Book review – Mark Beaumont – “The Man Who Cycled the World”

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I have been reading up a storm this month and really wanted to get a book or two off the oldest bit of the TBR in advance of doing my 20 Books of Summer challenge from Tuesday, which picks books from the whole TBR unlike most years. So I grabbed this one and got a nice lot of reading time, so even though it’s a big one, it’s all done. It was also a good read, which helps!

It’s funny to think this was one of the last books I bought pre-lockdown, wandering round the charity shops on the local high street, spending a homemade charity shop voucher my friend Sian had given me with Sian – yes, going into multiple shops, and with another person! Seems like a world away now.

Mark Beaumont – “The Man Who Cycled the World”

(04 February 2020)

I love Australia. I would like to state that clearly before writing about what a tough time I had there. (p. 326)

Beaumont was a keen sportsman from an early age, but more into horse-riding and skiing, and rather amusingly not really into cycling at all, yet cycling was where he started of doing long-distance challenges, crossing Scotland then doing a Land’s End to John O’Groats while still in his teens, supported by his indomitable mum and sisters.

Then he decides, aged on 24, to do a circumnavigation of the globe, and to try to get a Guinness World Record for it, which involves him having to rid 18,000 miles, through two antipodes, and log everything in multiple ways, also raising money for five charities.

It’s an exciting journey apart from when it’s not, and he records his impressions of different countries and people (he kept a log book and audio diary). Places he thinks are going to be tricky aren’t, and the places he thought he could cruise through (notably Australia and America) are very difficult at times. The book is enlivened by lots of good-quality photographs matching the text nicely, and the journey by kind people, whether that’s his massage therapist Piotr and BBC film-maker David Peat, a man called Richard who he met for 15 minutes looking at elephant seals in California and does a 20-hour round trip in Florida to help him, or a shopkeeper who gives him a bag of shopping free.

He’s a little naive at times, getting giggly any time he’s offered a prostitute (which happens a couple of times) and mentioning some overt racism he hears while accepting it as the speaker’s position on things – but he was only 24 and it was back in 2007. He’s very nice about the people he meets and recognises individual acts of kindness, and he gives his mum a fairly substantial chapter at the end, where she shares what she went through at “base camp”, sorting all the logistics and issues. It’s a day-by-day account and fairly matter-of-fact but engaging and interesting.

I had a look at what he’s done since, and it’s pretty impressive stuff, including more record attempts – fair play to him!

Book review – Zakiya Dalila Harris – “The Other Black Girl”

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I had seen a lot of hype about this new debut novel, and found I could request it on NetGalley, so I did, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s rare I stay up after normal bedtime just to finish a book because I have to know what happens, but that was certainly the case with this one!

Zakiya Dalila Harris – “The Other Black Girl”

(NetGalley, 18 May 2021)

… the girl was staring at Nella like she’d just proclaimed she’d never seen The Color Purple. “So … you can’t tie scarves, or do flat twists?” Hazel was visibly taken aback.

Nella is the only Black editorial assistant at Wagner Publishing (there used to be one Chinese American woman but she moved on). Of course she encounters faces like hers in the post room and computer department, but the floor she’s on is unremittingly White, and full of the microaggressions you might expect. Then, one day, she smells the smell of a hair product and sees Black hair through a gap in the cubicle wall, and in waltzes Hazel.

But it’s not that simple. Is Hazel her new best friend, or is she a competitor? When Nella worked so hard to get the office diversity events working and tries to speak up about a very unfortunate portrayal of a Black character in a novel, Hazel wafts around making friends and influencing people. And of course she has perfect hair and links to an amazing hair cafe, of course she runs a not-for-profit and supports young Black writers, and of course she has a partner originally from the Dominican Republic and lives in the “right” bit of Harlem, while Nella has always struggled with her hair, and has a White boyfriend (who’s still lovely!) and lives in the bit that White people prefer.

When Nella starts receiving anonymous notes telling her to leave Wagner, who could be behind them? Meanwhile, in a dual-time narrative we hear about a couple of Black people in the industry in the 1980s, with parallels to what’s happening now, and a parallel time narrative about another Black woman who’s encountered a “The Other Black Girl” at her workplace with … difficult outcomes.

