Book reviews – Ted Allen et al. – “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and Anton Porowski et al. – “Queer Eye: Love Yourself. Love your Life” @QueerEye

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Two Queer Eye BooksWhen I bought the Queer Eye book because I’d been to Tan’s book signing and had bought Karamo and Jonathan’s books and would buy a book about Antoni but not more recipes and there is NO BOOK by Bobby … I remembered that I had the original book from the first iteration of the Fab Five, and thought it would be a nice project to read them together. Would the text be exactly the same, just with new faces? (no). Would I see a difference? (yes). The it was time – with a big TBR, the new book was taking up two places on the shelf, as it’s a big book and went through the back and front rows. So I dusted off my old book and I read the newer one first and here are my reviews!

Anton Porowski, Tan France, Jonathan Van Ness, Bobby Berk and Karamo Brown – “Queer Eye: Love Yourself. Love Your Life”

(15 April 2020, published 2018)

The reboot book is so much more personal than the original. It starts off with a history of how the first series came about (including the shocking fact that it was illegal to use the word “queer” in the name of a business in New York State at the time!) and a comparison of the first iteration and now: then, the Fab Five flew in, did the makeover and flew out again; now we get backstories and share a lot more. I particularly liked the moments when they intersected with the original show: Bobby got fired for altering time sheets after staying in his store all night to set it up for a visit from the original Fab Five and getting them shown as leaving earlier, and Antoni was mentored by Ted!

In theĀ  main part of the book we get a section about each of the Fab Five with their story and achievements before their speciality sections. So it’s a lot more about their personalities and histories than about the advice, although that is still there in easily digestible form. They pop up in each other’s sections and are allowed to be their own individual selves (in the recipe section, which includes one from each of them, Jonathan’s recipe isn’t written out formally like the others because that’s not how he does it).

They thank their writer, Monica Corcoran Harel, who is also name-checked on the title page, and there are tips for women in general and specific tips for trans women and men woven naturally through the text – this of course reflects the inclusion of all genders in these series and the dropping of “for the straight guy” in the title. A lovely positive book with lots of good hints.

Ted Allen, Kyan Douglas, Thom Filicia, Carson Kressley and Jai Rodriguez – “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”

(bought around 2004-5, published 2004)

Assuming much less knowledge and with pretty well no personal information, this book is concerned specifically with getting (or keeping) a lady for a pretty much unreconstructed male. This does reflect the mission of the original series, and it also reflects through the book the job the Fab Five had, which has pretty much melted away now, of convincing their heroes and readers that it was OK to be gay or to hang out with gay guys, and that reading books and using moisturiser wouldn’t make you gay or have gay men hitting on you (honestly, that is there). It does feel, then, that things have moved on positively, although I do realise everything isn’t perfect by a long way.

There are twice the pages of recipes and basic stuff to do with hygiene and courtesy. No, the text isn’t the same in all the sections, although Thom and Bobby have almost identical approaches to designing for someone, and Antoni and Ted both encourage us to include a pair of tongs in our essential kitchen equipment.

Jai’s cultural tips are a bit alarming in some cases – yes, they are more concerned with going out to cultural events, where Karamo deals more with your personal culture and trying all sorts of new things, and is sometimes too concerned with staging an intervention with a lost relative than with encouraging people to go to the opera. But joking about stalking women and finding out what they like from their friends and the exhortation to go to museums because “chicks – especially hot foreign ones” do, as well as encouraging husbands to help with what their wives think are their jobs (cleaning, looking after the kids, um …) was a bit startling to read!

They thank their writer, Adam Sachs, although he’s not mentioned on the title page, and it’s still a positive read, if a bit dated now.


That was a fun and interesting pairing to do. Do you watch the new iteration and did you watch the old one? Who’s your favourite?

I’ve read a Dean Street Press book which I will be reviewing next and “Into the Tangled Bank” by Lev Parikian, which I have reviewed for Shiny New Books but will share about soon, and I’m currently finishing Jacky Klein’s book on Grayson Perry and reading Books 9 and 10 in my 20 Books of Summer. What are you up to?

