Book review – Tomi Obaro – “Dele Weds Destiny”

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Well, I’m happy to say on this last day of June that I have read all of my NetGalley books for this month – however, there were only five, so that wasn’t too hard (watch out for my report on next month – eeps!). I have finished “Bird Girl” and will be reviewing it in the next few days, but here’s my review of the rather fabulous “Dele Weds Destiny”

Tomi Obaro – “Dele Weds Destiny”

(25 January 2022, NetGalley)

These three women are essentially sisters, though Funmi would chafe at the sickly sweetness of such a term. Their love has the makings of an ancient habit; it is automatic and unyielding.

Tomi Obaro is an editor at Buzzfeed in New York and this is her first novel. I love the way it weaves together female friendships over the years and surviving one woman’s elopement to America from her home in Nigeria. And although there are a few familiar tropes in here (woman enjoying her riches married to slightly dodgy man with a violent edge who gets his money from who knows where; dual-heritage New Yorker stalking around Nigeria with her gender studies and social justice head on, getting into arguments with everyone) there’s a good amount of diversity here, too – one woman is Muslim, the other two Christian, one remaining in Nigeria is struggling, the other is successful, and the two daughters are contrasted interestingly.

We meet the girls, loud, confident Funmi, beautiful literary Zainab and Enitan, used to being the plain one, who ends up travelling furthest, at their graduation ceremony and then again as Zainab and Enitan travel to the wedding of Funmi’s daughter, the quiet and increasingly disappearing Destiny. Then we have a long section back in the 80s in their past, with a lot of powerful description of what it’s like to be young women at university in Nigeria, including a fairly graphic abortion scene, before we come back to the wedding, which has plenty of (maybe too much) detail but also the continuation of the narrative arc.

In fact, Dele marrying Destiny is the least of the plot lines really, and we’re pretty sure we know what’s going to happen there. The friendship is the thing, and the three women trying to support each other. It’s nicely told with lots of great details, for example, Enitan goes from sending her friends back home letters to them having a WhatsApp group that Funmi spams with religious content. Something I really liked about this (and I know a reader who will like this, too!) was that there’s no concession made to explaining Nigerian (mainly clothing and food, but some for types of people) terms. I knew a few of them (thank you, “Zinka, where is your Huzband” and looked others up or just assumed they were a foodstuff, etc., but it was good to see this lack of pandering to a non-Nigerian-heritage audience who didn’t want to look things up, retaining the people who want to read themselves in a book without jumping out into explanations and non-Nigerian heritage readers who are happy looking things up (OK, a fellow NetGalley reviewer has complained there are too many Nigerian terms and they were looking for a glossary, but still …).

So a good debut with maybe a little too much detail on the wedding before we get back to the plot, although it consolidates the feeling of overwhelm and pressure nicely, a sort of pathetic fallacy like Hardy’s weather in Wessex! I’d definitely read more by this author.

Thank you to Hodder & Stoughton for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Dele Weds Destiny” was published on 28 June 2022.

Book review – James Ward – “Adventures in Stationery”

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Another 20 Books of Summer book (intro post here) and my sixth of the project; although this is the last one I’ll review this month, I’m reading my seventh at the moment, so on track for 20 in 3 months (though July is going to be a little challenging!)

This was my other Christmas present from Gill from 2020 (along with “Black, Listed”) and also finishes off my 2020 acquisitions in the main sequence that aren’t books I’m going to read along with Emma (all clear?!).

James Ward – “Adventures in Stationery: A Journey Through Your Pencil Case”

(25 December 2020 – from Gill)

I’d never heard of the brand until I found an old box in a shop in Worcester Park. Why should I care about their history? But the more I thought about Velos [who made the first item he discusses], the more I thought about other companies. I thought about companies I’d never even heard of. If there was Velos, who else was out there? This, in its own small way, is part of our cultural heritage and names that were once well known have disappeared, barely leaving any sign that they existed in the first place. Which names, familiar to us today, will fade into obscurity tomorrow? But more than that, I thought about people. The people behind these objects that we take for granted. The names behind the brand names. Their lives, their histories. Who were they? What were their stories? I wanted to find out. (p. 21)

James Ward is co-founder of something called The Stationery Club in London and in this fun and very detailed book, he takes his knowledge of stationery, does even more research, and presents us with all he knows about a range of stationery topics. He starts off with a desk tidy he finds in his boyhood stationery shop, deciding to research it and other desktop items. We look at pens, pencils, erasers, staplers … and other more esoteric items such as those little tiny pens and pencils you get from Argos, betting shops and IKEA (to be fair, this is quite a short chapter). Filing cabinets are included, which don’t exactly fit into your pencil case, but we’ll forgive him that for his enthusiasm on the subject.

