Nonfiction November Week 1 – Your Year in Nonfiction


Week 1: (Oct 31-Nov 4) – Your Year in Nonfiction : Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November? (Doing Dewey)

Hooray, it’s Nonfiction November and I am going to work with all the prompts and read *mostly* nonfiction (as I’m also doing Novellas in November and have a review copy of a novel plus my Larry McMurtry, only mostly; AusReading Month is at least all nonfiction) and here are my answers to this one.

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

This is quite a hard one as I read a lot of nonfiction through the year: in fact, I’ve read 83 nonfiction books since the start of last November! Highlights have included Nimsdai Purja’s “Beyond Possible“, Richard Fidler and Kari Gislason’s “Saga Land“, Richard King’s “Brittle with Relics“, Ruth Pavey’s “A Wood of One’s Own“, Jeffrey Boakye’s “Black, Listed“, Sue Anstiss’ “Game On“, Diya Abdo’s “American Refuge“, Francesca Wade’s “Square Haunting“.

Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

I’ve continued to read around social justice, history, women’s issues, sport and people’s movements from country to country. I don’t think I’ve added in any new topics but I’ve profited from the continued interest from publishers in Global Majority People’s titles and have picked up quite a lot for the TBR as well as reading widely.

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

Possibly Shon Faye’s “The Transgender Issue” and definitely David Olusoga’s “Black and British“, both read last year, and Richard King’s “Brittle with Relics” I’ve recommended to Welsh people, people living in Wales and people interested in Left history.

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

I love seeing nonfiction celebrated and usually pick up some new blogs to follow whose authors read more nonfiction than fiction. I like seeing my friends who read mainly fiction picking up nonfiction to try, I love finding more titles to add to my wishlist or TBR and comparing notes on what we’ve read. I also like seeing how people are working other challenges into the mix!

Book review – Lao She (trans. William Dolby) – “Mr Ma and Son”


It’s 1929 Week in Simon Stuck-in-a-Book (this post has links to all the reviews for the week) and Karen Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings‘ readalongs-by-year and I read and reviewed Alice Campbell’s “Water Weed” earlier in the week. However, reading other people’s entries for the week, I was taken by the idea of Lao She’s “Mr Ma and Son”, originally published (in Chinese) in 1929 and republished as a Penguin Classic this month, which I read about on the Literary Potpourri blog (here). So I requested it from NetGalley, won it on Friday and read it over the weekend!

Lao She (trans. William Dolby) – “Mr Ma and Son”

(28 October 2022, NetGalley)

‘When the Chinese see someone in a state, they clear off – the further the better, because our education teaches us to worry only about ourselves. When foreigners see someone in trouble, they do all they can to get them out of it. They don’t care whether it’s a white-faced person, a black-faced person or a green-faced one. Normally, they look down on their black-faced and green-faced brethren, but at the first sign of their needing a hand, they forget all about the colour of their faces. She didn’t rescue him because he was your father, but because that’s her notion of what’s moral’. (pp. 176-7)

Mr Ma and his son Ma Wei move to London on the death or Mr Ma’s brother, having inherited his antiques shop and, indeed, his shop assistant, Mr Li. They are installed in lodgings by the Reverend Ely, a Sinophile who has lived in China, and raised children there, although his wife has made sure they didn’t get any ideas about learning Chinese or engaging with the country while they were there. Reverend Ely forces Mrs Wedderburn to take the Mas on, and she’s encouraged by the extra money she can make to do do. Then we see her adapt to them, them adapt to her, and her daughter, the flighty Mary, and get used to London life, with scenes in pubs and parks most prominent and beautifully described.

There are many parallels with life today, for example the rather startling speech quoted above, which made me think of those people who say they don’t “see colour” and that someone could be brown, black, purple or green and they’d treat them the same, as well as echoes of migration-to-London novels like “The Lonely Londoners“. Another example is when Mrs Wedderburn embroiders a Chinese character on Mary’s hat band that she copies from Mr Ma, but upside down, so it says something rude (this reminded me of a short scene in “Mika in Real Life” with a tattoo). And in another one, when an English working-class person finds out the racing results in the paper … “When they see they’ve lost, they purse their lips and read a bit of the anti-foreign news to make themselves feel better” (p. 197).