Book review – Jeanette Winterson “Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere” #20BooksOfSummer20 plus one more #BookConfession

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Can you see this book sitting tiny and neat above “Literary Landscapes” in the pile? A pretty purple, green, white and gold hardback from Canongate running to 72 pages, consisting of a printed lecture and a reprinted talk, this just about counts as a full book, right?

Jeanette Winterson – “Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere”

(25 December 2018, from Meg)

A lecture by the redoubtable Winterson (I loved “Oranges are not the Only Fruit” but have found I admire her as a person more than I love her other books) on the suffragettes, a great justification for violent action and a brisk run-down of the inequalities women still face today, turned into a readable and entertaining essay, along with a reprint of Emmeline Pankhurst’s “Freedom or Death” speech of 1913, introduced by Winterson.

I loved her witty asides and footnotes and her careful enunciation of the facts while celebrating those campaigners from the North and the working classes who she particularly admires. In her plea for boardroom equality she cuts through the statistics with the brilliantly argued claim that women can bring into the boardroom the traits that they have been raised to have of listening, caring, etc, (“I am not talking biological essentialism here” (p. 31). Very intelligent and a lovely morning read.

This was Book 8 in my 20 Books Of Summer project.

Book confession!

I was working on editing a brochure for an Eastern European client when I noticed the group of representative people in a graphic was somewhat monocultural. I started to write a note to please make it more multicultural, then thought I’d better look up said country and see what the ethnic mix actually was. Oh. And that reminded me that I don’t know much about the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic populations in Europe (I know a bit about France having been in the south and encountered people from former colonial North Africa there and having read about the Paris banlieus, and lived in South London when it welcomed a wave of Francophone African people, and I have encountered and read up on West African traders in the Canary Islands, but that’s about it) and I had Johny Pitts’ “Afropean: Notes from Black Europe” on my wishlist. So I ordered it from Hive and it arrived this week. And of course it doesn’t talk about Eastern Europe, but it still looks fascinating!

Book review – Paul Jarvis – “Company of One” #CompanyOfOne #NetGalley

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Company of One Paul JarvisI’ve been trying to work my way through some of the older books on my NetGalley shelf as well as the older physical books on my actual TBR shelf, and this was the second-oldest on there. I do like a business book and as the owner of a small business myself, this was going to appeal.

So this is a book about the power of the small-scale business – whether, it turns out, that’s a true one-person business, one run by a person with a particular skill who outsources a lot of the actual work to contractors, or a person within a company who has the ability to take their own initiative and grow their role as they will. I’m very much towards the first of those: I only outsource my accounting to a professional accountant, although I have skill-swapped for an editor for my books and a graphic designer for some early images. The company which starts with big ideas and too much spend is the one that’s apt to fall over, whereas starting small and achievable with low expenses and growing slowly, if at all, sustainably and in profit rather than rushing to acquire customers will help you. There’s also much talk of the lower cost of keeping clients as against constantly acquiring new ones, and getting prospects by word of mouth, both things I subscribe to (so I could feel nice and smug reading this!). He talks about how important it is to let your company match your particular ethics and personality, the authenticity this gives it bringing clients that appreciate those qualities.

Jarvis does apply the theme to people working within companies to make it more widely applicable and he highlights some fascinating new examples of businesses (as well as the interminable South-Western who make it into every business book!) with flat structures and opportunities for “ownership” within the business. I really like how he shares his failures as well as his successes, taking his inability to be a classic charismatic leader and manager of people into a successful model hiring contractors who know what they’re doing who he can leave alone to do it. I also liked the section at the back explaining how to set up a business. Freedom of choice rather than huge profits is his motto (although obviously you need a decent profit to be free) and he introduces the idea of setting an upper limit on what you want to earn or how many customers you want to have.


Thank you Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for approving me to read this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. And this was my 100th NetGalley review!