I learned lots from this book – for example, I hadn’t realised that the US and UK had different pencil-hardness describing systems, although once I saw a few quotations, I realised I had seen US authors talking about number 3 pencils rather than 2B, etc. It was good to see my city of Birmingham mentioned in the section on pen nibs, and there’s still a lovely Pen Museum you can visit here where you get to make your own nib! And did you know Thoreau’s role in the development of the pencil? What about the fact that there’s an ISO standard for the holes punched by a hole punch?

This is not a book for the casual reader – it goes into depth and down rabbit holes. It’s nicely done and there’s enough detail for anyone, I think. Good stuff!


This was book number 6 in my 20 Books of Summer 2022!

This was also TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 3 Book 13/41 – 28 to go and a photo of a much smaller batch of books to be taken soon!

Book review – Elton John – “Me”

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Look at me, whizzing down my 20 Books of Summer project is going well (intro post here)! This is my fifth book, I’ve finished the sixth, too (review hopefully tomorrow) and I’m reading my seventh, too, which means I’m actually on track with the project for the time being!

I don’t actually know when I acquired this one, as I neglected to write a note in it, but some time between Christmas 2020 and the next batch of buys in May 2021. So a mystery, but at least I’m getting towards only being a year behind myself, right?

Elton John – “Me”

(2021, gift)

That’s the thing about success. It gives you a licence to misbehave, a licence that doesn’t get revoked until your success dries up completely, or you man up and decide to hand it in yourself. And for the time being, there was no danger of either of those things happening to me. (p. 184)

So I keep going back [to Russia], and every time I do, I say something onstage about homophobia or gay rights. Sometimes a few people walk out, but the vast majority applaud, I owe it to the Russian people to keep doing that. I owe it to myself. (p. 172)

Acclaimed and excellent, it seems like everyone has read this one, but at least I ended up with the paperback with the additional chapter! There’s not much I can really say about this, I find. It’s the open, honest, warts-and-all, hugely funny but also moving autobiography you’d hope for from this much-loved entertainer, lauded song writer and good friend to both stars and ordinary people. He really doesn’t hold back at all, accepting his negative personality traits, bad behaviour when addicted and family difficulties. Ably steered by Alexis Petridis, we navigate through his life in an easy to grasp chronological order, and there’s a nice amount of detail about his friendships and especially his deep friendship and writing partnership with Bernie Taupin.

There’s a wealth of photographs in three sections of plates, as well as inside and outside the front and back covers, and information about the making of the albums as well as scurrilous gossip about other musicians, the royal family, etc. The two quotations I share at the start of this review kind of sum up the book – he sees his faults with a clear eye and accepts his mistakes; he’s committed to helping and supporting others. Long may he continue.

This was book number 5 in my 20 Books of Summer 2022!

This was also TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 3 Book 12/41 – 29 to go.

Book review – Jeffrey Boakye – “Black, Listed”

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My 20 Books of Summer project is going well (intro post here), and I’m now reading my fifth and sixth books from the pile. This one, my fourth, was a Christmas gift from Gill, who always picks something interesting from my wish list (James Ward’s “Adventures in Stationery” was from her, too) and it’s an interesting pre-George Floyd publication, timing which I think might have affected some aspects of the book.

And there’s a bonus review at the end! It’s a book of photos I can’t really count as something I’ve “read” as such, but very enjoyable.

Jeffrey Boakye – “Black, Listed”

(25 December 2020, from Gill)

I used to think that being black was all about balance, or lack of, or compensation for, but it’s not. If you hadn’t worked it out yet, this whole book is about distance. Ideological distance, physical distance, the distances that create difference, and the paradoxes whereby you can be intimately linked to an identity that is out of reach. My proximity to Ghana is precisely that: a paradox. It’s an inherent part of my black identity but culturally distant, leaving me, a black British Ghanaian, hovering in some kind of identity limbo. (p. 74)

Based cleverly on a list of descriptors that are used of Black people, this book entertains and educates, is provocative in its way and has some interesting points to finish with. The descriptors are arranged into topic areas such as official descriptions (Black British, POC, BAME), personal descriptors (white-sounding forename, nationality), then historical and derogatory terms (I’m going to stop listing them now, for fear of the wrong people finding this post, although those wrong people would benefit from reading this book!), loaded terms applied by White people, internal descriptors, terms of endearment and internal insults, all applied by Black people other Black people, outlaw accolades which have positives and negatives, and finally political words (conscious, marginalized, woke). Each section is a mini-essay with personal reactions, historical information and examples drawn from popular culture.

