Book review – Osman Yousefzada – “The Go-Between”

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I attended Yousefzada’s book talk and signing at the opening weekend of The Heath Bookshop – he was a very engaging speaker and had a lot to say about the reception of his book in his local community – one that lives just up the road, past Moseley, so about two miles away from us. Having now read the book, I can see why it might have caused consternation, sharing the secrets of a very closed community, ultra-orthodox and hardly interacting with the outside world. But it’s important to learn about such communities, the people still living within them and the people who have felt the need to escape and done so. And this is a charming and compelling read which gives much understanding. I picked this up to read because the paperback is just about out now – in fact there is another event to celebrate that on 31 January 2023 at Camp Hill School in Kings Heath – tickets are just about still available here. Osman Yousefzada – “The Go-Between: A Portrait of Growing up Between Different Worlds” (10 September 2022, The Heath Bookshop)

This was my new place now, outside, standing with the men. I was older now, at secondary school, so this wasn’t like before, when I could have moved around the women’s quarters, inside, watching them unfurl their garments, revealing themselves, their clothes filled with embroidery and colour. I could no longer observe them hugging, weeping, praying, and then morphing themselves back into the shapes of their burqas and walking out of the front door, concealed as ninjas, into the streets. Now I could only see them leaving in the same shape as they had arrived; my ingress had been blocked. (pp. 227-228)

I knew I was going to find this book moving and interesting when it opened on Willows Road, a few miles from my house and a road I’ve run down and past during training runs, social runs and the small matter of the Birmingham Marathon. But although there’s a hijabi woman on the cover of Women’s Running Magazine this month, the women of this book certainly stay inside, forcibly in many cases, happily in others. Yousefzada lifts the lid on the ultra-orthodox Pathan Afghan community in Birmingham in his youth – the 1980s to mid 1990s – the women kept in strict seclusion, domestic violence rife and accepted by many, girls taken out of school at the end of primary school, lies told to cover up their absence, sent back “home” or kept in the house, hidden when the inspectors come round. It was quite shocking to me that this was still happening into the mid-1990s, when I was around Birmingham, with no idea.

The book sounds grim but it’s anything but, really. It’s a celebration of Osman’s mum, a talented seamstress who created clothes with no patterns, running her own business from their house, all sorts of women visiting to use her skills, and the other women who weave a network of mutual support. There’s palpable grief when he becomes too old to sit with the women, enjoying their colourful clothes and stories, popping out to buy them shoes, but he then starts to understand the processes happening to his sisters and he’s very vocal in the latter part of the book about their plight and his support of them. As in “Manifesto” we find a strict dad who will lecture and rarely soften, and we also have a system of community elders, often friends since childhood, who rule social conventions with fear and shaming to keep everyone in order, while the more educated – particularly the local scribe – are kinder and more supportive where they can be.

As well as family and community business, Yousefzada also describes social change that sweeps over the religious community when Islam becomes more heavily codified and visiting preachers require change just at the time that many men are made redundant in the recession so have more time for religious pursuits: so the dads change from having film star hair and best suits to growing beards and adopting close fitting hats over shaved heads – as an embryonic fashion designer, he obviously notices all the little details of appearance as he’s growing up and this gives a rich and fascinating background for the personal and social events.

Being set in Birmingham brought it all closer to me, and it was fascinating to see parallels with Pete Paphides’ “Broken Greek” in Yousefzada’s brush with gangs and lawlessness and in living a separate life to the wider community around him. Not all is separate, though, and both the sex workers who line the night-time streets and his White teachers help Yousefzada to learn about different types of people and different ways to be:

Miss Albert had held out her hand and pulled me into a world of dreams, very different dreams to those of the rest of my family. My escape route began with her. (p. 111-112)

A beautifully written, often funny, often moving book which I highly recommend, even if you don’t know Birmingham well.

Book review – Colin Grant – “I’m Black So You Don’t Have to Be”

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Another NetGalley book and this completes the set of books I had from there that were published in January, so one achievement unlocked for the month (see my upcoming State of the TBR post for what’s come in, however!). I must have seen this one on one of NetGalley’s emails and was drawn to the idea of a composite biography of several different people, all shedding light on Grant himself’s life.