I’ve written a companion piece to this on my business blog, if you fancy a read.

Book review – Ammon Shea – “The Phone Book” #20BooksOfSummer20 plus #BookConfessions

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On briskly to another book of my 20BooksOfSummer and this is the one that should have been Book 8 and starting July, were it not for the DNF on Book 7.

Ammon Shea – “The Phone Book”

(25 December 2018, from Gill)

I will admit that after having read this author’s “Reading the OED” (take a moment to view that review and marvel over the empty wastes on the front shelf of June 2013’s TBR!) I thought this was going to be more of the same and a book about reading the phone book. But even Ammon Shea stops short of that excess, although he does have an interesting time reading part of the white and yellow pages from his youth, reminiscing about the people and places of which he’s reminded. This is mainly a history of the (US) phone book and yellow pages, well done and informative but lightly written as usual. I liked the pieces about collectors and artists best.

A bit oddly arranged with some strange repetition or re-mentions, maybe because the book was re-ordered at the last minute or something. And I couldn’t work out why he went all coy when mentioning other people’s reading quests without mentioning his own OED read. But it was entertaining and I’m glad I was given it and read it.

This was Book 7 in my 20 Books Of Summer project.

Book confessions!

I had fun times spending a load of book tokens from lovely friends on the Foyle’s website (while I would have loved to buy some of these books from Black-owned independent bookstores online I could not find any that had stock and took book tokens at the time I wanted to spend them. You can find a great list of Black-owned independent bookshops in the UK here. It’s great that books around anti-racism and helping the world heal and grow are selling out at the moment; I do hope people are reading them.

I didn’t want this to be a performative post about my great anti-racist book-buying antics, because a) I’ve always bought a range of books b) there’s no need to virtue-signal, so I did order a decent wider range of titles, then I’ve been waiting and waiting for my other book on Iceland to arrive and I just gave up, photographed what I had so far and put it on the TBR. So imagine there are four books on Black history, race, class and Empire and dismantling racism, one on gender and TWO on Iceland …

Six books from Foyles, all titles and authors in the textI’m going to read “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo after I’ve read “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” which I bought a month or so ago, and then I’ll read Layla Saad’s “Me and White Supremacy” and work through the workbook questions. I might not read these one after another but that’s the order as I think it will help to work through any knots I get into with the workbook. We watched David Olusoga’s TV series “Black and British” and I can’t wait to read the much more detail there looks to be in this lovely large tome. Akala’s “Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire” has been recommended to me by several very different people, which is always a bonus.

Moving on to gender and transgender, I picked up Juno Dawson’s “Gender Games” idly as it sat on the dining table after coming out of quarantine and before it got upstairs, and then could not put it down. It reads very accessibly and makes difficult topics clear with personal experience and input from experts.

Finally (for now), Tory Bilski’s “Wild Horses of the Summer Sun” is about Icelandic horses and the author’s relationship with them and her horse-loving friends. I have been fortunate enough to go riding on an Icelandic horse once, the fulfilment of a long-held dream, and yes, it felt like I was in a saga. So this looks very enticing.

Amazingly, with only one pile remaining on the back shelf, I have managed to fit all these and my other new acquisitions onto the TBR shelf, thanks to a lot of movement at the older end of things. You’ll be amazed at my photo of my TBR tomorrow (if you follow such things).


Have you read any of these books? How has your first month of 20BooksOfSummer/Winter gone?

Book review – Laura Thompson – “The Last Landlady” plus a slightly shocking DNF #20BooksOfSummer20

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Yet another from my 20BooksOfSummer pile (pictured, although it’s already been read in a different order AND now there’s a change of book due to a Did Not Finish and a substitution for July. Shocking all round!). This is a book that I picked up from the outside shelves of Any Amount of Books on Charing Cross Road when doing a pre-Christmas visit to Emma, and I think the last from that set. I might even make it out of 2018 at some stage!

