Book review – Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff (ed.) – “Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children” @CharlieBCuff

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I bought this book as a result of reading “I Will not be Erased” by the gal-dem collective, for whom Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is deputy editor. As I read the pieces in that book, I mined the authors’ bios and anything mentioned in the text for more to read about People of Colour’s experiences in the UK. It formed part of the lovely book token splurge I indulged in in July last year. I had read several books about migration into the UK, and indeed about Windrush before (for example “Windrush” by Mike and Trevor Phillips, read but somehow not reviewed on here), which it turns out was more than a bit male-experience skewed). I pulled it off the end section of the front shelf of my TBR after feeling I’d had quite a surfeit of mid-20th-century White women’s writing for quite a lot of the month and wanting to redress the balance a bit, and I’m so glad I did.

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff (ed.) – “Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children”

(20 July 2020, from Foyles with a book token)

Published in 2018, this collection of biographical pieces reflects both the life stories of original, second and third generation migrants to the UK from the Caribbean and their reactions to and interactions with the Windrush Scandal and the hostile environment engendered around it (as part of a ‘cracking down on illegal immigration’, the Conservative Government instigated a system in which people who had lived in the UK for most of or all of their lives were denied healthcare, employment, benefits and safety through absolutely no fault of their own, asked to prove identity that most White people probably couldn’t prove (can YOU prove where you went to primary school?), many of them being either driven to their graves or deported before it was uncovered by the Guardian newspaper among others, protests were made and some sort of redress is being tardily and shoddily sorted out. You can read more on the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants website here).

David Lammy MP provides a moving and passionate Foreword, in which the personal is very much the political, where he runs through the workers, thinkers, creatives and sportspeople who have contributed so massively to British society and a careful outlining of how slavery and institutional racism in the Caribbean and the UK have fed into the current scandal, as well as giving a great summary of the book, paying special attention to the nuances of it:

The story of Windrush must not be sterilised, or overly simplified. It is not only a story of successful integration, sport and cultural icons, or even everyday heroes like my mother, any more than it is only a story of Home Office failure, of systemic racism, or the consequences of slavery. The story of Windrush is, like any other, a story of humanity. Of life, love, struggle, hope, misery, success and failure. But it’s one that is too often neglected in our media, which, I’m sad to say, is often whitewashed. This volume acts as a remedy to that failure of story-telling, which I ask you to both savour and share. (p. xxi)

Brinkhurst-Cuff’s Introduction makes the scope of the book clear: it’s not just one ship of people, but many, before and after Windrush; and it’s not just people of African heritage, but the descendants of Indian and Chinese indentured workers, too. I hadn’t completely gathered that before and the narratives around those people were fascinating and informative. She also contributes a piece on women of the Windrush era, seeking to balance the primarily male narratives and even images and restore the women made invisible – the balance is noticeable and appreciable in the texts that follow.

The stories that follow are mostly told to Brinkhurst-Cuff, some written by others. They are stories of incredibly diverse and rich heritages, of the importance of knowing where you come from and asking before it’s too late, of finding your place, of not being Black enough in communities in the UK, or not being Caribbean enough when you go back ‘home’ (or of being mistaken for a deportee when owning an English accent on a Caribbean island). Working class, female, LGBTQ and Black identities intersect and we are introduced to communities and families all over England in this powerful and important book which should be required reading. There is joy here as well as struggle, fulfilling the call in “Loud Black Girls” for joy to also be shared, and there are indeed both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrants given space here, showing and celebrating a huge range of experiences and behaviours.

Book review – Dorothy Evelyn Smith – “O, The Brave Music” #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 need to apologise for the gap between receipt and read / review but here it is now for you to hear about. And what a super book it was. Quite a few bloggers have reviewed it already and I’ll be off to read those reviews when I’ve published this one! Another pretty cover, too, with a pattern I’d be pleased to have as curtains or a feature wall! I’ve only read one other D.E.S. novel so far (“Miss Plum and Miss Penny”, reviewed here) and on the basis of these two I will hastily gather in any more that I encounter!

Dorothy Evelyn Smith – “O, The Brave Music”

(29 August 2020)

A super coming-of-age novel which reads like a wonderful autobiography equal to the London Child of the 1880s and other similar ones. The essays around it make it clear that some parts are drawn from the author’s life, especially her love of the moors, similar to but more positive than that of the Brontes.

Our heroine, Ruan, is small and seven with bad hair and a lively imagination – and an imaginary friend – loves literature and travel and poetry and is potentially too big a personality for the cramped life of a Non-Conformist manse – like, indeed, her beautiful mother, who’s very much beating her wings against a very much not gilded cage. We see things through Ruan’s innocent eyes, gradually realising or having the truth revealed to her, sometimes not fully.