Colin Grant – “I’m Black So You Don’t Have To Be: A Memoir in Eight Lives”

(31 October 2022)

I sailed through life easily, because my uncle, who arrived in Britain from Jamaica in the year I was born, had endured a gauntlet of prejudice on my behalf, being racialised by a country that only saw his blackness. “I’m black,” he’d say to me, “so you don’t have to be”.

Grant takes eight different people – family members plus one medical school colleague and one man in the community and hospital who is living with severe mental health issues – and tells stories of his interactions with them, then giving us a composite portrait of his own life from many different angles.

We meet his difficult and demanding dad, about whom he’s already written a book, running through life from Grant’s youth to Bageye’s death and funeral, his mum, and in particular her return trip to Jamaica after many years away, his enterprising and uncompromising sister, who recreated herself and ended up a Ghanaian princess rather than the daughter of Caribbean immigrants living in Luton, and his uncle and mentor, quoted above, who provided him with the title of the book, pointing out that the first wave of his family and their friends did the hard work, to allow him and his generation to, for example (shockingly to them), move to Brighton, allow their children to address them by their first names and enjoy eating lentil dishes.

Many of the characters are prickly and difficult, and there are some challenging scenes, particularly in the chapter on Charlie, his White activist medical school friend, with whom he bonds over dissection class … The final chapter takes us through to his children and the way in which they embrace the Caribbean heritage he’s not been so keen on, and the lessons he’s learned from them:

There’s a Caribbean exuberance, sense of mischief and search for rapture in all of them that is heartening to see: I feel more Caribbean in their presence. And though they recognise the disadvantages that British society imposes on blackness, they do not expect to be stymied by it.

This completes what is a humble and self-effacing – and fascinating – journey through recent Black British history, complete with its still-existing institutional racism (his experiences at the BBC are horrible but not surprising, maybe, having read around this topic a fair bit; his realisation that getting into the BBC, which felt like the end point, was in fact the start of a new process reminded me eerily of the new immigrant characters in “A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times“).

Thank you to Jonathan Cape for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “I’m Black So You Don’t Have To Be” was published on 26 January 2023.

Book review – James Vincent – “Beyond Measure”

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I was kindly offered this book by the publisher’s PR person when we were discussing another Faber book I’d been selected to read. I’m very glad she let me know about it as it’s a cracking good read, accessible and fascinating. I got to this and have reviewed it a bit late, for which I apologise.

James Vincent – “Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement”

(13 August 2022, NetGalley)

Why is a kilogram a kilogram, I asked; why an inch an inch. I understand these questions more fully now, for if measurement is the mode by which we interact with the world, then it makes sense to ask where these systems come from and if there is any logic to them.

James Vincent is a journalist for The Verge magazine who became interested in the science of measurement – or metrology – when he was covering the changeover in Paris from a physical, metal metre to a measure involving the speed of light, an event he also describes in detail in his book.

By the end of the book, he has an answer, of sorts, to his question, and one that he feels puts the humanity and changeability back into something that has become ever more technical. Along the way, he’s taken us through a basically chronological survey of measurement, from the nilometers along Egypt’s river which were used to predict crops or famine by showing how far the floods rose to the quantification of all human life through the use of wearable trackers.

He has to digress into the history of science, of writing systems, even, to show us how and where measurements developed, paying particular attention to those huge shifts that often happen alongside other sociological phenomena: had you realised that the metric system was codified during the French Revolution?

Vincent describes several meetings with people who can explain various measurements to him, starting off in Egypt going into a nilometer, and also visiting Sweden and Paris and having a video call with a figure from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology which keeps a huge range of samples for use in calibration or validation (from peanut butter that has a specific mix of ingredients to standard cigarettes to use in testing flame retardency). I noted that he makes the effort to consult female experts as well as male. Less expert is a chap from Active Resistance to Metrication, who go around altering signposts back to imperial distances (even though the EU actually allowed joint or alternative measures for fruit and veg and signposts in the UK, contrary to popular opinion). These forays into the real world (or the depths of archives) break up the theory and make the book even more lively and interesting.

