Book reviews – Chris McMillan – “The London Dream” and Pete Lindsay, Mark Bowden – “Pig Wrestling” #NetGalley #TheLondonDream

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Two books from NetGalley today – I do like my non-fiction reads from here even if I don’t keep up to date very well (I am making an effort to read the upcoming books I have in time for their publication while also chivvying away at the backlist, reading the oldest ones first where I can, unless I need to mix things up a bit, and I’m continuing to be very selective about what to request!

Chris McMillan – “The London Dream: Migration and the Mythology of the City”

(25 August 2020)

A fascinating and excellent book in which the author sets out to write “a bleak critique of working conditions in London” but finds that his interviewees are all unfailingly positive about their future in London, however bleak their conditions and immediate prospects. So he has to take another line, and ends up with a rather marvellous and statedly Marxist reading of modern London as a hub for and maintainer of capital.

Even when we think we’re being anti-consumer, green, ecological and sustainable, of course we are buying things, whether that’s reusable sponges or experiences in craft beer joints. It’s just a different kind of “cool capitalism” and all the new features of London (and other places, of course) rely on the old Marxist concept of the supply of workers being larger than the need, meaning that people can always be replaced by other people who will accept bad conditions and precarity while they try to gain a foothold in the city. So the Deliveroo rider who gives up because they don’t make enough money per delivery and never see their family might move on to something else but will be immediately replaced by probably a new migrant to the city (or someone moving “up” from an even more precarious position) and the company will never have to change its tactics.

London has creative hubs of course, with tech doing well but academia and the creative industries increasingly precarious for their workers, many of whom hold down second jobs in the gig economy. And while the adverts make it seem cool and flexible to be on a zero-hours contract, there are very few people who are able to use that successfully (I will admit here to having used a company that was a pioneer in zero-hours contracts and working-time-intiative dodging practices in order to earn enough during concentrated enough hours to get me through full-time Library School at the same time: I do appreciate though that this is NOT the experience of most!).

McMillan compares the London of today with the Victorian London that Marx and Engels studied, finding parallels in the dock workers queuing up waiting to be chosen to work each morning and the delivery drivers logging on for gigs. As a New Zealander by birth and Londoner by adoption, he is able to look at the city with that much more of an outsider’s eye, for example noticing “the British seem unable to fully acknowledge industrialised slavery” which of course the wealth of many of these exploiting companies was based on – nothing’s new in the world.

But his interviewees remain positive. They love London, they work hard and they feel they can progress, so there’s a stream of hope running through the book as a counterpoint to the Dickensian squalour. Very interesting and worthwhile read, and not a difficult or dry one. And he mentions and interviews his own transcriber, which made this transcriber smile!

Thank you to John Hunt Publishing for making this book available for me to read via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Pete Lindsay & Mark Bowden – “Pig Wrestling”

(06 December 2018)

A decently done fable including a story within a story to use as a mnemonic for effecting change. The authors are well-renowned business and sports psychologists and claim that you can use the framework in the book for individual/personal as well as business/team change, to unstick problems that have got stuck, etc. The method is, without giving it all away, essentially around getting rid of preconceptions and reframing the question, and all but one of the examples are around business or a sports team, with one personal issue mentioned but not elaborated upon.

The people the Young Manager of the book is sent to chat with and learn from are varied in age and gender; I was just starting to huff a bit about racial homogeneity when I realised no one is described in enough detail for us to know their race or culture, so that was cleverly done. I feel this would be a good business tool to consider, but more in that area and team sports.

Thank you to Ebury Publishing for making this book available for me to read via NetGalley in return for an honest review

Book review – Christine Burns (ed.) – “Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows” #ReadIndies #LGBTHM21

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I read this book, published by the excellent crowdfunded publisher Unbound (I would have contributed to this one’s campaign had I know about it – from the batch I’m currently supporting I’m realising how long the lead-in times are so this one was in progress before I’d found the publisher) for Kaggsysbookishramblings and LizzySiddal’s “Read Indies month“ and fortunately they have allowed a small overlap into March so everyone can fit in all their reviews! It also fit in with LGBTQIA+ History Month as I read most of it, all but the last two chapters, during that month. Out of these four books bought at the same time, I’ve read two, this one and “Mother Country”, so far.

