Christmas / end of year book haul #bookconfessions

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I usually share my Christmas book haul at the very end of the year, however I have high hopes that a) we will actually have our new boiler fitted tomorrow, b) while I have a day off for that I finish and review one more book. So here it is today. This is a combo of actual books I was given for Christmas and a lovely parcel from a fellow book-blogger as a sort of Christmas / ooh I have a birthday coming up / end of year package of joy. I’d love to know if you have read any of these and loved them, AND I am going to try to have read these by this time next year (I am ashamed to say I have some from last Christmas still to read).

So here are my Christmas books. From the top, my BookCrossing Not So Secret Santa (which we exchanged via the post and opened on a Zoom this year rather than bringing to a venue and swapping and opening) from the lovely Sue included two from my wishlist, Sally Magnusson’s “The Sealwoman’s Gift” (Icelanders are captured and taken to Algiers to try to make a life) and Ursula Le Guin’s “The Other Wind” (the ‘new’ Earthsea novel). There was also chocolate and a BookCrossing pencil.

Lovely Verity sent me Raynor Winn’s “The Salt Path”, having cleverly noticed that I kept yearning for a copy (once I knew there was a sequel, ahem) and I can’t wait to read this narrative of a couple made homeless by circumstance treading the South-West Coast Path.

I seem to have a tradition of presenting my best friend, Emma, with a list of Dean Street Press’s Furrowed Middlebrow imprint at Christmastime, and she came up with D.E. Stevenson’s “Music in the Hills” and “Winter and Rough Weather” which are the sequels to “Vittoria Cottage” which I read (in e-book form, so need to buy myself a copy) last January.

Then we have my LibraryThing Virago Group not-so-secret santa, which was from friend first, fellow book blogger later Heaven-Ali. What a lovely selection. I knew it would be from her as I was one of the organisers and I predicted there would be a Daphne du Maurier (“My Cousin Rachel”) as she will be keen for me to take part in her DdM reading week in May! I was also thrilled to receive “The Half-Crown House” and “Yeoman’s Hospital”, two Helen Ashtons she has also enjoyed (in lovely pre-loved editions, “Half Crown House” a Boots Circulating Library copy!) and Stella Gibbons’ “The Bachelor”. What joys those all hold! And there was some Christmas tea, too!

And my friend Gill, always a reliable wish-list burrower, provided me with wildflower seeds, hand-made honey and beeswax products and Jeffrey Boake’s “Black, Listed” about Black masculinities in the UK, and James Ward’s fascinating looking “Adventures in Stationery” which is, well, just that.

My super parcel from Bookish Beck included a set of books I’d expressed interest in as she read and reviewed them through the year. How lovely and thoughtful! Oh, there’s an Iris Murdoch in there, too, “The Italian Girl”, which I’ve obviously read, but she pops me paperback editions I might not have when she happens upon them. So the novel “Three Women and a Boat” by Anne Youngson includes scenes travelling through Birmingham on our canals, and lots of people have read Eley Williams’ “The Liar’s Dictionary” which is a dual-time narrative about someone inserting fictional words in a dictionary and a modern lexicographer searching them out. “The Group” by Laura Feigel riffs off and updates the seminal 1960s Mary McCarthy novel and “Silver Sparrow” by Tayari Jones is another wonderful-looking novel of Atlanta. Ruth Pavey’s “A Wood of One’s Own” is the story of four acres in the Somerset Levels. Lucky me!


Have I seen your Christmas book pile yet? How’s it looking? Of course I also received a good number of book and bookshop vouchers, which I will be saving for after my birthday, when I can have a lovely splurge to mop up, well, a tiny slice of the rest of my wishlist …

Book reviews – two light Christmas reads from Jane Linfoot and Cressida McLaughlin #amreading #bookblogger

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Four Christmas novelsBack in November I ordered a little pile of Christmas books to read over the festive period. But then I didn’t read enough of my actual TBR and Kindle (esp NetGalley) books to really be able to commit to reading all four of them, so I’ve put two aside for next year and just read these two. I did of course also read Paul Magrs’ “Christmassy Tales” which was a stand-out read for me that I will re-read next year. I’ve ended up saving the two books set on Scottish islands, so that will make a nice pairing next year – and who knows, I might get the other books in their series in the meantime (only if I’m a Very Good Girl for at least the first half of the year …)

The reason I say that is that one of these books is a standalone (or possibly the first in a series) while the other is the second in a series, and I didn’t find the latter as emotionally engaging – I suspect you do need to have read the first one first to really care about the characters.