I learned a huge array of things from this book; I must first explain that it is very accessible, even when it’s going into atoms and quantum physics or the philosophy of measurement and what can even be measured. Vincent has a facility for making concepts clear, and while he generously thanks a whole range of writers and academics in his Acknowledgements, as well as people who helped him with his text, this is a feature vital in such a work of popular science, and successful (I’m of reasonable intelligence and interested in the topic but my science studies apart from in geography and a big of post-grad statistics ended with my O-levels). So I learned that mid-western (in particular) America looks like that when you’re flying over it because of the Public Land Survey System, which not only drew the borders of the states but quantified field size. ISO measurements on a camera are called that from the International Standards Organization. The Centigrade scale for measuring temperature is called that because it divides temperatures into hundredths between the freezing and boiling points of water (you probably all knew that, but all the other temperature scales are named after people, so …).

Mentioning the quantification of America, while Vincent does have a gap in his coverage when it comes to Africa, the Near East and India, leaving African things at the Egyptians, covering Arab scholars briefly and mentioning only the use of mapping for the Scramble for Africa and the measurement and control of India, he is good on pointing out the negative uses of metrology, including for colonialism. He points out wherever it’s relevant that measurement was used to impose colonialism, as well as the use of measurement in eugenics, and he uses an Indigenous American source when writing about the stealing of land in that continent, and also talks at length about the use of measures in the Vietnam War and their use in the “dehumanisation of the Other”. He also raises the issue of algorithms being based on corpuses that include racist and sexist content and therefore perpetuating such horrors.

Thank you to Faber & Faber for giving me access to this book on NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Beyond Measure” was published on 2 June 2022.


			

Book review – Bernardine Evaristo – “Manifesto”

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This was the first book I bought from The Heath Bookshop back in September (you can read about the shop, my purchases and their launch weekend here; I bought this with a book token when they were soft-launching to help them to practise the process before it was critical). I picked this up to read as part of my 2023 policy to get my hardbacks read before they’re out in paperback, and of the other two books I bought that week, one will get read in ReadIndies month next month and the other might get read this month as part of the same policy.

Bernardine Evaristo – “Manifesto: On Never Giving Up”

(09 September 2022, The Heath Bookshop)

The person I am today no longer throws stones at the fortress. I sit inside its chambers having polite, persuasive and persistent conversations about how best to transform outmoded infrastructures to accommodate those who have been unfairly excluded. The rebel without has become the negotiator within, who understands that we need to sit at the table where the decisions are made, and that enrolling people in conversations is ultimately more effective than shouting at them (satisfying as that can sometimes be). (p. 183)

In this thematically structured memoir, such a lot of life, information and positivity packed into one short volume, Evaristo explains where she came from and how she came to be a writer and activist, all heading to her “overnight” success when she won the Booker Prize aged 60 for the sublime “Girl, Woman, Other“. Divided into chapters on heritage and family, houses and homes, relationships, drama. poetry and fiction, education and the self and activism, she circles around her life, concentrating on the theme of the chapter, which actually works really well, with a bit of referring forward and back.

And the ordering of the chapters makes sense; although we travel with her through her family relationships and issues around growing up with dual heritage in a very White area to her father’s death and her visits to his home country of Nigeria in the first chapter, we are into self-actualisation and the effects she has had going forward (founding and running literary prizes in particular) by the end. It also allows to her explain and celebrate change, so her view of her father as a teenager of his being strict and harsh gets tempered by his example in her activism and attempt to help others. I have to say, as I fail to sort out getting a quotation for something for the house, I did like the tales of renovations half-done or not done in this chapter.

What a strong and admirable character Evaristo is, something she characteristically only puts down partly to herself:

Essentially, I am grateful that I was not raised in a family where I had to fulfil my parents’ ambitions for themselves through me, and that I was encouraged to become the architect of my own adult life. (p. 46)

Of course, she talks passionately and in great detail of the most important thing in her life: writing. I hadn’t quite realised this took precedence over her early work in community-based theatre and I enjoyed reading about the detail of the writing of her books and poetry. Everything: family, jobs, relationships, is seen in terms of what it contributed to her writing, and I hugely admire this single-mindedness and determination. And of course (or not of course, as I wasn’t quite expecting it), at the end we get Evaristo’s own personal manifesto, something unique to her but also points we can all carry with us about being responsible for ourselves and for helping and supporting others where we can: generous and uncompromising, they read as a fitting summary of her life, work and opinions.

What an excellent book!

Book review – Jyoti Patel – “The Things that we Lost”

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I requested this debut novel by Jyoti Patel, who won the #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize in 2021, attracted by its themes of family and identity. Although it centres on a young person, it’s not one of those struggling millennials novels but a story about generations and the stories they tell or don’t tell. It did not disappoint, and reminded me of Sairish Hussain’s “The Family Tree” or Kasim Ali’s “Good Intentions” with their multicultural and university settings.

