Book review – Akala – “Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire”

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My fourth 20BooksofSummer read and I’m getting on well with my First Two Months of Diversity with this bright and provocative take on British culture, race and politics. I bought this with my Book Token Splurge in June 2020 and rather aptly, today and yesterday I placed my orders for this year’s Book Token Splurge (the reason I do this mid-year is because I happily receive a lot of book tokens at Christmas and birthday but then also a lot of books. By June, the TBR should have calmed down a bit from then, and there is room for some newcomers! I look forward to reporting the results of this year’s Splurge soon.

In the meantime, I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun working through their books!

Akala – “Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire”

(18 June 2020)

I was not born with an opinion of the world but it clearly seemed that the world had an opinion of people like me. I did not know what race and class supposedly were but the world taught me very quickly, and the irrational manifestations of its privileges forced me to search for answers. I did not particularly want to spend a portion of a lifetime studying these issues, it was not among my ambitions as a child, but I was compelled upon this path very early. (p. 5)

As the quote from David Olusoga on the front of this book says, it’s “Part biography, part polemic”. Akala was born in the 1980s and grew up in Camden, London, with Scottish/English – Jamaican heritage and he talks about how this heritage places him in British society, about which parts of it he relates to, about the experiences he had and the choices he made growing up – not all good ones, and he holds his hands up to that – while relating all this to wider society and politics, both in the UK and globally. He’s confiding and provocative, talks about his mum and guns, and accurately predicts things that have happened since publishing the book (including the government seeking to divide and conquer by reporting on race when they should be thinking about class, as we’ve seen in the recent report about school achievement of “poorer White children”.

It’s not a solemn or dry tome: there are witty asides and it keeps moving, taking a conversational tone while being backed up with the references and statistics we all need when we’re reading bits out and people go, “But what about ….?” or we think that ourselves. He even puts in quotes from White people for those of us who crave those (I hope I’ve got past that sticking point but he makes a valid point in mentioning it; he also does it in an amusing fashion). He makes his privileges and advantages clear: having a mum who, although White, with all the difficulties that brought to their relationship, was radical and politically active and made it her mission to be educated about Black issues and history, and a pan-African Sunday school as well as a fierce older sister who mocked him out of rapping in an American accent when he was starting out in music.

As well as this biographical information and stories of how his identity and life experience was honed by coming up against a mainstream culture of police suspicion and racist teachers, Akala very much looks at wider cultures and societies. He shares the radical history of Haiti’s anti-slavery revolution and Cuba’s aid to South Africans trying to end Apartheid as well as a searing indictment of Britain’s seeming obsession with claiming William Wilberforce single-handedly ended slavery, and that we ended it out of some noble or caring motive. He’s also very clear about the intersection of race and class, and about how class in Britain conspires to divide and conquer and keep many people down.

The chapter about the relationship between American and British Black culture is fascinating, and I love that he takes a provocative pop at those Americans who have criticised Black British actors for coming over and taking all the jobs / Black British people for not being spirited enough (oh, Maya Angelou!) in addition to earlier interrogating White British love for Mandela / hate for Castro and his own feelings about Barack Obama (not a massive fan). He’s certainly not afraid to ruffle a few feathers.

Bringing things up to date by talking about the growth in West African as opposed to Caribbean originating Black populations in Britain and the changes in perception by the rest of the world, the book ends by a consideration of what would happen to a child born into matching circumstances to Akala’s but in 2018 not 1983. He is reluctant to see much positive there but does admit that movements happen and people have power, and ends up by exhorting his readers “to choose whether to act or do nothing” to help bring about the positive outcome he fears might not happen.

I value this book for its honesty and the information it provides which is definitely extra to the history I learned at school, and its insight into modern British (mostly urban) culture. I’m very much looking forward to reading Afua Hirsch’s “Brit(ish)” to read about a female experience contemporary to this male experience as several people have indicated to me this is a valuable pairing to read close to each other.

