to James Joyce’s masterpiece gives right-of-reply to his self-portrait, Stephen Dedalus. Stephen and Bloom, cut from Joyce’s ego, become cultural types pasted into Digital Age storytelling.

dedalus joyce mccabe bookblast diary

Henningham Family Press, “a microbrewery for books,” is a collaboration that brings together the art and writing of David and Ping Henningham. Both artists and authors, they complete and represent writing through fine art printmaking, bookbinding and performance publishing shows which compress the creation of printed matter into hectic live events. Their handmade editions can be found in the V&A, Tate and National Poetry Library. Their fiction showcases authors who are reinventing the conventions of modern writing. Their books are beautiful; the production values are superb.

“Parts of this book will remain with me, and pollute my reading of Hamlet and Ulysses, forever. I also add it to my personal library of Great Books About Dead Fathers.” – Max Porter, author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers

The Tree of the Toraja by Phillippe Claudel bookblast diaryThe Tree of the Toraja by Phillippe Claudel, translated by Euan Cameron (Read the World Series, MacLehose Press) buy here

We bury our dead. We burn them too. Never would we dream of entrusting them to the trees. Yet we lack neither forests nor imagination. Our beliefs, however, have grown meaningless and inconsequential. We perpetuate rituals that most of us would find very hard to explain. In our world, nowadays, we play down the presence of death. The people of Toraja make it the focal point of theirs. So which of us is on the right path?

A middle-aged filmmaker visits Indonesia and becomes entranced by the Toraja custom of interning the bodies of very young deceased children in the trunks of trees. In time, the trunk heals, encasing and protecting the tiny bodies as the tree grows slowly heavenwards. On his return to France, the filmmaker receives news that his dearest friend is dying of cancer, prompting a reflection on the part death occupies in our existence, our inability to confront our mortality and our struggle to conceive of a happy life after a devastating loss.

Philippe Claudel will be at the Edinburgh Book Festival this August.

Redemption Song and Other Stories by various authors, edited by Chris Brazier and The Caine Prize for African writing 2018 (Myriad Editions) buy here

Redemption Song and Other Stories caine prize african writing 2018 bookblast diaryThe Caine Prize for African Writing is Africa’s leading literary prize, and is awarded to a short story by an African writer published in English, whether in Africa or elsewhere. The prize was launched in 2000 to encourage and highlight the richness and diversity of African writing by bringing it to a wider audience internationally. The focus on the short story reflects the contemporary development of the African story-telling tradition.

The 2018 judging panel comprises: Dinaw Mengestu, journalist, author and graduate of Georgetown University and of Columbia University’s M.F.A programme in fiction; Alain Mabanckou, prolific Francophone Congolese poet and novelist and Man Booker International Prize finalist (2015); reporter, columnist and poet Ahmed Rajab; Henrietta Rose-Innes, a South African author who won the Caine Prize in 2008; Lola Shoneyin, a Nigerian writer who has won the Ken Saro-Wiwa Prose Prize, among others.

This collection brings together the five 2018 shortlisted stories, along with stories written at the Caine Prize Writers’ Workshop which took place in Rwanda in April 2018.

The shortlist comprises:
American Dream by Nonyelum Ekwempu (Nigeria)
The Armed Letter Writers by Olofunke Ogundimu (Nigeria)
Fanta Blackcurrant by Makena Onjerika (Kenya)
Involution by Stacy Hardy (South Africa)
Wednesday’s Story by Wole Talabi (Nigeria)

The workshop stories are:
No Ordinary Soirée by Paula Akugizibwe
Tie Kidi by Awuor Onyango
Calling the Clouds Home by Heran T. Abate
America by Caroline Numuhire
All Things Bright and Beautiful by Troy Onyango
Departure by Nsah Mala
Where Rivers Go to Die by Dilman Dila
Ngozi by Bongani Sibanda
The Weaving of Death by Lucky Grace Isingizwe
Redemption Song by Arinze Ifeakandu
Spaceman by Bongani Kona
Grief is the Gift that Breaks the Spirit Open by Eloghosa Osunde

