Book review – Sophie Williams – “Anti-Racist Ally”

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Book 11 of my 20 Books of Summer project, and I’m celebrating Past Liz for her idea of slotting two short books in amongst the pile for this month (I’m putting my slow progress down to it all being made up of non-fiction, and reckon I’ll catch up with the novels I have for next month. I have almost finished “What White People Can Do Next” and then I’m on to “Brit(ish) so should end the month with one hanging over from this month, again. That’s fine!

I do not know when I bought this book! From its position on my TBR shelf, I’m guessing August 2020. Oops. I was going to review it alongside Emma Dabiri’s “What White People Can Do Next” but having read most of that book, Dabiri takes exception to the use of the term ally and the concept of allyship, in her theoretically more deep and wide-ranging book (which has a different purpose, to be fair) so I’m splitting them up!

Sophie Williams – “Anti-Racist Ally: An Introduction to Action & Activism”

(August? 2020)

Read books about Black and brown people living, not just dying. Engage in content where they thrive, rather than just survive. Remembering the full and complex range of lives and emotions in marginalised people is humanising, and a lot of fun. (p. 119)

Williams is an Instagrammer and she takes that platform’s strong design and succinct messages through to her small-format book. Each left-hand page gives a question, heading or objection, with the answer or message kept to one side of the facing page. This means it’s easy to read, and easy to flick through to find the section you need.

Williams is pretty forthright and provocative – as she has every right to be. She decries speech rather than action and bandwagon-jumping. She says things which might make the reader uncomfortable – such as her assertion that we need to do uncomfortable things and put ourselves in uncomfortable situations in order to enact, rather than perform, allyship.

The book takes the traditional form of such pieces, providing terms and distinctions, then working through the idea that not being racist is the absolute baseline and not enough. Interestingly, she acknowledges her own change, both through the book when talking about how people can change, and in her discussion of the use of “womxn” which she used to use but not now it’s been adopted by people who want to deny the full womanhood of trans and non-binary women. I’ve seen this elsewhere, and it’s one example of the shifts in language we’re seeing at the moment. OK, Dabiri would say this doesn’t matter so much if it distracts from the need to dismantle capitalism, but we’ll go there another day (how one’s reading of one book affects one’s view of the last one!).

Williams moves on to talk about what racism is, addressing objections such as “I don’t see colour” and “I can’t be racist because my best friend / postman is Black”. She then looks at what true allyship is, and covers intersectionality well. She describes how racism evidences nowadays – less white sheets and more race pay gaps and institutional racism. This includes the use of Black people to provide emotional labour in rehashing their experiences of racism for a White audience. She has a UK and US perspective here which is useful, although acknowledges different issues are found in the two areas.

Then we get into the nuts and bolts of it – how to be an ally. Anxieties are covered first – including I don’t want to make it all about me and I can’t really do anything. I’ve certainly suffered from the latter one, as a lot of the books and resources I’ve found cover how to address inequalities in a workplace or community group, neither of which I’m really in. While then moving through from addressing issues within yourself, your close circles, your community, your workplace, institutions, brands and government, she has a theme that a) you have to make yourself uncomfortable sometimes and b) you use what platforms you’ve got. This inspired me personally to keep on reading and then writing about books centred on Black people’s experience on here, my platform, even though they often don’t get the engagement my other posts have (and even though I’ve always read and reviewed books by Global Majority Peoples; maybe just not so much non-fiction). She leaves room for celebrating and amplifying Black joy, asking White folk not to keep sharing images of pain and suffering that will re-traumatise our Black friends and contacts, something I don’t do a lot, and certainly not explicit images, but I have done to an extent. We always need to keep learning!

At the end of the book, we have a book list and I was pleased to see I have read six, have a further three to read, and don’t have six, some of which I’ve chosen not to read yet as they’re US centric and I’m working on learning about UK stuff first.

A worthwhile little book with some good ideas that don’t just revolve around the workplace.

This is Book 11 in my 20 Books of Summer project.

Book review – Damian Le Bas – “The Stopping Places”

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Time for another of my 20 Books of Summer and I’m feeling like I’m making some progress now I’m on Book 10!