The introduction by Julia Lovell states this was probably the first Chinese novel to confront British racism towards China directly, and draws parallels to the modern day. Lao She is clear on what causes this: China’s weakness as a country and the media portrayals of the Chinese as dangerous and devious. He himself worked against this stereotype in his few years in London, a quiet and bespectacled student, and the main characters are shown as kind, hard-working, loving and filial, while retaining a flavour of Chinese thought and action: descriptions often feature metaphors such as a wok full of porridge or a sorghum stem. There’s plenty of talk of colonialism, as well, and how the British bring back things and study them, so they have both knowledge and military strength.

An interesting strand is Catherine Ely’s modern status, where she suddenly defies convention, taking advantage of the changes in attitudes coming in after the First World War. This reminded me of my reading of “Square Haunting” [review to come], set among the people who were the first perhaps to set these mores.

As we travel through the Mas’ time in London and their dealings with the dangerous and devious English (also shown to be nuanced and complex, of course), the description of “melancholy ambivalence” is borne out: it is a comedy and there are amusing scenes, but the feeling of confusion in the opening pages, circled back round to by the end, points to mystery and untied-up endings.

An excellent read which I’m very glad I picked up on, however hurriedly I had to read it (and on the NG Shelf app as it didn’t render properly on my Kindle).

Thank you to Penguin for making a copy available for me via NetGalley in return for an honest review, and for turning my request around so quickly! This edition of “Mr Ma and Son” was published on 06 October.

Book reviews – Eleanor Scott – “War Among Ladies”


I continue to be grateful that the British Library Publishing folk send me these great reprints in the British Library Women Writers series. There are Christmas stories coming, but for now, a rather brutal novel about life as a schoolteacher in the 1920s, published in 1928, hot on the heels of my 1929 read from earlier in the week!

Eleanor Scott – “War Among Ladies”

(September 2022, from the publisher)

There is something appalling to this warfare, silent, secret and unrelenting, that is waged by polite women with smiling faces and gentle manners, against one another. When you realise it, it takes your breath and leaves you horrified by its stealth and its malignity. (p. 82)

I found this one, with its institutional life and slow wearing-down of a fresh new talent through gossip and maligning, echoed E.M. Delafield’s “Tension“, also published in this series. Divided into two slightly unequal parts, “Miss Cullen” and “Viola”, we’re first introduced to an unattractive, panicky and failing French teacher who is losing her grip on her classes, allowing them to flourish into chaos and, more importantly, not managing to prepare them for their senior exam. Two factors are at play here: if they fail any subject in the exam, they fail the whole thing, so the other teachers turn against Miss Cullen when they realise what is happening; and if any teacher should leave the profession before their pensionable age of 60, they will lose the pension they’ve been contributing to and all the contributions themselves.

Here’s where the slight shock comes: Miss Cullen has four years to go, so she’s 56, five years older than me. But the profession is hard, the living conditions in rented rooms are hard, with the marriage bar keeping the profession to single women with no other means of support, and 60 then is probably 70 at least, if not more, now. The NHS and National Insurance have done a lot for us! We also at the end get Miss Cullen’s back story, and originally of course she was full of naive optimism for her profession and wanted to teach like she’s being asked to teach now; however, in the interim, things have been different and she has become set in her ways.

So Miss Cullen is deeply unpopular and the other staff are almost forced, but also turn as one in a sort of mob mentality, to decry her to the head teacher. Better that one should be forced out and lose her pension than all of them if the exams are a failure and the school closes. But Miss Cullen has resources at hand, too, and is also forced to use them.

Then we switch to a new term and new teacher, Viola Kennedy (she keeps her first name as a nod to her still-dual existence as person AND teacher). Unfortunately, she almost immediately gets associated with Miss Cullen, and her name is smeared as a result. Small issues and mistakes are blown up out of proportion by the other teachers and as the town gets wind of the school’s wobble and looks for scandal. Is there any way out for her? The experiences of two other teachers are set before her as an example, and someone she thinks might offer an escape appears to have too many problems of his own to offer an easy out …

What will become of the teachers and their difficult situation? Just like those novels that show the plight of the unmarried woman without a career, this shows the brutal life of those with a career that can grind you down so easily. In the Afterword, Simon Thomas explains the marriage bar and pension arrangements and the book is a real history lesson as well as being a compelling read.

Thank you so much to the British Library for sending me this book and others in the series in return for an honest review. “War Among Ladies” was republished on 8 September. You can buy all the British Library Women Writers books (and more) at the British Library Shop ( and this one here).

