Book reviews – Three Novels in Advance of NonFiction November

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As I have Nonfiction November coming up, when the only fiction I’ll be reading is two Anne Tylers and little books for Novellas in November (OK and also because I needed to pick some easy wins off the shelf to make room for Incomings), I took some fiction from the front shelf of the TBR. And thus also made inroads into my TBR Project (esp as I had a DNF, too). So her are (shorter, don’t worry!) reviews of three good novels I’ve enjoyed at the latter end of this month, with one more review to come early next month.

Jane Linfoot – “Love at the Little Wedding Shop by the Sea”

(26 November 2020)

And this is why I love it here. Because in St Aidan generally, and in Brides by the Sea in particular, every difficulty is faced together. (p. 322)

I apparently pre-ordered this, presumably as I’d enjoyed her other books in the series (this is the fifth), and we’re back at the wedding emporium in an invented/blended coastal town in Cornwall, with Milla seeking refuge from her own wedding business providing cover for the shop we know from the other books (this confused me at first; she set up Brides Go West with her friend who then stole her fiance,basically: when their baby is about to be born, she runs away for a bit). Milla is a bit less well-groomed than her business partner, a bit kooky and accident prone, and she keeps running into local hunk Nic in a variety of embarrassing situations. But he’s organising a wedding, and he weirdly needs lots of flat space for it.

I did guess the plot for both of those mysterious aspects, but it was fun enough. I thought there was a slightly iffy moment around the final wedding, but it would spoil the plot to discuss it. I wasn’t sure, though. It was a good and fun read, an ideal holiday or downtime choice. I liked the way all the characters from the previous books were pulled in with a quick update, too.

Ursula le Guin – ” The Other Wind”

(16 December 2020 – Not so Secret Bookcrossing Birmingham gift from Sue)

A “new” Earthsea book and her last, we revisit the islands of Earthsea at a frightening time when dragons are reappearing and portents are worrying. A princess has been shipped from the Northern Lands to an unwilling king, and an Archmage has retired and lost his powers, but can still give counsel to a minor sorcerer who’s plagued by terrifying dreams which mean something for the whole world – but what, and why him? And of course the Archmage is dear Ged/Sparrowhawk from back in “A Wizard of Earthsea” first read goodness knows when.

It’s interesting that in my review of “Tales from Earthsea” in 2015 I said what I also thought here:

I find Le Guin’s books very moving, and these stories show why – although part of the fantasy genre, they are deeply rooted in a realistic, if medieval, world, so a wizard will worry about his chickens when he goes away to try to prevent a catastrophe, and a quiet cat gives comfort to a man in distress. The female characters are also good and strong, proud and able, and this theme is woven all through these stories. This makes these books a lot more accessible than some of the other fantasy novels out there, and perhaps more suitable for the general reader. (my review)

So here, there’s a little cat (that is adopted safely) who is always provided with a sand box, and when a dragon changes into a human, we consider how she might feel in her new body – so practical, always linked into real experiences somehow, even when fantasy. In this book, which is a bit scary and sad but not too much so and rightly, ends are knitted together, alliances and friendships are formed or re-formed, and it has a perfect ending.

Anne Youngson – “Three Women and a Boat”

(24 December 2020 – from Bookish Beck)

‘Well I know we’re all made up of matter and are subject to the laws of physics,’ Sally said, ‘but even if we can’t, strictly speaking, have free will, we also can’t predict how other people will behave.’

‘Annoying, isn’t it?’ said Eve. (p. 323)

Blogger Bookish Beck very kindly sent me a box of review copies et al which she’d received, read and reviewed, and made some very good choices. She popped this one in because the canal barge journey it describes goes through Birmingham (and actually I knew more of the canal it describes, through to and leaving Birmingham).

I was a little bit unsure of reading it because there’s a character with cancer who is facing a bad spell of treatment, and I was worried I wouldn’t cope with the medical / uncertainty theme, but you know what? I read the first few pages, the slightly acerbic, truth-telling and funny narrative, and was hooked in and off I went!

Eve and Sally have come to big junctions in their lives and simultaneously encounter each other, Anastasia and her dog Noah at a time when it’s just right for them to change things up and go off on an adventure, taking Anastasia’s beloved, but spartan, boat up to Chester. Have they ever been on a barge before? No. Do they learn what to do? Yes! And of course there’s a range of interesting characters on the canal, including stylish Trompette and her weird boyfriend, Billy. As well as a plot point or two, Billy, as an itinerant storyteller, gives us some excellent tales of canal history, and this works really well woven into the story. I also love how Eve and Sally have complementary skills and knowledge, and help each other to grow without it being mawkish or didactic.

