Book review – Anita Sethi – “I Belong Here”

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A much-anticipated book I managed to acquire via NetGalley and the last of my NG books I managed to complete and review in June (I have missed two, which I will try to cover in July).

Anita Sethi – “I Belong Here”

(27 February 2021)

My journey is one of reclamation, a way of saying, to adapt the Woody Guthrie song title, ‘this land is my land too’ and I belong in the UK as a brown woman, just as much as a white man does.

Anita Sethi is subjected to a racial hate crime on a TransPennine train, and she works to heal herself by walking the Pennine Way, claiming her place as a person of colour, her belonging in Britain. That much is made clear in all the PR I’ve seen – however what we’re not told when reading about this book is that Sethi stood up for herself when she was abused, went and got the train manager, gave statements to the police, and the perpetrator was convicted of a hate crime. Very fair play to Sethi for that, not an easy thing to do.

As I read in her essay in “Common People“, Sethi only got to experience proper countryside once growing up, on a visit to the Lake District her single mum accessed via her nursing job. But, as she expands on that here, she saw the birds then, and she always imagined herself flying above her Manchester home to freedom in nature again. She was on her way to a reading for that book of essays when she was attacked by the racist.

Instead of the linear narrative you might expect, from damage to healing, this book takes what is probably a far more realistic view on the process of healing (and also of grieving, which there is quite a lot of in the book, too). She spirals around the subject of the attack and also other topics, whether that’s the life-giving properties of sphagnum moss, the intricacies of a limestone pavement, her difficult and abusive childhood or the theme of spines and resilience. At first I kind of pushed against this, slightly resenting spiralling off into another musing on spines, skin, grass when I wanted to get on with the walking, but I feel I might have been institutionalised by the other nature/travel writing I’ve read – and I’ve read a lot of it – primarily but not always written by men, and more linear, maybe more confident, maybe less questioning (Sethi remarks several times that a bird has gone too fast for her to ID it, or she just can’t recognise a species – not that common in the more standard works). So again, massive fair play to her, writing this as she wants to, claiming her place, thinking her thoughts, writing her words.

There’s a lot of excellent work in this book linking biodiversity and human diversity, caring for nature and caring for people. Themes we find elsewhere in memoir, nature and travel writing, whether that’s “we’re here because you were there”, the evils of Empire, the need to tread carefully on the fragile planet, the mental health effects of being in nature or a myriad of other topics, are woven together to form an organic, slightly dreamy at times whole that offers a radical new look at how we should be treating our communities of people and of creatures. For example, talking of Empire she talks about how humans were exploited in order to exploit nature, when exploring the banana trade.

I do think on reflection that sometimes the links were a bit obvious – she walks over a bridge and we’re on to bridges across cultural divides – and there’s a bit of extra detail in the info dumps on all sorts of topics that could maybe have been slimmed down slightly by an editor. But this is a small point, it only interrupted my enjoyment occasionally and I liked the discussion of word meanings that some people on NetGalley found more tedious.

Sethi offers strong calls to action, requesting those who witness discrimination to speak up for the victims of discrimination, requesting schools to educate pupils on protected characteristics and calling for feminism to work intersectionally. But the book ends more softly, as post-pandemic she makes another journey, along Hadrian’s Wall, and, encountering dandelion seeds blowing in the wind, makes silent wishes for “a world in which we can all mkae a safe home and feel at home in ourselves, in which all bodies and minds are valued”.

A remarkable and lyrical book, where we see nature and the wild countryside through the eyes of someone learning to navigate it, but someone who’s an expert in her own pain and in the divisions of British society. The narrative structure does take a bit of getting used to, but adds a strong degree of authenticity and is able to bring in so many diverse topics, settling around again and again to clarify and strengthen.

Thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing for making this available to me to read via NetGalley in return for an honest review. This book was published on 29 June.

In a nice link to another book I’m currently reading, Sethi mentions David Olusoga’s “Black and British” – however, I was expecting that to crop up somewhere so I can’t say it’s particularly surprisingly serendipitous!

