Monday, 29 April 2019

Jhalak Prize 2019

The winner of the Jhalak Prize is to be announced on the evening of 1st May. As is by now traditional, Catriona Troth has been reading all of the shortlist (and most of the long list) and here presents her round-up of this year’s contenders, her personal favourites and her prediction for the winner.

It is always such a pleasure each year to discover what books have been chosen for the Jhalak Prize longlist, and to delve into the ones I have not already read.

This year, non-fiction titles have made a particularly strong showing – as, not surprisingly, did themes of identity, class and the perpetually unacknowledged hangover of Empire. The longlist consisted of three novels, two poetry collections, one children’s novel, a memoir, plus five other non-fiction titles. Surviving into the shortlist were two novels, one poetry collection, the children’s novel and two very different non-fiction titles.

So, my run down of the top six, with links to my full reviews on BookMuseUK:

*WINNER: In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne

Guy Gunaratne’s mad and furious city is London – the rough estates of modern, multi-cultural, working class London. A soldier has been murdered on these streets in broad daylight and the city is turning on itself. Far Right groups are marching, threatening the mosque. And in response, the new Imam is summoning up a vigilante group of young men, the Muhajiroun, to protect, but also to police, their community.

A powerful novel that rips a window onto contemporary London in all its multicultural complexity – its violence, its vibrancy and its endurance.

Read my full review here.

The Perseverance by Raymond Atrobus

Raymond Antrobus’s stunning debut collection has also been shortlisted for the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize International. Antrobus is Deaf, and as he points out, Deaf culture has too often been silenced, patronised and misrepresented. Antrobus’s cuts through that with shining clarity. This is an exceptionally talented poet at the very start of his career.

Read my full review here

Happiness by Aminatta Forna

So many layers of complexity are woven into this story of two lives colliding (literally) on Waterloo Bridge. In the course of a story that takes place over a mere handful of days, the novel takes on the brutality of the Hostile Environment and the failings of the care system. It challenges the Western notions of ‘normality’ that underpin psychologists’ assumptions about trauma and PTSD. And it questions our relationship with urbanised wild animals like coyotes and foxes. Even the notion of happiness, captured in the title, is questioned, its place taken instead by the more enduring notion of hope.

Read my full review here


The Boy At the Back of the Class by Onjali K Raúf

The Boy At the Back of the Class centres on Ahmet, a refugee child from Syria. But it is not the story of his perilous journey escaping a war zone and making his way to England. Rather it is the story of four friends at the primary school he starts to attend and how they react to learning his story. The story is told by nine year old Alexa, who doesn’t understand why with the new boy at the back of the class doesn’t speak or smile, or why he disappears every break and lunchtime. And she certainly doesn’t understand the way some adults talk about him – what is a refugee kid anyway?

A joyous, life-affirming book for middle readers about acceptance and the power to change the world

Read my full review here.

Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures by Roma Agrawal

Roma Agrawal’s Built is filled with infectious enthusiasm. A structural engineer who has worked on bridges and buildings including London’s iconic Shard, she takes you on a journey under the skin of city skylines and deep into their infrastructure.

This book was a joy to read! All the principles are explained simply and accessibly (with diagrams). And even if you don’t grasp some of the details, enthusiasm and wonder will carry you through. Agrawal will leave you with a profound respect for engineers and the magic they weave – magic that most of us scarcely give a passing thought to as we go about our daily lives.

Read my full review here.

Natives – Race and Class in the ruins of Empire, by Akala

Natives takes aspects of modern British society and traces their roots back into Britain’s imperial past – a past which present-day citizens have been taught to see only through blinkers and some heavily rose-tinted spectacles. Akala forensically examines Britain’s role in the slave trade (conveniently forgotten in our haste to pat ourselves on our backs for our part in ending it). He shows how class is systematically used to trap white and black people alike – but how the few that break free may escape class, but that race follows them wherever they go.

Both scholarly and personal, this is a book that will challenge your world view – particularly those of us who have, however unwittingly, inherited the benefits and privileges of our imperialist forebears.

Read my full review here.

I do not envy the judges the choice they have to make in picking a winner. I loved every single one of these. I have a personal soft spot for Roma Agrawal’s Built, because it rekindled the excitement and pleasure in maths and engineering that I had as a student . But if I must predict a winner it has to be Raymond Atrobus’s The Perseverance for giving voice so eloquently to the Deaf Community. We shall see!