As well as enjoying the canal scenery and boat lore, I was reminded how two boats passed each other when there’s only a towpath on one side and they’re being towed by horses. Hooray! And a mysterious traveller passes the women a copy of a Francis Brett Young novel (a favourite writer of mine). A lovely novel with just the right ending (again) and highly recommended.


As I also DNF’d Cathy Kelly’s “The Family Gift” (bought in Oxfam in September, couldn’t warm to any of the characters), I’ve now done TBR Challenge 2021-22 Books 4-7/85 – 78 to go.

Book review – Toufah Jallow with Kim Pittaway – “Toufah”

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I was interested to spot this book in a NetGalley email, with its subtitle “The Woman who Inspired an African #MeToo Movement”. And it was an inspiring and fascinating read indeed. It was also my second book set at least partly in The Gambia (like “Roots“) and has inspired one of my posts for the upcoming Nonfiction November challenge!

Toufah Jallow with Kim Pittaway – “Toufah: The Woman Who Inspired an African #MeToo Movement”

(25 September 2021, NetGalley)

This insistence on using ‘allegedly’ when it comes to rape can’t be explained away as simply protecting the rights of those not convicted, because the word isn’t just attached to the person named as perpetrator, it is attached to the crime itself … I notice the same tendency in report about other crimes in Canada and abroad: when men say they are beaten or assaulted, the word ‘allegedly’ is rarely inserted. When someone says they’ve been robbed, ‘allegedly’ almost never appears. But when a woman says she was raped, her assertion is often framed as ‘she claimed she was raped’ or ‘she was allegedly raped’. Whether in The Gambia or Canada or the United States or the United Kingdom, when women say they were raped, the men they accuse are given the benefit of the doubt. The women? They are simply doubted.

Toufah grew up in a traditional home in The Gambia, first of all in a multi-family household made up of her father, his three wives and their children, then in a compound her mum has scrimped and saved and worked at two jobs to afford to build, brick by brick. Not only is her mum independent and a feminist in the way a woman can be in traditional, Muslim Africa, but her mum’s mum made sure she could get to university before being married off, and tried to find her a husband who didn’t already have a wife. Her aunt wears trousers and has moved to the UK.

The women in my family, and in other families too, subverted men’s power where they could; made choices in their own interests where they could; and where they could created a world in which their daughters had a little bit more power, more choice. Social and religious circumstances pushed them down. Their strength and will pushed them forward – and perhaps in these ways they were more similar to the mothers and graddmothers of Western feminists than is often acknowledged.

So she’s learned from example to stand up for herself and she knows her mum will stand up for her, too. That’s why, when something awful happens, she has no choice but to flee her home country and become an international refugee.

Toufah is encouraged to enter a competition, a pageant (more than a beauty queen competition, she must produce a performance, answer questions and put forward a proposal for change in the country), the first prize of which, she is led to believe, is a scholarship to a university abroad. Winners are typically lavished by the president, Yahya Jammeh, with gifts for themselves and their families – laptops, furniture, jobs … But when Toufah first turns down a job then more from Jammeh, he has his fixer bring her to him during an Eid festival, and rapes her.

Toufah knows she’s being followed by the authorities. Resourceful and clever, she manages to escape and, through a network of Gambian citizens who have left the country for various reasons, she is able to throw herself on the mercy of the police in neighbouring Senegal. And they don’t know what to do with her, because they get political prisoners, journalists, people who have tried to overthrow the administration, but no one has come to them who has been raped. In fact the word “rape” doesn’t even exist as a word in the languages of The Gambia, and so she has to either skirt around the issue or be horribly direct.

Once in Canada, Toufah lives in accommodation for refugees where all the people around her try to teach her to how to live as a Canadian – and she does the same as new people come along. Once more, people who think refugees seek asylum and refuge in other countries in order to access wealth and benefits should read her accounts of grinding poverty and basic, shared accommodation, of trying to heal while working at several jobs, of not being able to access her own Gambian community because of the misinformation being shared about her.

And now here she is, back giving evidence at the Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission after Jammeh has been deposed, in her own name, her face showing, detailing what he did. She’s lived in Canada in the meantime, making a life for herself, making friends, working hard in multiple jobs and studying for qualifications that will help her support other women going through the same situation. A hashtag, #IAmToufah, allows other women to tell their stories under the veil of anonymity, and she has set up a foundation to support women’s safety and mental health. She has an all-round, holistic view of what needs doing, and is starting to achieve that, getting funded to provide audiovisual materials on rape and sexual harassment for the country as the book is written.

I know from my own experience that simply focusing on one aspect – telling young women they can be what they want to be, say no if they want to say no – was actually dangerous if those shiny ideals weren’t backed up with practical supports, effective laws and societal structures to hold abusers accountable.

