Book review – Reshma Saujani – “Brave, Not Perfect” #BraveNotPerfect #NetGalley

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I am slightly ashamed to say that this book was published in February 2019 – as well as reading the up to date books in my NetGalley account I am making an attempt to pick off the older ones as I go. So I’m sorry that it took me so long to get to this and I am doing better at keeping up now, I think.

This book exhorts women to give up seeking perfection to the point of their own exhaustion – whether that’s in the home, their own body, at work, in their child-raising, and to have the bravery to not go out looking tip-top, to try something we don’t already know we’ll be good at, or to say no, for example.

There’s a useful initial discussion of how people get like this, highlighting social conditioning of gender roles – nothing that earth-shattering but useful to have in a book like this so people can consider the example they’re setting. She shares experience of her own life, whether that’s failing to become an elected official or, during that campaign, noting girls’ avoidance of STEM subjects and setting up the non-profit Girls Who Code organisation. This book itself came out of a TED talk and she’s obviously both passionate and well-placed to share her passion.

Saujani brings in examples from other women’s lives, too. She talks early on about how this isn’t just a problem of the 1% (she was in a hated but high-flying corporate career before changing things around) but affects women in all stratas of society; although there is a section featuring some young women from working-class roots in Harlem, most of her examples feel a little more middle-class. She does succeed in emphasising that the descendants of immigrants, such as herself, have it a lot harder as there are very high parental expectations.

Although there were lots of practical examples, I did feel like this book would perhaps be more useful in the workplace or social justice organisation environment rather than personal spheres. However it’s a good, strong read and advocates and stands by women rather than scolding them.

This book was provided to me by HQ via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Book review – Stella Martin Currey – “One Woman’s Year” @PersephoneBooks

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PIle of birthday books

My last Persephone book from my 2020 birthday, and again from Ali; we do love buying these super grey volumes for each other and have been doing so consistently for years! This is one of their domestic non-fiction volumes, which I enjoy just as much as their reprinted novels, even though I am far from domestic myself (“How to Run Your House Without Help” did set me off planning room-by-room housework, temporarily …).

Stella Martin Currey – “One Woman’s Year”

(21 January 2020, from Ali)

Like other reviewers I’ve read, I set off reading this compilation volume, first published in 1953 (and dedicated to her friend, Tirzah Garwood) with an eye to reading a chapter a month, enjoying matching the seasons and preoccupations with my modern ones, etc. And of course it’s so charming and easy to read that, as well as dipping in and out of it as I did again while writing this review, it’s all-too-easy to just keep on going until you’ve consumed the whole lot!

Each month has a beautiful woodcut as an opener, then an excerpt from The British Merlin, 1677, with gardening, cooking and health tips. Then you have a longer essay (for example, “Books for the Family” which included many classics of my own childhood: do children read the actual classics any more?), the Most Liked and Most Disliked Jobs of the Month (getting one’s hair cut when the children go back to school versus getting the sand out of sandwiches), a recipe, an excursion (the Tower of London or, more prosaically, a modern telephone exchange), and then a couple of linked excerpts from novels or poems.

It’s a jolly read with plenty of domestic mishaps and disasters, from buying a piece of furniture slightly too large to go up the stairs comfortably (we donated ditto after trying to move it up a floor a little while ago) to having a sticky kitchen moment when attempting to make brandy snaps:

If you have never tried to clean stalactites of brandy snaps out of an oven it is one of the experiences of life you can afford to miss. The pale golden sticky substance hangs everywhere, and on the oven sheet is a thin, heaving, unworkable volcanic mass. By the time you have cleaned the oven, cleaned the sink, cleaned the cloth that cleaned the oven, cleaned the trays, burned the toffee-like remains in the boiler, washed your hands, you have decided on scones for tea, and hardly have strength to make those. (p. 210)

It’s gentle and sweet, quietly acerbic about rudeness and chores, quietly perceptive about England seen through a French schoolboy’s eyes, and obviously a period piece but also comforting as the months roll round and things aren’t maybe quite so different as one would imagine. Another Persephone triumph.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Earthly Possessions” #AnneTyler2021

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It’s time for the first April read in my Anne Tyler 2021 project and a slim volume that I yet again didn’t remember. I must have bought this with birthday book tokens.