Christine Burns (ed.) – “Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows”

(20 July 2020)

A fascinating and deeply important book charting the history of trans people in the UK (taking in, by careful definition, transgender people, those who cross-dress and people who do not identify as gender binary, as these groups of people have been mixed up both inside and outside their respective movements, included and excluded one another and generally intertwined in their histories and organisations). All of the chapters are by people who are trans or non-binary (or all) or those who are closely involved with these communities and can offer a different and valuable viewpoint: the practitioner in a gender clinic, the parent of a trans child who helped found the Mermaids charity, the MP who campaigned for trans rights and was instrumental in getting laws changed. Most voices are from the communities themselves, however.

The book opens with a long set of introductions to the earlier histories of trans people, those who have already passed on but left some kind of record. Interesting issues of class come up here, with early upper class people perhaps better able to do what they needed to do and express themselves in their correct genders than the working class (I didn’t see anything about intersections with race in this book, which is quite clearly asking for a new book including that aspect). Then there are three sections, Survival, Activism and Growth, which chart the progression of trans and other communities from the early days of tracking down books or finding scraps of information in otherwise prurient and unpleasant media coverage (here I will acknowledge my cis-gender privilege of being able to talk about reading this book without having to worry about outing myself). In Activism people start to come together, showing the power of the Internet age, which has made the “sudden” flourishing and visibility of a group of people who have always been there possible as they were simply able to find each other; there is important charting of earlier collectives which relied on printed newsletters, phone calls and meetings. In Growth we learn about new initiatives to watch the media, change the law and embrace an increasing range of gender identities.

The set of essays is bookended by two stories of transition, Adrienne Nash’s early struggle to even communicate with a doctor contrasting with Stephanie Hirst’s seemingly smoother and better supported transition recently. A small group of activists, including Christine Burns, is credited with so much work early on, and we learn about gradual and hard work on the law, religion, personal identity, human rights and more. I hadn’t realised matters around marriage and birth certificates were quite so complicated, a horrible mess ensuing in the 60s with one divorce case which reversed in one stroke the ability to change a birth certificate, and even equal marriage didn’t seem to sort out the jumble of inequitable laws. There are interesting comments about the framework of laws being the impetus for societal change in favour of all protected groups of people and I do hope that is so, because 1 in 100 people are trans, which means we all must know a few trans folk (I certainly and happily do). I was struck by another statistic, that a third of people experience themselves as non-gender-binary in whatever form that takes, having never particularly felt massively woman-like myself, with a much smaller percentage expressing that identity.

The non-trans people in the book reminded me of the White people in “The Good Immigrant USA” taking it upon themselves as allies to explain, for example, the history of the Charing Cross Clinic, in Dr Stuart Lorimer’s case, or explaining their path from misapprehension to greater understanding in Dr Lynne Jones (ex-MP)’s case.  I was moved by the fact that Dr Lorimer is a friend of a friend and Dr Jones was my MP for some of the time that’s detailed in her chapter! Importantly, it did not feel that the trans narratives were being somehow legitimated or dominated by these few cis-gender narratives. Each one spoke to specific lived experience that I don’t think could have been covered by a trans writer on the topic. Dr Lorimer pops up later, and movingly, as one of the many examples of supportive people, helping Mark Rees (who bravely took his case to the European Court of Human Rights) to get his gender recognition certificate in later life.The book does not sweeten the pill of trolling, abuse, vile reporting and systematic exclusion from human rights, but the moments of joy and support are equally covered and important.

This is recommended reading, a great counter argument to narratives that have been damaging the cause of assigning equal rights and protection to trans and non-binary people. There is dissent within the movements covered and different opinions are expressed in the essays, but it’s a rich and important read that many could benefit from. I would be interested to read reviews by trans and non-binary people, or their thoughts on this book; please share if you have any links!

State of the TBR March 2021 plus many book confessions #ReadIndies #Dewithon21 @atilatstokbroka

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In February I read 13 books, a great total for me, out of which five were published by independent publishers for Kaggsy and Lizzy Siddall’s #ReadIndies month. The date for submitting reviews has been extended to 6 March (read more here) which makes me glad as I do have one (and one non-indie) book left to review that I read in February!

I realise with horror that the TBR starts with the same book it started with in February – however, I read books from all through the front shelf for #ReadIndies and so it definitely has a few extra on the right-hand side of the front shelf and has lost the mini-pile on the back row caused by there not being enough room for everything. So, all good. Honest. I did read a couple of Kindle books, too.