The end section of the book shares powerful African women who Toufah sees as role models and offers to her students as such. There are definitely some people to look into there as well as the ones I was more familiar with. What an example to us all Toufah is, and her story is deftly crafted by Kim Pittaway while leaving it feeling like her own speech and thoughts.

Thank you to Steerforth Press for giving me a free copy of this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Toufah” was published on 12 October 2021 and you can find the Toufah Foundation in many places online, including Facebook.

Book review – Pragya Agarwal – “Sway”

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I won Jessica Nordell’s “The End of Bias” on NetGalley back in June (it was published at the end of September) and had decided I really needed to read this one first, which explains unconsious bias (and I hoped help end it, too). Then I somehow didn’t get round to it until this month, but it’s done now and I’ll get the Nordell book read as soon as I can. Phew! This one was also a loan from my friend Sian that I’ve had for far too long, so all neat and tidy now all round.

Pragya Agarwal – “Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias”

(Feb? 2021, borrowed from Sian)

As we talk about gender bias, let us not forget about intersectionality and how certain multiple identities can further stigmatise women and render them even more invisible. Yes, there is change, but it is glacial. And to all the sceptics, I would just say, ‘Am I not believed because I am a woman?’ (p. 251)

This is a long and dense book which covers a lot of research, well-known and more niche, about unconscious bias, i.e. the decisions we make and opinions we form in a split second, more automatically the more tired or under pressure we are, which affect how we perceive and treat other people. Agarwal contends that this is a product of both individual learning and wider cultural environment, which I tend to agree with. There was a fair bit in here I’d encountered before, but who knew that hurricanes given ‘feminine’ names end up with more fatalities than those with ‘masculine’ names, because people don’t treat them as seriously and don’t evacuate to safety in such numbers?

In the early chapters she goes through the neuroscience of how the brain operates and what ‘activates’ in the brain when looking at people, recognising in-groups (broadly, people who share one’s race, accent, social class, other characteristic) and out-groups (those we might see as a threat or ‘other’). There’s a lot of detail here and the images of the brain would have been better within the chapter than stuck at the end. Anyway, then we get into characteristics such as race, gender, and smaller categories such as height, weight or age, demonstrating through discussing many academic studies how bias and stereotypes are formed and exemplified.

Agarwal takes in a world perspective in the book, showing how bias works in Indian and American politics and how various examples show up around the globe. She addresses issues of intersectionality (the double bias a Black woman might face, etc.) and makes it clear she’s considered non-binary and transgender people in her gender chapter, while pointing out that there’s not enough research on these groups at the moment to be able to draw conclusions.

There’s an interesting section at the end about how AI systems, which we must remember are taught using data from real-world phenomena, can become biased from the beginning (for example, if the criminal justice system treats Black offenders as more likely to re-offend and lets White offenders, off, any AI system created to make those judgements is going to take these data and amplify them, ending up even more racist than the originating humans; if driverless cars aren’t shown enough images of Black and Brown pedestrians, they are less likely to recognise them as pedestrians and more likely to run them over than White pedestrians – it’s all pretty horrific). She does demonstrate how human intervention can work against this.

Agarwal puts enough of her own experiences into the book to make it interesting and personal, but not too much, retaining the scientific rigour. At one point, she bravely makes job applications in both her original name (used here) and her married name, double-barrelled with her White British husband’s name, thus not getting five out of six invitations to interview in one of the two sets (you can guess which). The academic rigour is certainly there, but angled to the popular science reader, too – there are lots of footnotes explaining scientific and sociological terms, and a good set of notes easily found which point to the academic studies referenced.

There’s only a small section in the back about how to work against bias: the usual stuff of be aware and don’t go with the first instinct till you’ve thought about it, consider using anonymous job applications to remove name bias, and also notes on how we can’t be exonerated by it being unconscious and reiterating the double dose of personal and societal bias. Lots of information is packed into this book and it’s valuable for pulling all of that together. It’s written accessibly, there’s just a lot of it!

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 3/85 – 82 to go.

Book review – Maya Angelou – “All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes”

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Please forgive me for getting a bit ahead of Ali in her, Meg’s and my readalong of Maya Angelou’s autobiographies: I wanted to get this one read this month so I could add the next one into a couple of challenges, and also I wanted to find out what happened next! Here is Ali’s review.

Maya Angelou – “All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes”

(April 2021)

The drive was too short to clear my mind. I had never been face to face with royalty and didn’t know the protocol. I suspected that I had been sent for to discuss some incident pertaining to the presence of black American residents, and I was nervous. I knew I was given to dramatic overstatement, or was known to waffle about repetitiously. To further complicate matters, I was sincere. Sincerity badly stated elicits mistrust. (p. 118-9)

In this volume of the autobiography, published in 1986, we spend the whole time with Angelou in Ghana – a country I didn’t know that much about, so very interesting from that perspective, as we do learn something of its history and what it was like in the 1960s. With her son injured in a car accident, she decides not to move on to Liberia as she’d planned, but to stay in Ghana. Here, while Guy integrates into the student population, she becomes part of a group of Black Americans who have moved to Africa, and she has quite a lot to say on the interesting subject of different types of people who have often saved up to ‘return’ to their roots, only to find that they’re not effusively welcomed by the Ghanaian population.

