Book review – Diana Wynne Jones – “Power of Three” plus books in (thank you @eandtbooks) and a reading challenge dilemma #bookconfessions

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I feel like I’ve been making slow progress through the TBR recently: I definitely haven’t had as much time to read as normal and have been making my way through what I have been reading pretty slowly. I have also got a few review books in – I’m writing up my review of Tom  Mole’s “The Secret Life of Books” for Shiny New Books at the moment, and have a few more I’m reading, so not everything I’ve read is appearing on here just yet (but I’ll of course let you know when the reviews are up!). I have acquired some lovely new books, including some light Christmas reading and a gorgeous wintery themed review book, of which more later, and anyone who’s planning to join in on my Anne Tyler re-read/readalong next year please help me decide my schedule (further below).

Diana Wynne Jones – “Power of Three”

(29 August 2019)

I acquired this at Oxfam Books at the same time as the last two birding books I’ve talked about, so never let it be said I don’t read a variety of books! I do love her stuff and although I read this a bit close to the “Howl’s Moving Castle” trilogy, perhaps, I did enjoy it. You think it’s set in a fantasy land and it seems to be at first, with three races at war, and us following the “people” but later on we realise the giants may not be so odd after all, and what if all three see themselves as “people”? (a nice lesson on tolerance there, plus we see a few episodes from multiple points of view, which is also interesting). There was a bit of knowledge to pick up on how the world worked, and a nice central character who thinks he’s normal and untalented, as measured against his siblings with their gifts, and of course it’s a well-constructed story, as DWJ’s always are, but there’s not much more I can really say about it.

Books in

Fifty words for snow “Fifty Words for Snow” by Nancy Campbell arrived from Elliot & Thompson this week – what a pretty hardback, with a stamped cloth cover. Campbell wrote “The Library of Ice” which I read and reviewed in April last year, and I enjoyed her writing there – here she takes fifty words for snow from around the world and talks about the language, culture and science behind the word and concept. I feel like this will make an ideal Christmas present for the nature and science lover. I’m joining in on a blog tour so will read it during NonFiction November and review it for Shiny and talk about it on this blog at the end of the month, although I can hardly resist dipping into it!

Four Christmas novelsI did a Click and Collect order with The Works last week to get some Christmas cards and they had a paperback sale as usual. As I’m pretty sure we will be holed up at home at Christmas, I thought I could pick up some jolly, light reads, and here they are, Jenny Colgan’s “An Island Christmas” and Cressida McLaughlin’s “The Canal Boat Cafe Christmas” are both parts of series but I am going to ignore that, seeing my bloated Kindle and huge TBR, and Jane Linfoot’s “A Cosy Christmas in Cornwall” and Sophie Pembroke’s “A Wedding on Mistletoe Island” appear to be standalones. I will be re-reading Paul Magrs’ “Stardust and Snow” on Christmas Day but these should cushion the week with some jolliness as well.

And another NetGalley win (so need to do another NetGalley read very soon!), Ryan la Sala’s “Be Dazzled” is a YA novel set in the world of cosplay costume creation, where our hero finds himself up against his ex-boyfriend in a competition to make the most dazzling outfit for a big competition. It sounds fun and quirky and isn’t out until January 2021 so is not pressing in on me just yet, which feels quite important in avoiding overwhelm!

Have you read any of these or acquired anything new? This is supposed to be my quiet period where I keep aware of Christmas and birthday possible incomings, but I’m not sure any except possibly the first one are likely to appear there …

Anne Tyler schedule

So a couple of people have shown interest in joining my Anne Tyler re-read readalong which I’m planning next year, culminating in “Redhead by the Side of the Road” which I have been waiting to come out in paperback, as everything else I have by her is paperback, although occasionally large, QPD paperback (are they still going? Once I’d wriggled out of their Book of the Month I did get some good bargains there!).

There are 23 novels (at the moment) which makes two per month for a year or one per month for two years and I have to wait two years to read “Redhead”. The books are never very long, and I don’t think anyone else is going to do them ALL, so would two a month be OK for people? Maybe the first to be read and reviewed by the 15th of the month and the second by the last day? Does that feel doable? Or would you rather one a month, or three months to read any or all of a particular six? I do want to do them in publication order, but that’s the only stipulation. Please let me know!