Tragedy strikes again and again, but Ruan always has her friend Rosis, Rosie’s adopted son David, the home farm of their rather soullness nouveau riche home and the moor. Later she has the local vicar as a friend, and Uncle Alaric, his library and the ancestral home – although not a Mallinson by looks, she certainly is by spirit, and that spirit remains with the books. In her bookish pursuits and refusal to follow feminine convention she reminded me of Vita Sackville-West and her “Orlando” persona, and the book is also reminiscent to me of “The Go-Between” and several of Winifred Holtby’s novels. Oh, there is a dog, and the dog is OK; there are horses, and likewise. Phew!

There’s a very interesting depiction of attitudes towards Black people and the hypocrisy that lies therein as concerns the Chapel. I found this quite unusual in a novel of this period, especially the close observation of how the character Hally reacts to the racism he encounters, knuckling down to keeping being kind but more quietly.

The writing is often beautiful and lyrical as well as observant of human nature and relationships, with nature depicted gorgeously and often. There are wonderfully closely observed scenes such as a bittersweet evening with Ruan and sister Sylvia’s mother. There are moments of wistfulness and nostalgia and by the end we are overshadowed a little by the threat of World War One – the book was written as partly a comfort during the days of World War Two (it was published in 1943) as the Preface explains.

A lovely long book and very satisfying – highly recommended and a real classic.

There’s a timeline of the 1940s, a biography of Smith and an afterword discussing clothes and differences between the period covered and the date it was written to round off this lovely book.

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 – Stella Gibbons – “A Pink front Door” @DeanStPress

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As well as a lovely lot of Margery Sharps (including “Rhododendron Pie”, reviewed here) Dean Street Press have republished a batch of novels by Stella Gibbons in their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint. You can see all the delights that have just come out on the Furrowed Middlebrow blog. And another pretty cover, getting across the nature of the Hampstead setting beautifully!

Stella Gibbons – “A Pink Front Door”

(01 November 2020)

Marcia and Ella are elderly cousins who live together in a large house now divided into flats, always the protector and the protected, loved more than they know, and ruled by a tyrant of a maid. Marcia has past glories and Ella continues to go out every day to paint miniature scenes of the neighbourhood. Their cousin/niece Daisy is a collector and organiser of lost souls, always with a new one to flit to if one doesn’t quite come up to scratch, and these lost souls and their various housing solutions form a sort of loose network around North London and especially Hampstead, somewhere Gibbons loved living herself and which she writers about in several others of her novels. But is the little house with the pink door, on whom you’re never sure who will be knocking, really the perfect family home?

We get caught up in the lives of the people Daisy is trying to help, not always noticing her poor, long-suffering husband James in the background. There is a strong feminist commentary, with the waste of a good scientific mind when the babies come, the punitive attitude of employers when they do, the need for poor women to coast from man to man to keep themselves off the streets, the lack of servants leading to a double shift for working women, and the older, single woman’s

wonder that anyone could prefer the state of marriage to that of celibacy, which offered one so many more opportunities for solitude.

There’s also a commentary on

This howling mid-century wilderness – without domestic service, enough house room or well-defined social customs

which the older generation find so difficult – Daisy’s father in particular seems stuck between two ways of life, not sure what the right thing is to do and knowing that really he used to meddle as much as Daisy does, and a woman slightly connected to him frets about renting out her top floor, but clings to views of servants that are sadly outdated. But younger women are also having to choose between the new sexual freedoms and being safe, and the expectations that they will manage both.

The perspectives shift between an overarching one and the internal narratives of certain characters, so we really understand them from the inside, and this is done to particular effect in the final parts of the book. Three quite shocking events advance the plot quite quickly and those shifting narratives come quickly, letting us deep into observation of the characters’ lives.

A very interesting and readable novel and I will undoubtedly be picking up more of this crop of reprints.

Thank you to Dean Street Press for sending me an ebook of this novel in return for an honest review.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “The Tin Can Tree” #AnneTyler2021

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The second book in my Reading Anne Tyler in 2021 project. 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.. All the reviews I am alerted to will be added to the project page when I can, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Like “If Morning Ever Comes,” I bought this in April 2000 and read it in the May and like that one, I recalled absolutely nothing of this book upon re-reading it!

The cover makes more sense than the last one but isn’t hugely interesting, so enjoy my pile (not including the newest one, arriving this April 1st apparently!).

Anne Tyler – “The Tin Can Tree”

(11 April 2000)

This is another novel of small-town North Carolina, and another book with a small cast of characters observed over a few days around an upheaval in their lives.