I bought this book in July 2020 from Oxfam Books – I blogged about a lot of incomings including this here. Funny story: This was when things opened up a bit more in England, and after my friend Trudie had said she had been in a few charity shops on the high street and they were all pretty safe, with hand sanitiser and screens, and feeling bereft of my usual pastime of cruising all the many shops nearby, I decided to venture to Oxfam Books, as I know I can always find something there. I chose two other books and I wasn’t sure about this one. But wait – what should I do with it, having taken it off the shelf – having touched it?? I had heard that Waterstones had a trolley for such eventualities – no such thing here. So, readers, I bought it.

Damian Le Bas – “The Stopping Place: A Journey Through Gypsy Britain”

( 2020)

These are the stopping places, these fringes and in-between places. they are the places that nobody lives except Travellers – or nobody but those who share ancient connections with them: gamekeepers and poachers, scrap-metal men, horse-women, rangers and shepherds. They are the old nomad’s haunts of the island. Many are smashed and build over; some – magically – are more or less just as they were in centuries long past. (p. 25)

Le Bas has always felt slightly on the edge of things – a (the term is his) fully Gypsy upbringing, living on a yard with his artist parents, but with mixed heritage somewhere in living memory and being blond and blue-eyed, not looking like a classic member of his community, and often challenged for that, before and during the writing of this book. He’d taken himself off to university, too, and was in the academic sociology and Gypsy Studies community as well as his own one, a travelling man with a footwell full of books. Increasingly pulled in one direction and the other, he decided to do a tour of the “Stopping Places” – traditional points where travelling Gypsies would pull in for a night or two to a long season, some to do with fairs and celebrations, some commemorations, many just a good place to stop by the road.

Having been through long journeys in East Sussex to sell flowers at one particular pitch, he starts off with his family’s stopping places, and it’s here that he finds the most emotional connection. But as he picks up information on others, movingly from a woman at a big conference who shyly produces a list she’s written out for him, and travels from Kent to Cornwall, North Wales to Skye; he gets used to living in his Transit van, sometimes with his wife, Candis, sometimes alone, and, somewhere in the middle of his journey, moves it over from utilitarian to aesthetic, borrowing some richly decorated textiles from his mum’s collection to make it into a colourful and exciting interior.

There’s a lot of fascinating detail in the book, from an exploration of the tight and strong codes of hygiene and cleanliness (for example never using the same equipment to wash yourself and your washing up, not one known to most campers, I understand) to the similar codes of deference and hierarchy used when meeting strangers. There is also lots on the international community of Travellers / Gypsies and the differences between groups originating from different countries. Somehow, I had never grasped there were actual Travellers in the US, while I knew there were pleny of nomads as such. One thing that wasn’t really explained was what “New Travellers” are – they were mentioned a few times but not explained, and I understand who the hippies are who have eschewed permanent homes for life on the road, but not this other group.

I loved how the book was both a sociological analysis and a good piece of travel and nature writing but also the narrative of a man growing into his identity, embracing life on the move and getting used to it, getting more chilled when he’s seen as “other”. The balance was really well done. Descriptions of encounters with other people were immediate and direct and the codes needed to keep on the right side of the menace and violence that sometimes threatened were put across clearly.

In a good Book Serendipity Moment, Django Reinhardt popped up in this book and Pete Paphides’ “Broken Greek”, on the same day!

This is Book 10 in my 20 Books of Summer project.

Book review – David Olusoga – “Black and British”

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I’m feeling like I’m struggling with my 20 Books of Summer project at the moment – this is Book 9 and I’m currently half-way through Book 10 but I should be further along than that. I was also disappointed not to get more reads of the Stormzy book I read and reviewed last, which I thought was smashing. But there we go – maybe people are catching up and haven’t got to it yet, as I’m a little lagging with my blog reading.

Anyway, I bought this book back in June 2020 and blogged about it here – this is the third book I’ve finished from that batch of buys, and I am looking forward to picking off other books soon (I have also had epic BookPost recently but I’ll tell you about that next weekend).

David Olusoga – “Black and British: A Forgotten Story”

(18 June 2020)

Black British history can be read in the crumbling stones of the forty slave fortresses that are peppered along the coast of West Africa and in the old plantations and former slave markets of the lost British empire of North America. Its imprint can be read in stately homes, street names, statues and memorials across Britain and is intertwined with the cultural and economic histories of the nation. (p. xxi)

I bought this book because we’d watched and loved Olusoga’s TV programme of the same name: this is not exactly the book of the TV programme, missing some things but able to add a lot more detail. The thing I did love about the programme was when he was able to pull together descendants of the Black Britons he found and gather them for the unveiling of a plaque commemorating that person’s role and life. That aspect of the series is just mentioned in the Acknowledgements, and while there are a lot of images in the book, the plaques are not included, which is a shame. The gathering of descendants, where they could be found, also gave an immediate human interest whereas this is very much more a work of academic history.