Jyoti Patel – “The Things that we Lost”

(25 October 2022, NetGalley)

There is no one left to buy her time. He will always want to know more about his father, and she must find a way to let him. But she does not know how she can do this without holding some of the truth back; she could not bear to burden hm with all she knows. It would be too much. It would shatter something in him, like it did her. It would only destroy him.

We start this engaging novel encountering one of a series of microaggressions which will be scattered through the book, reminding us of the daily onslaught people racialised as black and brown often have to weather. Avani, after a university lecture, is surprised by a fellow student shoving an ankle tattoo of India in her face and wittering on about her trip to Goa. This is in 1990, and yet in 2017, Avani’s son Nik, who is of dual heritage and part of a warm, mixed friendship group at home, is enduring open racism from his university flatmate as well as incidents of microaggression (and moments of huge warmth from other people even not quite of his culture who he encounters). But that’s not the only thing he has to endure – his grandfather has just died after trying to tell him something about his dad, who died before it was even know Avani was pregnant.

Nik has a key and an empty house to check, but things only come together when Avani’s with him and she’s horrified at the secret his grandfather has kept all these years. And as the story progresses and Nik tries to hold it together to get to university while Avani tries to maintain the silence she’s held over her perceived blame for her husband’s death and mulls over her escape from her abusive mother, who had been furious about her inter-racial relationship and marriage, and her beloved Elliot’s escape from his own dreadful parents, more objects are found that were saved, and more relationships fracture, while others grow.

Nik has been looking for father figures through his life, and now his grandfather’s gone he thinks of his stepdad Paul – however, he gets to see Paul through new, more adult eyes. Thank goodness for his good friends, old school and college mates and a couple of new university friends, as well as his friend Will’s dad, a found family he will be glad of. His growing anxiety and depression are not helped by being at university in a small, very monocultural city after growing up in multicultural Harrow, and we’re left hoping he’ll be able to transfer, as his cousin also did.

So there’s a lot going on in this book but it’s not cluttered and not at all writing-course-y, but flows naturally with themes of friendship and family and friendship within family pushing to the fore. There’s a beautiful redemptive moment with an uncle who had seemed to have become almost a cliche, and there’s a very nice dog which doesn’t have anything awful happen to it (phew). We’re not left with all the ends neatly tied, which I liked, but with enough resolution and hope to make it a positive as well as an interesting read.

Thank you to Random House UK / Merky Books for selecting me to read this novel through NetGalley in return for an honest review. “The Things that we Lost” was published on 12 January 2023.

Book review – Larry McMurtry – “The Evening Star”

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I missed a month of my Larry McMurtry 2022 Re-reading Project last month as I was so concerned with my Dean Street December challenge. But I’m not too worried, as it was always going to drift into this year, with one final novel, “Cadillac Man”, which I will now read in February. This one is the final novel in the Houston series and is pretty well set back in the city, with everyone from the previous books having their stories rounded off if they haven’t been already.

I acquired this copy in July 1999 and read it that August, and I don’t seem to have read and reviewed it again since. My copy was a second-hand one, though I didn’t recall where it came from – I suspect a charity shop rather than the book market in Greenwich as there’s a price crossed out but no alphabet code. I had been reading McMurtry from the library (Lewisham Library) since September 1997 and it looks like this one was the first of his I bought.

Larry McMurtry – “The Evening Star”

(17 July 1999, charity shop)

Her mother had always hoped she would write, or, failing that, sing, but she had done neither. She had, in the end, merely lived, partaking rather fully of the human experience, absorbing it, and yet doing nothing with it. That was the common way, of course, and yet the knowledge that she had not transcended the common way left her discontented, restless. It seemed to her that her problem may have been that she absorbed experience too avidly – so avidly that she had never taken time really to think about it. (p. 32)

As it’s the last book in the series, concentrating on Aurora Greenway, who it feels McMurtry had really wanted to write about again and again, and she’s entering her 70s along with her maid, Rosie, the General being in his 80s, you’re aware as you pick this up that it’s going to be a descent into losing the main characters you’ve read about in great detail over six books. And so it happens, although there are plenty of people left at the end and we extend into Aurora’s great-grandson’s adulthood in the final chapter.