Opening at a funeral, with the central character stumbling home down a hill, the book is set in a three-family home (I suppose like a small terrace, three separate families in a row but they can all hear each other practically breathe) on the outskirts of Larksville, the kind of town where people leave and then only ever come home for Christmas:

Whoever built their house must have been counting on Larksville’s becoming a city someday, but Larksville was getting smaller every year. (p. 8)

so the house is a way away from the town and the three families are thrown upon their own and each other’s resources, while you get the sense of the weeds and farmland encroaching on all sides.

The funeral is that of Janie Rose, the youngest inhabitant of the houses, and it’s a finely drawn portrait of the reactions and process of grief of all the characters. We mainly take the viewpoint of James, who cares for his brother Ansel, also in his 20s but seemingly an invalid by choice (he’s anaemic but won’t have his injections). At some point in the past they ran away from home, perhaps suddenly, with a family rift that’s not talked about, and running away is the other theme of the book alongside grief. The elderly sisters in their cluttered home in the middle of the row are perhaps a warning to James and Ansel of how they might get set in for life. James is rather trapped – he likes Joan, the niece of the other family, the Pikes, trying to work through their grief and keep the house going, but he can’t make Joan and Ansel like each other.

James does escape to do his photography as a job and hobby, but once again there’s a gap between the photos he wants to take and the ones he ends up taking. There are deep themes here below the surface.

There’s a brief almost reconciliation, two almost escapes and a joyful gathering at the end, but will everything settle back into its dusty patterns when they all return to their own houses?

I found a lot to enjoy in this quiet and absorbing novel, with such tight observation again.


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

 

Book review – Catrina Davies – “Homesick” plus book serendipity

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This is the last of the books I bought in Cornwall in October 2019; this one I bought from The Edge of the World Bookshop (gladly still going strong) and if you pop any of the other titles in the search box, you’ll find my review. I’m a bit sad I’m still reading 2019 books but I “just” have a couple more plus my Christmas ones to go, honest. And I’ve been reading books on Kindle and books to review for Shiny New Books, too.

Below my review, some book serendipities, some of which appeared in this book. I don’t usually find so many overlapping mentions or themes in just a few weeks, so thought it was worth recording!

Catrina Davies – “Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed”

(03 October 2019)

In my innocence, I originally thought this was about one of those younger people who set up in their parents’ large back garden or on other family land – like they sometimes do in Grand Designs and similar TV programmes, because of housing precarity among the young. But the context for this is far darker and the precarity more insidious.

Davies is 31 and living in a horrible room in a house in Bristol when she loads a few bin bags of possessions into a decaying car and sets up house illegally in the shed that used to be her dad’s office. That’s the office for his failed business; the reason the family lost their house. This shed is the only single piece of property her parents own, and she has to track down her dad to the pub he now works in to ask permission to use it (she’s very very careful about permission and legality, interestingly, while living slightly outside the law; she’s punctilious about paying her taxes for instance). Her mum has lived with mental health conditions and moved from short-term let to short-term let and the sister who does have a house moves out of it every summer with husband and children in order to make some money renting it as a holiday let.

It’s not just Davies and her family, either: there are people all over Cornwall living in tents and cars, renting somewhere their landlord kicks them out of for the summer, and mainly because of the economy of the county, the land and housing owned by a few huge rich landlords and the rest of the people clinging to the jobs and housing they allow them.

Yes, Davies is choosing, to an extent, to leave the endless cycle of having to earn enough to pay for a soulless living space that might be taken away a few weeks later. But the hardship she encounters, staying somewhere that is only a degree or so warmer than outside, washing under a cold tap in a broken shower tray, etc., is a powerful deterrent to the fantasy of getting off grid and out of the rat race. And the fragile nature of her life is highlighted very early on in the book when her shed is broken into and all her few possessions stolen.

This blow early on nothwithstanding, I read on: I really enjoyed all the detail of how she made her shed more comfortable and arranged things, and the community support – although it’s eventually probably a neighbour who reports her once she has a wood-burning stove going, so many more are quietly supportive of her. You read more about that in the conclusion, including the kindness of some of her gardening customers.

Davies talks about solutions, mainly in her case the idea of a land tax rather than a property tax, and also people considering not having second homes / holiday homes. It’s certainly made me think hard about where we stay when we go to Cornwall (although maybe renting from a family who needs the income is OK rather than perpetuating things? It’s hard to work out) and how to make arrangements if we end up finding somewhere in Spain to help with certain health needs. Of course I already considered these matters, but this made me think more carefully still. I also realise how lucky we are to have friends in the area of Cornwall we visit, as reading this book hit the fact home that there is usually a complete divide between residents and visitors, even though she freely accepts some of the visitors will be nice people.