This was book number 4 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


Book review – Anne Shade and Victoria Villaseñor (eds.) – “In Our Own Words”

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I’m getting on reasonably well with my NetGalley reads as well as the print ones I’m reading for 20BooksOfSummer2021 and various review books – this is the second of the five published this month that I have read and reviewed. I’ve struggled a bit with reviewing this one because it wasn’t really what I’d thought. Even though the description stated it was short stories:

In Our Words: Queer Stories from Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Writers is a thoughtfully curated collection of short stories at the intersection of racial and queer identity. Comprising both the renowned and emerging voices of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color authors, across multiple countries, and diverse in style, perspective, and theme, In Our Words reflects the complexity and diversity of human experience.

… I managed to miss that aspect of it and thought it was, a bit like “Common People” (which, ironically, I’d thought WAS a collection of short stories) a set of memoir pieces about people’s lived experiences on the intersection of race and sexuality.

“In Our Words: Queer Stories from Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Writers” – stories selected by Anne Shade and edited by Victoria Villaseñor

(08 May 2021)

So it’s short stories, and the first one, “Sweet Potato” by Briana Lawrence, was pretty good – a churchgoing mum sticks up for her gay daughter and what seems like an Act of God might just be something else … That was a good story with a twist, and then we were off whizzing through the genres, all of the main characters LGBTQIA+ in some way, and all Global Majority or Indigenous People, which was refreshing, I’d imagine (I’m not a big short story reader to be honest, but I presume representation, and especially intersectional representation, is as lacking in this field and in these genres as elsewhere). I’m not really a genre reader so I’m probably defining these wrong but we run through the mild paranormal, urban romance, a bit of (gentle, thank goodness) horror, some sci-fi and fantasy, and some straightforward erotica, really. I liked the positive wish-fulfilment aspect of some of the stories – body positivity, women taking power for themselves, good advice on clearing negativity from one’s life.

I got a bit stuck with a few of them, if I’m being honest. Not being a genre reader, I didn’t really get hugely interested in the sci fi and one of the fantasy pieces and skimmed them. Some, I just plain didn’t understand, there was one with two chaps in a flat and one of them seeing weird stuff in the mirror I could not make out (probably completely my fault). One of the fantasy pieces about a mermaid sent to help a human in distress was nicely done to an extent but then relied on the heroine’s family being wiped out mysteriously, giving her a reason to grieve but sort of weirdly glossed over.

And quite a few of the stories seemed just to be about making it to the erotic encounter, with no other story than that. That’s a bit much for me – I don’t mind a bit of erotica in its place and I accept these weren’t high literary fiction (I don’t normally enjoy high literary fiction short stories, anyway, more basic ones telling, you know, a story, are preferable, and I am certainly not sneery about genre fiction; I just don’t know its tropes well) – but when it’s just a stub of a story that leads to a lovingly described erotic encounter, I just feel uncomfortable (just to make it clear: I would be uncomfortable if this was straight, cisgender, White, middle-aged, non-mermaid or shape-shifter erotica-only stories that matched my gender and sexuality and other attributes, nothing to do with the protected or fantasy characteristics of the characters and their authors. I had a big think about this to make sure, believe me).

One thing I did find interesting was the insertion of coronavirus themes into several of the stories – in terms of social distancing, online working and mask wearing. It’s fascinating to see it working its way into things all over the place.

So I’m not going to be rushing out to buy lesbian mermaid erotica but I’m glad it’s out there for people who want to read it. I’m glad books are being published in which people of all different genders, sexualities and races and the intersections thereof can see themselves represented. It wasn’t for me – but then also it really probably wasn’t for me, as such. Kudos to the editors and writers for putting this together and the publisher for putting it out there.

Thank you to Bold Strokes Publishing for making this available to me to read in return for an honest review.