Laura Thompson – “The Last Landlady: An English Memoir”

(13 December 2018, Any Amount of Books)

An interesting Unbound book (and is it an early Unbound as it’s a proof copy and also explains the concept on a page at the beginning), that’s both a memoir of her pretty amazing, resourceful and strong pub landlady grandmother, Violet, and a potted history of the English pub. The pub is in the middle of the countryside and offered a challenge to an urban woman who had failed to be able to secure the licence for her father’s pub (“the old pub”) when he passed away: she became the first English landlady in her own right.

Thompson’s childhood memories and those of the time when she slid over to the pub side of the sitting room door are vivid but authentic-sounding, and while Violet seems like a typical pub landlady in many ways, she carefully unpicks her from the stereotypes. It’s perceptive on the English being “not at their best with unregulated pleasure” (p. 119) and the usefulness of opening hours and carefully distinct bars within a pub.

A rich and fascinating portrait of a redoubtable woman and an interesting history.

This was Book 6 in my 20 Books Of Summer project.

Simon Winchester – “Outposts” (DNF)

(20 December 2018 – BookCrossing Not So Secret Santa gift)

This was on my wishlist although looking at my spreadsheet of my reading journal pre-blog, I read this from the library in December 1998 (I think I’d forgotten that) and I have also read his “The Map that Changed the World” in 2001. Interestingly, my first read of this would have been the old edition, lacking the updated introduction that sent up red flags this time around.

So it’s a book about his travels around the islands that are still (or were in 1985) part of the British Empire. OK, so far, so neutral. But the introduction to the revised edition of 2003 basically starts lavishly apologising for Empire, stating that we “meant well” and helpfully pointing out that we did some good stuff and helped the colonies to organise themselves. Hm. He also usefully (!) points out that “our” former Empire has done “better” than those of, for example, the French and Dutch.

So far, so problematic.

I started reading and we had Tristan de Cunha, where he apparently got a bit too misty eyed over some Tebbibly British Scout who welcomed him onto the island, then he goes for Gibraltar, has to get a ferry there from Morocco and describes the ferry captain as “a fat and unshaven Moor” (p. 98), at which point I laid the book aside.

I am sure I would have found all this problematic anyway, as I do keep an eye open, certainly in books from earlier times, for jingoism and Empire-praising. But in a book revised in 2003 and read in these times? Unpalatable and grubby and not to be read by me. Ugh.


So that was supposed to be Book 7 in my 20 Books of Summer. Instead, I read Ammon Shea’s “The Phone Book” which was going to be Book 8 starting off July. I will either add “A Brown Man in India” or “Our City” to the list in July – I’ll see how I’ve done through the month and if I’ve already read one of those anyway!

Book review – Camryn Garrett – “Full Disclosure” #FullDisclosure #NetGalley

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Full Disclosure Camryn Garrett book coverAnother NetGalley read and one I won back last year – not the oldest one on the pile but I have been trying to pull out the books I have that are a bit more diverse as I work my way through my curiously non-diverse 20 Books of Summer list. This one couldn’t be more diverse, as you’ll see in the review – you can pretty well always trust YA books to be delving into today’s issues and they’ve been doing that since they became a named genre, and this one is no exception.

Camryn Garrett – “Full Disclosure”

(14 August 2019, NetGalley)

First of all, this is the second book I’ve read this year that opens with a Black woman at a gynaecology appointment (the other being “Queenie“. One for Bookish Beck’s coincidences, although I didn’t read them at the same time.

Simone is just your average 17 year old American high school student, obsessed with musicals and busy directing the school play. But she moved to this school when her HIV+ status was disclosed at her last one (via the girl she was seeing who she thought she could trust); now should she tell her two new best friends and the boy she fancies (these two sets of people are given equal status at this point, although one is prioritised over the other later)? Can she trust them? Meanwhile, the only people she knows who really understand are in a pretty cringeworthy group she has been attending at hospital for years (there’s good satire of the well-meaning group leader in these sections). And her two dads are a bit over-protective and have their own issues with family, too, one having split off from his family and the other having a son from his marriage to a woman who pushes against the family narrative of that marriage being a mistake. Their overprotectiveness does however mean that when Simone starts getting anonymous notes threatening to “out” her as positive, she doesn’t tell them.