Book review – Juno Dawson – “Gender Games”

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For my fifth of my 20BooksofSummer I made a small substitution, staying on-list but promoting this one over “Black and British” because it’s also Pride Month, so I wanted to get this one reviewed by the end of the month. This is another book I bought with my Book Token Splurge in June 2020 (and although you could castigate me for not having read the BLM and gender related books I bought them, I also haven’t read the horse book I bought then; it’s how my habit of buying too many books and my habit of reading them in acquisition order make things fall!).

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun with their books! How are you doing?

Juno Dawson – “The Gender Games: The Problem with Men and Women From Someone Who Has Been Both”

(18 June 2020)

Gender and I were always heading for a showdown. It was only a matter of time, and it’s a battle not yet won. (p. 4)

Much like Akala’s book, this views a particular topic, in this case gender, through the means and lens of a narration of the author’s life and personal experiences. Like with Akala, we find polemic, humour and careful referencing, frustration at the past and present and hopes for the future, but here, rather than race and class, we’re examining gender.

Juno is a person who is in the process of going through gender transition during the writing of the book, becoming the woman she always believed and wished she was.* She’s very honest and open about her previous identity as a gay man, forcing herself to adopt stereotypes more and more, ending up a gym bunny with a big beard, absolutely shocked to the core when she realises after talking to a friend that not all gay men have wished from childhood that they were born female. Once this has hit home, she realises she can’t not go down the transition path – and while we do then get a lot of intimate detail about that, not everything, not stuff about operations, etc – because that is personal and I really admire Dawson for drawing the line there.

[*I understand from reading “Trans Britain” that not every person with gender dysphoria has a narrative that goes right back to childhood, and that cisgender people, let alone clinicians, should stop looking for that when establishing whether to ‘accept’ a trans person’s identity. However, Dawson did identify this way; but she is at pains to remind us that everyone’s journey is different and also that trendy or ‘sudden onset’ trans identity is a description invented by broadly anti-trans groups, but people can discover who they are at any age or life stage.]

So after a memorable scene where Dawson comes out for the second time to her mum, and a useful chapter separating out sex and gender (there is a further glossary in the back, too), we follow her life through from early childhood to the time of writing, examining various other topics around gender as we go, whether that’s rape culture, toxic masculinity, sex and relationship education, gendering of toys, perceptions of motherhood and childless women, the sad divisions between some feminists and trans activitists, privilege … It all flows very well and is clearly the production of someone who knows how to write and organise material, but also knows how to confide and be revealing while maintaining boundaries.

Dawson is nicely careful about who she is speaking for. She knows she has had male privilege (though as a small, slight, gay man, not the full male privilege a straight or more imposing man would have) but uses that to interrogate the messages she was given and the female-orientated messages she could avoid. She make it plain she is wary of putting words into the mouths of trans people of colour or trans people with disabilities and mentions intersectionality and its special issues often. She’s so careful about the words she uses and I (as a cishet white woman) definitely don’t feel I’m being ‘mansplained’ to, as some people have accused her of doing (for a start, she’s a woman).

Anyone who thinks that transitioning is a choice or trend should be very aware of how gruelling it is and I don’t think anyone would stick it out for more than a week unless they absolutely had to. (p. 227)

This is very clear and something that probably needs to be spoken. Whether or not people go down the route of chemical or surgical procedures, and certainly for those people born before puberty blockers were able to help people who needed to transition not go through two separate puberties, it’s a hard path to walk that it’s unlikely anyone would walk if they didn’t absolutely need to. Those of us not on that path are exhorted to be kind and be supportive, to act as much as we can, to fight on women and minority groups’ behalf in the call to action at the end of the book (there’s also a great call to not assume that more ‘masculine’ women or more ‘feminine’ men are unhappy with their gender and want to change it; to just let people BE, which is refreshing).

An insightful, occasionally a bit rude, very open and honest read which has huge value.