I can’t write more about the plot but it winds itself up into a story that’s not exactly creepy but has elements of creepiness, but is woven throughout with issues of micro and macroaggressions, Black women’s roles in workplaces, hair competitiveness, forced competitiveness in general, and the exhaustion that comes with code-switching and trying to provide an “acceptable” face of Blackness in a White workplace. Then there’s the issue of being Black enough, of protecting yourself by going to a Black college or running a business or the exhaustion of being out there in the White world. What would you do in Nella’s shoes if you found a way to be less exhausted by all this, to cope with it …?

I love the way Harris doesn’t make any concessions to White readers in this bold and brave and accomplished debut. If we don’t understand about curl types and treatments, why shouldn’t we go and look it up rather than expecting the author to do the work for us? (this is emphasised by the discussion of a White woman colleague experiencing the conversation in the lift, very cleverly). Owen is given as a good example of White allyship:

But it was because he was never too eager – he didn’t feel the need to call all of the things racist all of the time, like a few of the white men she’d dated and known before him – that made Nella trust him the most. He had nothing to prove; he was perfectly content that his worldview, established thirty years earlier by a lesbian couple in Denver and glued in place by a daily viewing of Democracy Now!, had set him on the right course.

The only quibble I had with this book was that we never get to see the end of Owen’s story. But that’s minor. It’s so well done, with thriller elements that don’t drag the book into genre, but leave it its own excellent self. I will definitely look out for what this author does next.

Thank you Bloomsbury Publishing for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review. This book is published on 01 June.

Book review – E. M. Delafield – “Tension”

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This is the second book in the wonderful British Library Women Writers series I’ve been fortunate enough to receive and I’m on the official Book Tour for this one – see the full blog tour listing for this and “Mamma” below my review. What a good read this one was, too.

E. M. Delafield – “Tension”

(21 April 2021

“For the last week or two I have been having a poor woman out from Culmouth in here to do some sewing […] I went in to talk to her for a minute or two, the first day she came. I hate them to feel as though they weren’t of the same flesh and blood as oneself – and I was struck by the sort of hard dreariness in her face, as though she had never known the meaning of love of gladness. I asked no questions, of course, but just laid my hand on her shoulder and said quietly, ‘I don’t know if you’ve ever read Browning – perhaps not – but there is a line of his that I want you to think about while you’re mending those curtains: God’s in His Heaven – all’s right with the world!’ And then I left her. Well, she didn’t make very much response, poor thing, but every time I saw her when she came here I’ve just, in my own thoughts, thrown a little Cloak of Love round her. It seemed to me all that I could do.” (p. 56)

I’ve always enjoyed fiction about jobs, especially in the past, like “High Wages” and “South Riding“, so this novel about the new Lady Superintendent at a private college, the other staff and the director and his wife was bound to appeal. Published in 1920, we have a novel both of its time and universal, describing in horrible detail what happens when a powerful woman takes against a less powerful one, wielding all the weapons in her armory available at the time.

We open with a scene of chaos as the rather sweet but ultimately ineffectual Mark Easter’s children descend upon Sir Julian and Lady Edna from their cottage down the road; being the author of the “Provincial Lady” books, Delafield is well set to describe both appallingly behaved children and monstrously self-unaware and hypocritical adults. Lady Rossiter IS a monster, far worse than anyone the Provincial Lady encounters, but she’s always been so and is not kept down by her husband, however sweet he actually is underneath. You do feel more and more sorry for Sir Julian as the novel progresses, trapped in a loveless and unhappy marriage, happy to deal with the college and his fellow directors but hating confidences and what he calls “officiousness” yet seemingly always encountering it. Yet, when it comes to the pass, will he stand firm and not waver? Hm.

The tension in the novel as Lady Rossiter clings on to her quarry with sharp teeth and shakes her environment up until she has nowhere to turn racks up gently and steadily, with skill and delicacy. There is an important scene near the middle of the book where Miss Marchrose and Sir Julian discuss how nothing end in violent action these days, but in an unbearable tension, and this foreshadows brilliantly what is about to happen.