Angelou meets another fascinating big man and my heart sank but this time she seems to have learned a bit and when he proposes a lifestyle and country change to her, to move to Mali and settle in as his second wife, she realises she won’t be able to summon up the requisite meekness and turns him down (and his gift of a fridge!). It is good to see her staying independent and resisting this offer. She also comes into contact with other highly powerful people (well, men) and even kings, which manages to dent even her self-confidence!

Malcolm X comes to visit Ghana and one stage and it’s fascinating to read about his time there, even more fascinating when he encounters a young Muhammad Ali but is snubbed by him as he’s recently split from the Nation of Islam. He’s someone Angelou of course knows from her New York activism times, though she was at that stage on the side of Martin Luther King Jr and his non-violence. But, as they discuss, what has that produced and is it time for more action? By the end of the book, she’s realising she needs more than African can offer her, and needs to be somewhere she fits in better, and is planning to return to the US to work for Malcolm X’s organisation.

While Angelou finds it wonderful to be in countries where everyone, presidents, airline pilots, senior managers, newspaper owners, are of course Black, she also encounters some horrifically racist commentary on Ghana and the Black Americans who live there too from European members of the university she works at for a time. But the common room steward gently gives his own take on the situation after she has embarrassed herself yelling at them intemperately:

He said, ‘This is not their place. In time they will pass. Ghana was here when they came. When they go, Ghana will be here. They are like mice on an elephant’s back. They will pass.’ (p. 58)

Venturing into the countryside alone, Angelou encounters old buildings that were used to hold slaves before they were shipped to America, and she imagines vividly a tableau of enslaved people suffering. She dwells on the possibility of her origins, fearing her ancestors might have been sold by their own people, and finds a weird experience in another village, originally decimated by slavery, where she once again (she’s already been mistaken for two other types of African person) resembles their families and the people remaining very strongly. But, like Alex Haley really found in “Roots”, she can’t know for certain if this is where she came from, although in her case she wasn’t seeking an exact place. It’s a very moving scene, though.

After a brief trip to Europe (and a very upsetting scene for her in Germany) to revisit a play she’d been in, we leave Angelou getting ready to set off back to America. As usual, I can’t wait to know what happens next, and I’m sad there are only two books of her autobiography left to read!

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 2/85 – 83 to go.

Some mini-reviews for Shiny New Books

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Anita Rani – “The Right Sort of Girl”

In this excellent memoir, Anita Rani, lately of Strictly and Countryfile, but I’ve been watching her since she presented Desi DNA back in the day, tells of her crisis of confidence in her 40s and her need to address the issues of her life and culture which may have held her back.

In case you’re worried it’s all protest and journeys, this book is also warm, funny (she makes much of the “Illuminaunty” network of bossy, nosy women who know everything) and endearing (she’s excited when she makes friends with John Craven, who she used to watch on Newsround). She’s very proud of her Yorkshire roots and extols the virtues of her home county – and when she learns to drive, the first place she goes is up on the moors, away from everyone, on her own and free in nature.

Read the full review here

Shon Faye – The Transgender Issue”

An important book I also reviewed on here in a more personal capacity (see link below)

It’s a very human book, certainly not all facts and figures. Faye interviews people from the trans community, from parents of a young trans child who knew nothing, but could access a lot of information and support online to a man running a shelter for homeless trans people who provides support and information to them. In addition, various news stories are carefully debunked and the people they are about honoured, and myths such as trans people and their doctors being in cahoots overturned with an explanation of the long and fraught process of having gender transition needs recognised and progressed. It’s very interesting to see that a lot of the media narrative about trans people echoes almost exactly the narrative about gay people from 30-odd years ago: in terms of a claim of cults who are trying to turn everyone’s children gay/trans, and all sorts of other hysteria.

Read the full review here and I have reviewed this more fully on this blog here.

Lev Parikian – “Light Rains Sometimes Fall”

Parikian, writer, birdwatcher and conductor, had already started this project to map British nature against the 72 seasons of Japan in February 2020. Yes, you get a chill when you see those dates, don’t you! So it didn’t start as, but did turn into, a sort of coronavirus lockdown project, and we’ve seen a few of these lately, but this is very nicely done and certainly not all about the lockdown, or made difficult to read because of that aspect.