 

Book review – Stephen Moss – “A Bird in the Bush” #amreading

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Back on the pictured print TBR (through which I’m not, to be honest, making as much progress as I would have liked, my re-reading project retreating into the mists somewhat (I was going to let myself do some re-reading next year in addition to my Anne Tyler read but only if I cleared this down to one shelf, to give myself a chance not to get a terrible build-up of new books). But here’s a good book that took me a while to read but was infinitely better than the DNF’d “Birders”.

Stephen Moss – “A Bird in the Bush”

(20 August 2019, Oxfam Books)

I, and birders everywhere, watch birds for many different reasons: as a challenge, as a form of collecting, because it gets us out into the open air, because of their aesthetic appeal, to learn more about them, or simply for fun – or indeed for all these reasons put together. (p. 7)

That’s more like it, isn’t it – and there is no judgement made on any of these reasons, apart from a moment about people travelling to tick which we’ll discuss later.

This is a whole history of humankind’s relationship to birds, mainly concentrating on observation, although there are some quite distressing revelations (in their concepts, not their detail) about just how many birds were killed before more enlightened times – and binoculars – came about; not always for sport, but also for examination and capture in art. The Preface plunges us into Birdfair in Rutland, an annual birdwatchers’ extravaganza (which I have actually visited and found Rather Too Much, due largely to the number of exotic holiday companies). We then start off with Gilbert White of Selbourne and his contemporaries / people influenced by him, and then go back to find hte mentions of birds in antiquity, working our way through the development of the natural sciences to the science and sociology of birdwatching today.

I wasn’t so interested in the development of bird tourism, as I’ve never been a twitcher or particular collector, and like observing any sort of bird in its habitat – I get a lot of joy out of the simple heron observed on my runs – and there was quite a lot on that, however Moss does make the point nicely when comparing modern luxury bird tourism with the first explorers outside the UK:

So as the world has shrunk in terms of ease of travel, so the opportunities available to the global birder have multiplied. But is the world lister, struggling to see two or three species they “need” while ignoring any other birds around them, happier than the two lads coping with the perils of dysentry and wild dogs in order to get out and watch birds? One suspects not. (p. 262)

However, the tracing of the development of the science and practice of birding, dispelling myths and working out family relationships, gradually developing country lists and forming protective societies – here the book covers the UK and US – is fascinating. Women are considered throughout, where he can find them, or mentioned as being excluded for example from Victorian science, and there’s a chapter devoted to examining why women feel and get excluded from birding which also looks at other minority groups and hopes for change. 

The main arc, though, runs from bird/egg collection to observation, whether that’s in the individuals he carefully describes and brings back in as the history moves on to society as a whole. A very decent book and an interesting history of a hobby.

Heron in flight

How can this fail to thrill? (photo (c) Liz Dexter 2020)


How’s your reading going this month? I have a lot of work on and reading is taking a bit of a back seat, which is disappointing, but I’m carving out what time I can.

Book review – Caroline Young – “Kitted Out” plus books in and some DNFs @ShinyNewBooks @historypress @eandtbooks #bookconfessions #bookbloggers

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So I have a review of a lovely book that came out this week on Shiny New Books to share with you, two new books in (one for review and to let people know NOT to get it for me for Christmas, one that I pre-ordered back in the mists of time) and two DNFs that I do hope were for good reason. Because it’s that kind of gallimauphry, you even get a brief running update at the end!

Caroline Young – “Kitted Out: Style and Youth Culture in the Second World War”

No pre-read worries (like the ones here!) about this book I reviewed for Shiny, although it does have a few more intimate details about wartime perils than you might at first expect. It’s a brilliant survey of youth culture throughout the whole world of the Second World War – including details on the gradations of uniforms and the respect they engendered and great information about how the French Resistance and German opposers to Nazism used clothing to signal membership of their groups and resistance as a whole.

There is naturally some material that is violent or difficult to read – about the fates of spies or resistance workers, for example – but it never feels gratuitous and is woven about with the general themes of the book on young people and style. It’s maybe best to be aware it’s not all jolly silk scarves and picking up local fashions in bazaars however; but also decent to be reminded that it wasn’t all about the look of the thing.

Read my full review for Shiny here.

Thank you to The History Press for asking the editors if someone  would like to read this and sending it over in return for an honest review – especially sending a print edition as that made all the different, being able to flick to the pictures as I read the text.