The Emperor of Shoes by Spencer Wise bookblast diaryThe Emperor of Shoes by Spencer Wise (No Exit Press) buy here

This world is opening. Has opened. It’s not the closed little plant that my father built. It’s a different world, the one I’m going to be living in, and I don’t understand my place in it. A Jew. Is that what I am? I don’t know. Maybe I’m the schmuck who lost China. Who ruined everything. What does that even mean here in China. To be a Jew. I’m now a citizen of the world? We’ve always been citizens of the world. No, that’s not true. We’ve always been outsiders. On the run. But where to?

Alex Cohen, a twenty-six-year-old Jewish Bostonian, is living in southern China, where his neurotic father runs their family-owned shoe factory. Alex reluctantly assumes the helm of the company, but as he explores the plant’s vast floors and assembly lines, he comes to a grim realization: employees are exploited, regulatory systems are corrupt and Alex’s own father is engaging in bribes to protect the bottom line.

Then Alex meets a migrant working girl, a seamstress named Ivy, his sympathies begin to shift to the Chinese workers who labour under brutal conditions, stitching, sewing and cobbling shoes for American companies. As her past resurfaces, it turns out that she is an embedded organizer of a pro-democratic Chinese party, secretly sowing dissonance among her fellow workers. Will Alex remain loyal to his father and his heritage? Or will the sparks of revolution ignite?

The Emperor of Shoes is a timely meditation on idealism, ambition, father-son rivalry and cultural revolution, set against a vivid backdrop of social and technological change in modern-day southern China.

Posh Boys by Robert Verkaik (Oneworld) buy here

The public schools were founded to educate the poor and ended up serving the interests of the rich,” Robert Verkaik writes in Posh Boys, a trenchant j’accuse against what he calls the “apartheid education system” that perpetuates social inequality in modern Britain [. . .] Verkaik cites the career of David Cameron as a textbook example of old boy “chumocracy” at work – Tim Farron observed that Cameron’s resignation honours list was “so full of cronies it would embarrass a medieval court” – but his critical scrutiny is not restricted to the Tories. Jeremy Corbyn, he reminds us, attended the kind of prep school where a boy could be flogged for “having your cap at a rakish angle”; Momentum media strategist James Schneider was also privately educated, as were Labour apparatchiks Seumas Milne and Jon Lansman. Verkaik contends that the preponderance of “inflated egos” with “an innate sense of entitlement and . . . an almost pathological willingness to risk everything” accounts for the adversarial and polarising tendencies in contemporary politics.” – Houman Barekat, The Guardian

Imagine a world where leaders are able to pass power directly to their children. These children are plucked from their nurseries and sent to beautiful compounds far away from all the other children. They are provided with all the teachers they need, the best facilities, doctors and food. Every day they are told this is because they are the brightest and most important children in the world.

Years later they are presented with the best jobs, the grandest houses and most of the money. Through their networks of friends and family they control the government, the courts, the army, the police and the country’s finances. They claim everyone is equal, that each person has a chance to become a leader. But this isn’t true.

If such a world existed today wouldn’t we say it was unfair, even corrupt? With Posh Boys Robert Verkaik issues a searing indictment of the public school system and outlines how, through meaningful reform, we can finally make society fairer for all.

The Billionaire Raj by James Crabtree bookblast diaryThe Billionaire Raj by James Crabtree (Oneworld) buy here

In the mid-1990s just two Indians featured in the annual Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest, racking up 3 billion USD between them. That number then ticked up slowly, reaching five by the time Ambani took over his family’s businesses after his father’s death in 2002. [His wealth at the last count stood at 38 billion USD.] But then an explosive expansion began, adding dozens more names over the remainder of the decade. Some transformed old family-run conglomerates into global multinationals. Others were first generation entrepreneurs accumulating billionsin sectors from softwsare to mining. Forbes ranked fort-nine Indians as billionaires by 2010. Today, India’s most exclusive club has ballooned to over one hundred, more than any in any other country bar America, China and Russia.