There are positives in the book as well as solutions. Coming from a life of poor mental health and disordered eating, Davies finds that taking control of her life, even in this unorthodox way, brings a lot of improvement to her lot in many ways:

There was such a thing as self-determination. I realized that the shed had already started to alter the way I felt about myself, and the way I responded to things. (p. 137)

Her descriptions of the visceral and meditative nature of surfing were vivid and interesting, and the way her anxiety made everything terrifying, so she ended up doing ‘brave’ things as they were just as terrifying, not more or less, than phoning the bank. She also shares lessons that she’s learned, realising that money and power can be used for good when, having removed herself from circles that produce those things, if her life had gone another way she could have saved the wild land across the road.

A powerful and often upsetting, but necessary, read.


I have a few serendipities (a la Bookish Beck, her latest serendipity post here) to start the year. I read two first novels in a row by people who went on to write 20 plus (“Rhododendron Pie” by Margery Sharp and “If Morning Ever Comes” by Anne Tyler”). Two books read at the same time were set in Sussex (“Rhododendron Pie” and Isabella Tree’s “Wilding”) and two read concurrently (this one here, “Homesick” by Catrina Davies and “The Natural Health Service” by Isabel Hardman (I didn’t finish that one)) feature an author who has had a severe mental health breakdown, and two (“Wilding” and “The Natural Health Service”) included the information that trees’ and other plants’ roots are linked by almost invisible skeins of fungi into one living organism. That’s just the books I’ve read or started this year or at the very end of last year!

Book review – Anne Tyler – “If Morning Ever Comes” #AnneTyler2021

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The first book in my Reading Anne Tyler in 2021 project and welcome to anyone who is reading along with me, catching up or finding this ages after. Please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads. All the reviews I am alerted to will be added to the project page when I can, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

My copy of this one was bought in April 2000 and read in May of that year (you can tell this is pre- me meeting my husband, as the gap between acquisition and reading gradually widened when I started seeing him to its current 12-13 months, where it has remained for many years now!). I recalled nothing of this book upon re-reading it.

It’s got a weird cover image of Edwardian ladies with parasols which left me confused until I was almost the whole way through the book; I still don’t really feel it’s representative of the book! It’s an American edition which I amassed when I was busy collecting her, having read my first one in 1997, but I’m not sure where I acquired it from now. Which edition did you read?

Anne Tyler – “If Morning Ever Comes”

(11 April 2000)

Although it is maybe a little patchy and uneven in places, this first novel is full of Anne Tyler’s later work, a sort of Overture (as indeed I remember Iris Murdoch’s “Under the Net” being when I read that as part of my re-read of her novels). It’s quiet, it features a quirky main character who has trouble fitting into the world, and most importantly centres on a family that doesn’t talk about anything:

All I’m trying to do is stop one more of those amazing damned things that go on in this family and everyone takes for granted, pretends things are still all right and the world’s still right-side up. The most amazing things go on in this family, the most amazing things, that no one else would allow, and this family just keeps on- (p. 190)

… at which point the speaker is, of course, cut off and silenced.

People do things almost by accident, in a dream, coming back from college for an unspecified amount of time, getting married, carrying on a probably inappropriate family tradition. Most of the actual action takes place off-camera, and I recall that being a common AT feature – even when a husband comes home to collect his errant wife, our point-of-view character takes himself off and has to rely on reportage the next day. Some pivotal scenes are described directly, but they’re a side-scene to the main event (I’m thinking of the bagpiper at the time of the father of the family’s death here). It’s an effective way, if a slightly odd way, of doing things, showing how families and communities absorb events, perhaps.

Ben Joe is one of our classic male AT characters, awkward, not great with the girls, liking things to be arranged. His mother seems cold and distanced and as if she doesn’t care what happens in her marriage, and the rather marvellous Gram livens things up with her odd cooking, age-old bickering rows with her daughter-in-law and hilarious one-upmanship over grandchildren that flourishes in one scene that’s also a touching portrayal of the grandparent/grandchild relationship. People lose relatives somewhat haphazardly and Iris Murdoch might say contingency is everywhere in accidental encounters and links. And the language reads pure Anne Tyler somehow – when Ben Joe is reading all the bits of the paper really early on, we get this passage, which I think would fit into any of her novels:

He yawned and then set to picking out a ring set, ending with a large, oddly shaped diamond and a wedding band that was fine except for a line of dots at each edge that bothered him. (p. 10)

I loved all the detail, the community that remembers far back and changes (though in a different location from other books) and accepts eccentric families, incursions of strangers and their different ways of speaking and being, the details of Ben Joe’s sisters’ personalities being shown up and maintained through their lives in how they do their hair or deal with standing up suddenly while holding a needle. It’s a very domestic book in some ways, placing importance on how a family exists in a house and how the members take that with them if they ever leave.