That’s the bad bit. But this is still an amazing book. Olusoga is able to stretch out and back and really go into history and contemporary sources. As such, he still talks about the Black Romans up at Hadrian’s Wall and John Blanke, the 16th century royal trumpeter, but he spends most of the book describing in great detail Britain’s role in the Transatlantic slave trade, and how being Black and British could very well involve being a freed slave placed in a village in Sierra Leone to get on with your life (he was very good here on how this project formed the start of the great African land-grab for Britain).

He does of course also cover the Black Georgians, often brought over as almost pets or slaves but then sometimes living independently, and Queen Victoria’s god-daughter, Sarah Forbes Bonetta. The Black soldiers who fought for the Empire and/or Britain in the two world wars and the Windrush generation are also covered. He also has room to acknowledge the work and books that came before this book and caught his own historical imagination as a younger man. But slavery is the main focus of the book, and a forensic examination of how slavery ended.

We find the use of new techniques which piece together historical and genetic records, and interesting assertions, for example about the huge similarities between eighteenth and twenty-first century Britain. He’s good on how abolitionism became a cause that many women espoused – and were permitted to espouse – and their strong role in the movement (although Black campaigners of the time have been whitewashed out of history). The ebb and flow of numbers of Black people living in the UK (reaching its low just before the First World War) is examined carefully and interestingly, with personal details and stories provided if they can be. There is a fascinating section of the reception of Black GIs during the Second World War. When he gets into the 1980s he has to move away from historical assertions, as they have just not been made yet, and rely on his own feelings of being under siege, but things gradually improving, with the introduction of Black History Month helping (hopefully) all parts of the population learn about people’s heritage here.

The book ends with a call for more history to be uncovered and the explanation, which I’ve seen elsewhere, that the Black population of Britain is now of a majority African origin rather than from the Caribbean, with note needing to be taken of these citizens’ stories. This book does take a bit of work and I am glad I had swathes of time to read it during my week off the week before last, but it rewards the effort.

Olusoga’s Preface ends with a positive assertion:

… it is written in the firm belief that Britain is a nation capable of confronting all aspects of its past and becoming a better nation for doing so. (p. xxii)

I hope this is true: this book, and those which have subsequently built on his work and taken it forward will get into the hands of the right people, help to explain the long and varied history of Black and other global majority peoples in Britain and help to build tolerance and respect.

This is Book 9 in my 20 Books of Summer project.

Book review – Stormzy with Jude Yawson – “Rise Up: The #Merky Story so Far”

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We’re carrying on with 20 Books of Summer after a brief pause to review NetGalley books, and this is Book 8 in the project. I have already finished reading Book 9 and am part-way through Book 10 so I MIGHT do it still (I have two full-length and two short books from my July plans still to read, then eight novels for August). I bought this book in August 2020 and blogged about it here – I am pleased to say I read its companion “Slay in Your Lane” in October 2020 as it was the predecessor to “Loud Black Girls” which I had just won from NetGalley.

Stormzy, edited and co-written by Jude Yawson – “Rise Up: The #Merky Story so Far”

What’s more, he was one of us. From the ends, Thornton Heath. Every success of his felt like a victory for all of us. (p. 4)

Stormzy is a grime music star, rapper and entrepreneur (he has his own record label, company and imprint within Penguin Books, on which this book has come out) who grew up on a council estate in Croydon, South London. He’s a committed Christian who loves his mum, has high standards and will only accept the best from those around him: but he certainly appears to be a firm support to those who give their best. He also gives people opportunities: his co-writer, Jude Yawson, had not written a book before, but in my opinion he has put together a very good book.

Yawson explains early on that he conducted interviews with the main players – musicians, his manager, producers, PR people, brand people – and then decided to include the transcribed interviews pretty much as they came out (he doesn’t: I’m a professional transcriber and I know what these would have sounded like. He does an excellent job of editing them so they’re readable, fresh and interesting, but also clear and understandable). He doesn’t sound in his introduction too certain of this as a method, so in the unlikely event that he reads this: yes, it’s a great method and it’s done really well. I’d say this is as good as the seminal book on Madness I worked on and read earlier this year.