The novel is full of great detail about this private college, turned around by the management of the Supervisor, Fairfax Fuller, a man of short temper who hates gossip and silliness and is the only decisive character of the men in the book. We see shorthand classes, clashes between staff, oddities which drive others into a perfect pitch of agony and fury (to be fair, Cooper, who narrates every single piece of his own action, is a rum do indeed) and gossip running wildfire and taking innocent people down with it.

There’s a side order of satire in Mark’s half-sister Iris’ terrible modern novel and upcoming wedding to a seemingly professional Scotsman with a secret background of his own. The sad details of Mark’s own marriage is used unkindly by Edna though she convinces herself she’s the only woman in his life and the only one who understands him. And you could almost feel sorry for Edna, except she insinuates and bullies, willfully misunderstanding a painful episode in Miss Marchrose’s earlier life, feeding information in nastily and having unpleasant confrontations. You do really ache for her nose to be put out of joint, or a sticky hand to be placed on her wallpaper at any rate.

Although it’s a comedy, there are really sad moments in this book. Sir Julian and Lady Rossiter carry on with their horrible marriage and you can see he will just become more entrenched in sardonic silence, she in her relentless, fixed-grin do-gooding. Iris’ marriage seems based on very little, Mark’s is destroyed and so you wonder if any marriage is actually happy. But that gives a depth to the novel which makes it very much just not a frivolous tale of two women set against each other.

There’s a timeline of the 1920s in the front of the book with a concentration on alcoholism and the laws around it, as well as the missing generation of men lost in the First World War which shadows this book written so soon afterwards. A biography of Delafield is followed by a Preface by Lucy Evans, Curtaor of the Printed Heritage Collections of the British Library which discusses the attitude of Delafield to men and gossip. The Afterword by Series Consultant Simon Thomas looks at the novels within the novel, and also the reading of “East Lynne” by Lady Rossiter’s servant (on whom she has tried to impose various other, improving books; this one is a sensation novel that in some ways echoes the plot of “Tension”) and free love, and ultimately what the “tension” in the book is about – not between modes of ethics but in the use of unstoppable hypocrisy to achieve a personal aim.

Don’t look to this novel for the neat ending of the romantic comedy. Reputation is what matters, and social institutions and maintaining the status quo. (Preface}

Thank you very much to British Library Publishing for sending me a print copy of this book in return for an honest review. Here’s the rest of the blog tour, for this one and “Mamma” (which I have also read myself) – and what a lot of lovely familiar names there are on there, too!

Book review – Sathnam Sanghera – “Marriage Material”

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Having read all the books I’d undertaken to read and review this month (amazingly!), one ongoing to review on 1 June, I have been able to pick a book from the physical TBR and one from my June NetGalley reads to finish the month with. The oldest book on the TBR was this one, bought with Christmas charity shop “voucher” my lovely friend Sian gave me, along with two more books on the shelf.

Sathnam Sanghera – “Marriage Material”

(04 February 2020 – Oxfam Books)

He could have been anyone. Or no one. And that’s the thing, if you’re Asian and happen to run a shop, you are anyone. Or no one. There are few more stereotypical things you can do as an Asian man, few more profound ways of wiping out your character and individuality, short of becoming a doctor, that is. Or fixing computers for a living. Or writing a book about arranged marriages. (p. 3)

This is not a book about arranged marriages. In fact, everyone central to the book in the two younger generations we read about refuses to entertain such things; and that is where their stories come from.

We have a dual-narrative form here with alternating chapters looking at two daughters of a Punjabi Sikh shopkeeper in the 1960s, taking two different routes in life (homekeeping / education) through choice and ending up in two very different places. Then we have Arjan, son of a Punjabi Sikh shopkeeper, returning home to help his ailing mum run the shop in modern times, leaving his White fiancée, Freya, in London in their old lifestyle. To add to the technical challenges, Sanghera chooses to name all his chapter headings after magazines stocked by the shop, and bases the plot on “The Old Wives’ Tale” – he does it all with aplomb.