I really liked the way characters were naturally described rather than labouring over their skin tone or ethnicity (I think I read about that on someone else’s blog or in an article and I’m struggling to think where now – if you recognise that, please let me know). For example, Simon’s friend Lydia is introduced as having a bag featuring “I love Taiwan pins from her trip to visit family last summer”. Lydia also identifies as asexual (or “ace”, which I love), which is not something I’ve encountered in work of fiction before. Certainly although there’s a trope that YA books are known for looking at issues and identity politics, it’s lovely to read something in which so many different people will see themselves reflected (as the three girls attend an LGBTQIA and allies meeting weekly at school, there’s even room for a quick mention of nonbinary identity, which does complete a sort of set of diversity but is acceptable as part of the intent of the book to be inclusive, just like Dr Khan the HIV specialist and her revolving collection of child-friendly hijabs with elephants and other patterns).

Racism and white privilege are addressed naturally: the love interest, Miles, is part of a lacrosse team which is mainly white apart from one Japanese American boy and Miles, and Simone experiences outright harassment when she meets them, although she models a good response to their unsavoury remarks about always having wanted to date a Black woman:

“I’m not a cultural experience for some random white boy,” I say, folding my arms. “And, before you go looking for one, I don’t know any black girl who wants the position”.

Simone seems more used to a more diverse background to her life than Miles does, keener to be among different sorts of people but more nervous when in a majority white environment, definitely not wanting to pretend she’s who she’s not, and I think this aspect could have been developed more in a longer book.

The thing I didn’t like is that Simone basically dumps her friends for her boyfriend, and although they call her out on it very firmly, the issue is somehow magically resolved (after she’s accused them of sending her the notes, which is also pretty bad) because she starts talking about coming out as bisexual. While her friends accept that as a difficult thing, they do seem to forgive her a bit quickly. The denouement of who sent the notes also seems a bit rushed and not foreshadowed in the earlier text, but then this is a fairly short novel with a lot of plot and characters, so it probably isn’t in truth.

The book, alongside its diversity, is very sex-positive, and that’s a great thing for teenagers to be reading about, validating their experiences and desires. So it’s not one to read if you’re not keen on detailed descriptions of teenagers’ sex lives and experimentation, but it’s important for this aspect to be talked about to the actual audience for the book. I would have learned a lot about sexualities, families and race and the experience of people different to me in those aspects if I’d read it aged 17, although 17 year olds are probably a bit more knowledgeable about the world in general these days than 30 years ago!

Thank you to Penguin Random House for selecting me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Book review – Neil Isaacs and Rose Zimbardo (eds.) – “Tolkien and the Critics” #20BooksOfSummer20

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Hungry Hobb CafeAnother of my 20 Books of Summer and although I don’t think I’ll have seven finished by the end of Tuesday, it will be six and a half at least, which keeps me on track. Still can’t share my Foyles incomings as I’m waiting for one of them to arrive and of course it’s one of the ones that gives balance and dilutes the performative aspect of having bought a few from my wishlist that were also on BLM recommended lists. So come on, Saga Land, and hurry up and arrive! This book jumped into my hand from the outdoor shelves at Any Amount of Books on the Charing Cross Road on a pre-Christmas trip to London to visit my best friend Emma and to stock up on Persephone books).

And the photo is to prove that I do indeed live quite near the Shire! This cafe is close to Sarehole Mill, which is slap bang in the middle of the Shire and about two miles from where I live. Note the name: it was called the Hungry Hobbit for years then the film people (not Tolkien’s people!) slapped an order on it.