Each Japanese mini-season has its name and a lot of the joy of the book comes from Parikian’s alternative British names for the sets of days. For example, the Japanese name for 9-13 February is “Bush warblers start singing in the mountains”, which Parikian replaces with “Dunnock song defies traffic noise”. In fact, I can contribute my own here, as I finished reading it during what the Japanese call “White dew” for the larger season and “Swallows leave” for the smaller, Parikian calls “House martins leave” and I term “Large electrical goods are replaced” as this has happened in this week two years running.

There’s a lovely recognisable moment when a blackbird sings the beginning of a tune and he always answers in his head, as we used to have “the Toreador bird” who would sing the first few notes of the song from Carmen repeatedly.

Of course I learned things; did you know Flying Ant Day isn’t when the ants hatch, but when they mate? There are pleasing moments when the seasons coincide and he does indeed see some wagtails during the “Wagtails sing” season, and he’s great on the privilege of seeing tiny details, crows mobbing a hawk, a flower growing in a crack, without being mawkish or sentimental (and there is some death and decay and some worry about fledglings, but nothing too challenging in that regard). He acknowledges that this year of observation has given him more insight into his patch and into the human-constructed context and its interplay with nature, a lovely positive to draw from a time of constraint, and he states it has made the year more bearable.

Read the full review here.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “A Spool of Blue Thread”

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We’re definitely in remembered territory in my Anne Tyler 2021 project now; weirdly, I bought this in 2015, and first read it in November 2016, having acquired “The Beginner’s Goodbye” that year, too. I must have missed that one coming out, I suppose.

Now, I did have to hurry this one a bit, as you can tell if reading this on the day by the fact that I haven’t published this review until the afternoon, rather than having it scheduled and ready to go in the morning, but it didn’t feel like such a return to form as I thought last time. To be honest, I didn’t love the structure and felt it dragged it back a bit. However, last time I read it, I thought it was going to be Tyler’s last novel apart from “Vinegar Girl”; now I own the next two and know there’s one coming out early next year. So maybe that coloured my first read of the novel.

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 – “A Spool of Blue Thread”

(29 December 2015)

In the Whitshank family, two stories had traveled down through the generations. These stories were viewed as quintessential – as defining in some way – and every famly member, including Stem’s three-year-old, had heard them told and retold and embroidered and conjectured upon any number of times. (p. 51)

In this longer novel than she’d written for a while, we’re thrown straight into Red and Abby Whitshank’s life with a snapshot in 1994 when their disappearing son, Denny, phones to announce somewhat randomly that he’s gay. Red barks, Abby fusses, and there they are in summary. Not only does Denny follow the Disappearing Child Tyler trope, he is skinny with lank black hair – tick! And there are four children, and Abby and Red live in Red’s family home.

After going through a lot of Red and Abby’s later parental years, where their children grow and have their children, they decline and care has to be sorted out (another Tyler theme of course), we then hop back and forth, to their courtship and then to Red’s parents, Junior and Linnie. Bits of contemporary life are threaded in, Denny coming and going, sibling rivalries and upsets, cousins following family trends and some lovely circular links around particularly parenthood or lack of, and the descriptions of the house. Character traits continue through people’s lives – for example Abby is a keeper of secrets even though she seems so chatty and intrusive.

I think one of the themes is the memories that disappear when we die. Linnie and Junior’s family life is unknown by the time Red and Abby are in their prime, but their section fills in details of their parents that their descendants never knew. Family stories have an importance only to the teller – Abby constantly starts the story of when she fell for Red but their section starts with her particular sentence when we know she will remember it no more. It’s a clever way to do it, but I’m not sure it’s that engaging. It’s also a good social document of course, of Depression era poverty and 50s consumerism, and the way family relationships develop over time.

Other Tyler tropes include of course the family home, changes to it, upkeep and then slow decline. An older man moving into an apartment is getting more and more common, and aged family dogs feature once more. Abby is a common Tyler woman, with her “orphans” invited to family meals and occasions and her fussing and trying to get information out of people, and her son Stem is at one stage the stalk-necked, pale and silent child who crops up a lot. Son-in-law Hugh doesn’t have a huge role but is one of the people who flits from job to job and is currently running a Thanksgiving-themed restaurant. There’s even one of those journeys, right at the end, where you feel Tyler could have told the stories of any of the other characters flitting around in the sidelines – or maybe she already has. The religion side has retreated again: Nora, wife of their youngest son, is a member of a church but doesn’t force anyone else to go or introduce it into their lives, just smiles serenely and cooks and cares and somehow incites people to rage.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

Book review – Tory Bilski – “Wild Horses of the Summer Sun”

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At last I pluck a book from my TBR Challenge 2021-22! I bought this book in my 2020 Book Token splurge, where I save up my book tokens from Christmas and my January birthday and have a wild book-buying extravaganza to give myself some presents part-way through the year. I’m pleased to say that out of the seven books I bought in that splurge, I’ve read four, am part way through a fifth and will be reading the last two for Novellas in November and Aus Reading Month next month. Not too bad!