That weird cover picture comes from one passage where Ben Joe talks about imagining his family, further back in time than they actually are, waiting for him. I still don’t think it’s that representative, but there you go! I thoroughly enjoyed this quiet novel, reading with a mounting feeling of anxiety for Ben Joe’s studies and future that is only partly resolved. I would have liked to know more of the lives of the Black families from the train, but this was a first novel published when the author was 22 and very good in those circumstances.


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

 

Book review – Margery Sharp – “Rhododendron Pie” @DeanStPress

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Margery Sharp Rhododendron PieI was really excited to find out that Dean Street Press were republishing in their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint Margery Sharp’s first novel, “Rhododendron Pie”, as well as several of her others. While I know people who have read this novel, it was always almost impossible to find, and although it was on my “look out for these when in secondhand book shops” list, I didn’t think I’d ever happen upon it. You can see all the delights that have just come out on the Furrowed Middlebrow blog – they have also kindly sent me an ebook of Stella Gibbons’ “The Pink Front Door” which I will read and review soon, and have concentrated just on these two writers this time around. Of the Margery Sharps, I’m delighted to say I’ve only so far read “The Foolish Gentlewoman“, so I will be collecting the rest of these, including this one in hard copy, as I go, too.

Such a pretty cover, too, which sums up the setting of most of the book, with the sweet frame that all the books in this imprint share.

Margery Sharp – “Rhododendron Pie”

(01 November 2020)

What a delight this book is, and not a pale reflection of later work as some first novels are, but a fully formed excellent read, subtle, funny and moving. We meet two ancient Sussex families, the Laventies, shunned but gossiped about in the village for their poor entertaining and lack of community spirit, proudly standing apart with their superior intellects, morals and aesthetics, and the cheerful chaotic Gayfords who Ann, the youngest Laventie, grows up being taught to despise for their picnics and heartiness.

The faultline between the two families is subtle, and needs teasing out – and of course the practical and jolly Gayfords, who do also know how to stand up for themselves, do tease it out in the end:

[It’s] one of your family methods. Every now and then you do something deliberately ordinary, but in inverted commas, so to speak, just to see what it feels like.

They’re not Bohemian as such, the country setting allowing for eccentricities in families, but they’re certainly free-thinking and pretentious, no one really having a job but living as art (Elizabeth does write essays for literary magazines; Dick flirts with being a sculptor, but when the scales are lifted from her eyes, Ann realises how poor an artist he is). Ann as an adult finds it ironic that of all the young women in the country who might be presented with the option to live in sin, she’s about the only one whose family would heartily approve … but does she, when it comes down to it?

We open and close the book with children’s birthday parties, and while Ann seems to toe the family line through the first part of the novel, her reaction to the flower pie which is a family tradition she inherited from her older siblings says everything about her. She’s been trained to start her sentences with “but”

because it made them sound translated from the French. Why this should have been an advantage was too subtle to explain.

(how delicious that is!), however her natural vitality and love for simpler things is always fighting to get to the forefront. As she experiences a bit more of the world – a trip to London, staying in love interest Gilbert’s friend’s impossibly arty flat; a couple of innocent outings with John Gayford and encounters with his peculiar Aunt Cecilia, and a wedding that moves her unexpectedly – her true nature gradually dawns on her.

We suspect Mrs Laventie, made an invalid by a riding accident and existing under a series of beautiful throws, brought back by her husband after each of his indiscretions, might just be the saving of her daughter when she falls ill and Ann – and only Ann – finds out just what goes into running this big house of luxury and aesthetics – oh, yes, hard work and elbow grease. So everything is set up with little clues so very competently and beautifully.

The side characters, from the flapper waif, Delia to John’s enormous family and the villagers, are beautifully drawn, too, even if some of them are ‘types’, and Aunt Cecilia is a joy:

Did you hear she ran into a charabanc the other day on the way to Arundel and the magistrate said he was sorry to learn that the driver had had to complain of her language? Rather a triumph, I call it. She asked after you.

You start wanting something for Ann that she doesn’t know she wants herself, and bit by bit, village event by village event, we build to it. Margery Sharp was already a master of her art in her first novel, and it’s an absolute delight.

Thank you to Dean Street Press for sending me an ebook of this lovely novel in return for an honest review.

