December To Be ReadSee, now I’ve got a bit of breathing space, I’m whizzing through books. So there’s a bumper three for the (no) price of two reviews today, and I’ve already finished another one. It’s looking like it’ll be “Americanah” on Christmas Day/Boxing Day, which I’ve very excited about – I’ve been saving up other people’s reviews to read once I’ve read that one. That, incidentally, is why I only ever publish my “best of” post on 1 January: you never know what you’re going to read in the end period of the year, and I was vindicated in this the year that “Daniel Deronda” was the last book I picked up in 2012 and would have been my top book for that year, had I been able to stay up late enough to finish it at the end of that December (it was in my top ten for 2013, instead). Anyway, here we have three books that look at mapping, history and travel in various ways – an excellent trio of non-fiction with plenty of time to read them.

Caryl Phillips – “The European Tribe”

(26 January 2014 – from Gill)

A slim volume I’d been after for ages, which charts Phillips’ journey around Europe, basically looking at race relations and social issues. Chillingly when read today (it was published in 1987), it talks of the rise of racism, the rejection of people from former colonies of European countries and their Europe-born children, and the rise of the far right, predicting the riots that we had only a few years ago when he talks about the dangers of a consumer society which encourages people to feel the need to “gratify the needs they are conditioned to feel”.

He also speaks eloquently of the role of the government and media in spreading misinformation and dividing communities along racial lines, talking about the British riots of the early 1980s. He’s also scathing about the corralling of educated black people into the race relations industry rather than society working towards true equality – is this not equally true today when we look at those responsible for equalities in government and organisations?

It’s not all po-faced, though – far from it – which makes it the persuasive and engaging read that it is. He’s perceptive, self-aware and on occasions, amusing. A good, if uncomfortable, read, and I’m glad I finally got to own and read it.

Rachel Hewitt – “Map of a Nation”

(25 January 2014 – Oxfam in Stratford-upon-Avon)

A biography of the Ordnance Survey, apparently developed from her PhD, and done extremely well. It’s very readable indeed, full of characters and information on map-making, as you would expect, but also asides and digressions into discussions of notions of natural beauty, enclosure, the beginning and development of modern tourism, poetry …

I learned a lot reading this book, and was pleased to note that Sheet 1 of the first map, while nominally being of “Kent”, features the location of my three first homes in London, with their roads clearly visible, even if none of the actual buildings were there yet!

Hewitt wears her learning lightly and is able to both give a good idea of people’s personalities and relationships and explain the intricacies of technical detail when explaining the instruments used to do the mapping. Black and white illustrations throughout the text and colour plates, along with extensive notes and a full bibliography, plus the inclusion of a few personal anecdotes about the author’s visits to various locations important to the book (or to her) make this book a joy to read for the expert and the novice alike.

Victor Skipp – “The Making of Victorian Birmingham”

(25 January 2014 – charity shop in Stratford-upon-Avon)

A good and detailed history of, indeed, just the Victorian part of Birmingham’s history, although mentioning earlier and later events as it goes. It covers civic leadership, housing, sanitation, education, public buildings, transportation, etc., as you would expect. There is quite a lot of detail, some of which could be considered slightly too exhaustive when we get into civic wrangling, but in the main it’s very good and readable, with excellent overviews of the main characters and their roles.

All of the illustrations are black and white, and unfortunately many fall into the central gutter of the book, but there are some good images and maps. Poignantly, as this book was published in 1983, many of the Victorian buildings discussed and pictured, especially factories and other industrial buildings that were already falling into disrepair at the time of writing, have now gone altogether. So the book also serves as a good reminder and archive of those remnants. A good addition to my Birmingham shelves. Oh, and it fills in a year in the Century of Reading!

Well, I’m glad that I’ve got through all of the books purchased in January, as I don’t like to be a whole YEAR behind (I seem to recall that I did have a bit of a gap in the book acquisition later in the year, so that shouldn’t be the case soon, I hope). I’ve read a nice book on sewing since finishing these, and will undoubtedly have a few acquisitions and hopefully some more reads to report after Christmas. And, of course, look out for my Books of the Year and reading plans for 2015, to be published on 1 January!

For now, though, Merry Christmas, Season’s Greetings, Happy Solstice, or just hello to all of my lovely readers and commenters. Wishing you a great reading year for 2015, although I’ll see you all again (on this screen) before the end of the month!