This was book number 5 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


Book review – Sara Jafari – “The Mismatch”

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Another of my NetGalley books for June – I fear I’m not going to get all of these read by the end of Wednesday although I should at least manage to start “Windswept” or “I Belong Here”. It was always a big ask to read so many books this month, review ones and these and 20 Books of Summer books. I’ve enjoyed myself, anyway.

“The Mismatch” – Sara Jafari

(06 April 2021)

In a dual-narrative first novel, we meet Soraya, in 2014 Brighton and London, just finished university and trying to work out what to do next, and her mother, Neda, growing up in Iran then moving to the UK with her handsome and kind husband … who soon becomes very much less handsome and kind. But first, we meet Soraya’s older sister, Laleh, in 1999, and the beginning of a mystery and secret that will always threaten to burst the family’s view of itself.

I really liked all the details of life in Iran and life as an Iranian in the UK, first and second-generation. I also liked that Soraya’s living in my old neighbourhood of New Cross Gate, which you don’t often see in books! It was nice that Soraya had two best friends, gay, Black Oliver and Pakistani-origin Muslim Priya, both on her side and forthright, although Priya was only drawn in quite vaguely. I wasn’t quite so engaged by the central, mismatch, love story between Soraya and the (very) White, rugby playing lad, Magnus – I think mainly because it’s yet another Millennials in London story and although their struggles in life are real, it’s a bit similar to other stuff I’ve read. Also worth knowing: Soraya is a virgin and discovers the delights of (moving towards) sex with Magnus, however I just as much don’t want to read this between a cishet couple as I didn’t in the previous, even more diverse fiction book I read! So there’s that.

You can’t help but draw comparisons between the initial attraction and mismatch of Soraya and Magnus and her mum and dad. The family dynamic is very broken and you wonder if she will get to break the cycle. Certainly she and her remaining siblings (boy/girl twins) have different ways of dealing with their father and his problems. Brother Amir is nicely drawn with his complete lack of understanding of how his sisters’ lives are different from his in so many ways. There are some good points about micro-agressions and also context – Soraya gets called “exotic” twice and minds it more on one occasion, though I felt it was a red flag when used the less problematic time.

There are a couple of problems with the book I found: mainly Soraya’s drug-taking – do all young people in London now take drugs, even people with “Muslim guilt” who find it hard to get intimate with people? The word “mismatch” pops up a lot and that sometimes feels a little laboured. There’s also a plot point which is confusing, although I have mentioned this (it has been in the reviews on NG already) and hopefully that can be addressed. It’s a good portrayal of a group of people you don’t see often portrayed and also issues within that community. Being autofiction to an extent I think (the author edits a literary magazine, just as her heroine plans to) I will be interested to see what she writes next.

Oh, there are two cats and a dog in the novel and none come to harm, however in the Acknowledgements, we find the cats are in memory of the author’s late cats!

Thank you to Random House for making this available to me to read via NetGalley in return for an honest review. This book was published on 24 June.

Book review – Akala – “Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire”

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My fourth 20BooksofSummer read and I’m getting on well with my First Two Months of Diversity with this bright and provocative take on British culture, race and politics. I bought this with my Book Token Splurge in June 2020 and rather aptly, today and yesterday I placed my orders for this year’s Book Token Splurge (the reason I do this mid-year is because I happily receive a lot of book tokens at Christmas and birthday but then also a lot of books. By June, the TBR should have calmed down a bit from then, and there is room for some newcomers! I look forward to reporting the results of this year’s Splurge soon.

In the meantime, I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun working through their books!

Akala – “Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire”

(18 June 2020)

I was not born with an opinion of the world but it clearly seemed that the world had an opinion of people like me. I did not know what race and class supposedly were but the world taught me very quickly, and the irrational manifestations of its privileges forced me to search for answers. I did not particularly want to spend a portion of a lifetime studying these issues, it was not among my ambitions as a child, but I was compelled upon this path very early. (p. 5)

As the quote from David Olusoga on the front of this book says, it’s “Part biography, part polemic”. Akala was born in the 1980s and grew up in Camden, London, with Scottish/English – Jamaican heritage and he talks about how this heritage places him in British society, about which parts of it he relates to, about the experiences he had and the choices he made growing up – not all good ones, and he holds his hands up to that – while relating all this to wider society and politics, both in the UK and globally. He’s confiding and provocative, talks about his mum and guns, and accurately predicts things that have happened since publishing the book (including the government seeking to divide and conquer by reporting on race when they should be thinking about class, as we’ve seen in the recent report about school achievement of “poorer White children”.