Jane Linfoot – “A Cosy Christmas in Cornwall”

(November 2020)

Jane Linfoot doesn’t shy away from putting her characters through trauma and this one is no exception – our heroine Ivy is still recovering from an awful car accident, scarred physically and psychologically, and the only way she can cope is by throwing herself into doing things for other people. So she’s down in Cornwall, providing the advance party at a seaside castle which she’s going to style the whatsits out of for her best friend’s sister’s perfect Insta Christmas. But TeamChristmas comes up against the grumpy caretaker, more used to other kinds of guests, and a battle ensues to make things pretty before the guests arrive. When they do, we end up with testosterone-laden baking competitions, a merry band of silver surfers and a very cross client. It’s all a whirl and very amusing, but with jolts back to reality when Ivy reacts badly to certain elements but has to keep her feelings to herself. Cleverly, Ivy and her love interest have met before, so chemistry has been simmering, allowing quick developments over the Christmas period.

I loved the mentions of Santa, Mr Santa and their Christmas pony sleigh and the wedding shop itself from the Little Wedding Shop by the Sea books. Less lovely was the boiler going, as I was reading this all wrapped up after our own boiler had gone! But it is a classic Christmas event, so I will forgive the author that one! There is a dog and the dog is fine.

Loads of details and a gentle poke at the idea everything has to be picture perfect, with a good side helping of doing your own thing and being the best you you can make this a satisfying and jolly read. And it’s set in Cornwall, by the sea!

Cressida McLaughlin – “The Canal Boat Cafe Christmas”

(November 2020)

This is in a series and there has been a lot to contend with in the first book, including a fire and some other trauma and the main character, Summer, inheriting her mum’s canal boat cafe and deciding to run it herself, after running off with a group of travelling canal boat dwellers, and getting together with hunky wildlife photographer Mason.

Now Summer has decided she wants to make things more formal with Mason but before she can formulate her plans, she’s invited by those rovers to go down to Little Venice in Camden to attend a Christmas market. Will there be intrigue from an ex of Mason’s trying to make trouble? Of course. Will there be ice on the canal? There’s also lots of lovely detail about running a canal boat cafe, some lovely friendships, some peculiar drinking venues and two distracted people forgetting to communicate with each other … oh, and a certain larger gentleman with a white beard and twinkly eyes! And two dogs, which are fine.

One annoyance I had (which I don’t recall from this author’s Cornish Cream Tea Bus novels) is that the book was originally published as two short e-books, and half-way through this one we get a wodge of repetitive exposition which is there for if you are reading the second one without the first or a while afterwards. It wouldn’t have taken much editing to excise this and it jerks the reader into a bit of confusion and a lot of thinking how the publisher has worked on their monetising. it’s quite hard to find the correct editions of the Cream Tea Bus so I’m assuming the same will happen with this one – so watch out.

Otherwise, an undemanding and romantic book with the realities of canal boat life firmly to the fore and a nice Christmas read.


I’m getting back to non-Christmassy books for a bit now. Have you read any good ones?  And sorry to bombard everyone with reviews but I don’t like having reviews hanging over from one year to the next! I still have a Christmas acquisitions post to write, and my Best Of 2020 (and stats) will come out on 1 January, just in case I finish something a maz ing on New Year’s Eve!

 

Book review – Ayisha Malik – “Sofia Khan is not Obliged” @Ayisha_Malik #DiverseDecember

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What a great and satisfying read this one was. Although I was ready to be cross at the “Muslim Bridget Jones” tag (having railed against the “Black Bridget Jones” description of “Queenie”), the author’s letter to her readers at the end of the book made it clear that’s exactly what she planned to write. And she did that very well, and more. I picked this one up after reading her more recent “This Green and Pleasant Land” via NetGalley (proof that getting free books via NetGalley does encourage purchases!). Quite excitingly, among the reviews from bloggers in the front of the book, there’s one from The Writes of Womxn, who is behind the #DiverseDecember hashtag I’ve been adding to a number of my reads this month. You can read her review here.

Ayisha Malik – “Sofia Khan is not Obliged”

(06 May 2020)

We have a year in Sofia Malik’s life, thirty and not yet married, her older sister very much so. As we meet her, she is a month out of breaking up with a boyfriend who expected her to get into a very much too-close-for-comfort living arrangement with his extended family, and is throwing herself into her work as a book publicist instead. She has a group of friends who are great and have her back and a group of White colleagues who mean well and don’t quite get her jokes – apart from Kate, who provides a lot of meaningful work friendship, and she can use them for material when she somehow falls into being commissioned to write a book about Muslim dating. As she can the attractive American guy she met in the supermarket and is ‘just good friends’ with. But obviously not the tattooed Irish next-door neighbour who everyone assumes is a racist.