Book Serendipity

One for Bookish Beck, who likes to collect these: the first story in this book featured (many) sweet potato pies, and on the very day I read that short story, I came across a sweet potato pie in Maya Angelou’s “Gather Together in My Name”.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Saint Maybe”

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I’m over half way through my Anne Tyler 2021 project and I really enjoyed this one after the so-so feelings about the last one. I did mark when I bought this Vintage copy (I’m into the pile of white books in the middle of the photo of the Anne Tyler Pile), and it was on 18 August 1996. Again, I didn’t remember much about it, although I did recall there was an embarrassing church (and there was!) and it’s still not where I got the idea to keep all my kitchen cupboards neat with the tin labels all turned out (where WAS that, then?).

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 – “Saint Maybe”

(18 August 1996)

There was this about the Bedloes: They believed that every part of their lives was absolutely wonderful. It wasn’t just an act, either. They really did believe it. Or at least Ian’s mother did, and she was the one who set the tone. (p. 8)

So here we have another family with a Family theme that keeps them together – and in fact we see that Mrs B is a somewhat heroic figure, plodding on through her family’s increasingly chaotic and fractured life, later on in terrible pain from her arthritis but hiding it gracefully.

Ian, the central character, has a fairly standard life, with a steady girlfriend and plans for higher education. Then his brother brings home a bright and breezy girlfriend who already has two children, Ian clearly falls for her, too, and then when he thinks the scales fall from his eyes (it’s never entirely clear what happens) he tells a tale to his brother that destroys the family. Instead of leaving, he becomes the family carer, atoning forever for a sin he committed in good faith, part of the aforementioned embarrassing church, which is all about such atonement, and doing good for the community.

Life wears on, year after year. We see the children grow up and branch out, as Ian’s sister produces an endless stream of her own (named alphabetically, in a nod to Tyler’s characters who like to do things to simplified but odd plans). There is an animal death, but in a long story with a family dog, it’s expected and not too traumatic (though still of course sad and marked).

I loved the character Rita, the home organiser, who comes and sorts out the house, removing all those things that are so familiar to everyone (I don’t think this family is such a chaotic one as some in Tyler’s novels: we all have sad mugs waiting behind the usual ones in case they’re needed, don’t we?). The embarrassing church is seen through Ian’s and the children’s eyes and not mocked as such, but kindly indicated as being odd and off, but providing a refuge to lots of people. In fact, Ian must make a choice with regard to the church, and does so: he’s another character who seems quiet and ineffective but has a core of steel.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

Book review – Kit de Waal (ed.) – “Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers”

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My third 20BooksofSummer read and I’m getting on well with my First Two Months of Diversity (obviously a class-based exploration this time). I bought this in April 2020 and I can’t remember now if that was with my Book Token Splurge (must do this year’s) or just a random purchase (oh, look, I just wanted to read about some other lives than my own!) and it was an ideal candidate for this fun list of mine.

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun working through their books! And can anyone recommend me some more working-class writers to read?

Kit de Waal (ed.) – “Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers”

(15 April 2020)

Even though I have lived away from home for a third of my life now, it continues to shape the way I think about the world outside it. (p. 53, Stuart Maconie quoting Lynsey Hanley’s “Estates”)

I had a good think about this and I do read some books by working-class writers or writers of working-class origin (Paul Magrs, Jo McMillan, Stuart Maconie, James Kelman, Magnus Mills, Ellen Wilkinson, Kathleen Dayus, those of the Angry Young Men who weren’t middle-class, and I have Anita Sethi’s memoir to read this month …) but not enough probably, and I do agree that their words and lives should be more represented in books – both. There’s in fact a compelling set of stats in the final essay in this book to prove how middle-class publishing and the books that are published are, becoming even more woeful when you look at any intersections at all with gender, race, sexuality or disability. So this 2019 book taking 34 working-class writers and showcasing their memoir writing (so their own-words work and their sharing of their lives) is an important one. Aaaand … it was published on Unbound, the crowd-funding subscription model publishers, making an ironic point if it wasn’t able to get published traditionally.

The authors are half published, established writers and half new writers, some never before seen in print at all. And you know what, I kept flicking to the author biographies at the back and kept guessing wrongly! The work as a whole is lovely and coherent, with a great flow even though the individual pieces are quite short – linked themes like darts, pool and greyhound racing (all enjoyed by female writers) bob up and dip down again as you go. I loved that it was all memoir, as I am not always a fan of the short story: although some of these have a more fictionalised or shaped form (and of course all are shaped in some way), most of them are straightforward narratives of a time in someone’s life or their life path and reflections on their working-class status (or not, for some of them).