We open with Aurora and Rosie visiting Aurora’s grandson Tommy in prison, a hated but necessary routine. Her daughter Emma died a few books ago, Tommy, Teddy and Melanie’s father lives in California with a new wife and kids and Aurora and Rosie have done their best to raise the children, but Tommy is in prison, Teddy has had major psychiatric problems and Melanie has lost her childhood charm and is dissatisfied and pregnant with a deadbeat boyfriend – classic McMurtry territory, then.

Over the book we cycle through chapters from the viewpoints of Aurora, Rosie, Teddy, Teddy’s son ‘Bump’, Tommy, Melanie and the General, Aurora’s last-remaining beau from “Terms of Endearment” (we get a quick update on how all the others were lost, as well as mention of Danny Deck’s daughter’s fate from the last novel), as well as a new character, the cod-psychoanalyst Jerry.

There are a few new boyfriends, Pascal the Frencher-than-French Frenchman and two delightful Greek brothers, and other recurring characters, notably Patsy Carpenter, in whose mind we spent so much time in “Moving On“, now older and damaged by all her poor choices of men but still looking out for the grandchildren and sparring with Aurora. Time wears on, the narrative becomes more fragmented, people move to LA, people die, and we’re often left with four old people bickering in a house, but it’s still classic McMurtry, as clear and precise as reportage, socking you with an emotional punch when you’re not expecting it. The fragmented scenes seen through young Henry’s eyes as he spends time with his failing great-grandmother as as masterful as anything McMurtry (or a lot of other writers) ever wrote.

In the end, it’s a meditation on the use of a life (see the quote at the top; this spurs Aurora into a fruitless project to remember every day of her life) and a bittersweet conclusion to a sprawling, uneven series I very much enjoyed.

Book review – Nell Zink – “Avalon”

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Well, here’s a bit of a weird one. Quite often in my reading life I’ve not really enjoyed a book lots of other people have raved about (“Girl with a Pearl Earring”, “Miss Garnett’s Angel”, etc.) but it’s rare that I read a novel that has quite a lot of negative reviews and really enjoy it a lot more than other people have seemed to. That’s what has happened here. The average NetGalley rating is 3/5 and the average Amazon rating 3.5/5. Yet I thoroughly and unreservedly enjoyed it! And I don’t think the description, blurb, etc. are unrepresentative, either. I was emailed about this one by the PR at Faber and am really glad I said yes to it!

Nell Zink – “Avalon”

(13 August 2022, NetGalley)

“What are you drinking?” Jay asked. “Coffee bubble tea,” I said. But you can’t show liberation without showing the oppressor. You have to show fascism.” I was trying to be clever, but also being entirely sincere. It seemed logical. How could people in emancipatory art be emancipated from nothing in particular? They had to be oppressed first.

Bran is pretty well raising herself on a Southern Californian farm that doubles as a plant nursery, biker gang hangout and purveyor of something indefinably dodgy. Her mum has disappeared to a Buddhist retreat and her dad to Australia but she’s kept on because she’s free labour. Socially awkward and penniless, she pulls together a life at high school, meeting an odd group of friends, predominantly her gay best friend, Jay (who has a hilarious side line in terrible flamenco dancing he thinks is art) and later, dangerously, his friend Peter, pretentious student whose diatribes are full of ellipses where Bran zones out (I found this amusing). As Bran finds her footing, creates alternative family and carves out a job and a home, she negotiates her long-distance non-relationship with Peter but retains a fierce sense of herself, and of herself as a writer, creating screenplays when Jay moves on to making slightly less than terrible films.

Satirising pretentiousness without (I thought) being pretentious, it’s essentially a small town coming-of-age novel rather than a Miserable Millennials novel, and the flat, deadpan delivery reminded me of A. M. Homes but also Victoria Clayton in England, going back to Dodie Smith and even Barbara Comyns, a style of narration I really like. Avalon is named after a tourist trap on an island that Bran has visited once, and there are echoes of legend in Peter’s thoughts on her, and she also seems to exist for him and Jay as a magical space to project themselves onto:

Presumably, with one another they talked about school projects and other cool stuff. Jay was increasingly proficient at looking cool, which entailed acting cool. He communicated with me mostly to unload his remaining nerdy, naive, anxious, or romantic thoughts.

An enjoyable read, I thought!