It’s not a solemn or dry tome: there are witty asides and it keeps moving, taking a conversational tone while being backed up with the references and statistics we all need when we’re reading bits out and people go, “But what about ….?” or we think that ourselves. He even puts in quotes from White people for those of us who crave those (I hope I’ve got past that sticking point but he makes a valid point in mentioning it; he also does it in an amusing fashion). He makes his privileges and advantages clear: having a mum who, although White, with all the difficulties that brought to their relationship, was radical and politically active and made it her mission to be educated about Black issues and history, and a pan-African Sunday school as well as a fierce older sister who mocked him out of rapping in an American accent when he was starting out in music.

As well as this biographical information and stories of how his identity and life experience was honed by coming up against a mainstream culture of police suspicion and racist teachers, Akala very much looks at wider cultures and societies. He shares the radical history of Haiti’s anti-slavery revolution and Cuba’s aid to South Africans trying to end Apartheid as well as a searing indictment of Britain’s seeming obsession with claiming William Wilberforce single-handedly ended slavery, and that we ended it out of some noble or caring motive. He’s also very clear about the intersection of race and class, and about how class in Britain conspires to divide and conquer and keep many people down.

The chapter about the relationship between American and British Black culture is fascinating, and I love that he takes a provocative pop at those Americans who have criticised Black British actors for coming over and taking all the jobs / Black British people for not being spirited enough (oh, Maya Angelou!) in addition to earlier interrogating White British love for Mandela / hate for Castro and his own feelings about Barack Obama (not a massive fan). He’s certainly not afraid to ruffle a few feathers.

Bringing things up to date by talking about the growth in West African as opposed to Caribbean originating Black populations in Britain and the changes in perception by the rest of the world, the book ends by a consideration of what would happen to a child born into matching circumstances to Akala’s but in 2018 not 1983. He is reluctant to see much positive there but does admit that movements happen and people have power, and ends up by exhorting his readers “to choose whether to act or do nothing” to help bring about the positive outcome he fears might not happen.

I value this book for its honesty and the information it provides which is definitely extra to the history I learned at school, and its insight into modern British (mostly urban) culture. I’m very much looking forward to reading Afua Hirsch’s “Brit(ish)” to read about a female experience contemporary to this male experience as several people have indicated to me this is a valuable pairing to read close to each other.

This was book number 4 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


Book review – Anne Shade and Victoria Villaseñor (eds.) – “In Our Own Words”

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I’m getting on reasonably well with my NetGalley reads as well as the print ones I’m reading for 20BooksOfSummer2021 and various review books – this is the second of the five published this month that I have read and reviewed. I’ve struggled a bit with reviewing this one because it wasn’t really what I’d thought. Even though the description stated it was short stories:

In Our Words: Queer Stories from Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Writers is a thoughtfully curated collection of short stories at the intersection of racial and queer identity. Comprising both the renowned and emerging voices of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color authors, across multiple countries, and diverse in style, perspective, and theme, In Our Words reflects the complexity and diversity of human experience.

… I managed to miss that aspect of it and thought it was, a bit like “Common People” (which, ironically, I’d thought WAS a collection of short stories) a set of memoir pieces about people’s lived experiences on the intersection of race and sexuality.