Books in

Past Me apparently pre-ordered Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suley’s “The Good Immigrant USA” this time last year. I’m about to reach the original UK version in my TBR, so not sure whether I will read this directly afterwards as a comparison or leave a gap. Essays on people’s direct experience of being an immigrant in the US. The lovely Alison at Elliot & Thompson has sent the new paperback of Tom Mole’s “The Secret Life of Books”, thus, importantly, removing it from my wishlist and meaning no one should now buy it for me (but I bet I buy it for someone). That will be my next Shiny review but two (one waiting to go out, one in the middle of reading). And I was alerted on the Runners’ Bookshelf Facebook page that Nikki Love’s “With a Little Dash of Crazy: The 63 Marathons in 63 Days Adventure” was free on Kindle and so it was, and so it’s now in my Kindle. Haven’t read a running book for … a bit, right?

DNFs

I really hope this is not some sort of weird reading slump or that I have a skewed perception (or indeed am a humourless Millie Tant type who must have full diversity shoehorned into every paragraph I read), but I DNF’d two books in a row this last week. But I think it’s just that I expect a certain level in my books (and always have) and these just weren’t there for me.

“Birders” by Mark Cocker was one of two books on the history and sociology of birdwatching I bought at Oxfam Books last July. “A Bird in the Bush” by Stephen Moss, which I have almost finished, does rate this, saying it’s funny and moving in equal parts, and I’m sure lots of people will enjoy it. But it feels so snobby about what a “birder” actually is and who “counts” (this is something that can happen in the hobby, although I have met more absolutely lovely, kind and helpful birdwatchers), then he sniggers about names for females/birds and, where I gave up, giggles about a homophobic slur, justified because “It was the 70s”. “A Bird in the Bush” is much more welcoming, inclusive and non-snippy, so I think I just picked the wrong one to read first time.

I picked up Joanna Trollope’s “City of Friends” from the same Oxfam a few weeks later – I read her early novels and have picked up others and enjoyed them over the years: they do revolve around a certain demographic and that’s fine in its way, and I was attracted by the theme of women in their late 40s who have been friends since university, but then an immigrant woman was wheeled in to make a wise statement to remind a main character of her privilege and then melted away (maybe someone who persisted with the book can let me know if she pops back in and becomes a fully rounded character), then a teenager states, uncontested and not seemingly as part of showing his bad character that “The Indians” at school are good at hockey, and it all just seemed a little lazy. Also the women in the book were all high achiever city types which is not something I can identify with, so I put it down because I have a lot of other stuff I can read more happily.

Still running …

I am still running 20-25 miles a week, some of it with friends, some of it alone, and doing a few challenges, mainly for charity (I recently received a buff and medal from the Swifts running club for running their virtual fun run in aid of their LGBTQ club and an allies charity, Sport Allies) but also running Land’s End to John O’Groats and round the Iceland Ring Road for the fun of seeing where I am on the map at the end of each run around the very familiar streets here. I’m well ahead of where I was this time in the last four years (since records began), mainly because I’m running more frequently, but for shorter distances, to make sure I get out. Blogging about it feels like it’s just inviting me to mull on lockdown restrictions and sadness at missing running in larger groups, so I’m still enjoying reading running bloggers but not doing running blogging myself at the moment. Shout out to any of the running blog folks who’ve read this!


Have you DNF’d more than usual this year? What fun and/or important things are you reading at the moment? Any confessions?

Book review – Paul Magrs – “666 Charing Cross Road” #magrsathon @paulmagrs

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Liz with almost all her Paul Magrs books

Me with almost all my Paul Magrs books

Excitingly, I’ve been reading this one alongside Bookish Beck (thank you for participating!) and you will find her review here.  I last read this spooky chronicle in  September 2011 after I’d been sent a proof copy by the publisher. Back then I liked what I liked now, and took issue with something that didn’t bother me so much this time around; at least I was into writing decently long reviews by then!

Paul Magrs – “666 Charing Cross Road”

(08 September 2011)

A slightly-too-scary-for-me vampire novel set excitingly mainly in New York, with naturally an excursion to the famous bookselling road in London (somewhere I went a lot myself when I lived in central London). Magrs’ inimitable style translates well, I think, to its new location, and Headline clearly supported him with good editing and proofreading. There’s a lovely underlying celebration of genre novels although with some authors who have a touch of horror themselves, and of course a love of bookshops similar to that in last month’s read of “Exchange”.