Can one of the most divided nations on the planet become its next superpower? James Crabtree reveals the titans of politics and industry shaping India in a period of breakneck change – from controversial prime minister Narendra Modi, victor in the largest election in history, to the leading lights of the country’s burgeoning billionaire class.

While ‘King of the Good Times’ Vijay Mallya languishes in exile in Britain, other major ‘Bollygarchs’ prosper at home despite a series of scandals. Issuing jewel-encrusted invitations to their children’s weddings, these tycoons exert huge power in both business and politics.

But India’s explosive economic rise has driven inequality to new extremes. Millions remain trapped in slums and corruption is endemic. Reformers fight to wrest the nation from these dark forces, leaving its fate poised between that of a prosperous democratic giant and a saffron-tinged version of Russia.

Home, Home by Lisa Allen-Agostine bookblast diaryHome, Home by Lisa Allen-Agostine (Papillote Press) buy here

Summer in Edmonton is not hot, but it’s not cold. Unless, that is, you’re used to living in a furnace. I was. I am from the Caribbean, where an average day might easily be twice as hot as an average Edmonton summer day. What is sixteen degrees when you’re really built for thirty-two? [. . .] Aunt Jillian and Julie laughed at me all the time. They couldn’t understand why I was always kitted out like a bag lady in sweater, shirt, long underwear, jeans and sneakers.

Set in Canada with a Trinidadian backdrop, Home Home explores mental illness as any other kind of illness and the LGBT family as another kind of family.

The story unfolds through the eyes of a troubled and lonely fourteen-year-old girl sent by her mother to Edmonton in Canada to live with her lesbian aunt. With the help of a handsome boy, her Skyping best friend ‘back home’, and her aunt, she begins to accept her new family and her illness. Then her mother arrives and threatens to take her back to Trinidad. Where then is home?

Elsewhere, Home by Leila Aboulela (Saqi Books) buy here
Longlisted for The People’s Book Prize 2018

Elsewhere, Home is a rich and poignant reflection of a Britain built – as ever – from multiple perspectives and starting points. Fragile, curious, human voices blend, lose themselves, redefine themselves. The emigrant and immigrant experiences have always been part of our storytelling; these beautifully focused tales of Khartoum, Edinburgh, London, Cairo and beyond are a delight.” – A.L. Kennedy

Leila Aboulela’s Elsewhere, Home offers us a rich tableau of life as an immigrant abroad, attempting to navigate the conflicts of assimilation and difference in an unfamiliar world. One of our finest contemporary writers, Aboulela’s work has been praised by J.M. Coetzee, Ali Smith and Aminatta Forna

A young woman’s encounter with a former classmate elicits painful reminders of her former life in Khartoum. A wealthy Sudanese student in Aberdeen begins an unlikely friendship with a Scottish man. A woman experiences an evolving relationship to her favourite writer, whose portrait of their shared culture both reflects and conflicts with her own sense of identity.

Shuttling between the dusty, sun-baked streets of Khartoum and the university halls and cramped apartments of Aberdeen and London, Elsewhere, Home explores, with subtlety and restraint, the profound feelings of yearning, loss and alienation that come with leaving one’s homeland in pursuit of a different life.

 

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Review | The Art of White Roses, Viviana Prado-Núñez | Book of the Week

When has anyone official in this country ever told the truth? I’ve been alive for nearly eighty years and I’ve never seen it. Not once. There are people missing . . .

We know about how Fidel and Raúl Castro Ruz overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista during the 1953–59 Cuban Revolution, and that Cuba became a communist thorn in the side of America under the leadership of Fidel Castro, Moscow’s communist ally in the United States’ back yard. But what was it like living day-by-day through the revolution, that moment in time when history altered its course?