[*EDIT] And as you can see - the winner was Guy Gunaratne's brilliant, eloquent debut novel, In Our Mad and Furious City.

And below, from the long list: 

The Healing Next Time by Roy McFarlane

Three sequences of poems by the former Poet Laureate of Birmingham that rage against the violence inflicted on Black people by the state. Reminiscent of poems like Di Great Insohrekshan and Inglan is a Bitch by Linton Kwesi Johnson, written in the wake of the New Cross Fire and the Brixton Uprisings, The Healing Next Time moves the story on another 30 or 40 years and, sadly, shows how little has changed.

Full review to come on BookMuseUK.

Ponti by Sharlene Teo

Ponti is a debut novel by Sharlene Teo, set in Singapore, where Teo was born. It’s a sophisticated coming-of-age story that explores grief, loss, disappointment and their physical manifestations in teenage and young adult bodies. The rich language vividly evokes a world that will be unfamiliar to many readers, without the need to exoticise it. If your only reference for Singapore is an image of a skyline of glass and concrete tower blocks, this is an entry into a whole different world, that of the city’s ordinary inhabitants.

Read my full review here.

The Stopping Places: a journey through Gypsy Britain, by Damian le Bas

Damian le Bas comes from a long line of English Romanies based around Surrey. He was raised in a Romany family, speaks the Romani language and has suffered his fair share of anti-Roma prejudice. But because he is of mixed blood – with fair skin and fair hair – even some of his own family don’t fully accept him as a true Gypsy (the word, always capitalised, that he himself most often uses to describe his people). So one autumn he sets out in a white transit van to discover the aitchin tans – stopping places – used by Romanies and Travellers around the country. In the course of the journey, le Bas reveals there was a time when Romany life slotted in with the seasonal nature of farm work and a kind of coexistence was possible. The present day almost complete lack of tolerance by settled communities of Travellers and Romanies is, in the end , in the interests of no one.

Full review to come on BookMuseUK.

Brit(ish) – on race identity and belonging - by Afua Hirsch

Rarely have I gone through a book highlighting so many passages. Hirsch brilliantly captures both the positive and negative aspects of having multiple cultural identities. On the one hand, it: “offers the possibility of full-body immersion, deep-sea diving; an experience that is difficult to pin down, but feels mystical and profound.” On the other, “at its worse ... (it) can feel like being helplessly adrift, unable to embrace the beauty of any one place, fearful of the water, awkward on land.”

Despite the depth of racism – structural and otherwise – in British society that it exposes, this book feels optimistic. But if we are truly to become a post-racial society, it is vital that we stop trying to pretend that we already are. We have to have the courage to have to difficult conversations, to acknowledge ugly truths about ourselves. To have humility.

Read my full review here.

Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children – Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff (ed)

It is the bitterest of ironies that the Windrush Scandal blew up in the year that was supposed to have been a celebration of the 70th Anniversary of the arrival of the “Windrush Generation” – those British subjects from colonies and former colonies who answered the cry of the “Mother Country” to come and fill the massive labour shortage resulting from years of war. There is a lot to unpick in that oversimplified summary of the situation, and Mother Country, telling as it does the individual stories of twenty-two of those immigrants and their descendents, does a lot to show the true complexity of their history.

Full review to come on BookMuseUK.

Friday, 22 March 2019

The Long Road to Publication

By Andy (Red)Smith

The end is nigh. The end of the long road to publication, that is. Breaking the Lore will be published on April 15th, and I will have reached my destination. I’m officially listed on Canelo’s website as one of their authors, I’ve seen the book on pre-order on Amazon, and I’m still pinching myself. So this is the last of these articles that I’ll be writing. (What do you mean “Hoorah!”?!)

Having got Breaking the Lore off to the publishers for them to do all their stuff (whatever that entails, as I said last time), I’ve spent the last few months writing a sequel at breakneck pace. I’m very grateful to have a great bunch of folks in South Manchester Writers’ Workshop who have offered comments and critiques, and generally helped to keep me on track. The sequel should be out in July (and might even have a name by then.) At the moment it is in the editing stage, prior to it going off to the publishers. Then I might have a break!