There’s lots of intertextuality, with Mr Danby making an appearance, many nods to Helene Hanff and more. I loved the strong older (one very old!) female characters who are there to try to save the day (even Consuela, who ends up in a bit of a bad way, is still a strong matriarch by the end) and the respect Liza has as a publisher’s reader, and one of them has a sister in another link to others of Magrs’ books (I’ve loved picking out this aspect of the books, reading so many of them in one year). I still think Jack should be introduced to Robert from the Brenda and Effie series – can this happen, please? (or has it already?)

Daniel the villain is truly nasty and scary and his cult of personality is all too believable, but Bessie is not as alarming as the first time I read it, as I knew (in about the only bit of the novel that I remembered from last time) that she wasn’t a force of evil. She reminded me of the Green Witch from Susan Cooper’s novel this time around. I did still have to read the book in daylight hours, however … A suitable read for Halloween Month, especially as it’s set from now through to Christmastime!

Bookish Beck’s review is up here, and she enjoyed it, too, hooray!

Next up is a guest review from a friend who read the Mars Trilogy, and then I need to decide whether it’s a re-read of “Stardust and Snow” or the new “Christmassy Tales” for December …

You can find Paul online at Life on Magrs and he also has a Patreon for exclusive new content.

 

Book reviews – Diana Wynne Jones – “Castle in the Air” and “House of Many Ways” #amreading

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The two sequels to “Howl’s Moving Castle” which I read back in the spring: as I had another DWJ coming up on the TBR, I though I had better read these so I didn’t get confused. They do reduce a Pile on the TBR at least!

Diana Wynne Jones – “Castle in the Air”

(7 April 2020)

The first sequel to Howl and at first you don’t think it has anything to do with that book, although being set in the same world, with the setting being in the southern, flowery languaged world taken out of the Arabian Nights, incorporating genies and magic flying carpets (there is mention of slaves in the book, but they not seen as a good thing or a bad thing, not sure about that but it was published in 1990 originally). We follow the fortunes of Abdullah, a poor carpet-seller, whose dreams literally start to come true, a welcome respite to the alarming girls his stepmother is trying to marry him off to (a bit of fat-shaming there, too, see above, but not a common DWJ thing at all). I liked Abdullah’s flowery language which works on some things but not others and everything always unwinds according to logic, you can trust her for that. Good escapist reading when house-sorting.

Diana Wynne Jones – “House of Many Ways”

(7 April 2020)

Lacking the slightly dodgy ideas of the above, I think a stronger book. We are in the North this time, and Charmain is sent to look after her great-uncle’s mysteriously shape-shifting house; she is not that well-fitted for the job as knows nothing about housework. She’s a resourceful and brave heroine who gets stuck in but also always has her nose in a book – and it’s when she applies for a job in the King’s library that things really start to hot up. There’s a great gender-fluid dog character (who comes through OK) and the characters from Howl are more in evidence here, as is Jamal and his dog from the previous book. A madcap adventure but everything again works out logically in the end.

I am glad I got and read these two as I wanted to know what happened next!


I’m currently reading Paul Magrs’ “666 Charing Cross Road” (only in the daytime!) for my Magrsathon and Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené’s “Slay in Your Lane” which is shocking and upsetting but necessary reading. I’ve not read as much as I thought I might in my week off but haven’t done too badly, as I also read Stephen Rutt’s “Wintering: A Season With Geese” for Shiny New Books and have started James Suzman’s “Work” for Shiny, too.

 

Book review – Madeleine Bunting – “Love of Country” #amreading

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A read from the standard shelf of my print TBR for once – I seem to be reading off my Kindle, review books (of course I prioritise those but I do try to alternate) and books from the Other Piles, so I’m not getting through those like I hoped. Also the week off has involved a lot of Doing Things, moving furniture sorting stuff out, which is good, but finally going to the opticians to choose new glasses and putting the garden to bed do not make much room for reading time. I’m even almost up to date with reviews on here rather than scheduling ahead – gulp! I bought this book in Oxfam Books at the same time as I bought “The Swordfish and the Star” and this read was more successful than that one, which I took to Cornwall in October last year and reviewed 368 days ago!