Book review – Alice Campbell – “Water Weed”


It’s 1929 Week in Simon Stuck-in-a-Book and Karen Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings‘ popular series of readalongs-by-year and handily enough, back in the summer, Rupert from Dean Street Press was kind enough to send me a couple of review copies of books by a Golden Age of Crime author, Alice Campbell. Once the Week was announced, Rupert helpfully mentioned that one of them was published in the right year, so I fished it out and had a go with it. As usual with me and anything mystery/thriller-y (not a genre I read very much), I was unable to put it down!

Alice Campbell – “Water Weed”

(June 2022, from the publisher)

Not for nothing was she the daughter of an eminent lawyer. She had heard too much of premature admissions, and now, while the truth was suspecnded in mid-air, she was determined not to give away anything which might furnish a motive for the murder. (p. 119)

Our heroine, Virginia, is a likeable and capable young woman, living in London for a bit to study, and hoping to see more of her childhood friend, Glenn, although he seems to have got mixed up with some family and whisked away to a house in the country. When she does see him, he’s strangely haggard, and soon it’s clear he’s out of his depth, in love with someone unsuitable and getting in a mess. Although Virginia is only young, she has a capable head and a quick mind, and soon she’s trying to rescue him, especially when something really bad happens and he falls under suspicion.

As with all such novels, the plot is really the thing, but I liked the characters of Virginia and her dad, and the atmosphere of upper-middle-class, bored English people is well done. Plotwise, there are plenty of red herrings and misapprehensions – I did like how Campbell reiterated clues we’d already been given as Virginia mulled over them, so I never felt stupid for having forgotten some pertinent detail.

One point that struck me was the interest in people’s psychology, including neuroses and sexual proclivities – this seemed quite modern and open for its time, but of course Simon in his review of a Gladys Mitchell novel for the Week handily pointed out in time that this was the age of Freud and a fascination with psychoanalysis, so it was actually totally OF its time!

Kaggsy has already reviewed this book here, and Heaven-Ali has reviewed it here (the link to Simon’s blog at the top of this post will show you all the reviews for the Week).

Thank you to Rupert from Dean Street Press for sending me an e-book to review; I don’t usually read their mysteries but am very glad I read this one and would explore more by this author. You can see the book’s cover and find links to buy it here.

Book review – Larry McMurtry – “Somebody’s Darling”


The fourth (loosely) of the Houston Series (not set there this time) which forms the last section of my Larry McMurtry 2022 Re-reading Project. In this one, we follow the fortunes of screen writer Joe Percy, who we met first in “Moving On” and Jill Peel, Danny Deck’s ex-wife, with bits of news of Danny, his old tutor, Godwin, and also of Patsy from “Moving On”.

I acquired this copy in September 2004 via BookCrossing then sent it on a “Book Ring” to Alabama, New Mexico and New South Wales before putting it in my permanent collection. I must have read it some time in 2005: I fear I haven’t indexed the first half of that year’s reading journal before I started my blog in August 2005. The only record of my thoughts on it then are on my BookCrossing entry: “It wasn’t classic McMurtry (he admits in the preface that he was never that happy with it) but still worth it for completeness sake, especially as he takes characters from Moving On (STILL need that book!) and All My Friends are Going to be Strangers.”

Larry McMurtry – “Somebody’s Darling”

(20 September 2004, BookCrossing)

In the end I did grow up: as she was dying. Up until then it had been unnecessary, maybe even undesirable. I remained her roaring boy, lover, wayward son, whatever. (p. 30)

An ageing man looks back on past conquests and life in the entertainment industry. He sees the importance of Attention. He mulls over his dead wife. He drinks too much. He drives a Morgan. His much younger friend, over whose life he has always had an influence, lives in a chaotic mess. The author, a realist who has a tendency to produce baggy monsters of novels and is used to describing the intimate and minute stages of falling in love, states they are influenced by Dostoyevksy and George Eliot. I have said before that McMurtry and Iris Murdoch have been twin joys in my reading life, and have seen the comparison grow stronger: it really struck me in this one.

There’s a Preface in this one in which McMurtry admits that he’d gone off the boil about Jill Peel by the time he came to write it, having been very enthusiastic about her after writing “All My Friends are Going to be Strangers” in which she and Danny Deck featured. He was also a bit experimental in this one, writing in the first person in three sections, narrated by Joe Percy, Jill and, in the middle, Jill’s lover Owen Oarson, which McMurtry himself admits should have been in the third person, and is indeed not as successful, but putting it in a different viewpoint would have caused different problems.

