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.

State of the TBR October 2020

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We have no piles! I finished eighteen books (EIGHTEEN BOOKS!) in September (one was one I’d been reading for months with my best friend and one was a cartoon book, but still) and even though only five of those were from the physical shelf (five were ebooks, three review books that came in during the month, four were off the piles on top and one was from my main shelves) and I took one off that I just did not fancy reading (“Julian Grenfell” by Nicolas Moseley, a Persephone I bough in Oxfam, which I will gift onwards) it was enough to shift things around so that everything can stand up.

In fact, can you see, at the end … there’s a GAP! I can’t remember when I last had a space for one book on the TBR without creating Piles! And there aren’t many balanced on the top now, either, just three WW2 Angela Thirkell novels left to go!

I’m just finishing off the wonderful “Kitted Out” which I am reviewing for Shiny New Books, that will be done by the end of the day, and I’m currently reading “Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey” by Madeleine Bunting, which is a wonderful book taking its time on each of about 20 islands, with history and reportage and nature, and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” is my current readalong with best friend Emma. We’ve covered the first chapter so far – I did know a fair bit of the history it covers, much thanks to David Olusoga et al’s excellent Alt HIstory strand “Black British History We’re Not Taught in Schools“, but not all of it by any means, so I learned a lot about Black support organisations and fascinating individuals and I’m looking forward to reading more tonight.

Next up I need to read “Slay in Your Lane” by by Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené, which shared stories of successful Black British women and offers advice to Black women wishing to follow their paths, because I won their follow-up book, “Loud Black Girls”, where 20 writers ask what’s next on NetGalley and that’s published today. Then my Paul Magrsathon carries on with “666 Charing Cross Road” which I’ve selected because Bookish Beck can get hold of a copy and it fits into her plan for spooky October reading. Also recently published in Arvin Ahmadi’s “How it All Blew Up”, another NetGalley win, which is described thus: “A nuanced take on growing up brown, Muslim and gay in today’s America, HOW IT ALL BLEW UP is the story of one boy’s struggle to come out to his family, and how that painful process exists right alongside his silly, sexy romp through Italy. “

And after that, as I’m now beautifully almost only a year behind myself, and as the books on the start of my TBR, with one notable exception, are a bit samey – monocultural to an extent, and mainly about nature! – whereas the newest ones are a bit more diverse in all ways, I think I might start alternating again, especially now I can get to the back shelf without moving Piles. I do of course still have a million books on Kindle too, so those will feature as well, and I know of at least two review books winging their way to me. Fun times!

I have a week off work next week so hope for a good batch of reading then. Not going anywhere as I’m in the middle of the Midlands extra lockdown region and very near some big hotspots, so no day trips or meeting up with friends in their houses or gardens, let alone holidays, but some clearing out and, yes, lots of reading …

Have you read any of these featured books? What are your October reading plans? Any challenges?

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