Neil Isaacs and Rose Zimbardo (eds.) – “Tolkien and the Critics”

(13 December 2018, Any Amount of Books)

A 1968 volume so very early in Tolkien criticism, and this gathers together published and new essays by the likes of C.S. Lewis (on the dethronement of power), W.H. Auden (on the quest hero) and Marion Zimmer Bradley (on the levels of hero-worship in the books) and other less well-know critics, covering everything from Tolkien’s theory and practice of fairy tale to a Freudian reading. Zimbardo’s own essay on morality takes a religious frame that is mentioned elsewhere (the same quotations do tend to crop up repeatedly but that’s bound to happen in a volume like this) with even Sauron being a sort of fallen angel rather than inherently evil. John Tinkler brings out all the Old English in the land of Rohan and makes a rather snooty point that there’s an extra level of enjoyment in the books for those of us who know OE. Mary Quella Kelly does a close reading of the poetry of the various men, hobbits, elves and dwarves and Burton Raffel says the poetry is bad and the books not literature in a very narrow definition (but actually they are, at the end); his piece is notable for foregrounding Tolkien’s assertion of Reception Theory, in that he only sketches in mountains and landscapes because the reader will see the words and immediately see their own favourite example in their mind’s eye. Charles Moorman does a good job of defining the work as springing from Nordic myth.

A good read that makes me want to go back to the books, and I am also keen to read that great big exhibition catalogue volume I bought a couple of years ago.

This was Book 5 in my 20 Books Of Summer project.

Book review- Paul Magrs – “The Diary of a Dr Who Addict” #magrsathon @paulmagrs

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Liz with almost all her Paul Magrs books

Me with almost all my Paul Magrs books

A re-read of a book I first read back in 2014. I was going to pick up a few of Paul’s novels that I didn’t have to read during my Magrsathon, but unfortunately quite a lot of the older ones are now out of print and I’m feeling (temporarily I hope) a bit funny about second-hand books, even ordered online and quarantined. But what a joy to go back to this one and spend a Sunday afternoon in the company of a boy working out what his place in the world might be.

Paul Magrs – “The Diary of a Dr Who Addict”

(08 December 2013, BookCrossing Not-So-Secret Santa gift)

A re-read of this lovely, warm little coming-of-age tale where David must adjust to a new stepdad plus his American mum (one of those great older adults who love books and reading who often crop up in Paul’s novels) as well as his emerging sexuality, the development of his writing and his troubled relationship with his former best friend, Robert, who appears to be moving away from him alarmingly. One major place this shows up is in their relationship to Dr Who – as Peter Davison becomes The Doctor, and they get the chance to go to the big exhibition in Blackpool, Robert starts to see the home-made, contingent feeling of the show (The Show) as a failing, not a strength.

There are as usual some fabulous strong women characters in the book, with Robert’s sister particularly trying to break out of the standard mould, and a big theme of the fine line between over-protection and too much freedom. Robert and David’s differing personalities and experiences are beautifully summed up:

Robert is an anarchist. He read something about being one in the NME and now he gets cross about most things we have to do, especially at school. I find the whole anarchist thing interesting, but quite hard to get a grip on. The idea of no rules at all makes me feel a bit unsteady. (p. 41)

We do have a positive ending as David dares to break free a little but in a controlled way, just as he wants it; as he watches Robert showing off with a pint, he meets a quite different friend, a role model and one who, amazingly, doesn’t mock David for his interest. Hooray!


Are you joining me in the Magrsathon? Some of the books are sadly out of print but second hand copies can be got hold of and the Mars trilogy and the Phoenix Court series plus Paul’s excellent books about creative writing are available new.

 

Book review – Philip Marsden – “Rising Ground” plus some #BookConfessions #20BooksofSummer20

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The fourth book in my 20 Books of Summer challenge and I bought this in the Edge of the World Bookshop in Penzance (website here and a lovely shop it is, too) on our holiday to Penzance and the Isles of Scilly in October 2018 (here‘s the post I wrote about the books I bought there, now all read, hooray!) as a very appropriate local read set in the West Country from Somerset westwards. And appropriately enough, there will be some book confessions after the review!