The book is set in Hollywood: Jill has just had a success directing a film and is brought into to trouble-shoot another and shoot yet another. Joe, her friend and mentor, first supports her, then drifts away, then is brought back for a chaotic road-trip. Owen is trying to overcome a non-starry background to get into the movies in some way; he’s always able to get distracted by another woman, and he’s swift with his fists, which gives some nasty scenes of violence with Jill that I didn’t like reading (they’re narrated in his section and there’s no sense of approval from McMurtry, just of setting down that this is what this guy is like).

The story rambles and doesn’t really have an arc, apart from that of a tight friendship loosening and then drawing close again – and that’s of course fine; it’s great to read a novel about a friendship. Older men and younger women feature, as they do in McMurtry, and everyone ends up bobbing around in the mucky sea of the film industry, no one coming off particularly well. Contingency features (another Murdochian trope) in some shocking events that punctuate the book, and we hear enticing small details of Danny (DID he die in the Rio Grande?) and Patsy (several husbands on now). It ends on an elegiac note from Joe, recorded by Jill:

Life ought to be like a good script. The incidents ought to add up, and the characters ought to complement one another, and the story line ought to be clear, and after you’ve had the climax it ought to leave you with the feeling that it has all been worth it. But look at my case, just to take one. I passed the climax without even noticing it, and I’ve forgotten half the characters already. There was never a clear story line and most of the incidents were just incidents. (p. 399)

Not the most successful Larry McMurtry book but entertaining and weaving in to make the whole.

Are you doing the project with me? Are you planning to read this one / this series? If you’re doing “Lonesome Dove” or any of the others, how are you getting along?

Book review – Gretchen Gerzina – “Black England”


I’m badly behind with my NetGalley reading and reviewing and feeling awful about it, but I’ve just been reading less these past couple of months, with too many reading commitments. I have now completed another of September’s publications: “Black England” is an excellent books and I suppose at least I read it in Black History Month …

Gretchen Gerzina – “Black England: A Forgotten Georgian History”

(19 July 2022; NetGalley)

Pro-slavers portrayed black people as vicious, stupid and improved by slavery; abolitionists erred on the side of sentiment to portray them as docile and innocent. Somewhere in the middle lay reality.

This book was originally published in 1995, in that small flourishing of diverse publishing that happened then; I presume it was republished because of the flourishing in diverse publishing that’s going on nowadays (and appears to have stuck a bit better) and I’m glad it’s finding a new audience. Gerzina comments in her introduction that she has updated the book, but the joins don’t show; of course, research and archives are very different now, and I would imagine she had more available to her.

The eighteenth century (or the period the book covers, from just before 1700 to 1837) was an eventful time, and Gerzina shows how Black people came to England first as companions and slaves, either to people who shipped them in or were given them, or with people who came back from the colonies. Later, after the American War of Independence, the British Government promised the Black people who had fought on their side their freedom and a life in Britain; naturally, they reneged on this, and a significant part of the book is dedicated to showing how they promptly panicked there were too many people coming over and hatched a plan to ship them off to Sierra Leone. Nice.

Well-researched and detailed chapters look at Black men and then women in Georgian England, picking out information from the biographies of some folk who were written about or wrote about themselves. Then there’s a long chapter on the court cases that ensued when slaves and servants complained about their treatment or escaped, one on the Sierra Leone experiment, and then one on the beginnings of the end of slavery, looking at whether the people we cast as the heroes of abolition were as clear-cut as we think (hint: they’re not).

The book does a good job of showing us that Black people have been here in Britain for many centuries – although as David Olusoga found in his TV series, many of them intermarried and their genes were diluted until you can find mainly ‘White’ people as their descendants – and how the process of researching history can draw out some details but not all, showing us that class, race and gender intersect to blot some people out of the historical record forever. It’s clearly written although I did struggle a little with the amount of detail in the legal chapter: this could have been because it was hard to see in the e-book what was a quotation and what was the text. The published copy will have a new Foreword from Zadie Smith, which was unfortunately missing in the review copy. A valuable (re-)addition to Black history.

Thank you to John Murray for providing me with a copy of this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Black England” was published on 29 September 2022.