I loved so much about this book. Sofia’s family are hilarious and there are the scenes you expect from a cliched book or programme about Muslim women’s lives, like meet and greets with suitable boys, visits from overseas uncles and aunties with you under the microscope, but always with a twist and an authenticity, and a refusal to spell everything out for a reader outside the culture being discussed (so I had to look a few things up: so what). I also absolutely loved that Sofia is deeply religious. She prays five times a day, dresses modestly and wears a headscarf even when no one else in her family does and her mum’s always nagging her to take it off. I just love that, it’s not something I’ve really seen in many other novels and it’s so interesting and allows all sort of ideas to be considered.

The book is full of nuance. One boss indulges in well-meaning microaggressions; a maintenance worker swiftly and silently adjusts the window on the prayer room. Sofia and her family experience racism, but then also indulge in some casual racism and assumptions themselves. When she fights back against a street harrasser, it’s a mixture of people who support her and help her sort things out.

So a really good read, a feel-good novel which doesn’t shy away from addressing issues and has real depth to it.

I did buy the sequel but just didn’t fancy reading it. Also, do NOT buy the sequel and look at the blurb or reviews as the spoilers are there!

 

Book review – Mary Essex – “Tea Is so Intoxicating” #BLwomenwriters @BL_Publishing #bookbloggers

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This is one of the British Library’s new, beautiful Women Writers reissues, which I was fortunate enough to be sent by the publisher – I have been a little lax in getting to it and reviewing it, for which I apologise. It was an excellent, quirky read, with the usual excellent additional material you can expect from this reprint series. I have “O, the Brave Music” to read and will get to that as soon as I can.

Mary Essex – “Tea is so Intoxicating”

(29 August 2020)

It’s always interesting to have a book with an entirely unsympathetic main character – or a person who you assume is the main character, in this case Commander David Tompkins, who has never developed an attractive character or the knack of getting on with people. However, this and his one adventure into matters of the heart notwithstanding, first he runs off with someone’s wife, then he determines to start a tea house, with no experience or bonhomie, against the express wishes of said wife and the friends from whom he tries to get money, which is bound to fail. Oh, dear! However, it turns out that Germayne, the stolen wife, is really the central character, and while she’s pretty ineffectual, you do have to worry for her and like her, with her inappropriate woolly stockings and drooping hems. Because it’s set in a village (and I do so love a book set in a village) there is also a bluff pub landlord, a farmer and a termagant lady of the manor, as well as a retired colonial officer, and we also have introduced what can only be described as someone who purports to be a dolly-bird while actually being a calculating woman of steel, and Germayne’s daughter, a terrible bobby-soxer waiting to be released into society. And is Germayne’s first husband going to stand by and see her ruined?

The author was hugely prolific under a number of pen-names and she handles her content skillfully and confidently, with a slightly flat and artless narrative voice that I really liked. She has the skill to drop in a character or event then come back to it chapters later.

The book comes with a 1950s timeline, a biography of the author and a preface, as well as an afterword by series consultant Simon Thomas which takes in the author and the history of tea shops, making this a great package. It’s another pretty book, too, with French flaps and a pattern and silhouette. These really do make lovely gifts.

Thank you very much to British Library Publishing for sending me a print copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Book review – Jonathan Gornall – “How to Build a Boat” #amreading

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I’m terribly behind in my reviewing: I finished this one near the start of the month but seem to be doing everything out of order. This is a book I bought in one of my favourite bookshops – the Edge of the World bookshop in Penzance, last time we were down there in October last year. This photo is the one I took of all my purchases from that trip – I note I read the Jo Brand really quickly (I think I started it on the train home) and “Mr Loverman” was read in February this year, but “On the Marsh” very recently. I have “Wilding” all set up to read with Emma, and “Homesick” I’ve just started, and the other one is this one. Not TOO bad?

So, the last book I reviewed, “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” confounded my expectations in one way. This one was different from what I expected in a different way …

Jonathan Gornall – “How to Build a Boat”

(03 October 2019, Edge of the World Bookshop)

This is subtitled “A Father, His Daughter and the Unsailed Sea” and the back cover implied it would be all about an unskilled man learning how to work with wood and make a small sailing boat. Which it was, but a lot of it was about his misadventures trying to row across the Atlantic in a former life (which was fine) and his autobiography, life as a journalist and excitement at becoming a father for the second time aged 58. This was sweet, and the autobiographical bits about his relationship with his mother were resolved during the progress of the book, but I’d have liked more about the actual building of the boat – which is typical of me and my dislike for too much personal stuff in such books, and the author was probably exhorted to add more of that.