Madeleine Bunting – “Love of Country”

(09 July 2019)

A lovely, meditative book detailing Bunting’s travels in the Hebrides, the islands off the North-West of Scotland. As with Philip Marsden’s “Rising Ground“, the travels had to be broken up around family and other commitments, but it doesn’t make the book disjointed. Actually, given that she explores nature, geology, history and historical and contemporary figures’ stories, it could almost be said to be the “Rising Ground” of the Hebrides, the landscape being sacred in different but also ancient ways.

Looking at the map on the wall is a journey in itself and one that we’ve all dreamed of in some way

Here my mind landed, on a mark in the blue, and tried to imagine how it might feel to stand there and face out to the ocean, to be on that edge of home. (p. 4)

The book is set against the backdrop of the Scottish Independence Referendum, which doesn’t take over the book but is always there; the author examines how the remaining people of the islands have a Hebridean and/or island identity which is quite separate from their Scottish one. She also looks at how particular parts of history have been allowed to be forgotten by the mainstream, but how the Clearances are still etched into people’s minds:

Racism, betrayal and imperial exploitation: three toxic elements have been incorporated into different readings of the Clearances. (p. 149)

The personal is in here but, as I prefer, doesn’t encroach too much – she takes members of her family on some of her trips, also thinking of how her mum managed to cram a load of them into a tiny holiday cottage every year, but also does some of her trips alone, and we hear about her personal history but only in relation to the islands. Kind people arrange passages for her and answer her questions and there’s a very full acknowledgements section.

In a nod to Bookish Beck’s Book Coincidences, Unity Mitford pops up in this book (as her family owned an island she went to live on after her failed attempt to take her own life as Hitler’s fortunes fell), and was featured in the book I was reading at the same time as this, “Kitted Out”, a story of youth culture and fashion in World War Two which I was reviewing for Shiny New Books. She didn’t have to be in either, so a good catch, I felt.

The book ends with no answers but a lovely lyrical moment:

These histories have formed the dense weave of attachments across the British archipelago from which we now search for new definitions of nation to express and inspire human solidarity. On this edge, I see that where the weave of relationship and story frays, the filaments are exposed as fragile, whisper-thin. (p. 304)

There are lovely photographs reproduced throughout, but printed on the page in black and white and without captions. A great and slow read, to be savoured.


I have been reading the above-mentioned “Kitted Out” and the sequels to Diana Wynne Jones’s “Howl’s Moving Castle” as I have another DWJ coming up on the TBR and didn’t want to confuse myself. Next up is Paul Magrs’ “666 Charing Cross Road” which Bookish Beck is joining me in reading, and I’m also being shocked by “Slay in Your Lane” which is my current mealtime read and an extraordinarily important and good one.

What are you reading? Anything spooky and anything for challenges?

Book review – Sam Selvon – “The Lonely Londoners” #1956Club

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I thought I wasn’t going to be able to take part in Kaggsy and Simon Stuckinabook‘s latest year challenge, the 1956 Club, as I didn’t have any books from the year in question on my TBR, which is the self-imposed rule I’ve been applying to all my challenges this year again, but then a chance noticing of a title mentioned led me to my fiction shelves, where I found this slim volume I thought I could fit in, seeing as I was on a week off work. And I did!

I’m sorry I wasn’t able to use the special image for the Club, but I just can’t save it in a format where it will upload here. I’ve had the same problem with other logos for challenges. Not a New WordPress Blocks issue as I’m editing in the old editor right now. So here’s a photo of my rather dishevelled copy from the 1980s which my local library discarded and I snapped up.

Sam Selvon – “The Lonely Londoners”

(17 September 2007 – my original review says it was from a local charity shop, and it’s a withdrawn-from-circulation library book)

I last read this book in January 2008 and did a not very detailed review here. This is a tour de force of narration in a language blended from the voices of the people it describes. It has a loose structure behind its episodic nature and reflects the tangled and often chaotic lives of the early and subsequent emigrants from the West Indies to London.

We open with Moses going to collect yet another new arrival at Waterloo, bemoaning his own kind nature: he talks Galahad through is first days in the city and slips into remembering his own arrival, introducing a suite of characters whose stories are told alongside his, intersecting and moving away over time, all linked together in a precarious world of lodging houses, labour exchanges and manual labour jobs. The acquisition of trousers takes a major role; everyone is clever and careful in different ways, whether they’re self-reliant or relying on the kindness of others.