Book review – Rakhshan Rizwan – “Europe, Love me Back”


The Emma Press is an independent publisher which specialises in poetry, essays, short fiction and children’s books. They’re based in Birmingham (hooray!) and are doing great stuff – I reviewed their “Once Upon a Time in Birmingham” a couple of years ago and they’ve been winning all sorts of prizes and publishing loads of interesting stuff. Although I’m not the world’s biggest poetry fan or expert, I do like a good poem about people’s experience in the world, and I was drawn to these pieces by a Muslim woman originally from Pakistan, living in Netherlands and writing her life there. I wasn’t disappointed.

Rakhshan Rizwan – “Europe, Love me Back”

(12 October 2022)

… I can see the fingers that never

touched my arm the way your eyes avert just a little

how your voice loses its lilt how you tighten your grasp

on your dog’s leash one day you will see the way

my skin pores open in the summer months

to receive warmth same

as yours.

(from “Bite”, p. 2)

Rakhshan Rizwan now lives in the US but documents her time in Germany and the Netherlands in this book of poems that pack a powerful punch. The poems are in blank verse and interesting layouts, sometimes with gaps, as in the quotation above, sometimes with really long lines, printed sideways on a double spread in the book.

Like “Bite”, a lot of the poems draw on actual or imagined-but-realistic situations the poet finds herself in – “A Man is speaking Urdu on the train and everyone is turning to look at him” falls into this category, where a man who has been speaking Urdu moves into broken English and a trainful of Dutch people relaxes, or “Caucasity”, where at a conference, she is one of the only people of colour in the room but gives support to a woman presenter who stands out in the same way.

Other poems are more abstract or fanciful. I loved, although its ending is devastating, “Medusa Ghosted” where the protagonist grows a head of Medusa-like snakes for hair, tends and grooms them, keeps them when her husband isn’t keen.

I particularly liked, also, the poems that took Rizwan away from the Netherlands, to other parts of Europe. In “Paris Proper”, she and a friend visit the same city but have two very different views of it:

She saw warm crepes with jam,

and cold newlyweds with beautiful shoulders,

striking brave poses against mighty gusts of wind

at the Tour De Eiffel.

I saw Pakistanis, North Africans,

in frayed jackets, dirty mufflers,

selling plastic tat, keychains,

reproductions of the tower for a euro,

hawking yesterday’s Le Monde,

their bodies dancing a different tango

from the dancers by the Seine.

(from “Paris Proper”, p. 54)

and in “Seville”, she observes the interlayering of the European and Arabic in the buildings and the relevance to those who don’t feel quite at home in either one place or the other.

Moving and wry, sometimes a poem is the best way to show an experience, and that really comes across here. I will defintely look for more by this writer.

Line drawings by Reena Makwana, who also drew the cover image, add a lovely extra dimension to the book.

Thank you to the super folk at Emma Press for sending me a copy of this book in return for an honest review. “Europe, Love me Back” was published on 6 October and you can find out more about it and buy it direct here.

Book review – Siobhan Daniels – “Retirement Rebel”


Vertebrate Publishing are an excellent indie publisher and Britain’s leading publisher of outdoor adventure books and guides. They have all sorts of guidebooks and cover wild swimming, climbing, cycling, running and nature books. I have been lucky enough to join their mailing list for review copies, although I also purchase books from them direct, and they’ve all been hits so far!

Siobhan Daniels – “Retirement Rebel: One Woman, One Motorhome, One Great Big Adventure”

(7 October 2022, from the publisher)

Even then I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to do it, but I knew I had to do it to find my happy place. And to inspire other women not to give up when life gets tough, but to find a new path for the next phase of their lives. (p. 27)

Siobhan Daniels was working in local BBC broadcasting when she realised she was increasingly encountering ageism and sexism, suffering through the menopause with no support and coming up against bosses who belittled and bullied her. Having run a marathon with her daughter at 48 and had a “mature gap year” in her 50s where she backpacked around the world, but having dropped into depression and anxiety and inactivity since,  she gathers up her reserves of strength, takes early retirement, gets a camper van (a proper big one with a shower and toilet) and goes off around the UK.

The book was more than this, though. Daniels is absolutely passionate about empowering other older women, of pro-ageing rather than anti-ageing products, of following your dreams however much you have to struggle to do so. Through the book she shares how she promotes this message via articles, interviews and TV and radio, using her knowledge and connections. She also doesn’t shy away from the difficulties, especially when newly out and about with her caravan, relying on her brother and other campers to help – and finding a lot of kindness and support.