“In Our Words: Queer Stories from Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Writers” – stories selected by Anne Shade and edited by Victoria Villaseñor

(08 May 2021)

So it’s short stories, and the first one, “Sweet Potato” by Briana Lawrence, was pretty good – a churchgoing mum sticks up for her gay daughter and what seems like an Act of God might just be something else … That was a good story with a twist, and then we were off whizzing through the genres, all of the main characters LGBTQIA+ in some way, and all Global Majority or Indigenous People, which was refreshing, I’d imagine (I’m not a big short story reader to be honest, but I presume representation, and especially intersectional representation, is as lacking in this field and in these genres as elsewhere). I’m not really a genre reader so I’m probably defining these wrong but we run through the mild paranormal, urban romance, a bit of (gentle, thank goodness) horror, some sci-fi and fantasy, and some straightforward erotica, really. I liked the positive wish-fulfilment aspect of some of the stories – body positivity, women taking power for themselves, good advice on clearing negativity from one’s life.

I got a bit stuck with a few of them, if I’m being honest. Not being a genre reader, I didn’t really get hugely interested in the sci fi and one of the fantasy pieces and skimmed them. Some, I just plain didn’t understand, there was one with two chaps in a flat and one of them seeing weird stuff in the mirror I could not make out (probably completely my fault). One of the fantasy pieces about a mermaid sent to help a human in distress was nicely done to an extent but then relied on the heroine’s family being wiped out mysteriously, giving her a reason to grieve but sort of weirdly glossed over.

And quite a few of the stories seemed just to be about making it to the erotic encounter, with no other story than that. That’s a bit much for me – I don’t mind a bit of erotica in its place and I accept these weren’t high literary fiction (I don’t normally enjoy high literary fiction short stories, anyway, more basic ones telling, you know, a story, are preferable, and I am certainly not sneery about genre fiction; I just don’t know its tropes well) – but when it’s just a stub of a story that leads to a lovingly described erotic encounter, I just feel uncomfortable (just to make it clear: I would be uncomfortable if this was straight, cisgender, White, middle-aged, non-mermaid or shape-shifter erotica-only stories that matched my gender and sexuality and other attributes, nothing to do with the protected or fantasy characteristics of the characters and their authors. I had a big think about this to make sure, believe me).

One thing I did find interesting was the insertion of coronavirus themes into several of the stories – in terms of social distancing, online working and mask wearing. It’s fascinating to see it working its way into things all over the place.

So I’m not going to be rushing out to buy lesbian mermaid erotica but I’m glad it’s out there for people who want to read it. I’m glad books are being published in which people of all different genders, sexualities and races and the intersections thereof can see themselves represented. It wasn’t for me – but then also it really probably wasn’t for me, as such. Kudos to the editors and writers for putting this together and the publisher for putting it out there.

Thank you to Bold Strokes Publishing for making this available to me to read in return for an honest review.


Book Serendipity

One for Bookish Beck, who likes to collect these: the first story in this book featured (many) sweet potato pies, and on the very day I read that short story, I came across a sweet potato pie in Maya Angelou’s “Gather Together in My Name”.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Saint Maybe”

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I’m over half way through my Anne Tyler 2021 project and I really enjoyed this one after the so-so feelings about the last one. I did mark when I bought this Vintage copy (I’m into the pile of white books in the middle of the photo of the Anne Tyler Pile), and it was on 18 August 1996. Again, I didn’t remember much about it, although I did recall there was an embarrassing church (and there was!) and it’s still not where I got the idea to keep all my kitchen cupboards neat with the tin labels all turned out (where WAS that, then?).

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 – “Saint Maybe”

(18 August 1996)

There was this about the Bedloes: They believed that every part of their lives was absolutely wonderful. It wasn’t just an act, either. They really did believe it. Or at least Ian’s mother did, and she was the one who set the tone. (p. 8)

So here we have another family with a Family theme that keeps them together – and in fact we see that Mrs B is a somewhat heroic figure, plodding on through her family’s increasingly chaotic and fractured life, later on in terrible pain from her arthritis but hiding it gracefully.

Ian, the central character, has a fairly standard life, with a steady girlfriend and plans for higher education. Then his brother brings home a bright and breezy girlfriend who already has two children, Ian clearly falls for her, too, and then when he thinks the scales fall from his eyes (it’s never entirely clear what happens) he tells a tale to his brother that destroys the family. Instead of leaving, he becomes the family carer, atoning forever for a sin he committed in good faith, part of the aforementioned embarrassing church, which is all about such atonement, and doing good for the community.