Thank you to Faber and Faber for selecting me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Avalon” was published on 12 Jan 2023.

Book review – Meron Hadero – “A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times”

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[Edit: reposting as I had a typo in the author’s name, sorry for any confusion but it messed up the URL forever]

I’ve realised that my taste in short stories matches my taste in poems – and, it has to be said, is somewhat less sophisticated than my English degree should predict. I like a story that is about something or someone recognisable, in a place, doing something or thinking something or experiencing something that is realistic. Actually, that probably extends to my taste in films and novels, too – fantasy can be present but it has to make sense and be rooted in the world in some way. I suspect this is why I like non-fiction so much, too, as I shy away from the episodic, fractured and too-self-consciously literary in favour of the knowable and imaginable.

Anyway, all this is moving towards saying that I liked a lot of this debut collection, but some of it I wasn’t so keen on! It was always interesting to read about the Ethiopian American experience, however.

Meron Hadero – “A Down Home Meal for these Difficult Times”

(31 October 2022)

“Oh, what we all have been through to get here, what pains to leave our homes and start again, and we think that if we can just make it here, all will be well. Little do we realize that once we show up, that’s when the hardest work begins, life’s work. Leaving, crossing, arriving, pitching your home, that’s prelude. The struggle, the legging go, that long voyage, that’s all just prelude” (“Preludes”)

The first few stories in this collection by an Ethiopian American author were absolutely brilliant and had me recommending the book all over the place. “The Suitcase” takes a young women who has returned to Ethiopia on a visit with the requisite suitcase full of gifts for relatives and old friends, and then must take it back full of items for these people’s diasporic families – but what happens when the case is too full and too heavy? A chorus of marvellous voices tries to persuade Saba what to take and what to discard: what will she do? And “The Wall” was absolutely fascinating, looking at the lives of Ethiopian settlers in Germany, faced with the Berlin wall, and later in a third country, the protagonist meets an elderly German man and considers their two very different emigrations.

“The Street Sweep” looks at the fragile relationship between an American NGO worker who makes foolish promises and the Ethiopian street sweeper who believes them, but in a twist common to these stories, the street sweeper begins to grasp his own fate in his own hands, too. This one in particular taught me about the way life in at least Addis Ababa is arranged and regulated; other stories taught me more about the country’s history. “The Thief’s Tale” was a satisfying story of an old, visiting Ethiopian father, lost in New York, getting one up on a potential assailant; it had a ring of a folk story to it but was steeped in enough local detail to be a good read for me.

And in the title story, “A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times” we meet two women who did not have to cook or do housework back home but now get a standard American cookbook and work through the recipes as events occur in their lives, eventually running a very successful food truck and getting others through downturns and troubles. “Preludes” was a bit more experimental, but this set of linked short pieces about a neighbourhood was moving and gave a real sense of community, and it contains the quotation I give above (said by a woman of Caribbean origin in this story but echoing other stories in the book).

I didn’t love all the stories: those which I haven’t mentioned did feel a bit self-consciously literary or even writing-course-y, something I am immediately suspicious of, but all showed a solid talent and work done at the craft, I learned a lot about Ethiopian and diaspora Ethiopian life and I will undoubtedly look out for this author’s next production.

Thank you to Canongate for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times” was published on 1 December 2023.

Book reviews – Susan Cooper “The Dark is Rising” sequence

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(Much) earlier last year, Annabookbel decided to do a re-read of Susan Cooper’s wonderful “The Dark is Rising” sequence (her intro post is here), and while I was mightily tempted, I really like to start/read it over Christmas. Knowing the story fairly well, I watched and read the reviews stacking up, many by other lovely book bloggers I follow, and greatly enjoyed seeing their reactions to their read or re-read. Then Twixtmas came along and I read the first two before New Year’s Eve and the last three from 1-9 January, writing this the evening after I finished the last volume.

I last re-read all of these in early 2013, alongside Matthew, and my very short reviews are here. It was lovely re-visiting them and finding new details, coming from either my longer reading and life experience since last time, and stuff I’ve become more aware of in my reading over the years. Unfortunately the edition I have is a horrible one: Simon and Schuster went for these weird covers. And yes, those are post-it notes stuck over “Silver on the Tree” as I have a horror of the Marie Llwyd at the best of times, let alone having it prancing around on the front of the book I’m reading!