If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Anne Tyler – “Earthly Possessions”

(25 January 2004)

Although I didn’t believe in God, I could almost change my mind now and imagine one, for who else could play such a joke on me? The only place more closed-in than this house was a church. The only person odder than my mother was a hellfire preacher. I nearly laughed. (p. 84)

I’m definitely starting to see patterns in Tyler’s preoccupations and themes as I work my way through them – a very pleasing aspect of reading all of an author’s works in order. Here we have the tropes of multiple siblings, each with their oddity, the woman alone with her odd family, photographers, the runaway wife, the young and seemingly attractive but pretty useless drifter guy, and the small town (not Baltimore again), as well as the house full of STUFF.

Charlotte is on her way to leaving her husband (again) and in particular their great mass of joint family possessions, which seems to have a life of its own and just won’t go away, just getting added to by full-size and other furniture. But as she tries to get some money out, she is taken hostage by an inept bank robber and ends up going on a road trip with him (as you do). She narrates the novel’s current happenings and also her past life that has got her to this point, and it’s another finely observed narrative in which not much happens (even a roadtrip with a criminal turns out not to be that exciting) and repeatedly considers shucking off her earthly possessions and running more freely upon the earth.

It’s a short novel but a fun one and very readable. Do we agree with the ending? Well, it’s very Tyler-esque, at very least.

Book review – Elizabeth von Arnim – “Expiation” @PersephoneBooks

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PIle of birthday books

Another of my birthday 2020 books, this one from Ali, who has also read this fairly recently (read her review here), and by an author by whom I’ve read a fair few books over the years. Von Arnim is always pretty clear-eyed on human behaviour – maybe especially marriages – and makes a point of discussing the plights of those women who have to exist outside marriage, too, as she does here in this rather bold and brave book for 1929 which had drifted out of print until Persephone rescued it.

Elizabeth von Arnim – “Expiation”

(21 January 2020, from Ali)

Dove-like, plump and comfortable Milly has just lost her husband at the start of this engaging novel. The rather dreadful Botts gather around her in their prosperous South London suburb but then recoil with horror when the details of the will come out: her husband has disinherited her in favour of a charity for loose women, leaving her only £1,000 – and “she will know why”. And she DOES know why: she has been conducting an affair for the last decade or so, which has actually left her in a position to be a better wife, but of course that’s not really the common belief about such things.

The sad thing is that the affair, which did begin passionately, has slipped into a sort of second marriage, a comfortable state – All Passion Spent indeed.

They settled down, that is; settled down to sin. Too awful, she saw. But there it was. (p. 32)

So she needs expiation, she feels her state bitterly, and she tries to work out if it would be better to run away to her sister’s in Switzerland or stay and throw herself upon her lover’s mercy. That’s the sister who herself went off in disgrace as a young woman … and who has not represented her subsequent life that truthfully in the (forbidden) letters back to Milly. But then her sister returns from Switzerland to London and her lover returns from his holiday in Rome and each of them bears a story that is likely to throw a spanner in the works …

Milly starts to realise that the brave thing that would get her forgiven would have been not to run away in the first place – and run away she has – and she should steel herself to go back to the Botts, shouldn’t she? The Bott husbands are maybe more forgiving of her than their wives, and her presence in their households shows up in sharp relief the nature of those wives – it’s a pretty damning indictment of the institution of marriage as well as a slightly bitter musing on the perilous position of the unprotected woman, amongst the amusing descriptions of hypocritical wealthy London lives. Only one sensible character remains, knowing how time smooths out the bumps in life, but she has a side-part, too, and seems unlikely to prevail.

My heart was genuinely in my mouth at times as I read through this – you can’t see how Milly can manage and she seems both trapped and flying too free. It’s a very absorbing novel and one I would recommend. There’s an interesting introduction by Valerie Grove in this Persephone edition, which relates the book back to von Arnim’s own life, something that’s not entirely necessary for enjoying the book but does give it an added piquancy.

Book review – Adharanand Finn – “The Rise of the Ultra Runners” @RunBookshelfFB

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PIle of birthday books

Looking at this picture of my birthday books from last year, I’m very chuffed to see I’ve read all of them apart from “Because Internet” (which arrived slightly after my birthday), although I have the two Persephones still to review, too. I have had a bit of a reading frenzy over the beginning of this month, with four books finished and two more started, so reviews should trickle through for a bit now.