Getting to this point has been a long and sometimes rocky road. I’m very grateful to the WWJ team for their support along the way. If I could offer any advice to would-be authors travelling the same road it would be: Keep writing the novel that you want to write. Make it as good as you can. Hope for a bit of luck along the way. And, most of all, keep going. Writing a novel is big undertaking, even if you’re only doing it one word at a time. As the ancient Chinese proverb says: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Unless you go by car. And somebody carries you from your house to the car. And from your bed to the front door.” (Luckily enough, the ancient Chinese had a very good marketing team who refined the proverb a tad.)

So what next for me? Sell 14 million copies and retire to The Bahamas? Probably not. But you never know…..

Thanks for listening and best of luck in all of your endeavours.


(Breaking the Lore will be published on Kindle, Kobo, etc. from April 15th. Under my pen-name Andy Redsmith. Available on Amazon for pre-order now!)

Message from the Words with JAM team: We couldn't be happier to see Andy's First Page Winner emerge as a complete novel, with a sequel in the pipeline. Love that cover! Many thanks to Andy for sharing his journey and we encourage everyone to discover Inspector Paris and Breaking the Lore. Good luck, Andy, and please come back once in a while to share your successes. Cheers! 

Friday, 11 January 2019

The Author's Website

Robert Mening, founder of talks JJ Marsh through the considerations when setting up an author's website.

What are the must-haves for a writer's website?

Some writers create their website in order to achieve their ultimate goal; which is mainly reaching their target audience and get people to read their site content and maybe to have their books sold to them. While it’s easy and quickly to set up a website, it is important for writers to remember that a website represents who they are and what they have to offer.

The must-haves for a writer's website are:

- About/Bio Page: To have a bio and links to online social media pages. A writer needs to create a separate page with a more detailed bio and a professional author photo.

- Portfolio Page: A page of portfolio of work detailing any work a writer has made and always include links to where the writer's work can be read or purchased. Also, writers might have a separate page for books and products/services, or they might combine everything in a single page if there is only a few things.

- Blog: A blog platform is highly recommended to keep readers coming back to the writer website. It should be updated regularly with articles relating to writing experiences and journeys.

- Email newsletter: A writer needs to start collecting email subscribers to stay in touch with readers who visit their site. Whether they send it once a month or once a week, Email newsletter is always a great way to keep writers audience comping back to the website.

- Contact page: It is a vital part of a website, so writers should take a good amount of time to make it excellent! Make it as easy as possible for someone to get your contact details because visitors might be potential clients, they will more than likely want to contact a writer at some point time.

How does one keep it fresh?

The single most important thing a writer needs to have to do when creating their first unique website is posting regular content, because often updated blogs do perform well against inconsistent ones. It's a no-brainer that once a writer abandons their website, their audience would stop visiting the website and they would see a drastic decrease in terms of website traffic. That said, writers should keep their blog as fresh as a daisy by adding fresh content and updating old blog posts. To do so, consider using these tips:

- Decide on a blog posting frequency, it may be every other day or once a week. Whatever you decide, let your readers know so that they can expect when you're going to post a new content.

- Accept that there will times when you don’t have time or just won’t feel like updating your blog. Then prepare for it and take advantage of the option to schedule posts in advance.

- Always keep your eyes out for new content by visiting regularly other related author sites. What are they doing? You’d be surprised how many times you would find something relevant to your own website.

- Encourage readers to comment on your blog posts or to contact you. You'd be wondering how that will help you maintain your blog. Your readers are sometimes the best sources of new content so keep interacting with as much as possible.

- Make sure your site is up to date with your current book information and as mentioned above always include links to where your hard work can be read or purchased.

- Check your site stats, by using a tool to check your website statistics, you’ll start collecting data on your website traffic, your will see the most popular content, and how your visitors navigate or use the site. For instance, if you find out one section of your site that is popular, consider rewriting and expanding that section to offer more.

What sort of things should writers avoid?

- Start Fast and Expect better Results: You know your schedule and abilities better than anyone else, so don’t try posting every day. Start out by posting weekly until you get your feet wet then you can increase your posting.

- Limit your word count: If you have got something to say, write it. Readers prefer to read comprehensive content (More than 500 words). This doesn’t mean you can’t feature shorter pieces, of course you can but when the time is right, go long.

- Make grammar mistakes: If you ever want readers to take you seriously, you have to take your website seriously. So if you do grammar mistakes, correct them as soon as possible. Give your website the professional quality it deserves.