“For Drake is no longer in his hammock, children, not is Arthur somewhere sleeping, and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you. Now espcecially since man has the strength to destroy this world, it is the responsibility of man to keep it alive, in all its beauty and marvellous joy […] And the world will still be imperfect, because men are imperfect. Good men will still be killed by bad, or sometimes by other good men, and there will still be pain and disease and famine, anger and hate. But if you work and care and are watchful, as we have tried to be for you, then in the long run the worse will never, ever triumph over the better.” (“Silver on the Tree”, p. 272)

Susan Cooper – “Over Sea, Under Stone”

One theme I really noticed in the books this time is Jane Drew’s courage, practicality, intelligence and resourcefulness in the books in which she appears. This one starts off the sequence and finds Jane, Simon and Barney in Cornwall with their Great Uncle Merry, working out a series of clues to find a golden grail, first of a number of items of power which must be used to defeat the Dark. All three children must hold strong amidst the old magics in Cornwall; a classic children’s adventure complete with special map but with Cooper’s deep knowledge of and interest in local British folklore centring and grounding it.

“The Dark is Rising”

Possibly the one we all read first, I know I did (making OS, US more of the “Magician’s Nephew” of the sequence, chronologically first but arrived at later by readers), we meet Will Stanton, who comes into his powers as the last of the Old Ones on his 11th birthday. The midwinter setting is spooky as the world shifts and Will slides in and out of time, one minute carol singing in the old manor, the next learning his trade or interacting with other Old Ones on the Old Ways. Again steeped in British folklore, with Herne the Hunter’s wild ride as a climax, it also reaches around the world with the arrival of a carnival head via Will’s brother. As with the first book, the story is also rooted in the real family relationships of the large set of Stantons, which gives it both a familiarity and an edge of horror. Will’s friend and protector, Merriman, is there to guide him but he’s also pretty well on his own.

“Greenwitch”

In this one, the Drews and Will meet and we find out Merriman is Great Uncle Merry. We’re back in Cornwall and the folk figure the women of the village make is central to the plot, as is good old Jane and her compassion for the sacred object. This time, this one was also notable for a compassionate and perceptive comment her American aunty makes about the destruction of Indigenous American customs by tourism. Jane doesn’t only commune with the Greenwitch; she notices the most important thing about a weird artist who is hanging around. Well done, Jane!

“The Grey King”

Will is on holiday in Wales, recovering from an attack of hepatitis that has also blurred his memory of his quest and Old One identity. He meets the pale-haired local boy, Bran, his albinism seen as weirdness at best, who it’s apparent has his own separate special identity and quest. This has the awful bit about Bran’s dog which is hard to bear, as they come into conflict with magic giant grey foxes and a local farmer who has gone over to the Dark. I like this one, although Will’s quest in the mountain where he magically knows what to do doesn’t feel as satisfying as when things have to be worked out (this is improved in the last novel). The Welsh lore is enticing here.

“Silver on the Tree”

The longest of the novels, and everyone comes together, with Bran and the Drew children having to learn to work together quickly. Each member of the group has their own quest and challenge, each picking up on what they are most afraid of. Unfortunately for Bran, it’s the skeleton ‘obby ‘oss or Marie Llwyd (also a feature in Kent and Cornwall, hooray) which he was terrified to screaming nightmares by as a child and which this book terrified me to screaming nightmares of when I first read it! There are buried lands, figures from Welsh myth and history, magical towers and riddles a-plenty, a Narnia-like train full of Old Ones and figures from all the other books and a heart-breaking decision to be made by an ordinary mortal man.

There’s an interesting point in this one near the beginning, where Will and his brother Stephen encounter a Sikh boy being bullied by some White thugs; I watched for this carefully as other reviewers had questioned its relevance to the book, but as well as working in some “We’re here because you were there” anti-colonialism, it is making the point that it’s through bigotry and blind hatred that the forces of the Dark find a channel to affect the world, and Merriman’s speech at the end, quoted above, links round to this, I feel.

What a wonderful and thoroughly enjoyable re-read, although I seem to find these more scary each time I read them: I had to sit up late to finish “The Grey King” so as to resolve it and not have bad dreams! Thank you Annabel for running the readalong and all the other reviewers who did far more detailed reviews than these!