The technical bits were fun, although they soon got so complex that at least some sort of line drawing or diagram somewhere in the book apart from the nice woodcut on the front cover would have been useful. The personalities around boat-building in his local area are interesting, and I liked the writing technique of starting and finishing the book with him poised with a hose, choosing between two methods of checking whether the boat is seaworthy. But I can’t say I massively engaged with this one as much as I’d hoped.

Book review – Reni Eddo-Lodge – “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” #DiverseDecember

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This is such an important book, on all those diversity lists that have been coming out of course; I had had it on my wishlist for a while and bought it with a voucher early on in lockdown when my photo group were doing a lot of lovely pay it forward gifts and I received one for a bookshop. I then didn’t read it for a while, but I’m glad I had the delay, because what I ended up doing was reading it alongside my best friend Emma from early October to early December. We have been having Reading Night on a Thursday through lockdown, reading a chapter of a book in our separate cities but at the same time, with a Facebook Messenger conversation going on. We started with “Rewild Yourself” and we took our time, sometimes having a video chat if we really wanted to talk, sometimes not managing to slot it in. But reading the book slowly like this really allowed me time to think about what I’d been reading and its relevance to my life and circles and what I could maybe do about things.

Reni Eddo-Lodge – “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”

(28 April 2020 – bought with voucher for Topping & Company from Helen)

Lots of people have read this, of course, and a few people have talked about feeling defensive about what they read, so I tried to read it with an open mind and an attitude of learning and acceptance, rather than, “Yes, but, yes, but”. This came across most about the chapter on feminism, and while I was never part of the “movement”, having fallen between two stools (or perhaps waves!) due to my age, I could see there that work I’ve done with a feminist lens had some major sins of omission. I’m not going to lambast myself for my actions, but merely try to learn, and I was relieved to work out that my sins have indeed been of omission rather than commission. I was also very pleased to find some positive suggestions for action, something I’ve been searching for and hadn’t really expected to find here, listed so clearly.

Of course the book comes from that famous blog post where Eddo-Lodge laid out the idea that she was so sick of people talking over her, denying their and others’ racism, denying institutional racism, that she was just giving up speaking to White people about race at all. She does qualify this in the Preface:

I’m not talking to white people about race unless I absolutely have to. If there’s something like a media or conference appearance that means that someone might hear what I’m saying and feel less alone, then I’ll participate. But I’m no longer dealing with people who don’t want to hear it, wish to ridicule it, and, frankly, don’t deserve it. (p. xii)

The reaction she got to the original blog post inspired her to write a book picking up various themes and strands – and this new paperback edition also has an Aftermarth section which talks optimistically of the “renaissance of black critical thought and culture” and also in a British context, rather than having to “[rely] heavily on the American narrative as a tool to find ourselves” (both p. 235). This book was published and the new edition came out way before George Floyd’s murder and the huge increase in Black Lives Matter narratives and purchases by well-meaning allies: it is useful to be reminded that many of those books on those many lists were out there, waiting for us, when we went searching them out, and so many more have been written and published and promoted since. Now it’s our job to read those books and share about them.

This book is just so useful. First we are given a background to the racism of today with the Histories chapter, reminding us of the American slave trade and Britain’s role in it, leading into Eddo-Lodge’s own search for more information on Black people in Britain after slavery, which leads into her looking into Black History Month, how it was set up and how it differs from the US version. There’s lots of this positive information and it’s interesting to consider that I knew quite a lot about the bad stuff (the 1919 race riots, the systematic setting up of an atmosphere of discrimination for those who sought to move here quite legitimately, etc.) but not about the establishment of Black History Month or Dr Moody of Peckham who founded the first campaigning organisation for Black people, the League of Coloured Peoples, in 1931. She looks into perspectives on riots (or uprisings) and how the racism inherent in our society

does not erupt from nothing, rather it is embedded in British society. It’s at the very core of how the state is set up. It’s not external. It’s in the system. (p. 56}

A quick pause to say this is not the book I thought it was. I thought it was one long, well-argued polemic from a personal perspective. But it’s a lot more than that: a survey of history and sociology, heavily referenced and based on lots of different sources. I have purchased and read all sorts of different books and just thought this was what it was not (not surprised a Black writer writes in this way of course, in case anyone has read that into that).