- Be negative: It’s generally unacceptable to be negative when writing your blog posts, you will develop your professional career as an author by being positive, inspirational and supportive to the community that you’re writing to.

- Avoid trying new things: It’s important to let your blog evolve over time and take risks from time to time. Whether it’s adding infographs or personal stories or guest bloggers. If you feel it can add value to your blog, do it and don't be afraid.

Any top tips for authors who have never created a website before?

A website is your most critical tool for book promotion and long-term platform development. When you create your very first website, consider doing it right. These tips listed below will help you launch your website effectively.

- Know the audience you're targeting and get ideas from other relevant authors.

- Be consistent, once you get going on, consistency is key. Try to keep you blog updated by posting at least once a week.

- Write catchy headlines and don't be shy to ask your audience to share your content on social media.

- Create good content that keeps your readers coming back over and over.

- Monetize your blog with products and services that are related and valued to your content and your readers.

- Build your email list and start sending your subscribers email about your blog.

- Build a community, start engaging on other blogs/forums in your niche, and include a link to your blog every time you post a comment.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Does that sound doable?

Creating a website was once a tricky and expensive process. Fortunately, nowadays we have website builders who come into play and have made it easier than ever to create a stunning website without any knowledge of coding. It allows anyone and everyone to create a great website under just an hour.

Website Builders have a handy feature that shows you exactly what your site will look like as you're editing it. As you edit your site in the back-end, it's a matter of drag and drop to build the ideal website, this means that anyone can create a website, even without past experience of doing so.

Thank you, Robert, for such practical advice.

For more information on which website-builder to use, read the results of Robert's research in

Friday, 4 January 2019

One Woman's Struggle - Nasrin Parvaz discusses oppression, survival and the strength of women

by Catriona Troth
Many Prisoners in One Room by Nasrin Parvaz

In 1979, Nasrin Parvaz returned from England, where she had been studying, and became a member of a socialist party in Iran fighting for a non-Islamic state in which women had the same rights as men. Three years later, at the age of 23, she was betrayed by a comrade and arrested by the regime’s secret police.

Nasrin spent the next eight years in Iran’s prison system. She was systematically tortured, threatened with execution, starved and forced to live in appalling, horribly overcrowded conditions. One Woman’s Struggle in Iran is both an account of what happened to her during those eight years, and evidence that her spirit was never broken.

In 1990 she was released and in 1993 she fled to England, where she has been a client of Freedom From Torture. She has given talks on the violation of human rights in Iran, both in Farsi and in English, in a number of countries. She has spoken at Southbank Centre (2015 and 2016), Bare Lit Festival (2016 and 2017), and for organizations such as Amnesty International, Cambridge PEN and Freedom From Torture.

Nasrin’s prison memoir was published in Farsi in 2002, and in Italian in 2006. The English edition has now been published by Victorina Press. Her novel, The Secret Letters from X to A, is also published by Victorina.

Here Nasrin talks to Catriona Troth about her hopes for her memoir, for Iran and for women the world over.

Prison by Nasrin Parvaz

When you started writing One Woman’s Struggle, did you imagine it would be published one day, or was it initially something you did for yourself, as part of the healing process?

I started writing it to publish it. Publishing was my only aim as my prime aim was to communicate. My personal experience is not just personal but is part of the universal history of oppression and struggle.

How did Freedom from Torture and the Write to Life group help you?

I received therapy from FFT for a few years and my therapist was really kind and helpful. She helped me in other areas of life, as well as in the therapy room. For example, I wanted to study psychology and she helped me to find a bursary, so I only had to pay half the price of the course. Things like this that I wasn’t aware of!

When Sonja Linden started the Write to Life group, I was one of her first clients and I must say, if it wasn’t for Sonja, and later on, Hubert Moore who was my mentor, I might have not continued writing! English was not my first language and I was trying to learn it by exchanging one-to-one lessons with people who wanted to learn Farsi.

The Write to Life group helped me in many different ways – including learning how to put my prison experience into words and how to write a story.

Your memoir has already been published in Farsi. Why is it important for you that it is being published in English as well?

Actually I first started to write it in English, but half way into it I realised it wasn’t good enough, so I began to write it in Farsi. I want to tell the world what is happening in Iran and to tell them that the government is carrying out crimes such as imprisoning and executing people for what they believe in – or what they don’t believe in.