As a Black British man of African heritage who grew up in Brixton and went on to achieve in White spaces, often the only Black person in the room, worried about appearing to be a sell-out, this acts as a sort of fractured memoir for Boakye, as he mulls over the uncoolness of being African in a culture that celebrated the Caribbean and America more, and his move into White spaces, including a description of his living room. There’s a lot about class here, laid out very clearly: Black people are expected to be working class, “If we take this as a euphemism for disadvantaged” for example, and are really concentrated in cities, especially London, while being a much smaller minority than that in America.

Boakye interacts with books that were out there when he was writing this in presumably 2018 (it was published in 2019) such as Akala’s “Natives” and Reni Eddo-Lodges “Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race” as well as works like Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s “Americanah“. He talks about women’s experiences as well as men’s, although with some trepidation:

I’m scared of writing this one (“Bitch”) because I really, really don’t want to get it wrong. It’s like taking an engine apart and trying not to get your hands dirty; I don’t want to get any misogyny on me. (p. 347)

and makes sure that he quotes women and research by women, and he also covers gay men’s experience (but not gay women’s or trans people’s), again, quoting gay men and research. He reaches the nascent #BlackLivesMatter movement in the Conclusion, praising how it had woken people up to structural racism and prejudice and talks about how the uptick in publishing and advertising featuring Black writers and families might be to do with economics but is still positive. In this section he mentions his copy-editor’s views on Generation Z, which was refreshing to see!

But it’s only at the very end that he says one tiny thing that he thinks “might make some readers bristle” (basically the idea that White liberals and leftists seek to “prove [their] understanding of blackness” (p. 393) but that “liberalism itself still exists within a paradigm of white dominance” (ibid.) and then at the very end describes how he’s tried to take a light touch in the book but all these descriptors “could have exploded at any moment” (p. 394) and how he’s gone from tour guide to war journalist, “and now I’m realising I’m a civilian under attack, and we’re all in the firing line” (ibid.). I wonder if in a post-George-Floyd world he’d have been more open about this and more provocative – I’ll have to have a look at what he’s been doing more recently (I basically need to get and read his “I Heard What You Said,” about education, soon).

But an entertaining and educative book that will make you think and will teach you some new things, even though other books have gone over similar ground in some respects since. The arrangement of the pieces is genius and really helps this one stand out. Highly recommended.

This was number 4 in my 20 Books of Summer 2022!

This was also TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 3 Book 11/41 – 30 to go (and I must remember to photograph the pile at the start of next month!).

Bonus Extra Book

Matthew Pinner – “Dorset in Photographs”

(12 June 2022, gift)

Paul from HalfManHalfBook very kindly sent me this one, as he’s a resident of Dorset and it’s my ancestral home. It’s a lovely collection of photographs, arranged by season, with the same subjects (Corfe Castle, Swanage, etc.) cropping up several times with different light and weather conditions. It’s a super book but I don’t think I can count it in my “Books read” totals as there is literally no text apart from a paragraph at the start and the captions. I did enjoy it very much and it took me back to a few places as well as introducing me to some I don’t know.

Book review – Stella Gibbons – “The Bachelor”

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Ooh, I’m well away, aren’t I – book 3 in my 20 Books of Summer (intro post here), and I’m now reading my fourth and fifth ones. As with “The Half-Crown House”, Heaven-Ali gave me this one as part of my LibraryThing Virago Group Not So Secret Santa gift for Christmas 2020; the two I’m reading now were both from that Christmas, I can’t remember when Elton John arrived but he wasn’t a Christmas present, and then we somehow hop to May 2021 in the TBR, which is quite exciting.

As well as getting one of my TBR challenge books done and dusted, this one fits into the LibraryThing Virago Group’s monthly challenge: a book by a Virago author not published by Virago (it’s a Vintage edition). Win-win-win!