Book review – Ryan la Sala – “Be Dazzled” #NetGalley @Ryality @Sourcebooks

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First book of the year finished a day or so ago, so I’m already behind on my reviews – maybe it’s a good thing that I was reading three books over the turn of the year, or where would I be? I am trying to keep my NetGalley books up to date with the new ones, and this YA novel set in the world of competitive cosplay was published yesterday so is brand new and lovely!

Ryan la Sala – “Be Dazzled”

(24 October 2020)

We meet 17 year old Raffy, cosplay creator, with a memorable opening at the Boston Convention Centre; he’s here for the Con of his life, taking part with his friend May in a competition that could secure his financial freedom through sponsorships, but if his mother knew …

Evie is a conceptual artist who runs a studio and gallery (some of the funniest scenes feature her and her artist friends although they’re not all as flaky as they seem) and absolutely despises crafts. So while Evie really doesn’t care that Raffy’s gay, she would be right onto the fact that he’s crafting all day and night and seeing a football player who is incredibly conventional. Said Luca has the opposite kind of parents, so he’s hiding his sexuality AND his increasing interest in crafting. Oh, and they broke up a few months ago in this dual time-narrative book where the two timelines converge in the last few chapters.

I was fascinated to learn about the details of the cosplay costume-making hobby – there were lots of descriptions of the process, including all the designing and making and presenting on social media streams. A world I knew nothing about, and I always like to learn from my reading! The crafting supplies shops that feature heavily have all the standard traditional crafting stuff but also things like thermoplastics and the constituents of wigs for the increase in cosplayers using the shops.

The plot is a bit artificial but it is a novel, and it is a YA novel, where things are often that bit simpler and there are more important things than a totally believable plot. It didn’t take away from it, anyway. Yes, of course Raffy is forced to engage with his ex, and we know that from the blurb, but it is well done. I liked that the powerful adult figures in the story, apart from two of the judges, were women, and I also liked that there is a lot about friendship and what that means, whether it’s setting boundaries or hiding an entire party for someone (that, to be fair, you instigated) when their mum gets home. May, who steps in when Raffy needs a partner for two-person cosplays, has her own agency and job as a comic book creator and I loved the shout-out to her just when Raffy could have forgotten her. She doesn’t get dumped for Luca, and in fact inserts herself happily into the narrative at the end.

There are interesting descriptions of Raffy and Luca’s relationship – Luca is controlling and needy but Raffy becomes aware of this and also that there is more than just crafting. It looks towards the end that Luca has grown and learned, so we can feel hopeful about at least their friendship moving forward. I’m glad that the bits of not-quite-gaslighting he did were not rewarded. The messages are subtle but important.

A book that cheers, that celebrates being your own person, and that also celebrates hard work and ingenuity as well as attractiveness and creativity.

Thank you to Sourcebooks Fire for making this book available to read via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

State of the TBR January 2021 and reading stats / best books of 2020 #AnneTyler2021

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It’s finally time! I never do my Books of the Year until the first day of the new year, just in case I read something a-maz-ing in the bit between Christmas and the New Year. I’m aware you’ve already had a book review to read today – I meant to write that yesterday after finishing the book but we were having our boiler replaced and I was sitting in my study with two cats and reading on a chair rather than typing on a swiss ball. So one review for 2020 came out in 2021 which is untidy but unavoidable. More horror to come when you see how  many books carried over into this year when I claim I like to finish a book with the end of the year …

So here is my TBR as it stood at the end of December. Actually not too bad, although in one of a run of slight disappointments (I mean, having no hot water or central heating for a week over Christmas makes light of reading issues but still) I had not achieved one-shelf-TBR status or even “I have read all the books I received for Christmas last year” status as I had hoped. But I was down to one and a half shelves and no piles.

This is after I added all my lovely acquisitions from Christmas (they go on the back shelf and everything else shuffles round). So it all still fits, right??? I have added “Digging up Britain” to the pile to read first – this is a lovely review book I’ve received and probably not mentioned. Anyway, there it is, State of the TBR.

Even worse than all this excess is the fact that I’ve found myself reading THREE books over the turn of the year. Three.

“Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed” by Catriona Davies, bought at the Edge of the World Bookshop in Penzance in October 2019, is a great read but a bit raw for dinner time, hence starting a NetGalley book published today, Ryan La Sala’s “Be Dazzled”, set in the fascinating world of cosplay crafting. “Wilding” by Isabella Tree is my latest readalong with best friend Emma; we started it on New Year’s Eve and it will take us through a few months I would expect.