Because of my personal experience when I started to write my book, I could only see that torture and execution were happening in Iran; but now I can see that this is happening everywhere. Some might say it’s not happening in western countries, then I’ll tell them that I see it whenever I walk down the road. Yes, the homeless people living in the streets of London and other cities of the world are subject to physical and mental torture. I no longer see that torture - as a means of crushing people - is something that happens only in prison, but as something that is part of the world’s system. Witnessing something so dehumanising is psychological torture for passers-by: it is for me. Every time I see a homeless person, the same feelings of frustration and helplessness I experienced in prison when I was being tortured or my cellmates were being beaten come over me and I feel depressed. 

As much as the book is an indictment of oppression, it is a celebration of the strength of women and women’s friendship. How do you think that spirit survives when everything in the system is designed to crush it?

The strength of women and our friendship was one of the ways in which prisoners put up resistance to that system. The Iranian women’s resistance started in 1979, when only a few days after Khomeini arrived in Iran, he announced women should wear the chador – which is like a burqa, except that the woman’s face is uncovered. The next day, on the 8th of March women poured into the streets of Tehran and many other towns. It’s true that the regime eventually forced women to cover their hair; but it took three years till they made it a law and they couldn’t put women into sacks; head scarves became compulsory and nowadays, women are arrested if they don’t observe this law.

Unfortunately so many men have not supported women’s struggle against this sexual apartheid and actively benefit from it.

You've also written a novel based on your experiences - The Secret Letters from X to A. Can you tell us a bit about it?

In Tehran there is a historic circular building once known as the Joint Committee Interrogation Centre. Its designers were German, so the balcony railings were decorated with Nazi symbols. Reza Shah ordered it in 1932 and it was ready in 1937. Political prisoners were tortured there. The Islamic Republic renamed it Towhid and started using it to crush the revolution of young generation who upon toppling the Shah were enjoying freedom of expression. Closed down in 2000, Towhid opened again in 2003 with a new identity: the Ebrat Museum of Iran, exhibiting displays of torture that the Islamic regime says were committed only under the Shah’s regime, and never under their own. I spent six months of my eight years' imprisonment in the interrogation centre that is now known as the Ebrat Museum. ‘Ebrat’ means ‘warning’. Children are frequently taken there on school trips.

The Secret Letters from X to A tells the story of Faraz, a young man who accepts a summer job converting one of Tehran’s prisons into a museum of the repressive rule of the Shah. He understands too late that this will mean destroying all evidence that the present regime, the Islamic Republic of Iran, has tortured and executed prisoners in this same building. Then he discovers a series of secret notebooks written by Xavar, a pregnant young woman who was interned there in 1984.
You can read chapter one of the Secret Letters from X to A:

Why did you decide to turn your experiences into fiction, and how did it differ from writing the memoir?
I started to write about twenty years ago and my aim was to share my prison experience with people, as an act of struggling against the Islamic regime and to stop execution, torture and prison. At the time I was attending Write to Life workshops. During those workshops I wrote pieces which were not related to my own life or prison experiences. After a while I realised I had two piles of writing: one was related to my prison experience and the other pile was based on other people's life. So I worked on the second pile to make fictional stories and novels. Some of my short stories are publishes, and I have other novels to finish.

In writing fiction I could use my imagination freely and I enjoyed it, but writing my prison memoir was painful!

How optimistic are you for the future of Iran, and particularly for the role of women in the country?

I can’t separate Iran from the rest of the world. We all are in the same boat that is running fast with the current towards a future full of more misery, unless we do something about it. In Iran – the same as in the rest of the world - we need a just system that safeguards freedom and equality.

Regarding the women of Iran, I must say that they haven’t given up their struggle for freedom and equality with men. Since marriage gives all the rights such as divorce and custody to men, for many years it has been common practice for some women to ask their husbands to sign papers giving both parties equal rights. Many of the new generation don’t even bother with marriage and simply live together, even though this is illegal.

What is the most important message you would like people to derive from the book?

That we need to struggle for a just world: a world without torture and execution.

Thank you, Nasrin. I hope many people will support your book. It deserves to be widely read.

You can read Catriona Troth's review of  One Woman's Struggle in Iran  on BookMuseUK.