Tory Bilski – “Wild Horses of the Summer Sun: Iceland, Freedom and the Gift of Female Friendship”

(24 June 2020, book tokens)

These were our tales, these were the times, these were the women, and this was the place. (p. 235)

The book opens with a wild countryside canter on slightly out-of-control Icelandic horses, a special and protected breed which has remained the same and isolated since the Viking settlement. No horses are allowed onto the island and if one leaves, it can’t return – they are very vulnerable to disease.

Having been a horse-mad youngster, Bilski spots a picture of Icelandic horses on the Internet at the turn of the Millennium and decides to go to Iceland to see them. And I have to say that I fell in love with them when I saw them in real life on my own first trip to Iceland in 2014, and had a wonderful time riding a feisty horse called Freya on my trip in 2015.

Once she’s been once she’s obsessed (I can understand this; I went to Iceland once a year in 2014-17 and miss it dreadfully and yearn to go back) and then meets up with a group of women, led by the older Sylvie and her friend Eva, who are planning to go to stay on a farm in the north of the country run by Sylvie’s friend Helga. This turns into an annual event, and woven into the very normal story of Tory’s life (her son presents difficulties, her father dies and her mother is claimed by dementia, she has root canal surgery) are these annual trips (not every single year, c.f. root canal surgery) with a shifting group of women.

I’m afraid the horses and riding were the main appeal to me. The group of women sometimes includes oddities and a few times a woman who Tory and her ally Viv really don’t get on with (I did wonder what she felt when she saw herself portrayed in this book, if she did, even though her behaviour isn’t kind), and the glimpses of the Iceland I know and love. There’s also a parallel portrayal of the growth in the tourism industry of Iceland, so that by the time she goes last to the farm in 2015, there are millions of tourists, Reykjavik has grown exponentially and it’s no longer considered odd to go there.

I also loved the part where Bilski talks about being the go-to person for Iceland info and how she tries not to be too gung-ho about the place when recommending it, especially if the person is only wondering about going. I smiled at the group’s love of Jane Smiley’s novel, “The Greenlanders” while Bilski has only so far read the Vinland Sagas – I found the Smiley an excellent version of the saga style but I still have so many actual sagas to read I couldn’t spend hours reading a modern idea of one!

All good things have to come to an end, the lives of the core of women shift and then Helga announces she is closing the farm and moving to Selfoss. For once, Bilski’s husband comes to Iceland with her to see what the fuss is all about – although of course it’s about getting away from her home responsibilities as much as anything else – and Helga is happy with her plants and trees in the south. It’s poignant but not done for melodrama, and a good end to this interesting and open book.

Liz with Icelandic horse Freya, April 2015. It was April, it was cold, they made us wear these boiler suits; I am short.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 1/85 – 84 to go.

Book review – Thurston Clarke – “Islomania”

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I bought this book in my last batch of pre-pandemic charity shop meandering and bulk book buying – the next acquisitions on the shelf are an online buy and a gift from June 2020 then charity shop books from the Opening Up, where I dared to pop in in July. So my TBR is a record of lockdown whether I intended that or not! This is one of the books I was reading as September turned into October and I was quite slow with it, not sure why as it was an engaging read. I think I was worried there might be icky bits of history so it was an upstairs not a mealtimes read.

Thurston Clarke – “Islomania”

(04 February 2020)

One of the rules of insular life is that once something arrives on an island it can stay for centuries. Large objects are difficult and costly to remove, and islanders are instinctive pack rats, so things that might be lost, junked, plowed under, paved over, or locked behind glass on a mainland are preserved on an island in an amber of water and isolation. (p. 158)

Clarke lives within sight of some quite normal islands on a lake but they exert a fascination on him and any guests as powerful as any South Sea paradise. He decides to go and visit some islands in various categories – types of islands (holy, scary, private, prison, utopian), islands he’s visited himself before, and famous islands (Isla Robinson Crusoe, the Spice Islands, Atlantis, etc.) – and works his way around them with a chapter on each. He’s an engaging companion and provides the right amount of history and modern travelogue (not that modern, actually, as it was published in 2001 – I would love an update on how some of these are doing).

He doesn’t shy away from the negative aspects – islands where the original inhabitants have been massacred, places run by a despot, islands destroyed by nuclear testing – but in general looks for good points, things he likes, important people who have had a positive influence on a place – and the odd eccentric, of course. He finds people who wouldn’t swap island life for luxuries and ease of buying stuff, and communities which have absorbed or rejected incomers. I found his return to Fishers Island, where he spent many youthful summers, with its careful study of what has happened to the people who live there all year as opposed to the holidaymakers, fascinating and moving.