Coming up I have quite the reading roster! As well as the three review books in the right-hand pile to get finished and reviewed, I have Attila the Stockbroker’s new Collected Poems, “Heart on my Sleeve” which is launching on March 06 – I purchased it direct from his Bandcamp page although you can pre-order from all the usual outlets. Then I have my two Anne Tylers for the month, “Celestial Navigation” and “Searching for Caleb” (I have a new copy of the latter on its way as this one is really tatty and has an inscription from someone who is no longer in my life!).

I’m very happy to be able to take part in Dewithon21, otherwise known as Welsh Reading Month, in March (I can only seem to do one out of this and Read Ireland every March). More info here from BookJotter. Mike Parker’s “On the Red Hill”, about two gay couples who inhabit a house in the Welsh hills, I bought a good while ago when it came to my attention, and I purchased Will Hayward’s “Lockdown Wales” from indie publisher Seren Books earlier this month because I’ve been working on a book project about Wales and the Lockdown came up a lot, so I thought it would be a good memento – I’m not buying many lockdown books but this seemed very apt.

I’ll also be reading “Unspoken” by Guvna B, from NetGalley. Subtitled “Toxic Masculinity and How I Faced the Man Within the Man”, it’s the story of his upbringing on a London council estate and his engagement with the masculinities found there, and looks to be a profound and interesting book.

I’m not sure what else I will be reading apart from these nine books!! But I will definitely try to read some from my print TBR and some from my electronic one, both of which have grown, one a little more than the other …

Incomings

I had a lovely book post day on Friday when my Attila book arrived, and so did two books from lovely Kaggsy of the Bookishramblings (thank you!)

“Life in Translation” by Anthony Ferner is a novel about a translator which Heaven-Ali originally read and sent to Kaggsy, but I’d also put my name in the hat for it and so here it is! And Charlie Hill’s “I Don’t Want to go to the Taj Mahal” is a memoir of his upbringing in Moseley, the next-door suburb of Birmingham to mine (he’s also a friend of a friend) is one that Ali and I both want to read … Actually I must remember that at least one of those will work for Novellas in November when that rolls around …

Then I have won another NetGalley book, even though I’m trying to be careful with how many I request, having got my reviewing percentage safely above 80%. Anita Sethi’s “I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain”, published in June, details her recovery from a racially motivated attack when she was walking in Northern England via keeping on getting out there and walking the Pennine Way, as a reassertion of her right as a brown woman to live in the UK and tread its open spaces. What a lovely cover and I’m very much looking forward to this, as I don’t feel I’ve explored much nature writing by Global Majority People.

And then, even though I very rarely use Amazon for print books, those 99p Kindle sales do appear to have got me rather, recently. Just this month, this has happened.

All but one of them are memoirs; I do have a thing for memoirs. “Boy Out of Time” by Hari Ziyad is a memoir of growing up Black and queer in Cleveland Ohio; Louise Wener’s “Just for One Day: Adventures in Britpop” and Bruce Dickinson’s “What Does This Button Do” offer very different music memoirs, the first about being in the band Sleeper (this was previously published as “Different for Girls”) and the second about being the front man of heavy metal band Iron Maiden as well as a pilot and radio presenter). Uzma Jalaluddin’s “Ayesha at Last” is a “Pride and Prejudice” retelling based in the Toronto Muslim community, Lee Mack’s “Mack the Life” is the comedian’s memoir and Pete Paphides’ “Broken Greek” tells of a life in music journalism that starts off in a chip shop a couple of miles from where I live. Fairly varied, then!

How was your February reading? Are you taking part in Dewithon or Reading Ireland Month, or any other Months?

 

Book review – Paul Magrs – “Hunky Dory” @paulmagrs #ReadIndies #LGBTHM21

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Another book read for for Kaggsysbookishramblings and LizzySiddal’s “Read Indies month“ and this one is independently published by the author, after his success with his Christmas and Silver Jubilee story collections at the end of last year. As a book featuring gay central characters and a setting in Manchester’s gay quarter (featuring the transgender memorial), it also fits in to LGBTQIA+ History Month. It was impossible to resist buying it in January this year and I enjoyed it tremendously.

Paul Magrs – “Hunky Dory”

(28 January 2021 with token from Ali)

Paul is known as a fantasy or magic realist novelist, but he’s published the odd non-magical book in his time and this is one of them. I always enjoyed the realist elements in his books and so thoroughly enjoyed this one. There’s only one peculiar interlude, which you could put down to the Italian sun!