Covid strikes in this book, as so many, and it’s difficult for Siobhan to find somewhere to stay as she literally lives in her van. She has special compensation to stay on two different campsites in two different locations, but it takes a while for the locals to catch up with this and she has difficult times for a while.

Although the messages of frustration at the treatment of older women and the desire to empower others were repeated a bit (maybe the book was partly constructed from blog posts, which is how this issue often crops up), it was a powerful and important one, chiming with both the increasingly strong calls for menopause support and older women who are not as incapable as they’re made out to be. I loved all the detail in the book, which I suspect only a middle-aged or older woman would think to include: how she kept registered at doctors’ and dentists’ and got her Covid vaccinations, for instance. She’s also honest on the effect of her sudden travels on her daughter, who was concerned about safety and security and could have done at times with a mum who was in one place, though they did go through this together. The reunions with old friends were delightful, too.

Full of self-actualisation and the kindness of strangers, this is a heartwarming and inspiring read for anyone, especially those of us who are women in our middle years and further on.

Thank you to Vertebrate Books for sending me a copy of this book in return for an honest review. “Retirement Rebel” is published today, 20 October 2022. You can buy it from Vertebrate Publishing here (they do a great discount if you join their mailing list, too!).

Interim incomings


Oh dear, the horror, the horror. TWENTY-TWO books have come into the house this month. Well, I call it “come into the house” but it has been pointed out to me that most of them don’t come in of their own accord, but have been instigated by me. Anyway, want to see them? Course you do.

Two lovely review copies:

“Europe, Love me Back” is a book of poems written in the Netherlands by Rakhshan Rizwan and published by the lovely local indie publisher, Emma Press. This came out on 6 October and I’m reading it at the moment, review to come very soon. Siobhan Daniels’ empowering tale of life on the road after 60, “Retirement Rebel” is published tomorrow by the indie Vertebrate Publishing, and my review will come out then, too.

I’ve been to two book events at The Heath Bookshop this month (so far; for the next one, I do already have the book at least).

I bought Jess Phillips’ “The Life of an MP” and Kit de Waal’s childhood memoir, “Without Warning & Only Sometimes” and novel, “My Name is Leon” at the book events, and got them all signed. You can read about the bookshop here if you haven’t already.

Then I met up with LibraryThing Virago Group friends Claire and Genny early in the month and Genny and I took a trip to Kings Heath Oxfam Books.

David Olusoga and Melanie Blake-Hansen’s “A House Through Time”, which is about researching your house’s history but with details of the houses from the TV series, was on my wish list, as was Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to be an Antiracist” (reading him backwards as I’ve already read “How to Raise an Antiracist“!). Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All” is the story of Black Lives Matter, published by Penguin: I feel like there’s someone who’s buying all the BLM booklists then donating them to Oxfam as I’ve previously found good ones in there. And finally, I know Claudia Winkleman’s “Quite” is probably quite slight, but there it was and now it is here.

I’m a big fan of Bookish Beck’s book blog and she’s very kind to me and other readers and passes on books we’ve indicated an interest in through the year, so I look forward to a box of books I’ve asked about and ones she thinks I might like (OK, not quite read the last box yet ….).

This year, it included Sophie Pavelle’s “Forget me Not”, about British species that have been affected by climate change; Barbara Kingsolver’s “Demon Copperhead”, her new novel that I was desperate to read; Marie Winn’s “Red-Tails in Love” about wildlife in Central Park, New York; Cal Flyn’s “Isles of Abandonment” is about the psychology and ecology of abandoned sites; the red book with the bomb on it is an extract from Elaine Castillo’s “How to Read Now”; and “Deeper into the Wood” is the sequel to Ruth Pavey’s “A Wood of One’s Own” which I enjoyed a while back.