Up next is of course my first Anne Tyler of my (re) reading project for this year! The project page is here and I will add links to people’s reviews to the page as we go and enjoy the chat in the comments, too.  I’ll be reading two of the novels a month, in order of publication, adding in the final two at the end of the year (once I’ve got “Redhead at the Side of the Road” in paperback to match the others!

This is a deeply odd copy of “If Morning Ever Comes” which I bought in April 2000 – what’s with all the Edwardian ladies. Anyway, I’m very much looking forward to re-reading this one which I must have read a few months after acquisition. I hope a few of my readers will be joining me in one or two if not all of them!

2020 stats

For the second time, I’ve kept breakdowns of various book stats. I will try to compare them with 2019 as I go.

In 2020 I read 159 (116 in 2019) books, of which 83 (62) were fiction and 76 (59) non-fiction. So just a bit more fiction, unsurprisingly as I hid in some when times got tough! 94 (79) were by women, 56 (35) by men, 8 (1) by both (multiple authors) and 1 (1) by a non-gender-binary person.

Where did my books come from? Lots more from bookshops online this year, which was down to the pandemic with the new ones I read, I would imagine (not just Amazon, but Hive and Bookshop.org). Lots of gifts still.

bookshop online 31
gift 26
netgalley 21
charity shop 18
publisher 17
from publisher 11
bookshop physical 8
bookshop online secondhand 8
bought from publisher 5
Bookcrossing 4
bookshop secondhand physical 3
lent 2
book signing event 1
author 1
from shelves 1
won 1
bought from author 1

Most books by far were set in the UK 99 (74) with the US second 24 (17) and then 12 other countries plus  fantasy worlds and the whole world.

I read books by 76 (53) different publishers, the most common being Virago (13, down to Angela Thirkells) and Dean Street Press (10 – review copies (thank you!) and gifts) .

I read most books published in 2020 (39), which is down to Shiny and NetGalley. I read books from many different years, recent ones a lot but a little bump from 2009 and 2010. All decades from the 1890s were represented.

Onto diversity of authors and themes. 79.25% (88%) of the authors I read were white (as far as I could tell), with 12% People of Colour (I put everyone who was non-white in this category after a lot of fretting) and 1.26% a mix of White and POC authors. The UK is apparently 87% / 13% so I was pleased to increase my diversity count this year. 121 authors were British and 26 American, the others from 9 other countries or a mix. Out of the 159 books I read, I assigned a diversity theme to 43 of them (39/116 last year but I changed what I recorded, not counting Women’s Issues), so 21 (8) about race, 8 (6) LGBTQI+ issues and 10 covering both, 3 disability and 1 LGBTQI+ and disability, none about class. This doesn’t meant such themes didn’t come up in other books, just that they weren’t the main theme. As I wished last year, my intersectional reading has gone up.

Top 16 books of 2020

And finally, my top sixteen! Well, that represents just over 10% of my reading, so I think that’s OK. Links to reviews. 12 women and 4 men (about right), 10 non-fiction and 6 fiction (although I read a lot of fiction this year and it was all good, a lot of it was light escapist reads). These are in order of reading in fiction then non-fiction, not of rating!

Abi Daré – “The Girl with the Louding Voice” – astounding, poignant and optimistic portrait of a young girl creating herself

Bernadine Evaristo – “Mr Loverman” – what a memorable character, but his wife gets her own story, too

Candice Carty-Williams – “Queenie” – you love her, you fear for her, you grow with her

Brit Bennett – “The Vanishing Half” – updating “Passing” for the 21st century, an astounding work

Dorothy Evelyn Smith – “Miss Plum and Miss Penny” – the dark undertones beneath staid village life

Paul Magrs – “Christmassy Tales” – I’ve so enjoyed my Magrsathon this year, but this was an outstanding collection of stories I absolutely loved

Lennie Goodings – “A Bite of the Apple” – her story and the story of Virago Press

Helen Lewis – “Difficult Women” – a great work of synthesis and reclamation of women’s stories

Margot Lee Shetterly – “Hidden Figures” – so much more than the film, but complementing it beautifully

Emma Dabiri – “Don’t Touch my Hair” – the personal and the historical come together: I learnt so much from this book

Philip Marsden – “Rising Ground” – love of landscape and fascinating information

Jacky Klein (with Grayson Perry) – “Grayson Perry” – the definitive massive book of his career, with input from the artist

Jon Bloomfield – “Our City” – and my city, too, a magnificent work on the immigrant populations of Birmingham

Stephen Rutt – “Wintering” – made me think of geese in a new way

Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené – “Slay in your Lane” – such an important survey of young Black women’s lives and experiences, done so well

Reni Eddo-Lodge – “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” – a readalong with Emma that benefitted from a slower read – uncomfortable in places; vital

Honourable mention to the lovely publishers Dean Street Press for their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint (one represented here; many more read and enjoyed) and British Library Publishing for their Women Writers series – both are reliably excellent and I’m also grateful for the review copies as well as the gifts from friends, it’s been a year with big stand-outs but there’s a joy in knowing you can go for an imprint and know you will have a good time. Thank you for that.


