Finding that I need to catch up with reviews (again) I realised that I have just read a group of books which all feature characters dealing with family issues. Some huge, some slightly daft and some rather more relatable but all very important to those they are affecting – the differences between these experiences led me to a quotation from Anna Karenina and, like summer following spring, onto another round-up post…
Black Water Sister – Zen Cho
Let’s start at the more surreal end of the range. I read and enjoyed a couple of Cho’s earlier books which were a glorious mix of magic and Regency school stories with a quick side trip into faeryland so I knew to expect something a little, um, arcane. What I got was a blend of contemporary family story, with our main character, Jess, hiding her sexuality from her parents, and a tale of hauntings, past betrayals and a vengeful goddess. Tolstoy never thought of that one!
Jess and her family move back to Malaysia, the country of her birth, when her father’s illness has destroyed their finances. She thinks the worst she will have to deal with is separation from her girlfriend (and keeping her secret from the family) but then she starts hearing voices. Well, one voice. Who claims to be her recently deceased grandmother Ah Ma. Jess will need to help Ah Ma seek revenge on a gang lord trying to develop a piece of land sacred to a local spirit – although the spirit, the Black Water Sister, seems to be doing a good job of delaying work herself by causing a series of accidents which have the workers very worried. As if this wasn’t enough she will need to sort out her own relationships, decide where her future lies and try to help the poorly treated migrant workers she meets on the development site.
I really enjoyed the blend of Jess’s more Western sensibilities and the strange magical settings. There are plenty of amusing moments and, for Jess in particular, some rather frightening ones. Her main problem, in the end, boils down to trying to work out, for herself and for her wider family, who she really is and what her future life will be like.
Son of the Storm – Suyi Davies Okungbowa
I’ve been hearing a lot about Afrofuturism recently and while this book is more fantasy than sci-fi it is certainly based on African culture, history and mythology. (A quick Google tells me I should probably think of it as ‘afrocentric fantasy’ – either way, it is a cracking story with a cast of fascinating characters.) Whatever, I love mythologies, wherever they are from – I’ve always had a soft spot for the Silmarillion for example….
Danso is a talented student – he is training to become a sort of druid/storyteller – but he is not accepted as a full member of the elite because his mother was an outsider, from far beyond the main city of Bassa. His mother is dead so his father and uncles have decided to marry him Esheme – also on the borders of society but the daughter of the city’s most powerful ‘fixer’ – to try and give him (and them) a secure future. Esheme is a student too, her plans are more geared towards the legal professions, but she is interested in her mother’s work too – this girl craves power. Add in a mysterious outsider – Lilong – whose very presence, and the strange power she wields, seems to strike fear into the city’s rulers. Danso must decide whether to side with his city (which he can see has huge flaws) or a potentially lethal stranger and powers he may not be able to control. And, well, we already know that Danso is the sort of person who prefers to look beyond the rules.
This book has some really interesting characters (including a few you don’t like but you can’t look away from) and a well-built world. It is also the first in a series (planned as a trilogy, next book due Summer 2022) so I look forward to seeing just what happens next for Danso, Esheme and Lilong.
Hana Khan Carries On – Uzma Jalaluddin
Just to prove that not all family issues are centred around magic and murderous intentions let’s turn to a rom-com for a little light relief. Jalaluddin’s first book was a Muslim take on Pride and Prejudice: this time she has her sights on the film You’ve Got Mail…
Hana’s family runs a small halal restaurant in an area of Toronto known as the Golden Crescent. Like many girls of her generation Hana and her sister have been allowed to follow their dreams by their parents. No arranged marriages or enforced burqas – instead Hana is an intern at a local radio station, working towards her chosen career as a broadcaster, and her sister was a talented footballer who could easily have turned professional. Society, however, is not quite as liberal as the Khan family – the radio station seems to prefer Hana’s fellow (male) intern for the one permanent position and her sister’s career is brought to a sudden end by a government ban on head-coverings in sport (which seems to be based on real-life situations in the first decade or so of the C21st). The story itself centres on the arrival of a rival restaurant, with an owner Hana wants to hate but who she finds very attractive, a visit from Indian cousin Rashid (who Hana starts to believe must be part of the Indian mafia rather than a trainee accountant) and the arrival of a previously unknown aunt who turns out to be a complete rebel.
Full of action and some great characters (especially Rashid and devil-may-care Aunt Billi) this is a romance with a social message. It doesn’t shy away from the harsh facts of racism and hate-crime but it also shows how neighbourhoods can pull together to support all the communities contained there. And also, with help from Aunt Billi, Hana is able to decide what she really wants in life, how to be true to herself and who is worthy of her time, effort and heart.