Finally, I went to Stratford-upon-Avon yesterday to meet some random men off the internet. Fortunately, they were the lovely Andy and Scott, Scott being the chap behind the wonderful “Furrowed Middlebrow” blog and publishing imprint with Dean Street Press. Of course we went to the Oxfam Books and Shakespeare Hospice Bookshop … and I have to say I’ve met my match in terms of pressing books on people, although I did introduce Scott to two new authors to him, so got my own back a bit …

I blame Laura Tisdall and her encouragement of my fellow-interest in “nun books” fro Kate O’Brien’s “The Land of Spices” (it’ll do for next year’s Irish Reading Month, right?); Charlie English’s “The Snow Tourist” is a trip to find the deepest snow field and includes a visit to Greenland, so had to be had; I found the reprint of Floella Benjamin’s memoir “Coming to England”; Rob Young’s “Electric Eden” on 100 years of Britain’s folk and visionary music has informed the work of some of the writers I work with, so was a must; and I think Ali told me about Ann Petry’s “The Street” and there was a lovely Virago Green of it. That was al in Oxfam Books. At the Shakespeare Hospice Bookshop, I found a 1964 World Books edition of Iris Murdoch’s “An Unofficial Rose” (I’ve allowed myself to actually start collecting different editions of her books, oh-oh) and (very) local boy Joe Lycett’s “Parsnips, Buttered” so a bit of a funny pair there.

So there we have it. Twenty-two books in and not that many actually read this month. Dear, oh dear, as our King would say. Read any of these? Shocked at my profligacy? Relieved it’s not only you at the book confessional this month?!

Andy, Scott and me outside the Shakespeare Hospice Bookshop, which never disappoints

Book review – Diya Abdo – “American Refuge”


I’m not sure now whether I saw this on an email or it was one of those NetGalley books you could request and read right away, but I find myself compelled to read about experiences of emigration, and always have done, and what a powerful cover. Having read it, I believe it should be required reading, with its searing honesty and unflinching portrayals of the lives refugees have to live. The content is not gratuitous or particularly viscerally violent, etc., but it’s heart-wrenching and important to read.

Diya Abdo – “American Refuge: True Stories of the Refugee Experience”

(1 July 2022, NetGalley)

I have learned that it does refugees a great disservice to assume that resettlement means happiness or is the solution to their trauma and pain. Such a view can blind us from seeing the ways in which resettlement is incredibly difficult, and it can elide refugees’ sadness and pain – their homesickness, lack of sense of belonging, and depression – framing them as ungrateful rather than simply human.

The author comes from a place of being a refugee herself, born in Jordan the child of Palestinian refugees displaced in 1967. She ended up in America and when the refugee crisis was growing in 2015, asked her employers, Guilford College, to offer a campus house to provide accommodation and support for new refugees. The Every Campus a Refuge project was born there, but we focus back on just this community to look at a handful of refugees from different countries and the details of their lives, displacement and settlement.

There are some shocking statistics in this book – for example, only 1% of refugees achieve true settlement, moving to usually a third country and finding housing, support and employment, the rest usually just over the border from their own country but unable to return. At the end of the book, ­­­­­Abdo discusses the different names for people who have left one country for another (including expatriates, who are always White, and colonists, who are always excused) and how the misnomer of illegality hangs over all.

But the substance of the book is the stories of the people who have come and settled in her community in America, their family stories, their experiences in their home country, their journey and their time in America. These are absolutely heart-rending – the need to rehearse over and over again the same spiel to give all authorities, your story having to be exactly the same each time; children getting separated from relatives when they hit 18, being put on a separate, not family, pathway; the truth that people have to basically choose between their children and their parents. There’s much warmth, earlier travellers going back to help the new arrivals in their first chaotic times in America, the networks of charities that provide absolutely essential help, the support from members of people’s own communities.

The reality is still harsh, though – travel costs being taken out of the small stipend refugees are given on arrival, the need to get employment – any employment – in order to be able to afford to live – and then the Covid pandemic hits and the crowded, unsafe housing the refugees end up having to take, already devastatingly proved fire-unsafe, mean they are at higher risk of illness.

The writing is poetic, almost dreamy, circling round like the details of the refugees’ lives circle round, constantly reminding us of the situations they’ve been in and what they’ve been through, like a chorus reciting and standing witness. I found this profoundly moving and thought it elevated the book beyond mere details. It got across the constant thoughts and memories of trauma the subjects of the book must have in their own minds.

Although this covers US policy in great detail, it’s not offputting but interesting – I would love to read a similar book set in the UK, though. The subjects’ great resilience and strength comes through, and there’s a good point at the end about how institutions of higher education need to be a model for their communities, as well as recognising where they sit in international systems of inequity.

A powerful and emotional book which should be required reading in US and even UK schools.

Thank you to Steerforth Press for providing me with a copy of this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “American Refuge” was published on 06 September 2022.

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