Stella Gibbons – “The Bachelor”

(25 December 2020, from Ali)

Miss Fielding enjoyed arguing, though she had a habit of suddenly ending the battle at its height by remembering the Good Principle and saying with a smile, ‘But of course, Truth is a jewel with a million facets, as the Jains say, so why dim those facets by arguing?’ and leaving her opponent maddened but helpless. (p. 66)

Published in 1944 and set at about the same time, the war is lingering on but at Sunglades, a newish house in the Home Counties, it’s not having too much of an effect – Miss Fielding is so anti-war she refuses to believe in it, they’ve got rid of their evacuees and plan to fill the house with nice foreigners so as to avoid having any more, some servant or other will do the queuing for shops and Mr Fielding continues to work as a solicitor and tend his garden, bullied into acquiescence by Miss Fielding. She is like their mother without having the kindness and work ethic, everyone fears he’s like their father. They’re in their fifties, living with a slightly older cousin, Miss Burton, and nothing is set to change.

Then into the household burst, variously, Vartouhi, a pert and steely young refugee, come as a general help but with strong views on how to run a household, Betty, a widow for years who once broke Kenneth Fielding’s heart, and her son Richard, delicate in the lung but strong in mind and principles. As the story goes along, local girl Alice, who is secretly sick of racketing about but doesn’t know how to stop, the Fieldings’ father, a rather rackety chap himself, and a man from an unknown country for whose letters Miss Fielding lives and who she secretly must surely love.

As the men and women meet and interact, loves and love triangles set themselves up. This is all fun and fine, and the setting is great; the thing I had a problem with is that Vartouhi is from an invented country that seems oh, too much like the blasted Mixo-Lydia of Angela Thirkell’s novels – so a vehicle for a rather nasty xenophobia and opportunity to laugh at funny foreigners and their funny ways. We have scenes set in “Bairamia” which exhibit exoticism, orientalism and just plain laughing-at-funny-foreigners, Vartouhi has rather irritating artless broken English and it just seems unnecessary; she could have been from somewhere real or just an English girl of a different class. Gibbons has written unreadable satire elsewhere (“Conference at Cold Comfort Farm“, I’m looking at you) but also lovely cheery multiple character studies (“A Pink Front Door“) and while I can see she’s satirising peace makers in a comfortable position who wage war in their own houses, the xenophobia seems just that. So I’m a bit ambivalent about this one, although I did enjoy seeing the couples match up and lovely Kenneth get out from under the thumb a bit.

This was number 3 in my 20 Books of Summer 2022!

This was also TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 3 Book 10/41 – 31 to go.

Book review – Larry McMurtry – “The Late Child”

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The conclusion of my second, short series in my Larry McMurtry 2022 Re-reading Project: the two Harmony and Pepper novels: I read and reviewed “The Desert Rose” last month. According to my records, this was the fifth McMurtry I read, back in September 1998 (I read a lot of his books in 1998!) from the library, presumably Lewisham – very sadly, they appear not to have any print copies of his books now. The copy I read this time around was a BookCrossing copy, sent to me from Australia by Peggysmum in 2005

Larry McMurtry – “The Late Child”

(15 February 2005)

‘I guess I don’t own very much,’ Harmony said, as the four of them stood in the empty living room. ‘I thought I surely owned more than would fit in one trailer.’ (p. 98)

When I read this one in 2005 I had this to say about it:

The sequel to Desert Rose, this is brilliant. Classic McMurtry – funny, sad and always well-observed. The ultimately uplifting tale of ex-showgirl Harmony’s road trip across America with her eccentric sisters.

And that is the crux of the matter: but why does Harmony go on a road trip? Because, as we find out on the first page, her daughter, Pepper, has died. Her life starts to unwind after this blow, and when she finds herself in what must be her mid- to late 40s, alone, her latest boyfriend having walked out, and only her small son, the marvellous Eddie, to keep her going, even Gary and Jessie and Myrtle, her old friends, don’t seem enough and she needs her sisters around her.

When Neddie and Pat turn up, they load all of Harmony and Eddie’s goods in a U-Haul and set off across country, first turning to New York, where Laurie, the woman who had written to Harmony with the news, can be found. Picking up some slightly stereotyped Indian taxi drivers and a couple of homeless Black kids (although there are stereotypes involved in their jobs and socioeconomic status, these are all individualised characters and warm and caring), and with a segue for Eddie and his new puppy to become nationally famous and meet the President, various of them make it to Oklahoma, where Harmony finds that her family is in a mess that no one can sort out, although she helps with some of it.