The plot centres around the two daughters and their different plots and, in Arjan’s time, a mysterious missing aunt who may be needed now, but where can he find her? There’s also the long-running plot of the rivalry/friendship between this family and the Dhandas, both shopkeepers, with different circumstances (mainly, the Dhandas own their own land and can expand, the Bains/Bangas are in a leasehold terraced property and circumscribed by that; there’s a great deal of information about the rise and change of corner shops and their rivals which will interest anyone who’s into social or retail history woven into the novel), who have a bizarre no-competition rule which drives them apart and ultimately fuels the spiralling and violent ending (don’t worry: there is an epilogue).

Arjan has grown up friends with Ranjit Dhanda, who has however become a sort of stereotype of a certain kind of man, pushed satirically to the limits with his drug use, Steven Seagal obsession and collection of weapons. But he’s not actually dangerous, is he … We watch as Arjan gets used to life on the back streets of Wolverhampton, starting to find himself becoming racist and separatist as he’s encouraged by both Ranjit and the White people who besiege the shop. Can he find his way back to the liberal London graphic designer he used to be, or will be become more entrenched?

It’s a good read, with lots to think about and so much detail about life in Wolverhampton in both timelines, enhanced by real bits from newspapers. It does get a bit violent at times, and the final scenes were a bit much for me, but not gratuitous as people show their true natures.

Book review – Joe Berridge – “Perfect City”

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Well – I’ve finished all the books I planned to read for this month (oh me of little faith, having set myself a big challenge at the start of the month), including the two books I had from NetGalley that were published in May, and so continued with my side-project of picking off the books I’ve had on my NetGalley shelf for the longest time. I’m ashamed to say this was published in 2019 but at least I’ve read it now – and I enjoyed it!

Joe Berridge – “Perfect City”

(01 May 2019 – NetGalley)

Great cities are like jackdaws, fascinated by the newest flashy thing in the nests of their competitors: the Bilbao Guggenheim; the Tate Modern; Stockholm’s new enviro-max communities; Crossrail; Curitiba’s bargain-basement but effective transit system; Sao Paulo’s gondolas.

Berridge is an adopted Torontonian, originally from the UK, and he takes us around a range of modern cities to see how they have dealt with a range of quite similar issues: growth, the influx of immigrants from outside the country or inside it and their need for work and affordable housing, the way cities are run (one level, two, with a dictator or many committees …), the changing role of docks, transport, etc. He looks at New York, Singapore, London, Manchester, Belfast, Toronto, Sydney and Shanghai, taking as an initial and overarching theme the antagonism between Robert Moses, the developer who worked top-down and ran motorways through housing and Jane Jacobs, who stood in front of bulldozers and was all for community engagement first (they appear rather movingly right at the end of the book, in a little vignette). In each chapter, he reviews his first impressions, his dealings with the authorities and his experience of the city intertwined, and then goes for a meal in a favourite spot to talk more generally about what he’s discovered.

Some NetGalley reviewers have criticised the author for only looking at cities where his urban design agency have run or tendered for projects. However, I enjoyed this aspect, as it allowed him to show how the process of city planning works in real life, and differs across different types of city administration, and how design teams and architectural practices fit in and differ from one another. This is particularly vivid in the case of Singapore, very much done top-down and without citizen input, but in what the leaders think is the best interests of their compliant citizenship, as contrasted with Belfast, with massive input from competing interest groups, or London or Toronto, trying to involve neighbourhoods.

The final chapter brings everything together, discussing, comparing and contrasting his chosen cities under the headings he’s used throughout. And he finishes at a community get-together at a library (libraries having been another focal point of his travels), enjoying music and a mix of food. Written pre-Covid, it’s quite refreshing not to find any reference to the pandemic, although cities have of course changed hugely since this book came out.

Warm and perceptive, there’s a lot to like about the author and the book. None of the ideas are startlingly ground-breaking (we should provide housing people can afford, let the ugly flourish so people can establish themselves in chaotic, cheaper neighbourhoods, look at what other cultures do) but it’s told and drawn together nicely.