The chapter on the system looks deeply at Stephen Lawrence’s murder and the institutional racism and corruption that led to the huge delays in getting him justice. I knew quite a lot about this, but there was still a lot I didn’t know about, and it’s so important to have this example after looking at the historical context. Here, the personal does jump in and shock us – Eddo-Lodge notes that she was 3 when Stephen Lawrence died and 22 when two of his killers were jailed. The wider context is looked at and shamed and shares information about Black children’s chances (or lack of) in education and then work, a condensed version of what I also read recently in “Slay in Your Lane” but is worth repeating for different audiences. Eddo-Lodge also shares her own journey from being suspicious of positive discrimination to accepting the need for it – a brave thing to include, and good evidence of people’s ability to change their mind. This chapter ends with a powerful call to action:

In order to dismantle unjust, racist structures, we must see race. We must see who benefits from their race, who is disproportionately impacted by negative stereotypes about their race, and two who power and privilege is bestowed upon – earned or not – because of their race, their class, and their gender. (p. 85)

I can’t really go on to describe the whole rest of the book in detail as this will be the longest post ever. Eddo-Lodge explains white privilege, while honestly sharing where she is an insider, for example only realising about barriers to people living with mobility issues or parents/guardians with buggies when she tried to take a bicycle on public transport. I did love this honesty and humility that shone through the book (as I’d expect from any writer). This bravery extends when she seeks to offer a balanced view by contacting the vile right-winger, Nick Griffin to ask him questions about his “Fear of a Black planet” as she puts it, in an effort to understand where these views come from.

The famous chapter on feminism and its rejection of intersectionality was shocking to read, and I wish I had been involved in the actual movement – although would I have done anything? I am uncomfortably aware that I am pretty sure my research for my postgrad on sources of information for women experiencing domestic violence, which had a feminist lens, did not take account of race as it should have. Hopefully as I say below, sharing and discussing texts that do have an intersectional element (i.e. look at the intersecting issues when someone is living with two or more characteristics that make them more vulnerable to prejudice and institutional harm, such as being Black and working class, working class and disabled, Asian and female, etc.) will hopefully help to start to redress that. Again, I salute Eddo-Lodge for her personal and political honesty and for the call to action for feminism to embrace intersectionality. Talking of class, I (and Emma) got a bit lost in the new research on the classes of Britain, not being able to locate ourselves, there, but the chapter on race and class wasn’t there for us, but to show that intersection, too.

As I mentioned above, I was surprised and cheered to find a section on what White people can do to be anti-racist and allies – a list of positive, clear, visible things, such as taking on administrative or financial assistance to groups doing vital work while leaving their running to the people actually affected, intervening in bystander situations and talking to other White people about racism issues (which Em and I did a lot while reading this book together, very revealingly and interestingly, and which I’m trying to do by continuing to showcase books like this with detailed reviews on this blog – I don’t of course know the demographics of my readership, but I know a lot of my commenters are of a similar demographic to me and I hope they find something of interest, while readers of colour might see some practices of allyship, something where we who seek to be allies should always be seeking to develop and learn.

The Aftermath chapter as I said above gives a lot of home: Eddo-Lodge has seen readers of colour feel supported by it and White people reflecting on how race has shaped their own lives – as we did as we read it. And no, it’s not controversial, as people have suggested: it’s all there in the sources, it’s sensible and thorough, honest and detailed, and something people can definitely use to educate themselves.

Book reviews – Claire Huston – “Art and Soul”, Chloe James – “Love in Lockdown” plus two bits of Shiny-ness @ShinyNewBooks @ClaraVal

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I’ve got two contemporary romance reads today, both with a twist, and I just want to do a quick moment of praise for Claire Huston. She contacted me to ask me if I’d like to read her novel, “Art and Soul”. Now, I do get emails about books quite a lot, and they are often not the kind of thing I read, or there’s not really enough info for me to go on. They are also often form emails, pretty obviously sent out to loads of book bloggers. Claire was different. She had obviously read my blog (shocking, honestly), she referenced pics of my TBR she’d seen and how she didn’t expect me to get to the book immediately. She had picked up on the fact that I mostly read non-fiction and literary fiction but that I’d also read books by several authors that meant I might want to read her book. She followed my blog and has engaged with it. There was a standard bit about the book, which is of course fine and told me enough about it. So I said yes, and then I did wait a bit to read it (sorry) and – it was good! Hooray! But what a splendid introduction, which worked in that I read the book, am doing this review here and will also pop one on Amazon.