Adharanand Finn – “The Rise of the Ultra Runners”

(21 January 2020 – from Gill)

I’ve previously read Finn’s other two books on running with the Kenyans and running in Japan, so was keen to get my hands on this one. I also know a good few ultra runners and have even attempted an ultra myself! (I did the least terrifying one I could find to do – race report here if you’re interested). I have to admit that part of the joy of reading this one was seeing someone who’s quite successful as a runner finding himself very much challenged by the combination of going off-road, going slower and actively choosing to walk up hills, all the while eating a lot on the go which characterises these longer-than-a-marathon events!

He looks into the history of the sport and interviews many of the big names, like with his other books, offering good pen portraits of the characters he meets. He also covers the darker side of the sport – the mysterious points system that allows you to get into the Mont Blanc ultra he’s aiming at, ideas about doping and cheating and social media competitiveness. He also talks to plenty of women and raises the issue of their lower prize money and sponsorship, even though women are now proving just as strong if not stronger than men at very long-distance endurance running.

At first, Finn can’t really grasp why people run ultras. He finds a lot of people who have beaten adversity and addictions, and seems to find that people enjoy having some adversity and challenge in their easier lives (this is certainly why I was happy to just do one and go back to the idea of more marathons (road ones) in the future). This is also, for a different reason, why he can’t get his Kenyan colleagues interested in ultras, as they have usually got into running to make enough money for their families to survive rather than as a leisure activity.

Although Finn is at the sharper end even of ultras and doesn’t mention much about the folk at the back of the pack (he does interview one slower woman and also stays to cheer people through near the cut-off time, though), there are still some points in the book that chimed with my experience: he discovers watermelon is the.best.thing.ever while racing, and has a weird burst of energy in the final fifth of a few races (when he excitedly tells other ultra runners, he gets a sort of, “Yeah, and?” vibe back!). And the range of people who do these races and their range of mental and physical strength is there, especially in this amusing quotation:

In my state of almost total deterioration, it’s a little disconcerting to get passed by two women discussing the cost of hotels in Venice. (p. 114)

So a good solid history and survey of the sport with lots of time in the pain cave and talking about different ways of assessing and improving gait – I think most people interested in running would get something out of this, and I do like the way he’s not afraid to laugh at himself.

Book review – Phillipa Ashley – “An Endless Cornish Summer” @PhillipaAshley #NetGalley

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I was really pleased when the marketing manager of Avon Books got in touch to let me know a new Phillipa Ashley series was starting and I could access the first new book via NetGalley. I have really liked her books in the past and felt this was a bit of a new departure and richer and deeper, a good progression!

Rose follows a trail of clues from Cambridge, where she works as an academic, having had to put her career on hold while she recovered from a life-threatening illness, to a tiny coastal Cornish village, desperate to find the donor who saved her life after an event in her life triggers the possibility of another new start.

Of course, Cornish village communities being what they are, Rose is soon sucked into local life, and she’s almost counted as a local, since she’s working on an archaeological dig in the area and also applying for funding to do more. She bonds with a local shop owner, the very much non-woo-believing Oriel, who happens to run a shop full of crystals and pixie lore, gets involved with the Regatta, starts to learn to sail and meets the hunky Morvah brothers, one of whom might hold the key to her search. But of course, the more she gets to know everyone on their own terms – and hers – the less she feels she can reveal why she came here in the first place.

I loved the interesting setting with lots of sailing and archaeological/academic detail which made it a nice and deep, satisfying read. I also loved reading about some of the standing stone sites I know (Ashley cheerfully admits to moving some of these around a little for the sake of the story and I’m fine when that’s clear!) and the whole area is described beautifully, as always. There’s comedy and suspense enough to keep you reading on but enjoying it in a light way.

I was really pleased to see the diversity back. Of course no Cornish village is going to be like an urban area in the Midlands, but Oriel has a firm girlfriend and neither of them is a stereotype, and there’s a boatyard apprentice called Gurdeep who brings in excellent snacks, as well as mentions of the wealthy boat-commissioning Choudhourys. So it’s delicately done but brings an extra dimension that I very much appreciate.