The book was published in 2018 and obviously Stormzy has done a lot since then. But it’s a great record of his early times and the way he gathered his crew of associates around him. After a list of contributors, we go from Preparation to Work, then Execution and Ambition. There’s a lot about the way things were built carefully on knowledge and hard work which might surprise people, and a lot of hauling themselves out of poverty and risky situations to flourish and be creative. There’s much satisfying detail about how playlists work in radio stations, how songs are put together and production work, and all the work behind this well-oiled machine. The aforementioned method of using the transcriptions almost “raw” means the voices are well-distinguished and lively, and it works really well as a chorus of voices, with Yawson providing links and summaries and Stormzy voicing his own experiences and his appreciation of those around him.

Mental health issues come into the book. Although Stormzy explains he had his mum and his faith to bring him through, and a self-belief that stood out from an early age, he also explains he had trouble coping when writing his first album, although he also castigates the NME for making him the literal poster-boy for depression in musicians, using his image without his permission. I also loved his take on social media:

There are some things you’re not meant to know. You’re not meant to know what some random person thinks about what you’re wearing. This is why we have little white lies. This is why we have social niceties. We can’t really handle the truth. (p. 193)

But of course he’s forced to hear all sorts of random people’s “truth” all the time and that must get very tiring.

A fascinating documentary of the start of something huge; a loyal team and a leader who appreciates them. I don’t think you have to be into grime music or rapping to enjoy this book: it works as a portrait of people doing their best in often challenging circumstances, too.

This is Book 8 in my 20 Books of Summer project.

Book review – Johny Pitts – “Afropean”

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It’s time to review Book 7 in my 20 Books of Summer project. I am a bit behind but I have a week off this week and now I’ve got my annual blood test out of the way, and presumably while the hedge man is here later in the week, I should have lots of lovely time for reading. I bought this one off my wish list on a bit of a whim (the full story is here) and I’ve been looking forward to getting to read it. It’s one of those lovely Penguins with the orange and white striped spine, too, with a great cover picture taken by the author, who is a photographer as well as a writer. .

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

Johny Pitts – “Afropean: Notes from Black Europe”

(02 July 2020)

in contemporary Europe it seemed to me that black people were either presented as uber-stylized retro hipster dandies in thick-rimmed glasses and a bit of kente cloth, or dangerous hooded ghetto-yoot. (p. 6)

Pitts grew up in a working-class, multicultural area of Sheffield and, bruised by an encounter with London life, he gathers his savings, moves back into his mum’s for a bit and prepares to go on a trip to see whether he can find brotherhood and a sense of belonging in the “Afropean” communities across Europe. This descriptor was only relatively recently coined, and at first he thinks he’s going to be visiting an elite group of musicians and artists who exist in glorious idiosyncracy as part of society but also apart from it; crucially people who have an identity as a European of African heritage rather than an immigrant. However, he soon realises that the people he really needs to talk to are the invisible, the indigent, the undocumented, the people who, as with GMP people in the UK, are “here because you were there” (i.e. they are people from former colonies who have come to the “mother country” through having citizenship and a connection, or have been called to come to fill a labour gap) but are not permitted to feel part of the majority populus. He has an epiphany when visiting the “Jungle” in Calais, being called to write about the people there by an inhabitant.

The author makes a conscious choice to avoid the academic in his work (although it’s rigorously footnoted and referenced). Unlike more privileged travel writers, he goes out with his own budget and wanting to make a book, not a publisher’s budget with a book deal set up (and the way this gets published is a lovely two-fingered salute to old-school-tie networks: he meets Caryl Phillips, whose “European Tribes” (which I now yearn to re-read) he is inspired by, and through him makes a train of connections that leads to publication with Penguin.