Life wears on, year after year. We see the children grow up and branch out, as Ian’s sister produces an endless stream of her own (named alphabetically, in a nod to Tyler’s characters who like to do things to simplified but odd plans). There is an animal death, but in a long story with a family dog, it’s expected and not too traumatic (though still of course sad and marked).

I loved the character Rita, the home organiser, who comes and sorts out the house, removing all those things that are so familiar to everyone (I don’t think this family is such a chaotic one as some in Tyler’s novels: we all have sad mugs waiting behind the usual ones in case they’re needed, don’t we?). The embarrassing church is seen through Ian’s and the children’s eyes and not mocked as such, but kindly indicated as being odd and off, but providing a refuge to lots of people. In fact, Ian must make a choice with regard to the church, and does so: he’s another character who seems quiet and ineffective but has a core of steel.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

Book review – Kit de Waal (ed.) – “Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers”

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My third 20BooksofSummer read and I’m getting on well with my First Two Months of Diversity (obviously a class-based exploration this time). I bought this in April 2020 and I can’t remember now if that was with my Book Token Splurge (must do this year’s) or just a random purchase (oh, look, I just wanted to read about some other lives than my own!) and it was an ideal candidate for this fun list of mine.

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun working through their books! And can anyone recommend me some more working-class writers to read?

Kit de Waal (ed.) – “Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers”

(15 April 2020)

Even though I have lived away from home for a third of my life now, it continues to shape the way I think about the world outside it. (p. 53, Stuart Maconie quoting Lynsey Hanley’s “Estates”)

I had a good think about this and I do read some books by working-class writers or writers of working-class origin (Paul Magrs, Jo McMillan, Stuart Maconie, James Kelman, Magnus Mills, Ellen Wilkinson, Kathleen Dayus, those of the Angry Young Men who weren’t middle-class, and I have Anita Sethi’s memoir to read this month …) but not enough probably, and I do agree that their words and lives should be more represented in books – both. There’s in fact a compelling set of stats in the final essay in this book to prove how middle-class publishing and the books that are published are, becoming even more woeful when you look at any intersections at all with gender, race, sexuality or disability. So this 2019 book taking 34 working-class writers and showcasing their memoir writing (so their own-words work and their sharing of their lives) is an important one. Aaaand … it was published on Unbound, the crowd-funding subscription model publishers, making an ironic point if it wasn’t able to get published traditionally.

The authors are half published, established writers and half new writers, some never before seen in print at all. And you know what, I kept flicking to the author biographies at the back and kept guessing wrongly! The work as a whole is lovely and coherent, with a great flow even though the individual pieces are quite short – linked themes like darts, pool and greyhound racing (all enjoyed by female writers) bob up and dip down again as you go. I loved that it was all memoir, as I am not always a fan of the short story: although some of these have a more fictionalised or shaped form (and of course all are shaped in some way), most of them are straightforward narratives of a time in someone’s life or their life path and reflections on their working-class status (or not, for some of them).

These are lives different to mine – not just in the people of different genders, sexualities or ethnicities, but in a profound lack of a confidence which I can see I gained through my middle-class privilege (I’m not very confident personally but I know I can walk into a room of whoever and be listened to, and I know I can up my middle-class signifiers and gain more credentials as a result, though I do try to use that, like my white privilege, for the common good).

It would be hard to draw out favourites in the collection. Loretta Rankinssoon offers a wonderful portrayal of tower-block life, seeing posh blocks go up around her council one, destroying their view, panicked by Grenfell, with little vignettes of encounters in the lift. Cathy Rentzenbrink points out how little darts there is in modern literature, only cropping up in Martin Amis (I wonder if I will find darts everywhere now in what I read. I suspect not) and draws a great parallel between the practice boards players use to make things harder in practice thus easier out in the world. She gets accused of being middle-class but remains out there, hoping she’ll win a prize: “People like me can write books. People like anyone can write books” (p. 81).