Thank you to Sutherland House publishing for allowing me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “The Accidental Tourist” #AnneTyler2021

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My second May read for my Anne Tyler 2021 project and we’re back to the standard Vintage editions which now alternate with the big Quality Paperbacks Direct editions I sometimes had of later books. Interestingly, when I was talking with my husband about how I’m having trouble remembering a lot of these novels, and also engaging with a couple of them, he was surprised and said, “Really, when I met you [20 years ago] you were all about Anne Tyler”. And I suppose I did buy most of these copies 20 years ago. Of course I’m continuing with the project and I found a lot to engage with in this one, even with its dark heart of tragedy which creeps out through the pages to affect everyone’s lives.

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 – “The Accidental Tourist”

(12 January 1996)

It occurred to him (not for the first time) that the world was divided sharply down the middle: Some lived careful lives and some lived careless lives, and everything that happened could be explained by the difference between them. But he could not have said, not in a million years, why he was so moved by the sight of Muriel’s thin quilt trailing across the floor where she must have dragged it when she rose in the morning. (p. 254)

Of course we have the famous eccentric, Macon Leary, who hates to travel but writes travel books for a living (for people who hate to travel, and I love it when he meets a couple of his fans during the novel), and his special ways of organising the house which, when his wife ups and leaves, combine to bring about his literal downfall and his moving in with his sister and two brothers, all equally weirdly over-organised (I have never forgotten Rose’s extreme alphabetisation of her kitchen, which always makes me feel better when I’m turning tins the “right way round” in the cupboards).

So we have one of those large eccentric families grown up and without the influence of their parents, although it turns out they do have a mother who is alive and well and odd in her own way (notably, she has rushes of enthusiasm for different hobbies, like lots of the men we’ve met before in Tyler). Like in “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” we also have little snatches of side-stories, notably from Macon’s neighbour. We have our grey-eyed, blond-haired serious men/brothers and our woman from a rackety background who is just about getting by. Macon, though, gradually comes to see, through his friendship with the plucky (and pushy: I’d like her to meet Morgan from “Morgan’s Passing!) Muriel, that there might be another, different way to be. Meanwhile, Edward is one of the best-described dogs in literature and Macon’s publisher, Julian, is a wonderful character who we do come to love.

But lying beneath all of this is the death of Macon’s son, Ethan, in a random incident which makes no sense. Edward was his dog, Sarah and Macon have been pulled apart rather than together by the death, and in a very poignant scene, his cousins still miss him and think about him. So Macon is stuck because of his personality but also because of this awful event, and devastatingly we see how someone who appears just eccentric and closed off is just as destroyed by this as someone who might express their emotions more. As Tyler seems to say quite often, being yourself is enough and people need to try to understand other types of people.

There’s an interesting serendipity with the last novel I read (“Mamma”), where Macon finds life isn’t as tidy in life as in a movie when a couple splits up (in “Mamma”, Joanna thinks no one in a novel would act like her), so that’s one for Bookish Beck! For animal lovers, Edward and also Helen the cat do just fine.

So a comic book that’s also moving, a book with a dark heart that shadows it, darker than Tyler will, I think, go for a good while yet. I did enjoy it.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

Book review – Diana Tutton – “Mamma” #BLwomenwriters @BL_Publishing #bookbloggers

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There are more lovely books coming out right now in the fabulous British Library Women Writers series, and I’ve been fortunate enough to receive copies of both of them. I’ll be appearing on the official Book Tour for E.M. Delafield’s “Tension” later this month, but I wanted to read Diana Tutton’s “Mamma” early so I could enjoy other people’s reviews of it without having to save them until I’ve read it. What a great book it was!

Diana Tutton – “Mamma”

(21 April 2021)

It had shocked her profoundly to find that she and Steven were in danger of combining against Libby. She hoped that she had checked in time the disloyal message of her eyes and lips. If anyone was to feel shut out in this household of three, it should be herself; never, by any chance, darling little Libby.

When you read the blurb of this novel, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s going to be a big book, full of melodrama and feelings being expressed all over the place. As Tanya Kirk puts it in the Preface, it’s “scandalously plotted”. But it’s small and tightly bound and nuanced and a much better read for it, in my opinion.