Book review – Eris Young – “Ace Voices”

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I requested this book on NetGalley a while ago as I work to understand different communities and keep my reading and interests diverse. I also have at least one asexual friend and thought this would help me reach more understanding without pressuring them for information. It was partly helpful although a bit confusing, but of course there are more books out there and I will look into them (one thing this book did have was a great resources section). This was one of my unread December NetGalley reads; I am trying to keep up!

Eris Young – “Ace Voices: What it Means to be Asexual, Aromantic, Demi or Grey-Ace”

(4 July 2022, NetGalley)

This book sets out to give people on the asexual spectrum (or a-spec) (which includes a wide range of identities including aromantic ones) somewhere to find themselves and know they are not alone and, I think maybe slightly less successfully, help allosexual spectrum (people who are orientated towards sexuality and romance, giving a term to be in contrast to a-spec rather than assuming it’s the default, much as we use cis- and transgender) to understand a-spec people.

I did learn a lot – there are a lot of different descriptors to define different ways of being, which can seem confusing at times: this does a good job at defining them (at this point in time, as it’s an area where language is constantly changing) and also really viscerally explains how the terms have helped people to realise they are not alone/weird/wrong. It was useful to have good definitions of the difference between being asexual and aromantic and how one person will not necessarily both (so you can be open to romance but not sex, or only able to have sex with someone you know really, really well, or you can be uninterested in romance and able to have a one-night stand with a stranger, or any combination thereof, for example). Of course, in a heteronormative, marriage-industrial-complex environment that puts romantic and married pairings higher in a hierarchy of relationships than friendship, this can lead to people with such orientations being criticised to persecuted (the book is light on discussing trauma and at pains to clarify that asexuality does not arise from trauma, but it’s clear that various levels of traumatic things can happen around allosexual people’s reactions to a-spec people’s orientations).

There are statistics from a survey the author did and then quotes from in-depth interviews which were really useful for getting feelings and orientations through to the reader. I would have maybe liked more detail on how the research sample was put together, and who was chosen for interviews. There is also discussion, with notes, on previous research and comparison with the present study to validate it. It makes a good effort to include intersectionality, looking at people with disabilities (including quite a lot about neurodivergent folk) and global majority people, as well as looking at studies from non-Western countries and the different issues faced there and conclusions that can be drawn from them. It makes sure it covers a-spec joy as well as pain and struggle.

One thing I did find a bit confusing, and I am aware I need to check my privilege here as a cis-het person, is that cis-gender heterosexual people were not really included here, and I had thought one could be a-spec and of a heterosexual orientation. The author had found out about a-spec through involvement with the queer community and it seemed that most of their participants had, too (I don’t know really how I found out about it but presumably through reading and shared information on social media; I definitely knew what it was in general before my friend mentioned it). So only two people mentioned in the whole book had a heterosexual orientation, and I would think there would be more than that, just given statistics. However, I’m also aware having talked this through with a couple of friends in the LGBTQIA+ community that the last thing that community needs is to be flooded by heterosexual people (and of course I don’t need my general sector of cis-het people to be represented everywhere, as we get plenty of stuff written about us), although I thought the A stood for Asexual in general (open to correction there; it’s hard to find out though) and apparently only 1% of the whole UK population self-identifies as asexual. and a proportion of those would be LGBTQI. There was also a long chapter at the end about kinds of non-monogamous relationships people who are a-spec talked about being ideal which didn’t really interest me in such detail, but is probably helpful to those in the community looking to find a way to be outside “conventional” relationships.

So maybe there is a rich seam of research on heterosexual monogamous people who are asexual, but it’s not here, and maybe the book should have been defined as being about queer a-spec folk. It was also interesting that the author talks quite a lot about not working out things about themselves until they were writing this book, but maybe it should be then described as partly their personal journey: again absolutely fine, of course, but not what I thought the book was.

As mentioned above, the book is full of information and has a great resources section at the end, including a list of fiction that involves a-spec people which is always useful to see. There’s a very good list of ways allo people can support their a-spec friends by validating their friendships as important as well as the basics of not trying to pressurise the whole world into being in relationships. It’s good to have positive and detailed books like this out there, based on real people’s voices, and I would recommend it to anyone exploring their a-spec identity and finding their community and, in a slightly more limited way, for those who wish to understand the community.

Thank you to Jessica Kingsley Publishers for making this available on NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Ace Voices” was published on 21 December 2022.

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