I read a lot of valuable academic research and sociological theory, but all too often this was gathering dust in universities, or preaching to the converted, written or cited more often by wealthy, educated white scholars than the people being written about and couched in a stand-offish, academic vernacular. Formal education is often driven by someone else’s knowledge: who authorized it and shaped its rhetoric? Whose knowledge is it? Who has access to it? What about black Europe beyond the desk of a theorist, found in the equivocal and untidy lived experiences of its communities? Black Europe from the street up? (p. 5)

He’s careful to name what he doesn’t cover (the role of churches and Islam in supporting Black culture in Europe) and names his privilege in terms of being able to walk out of the “Jungle” (but still have to prove his identity to police) and bring able to wander freely late at night in sketchy places, unlike his female friends. He mentions how glad he is that there’s “a new zeitgeist of intersectional black thought that is often led by feminism and queerness” (p. 132(He’s frustrated that there are areas he isn’t able to get to and encourages readers to submit their experiences to his website, Afropeans.com (there’s some great stuff on there). He covers France (Paris and the South), Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Russia and Portugal and I have to say I’d have liked to see more than the small amount he writes about Spain, as I’ve always been concerned about the numbers of African people selling in markets in mainland and particularly Canary Islands Spain and would have liked to know more about them.

After an introduction and sociological exploration of working-class Sheffield, explaining Pitts’ roots and experience (like Akala and Guvna B, he credits his escape from a path he could have gone down to his circumstances, in this case a strong and stable home, his mum supported by her White working-class family, his dad an African American entertainer who gave him some different life experiences), we’re off round Europe, experiencing immigrants and second- and third-generation citizens, the undocumented and the documented, those living in precarity and secure middle-class folk. There are some very striking examples and he brings himself into the picture but not excessively, giving voice to his subjects (and subtly indicating their accents, which is incredibly well done). He makes it very clear how cultures that don’t even use words for racism (social issues anyone?) are systematically racist and he honours different kinds of activism while noting the flaws that some of it has.

I stuck millions of post-it note tabs into this book but if I used them all, this review would be as long as the actual book! Suffice it to say, he makes visible the invisible world of the network of people who make Europe work; he takes himself off to estates and banlieux and tries to talk deeply to people. I learned about histories and legacies of colonialism I didn’t know about (I had no idea about the Dutch in Suriname, for example, though I was more up on French colonialism) in this very human and warm, though at times provocative (he shares an interesting perspective that maybe Trump and Brexit are better for immigrant communities because “their position is clearer” and the blatant racism makes a space come available for people to politicise and organise).

And just to make it clear: this is no po-faced polemic. It’s incredibly engaging and readable, and I kept wanting to read just one more section. Published in 2019, I’m not sure I’ve seen it on too many of the “Black Lives Matter” lists: it deserves to be known and read.

This was book number 7 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


Book review – Nadiya Hussain – “Finding my Voice”

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It’s the sixth book in my 20BooksofSummer! I’m still reading “Black and British” but it’s a big one and also not always happy reading or easy to hold, so it doesn’t come to meal times with me. This one came to me in July 2020 as part of the rest of my book token splurge for last year (it got complicated) and I note that it arrived along with “Brit(ish)”, which I will be reading this month, and “Trans Britain” and “Mother Country” which I have actually read already!

So I’m only a little behind where I hoped to be now. I have a NetGalley June read to review on Thursday and am currently reading my first Anne Tyler for the month alongside “Black and British”. Not sure what’s next!

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

Nadiya Hussain – “Finding my Voice: A Memoir”

(20 July 2020)

So, what prompted me to write this book? Well, there are girls out there who are quiet, just like I used to be. Who are allowing their lives to be steered in the hope that one day they might find their happy and, with that, their voice. Who are growing up being told ‘it’s not appropriate’, ‘no you can’t’, ‘it’s not the done thing’. With this book I want to show that, actually, who cares if it’s not appropriate, you can and it is the done thing! (p. xii)

Somehow between reading that this book didn’t include anything about Bake Off (and it really doesn’t: the only mentions are when her husband encourages her to go for the show and a bit about Tamal, who she made friends with) and reading it, I’d got it into my head that it wasn’t even a memoir, but some kind of self-help book. But it is a very open and honest memoir, organised into chapters around the roles Nadiya has had in her life: daughter, sister, granddaughter, daughter-in-law, mother, wife, earner, username and finally woman. So it’s basically a chronological journey through her life, taking on each role and concentrating on the people who are close to her in that role.

Is is very unguarded, “unflinchingly honest” as it says in the blurbs in the front. It’s certainly that. There’s lots on the feelings she has about her family and the difficulties she experienced being a daughter-in-law, though she’s always respectful of all her family members and careful not to offend.