Even half-way through his project, Clarke begins to find echoes and connections between the islands, and by the end he’s able to draw some interesting conclusions – I really like that he does this rather than just stopping dead, and he also gives an update here on what had gone on on some of the islands between him visiting them and writing the book. I also liked reading about some new places – I’d only really read about Svalbard to any great extent before.

An interesting read and I’m very glad I picked it up.

Book review – Christine Pride and Jo Piazza – “We Are Not Like Them”

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I had heard a bit of a buzz about this novel and so I was excited to find it on NetGalley and be approved. You might have heard of this novel about race and friendship, written in collaboration by a Black woman and a White woman – and I heartily recommend this page-turner.

Christine Pride and Jo Piazza – “We Are Not Like Them”

(23 August 2021, NetGalley)

Real change in this world is only going to happen if we keep talking to one another. Shutting down and pushing people away won’t accomplish anything.

The authors’ note makes it clear that this is a special and ground-breaking work, a very modern novel looking at issues that are current nowadays, but also universal issues about friendship and when two very different people are friends. Edited to add: given some of the early comments below, I should probably make it clear that the book has alternate chapters written from the perspectives of the two main characters, although I don’t know whether each author wrote only one character.

Riley and Jen have been friends since they were small and Jen, who comes from a poor and shaky background, was dumped by her slipshod mum on Riley’s grandma for child-minding. Riley’s family is secure and whole, two parents, brother and sister, loving grandma. Riley goes on to university and becomes a high-flying news presenter, moving up the ranks through the local stations and hoping to make anchor, groomed to within an inch of her life and becoming a local celebrity. Jen has married a safe man after years of hopping around dodgy ones, and is now finally pregnant, but not doing so well, not well-off, not too well-educated and still with that slipshod mum in and out of her life.

When Jen’s husband, who wasn’t a police officer when she got together with him but felt he wanted meaning in his life and followed his dad and brother into the force, shoots a teenager and is a news celebrity, of course Riley, who’s come back to town for a new job, is assigned to his case. As if that’s not enough problems for Riley and Jen, Jen and her husband are White; Riley and the teenager, Justin, are Black, and it’s 2019. So while their community opens up along fault lines of race and blame, so does Riley and Jen’s friendship.

A book like this probably need to be a little bit didactic. Jen certainly does all the standard non-ally, White privilege things, from claiming that she can’t be a racist because her best friend is Black to not speaking up when other White people display racism to claiming not to see race. Her sister in law pushes back against racism and the police closing ranks, having been to unconscious bias training in her nursing work. It does kind of tick the boxes in that respect, but then it’s stuff that we are reading in non-fiction books and it’s potentially more useful and will reach more of the audience it perhaps needs to in the form of a novel. Riley is not without her flaws, too – she doesn’t share much emotionally, so maybe blaming Jen for not understanding her experiences of life is not entirely valid when she has never shared them with her, and there’s a lost relationship back in the South that might have ended for this reason, too.

What saves the book is the impressively compelling story-telling, the side characters, the lovely bond Riley has with her grandma. There’s a very powerful scene where Riley and her parents go back to the house they originated from, and Riley learns more of the history of her family, including horrific racist incidents she wasn’t aware of previously. This sets the book in its context, and shows how her grandma, her parents and now Riley and the next generation are facing the same issues again and again, with seemingly no resolution.

But there is hope. There’s the promise of a full and frank conversation, where both Riley and Jen can share how they really feel and Riley can let Jen know authentically how she experiences life (there’s an element of the onus being put on her to share her trauma, however she is described as being closed off from Jen, and maybe Jen will look at Riley’s social media or news videos and take note herself of the racism there, too). And the quote at the top of my review is Riley’s mum talking to Riley, revealing her own feelings for once instead of modelling coping and not talking about things to her daughter.

Sometimes you just need to be around someone who loved you before you were a fully formed person. It’s like finding your favorite sweatshirt in the back of the closet, the one you forgot why you stopped wearing, and once you find it again you sleep in it every night.

It’s a novel that looks at the issues and is powerful and moving, but is also a good read. It would be an ideal book group read.

Thank you for HQ Stories for selecting me to read this novel via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “We Are Not Like Them” was published on 05 October 2021.

Book review – Alex Haley – “Roots”

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Hooray, it’s time for Kaggsy and Simon’s twice-yearly Year Book Club, and this week it’s 1976. Warned well in advance, I tackled the 889 pages of Alex Haley’s American Black history saga, “Roots”, as you do. Simon’s post collecting reviews is here and I’m sure there will be loads of great resources to explore as the week continues! I was fortunate enough to be able to read this book through September along with the bloggers Buried in Print (review here) and The Australian Legend (his review here), 30 chapters a week, every week; it was a pleasure and privilege to read it alongside them and also fascinating to get their Canadian and Australian perspectives respectively.