Joanna was widowed a year into her marriage, at 21, and the baby she had then is now 20, growing into a very different womanhood, influenced by her friendship with a very modern family and now keen to marry a chap with a moustache that she vows to get rid of. Steven is 35, so much nearer to Joanna’s age than his Libby’s, and although things start out awkwardly when they end up living together out of necessity, they draw closer through little moments of common ground. Joanna is caught between a last grasp of happiness and youth and her loyalty to her beloved daughter, who she has to watch navigate that first year of marriage with the same difficulty everyone has. Meanwhile, life goes on as normal, there’s a sub-plot to do with Stephen’s fairly ghastly folk-weave-loving mother and her unmarried mother lodger/help, and the village in which they stay is portrayed very nicely, too.

I loved the character of Joanna, much happier with muddy hands in the garden than entertaining and pretty unconventional after a life of having to be. Books and poetry are important to her, too, though, and we see how that draws her close to Libby, with a spirited discussion of “Little Women” coming early on, as well as to Stephen later. The relationship between mother and daughter, rather condescending on Libby’s part, is drawn as exactly as that between the married couple themselves, and Libby’s thoughts one or twice, Steven’s inner existence, at times, and Joanna’s inner thoughts and turmoil more often, are dissected gently and quietly. The one scene where all might come out is so carefully and tightly drawn, really a marvel.

There’s a comic servant and her mother, a second attractive and dangerous man and a clever technical echoing in two walks and the sight of an old man’s cottage to add to the detail and depth of the novel, and a lovely bit of metafiction when Joanna reflects that a woman in a novel would never have said what she just said.

There’s a short piece about the 1950s, including details about unmarried mothers and contraception, a short biography of Tutton followed by the Preface discussing the contrasts in the novel and an afterword that ranges over attitudes to sex, newspaper crosswords and poetry, to round off another beautifully packaged novel that is a delight to read.

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 – Dany Assaf – “Say Please and Thank you and Stand in Line” #SayPleaseandThankYouStandinLine #NetGalley

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Continuing my attempt to read all the books in the world (or at least on my TBR), which appears to be continuing through June-September if you see my 20 Books of Summer post, here’s my second NetGalley read for May.* I am trying to keep up to date with NetGalley (and succeeding so far although June might be a little challenging), picking off older books in between, and I’m glad I read this interesting account of the Middle Eastern origin / Muslim population in Canada, written by a kind and humane man who obviously wants to do the best for his nation.

Dany Assaf – “Say Please and Thank you and Stand in Line: One Man’s Story of What Makes Canada Special and How to Keep It That Way”

(06 April 2021 – NetGalley)

Now, with the world as it is, it feels like history is calling us to either harness the power of our multicultural assets, socially and economically, at home and on the world stage, or be torn apart by our differences.

Assaf and his family had always led a happy and integrated life in Canada, his ancestors having come over from the Lebanon over a century ago. But although the book opens with a huge multicultural celebration of Toronto’s team willing the national basketball championship, it soon turns to the horror of his family’s persecution post-9/11, his Alberta-born parents told to go home and victimised by their neighbours (while, it must be said, other neighbours pulled together to support them) and then the wider situation with the police and secret services trying to infiltrate mosques with a constructed narrative around radicalism that they didn’t see in their community. But as well as discussing this division and its causes (mostly down to Donald Trump and his ideology’s ascendancy south of the border, as well as the divisions wrought by misinformation and fake news on social media) he does discuss both the theory and the practice of ending division and pulling together.

The story of his family’s and many other Lebanese people in particular’s arrival in Canada, settling in to become fur traders and merchants, was absolutely fascinating and something I knew nothing about. I was aware Toronto was a very diverse city, but not about the diversity across the country, and this was fascinating to read about. Assaf’s own biography is woven through the book and I particularly enjoyed his tales of his obsession with hockey and, later, his usefulness to his law firm of being able to represent Canadian countries in the Middle East, with his heritage and fluency in Arabic.

There were long sections about American divisive politics, competition law and social media which did for me drag a little, but are very important (I feel I’ve read a lot about divisive politics and the evils of fake news but it’s useful to have this all put down in a book). Things became more obviously readable when he described the Ramadan fast-breaking dinner for the whole of Toronto which he and his wife have been putting on for a number of years now, a lovely occasion to keep people together and learning about each other, and I liked that he didn’t skimp on showing the organisation it takes, too.