Philip Marsden – “Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place”

(12 October 2018)

A wonderful book going West from Somerset via Glastonbury and Tingagel into Cornwall, with lots of time spent on Bodmin Moor and a trip on the King Harry Ferry, and then getting into well-known and beloved places like West Penwith and the Morrab Gardens and Library, then on to the Isles of Scilly themselves.

Interspersed with the restoration of his own dream house and his parents selling theirs and moving on, he walks, camps and trespasses, spending time alone, in present-day company and with literary figures (the chapters on these last, while interesting, were the least engaging for me, reminding me of my struggles through Iain Sinclair’s “Edge of the Orison” about John Clare, although they came more alive when meeting people now who knew of them). His walks along the Fal reminded me of a fellow-blogger Tredynas Days‘ nature walks in lockdown.

I found it fascinating when Marsden explained the new idea of the ‘sacred landscape’ that is coming into play in archaeology and pre-historical studies, tracking the changes from seeing ridges as ramparts to seeing them as places of ritual. The standing stones, figures and landscape alterations now lead to a

focusing on the monuments’ position, what would have been visible from them, how they relate to nearby rivers and ridges and prominent hills. (p. 33)

and he walks some of these sight-paths with notable outcomes and effects.

He treasures incursions, whether that’s of foliage inside his house, by humankind into their environment or himself when dropping down to rivers through china clay workings both operational and abandoned, and I love that about the book, which is tightly structured in one way, loosely wandering in another. His comments on West Penwith, having described the area through a few different people’s eyes with its agglomeration of ritual landscapes and mysterious stone circles, seem very apt to this outsider but lover of the area:

All the ages are rolled into one, a post-modernist bundle of residual beliefs, re-interpreted customs, hazy site-myths, ancient stones, recollections and folk tales. (p. 230)

How I wish I’d been able to read this book sitting on my favourite bench on Penzance prom, by the bandstand in the Morrab Gardens or in the cosy cottage we’ve stayed at a few times. But it was a lovely evocation of this land even read in the very middle of England.

This was Book 4 in my #20BooksOfSummer project.


I’m currently reading “Tolkien and the Critics” and “The Last Landlady” for 20Books, plus Camryn Garrett’s “Full Disclosure” from NetGalley because I was eating a pizza last night and needed a book I could read on Kindle and didn’t have to hold (true reason!). And I need to report on some books in, although this isn’t all of them!

I went to visit my dear friend Ali (of the Heaven-Ali blog) the other weekend – it was so exciting to see her and our friend Meg, even though it was an 8.5 mile round trip of a walk for me and I caught the sun a little. I had taken a book gift over to Meg and was delighted to have these two thrust into my bag (from a safe distance, naturally). Francesca Wade’s “Square Haunting” about Meckelburgh Square and five overlapping residents is a hefty hardback that she was having trouble with, wanting to justify picking up an easier-to-handle Kindle copy, and she knew I was keen on reading it, and she’d somehow ended up with two copies of “My Husband Simon” by Mollie Panter-Downes in that very enticing new British Library Women Writers series which Simon/Stuck-in-a-Book is curating so kindly passed one to me (everyone seems to have been reading this one!).

Then Bloomsbury have been supplying us Shiny New Books reviewers with some temptations and the first of the three I’ve bagged arrived recently. Nick Hayes’ “The Book of Trespass” chimes nicely with the book I’ve just been reviewing, as it’s about the efforts folk have made to open up some of the 98% of the UK that is privately owned and not accessible to the general public. This looks like a lovely big satisfying read.

And THEN you might remember that the lovely Dean Street Press sent me a review copy of Ruth Adam’s “A House in the Country” which is one of the lovely set they’re bringing out in August, and that they had offered me “Miss Mole” which I had already read. Well they have very kindly sent me two more from this batch to read and review – Dorothy Evelyn Smith’s “Miss Plum and Miss Penny” and Celia Buckmaster’s “Village Story”. You can read about all these new ones on the Furrowed Middlebrow blog post about the August reprints.