We have Dodie and her rackety mum Elena as the central characters – Elena has been an alternative, brassy figure for years and Dodie is much more reticent and plain – but she does have an inner life and of course deserves her chance at happiness. The book opens with Dodie’s dad’s sudden death and in the year that’s covered by the book she must run the cafe he founded and try to rebuild her life. Elena seems to go on as normal after some months of decline, getting involved in community activism, her creative writing MA and a little light kidnapping and bondage, as you do.

Dodies’s horizons are expanded when she meets Ian, who’s asked to set up a book and comics stall in the cafe, and Oliver from the writing course, but she also meets a wonderful eccentric novelist, Emmy, at a fantasy convention who models the acceptable way to write one of the new kinds of sci fi and fantasy, which seems to have split into extreme violence on one side and peculiar cross-species sex on the other (this issue is interrogated by other characters in other places and gives an interesting depth to the book) and essentially she reinvents her own self and takes back the power in her relationships. Ian also has his horizons broadened but still manages to hold his own, rising to the occasion and maintaining the balance with his new boyfriend. There are some wincey scenes with Elena camping it up to draw in Dodie’s new gay friend and get him on her side, but Elena’s also a great character with her gin and her ability to calm down (or foment) a public gathering.

There’s a marvellous cast of side characters, no one perfect, some a little grubby around the edges, realistic, grey and a bit flabby here and there, from stroppy cafe worker Andrea to Ian’s ex Warren with his secret side and his knitting, a naughty professor and a cuddly academic. The world of creative writing classes and (genre) publishing is gently and expertly skewered – we know Oliver is thinking of going to the bad when he abandons his “silly” book (which sounds very like Magrs’ Mars Trilogy) to go all macho and violent in his novel.

Most of the book is set in Levenshulme, with excursions into the excitement of the Canal Steet gay quarter, and is an affectionate portrait f a suburb in transition. There are kidnaps and library closure vigils, cruises and cats (I’m glad to report all the cats in the book remain OK) in a long and satisfying novel of huge warmth in which most of the characters change and grow. There’s even a shout-out to Iris Murdoch! Only one thing would have made it more-than-perfect, and that would have been an encounter with a completely tattooed man when some characters went over to Newcastle, but you can’t have everything, right …?!

A great, fun read which I will re-read and which is a great addition to Paul’s marvellous and un-genre-definable oeuvre.

Book review – Don George (ed.) “The Kindness of Strangers” #ReadIndies

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Another book from an indie publisher (Lonely Planet) today in my aim to read as many books published independently as I can this month for Kaggsysbookishramblings and LizzySiddal’s “Read Indies month“ (I have two more to go, one finished and awaiting review (self-published) and one on the go that I might get finished in time (Unbound).  You can just see the book on my TBR, three in from the left, so it also helps with my task to read all my oldest books as soon as I can.

After that review, a quick note to record a book I’ve read and perhaps warn others who might be drawn to it …

Don George (ed.) – “The Kindness of Strangers”

(25 December 2019 – from Gill)

A collection of “Tales of Fate and Fortune on the Road” as the subtitle has it, and I should have paid more attention to that subtitle as some of the stories in it were less about kind strangers and more about twists of fate (not being killed by a serial killer, for example, doesn’t feel to me like the kind of random act of kindness I was expecting). While some of the stories are lovely tales of help and kindness in a really difficult situation not of the teller’s making, others seem more entitled and slightly annoying. The writers are a mix of established authors (Jan Morris! Who of course is marvellous) and others by people who sent stories in, so it was by definition a bit patchy, but I’m glad on balance that it made its way to me from my wishlist. The preface by His Holiness the Dalai Lama might have been the best bit:

Kindness and compassion are among the principal values that make our lives meaningful (p. 5)

and Morris shares that her religion is kindness. An interesting book I’m glad I read.

Camilla Sacre-Dallerup – “Dream, Believe, Succeed”

(05 October 2020 – NetGalley)

It’s the ex-Strictly dancer’s combo biography and self-help book, updated to be re-released, with an extra chapter on her fun and achievements. The stories of her early struggles and hard work and the Brendan Cole scandal are interesting enough; the self-help bits are either very obvious (she does sort of admit this when she writes, “I thought, ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ – another cliche that has shaped my life”) or downright dangerous, labouring the “What’s meant for you won’t pass you by” and “Everything happens for a reason” concepts – all very well if it’s positive things or learning points, but not everything that gets you is positive or a learning experience, and certainly we can’t get anything we want just by working hard or making a mood board. While there is some good stuff on visualisation, I wouldn’t go looking to this to change your life.