While the Americans are described as openly racist, the British are more subtle and “diplomatic”, the job having just gone as you arrive for an interview, the flat mysteriously already rented, assuming everyone who arrives from the West Indies is from Jamaica. Has this aspect really changed, I wonder? Cleverly woven into the text are mentions of discussions of the immigration situation in Parliament, that background we know for creating a “hostile environment” for the Windrush generation and their families.

There are comic and heroic passages, such as when the redoubtable Tanty, who was never expected to arrive in the first place but turned up in a family group one day, ventures onto the Tube and bus (having asked a police officer) after lording it over the Harrow Road, and a party that everyone turns up at, spinning the threads together then separating out as there are rows over who is dancing with whom. It’s very much a love song to London in all its grimy glory, treading those streets whose names people had only heard, with the characters saying they will go back to their green islands but knowing they never will. Moving and bleak by turns, and has much really changed?

I really enjoyed revisiting this book and am glad I was able to take part in the 1956 Club after all!

More incomings. Many incomings. Hooray! @zuleika_press @BloomsburyBooks @eandtbooks #BookBlogger #BookConfessions

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I’ve taken delivery of a few lovely review books (and others) and I’ve also gone a bit over-excited in the History and Politics Kindle sale so I thought I’d just do a share of my incomings rather than make a review post bottom-heavy with them. So exciting!

First of all, from lovely publishers to review for Shiny New Books

“Work” by James Suzman came from Bloomsbury and is a new history of work that promises new thoughts and surprises. Stephen Rutt is a favourite bird writer of mine and Elliot & Thompson have kindly sent me the paperback of his “Wintering: A Season With Geese”. Finally, the relatively new Zuleika Publishing, who publish narrative non-fiction, history and memoir, have sent me this beautiful-looking copy of “Follies: An Architectural Journal” by Rory Fraser, complete with delightful watercolours of the mentioned buildings. Thank you to all these publishers and look out for my reviews in Shiny and notes about the books here over the next month or so.

These all came from the Kindle sale. Mirna Valerio’s “A Beautiful Work in Progress” is that rare thing, a book about a runner who isn’t skinny or white (to be fair, I’ve read a few books about non-skinny runners) and shares her progress in running from beginner to ultramarathoner. “Black Poppies” by Stephen Bourne tells the story of the Black men and women who served in the First World War and tells their untold stories, ending with the riots of 1919 which I only found out about earlier this year, when Black people who had served in the war were hounded and attacked. David Lammy’s “Tribes: How Our Need to Belong Can Make or Break the Good Society” is a memoir and call to arms for an end to division and to work together for a better society. And everyone I know seems to have read Alexandra Wilson’s memoir, “In Black and White”, detailing her career and experiences as a barrister who is a mixed-race woman from Essex.  All good buys, I think you’ll agree!

Finally, June Sarpong’s “The Power of Privilege: How White People Can Challenge Racism”, which surprised me the other day as I’d pre-ordered it, is a short book by a respected social commenter which will hopefully give some good solid tips on how to do this, and Camilla Sacre-Dallerup’s “Dream, Believe, Succeed” is an inspirational memoir by the ex-Strictly dancer.


Anyone read any of these? Not a bad haul at all, right, and I am reading up a storm at the moment, plus I’m on a week off (but not going anywhere) which means plenty of reading time (and a new radiator).

Book review – Arvin Ahmadi – “How it All Blew Up” #HowItAllBlewUp #NetGalley

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Another NetGalley read: this one was published on 22 September so I’m not too late with this review.

Arvin Ahmadi – “How it All Blew Up”

(18 June 2020)

A book about a gay American Iranian Muslim teen, told to his interrogators as he sits in a suite at an airport after an altercation on a plane … but this is also a novel for young adults about being you, about living your best life and about tolerance and acceptance, and while the ending might feel like it’s creeping towards a fairy tale reconciliation, there’s plenty of bite to consider, too.

The author’s introduction to this, his third novel, makes it clear that he has lived some of the experiences of his character:

The icing on the Muslim cake is that I’m also gay. For as long as I can remember, I have felt like a contradiction, coming from a religion and culture that isn’t exactly known for being friendly towards gay people. As a result, I kept those sides of my identity separate … This book is me tearing down that wall and pulling up the curtains … the kind of story I have always been afraid to write, but after a life-changing summer experience, it was the only story that I could write.