She learns that sometimes you have to cut your losses and wonders if it’s better to live with the same man for 30 years with no love or many men for much shorter times with brief moments of love. But it’s not a depressing book: it’s funny and surprising and has female and family solidarity and a slightly shocking scene that even shocks a showgirl from Vegas.

Will Harmony go back home to her chosen family or stay with her birth family? Will Eddie ever stop watching the Discovery Channel and using it to debunk the Bible stories his aunts tell him? He’s a wonderful creation, the story is warm and involving and satisfying, full of strong and complex women, and even though I remembered nothing about this book, I loved it and I can see why it helped to hook me into my life-long love of McMurtry.

Are you doing the project with me? Are you planning to read this one? If you’re doing “Lonesome Dove” how are you getting along?

Book review – Helen Ashton – “The Half-Crown House”

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Next book in my 20 Books of Summer (intro post here), and I’m now reading my third and fourth (and working down the pile nicely in order, too!). Heaven-Ali gave me this one as part of my LibraryThing Virago Group Not So Secret Santa gift for Christmas 2020 (along with its prequel, “Yeoman’s Hospital“).

Helen Ashton – “The Half-Crown House”

(25 December 2020, from Ali)

Set over 24 hours, as “Yeoman’s Hospital” was, the half-crown house is the crumbling manor house inhabited by the Hornbeam family a sort of sad and crumbling remnant itself, as we have Henrietta, whose twin brother was killed in the Second World War, living there with her grandmother, bedridden but holding the strings of the house still, her cousin Charles and various old retainers. Into this comes Victor, Henry’s son and thus the heir, but a young boy, dropped off by his mother and stepfather to live in the world of the Hornbeams. And why the title? Because they let visitors into the house and gardens for half a crown to try to keep things going.

We meander through the day, there are visitors to the house and gardens and an American who’s keen on Henrietta comes to view a painting he wants to buy with his art dealer. One set of paying visitors stays for tea and the post-war social situation is shown up, with crumbling aristocrats and new money, and some doctors left who aren’t on the NHS. We inhabit the viewpoints and minds of various characters of different types through the day. It will take some kind of shocking event to happen to make something work out for, perhaps, the best. Does one? I wouldn’t like to give anything away; I will say that the kitchen cat comes through it all fine.

The racial politics is a bit startling in this book. I noticed a few slightly dodgy comments about the West Indian heiress who married into the family a couple of centuries back and about living in Kenya, then noticed these were all put in the mouths of characters we’re obviously supposed to find unattractive. The same with the one anti-Semitic moment, and the person discussed there is very much not a stereotype. While it’s inconceivable in the book that the gentleman who visits from the Caribbean and tries to claim his heritage could do so, the family is proud of its “black children”, seen in a painting, from whom Cousin Charles is proudly descended, and he would have liked to have seen the chap end up with the house. So that’s interesting for a book published in 1956, I felt.

A poignant moment was provided by a discussion of Queen Elizabeth, only just crowned then but predicted by a small, grubby boy to be the last monarch, with all to be gone by the time young Victor comes of age – little did Ashton know I’d be reading this book just after the Diamond Jubilee! But a poignant book all told, and covering a desperate time for the lovely old homes of England (still struggling and taking in paying visitors, of course, by the time of “Murder Before Evensong“!

This was number 2 in my 20 Books of Summer 2022!

This was also TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 3 Book 9/41 – 32 to go.

Book review – Nicholas Orme – “Going to Church in Medieval England”

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“Who went to church in medieval England, and what happened when they went? Reviewing these questions at the end of this study, it must be admitted that there are difficulties in providing answers. The kingdom of England contained some 9,500 parish churches by about 1300, and many more chapels. These were not uniform but differed in their locations, buildings, staffing, congregations, furnishings, and probably certain local customs.” (p. 400)

Shortlisted for the 50th anniversary iteration of the Wolfson History Prize, this hugely comprehensive work is by Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University, Nicholas Orme, who has published many works on English religious and social history. It is obviously the culmination of a huge amount of work, pulling together the tiniest details from many different kinds of sources to weave together a picture of the structure, context, liturgies, architecture, celebrants and congregations of the English Medieval church up to the Reformation. While it isn’t able to provide all the answers, it does a very good job at providing a lot of answers, always noting where things aren’t clear or even available.