Thank you to the publisher for making this available to me via NetGalley.


I’ve finished Paul Magrs’ “Hunky Dory” and am on to “Trans Britain” then have a few Shiny review books to enjoy. I also have another NetGalley book to review that I haven’t managed to fit into this month. How is your February reading going?

Book review – Susan Alice Kerby – “Miss Carter and the Ifrit” @DeanStPress #ReadIndies

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PIle of birthday booksI was lucky enough to received a couple of Dean Street Press Furrowed Middlebrow imprint books for my birthday last year (as well as this year!). I read Miss Read’s “Fresh From the Country” back in March 2020 (I’d received a review copy I read on my Kindle but had requested a print copy from my best friend for my permanent shelves) and as it’s #ReadingIndies month this month I had the ideal opportunity to pick this one off the TBR shelf. A BIG thank you to DSP for republishing this marvellous piece of escapism! (By the way, I’ve now read and reviewed three of the books from this pile. I do need to keep on with the print TBR!)

Susan Alice Kerby – “Miss Carter and the Ifrit”

(21 January 2020)

An absolutely marvellous work of fantasy rooted in reality (the kind I really prefer, c.f. Joan Aiken, Paul Magrs, etc.) which was entertaining and absorbing, light but by no means shallow, and even moving, too. The end-of-the-war setting (the book was originally published in 1045; in the book the Blitz is over and things are relatively safe, if rationed and grey) is beautifully done and very atmospheric, and who wouldn’t want a new kind of friend to suddenly appear when things seem so straitened?

Georgina Carter, a 47-year-old spinster whom live has rather passed by, inadvertently releases an Ifrit (a sort of genie) from some wood blocks she buys for  her fire, who then rather embarrassingly provides sherbert, fruits, tented ceilings and the like, while exhibiting a strong interest in men’s contemporary hats and also interfering to make our heroine’s life more comfortable in other ways.

I liked the disconnects between “Joe’s” (for that’s what she christens him, after Stalin) knowledge of the world and the modern world. He believes Georgina can work magic (the radio) and must have been dispossessed of her birthright; she has, but not in the way he thinks –

Life had just passed her by without so much even as a casual wave of the hand. (p. 20)

and she struggles to explain how a wireless and other things work, although she takes it upon herself to carefully provide Joe with an education, teaching him to read and providing books and magazines. I love the cosy life they lead with not a hint of impropriety – although that’s now how it might look from the outside and she does waver about who / how to tell.

I was very interested to find the whole plot of Diana Wynne Jones’ “Castle in the Air” included in a story that Joe tells – presumably both originating from the 1000 and One Nights. We even journey to the deserts of North Africa to visit Georgina’s old friend and possibly love interest, in scenes where she draws on her inner resolve to stand up to scary and new things with wonderful aplomb.

We know that the arrangement with the lovely Ifrit can’t be permanent, and there’s a lovely and poignant act of selfless love – rewarded – near the end. It’s very well done and, if I can say it, plausible and believable – there’s a great moment where a visit to  her nephew is made able to be put down to overindulging in the drink due to Georgina forgetting the socks she was bringing him! It’s a kind book, too, with Miss Carter’s friendship with Margaret carefully repaired and woven back together after she grasps the wrong end of the stick.

Like “O, The Brave Music,” a book I wish I’d discovered years ago so I could be re-reading it now, and one I’m very glad has been republished.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “The Clock Winder” #AnneTyler2021

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And we’re back to the Anne Tylers I Do Not Remember. However, I am heartily enjoying my chronological journey through her novels, and to be fair, I probably haven’t read this one since 1995. This is a copy reissued by Vintage and I would have bought it from Waterstone’s in Birmingham City Centre (still there), I would imagine. It was before I started my reading journal (in London) so no previous review to dig out at all.

If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Anne Tyler – “The Clock Winder”

(13 May 1995)

We have finally (pretty well) moved to Baltimore, where all (?) of Tyler’s remaining novels were to be set, although there are still scenes in North Carolina and elsewhere.