I have another book after that which I picked up from NetGalley and is the first lockdown novel I’ve read. I had slightly mixed feelings about it, but I did read it through and felt interested that I’d probably read an early if not the first example of this topic being novelised!

Lastly, a couple of Shiny New Books links to round off the year (I’m already reading my first one for 2021).

Claire Huston – “Art & Soul”

(30 August 2020 – ebook)

Becky is a life-fixer (not just a life-coach), knowing each client will loathe her for her interference at some point but love her at the end of the process. After having a baby and concentrating on being an invisible fixer at weddings, she’s getting back into the client work and pitches to irascible artist Charlie, in a creative and personal slump, who does not want to be fixed. Yes, of course there will be a spark there, but it’s an unconventional story and romance with just as much interest in the other characters – gallery owner Virgil and his scary assistant, Becky’s best friend, the rather uncompromising Ronnie, and Phoebe, Charlie’s daughter. Another unforgettable character is Becky’s son, Dylan, and I loved the way the other characters interacted with him.

While it’s a very modern romance, with Becky standing for no nonsense and Charlie cleaning and caring, and there are fun literary references scattered through as well as commentary on how we talk about art, what impressed me most was Claire’s control of her plot – while the central story is simple and understandable, there are machinations along the way and also strings of subplots that swirl around the main action, all handled absolutely impeccably and in an assured way that is surprising in a first novel. Bravo for that! A thoroughly enjoyable read that will keep you on your toes.

And no, I didn’t spot the E.M. Forster reference, which I had forgotten about until I revisited the email Claire sent me!

Thank you to the author for sending me a copy of the book in return for an honest review.

Chloe James – “Love in Lockdown”

(03 November 2020 – NetGalley)

The first lockdown novel and specifically written to make “you smile, as well as perhaps shedding a few tears and given you a small pocket of sunshine, even if it is only for a while”. Sophia and Jack live in two flats with balconies in a block, and once they get chatting after the Thursday clap, they draw closer, helping each other as well as their local community. All the First Lockdown stuff is here – the claps, the loo roll shortages, only going out once a day, shielding, and it’s odd to read this so soon in a novel – I’m not sure if it’s Too Soon for me. With Sophia’s mum a doctor and her flatmate a midwife, Jack shielding due to a health condition and other characters being elderly, sometimes it feels a little  bit like an infomercial reminding us about hand sanitiser, but it does capture the details of this strange time – including, pleasingly, people making scrubs for the local hospital. 

In the afterword, we learn that some of the details in the story have come from people closely connected to the author – so she’s obviously written it partly for them and writing from the heart and from lived experience does make it come alive and feel less planned and didactic. The story is well done and the plot handled deftly: we root for our two characters and the side-characters, too. I’m glad I read it, even though it felt a bit close to the bone at times.

Thank you to Avon Books UK for making this available to read through NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Shiny Loveliness

I’ve recently reviewed both of these books on this blog, but I also reviewed them in a different, longer and perhaps more serious mode for Shiny New Books.

Nancy Campbell’s “Fifty Words for Snow” with its worldwide cover and lovely snowflake images is an ideal winter read or Christmas gift – read more.

Rory Fraser’s “Follies” takes us through the history of buildings with no purpose, with a gorgeous watercolour of each one – another great gift idea for any time of year – read more.

Book review – Paul Magrs – “Christmassy Tales” #magrsathon @paulmagrs

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I’m rather shockingly reviewing out of order today, because I wanted to share with you this EXCELLENT book in time for you to buy it for yourself or someone else for Christmas (it’s available in paperback and ebook). Yes, it’s that good. And although I’m a loyal Paul Magrs fan, and should therefore have high expectations of his work, this exceeded my expectations by quite a way. I was expecting there to be more stuff I’d read before (I’d read just two of the fourteen stories before, one of which was published as a lovely standalone book last year) and didn’t realise it was going to be such a lovely substantial volume – 425 pages of excellent stories! This is the last read in my Magrsathon, in which I have enjoyed reading and re-reading books by Paul Magrs every month.

Paul Magrs – “Christmassy Tales”

(14 November 2020)

I couldn’t resist a) buying myself this new book and b) dipping into it when it arrived, and devoured “Fester and the Christmas Mouse” – I was never able to read Paul’s story of his late and beloved stray cat, as I can never read any pet-centred books, but I was glad to read this delightful tale of a Christmas day, a careful cat and a tiny lost mouse.