I was a bit surprised that, although she mentions her panic disorder a few times and especially around not having told her husband about it before they married, it’s not a strong theme in the book and there’s not much about how she’s overcome it (or, if she hasn’t, how it’s impacted her life). It’s obviously her book to write as she wishes, but I would have liked to see more of that.

She includes a recipe at the end of each chapter and these are nicely inclusive – of a sweet treat called Handesh that has been the undoing of many a daughter-in-law, she says, “So for anyone getting married, vying to impress, these are for you. They are for you if you want to show up your very Bengali mother. They are also for you if you like fried sweet stuff with a cup of tea” (p. 166). On this note, she doesn’t talk a lot about her experiences of racism but they are there, in the cultural disconnects when to her having five siblings is not much, but shocks when she is talking to White people, etc., and we read with dismay her experience being told to do an essay for English about a character in a book she identifies with when she can’t find one that matches her (presumably why she’s written several books for adults and children).

Other than that, it’s frank, frequently funny, open about where she regrets things in her life, fiercely loving of her family and a memorable read. I was surprised about how open and often angry she is (good for her) and there’s a really shockingly visceral scene of an attempted and nearly achieved sexual attack in the final chapter which did actually genuinely shock me.

I enjoyed this book and I think it would be a great way to sneak some powerful reading for the girls and women she aims it to help, as the attractive cover and book description don’t prepare you for the honesty and sharing within.

This was book number 6 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


State of the TBR July 2021

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It’s State of the TBR time again and there’s a lot of reading to report, a few missed targets (oh no!) and a great big lovely pile of Incomings with more on their way.

First off, how is the TBR shelf looking (pre-Incomings)? Not bad, and certainly shorter on the front shelf than at the start of June, even though some have joined the end!

I finished 15 books in June, the same as in May (and I’ve reviewed 15, too, but one was a May read and one is coming up at the weekend. I managed to read and review five of my planned six 20BooksOfSummer reads and have started the sixth (“Black and British” which has over 600 pages and will work its way through quite a lot of July, I think). I read and reviewed four out of the six NetGalley books that I had that were published in June (I have a lot for July but will try to squeeze the last two June ones in) and of course I also managed my two Anne Tylers, a couple of lovely Dean Street Press review copies and a Maya Angelou for my and Ali’s relaxed readalong (that’s the review that’s still to come). As well as reviewing Richard Ovenden’s “Burning the Books” for this blog on the Wolfson Prize Blog Tour, I also reviewed it with a slightly different angle for Shiny New Books.

Currently reading

I’m currently reading Stephen Rutt’s wonderful nature writing in “The Eternal Season” which Elliott & Thompson kindly sent me to review, and David Olusoga’s “Black and British” which goes into far more detail than his TV series could about historical and sometimes surprising Black British figures. It’s a big book but an important one and I am finding it fascinating and of course very well-written so far.

Up next

I’m working further through my 20 Books of Summer hosted by Cathy from 246 Books with her sign-up post here, and I’ve added in EIGHT books for this month in my two months of “The One With All The Diversity”. Of course I usually read pretty diversely but this year, instead of just picking the first 20 books from my TBR shelf, I’ve gone through picking out a special pile. Fortunately, two of these are very small books so I should get them all read. Afua Hirsch’s “Brit(ish)” will give me the female experience to mirror the male on in Akala’s “Natives” read last month, and also Jeffrey Boakye’s “Black, Listed”, which again takes an insider look at Black British culture. Nadiya Hussain talks about overcoming anxiety and finding her place in the world in “Finding my Voice” and Stormzy takes his place in music and publishing in “Rise Up: The Merky Story so Far”. Damian Le Bas’ “The Stopping Places” will educate me about Travellers in Britain, and Sophie Williams’ “Anti Racist Ally” and Emma Dabiri’s “What White People Can Do Next” are two slim volumes which help me to do the work rather than asking others to explain it, but give valuable pointers (I’m hoping they include personal as well as corporate allyship that I can actually practise.

In NetGalley reads, this is the set I have published in July (How We Do Family is a June book that I accidentally missed):

So here we have Otegha Uwagba’s “We Need to Talk About Money” (money and its intersections with race, gender and class for young, particularly Black women); Anisha Bhatia’s “What are We Doing About Zoya” (a comedy of manners set in Mumbai); Sara Nisha Adams’ “The Reading List” (an anxious teenager and her lonely grandfather find joy in a reading list tucked in a library book); Natasha Lunn’s “Conversations on Love” (various authors including Philippa Perry write on love; Bella Osborne’s “The Promise of Summer” (romcom revolving around returning a lost engagement ring); Tyrstan Reese’s “How we Do Family” (LGBTQ family adoption pregnancy and parenthood); and Georgia Pritchett’s “My Mess is a Bit of a Life” (subtitled Adventures in Anxiety).