Mrs Emerson, an elderly (? – is she? Her eldest son is in his 30s near the end  of the book, which finishes in 1970) recent widow who likes to keep herself forever young, high-heeled and pink and gold, for her distant many children, sacks her handyman on a whim and hires Elizabeth, who is passing through vaguely and helps her move some garden furniture. Elizabeth resists attempts to make her into an indoors maid and finds that, here at least, she’s good at something, calm and practical, and resolves to stay until she (inevitably) messes something up.

Elizabeth gets sucked into the Emerson family, which apparently thrives on drama, but really only the kind of Anne Tyler, relatively quiet, drama, and draws close to two of the sons, creating a rivalry which can only cause harm. We have all the usual fine detail, a big, scruffy house becoming one of the characters, again. Then the inevitable happens, something goes badly wrong, everyone convenes at the house (I did have trouble keeping the three sisters straight in my head) and Elizabeth returns to her religious family and drifts into a new job. It’s worth noting all the fine details of dealing with an invalid – here, two valid invalids, unlike the one in “The Tin Can Tree” but finely drawn.

Will Elizabeth return when Mrs Emerson falls ill? The children vie to cajole and control her back – will she stay sucked into their orbit? It’s a big family like in “If Morning Ever Comes” and, like that family, lacking a father – I’m not sure if that will be a theme through the books as the other two novels have the usual complement of parents.

I love Elizabeth’s eccentricity, carefully observed and celebrated for her difference, and the portrayal of Matthew in particular hardening into a man too set in  his ways typical of Tyler’s novels. Like his “weird” brother Andrew,

He liked things the way they were. Change of any kind he carefully avoided. (p. 200)

The section in letters is really nicely done and I liked the shifts in location after the claustrophobic small-town life of the last two novels.

Another shocking event occurs which is so creepy in the set-up – in fact in someone else’s hands this could be an incredibly creepy book full stop. We hop through time to the present, where Peter, the youngest son, might have finally come into himself thanks to another, very different, outsider woman, Andrew is somehow no longer weird, perhaps cured by using one of the items he collected for so long, and Mrs Emerson, pink and gold, still presides.


Do let me know if you’ve read along, joined me for this one or any others at any time, or come to this later and have thoughts on it. All comments welcome at whatever time, no pressure! Do visit the project page to see how it’s all going!

 

Book review – Danny MacAskill – “At the Edge: Riding for my Life” @danny_macaskill

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Another sports, or rather extreme sports, biography that held my interest even though I can’t even ride a bicycle! Danny MacAskill is quite amazing, and I recommend looking at his YouTube channel, here – he does quite astounding things on a bike and the making-of videos are fascinating. Very inventive and creative and a good few of them showcase beautiful surroundings in Scotland and elsewhere.

Danny MacAskill – “At the Edge: Riding for my Life”

(November 2019 – from the author/collaborator)

With help putting the book together from the very able Matt Allen, MacAskill explains his life through his cycling exploits, from early years tearing around the small town on the Isle of Skye he grew up in (and having a great time in the adventure playground he set up in his back garden – yes, he addresses what his mum thinks of all of this!) to his first viral video and the amazing productions he stars in today.

A modest man, you sense he’d be happy just riding around, and in fact as he gets busier and more famous, he finds he needs to carve out that time to do just that still, which is quite endearing. He’s honest about the psychological effects of his (many) injuries and the work he’s had to put in to recover from them – he also makes careful addresses to the reader from time to time about the need to be careful, and lists his injuries in a special contents page at the beginning – and also about his the fear which – surely naturally! – dogs him, not always on the hardest tricks, explaining how he psychs himself up for them.

The biking world seems very close and supportive, and he’s genuinely thrilled to meet the heroes of the videos he watches as a young man. He develops his bikes alongside the manufacturer, but there’s not too much technical detail (there is a glossary of riding terms to help with that aspect) and gives a good impression on just how hard he and his team work to achieve the films they make – he’s also generous in thanking people for their help and inspiration. There are funny and touching moments, for example when he agrees to complete a film his hero Martyn Ashton was making when he sustained a life-changing injury … but doing the different style also involves leg-shaving and the donning of Lycra …

We get little bits of scripts recording the action and MacAskill’s little diagrams, plus a load of excellent photos including multiple-exposure shots, as well as chapters on how he plans his films and on the music he uses. A great read.