I then forced myself to read just one or two stories a day this month, as they all revolved around Christmas. Yes, looking at the contents page, there is a Christmas Trilobite and a Christmas Hoover, and this sums up the delicious mix of working-class down-to-earth observation and delightful whimsy which is Paul’s trademark and very much in evidence here.

The collection opens with “Stardust and Snow”, a reprint of Paul’s beautiful story about a boy who wins a competition to meet David Bowie. I originally read this on Christmas Day last year (my review here) and it was just as magical and still brought a tear to my eye. Other stand-out stories (although there wasn’t a dud among them), which ran from sci fi to fairy tales to sci fi fairy tales set on disappointed planets to observation and memories of a north-eastern working-class childhood to a writer visited by a ghost of Christmas Past at his desk, included “Party Like it’s 1979” with its warm memories and tiny details (anyone else remember purple, smudged, banda’d sheets from school?). “The Fabulous Animal Jamboree”, like the children’s book where all the dogs come out of the pictures in the National Gallery, features museum animals from around the world gathering for fun, and a celebration of difference and being your authentic self, and “The Christmas Trilobite” is a wonderful spin through alternative stories and endings as the ancient creature visits Paul the adult writer to demand his own Christmas story.

We finish off with a brand-new Brenda and Effie story (with Robert, hooray!) where they meet Iris Wildthyme (had they met before? I think not. I’ve never quite understood Iris but she has turned up in a couple of my reads this year and I just absorb the fun and weirdness) and … well, you’ll have to read it to find out.

A super collection and one I know I’ll dig out for Christmasses in the future to enjoy again. What a lovely end to my twelve months of Paul Magrs reading!

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

 

Book review – Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman (eds.) – “The Good Immigrant USA” #DiverseDecember

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I pre-ordered this book when I ordered “The Good Immigrant” back in September 2019; it arrived this October and I knew I wanted to read it alongside the first volume. Of course I intended to read them both in November but that didn’t happen – better late than never!

I’m adding the hashtag for DiverseDecember on this one because it represents writing by and stories of People of Colour, although not everyone in the book is a Person of Colour (24 out of the 26 writers are), and I’m very glad that Shukla took the original concept and together with one of the writers from the original book, opened it out to stories from the US.

Nikesh Shukla & Chimene Suleyman – “The Good Immigrant USA: 26 Writers on America, Immigration and Home”

(16 October 2019)

I have to admit that this volume was not as immediately engaging to me as “The Good Immigrant”, as I didn’t know the context as well, although obviously in that book I found plenty of learning points and surprises, too. It was very varied and interesting and I learned a lot again. The different context meant that the contributors mostly didn’t come directly via histories of colonisation (apart from those in Puerto Rico, etc.) and in fact a few of them had come via or gone to the UK at some point in their lives.

The main thing that really shocked me and I had somehow not come across before (I’m not sure how this happened, as I have read a good few fairly diverse books set in the US) was the different perceptions of Black people who are descendants of slaves and whose families have been in the US for generations and those who are not and have moved to the US from other countries. Rahawa Haile describes it memorably in describing her father arriving in the US by way of Italy, the UK and Ethiopia:

The Good Immigrant knows nothing of black living in America and yet too much of black life under white conquest all at once. White-sanctioned conquest, too. At least now he will see their faces, nescient eyes weighing the merit and threat of him by the lilt of an accent they cannot place. Their soft relief: black but other. There but only just. African. Guilt Black, not Hate Black (not usually). As in, “Man! There are people starving back in ___”. (p. 28)

At least two essayists point this out and it’s a strong, shocking point, as it’s not a delineation we make here in the UK – I’d be interested if any other non-Black readers of this book from the US found that same shock.

Other essays chimed with me more or less but all gave a strong sense of self and place and interesting, often shocking details. I enjoyed the pieces set partly in the UK, and giving the contrast between the two countries. Walé Oyéjdidé’s piece on being a male homemaker from a Nigerian heritage that would be happier if he did a load of other things including admitting some Ghanaian things were superior was funny and striking. We see the code-switching that goes on when interacting with people outside one’s heritage group, and issues around being not x enough for America but too American for your original country.