Finally, I have had half of a lovely Foyles delivery, entirely paid for by book tokens I’d gathered over Christmas and birthday and a few Foyalty Points; however I was very careful about not being “performative” and only buying and sharing books with a Black Lives Matter theme and had made sure to buy some in that area, one on transgender matters and then two on Iceland. And of course I’m now waiting for the two on Iceland to arrive so I can share the whole lot with you!

How are your 20Books or other projects going? Have you bought anything recently?

Book Review – Brit Bennett – “The Vanishing Half” #TheVanishingHalf #NetGalley

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It seems like half the world is reading this book at the moment, so we all probably know that it’s a book about two very light-skinned (and wavy-haired) Black sisters whose lives divide when one chooses to live as if she were white – “passing over” as it’s called in the book. I absolutely loved this book and could not put it down; although it was obviously written before the massive surge in reading of BIPOC people’s lives, it has a timeliness about it and the differences between Black and non-Black experiences that serve as useful education. However, I have read numerous comments about it being important to still read books for their literary or entertainment value, rather than just because they teach us some kind of po-faced lesson, and this book certainly ticks those boxes, too – I couldn’t put it down towards the end and sat up late again to get it finished.

So, Stella and Desiree are twins growing up in a semi-mythological town (it doesn’t appear on maps; why this happens does get explained) town in the Southern US which has basically bred darkness out of its own population; they are in fact descendents of the town’s founding father. The town acts as a kind of chorus in the book: for example, when Desiree, who has seemingly married the darkest man she can find, brings her daughter back home,

Each time that girl passed by, no hat or nothing, they were as galled as when Thomas Richer returned from the war, half a leg lighter, and walked around town with one pant leg pinned back so that everyone could see his loss.

Stella, on the other hand, having had a couple of dry runs, manages to pass as white, and although she slips up a few times and has a very awkward relationship with her only Black neighbour, who she is drawn to even though she has been instrumental in trying to stop her move in, and is in fact instrumental in having her driven out (I’ve seen some reviews describe her as becoming a ‘good white woman’. While I appreciate the 60s were a different time, and while it is interesting to have her in a fairly standard rather than, for example, overtly racist family, I do think there would have been white women then who would not have done those two things), she doesn’t get found out by her own actions. However, even not found out, she is sort of hollowed out, with no real friends, no sister and mother, not able to relax for a moment.

We pass to the stories of their two obviously very different daughters, and things get even more interesting, plot and character wise. We also find out more about two men who love two of the women who are not on the path of canonical masculinity but offer different perspectives on manhood and created as opposed to blood families, Early in one generation, Reese in another. I just love these kind people and the additional layers they add to the book, and also the range of different life experiences in changing and dressing, from Black women passing as white through a teacher with a twice-monthly drag act to a convincing and lovely trans character. And yes, in a way you have to go to the big city to find this variety, but that’s a trope of the small town coming of age story genre this novel also belongs to.

A quote that sort of sums up the all sorts of powder kegs that could be lit in this book:

She regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth, but by then, it was too late. She had rung the bell, and all her life, the note would hang in the air.

This book exists in the context of other books like Nella Larsen’s “Passing” but adds new layers to that, and brings it up to date. Another context I would put this book into in terms of my own reading preferences places it with Ruth Ozeki, Larry McMurtry, Michael Cunningham, Terry McMillan and Gish Jen. Yes, two white males there, but I’m by no means saying it’s good because it’s as good as them, I hasten to add. Like I like in my music a certain American whimsical whine in the singer, one strand of things I really like in novels is a clear, matter-of-fact voice that offers often astounding but also everyday experiences in a sort of reportage style, as if it was just plainly stating the facts. While still beautifully written, this book fits in with those others that I have loved for years, and I will certainly be picking up the author’s other novel and looking out for more.

Thank you to Little, Brown Book Group for providing me with an e-copy of this book in return for an honest review. “The Vanishing Half” was published on 11 June.

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