These are lives different to mine – not just in the people of different genders, sexualities or ethnicities, but in a profound lack of a confidence which I can see I gained through my middle-class privilege (I’m not very confident personally but I know I can walk into a room of whoever and be listened to, and I know I can up my middle-class signifiers and gain more credentials as a result, though I do try to use that, like my white privilege, for the common good).

It would be hard to draw out favourites in the collection. Loretta Rankinssoon offers a wonderful portrayal of tower-block life, seeing posh blocks go up around her council one, destroying their view, panicked by Grenfell, with little vignettes of encounters in the lift. Cathy Rentzenbrink points out how little darts there is in modern literature, only cropping up in Martin Amis (I wonder if I will find darts everywhere now in what I read. I suspect not) and draws a great parallel between the practice boards players use to make things harder in practice thus easier out in the world. She gets accused of being middle-class but remains out there, hoping she’ll win a prize: “People like me can write books. People like anyone can write books” (p. 81).

Riley Rockford’s “Domus Operandi” is one of the more experimental pieces, interspersing a middle/upper class dinner with memories of a working-class upbringing, both meeting in the ability to eat a globe artichoke, thank you very much. Louise Doughty, in “Any Relation” talks, too, about blending in at middle-class events but also realising she profited from a short window of opportunity where you could be socially mobile which has now closed on the next generation. Anita Sethi’s portrayal of her one, life-changing visit to the Lake District makes me even more keen to read her full memoir.

A valuable and worthwhile, amusing and entertaining, not at all worthy or dry book that deserves to be out there and to have the word spread about it. I hope more working-class writers are coming into the publishing world as a result.

This was book number 3 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


Book review – William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer – “The Boy who Harnessed the Wind”

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It’s 20BooksofSummer time at the moment and I’m thrilled to have finished my second book in my First Two Months of Diversity (a book set in Malawi, written by a Malawian author) – I’ve now started Book 3, Kit de Waal’s “Common People”, too. This was one of the last books I bought physically before the lockdown, on a trip round the local charity shops with a “charity shop voucher” from my friend Sian.

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun working through their books!

William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer – “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”

(07 March 2020)

The chief sat on the sofa, dressed in a crisp shirt and nice trousers. Chiefs usually dressed like businesspeople, never in feathers and hides. That’s in the movies. (p. 26)

We have the story of William’s life through from his early childhood to his entry into and progress through full-time education (by no means a given at any age in his village in Malawi) and although there are very bad times, it’s a story of persistence, self-education and hope.

Growing up the only boy in a farming family, William is expected to help his father with the farm, and all the hard work that involves, growing tobacco as a cash crop and maize as a subsistence crop. His two best friends are his cousin, Geoffrey, and Gilbert, son of the local chief. These three boys help and sustain each other, and are still friends: he thanks them hugely in the acknowledgements and their work is very much a joint effort.

During and then after a long and horrendous famine, described in detail, with analysis of the deforestation and government policies which helped it to happen and didn’t help it to stop, William is excited about going to secondary school to learn about science. He’s already taking radios apart and mending them and trying to learn, but this will be the key to his future. Except there’s no money to pay the school fees. Saved by a library and a kindly librarian, William starts to teach himself about wind power, dynamos and electricity, and (this isn’t spoiler: there’s a picture on the front of the book) builds a windmill.

But it’s not easy. He has to read books in English, so has to learn English to do that. He has to scrabble around for materials, digging around in an old scrapyard for hours to find what he might need, and to work extra jobs to pay for a welder to help him make his machines (I love how the welder comes around to be a firm fan). Just when he’s getting somewhere (one bulb for a light in his room), another famine comes and some local people start accusing him of witchcraft. There’s also the classic narrative of everyone thinking he’s playing silly games, etc., until he demonstrates what he can do.