A really good read with a great heroine who makes mistakes but who you can really root for. I look forward to more in the series!

Thank you Avon Books for making a copy of this book available to me on NetGalley in return for an honest review.

State of the TBR – April 2021 plus a few #bookconfessions

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I finished or read 14 books in March, a total I’m very pleased with, and it’s shown up in my TBR, as well (some books came from the front shelf and some from the back shelf, which is why the front shelf seems to have shortened from both ends compared to at the beginning of March). A couple of these were review books for other sites, one is up now on Shiny and linked below.

I did also read some e-books but I’m pleased the pile tottering on top of the books is now at least to the side (and two of the books in he pile are the same book, an ARC and a finished copy.

Currently reading

I’m currently reading “Expiation” by Elizabeth von Arnim, which is a real page-turner of a story about a woman who’s disinherited for being Bad – our sympathies lie very much with her and my heart is in my mouth at the moment wondering what’s going to happen to her. My other current read is “The Rise of the Ultra Runners” by Adharanand Finn: I’m enjoying his discomfort as he moves from the safety of road running to the excitement of off-road stuff (knowing I’ll never have to do that myself again!). These were both books I was given for my birthday in 2020 and I’m relieved to say I’ve read all my 2019 books at last!

Up next

I have three lovely review books to finish and review for Shiny New Books: Sathnam Sanghera’s “Empireland” is an investigation of how Britain’s imperialism has shaped the country itself, “Field Work” by Bella Bathurst is about farming and working on the land and its effects on people and the land, and Mike Pitts’ “Digging Up Britain”, about new developments in archaeology, has had its publication date moved back a couple of times but is aiming for this month now.

Then I have my two Anne Tylers for the month, “Earthly Possessions” and “Morgan’s Passing” – again, I don’t recall much about these but I’m sure I’ll enjoy them.

Coming up

These are the next books at the front of the TBR, and as I’m trying to get as up to date as possible, I will be concentrating on these.

Stella Martin Curry’s “One Woman’s Year” completes my longest-outstanding Persephones, I may skip Sathnam Sanghera’s novel given I’m reviewing him this month, then we have some round the world travel, discussion of East Germany, invention in Africa and a book I can’t believe I’ve waited this long to read on the Internet’s influence on language.

I realise I should have read the ebook “Between Worlds: A Queer Boy from the Valleys” by Jeffrey Weeks last month for Dewithon – it’s published today so I will get to it soon, and one of my most recent NetGalley wins is out this month, too, so those will hopefully be in the mix as well.

Incoming

I have been quite careful this month and not too many books have come in. A couple of recent NetGalley wins (OK, a few) – I was offered Phillipa Ashley’s “An Endless Cornish Summer” by the publisher and have read it, ready for review at the weekend, and I have Greg McKeown’s “Effortless” which is about sorting your life out and doing the most important things, and Natasha Brown’s “Assembly” (a novel in which a young Black woman gets sick of it all and tells it how it is – this is described as shocking and might be out of my comfort zone but it does look important).

Past me also pre-ordered Debbie Macomber’s “Welcome back to Cedar Cove” which is an ebook of stories from the fictional town she wrote a whole series about (will I remember who’s who) and I got too excited about Emma Dabiri’s (of “Don’t Touch My Hair” fame) new book, “What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition” to wait. I’ve also got Anne Tyler’s “Redhead at the Side of the Road” arriving in paperback to complete my collection.

Shiny Fun!

Last but of course not least, I have reviewed two books for Shiny New Books recently.

The “Grayson Perry’s Art Club” exhibition catalogue was a lovely memento of the first series of the televised art club, with all the interviews and pieces by the celebs and other guests, and images and stories from the members of the public who exhibited, too. Of course the exhibition never opened (or hasn’t yet) so this is a lovely thing to have and helps the gallery, too.

Read my review here.

And “Hyphens & Hashtags*” by Claire Cock-Starkey was an excellent read about the history of symbols and glyphs, mostly found on the keyboard, some not, with a good theme pulled out of how these settled in the first place and have changed since.

Read my review here.

So that’s it, March in review and April to come. What was your best read of March and what are you looking forward to reading in April?