Riley Rockford’s “Domus Operandi” is one of the more experimental pieces, interspersing a middle/upper class dinner with memories of a working-class upbringing, both meeting in the ability to eat a globe artichoke, thank you very much. Louise Doughty, in “Any Relation” talks, too, about blending in at middle-class events but also realising she profited from a short window of opportunity where you could be socially mobile which has now closed on the next generation. Anita Sethi’s portrayal of her one, life-changing visit to the Lake District makes me even more keen to read her full memoir.

A valuable and worthwhile, amusing and entertaining, not at all worthy or dry book that deserves to be out there and to have the word spread about it. I hope more working-class writers are coming into the publishing world as a result.

This was book number 3 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


Book review – William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer – “The Boy who Harnessed the Wind”

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It’s 20BooksofSummer time at the moment and I’m thrilled to have finished my second book in my First Two Months of Diversity (a book set in Malawi, written by a Malawian author) – I’ve now started Book 3, Kit de Waal’s “Common People”, too. This was one of the last books I bought physically before the lockdown, on a trip round the local charity shops with a “charity shop voucher” from my friend Sian.

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun working through their books!

William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer – “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”

(07 March 2020)

The chief sat on the sofa, dressed in a crisp shirt and nice trousers. Chiefs usually dressed like businesspeople, never in feathers and hides. That’s in the movies. (p. 26)

We have the story of William’s life through from his early childhood to his entry into and progress through full-time education (by no means a given at any age in his village in Malawi) and although there are very bad times, it’s a story of persistence, self-education and hope.

Growing up the only boy in a farming family, William is expected to help his father with the farm, and all the hard work that involves, growing tobacco as a cash crop and maize as a subsistence crop. His two best friends are his cousin, Geoffrey, and Gilbert, son of the local chief. These three boys help and sustain each other, and are still friends: he thanks them hugely in the acknowledgements and their work is very much a joint effort.

During and then after a long and horrendous famine, described in detail, with analysis of the deforestation and government policies which helped it to happen and didn’t help it to stop, William is excited about going to secondary school to learn about science. He’s already taking radios apart and mending them and trying to learn, but this will be the key to his future. Except there’s no money to pay the school fees. Saved by a library and a kindly librarian, William starts to teach himself about wind power, dynamos and electricity, and (this isn’t spoiler: there’s a picture on the front of the book) builds a windmill.

But it’s not easy. He has to read books in English, so has to learn English to do that. He has to scrabble around for materials, digging around in an old scrapyard for hours to find what he might need, and to work extra jobs to pay for a welder to help him make his machines (I love how the welder comes around to be a firm fan). Just when he’s getting somewhere (one bulb for a light in his room), another famine comes and some local people start accusing him of witchcraft. There’s also the classic narrative of everyone thinking he’s playing silly games, etc., until he demonstrates what he can do.

There’s heartache in the book: the bad times are told plainly and there’s a very sad bit about his dog (but it’s part of the narrative, not gratuitous). But it’s a generally positive book, full of the support of his friends – Gilbert has a bit of money so he buys William a spool of wire he needs – and of strangers who hear about him and bring him into the TED organisation. When he goes to TED, he makes sure he mentions all his fellow-Africans who are working on amazing projects:

The most amazing thing about TED wasn’t the Internet, the gadgets, or even the breakfast buffets with three kinds of meat, plus eggs and pastries and fruits that I dreamed about each night. It was the other Africans who stood onstage each day and shared their stories and vision of how to make our continent a better place for our people. (p. 253)

This is not a story of African pain, famine and aid: it’s a positive story about the power of education and a man with a blazing spirit who has gone so far from his village (but ensures that he supports those in it, still, sharing the water from his parents’ new well with everyone, for example. An inspiring read.