There’s heartache in the book: the bad times are told plainly and there’s a very sad bit about his dog (but it’s part of the narrative, not gratuitous). But it’s a generally positive book, full of the support of his friends – Gilbert has a bit of money so he buys William a spool of wire he needs – and of strangers who hear about him and bring him into the TED organisation. When he goes to TED, he makes sure he mentions all his fellow-Africans who are working on amazing projects:

The most amazing thing about TED wasn’t the Internet, the gadgets, or even the breakfast buffets with three kinds of meat, plus eggs and pastries and fruits that I dreamed about each night. It was the other Africans who stood onstage each day and shared their stories and vision of how to make our continent a better place for our people. (p. 253)

This is not a story of African pain, famine and aid: it’s a positive story about the power of education and a man with a blazing spirit who has gone so far from his village (but ensures that he supports those in it, still, sharing the water from his parents’ new well with everyone, for example. An inspiring read.

This was book number 2 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


Book review – Ruby Ferguson – “Apricot Sky”

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I have been fortunate to receive a couple more of Dean Street Press Furrowed Middlebrow imprint books from the publisher to review. These two lovely books were published on 7 June, and I greatly enjoyed my first read, “Mrs Lorimer’s Quiet Summer“.

Ruby Ferguson – “Apricot Sky”

(06 April 2021)

Nobody talked about their feelings at Kilchro House, it was considered one stage worse than talking about your inside.

This is a slightly odd book in that it’s almost two books in one: a children’s adventure story and a light love story, all set in beautiful countryside that Candia McWilliam in her Introduction describes as a liminal, thin place where magic can seep through – the mainland and islands of the West of Scotland.

So we have a family just post-Second World War, we have a family that’s been battered by war but not broken. Mrs MacAlvey has ended up looking after three of her grandchildren after losing two sons in the war – she has one son and his difficult, faddy wife living nearby, one daughter living with her but engaged and about to move and one daughter on her way back from a few years in America. In addition, she has visitors – she loves visitors – in the form of two more grandchildren who are a bit stuffy and stuck up, and an old friend who has had An Operation she loves to tell people about. Oh, and said friend’s daughter pops in, too.

It’s a full house, and in the middle of this, Cleo, home from America, pines for the local laird, whose brother her sister is marrying, but is tongue-tied and clumsy in front of him and losing hope – especially when she’s asked to settle at home for a while to support her mother, realising this will probably mean she will be there forever. Meanwhile, the children and their great, shabby friend Gull, had planned a summer of sailing but now have to take two drearies, Elinore and Cecil around with them. They ache to visit a mysterious island, but what will happen when they do?

Thrown in a local glamour-puss who everyone but Cleo seems to love (and an oh-so-awkward encounter between the two), and a party or two and you’ve got a lovely mix of acute observation –

“Was the tea all right?” asked Mrs MacAlvey anxiously. “I mean, the cakes just tasted like dust and ashes to me, but it’s always like that, when it’s your own party.”

– different modes of love and marriage, and all about it, wonderful descriptions of the local scenery and, just as wonderful, and I’m sure greatly enjoyed in the early 50s when this was first published, descriptions of picnics and high teas with plenty of strawberries and scones.

Thank you to Rupert from Dean Street Press for sending me a review copy of this book in e-book format in exchange for an honest review.

A quick book review – Natasha Brown – “Assembly”

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It’s quite a quick review for Assembly here, which I downloaded on 01 April this year. It’s had a lot of buzz about it, and the description of a young Black woman attending a big posh White garden party and deciding she had had Enough appealed to me – in fact it was touted as shocking, which worried me a bit.

I just struggled to get to grips with this. I think I’m not adept enough with literary criticism or getting to grips with the modern novel. It was episodic and full of flashbacks and bits of thoughts. I could compare it to “Open Water” in the sort of floaty and slightly confusing narrative (although it had a more standard first-person narrator). There were flashes of “Queenie” in her workplace life and the micro-aggressions and work best friends but that was way more straightforward to read (and sorry to compare this only to books by other Black authors – looks like those are the group of modern novels I seem to be reading at the moment!).