Book review – Diana Pullein-Thompson – “I Wanted a Pony” #ReadIndies

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A book I bought myself from the lovely Jane Badger Books – Jane republishes classic horse and pony books that have gone out of print, doing lots of research on the original texts, covers and illustrations – a very apt candidate for Kaggsysbookishramblings and LizzySiddal’s “Read Indies month“! You can find Jane’s books here and a lovely interview I did with her for Shiny New Books here. Although I’m still reading books acquired in 2019, this was a lovely one to pick off the TBR shelf and I fairly galloped (sorry!) through it!

Diana Pullein-Thompson -“I Wanted a Pony”

(15 January 2020)

A classic pony story but a very down-to-earth one, which I really appreciated. There is grumpiness and a distinct lack of miracles, although we do have the standard pony novel aspects of absent parents and a way to get hold of a pony of one’s own …

Augusta, desperate for a pony like the ones the fancy cousins she has to live with will occasionally let her ride, has to work hard to improve her riding, previously learned on a recalcitrant Shetland with a far more fun-seeming friend, teaching the small pony tricks and bouncing around. She has to work hard to save up to buy a pony at an auction and then to work out what on Earth is wrong with him: she also looks after her own pony, unlike her cousins, who outsource all the work to their stable hand. There’s a lot of bad temper and bickering and sitting on her own with a book: Augusta gets on better with the servants than she does with her family, and I like that about her.

In this matter-of-fact novel, girl and pony do not end up at Olympia but at the local show, and that’s something else I liked about it: a lot more relatable than some books, although of course we have a young teen wandering the lanes on her own quite a lot!

There’s a publishing history in the back, a bio of Diana Pullein-Thompson and an explanation of show-jumping faults, plus the original text and illustrations.

Book review – Caleb Azumah Nelson – “Open Water” #OpenWaterBook #NetGalley @PenguinUKBooks

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This NetGalley read ended up being a sort of companion to Kenya Hunt’s “Girl: Essays on Black Womanhood“, as it happened to highlight the Black male experience of modern life in London where Hunt’s book concentrated on women’s experience. Two young people meet in South-East London and embark upon the arc of a relationship: it’s an experimental book and written in a different style but worth persevering with.

Caleb Azumah Nelson – “Open Water”

(06 November 2020 – from NetGalley)

There’s been a lot of talk about this long novella/short novel featuring two young Black people in London and sometimes Dublin – they are very young, one a student, one just out of university, younger than I was when I lived in London and having very different experiences, including those showing up their lack of privilege – especially the male narrator’s.

It’s evocative and poetic, very immediate, once you get past the second person singular, mostly present tense narrative voice, which does keep knocking you out of absorption in the book at the beginning. You might also spent a bit of time wondering how they could see both Piccadilly and Leicester square from one bar (the narrative does jump with little warning, so it might be two bars) or how they got a Tube to South London from Embankment. But it is absorbing and mixed in with the Millennial story of creative work and service gigs, ubers to parties all over the city (although obviously that seems weird at the moment), housing issues and class (both characters have slightly oddly been to high-class private schools, one of only a few Black students but this making for an interesting bonding experience early on), you’re brought up short by its uncompromising portrayal of what it’s like to be a Black man in London, basically only seen as a Black body, stopped and searched, witness to violence, scarred and scared. Some of the writing on this aspect is so subtle you sort of skate over it then have to work out what has just happened (a parallel experience to being a White body moving in an urban space, you presume), some more direct (but nothing you won’t be able to cope with).

There are some lovely passages using clever metaphors: on falling in love and thus making yourself vulnerable you get

You’re scared of this moment, which feels like when you wandered onto the beach to photograph lightning in the middle of a storm, volatile and gorgeous, unpredictable strands falling haphazard from the sky. You didn’t know what you would capture and you knew it was a risk, but it was something you had to do.

The falling in love might be the least interesting bits for you, too – there is much more to the book, walks through the “ordinary” streets seen through someone’s eyes who is very different from you, such a vital thing to do from time to time – often, in fact – and scenes in clubs and barbershops showing a powerful Black joy (something other books reviewed here have mentioned is so necessary as well as narratives of trauma):

You know you can be free here. Where also can you guarantee Black people gather? this is ritual shrine, ecstatic recital.

There’s a lot for you to find packed into this short, dense work. A powerful description of one type of Black masculinity; maybe one hiding beneath other portrayals of masculinty.

Thank you to Penguin UK / Viking publishing for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review. The book was published on 04 February 2021.

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