This was book number 2 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


Book review – Ruby Ferguson – “Apricot Sky”

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I have been fortunate to receive a couple more of Dean Street Press Furrowed Middlebrow imprint books from the publisher to review. These two lovely books were published on 7 June, and I greatly enjoyed my first read, “Mrs Lorimer’s Quiet Summer“.

Ruby Ferguson – “Apricot Sky”

(06 April 2021)

Nobody talked about their feelings at Kilchro House, it was considered one stage worse than talking about your inside.

This is a slightly odd book in that it’s almost two books in one: a children’s adventure story and a light love story, all set in beautiful countryside that Candia McWilliam in her Introduction describes as a liminal, thin place where magic can seep through – the mainland and islands of the West of Scotland.

So we have a family just post-Second World War, we have a family that’s been battered by war but not broken. Mrs MacAlvey has ended up looking after three of her grandchildren after losing two sons in the war – she has one son and his difficult, faddy wife living nearby, one daughter living with her but engaged and about to move and one daughter on her way back from a few years in America. In addition, she has visitors – she loves visitors – in the form of two more grandchildren who are a bit stuffy and stuck up, and an old friend who has had An Operation she loves to tell people about. Oh, and said friend’s daughter pops in, too.

It’s a full house, and in the middle of this, Cleo, home from America, pines for the local laird, whose brother her sister is marrying, but is tongue-tied and clumsy in front of him and losing hope – especially when she’s asked to settle at home for a while to support her mother, realising this will probably mean she will be there forever. Meanwhile, the children and their great, shabby friend Gull, had planned a summer of sailing but now have to take two drearies, Elinore and Cecil around with them. They ache to visit a mysterious island, but what will happen when they do?

Thrown in a local glamour-puss who everyone but Cleo seems to love (and an oh-so-awkward encounter between the two), and a party or two and you’ve got a lovely mix of acute observation –

“Was the tea all right?” asked Mrs MacAlvey anxiously. “I mean, the cakes just tasted like dust and ashes to me, but it’s always like that, when it’s your own party.”

– different modes of love and marriage, and all about it, wonderful descriptions of the local scenery and, just as wonderful, and I’m sure greatly enjoyed in the early 50s when this was first published, descriptions of picnics and high teas with plenty of strawberries and scones.

Thank you to Rupert from Dean Street Press for sending me a review copy of this book in e-book format in exchange for an honest review.

A quick book review – Natasha Brown – “Assembly”

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It’s quite a quick review for Assembly here, which I downloaded on 01 April this year. It’s had a lot of buzz about it, and the description of a young Black woman attending a big posh White garden party and deciding she had had Enough appealed to me – in fact it was touted as shocking, which worried me a bit.

I just struggled to get to grips with this. I think I’m not adept enough with literary criticism or getting to grips with the modern novel. It was episodic and full of flashbacks and bits of thoughts. I could compare it to “Open Water” in the sort of floaty and slightly confusing narrative (although it had a more standard first-person narrator). There were flashes of “Queenie” in her workplace life and the micro-aggressions and work best friends but that was way more straightforward to read (and sorry to compare this only to books by other Black authors – looks like those are the group of modern novels I seem to be reading at the moment!).

There are great moments in it, the reader has to work for information a lot of the time and that got me confused, but it does have important things to say about micro- and macroaggressions and how exhausted Black women are by their code-switching, “Work twice as hard” lives (this was a theme in “The Other Black Girl,” of course, too). This, unnamed, heroine takes a different and, yes, I suppose shocking, strategy to give in to the exhaustion. I liked how Brown wove in important information about the British Government’s destruction of records of citizenship which came out in the Windrush Scandal (recently also highlighted in “Burning the Books“), but I’m afraid I couldn’t work out why the narrator was sending off her passport which initiated that discussion.

So for me, good in parts but confusing – but I’m sure a lot of that is down to me and my distance from reading books as critically and academically as this one might need. I’d struggle with the structure whoever the author and whatever the topic. It’s good to have experimental novels by Global Majority People authors getting published and shared on services like NetGalley, of course.

Thank you to Hamish Hamilton for making this book available for me to read via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

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