A call to action for Canada and for all countries, a kind and humane book that has a lot to offer.

Thank you to the publisher, Sutherland House, for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review.


*My other NetGalley read for May was “Fit for Purpose” by Richard Pile, which I didn’t finish. It was a collection of advice we’ve all read a million times before (sleep more, eat well, a good/happy life has purpose) but also while the author reveals he’s a Christian in the blurb (obviously fine), he claims the book is for everyone and then, at least in the first two sections, after the usual, somewhat tired, references and robust use of Bible examples, explains how you can use the precepts under discussion to run your church/church leadership group. So it wasn’t really for me.

Books in, Shiny linkiness and 20 Books of Summer pile #20booksofsummer21 @WolfsonHistory @ShinyNewBooks @VertebratePub

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I seem to be posting reviews of NetGalley books, blog tours, books from my own challenges or other people’s, and there’s not really been room to round up what’s been coming in, plus an important decision about my 20 Books of Summer. So I thought I’d put it all in one place!

Books in

First off, I’ve been very fortunate to be asked to take part in the Wolfson History Prize shortlist blog tour, for the third year in a row. I reviewed “Birds in the Ancient Word” in 2019 and the large (and prize-winning) “The Boundless Sea” last year and this year I was able to choose Richard Ovenden’s “Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack”. Ovenden is director of the Bodleian Library and he looks at the long history of destroying libraries and archives and how this is gathering pace as history progresses – and what this means for history and civilisation. It’s already been a Radio 4 Book of the Week and I can’t wait to get started with it. Watch out for my review on 1 June.

Having already ordered one book from them, on the back of an email from the lovely indie publisher, Vertebrate Publishing, I ordered this gorgeous book by John D. Burns, “Wild Winter” in which he travels into the wild north of Scotland in winter looking for the area’s wild animals. We had a memorable bird-watching holiday in Inverness and north a few years ago so I’m looking forward to reading about some places I’ve been to. Do check the publisher out, too – they seem genuinely lovely.

Of interest to any editor readers I might have, “Respectful Querying with NUANCE” by Ebonye Gussine Wilkins looks at how we work with people who are not from the same ethnic/cultural background as ourselves and raise those queries that editors always have to raise when we don’t know the context as well. It’s a slim volume from the American Editorial Freelancers’ Association and I will get to it soon.

And lastly (I think – I bet I’ve forgotten an ebook) I managed to get myself into our local Oxfam Books on Sunday – I’ve been keen to get hold of some of those lovely books people have been donating furiously, and although I don’t think they had a lot of new stock out, I managed to find in the sport section Anna McNuff’s “The Pants of Perspective” in which she runs the length of New Zealand, and Alex Hutchinson’s “Endure” which looks at how athletes get the mental and physical strength to undertake greater and greater feats of endurance.

Shiny link fun!

I love reviewing non-fiction for Shiny New Books and very much enjoyed reading Mike Pitts’ “Digging up Britain”, which is a look at new archeological techniques applied to sites in Britain going backwards from the Vikings way into prehistory. He has a lovely engaging way of writing and makes all the technology very clear and easy to understand.

Many of us have watched Time Team and various other TV archaeology shows; many of us have seen or heard of some of the sites discussed here (I was particularly pleased to find the Staffordshire Hoard featured), but how many of us have been able to keep up with the enormous strides that archaeological science has been making over recent decades? Pitts is able to take an admirable long view over most of these sites, showing how knowledge has increased and dates have gone back in time or been refined as often generation after generation of archaeologists have studied, pondered, hypothesised and published. Read more.

20 Books of Summer 2021

And finally, it’s almost time for 20 Books of Summer again, hosted as ever by Cathy from 246 Books and people have begun sign-up posts already. I usually decide what to read right at the end of May and pick books off the start of my TBR. This year I decided to go a bit different and have a theme, particularly for the first two months.