I originally felt a bit confused by the inclusion of an Irish and a Scottish name in the list of authors, more so when they turned out to be White Irish and Scottish, as the original book was specifically about BIPOC people; however, the white contributors made it clear – and, in doing so, I feel modelled how to do this in many ways – that they can see their privilege now where they didn’t see it at the time, flitting into and out of the US so easily, flouting rules and knowing they’d get away with it. Maeve Higgins ends her piece, “Luck of the Irish” in which she does the work of providing a history of US immigration policy, thus:

I applied for an O-1 visa, which means i am an ‘alien of extraordinary ability.’ It was granted. I’m now on my second O-1 visa, so I regularly tell people I’m doubly extraordinary. That’s a joke, of course. I’m not extraordinary at all. It’s dumb luck that I was born white and Irish. And that luck, combined with a history of racialized immigration policies, meant that I was allowed to move her, to a country whose leaders look at me and see themselves, and welcome me with open arms as they push others away. (p. 114)

There is a mix of different autobiographical pieces from people originating from across the globe or second generation citizens, and some write at the intersection between race and LGBTQ+ status. There’s even a craft project to fold a paper plane while learning about different demographics and other stats of refugees. There is truly something for everyone here, and it’s an important work, which I feel should be read alongside its UK counterpart.


Have you read this book and are you from the US? I’d particularly like to read about your reaction although of course all comments are as ever welcome.

Book Review – Simon Barnes – “On the Marsh” #NonFicNov

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This was a book I actually finished at the weekend, so still during Nonfiction November, but didn’t get time to review, frustratingly. So now I’ve read or started everything I planned to read apart from “Homesick” – and at least “The Good Immigrant USA” will now ‘do’ for #DiverseDecember!

I’m also pleased that I’m almost caught up to being a year behind, after having slipped back horribly in getting through the books I bought the longest ago, and even when picking newer books off from time to time. It’s all good.

Simon Barnes – “On the Marsh: A Year Surrounded by Wilderness and Wet”

(02 October 2019, The Works, Penzance)

This book has contributions from Edmund Barnes and Cindy Lee Wright. Cindy is Barnes’ wife, she has done beautiful illustrations for the starts of each chapter, and Barnes also includes moving passages of appreciation for both her art and for her support of their family. Edmund – Eddie – is a young adult who has Down’s syndrome and has contributed both a his character to the book and his rather lovely poems scattered through it.

I did worry that I would find too many personal incursions into this book – not because I don’t like reading about people living with different conditions, but because I like my nature books to be about the nature. But here, the theme of Eddie’s life and the effect being on the marsh has on it, as he passes through a big year where he leaves school and starts college, learns more about nature and learns some potentially hard lessons about his beloved horse (don’t worry, though), is woven beautifully through the book, with promised excursions and repeated joys bringing a daily structure to the book which echoes the monthly and annual one. There is some polemic, and why the hell shouldn’t there be, about the odd unkind educator and the very existence of people with Down’s syndrome, but the main theme is carried through with aplomb.

There’s polemic, too, about nature conservation, about keeping wild lands joined up, and a lot of musing on what ‘wilding’ and ‘rewilding’ are and what we should do to our land – Barnes makes the excellent point a couple of times that “our land” can be anything from a massive estate to a window box, but it all matters and it all involves decisions (we’re thinking of climbers and fruit trees to plant to offset our next-door neighbour’s huge extension, for instance). He mentions Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” a couple of times, and visits the farm where it’s set, which is making me eager to pick that one up. But the joined-up nature of wild places is the most important thing for him:

It’s part of something that covers the nation: a vast and spreading web of places where the wild things are. And every strand depends, at least to an extent, on all the others; when you break a single strand you weaken the entire web. (p. 63)

We come off the marsh in fact to visit his neighbours and friends around and see how they manage their land and what they think of his. There’s quite a lot about the local nature reserve at Minsmere, which is lovely to read about. 

He’s got a nice turn of phrase – his horses turn into dragons on a frosty morning “I found I had exchanged them for a stable of dragons, three twin jets of smoke billowing over the three half-doors” (p. 73).

In one very exciting passage, he also reveals that his grandfather lived basically half a mile from where I live now! My next but one read has featured Peckham, too, so everything really is a web of knowing and places!

Barnes’ African sojourns also feel natural to relate here, talking about the lions he loves and the naturalists he’s spent time with and, notably, seeing migratory birds on the marsh that he has also seen on that other continent, thousands of miles away. As well as Cindy’s lovely animal illustrations, there is a pleasingly drawn map at the front. I learned a lot reading this book (are baby spoonbills really called ‘teaspoons’ by birders, though?), it’s the everyday small pleasures, recognising a birdsong, seeing a new creature, seeing the same creature again and again that really stuck with me when I finished this book.

 

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