Alex Haley – “Roots”

(18 August 2021)

So Dad has joined the others up there. I feel that they do watch and guide, and I also feel that they join me in the hope that this story of our people can help to alleviate the legacies of the fact that preponderantly the histories have been written by the winners. (p. 888)

I’d known about this seminal saga of Kunta Kinte, his life in Africa, his abduction and Middle Passage on an American slave ship, his slavery, family and descendants seemingly forever, but it seemed to be too big, too brutal, too hard to read. I’m so glad I was prodded into attempting it by the 1976 Club – of course I can’t say I enjoyed it as such, but it was a compelling read, fascinating, human, and I learned a lot.

There was more than I expected about Kunta’s life – over a quarter of the book – and I loved reading about the society in his village in The Gambia, every day life and his growing up. I was particularly engaged by the fact that Haley doesn’t give explanations for a lot of the terms used, for implements, clothing, kinds of food – he just places the terms there and, presumably, expects you to know what they meant or look them up (some I did, some I did, if you see what I mean).

The descriptions of his capture and sale, his attempts to escape and the driving down of his spirit until he lacks the will to try again, are of course devastating. They’re brutal and deeply horrible, as are the rape of Kizzy and other scenes, but not gratuitously so: we needed and need to know this stuff.

As a reading group, we differed a bit on our attitudes to the way history was inserted into the narrative once we were in the US. I accepted the chunks of reported history as I felt it was realistic: house servants picked up scraps of news while serving dinner to their masters; slaves who were drivers or otherwise accompanied their masters out of the house and far away were able to bring back news; news travelled between people almost by osmosis then someone would report it to an audience, and I’m sure that’s what happened. I didn’t find it too didactic or bolted on and it kept the narrative rooted in history.

Bill found a link between the matriarchs of the family while I saw a line of males; Marcie made a great link between the treatment and breeding of the cockfighting birds and that of the slaves (there were too many “chickens” in that part of the book, needed as they were to advance the plot, and I think we all agreed on that!) which I’d not made. Discussing the sections as we went along by email was a great addition to the reading experience personally.

Looking through my post-it note markers, the overriding feeling is of heart-break. Kunta can’t feel he can talk to his mother when he lives in the village, then he’s snatched away and never gets to tell her what she means to him. Kizzy is snatched away and we lose sight of Kunta (of course; we’re seeing this through the family oral history, so when someone moves on, the continuing story of those they were with is lost) and she never sees her parents again. Kunta’s dignity and retention of his Muslim faith are so moving, too. We all know of the inhumanity of slavery of course, but this slams it home.

Maybe surprisingly, there are some beautiful descriptions of landscape and birds, in Africa and America. The landscape is always drawn very clearly, so you can see it in your mind’s eye. This is used to devastating effect in the slave ship and chase scenes, of course, but the occasional beauty and the clear interiors were not something I was expecting.

There’s so much more I can write about – the interrogation of attitudes towards integration: could Black slaves and White owners ever be more than slaves and owners; was it important to retain African bloodlines? – but really I’d say if you can, go and read this important book.

Was Haley writing history or historical fiction? Of course there was a debate about his sources and his researcher integrity. But I don’t think that matters: first off, it’s entirely plausible to have an oral history go that far back in a family, especially when in more recent memory and presumably before the details were chanted to each new family member. I know my gran’s grandfather was Spanish, and have access to his name and town of origin, and presumably my cousins’ children know this, too, so that’s a lot of generations here. And while conversations and details are obviously invented, the whole is plausible and gives an incredibly vivid picture of life for each succeeding generation, the struggles they faced, their psychology and everyday life, and that’s got to be more valuable than quibbling over exact accuracy.

My Vintage edition had an introduction by David Olusoga which sets the book in its own context and was very useful. He points out it was a massive counterpoint to a narrative of the “benign and fatherly slave-owner” (x) which existed at the time and also writes of the effect it had on Black British people, too.

And what did I do just the other day? Take delivery of a copy of “Queen”, Alex Haley and David Stevens’ 915-page (I know) story of Haley’s mother’s family …


In 1976, I was four years old, so I don’t recall the book or series coming out. Reading it now, having David Olusoga, Afua Hirsch, Sathnam Sanghera et. al to tell us about the Middle Passage, colonialism and slavery histories, it felt like I was prepared for what I was going to read, that I had some understanding of the history I was going to encounter, and the cruelty, if not the visceral feelings of what it was like to be an enslaved person. I would be fascinated to hear from anyone who experienced the book or series at the time, how much you already knew on the subject, what it did for you and how it changed you and your attitudes, if you have the energy to tell me.

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