So there we go. I know you’ve already published your books of the year if you’re a book blogger and I promise I’ll look at them soon! Happy new year!

Book review – Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené (eds.) – “Loud Black Girls” @4thestatebooks @wmcollinsbooks

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I will be doing my Books of the Year post later on tonight – promise – but I wanted to make sure I’d got this last book I finished in 2020 reviewed and shared first. This is the follow-up to “Slay in Your Lane”, which I bought to read first (and did – review here), just showing once more that being given free books via NetGalley doesn’t undermine book-buying activities, and is a set of 20 essays by young Black woman writers asking “What next?” Who could resist asking to read this one?

Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené (eds.) – “Loud Black Girls”

(14 July 2020 – NetGalley)

Where “Slay in Your Lane” memorably and excellently laid out the societal position of young Black women and the barriers and hurdles they face, as well as the ways in which they have banded together for support and to build each other up, most notably as social media has come to the fore, this takes a wide range of women writers, activitsts, poets, journalists, etc., to talk about their view on the state of the nation or various topics that are most important to them. From people ‘returning’ from the UK to live in a Nigeria they weren’t born in to portrayals of women in Black Panther via descriptions of initiatives to deal with violence and the fear of violence in Black urban communities to thoughts on turning 30, there’s something here for everyone. Writers include people involved with the gal-dem collective (see my review of their book here) and other collective activists as well as those writing more in isolation.

The introduction by Bernadine Evaristo highlights that the days of young Black women being silenced are hopefully now over and that they can be loud and proud without being shushed and squashed. She talks about other books that have come out and been important (most of which I was glad to see I have read, such as “Don’t Touch my Hair” by Emma Dabiri (review) and “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race” by Reni Eddo Lodge (review) as well as “Brit(ish)” by Afua Hirsch (on the TBR).  Elizabeth and Yomi then talk about how the book came about, and pushing forward the idea that it’s not about helping people find their voice so much as empowering them to use it. So this book is both a celebration and an honest assessment of the state of things, but it’s a move forward into the future where “Slay” was about the present.

Then we’re on to the essays. I can’t write about every single essay, but will pull out a few here that really made an impression. There is no filler in the whole collection, however. Abioloa Oni talks fascinatingly about her experience of living in the UK having grown up – and become confident in herself as a result – in Nigeria, visiting several times then making the move over here: “I began to appreciate the privilege of growing up in a country where I had been the norm. Being in a system like that during my formative years had cloaked me in self-confidence”. Fiona Rutherford’s piece on taking control of your finances digs deep into how she got into a financial mess, how she got herself out of it and how vital financial literacy is, especially for Black women.

Jendella Benson writes in detail about her place in the digital revolution of social media and how it helped her find people like her and group together for strength, charting developments from anonymous chat rooms to the image-heavy social media of today: “From this digital den, real-world change emerged” through sharing of the #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo and #oscarsSoWhite hashtags, among many others. Musician Nao has an interesting view on Brexit as a vehicle for change as inequalities and racism have been brought out into the open and can now be discussed – provocative but why shouldn’t she be? Phoebe Parke takes a personal and wide-ranging look at being mixed race and dealing with questions, ‘coming out’ and the Meghan Markle effect and there’s more excellent provocative writing from Siana Bangura with her “Black Feminist 10-point (ish) Programme for Transformation” in which she argues the terms POC and BAME should be replaced with GMP (Global Majority Peoples), considering that Black and Brown people actually make up the majority of the world’s population: “The moment you no longer speak of yourself as a minority or someone powerless is the moment your oppressor realises you are conscious of your oppression”. Her final point is no less powerful, and one I will seek to follow up in my reading:

Let’s face it, this struggle is a lifelong one – and that is not a loss. What is a loss is if we can never find time for joy along the way. I’ve had enough of the consumption of Black grief, pain, sorrow and strife. Striving for Black joy must be central in our quest. It is foundational for any vision of freedom. As much as there is suffering, cruelty and calamity everywhere, there is also resistance, there is also love, and there is always us.

What a great collection of essays: highly recommended, although I also suggest reading “Slay in Your Lane” first to gain a full understanding of the context in which most of these writers are producing their essays.

Thank you to William Collins / 4th Estate Books for allowing me to access a copy via NetGalley in return for an honest review.