How Winter Began by Joy Castro

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They’re not for sale

There’s a pull quote on both the front and back cover of Joy Castro’s new short story collection How Winter Began from American Book Award winning author Sandra Cisneros which in its entirety reads, “Joy Castro’s writing is like watching an Acapulco cliff diver. It takes my breath away every time.” Yes, but no. Cisneros isn’t wrong per se, but she has failed to adequately convey the full effect that the power of Castro’s words can have on an unsuspecting reader. Watching implies that you’re standing a safe distance away from the action. There’s nothing even remotely safe about Joy Castro’s writing. You may be emotionally harmed by these stories. You will be changed by them. That’s their purpose. That’s her gift.
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Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah

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I’m Not Really Sure

A young woman and her family struggle with public humiliation, shame, and poverty. The story is told from her perspective. Middle child. Mid-twenties. Ten years older than her sister. Ten years younger than her brother. The distance of time between each of their births might as well be measured in light years because they don’t seem to possess the typical bond one would expect to find between siblings. Each acts like a parent figure to the next in line below them with only the youngest daughter, Mia, being able to truly act out like a child. Mom is a hopeless alcoholic. Dad is serving jail time. The house is falling apart. There is no money. No food. No prospects of anything changing for the better anytime soon. Welcome to South Korea circa 1988. Please step right in and make yourself at home.

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Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner

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Underworld Is A Style

What became of Ernst Haffner? That’s a question no one can seem to answer. Details about his life are scarce: he was a social worker and a journalist, and in 1932 he published his first and only novel. This book, Blood Brothers, would be burned and banned when the Nazi party came into power a year later, and all traces of its author would mysteriously vanish during World War II. That’s it, that’s all we know. All these year’s later we’re left with but a single book to judge Haffner by, a mere 192 pages with which to assess his literary merit and determine his historical significance, but what an accomplished book it is.

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

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Was it fate?

Behind the Beautiful Forevers follows the lives of several individuals living in a slum that was erected on an unused piece of airport property in Mumbai.  Here individuals are forced to endure unbelievable levels of poverty.  Running water only works for two hours a day.  “Bathrooms” are a shared affair.  Babies are bitten on their heads by rats as they sleep.  A college education, let alone proper grade schooling is practically non-existent.  And the law is definitely on the side of whoever has the most to offer financially to those in positions of power.

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Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

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Quite hutious

First time author Stephen Kelman’s debut novel Pigeon English is billed as something of a murder mystery, and while this is technically true, it is most certainly not its primary intent. Be forewarned that if you’re picking this title up thinking it will be a stellar piece of whodunit crime fiction you’ll most likely end up utterly disappointed. That said, what the novel does reveal itself to be over the course of its two hundred and seventy-two pages far exceeds the expectations set by the publisher’s description.

Eleven year-old Harrison, or Harri as he’s called by his friends, has recently relocated from Ghana to live in a seventh floor flat on an inner-city council estate in England. His father and baby sister have been left behind, but are hoping to join them soon. It’s in these new surroundings; having traded in a life lived in one form of poverty for another, and having been separated from half his family and his lone male role model, that Harri must learn to adapt to an entirely new culture.

Infused with Ghana slang throughout, the novel is primarily a coming of age tale as told mostly through the eyes of its eleven year-old narrator. He’s aged enough to understand that there is evil in the world, but he’s still young enough to believe that it can all be magically stamped out by one set of whimsical circumstances or another. When an older boy is murdered outside a fast food chicken restaurant and no one comes forward with details to help the police investigation with their investigation, Harri and his television crime show obsessed friend Dean decide that they have what it takes to crack the case all on their own.

In this respect, there’s really not much of a mystery. For most of the book it’s fairly obvious who the culprit is. There aren’t nearly as many twists and turns as you’d expect from other novels which would place themselves squarely in the crime fiction genre. Instead here the reader is privy to a first hand account of growing up living in low income housing on a development that’s been overtaken by gangs and who’s occupants live in fear of the daily violence and havoc they create.

Where the novel shines is in Harri’s narration of immersing himself in this new life. There’s nothing earth shattering in terms of the presentation of the young male voice here. If you’ve read other novels with similar protagonists (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Exley, and Kieron Smith, Boy quickly come to mind) then you get the general idea, but where Kelman goes above and beyond is with his realistic presentation of the grind of an inescapable daily routine that’s fraught with the potential of danger and violence lurking just around every street corner and behind every closed door. Low income housing, poverty, and gangs have become and unfortunate part of every day life for millions around the world and sadly this novel was inspired by true events.

Wisely there’s some light-hearted humor injected throughout the story that helps to balance out the bleak nature of the subject matter. Harri’s heavy use of Ghana slang, which may have you hunting for help from an online dictionary at first feels like a clever gimmick at the start, but by the novel’s conclusion it’s obvious that this melding of languages is just one more device that Kelman successfully injects into the story in order to highlight the cultural differences of a varied group of people all attempting to live together in harmony with one another and makes sense of the larger world around them.


Confused by some of the Ghana slang words? Here’s a handy cheat sheet to help you out:

Asweh: I swear
Bulla: Penis
Chook: to stab
Dope-fine: mighty good
Gowayou: Go away you
Hutious: frightening
Sound: a slap


Pigeon_English ★★★★☆
Pigeon English
By Stephen Kelman
Bloomsbury
2010
Paperback
272 Pages
ISBN 9781609805517
$15.95