However, he also makes it clear that although there is a dramatic coming-out story and a Muslim family in an interrogation room, it’s a “Trojan Horse” of diversity, offering a view of “a Muslim family defying the stereotype and proving that they love their son”.

(He’s clear in the novel that it’s their culture rather than the religion that make Amir’s family resistant to the truth about his sexuality, and his resistance to telling them: “It’s an American thing. It’s part of their culture, Not ours”.)

Amir runs away just before graduation, but he’s a decent lad and uses money he’s earned (slightly illegitimately); he tries to be decent throughout the novel, while getting into a few messes in the new gay scene he finds in Rome. Home means all sorts of things here, and making friends with another Iranian guy, Jahan, excites and roots him. In the end, it’s the tradition of Persian storytelling that Amir foregrounds:

 

I’m tired of being quiet about who I am. Iranian people aren’t quiet. We’re storytellers. Jahan says we have a tradition of oral storytelling. That’s what I’ve been doing in here, isn’t it? Telling you my story.

I really loved how Amir’s younger sister, Soraya, is the one who uses her intelligence and her ability to trick their mum into giving her lifts to spurious meetups to track down details of Amir’s life, work out what happened and then track him down while their parents are flapping and phoning again and again. We hear from all the family in their interrogation rooms and finally from one other character in a masterful move that shows Ahmadi’s technical competence in this fun novel with a dark heart concealing a brighter one.

Thank  you to Hot Key Books for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Book review – Kevin Maxwell – “Forced Out” @kevin_maxwell

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I borrowed this book from my friend Gill after she told me about what a powerful read it was, and handily finished it late last week as I managed to meet up with her at the weekend and swap it and some cheese for some honeycomb (as you do). Levity aside, this is an important book to read to understand the structural racism endemic, still, in the police force, and the ways in which institutions close ranks when they’re threatened by a whistle-blower.

Note: I read this in the last full week of September but felt in light of the horrific murder of a police officer that it was better to hold the review over for a week or so.

Kevin Maxwell – “Forced Out: A Detective’s Story of Prejudice and Resilience”

(September 2020, lent by Gill)

The harrowing narrative of Maxwell’s time in Greater Manchester Police and then the Metropolitan Police, the job he’d always wanted to do since he was a very small child, and how he was forced out of his dream job by endemic racism and homophobia (a classic example of intersectional harrassment). It started during – no, before – his training, and you do have to wonder a bit why he persisted in working for an organisation that afforded him so little respect and closed ranks to protect those who abused him.

The book opens with a list of the plaudits Maxwell gained as a police cadet, named Cadet of the Year, even. Yet on the day he was awarded this, it apparently had to be explained that he gained the award on his own merit, and not because of the colour of his skin. What??!

The basic problem is that, however many multicultural and training initiatives are put in place, the very structure of the police force means that “old-school cops teach new-school cops and new-school cops teach newer-school cops the same tricks”  (p. 44). He is told from the stat that he should “[understand] he will need to show a degree of personal resilience,” and my goodness he does, until reactive depression at a high level of harm causes him to collapse at work. While he does try to redress the balance of attitudes being passed down by taking the opportunity to mentor new officers, his other opportunities are persistently blocked. After a first half about his direct experiences, the second half of the book shows him going through legal procedure after legal procedure (some pushed in order to put things into the public arena so he can talk about them openly) driven into mental ill-health and with his relationships breaking down around him:

I had no time to fight the weight of the depression, as I had to fight my employer. (p. 182)

It’s important to detail all of this, and he does have flashes of hope, for example one psychologist out of many understands him, his GP and therapists help him, and people write to him to thank him for standing up for black and gay (and, he makes clear, Asian) police officers and people in general. It’s a depressing and distressing read but the depression and distress we go through reading it are nothing to the effects his experiences have on him, and so it’s vital to force ourselves to face up to this: it’s also a well-written and compelling read, which helps.

Maxwell ends up with his marriage broken down and pretty well homeless, living in a hostel ironically called The Clink after the prison building it’s been constructed within. He obviously managed to get this book written and has completed rounds of interviews: I do hope he has the support he needs and is being able to rebuild his life. He should be commended for talking about what happened to him, and to others.

This is obviously a difficult time to talk about the police, with the awful recent event of an officer losing his life on duty. While I respect those police officers who put their lives on the line to protect people and who are individually good and decent people, it is all too clear that the institution needs to have reform.

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