There are great moments in it, the reader has to work for information a lot of the time and that got me confused, but it does have important things to say about micro- and macroaggressions and how exhausted Black women are by their code-switching, “Work twice as hard” lives (this was a theme in “The Other Black Girl,” of course, too). This, unnamed, heroine takes a different and, yes, I suppose shocking, strategy to give in to the exhaustion. I liked how Brown wove in important information about the British Government’s destruction of records of citizenship which came out in the Windrush Scandal (recently also highlighted in “Burning the Books“), but I’m afraid I couldn’t work out why the narrator was sending off her passport which initiated that discussion.

So for me, good in parts but confusing – but I’m sure a lot of that is down to me and my distance from reading books as critically and academically as this one might need. I’d struggle with the structure whoever the author and whatever the topic. It’s good to have experimental novels by Global Majority People authors getting published and shared on services like NetGalley, of course.

Thank you to Hamish Hamilton for making this book available for me to read via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Breathing Lessons”

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Wow – we’re into June in my Anne Tyler 2021 project and almost half-way through the project (there are 23 books and this was number 11. Can you believe that?) We’re using a Vintage edition here but amazingly and unusually, I did NOT write the date of acquisition in this book! However, my trusty Index to my Reading Diaries has me having bought the book some time in 1997, although I read it in July 1998, so I’m thinking perhaps I bought it that year. Who actually now knows?!

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 – “Breathing Lessons”

(1997/98)

Same old song and dance. Same old arguments, same recriminations. The same jokes and affectionate passwords, yes, and abiding loyalty and gestures of support and consolations no one else knew how to offer; but also the same old resentments dragged up year after year, with nothing ever totally forgotten: the time Ira didn’t act happy to hear Maggie was pregnant, the time Maggie failed to defend Ira in front of her mother, the time Ira refused to visit Maggie in the hospital, the time Maggie forgot to invite Ira’s family to Christmas dinner. (p. 158-9)

First off, I will say that I did enjoy this book apart from one point which I will address later but don’t particularly want to dwell on. I did not remember this one again, and in fact had it mixed up with “Ladder of Years”, in the sense that I thought it was the one where the woman runs away from her life, but this is the one that’s a day in the life of a woman who very much runs towards her life, and everyone else’s, and, to be charitable, tries to do good in those lives.

Last read (“The Accidental Tourist“) we had a central character who was a very organised man, having to deal with two loves of his life who were serendipitous, accidental and vague in their planning. This time around, we have Maggie as the central character, who does things on a whim and is never hugely organised, her husband Ira tutting and hissing around her as if he can’t bear to see someone so random. Like in “Searching for Caleb”, this mismatched pair have a daughter, Daisy, who only wants to be neat and tidy and organised, like everyone else, and to make it to a good college to study an academic subject. And like several of the books, but from a different angle, Jesse, their son, is the good-looking failed rock star who picks up a follower, marries her and then has a ramshackle sort of marriage and baby until that fails. There’s also a couple of siblings living with their elderly parent, in the rest of Ira’s family, and a small family owned shop that passes down the generations almost by accident, like the photography business in Earthly Possessions, and Maggie has a number of siblings although this is not laboured. There’s a road trip to a life event, too, as in “The Clock Winder”. Lots of nice links to the rest of Tyler’s oeuvre so far.

Ostensibly, we have a day where Maggie and Ira must drive to her friend’s husband’s funeral, and back again, before taking their daughter to college the next day. But we open with their marriage and patterns, and then flip into a vague plan to go and search out the mother of their granddaughter, now living with her mother, somewhere sort of along the way, with side excursions and a long section reaching back into history, a common trope Tyler uses, always to good effect. By the end, we know their marriage well, the moments of support, the long marriage characteristics pulled out in the quote at the top of this review, and there is a moment of perhaps hope, or unity. Is there?