We start with the origins of the English Catholic church, the various waves of Christianity that came and the setting up of parishes. Then we move through the church staff, the building itself and the congregation. Two very detailed chapters cover the liturgical day, week, seasons and year, dealing with ordinary days up to processions and festivals. Then we follow the life cycle of the congregation, taking in the sacraments of baptism, marriage, etc. and other important times, before looking at the Reformation and its effects.

Covering from around AD 313 to 1559, there is a wealth of detail and a feeling of only slow change, normalisation and development. There is no central argument, as Professor Orme makes clear in the Foreword: his aim is “to reconstruct how churches worked as religious centres: what happened inside them” (p. 3). Who are the book’s audience? He says students of various disciplines as well as general readers, and I would agree with that; there is a depth of detail which would give value in a university library, but it’s readable and approachable and no prior knowledge is assumed, while it never talks down – a hard balance to strike.

Wills, laws, church and parish records and maps, letters and diaries where they exist, circulated prayer and liturgical resources and their annotations and official documents are all used to weave the wealth of information in this study together. It’s geographically diverse, often with similarities pulled from very diverse areas; a triumph of organisation and synthesis.

Professor Orme makes a valiant attempt to include women in his history – although of course all incumbents were men, he makes the point often that influential women held sway in many parishes as patrons of churches, and also talks about the guilds and companies of maidens and wives which raised money for the church. They also appear in the life cycle section and he mentions again at the end the lack of information and sources covering their lives and roles. Anticlerical activities, whether organised, like the Lollards, or individual, are covered, and there’s of necessity more information on bad behaviour than good, the former being recorded and sanctioned (interestingly, some sanctions were written down in instructional materials but with little record of them being carried out apart from metaphorically).

The chapter on the Reformation is very useful and informative, explaining what had already started to change, what was dying out, what was forced or enforced and to an extent how people reacted to it. The emphasis is more on what continued than on what traditions were broken, interestingly. It was useful to have information on how it was continued in Edward VI and then Elizabeth I’s reigns.

The illustrations are lovely – printed often in colour and in very high quality on the text pages, they range from photographs of church furniture through books of hours and the like to architectural plans.

A superb book which will be of huge value to students of the period and of church history, architecture and social history, as well as the general reader.

Thank you to Midas PR for asking me to take part in the Wolfson History Prize blog tour once again. Details of the other blogs taking part in the first part are below, along with a list of the books on the shortlist.

“The Wolfson History Prize, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, is the UK’s most prestigious historical writing prize, and was created to champion the best and most accessible historical writing, and to highlight the importance of history to modern life. Previous winners have included Mary Beard, Antony Beevor, Antonia Frasier, Sudhir Hazareesingh, Amanda Vickery and many more. 

A number of the six titles in the running for the £50,000 prize (making it the UK’s most valuable non-fiction writing prize) prove that current social divisions are nothing new, exploring times of discord and crisis throughout history, including accusations of witchcraft in a small New England town, the shock of Britain’s European neighbours during the turbulent Stuart dynasty, and the topical question of fallen statues and what they tell us about historical legacy. 

Other titles on the shortlist showcase the impact faith has had on our lives over the centuries, tackling subjects such as the role of religious tolerance within the Ottoman Empire, the surprising realities of Medieval churchgoing, and the ways in which the anatomical concept of God has changed across time.” 

The books shortlisted for the 2022 Wolfson History Prize are:

  • The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs by Marc David Baer (Basic Books)
  • The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World by Malcolm Gaskill (Allen Lane)
  • Devil-Land: England Under Siege, 1588-1688 by Clare Jackson (Allen Lane)
  • Going to Church in Medieval England by Nicholas Orme (Yale University Press)
  • God: An Anatomy by Francesca Stavrakopoulou (Picador)
  • Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History by Alex von Tunzelmann (Headline)

Book review – Richard Coles – “Murder Before Evensong”

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The third of my NetGalley books published this month, read over the weekend when we went to a lovely wedding but didn’t have quite as much reading time as I expected. I’d been looking forward to this one, a bit worried when a blog friend said she was surprised by it, and feeling like it would be a lot like the Richard Osman cosies. Was it?

Richard Coles – “Murder Before Evensong”

(23 May 2022, NetGalley)

They came round a bend in the path and the rectory lay before them, the kitchen light left on to illuminate the way like a tabernacle lamp in a dark church. Audrey made supper, Sunday-night soup and sarnie, as Sabbath tradition decreed.

