01 March 2022

My Five Favourite Books of January and February 2022

Just like in 2020, the number of books I read last year dipped below the 100 mark. For most people, reading 74 books in a year is still a lot, but in 2022, I wanted to try to prioritise reading for fun again. And to hold myself accountable, I'm going to write a post every two months picking out my five favourite books from among those I've read. So far, this is working quite well, as it's the end of February and I've already read 22 books. Here are the five that I most enjoyed reading.

1. We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan. When I travel, I love to read books set in the places I'm visiting and when I spotted Hafsa Zayyan's novel in a bookshop just after I'd returned from a trip to Uganda, it was a serendipitous discovery. In present-day London, successful lawyer Sameer has been offered an exciting new role in Singapore. Accepting the position should be an easy decision, but when his childhood friend is badly hurt in a racially motivated attack, Sameer returns to Leicester to spend some time with his family ahead of the move. The shocking act and the weight of his family's expectations of him prompt him to question the direction of his own life and prompt him to travel to Uganda, from where his South Asian family had been forced to leave for the UK during the Idi Amin regime. Sameer's narrative is interspersed with letters from his grandfather, which tell the family's story throughout the 1960s and 1970s. 

Although I only spent a short time in Kampala, Zayyan's depiction of the contemporary city — and Uganda more broadly — really resonated with me, from the grand mansions with live-in staff in gated communities, to the areas with extreme poverty, where even getting enough food on the plate remains a constant challenge. The novel's depiction of present and historical racial tensions was enlightening too. Ultimately, though, We Are All Birds of Uganda is a powerful multigenerational story, with richly portrayed, complex characters and a strongly beating emotional heart.

2. The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chen. Of all the books I've read so far this year, Jessamine Chen's hit me the hardest — perhaps because, with all that has been going on in the world for the past few years, the nightmarish dystopia it portrays isn't quite so outlandish as you might think. At the start of the novel, newly single parent Frida is convicted of the crime of having abandoned her toddler daughter — custody of Harriet is stripped from her and she is sentenced to the eponymous school for good mothers, where the teachers will try to re-educate her to be a better parent. If she is judged to have 'fail' the course, the custody revocation becomes permanent. And it makes no difference that she left Harriet alone for a one-hour period one time. 

As part of their re-education, the mothers are each assigned a high-tech humanoid robot child to care for. These 'children' all come equipped with a battery of cameras and sensors that record every word, every touch and every interaction. After a slow start, Frida begins to make progress just as she starts to wonder whether anyone ever regains custody or whether the die is already cast. Certainly, the universe the novel depicts is shocking and provocative. The connections with The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood are immediately apparent, but it also reminded me a lot of the works of Kazuo Ishiguro — perhaps Klara and the Sun in terms of the content, but also Never Let Me Go in terms of the tone and themes. The School for Good Mothers was a hard read, even with the odd darkly comic moment, but it's also compelling, imaginative and extremely thought-provoking.

3. Greenwich Park by Katherine Faulkner. Motherhood is also at the centre of Katherine Faulkner's taut and gripping psychological thriller set in Greenwich, an area of London I know very well. After ending up alone at her first antenatal class, Helen connects with Rachel, an erratic young mum-to-be. Helen doesn't have many friends — and her two closest female friends, Serena and Katie, are the partners of her two brothers. Meanwhile, Serena's husband and Helen's husband are business partners in what was Helen's father's business. They're a very close-knit group...or so Helen thinks, until a few strange things begin to happen, especially as she feels increasingly isolated after having to take early maternity leave because she has a high-risk pregnancy, allowing Rachel to weave her way in. Helen begins to suspect that there is something off about Rachel, but what exactly does she want? And whose lives are at most risk of being turned upside down by the revelations Rachel could make? Most of the characters are frustrating and/or unsympathetic but the clever plotting kept me racing through Greenwich Park — I stayed up way too late to finish it in a single night.

4. All Her Little Secrets by Wanda M. Morris. I read a lot of thrillers, but most of those on my reading list so far this year have been of the domestic noir and/or psychological thriller genre, so it was great to be able to include a legal thriller among my recommendations. In All Her Little Secrets, Ellice is a Black corporate lawyer working for a big firm in Atlanta — she is also one of only a handful of Black employees at the company. One morning, she arrives early at work to find that her married, white boss has been shot dead in his office. She leaves quickly, not wanting to become embroiled in the situation, particularly given her past — and her younger brother's problematic present. But things begin to spin out of control when Ellice is quickly pushed into accepting a promotion into her former boss's role of chief legal counsel, and somehow, nothing quite seems right. And as the police investigation begins to circle ever closer Ellice must work out how best to protect herself and her loved ones from powerful people who have already shown in that even murder isn't off-limits in their quest to secure what they want. Morris's novel is a pacy read, full of twists and turns, and Ellice makes for a brilliant and sympathetic, if flawed, heroine.

5. Wahala by Nikki May. When I heard Nikki May talking about her debut novel on the radio, she explained that she'd written Wahala after failing to find novels about people like her: Nigerian–British and middle class. Wahala tells the story of three mixed-race friends — Ronke, Simi and Boo — who live in London leading what, from the outside at least, seems like a charmed life, even if they each have their own difficulties. Then along comes Isobel, the titular wahala (a word used in Nigeria to mean 'trouble'), a childhood friend of Simi's, who storms into the women's lives. At first, she's a breath of fresh air, encouraging them to try new things and seemingly suggesting solutions for their various problems. But before long, cracks start to form in the women's relationships both with one another and with their husbands and families. It's clear that Isobel isn't all that she seems, but what does she want? And what will she do to ensure she gets it? May's characterization is superb — I enjoyed spending time with each of the central three characters, and their deep friendship runs right through the emotional core of this fast-paced cautionary tale.

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