So we have a long marriage and a short one, but the main point is that Maggie cannot help a) meddling in the lives of those close to her, and b) getting involved in some way in the lives of strangers. She tells a waitress in a random diner too much information and causes an elderly Black man to become confused about the state of his car and find out his life story while embarking on a side road trip. Everything is slightly confused by Maggie’s habit of smoothing things over with half-truths and lies, of saying what the other person wants to hear, which she can’t see as meddling but everyone else does:

She was in trouble with everyone in this house, and she deserved to be; as usual she had acted pushy and meddlesome. And yet it hadn’t seemed like meddling while she was doing it. She had simply felt as if the word were the tiniest bit out of focus, the colors not quite within the lines – something like a poorly printed newspaper ad – and if she made the smallest adjustment then everything would settle perfectly into place. (p. 312)

I feel like Tyler might be on the side of the Organised People in this one. She goes quite far in proving Maggie’s fecklessness and inability to do the right thing, and this is where I diverged from liking the book: she introduces three animal deaths, at least two of which just serve to show Maggie’s ineptitude and the serious effects it can have, and this upset me, especially as it’s not something she often does (OK, there’s obviously a child’s death in “Accidental Tourist” and other novels but this is small pieces that could be lifted with no effect). I don’t want to discuss that further, but it left a slightly bad taste.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

Book review – Jonathan van Ness – “Over the Top”

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At last I’ve got to the first book in my 20 Books of Summer 2021 pile – after having started two books right at the end of May that I had to finish and review (here and here) first. Oops! But I got to it in the end and actually raced through it, probably because I had nothing to do apart from some gardening on Saturday so I could sit and finish a big chunk of it. I have started “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”, too, so feel I am making some progress. Hooray!

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having a good start to their pile, too!

Jonathan van Ness – “Over the Top: My Story”

(07 April 2020)

Learning to hold a safe space for people to share with me while maintaining my well-being is a delicate dance. (p. 5)

Van Ness is one of the “Queer Eye” Fab Five (I’ve already read the memoirs by Tan France and Karamo Brown, Antoni’s is mainly a cook book and Bobby hasn’t done one!) and he offers a memoir that’s perhaps a little deeper and more troubled than the others (though Karamo also has his moments, I recall). Opening with a description of what it was like to be suddenly famous, and characteristically kindly pulling a hyperventilating fan back onto the pavement before styling a photo shoot with her, JVN is soon expressing his fear that, as someone with a big personality who likes to share his opinions on politics and society as well as hair straightening and beard care, “if you knew all of me, you wouldn’t love me anymore”.

He then proceeds to share all of him, from the young boy who practised endless skating and gymnastics routines alone at home, whose dad (who he graciously says has grown and learned a lot) got stressed when he tried on ball gowns, who was abused by an older boy and had to suffer through the ramifications of this in a small town, to the teenager who tried to get on the cheerleading team as the first male cheerleader, who was bullied and who ended up dropping out of university and taking on sex work to survive, to a nascent then successful hairdresser who had to escape some toxic environments.

Van Ness addresses the issue I’ve seen in relation to Black lives as well as LGBTQI+ lives that their description involves a lot of pain – he states that “Joy and pain often occur all together” so it’s not possible to separate them out. He does have a lot of joy and good relationships and hilarious moments (when his parents tell him they’re getting a a divorce and he immediately demands his mum’s ring springs to mind), as well as pain and bad ones, so it’s in general a positive book. He also shares a lot about self-care and being kind to yourself and others which is important and positive for everyone: in fact, he says,

I hope sharing my story encourages people to be more aware and compassionate on issues that may not directly affect them and spread that compassion to more people who need it. (p. 256)

He talks about traditional/toxic masculinity and its limitations – “Being strong and masculine has everything to do with having the courage and audacity to be different” (p. 108) as well as the limitations his mum was pushed into by her gender. And I loved the mention of original “Queer Eye” and how he told in his audition that it gave him a way to talk about his sexuality with his family. And of course at the end he hopes that we still do love him after he’s shared all that he’s shared (I think we do).