In this scene-setter to a presumed series, we meet Canon Daniel Clement, the rector of Champton, a village and church presided over by the local wealthy family (of course fallen on fairly hard times). We’re in the 1980s or early 90s, as Cagney and Lacey is on the telly and mobile phones are just coming in – I’m not sure why this is done, unless it’s so he can get in a long series without having a murder in the village every five minutes. Anyway here the murder doesn’t happen until a third of the way through the book or so, so we have plenty of background, with a cast of mainly older folk (including Dan’s mother, Evelyn, who lives with him and is a slightly odd character herself) apart from a slightly stereotypical poacher/Traveller and a surprisingly cultured police officer.

What slightly surprised me was the depth of liturgical detail and church lore involved in this high Anglican based story. It’s lovey and respectful that faith and God are celebrated and woven in; Canon Clement does nothing that would undermine that, gathering his faith and doing the right thing by people. There’s kindness and understanding of why people might not respect a church “because they don’t know” which is striking. There’s a lot of detail and in fact I was quite glad that I had just been reading “Going to Church in Medieval England” as that filled in a few places I might have been a bit woolly on terminology. Which does ask the question: who is this aimed at, as the churchgoing public with an interest in church terms must be fairly small, and the group of non-religious people like me with an interest in church terms smaller. Anyway.

It is a good read. There are some charming dogs, some poisonous gossips and a big house full of slightly damaged posh people (a Bookish Beck serendipity moment is found when I’m reading two books with old houses much added to which have to open to the public to keep themselves going at the same time, with Helen Ashton’s “Half-Crown House” left half-read at home this weekend). The discovery of the murderer works, although I did think that the reader is supposed to see all the clues so as to work it out for themselves and I’m not sure that exactly happens, as one point seems to be only seen by the Canon. Anyway, I was OK with that and maybe it was there and I missed it. It was a little non-diverse apart from some gay male characters, but would you expect that much diversity in an English 1980s village? I would certainly read more in the series.

Thank you to Orion for approving me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Murder Before Evensong” was published on 09 June 2022.

Book review – Ruth Pavey – “A Wood of One’s Own”

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Well at last I’ve got going with my 20 Books of Summer (intro post here), and in fact I’m part-way into Helen Ashton’s “The Half-Crown House”, too, so feel like I’ve made a proper start. The lovely Bookish Beck sent me this one in her 2020 December parcel, something of a tradition now; this had been better edited than some in that parcel (I think this is actually the last one from it) and there are fewer pencilled corrections!

Ruth Pavey – “A Wood of One’s Own”

(24 December 2020, from Bookish Beck)

What pleasure there is in learning another landscape, and the stories that have grown from it. (p. 12)

In this charming book, Ruth Pavey decides she wants to buy a piece of woodland to look after and cherish and in which to plant trees, after she realises this is what she wants to do but finds other places, like allotments, too temporary to do so. She returns to the land of her ancestors, Somerset, the bit near Bridgwater, to do so, and we read about her purchase of, settling into and work on the wood, as well as her relationships with her neighbours and various working people of the countryside.

It’s all very practical though with some romantic notions (she develops the idea of a mediaeval owner of Sugg’s Orchard before discovering what zuggy actually means, and has notions of keeping ancient apples going that are floored when no one can decide what varieties they are). She is resourceful and relatively fearless, installing herself for a number of years in a little wheeled workers’ wagon before moving to spend nights in a cottage. She bonds with various brothers and cousins, which is lovely to read about, especially exciting when some Overds are mentioned, as I’m descended from Somerset Overds myself! I also loved how all sorts of people gave her trees they’d grown when they found out she had a wood. There are only a couple of “Nature red in tooth and claw” moments and one page of unpleasantness – not bad for a modern nature book!

While she’s unable to explain to a friend what all this is “for”, she obviously gets huge pleasure from the wood and her efforts in it. She makes improvements and leaves all the various animals and insects alone in it, though she does feel that they melt away when she’s there and return when she goes. The long-term nature of it is highlighted and the impossibility of finishing it:

And, or so I try to comfort myself, it is not in the nature of this project to yield instant results. (p. 169)

This was number 1 in my 20 Books of Summer 2022!

This was also TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 3 Book 8/41 – 33 to go.

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