Books in (many, many books in)

I can share a charity shop buy and one from The Works in Shirley (I innocently went to the opticians and meandered into there so I wasn’t early for my appointment).

“Usain Bolt” was written by one of the writers I work with (acknowledged on the title page, hooray), sadly before I started working with him as I would obviously have loved to transcribe Mr Bolt’s words. Craig Revel Horwood’s “In Strictest Confidence” is the follow-up to “All Balls and Glitter” which I read in 2014 (I note I said that one brought us right up to date, that date being 2008, so not sure how much overlap there is but oh well!)

I’ve also received the rather glorious “A Room of Her Own: Inside the Homes and Lives of Creative Women” from Thames & Hudson to review for Shiny. Of course taking as its title Virginia Woolf’s assertion that women writers need a room of their own, it highlights young creative women from around the (admittedly Western) globe and their sumptuous interiors.

I can also share that this month I’ve won from NetGalley Bella Osborne’s “The Promise of Summer”, Otegha Uwagba’s “We Need to Talk About Money” and Anisha Bhatia’s “What are We Doing About Zoya?” described above as they’re published in July, Johnny and Becki Agar’s “The Impossible Mile” (Johnny, born with cerebral palsy, goes on to complete an Ironman triathlon), and Jessica Nordell’s “The End of Bias” (how the unconscious bias I need to read about in “Sway” can be worked against).

And then because the TBR had gone down quite a lot, I decided it was time for my Book Token Splurge. I had Christmas and Birthday vouchers to spend (thank you, Meg, Ali, Sian, Matthew and Laura!) and as I usually get a lot of books around those two months, love spending them all in the middle of the year. Now Bookshop.org take book tokens I was able to spend them and send the profits to three indie bookshops, which felt good. Here’s what’s arrived so far …

In no particular order, in fiction I have Buchi Emecheta’s “Second-Class Citizen” which details the life of a Nigerian woman in 1960s London, oppressed by the city and her husband and Angie Thomas’ “On the Come Up”, a story about hip hop, prejudice and fighting for your dreams. In what I’d vaguely call nature and travel, Nick Hunt and Tim Mitchell’s “The Parakeeting of London” discusses just that (and is published by tiny indie press, Paradise Road), Richard King’s “The Lark Ascending” covers music and landscape in 20th century Britain, in “Wanderland” by Jini Reddy, a London woman with multicultural roots goes looking for the magical in the British landscape, Christiane Ritter describes Arctic life in “A Woman in the Polar Night”, republished by Pushkin Press, Joshua Abbott explores the modernism of London’s “Metroland” in another Unbound book I missed and A Kendra Greene explores “The Museum of Whales You Will Never See” and other peculiar Icelandic collections (I’m betting I’ve visited a few of these myself). Then in intersectional feminism, which I need to read more about, Mikki Kendall gives a searing picture of how that’s not yet worked in “Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women White Feminists Forgot”. And a running book: “Running in the Midpack” by Martin Yelling and Anji Andrews, a launch even for which I went to a while ago, finally talks about those of us who are practised runners and racers who still want to improve and protect ourselves against injury.

Quite a nice variety there, I think.

I’m still waiting for a few which I have pre-ordered or are on back order: Carola Oman’s “Somewhere in England” and “Nothing to Report” (on back order from Dean Street Press), “Your Voice Speaks Volumes” by Jane Setter (published 22 July), Paul Magrs’ “The Panda, The Cat and the Dreadful Teddy: A Parody” (published 30 Sept) and “Mixed/Other: Explorations of Multiraciality in Modern Britain” by Natalie Morris (published 14 Apr 2022 in paperback)

Of course I have my two Anne Tylers for the month: “Ladder of Years” and “A Patchwork Planet”. That makes something like 19 books on the TBR for July, but I do have a week off coming up …

What are your reading plans for June? Are you joining me for some Anne Tyler?

Book review – Juno Dawson – “Gender Games”

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

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

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

(18 June 2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

(18 June 2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

(15 April 2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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