It’s all either written directly by JVN in his own words or perhaps dictated and transcribed (he’s not clear on the process and doesn’t talk about a co-writer but thanks people at his publisher), it very much reads in his own voice, and while I think I would have enjoyed the audio book, too, I know from listening to his podcast that he talks at top speed! Slang phrases and iconic phrases abound and it’s a quirky read from that perspective. There’s a great resource list at the back of the book that is targeting to UK, Australia and NZ and Indian organisations, presumably for the UK market.

This was number 1 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


The lovely blogger Bookish Beck has a Book Serendipity series she runs from time to time (the latest one is here) where she shares coincidences from books she is reading at the same time or close to one another. I’ve had a couple of these while I’ve been reading recently, including in this book, so here’s my little contribution:

  • In this book and Anne Tyler’s “Breathing Lessons” (being reviewed next), a mother reads a leaflet / sees an Oprah segment on drug use in teens and extrapolates the worst in relation to her child.
  • “Mrs Lorimer’s Quiet Summer” and “Breathing Lessons” both contain a character called Rona.

Book review – Jo McMillan – “Motherland”

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I’ve pictured my May TBR here because this was one of the two books I picked up at the end of May, thinking I could finish them easily before the start of June and my 20 Books of Summer … only to find they both leaked through into June itself. Ah well, never mind: I HAVE started my 20 Books of Summer now, with the first one finished and the second on the go, and I enjoyed this unusual novel in the meantime (Having read the first two books on the TBR pictured, I chose between this and “Blue Boy” by number of pages, knowing I wouldn’t be able to finish “Isomania” in time!).

Jo McMillan – “Motherland”

(27 February 2020 – from Kaggsy at The Ramblings)

“We’ll visit a cattle-rearing station, a kindergarten, an agricultural museum, Buchenwald concentration camp.” The words ‘concentration camp’ came out loud and with too much enthusiasm. My mum ducked into her tea. (p. 34)

Well, I can’t say I’ve ever read a book set in Tamworth before; not far from where I am here and I’ve been there a few times. Jess and her mum are the only Communists in town, hawking the Morning Star on a Saturday and enduring taunts and insults and sometimes worse. They’re committed to the cause and as Jess grows up (she’s 13 at the start of the book, at university at the end) she joins a young Communist league in a neighbouring town. I love all the details of the meetings and internal politics

Ivan had changed since last night. He’s put on a ribbed navy jumper and black combat trousers, and looked military, in a Millets kind of way. (p. 216)

but, while they are amusing to an extent, there’s a scary and violent undercurrent – this isn’t a game and there are real people watching.

Jess and her mum get to experience Real Existing Socialism, as they put it, when Eleanor is invited to join a summer school in Potsdam. Soon they are going over every summer, Eleanor rising through the ranks, maybe more attracted by Peter and his daughter Martina, another half-family looking for its whole. Jess looks up to the older Martina and wishes she could be a rule-breaker, but she really isn’t. She’s aware of her mum’s relationship with Peter but everything is so difficult – the part where they think he might get to come to London for a conference is nail-biting.

As time wears on, Jess starts to become more her own person, and sometimes the mother-daughter role seems to swap. Eleanor is so committed and well-meaning, doing the things some of us probably wish we did ourselves, but also know it’s embarrassing, for example making sure to always apologise for British colonialism while waiting for takeaways. The characters around them shift and change, people are reassigned without warning and can slip away. Will Jess manage to defect as a teenager or will someone else go? The ending is ambiguous, but nicely so, the summers of Thatcherism before the fall of the Wall beautifully told, the details precise and sometimes a little uneasy (not one to read over your breakfast if you’re me).

I’m so glad Kaggsy sent me this book, very unusual and enjoyable, a portrait of a different time, one I can still remember (the fall of the Berlin Wall came while I was at university, so I’m a bit younger than Jess) and one which I don’t think has been written about so intimately.

Here’s Kaggsy’s more full and erudite review, including her personal experience of having a penpal from East Germany. And having re-read her review, I find my friend Luci’s mum was mentioned in the acknowledgements!

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