I’ve always read diversely, especially since those days mining Lewisham Library for their LGB (as it was then) and “Black and Asian” sections. In the last few years, more and more publishers have been making books available that honour more diverse own voices and centre voices that have been marginalised. And of course, after the Black Lives Matter movement came to prominence last year, even more books have been written, taken on and published, which has been brilliant and inspiring. I have been reading the books I bought then and before, drip-feeding them into the blog, but I’ve decided to do an “othered voices / own voices” theme for June and July in my 20 Books of Summer this year. August has to be put by for All August / All Virago [and other books that celebrate mid-20th century lost women writers] and that worked out well as I had 6 or 7 Virago et al. books and 14 or 15 books in my othered/own voices category still waiting to be read (ones I have read include “Don’t Touch my Hair“, “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” and “Trans Britain“).

It’s quite an ambitious pile as it doesn’t include any of my Anne Tyler re-reads (there will be six during the period of the challenge), review books or ebooks (I never like including books I can’t physically see in 20 Books, no idea why!). So I’m not actually sure I can do it! I’ll share the full title list when I start the project, but here’s my exciting pile for the time being, with Black African, European and British, Asian British, gay, trans, working-class and Gypsy voices represented in the first two months, and some lovely indie publishers in the third. Don’t worry: I’ve left myself some diverse reads on the shelf (a couple of novels and an academic book on white privilege), have a load on the Kindle and am always buying more, so I won’t suddenly plunge into the white middle class for the rest of the year!

Are you doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter and have you created your pile yet?

Book review – Daphne du Maurier – “My Cousin Rachel” #DDMreadingweek

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If a good friend runs a reading week for an author every year and then gives you a book by said author for Christmas in the lovely new Virago edition, well, it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it! Here’s my contribution to Heaven-Ali’s Daphne du Maurier reading week and it’s SUCH a page-turner of a book – I started it on Saturday evening and there I was, frantically finishing it at lunchtime on Monday! I read “Rebecca” and “Jamaica Inn” last year and they were also page-turners, although I think I might now have exhausted the ones I can read, as I don’t like ghosty ones or anything too scary (“Jamaica Inn” was a bit scary for me).

Daphne du Maurier – “My Cousin Rachel”

(25 December 2020 – from Ali)

I felt strangely moved, as if all that I did and said was laid down for me and planned, while at the same time a small still voice whispered to me in some dark cell of matter, ‘You can never go back upon this moment. Never … never …’ (p. 171)

We open with a nice jolly gibbet (always good when you start a book over your tea …) and a big wodge of doomy foreboding as our narrator/hero moves from a childhood warning sign at the cross-roads to considering how he shouldn’t have had the fate he had, had he been different, and giving a few little clues to the story to come. It’s du Maurier at her gothic best, warning and foreshadowing and unnerving us.

Then we get swept up in the story, which winds up tighter and tighter, as we learn of our hero, Philip’s, ideal life, raised by his cousin Ambrose, secure in his position and happy in his community, with a godfather whose daughter Louise is his best friend. Then Ambrose goes to Italy for his health, meets a distant cousin, gets entangled, and it’s only when “My Cousin Rachel” arrives at the house to … well, to do what, exactly? that everything starts to get really complicated.

Rachel seems very different, and younger, rather than the evil old temptress Philip has imagined her to be. But is it all push from him and no pull from her or is she working subtle charms on him? Good old Louise sees clearly what’s going on – or what might be, it’s all very murky – but in a sad scene, Philip’s so hell-bent on destroying himself that he almost loses her friendship in the meantime.

There’s humour in the book, in the ministrations of the servants when a lady comes to visit and all manner of silverware is brought out, and in their touching gifts for Philip’s birthday. And du Maurier is partial to a house, isn’t she, and the descriptions of the house and its grounds, and the further fields, are lovely and engaging, too. But the main thing is the plot, ramping up and ramping up, little clues strewn for us to notice and feel clever then … well, the ending is one of many things that can happen, but certainly does work!

There have been a couple of films of this, I think, having had a look around for some way of resolving the unresolved bits of the plot, and it seems one of them at least takes a more conventional approach to the ending, adding a bit onto the actual book. I like it as it is: very exciting and absorbing.

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