Continue reading Review | The Art of White Roses, Viviana Prado-Núñez | Book of the Week

Interview | Viviana Prado-Núñez | Author of the Week

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico and lived in Gurabo until I was five. After that, my mother moved to Maryland so I spent a lot of my time both there and in my father’s house in Puerto Rico. (And in airplanes. Lots and lots of airplanes).

What sorts of books were in your family home?
I’m not sure actually. I know my mother has several boxes of children’s books somewhere in the basement, but I don’t really remember those. Most of my books growing up were from the library. I’d go once a week, stick my nose in the corner of the fantasy section, and come out with an armful. I know it took several years of rereading before my mother finally gave me the Harry Potter box set for Christmas.

Who were early formative influences as a writer?
Sandra Cisneros — she was the first (and only) Latina writer I ever came across in a classroom growing up. After that I think came the epiphany of “Oh, I can use Spanish in my writing?” Also I still credit my fiction teacher at Brown University, Michael Stewart, for teaching me not only how fiction worked, but how to think about writing for myself.

Continue reading Interview | Viviana Prado-Núñez | Author of the Week

Review | The Ghosts & Jamal, Bridget Blankley | Book of the Week

As far as Jamal could tell, only two things were wrong: a dirty yellow vapour was streaming from the canister and everyone in the compound was dead. The smoke that made Jamal cough and choke in his hut was partly from the contents of the canister and partly from Auntie Sheema, who had fallen onto the cooking fire.” [page5]

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a terrorist!

Jamal lives in West Africa. His hut is set apart, away from the family compound, because of something that makes him twitch, something that may or may not be in his head, which may be evidence of black magic. “After his mum died and his grandfather left, taking all the palm wine from his uncle’s store, everyone told Jamal that he was unlucky.” The fact that he is “marked by spirits” is what saves the boy when terrorists attack the village, since he is overlooked. Continue reading Review | The Ghosts & Jamal, Bridget Blankley | Book of the Week

BookBlasts® | Top 10 Reads for Independent Minds | October 2017

Here is our October round up of eclectic reads to delight and inspire you, belatedly yours Georgia @bookblast

Joyful satire

Don’t Panic, I’m Islamicwords and pictures on how to stop worrying and learn to love the alien next door, edited by Lynn Gaspard  (Saqi Books) buy here

chris riddell don't panic i'm islamicCommissioned in response to the US travel ban, Don’t Panic, I’m Islamic includes cartoons, graffiti, photography, colouring in pages, memoir, short stories by 34 contributors from around the world, including: Hassan Abdulrazzak, Leila Aboulela, Moris Farhi, Alex Wheatle, Sabrina Mahfouz, Chris Riddell . . .
Continue reading BookBlasts® | Top 10 Reads for Independent Minds | October 2017

Review | Yours Sincerely, Giraffe & The Fire Horse by Megumi Iwasa & Mayakovsky, Mandelstam, Kharms

A room without books is like a body without a soul,” Cicero.

borka the goose john burningham bookblast marketingLittle children do what grown-ups do. So when mother and father read aloud to them at bedtime and enjoy doing it, a positive precedent is set. As books and ideas become a staple of home life, the pleasures of discussion and debate continue into adulthood. Reading also alleviates boredom and loneliness, which I remember from my own childhood: books were my first friends.

Home learning is one thing, school learning another. As the curriculum gets more and more intense, packed with demanding schedules, the fun of learning dissipates. In her exclusive interview with BookBlast®, Siân Williams, the founder of The Children’s Bookshow says that a core aim of the tour is “to bring the children joy”. Writers and illustrators who go to schools to do workshops and work with the children on their own creative writing are bringing with them the gift of storytelling. Once learned it is never forgotten – a bit like riding a bike – even though exams, and then life, take over. After all, as adults, we are surrounded by every imaginable kind of storytelling, in myriad forms. Continue reading Review | Yours Sincerely, Giraffe & The Fire Horse by Megumi Iwasa & Mayakovsky, Mandelstam, Kharms