Book review – Sara Nisha Adams – “The Reading List”

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Somewhat inevitably, with a lot of work on, my 20 Books of Summer list to finish and a lovely stack of review books in for Shiny, I’ve fallen a bit behind with my NetGalley reading. This was one that came out in July but I kept seeing people talking about it and wanted to get it read and reviewed.

I really enjoyed it, although it packed more of an emotional punch than I was perhaps expecting, and certainly had some strong (and important) themes around mental health that could be triggering to some.

Sara Nisha Adams – “The Reading List”

(14 May 2021)

‘Harishbhai’s son,’ Mukesh said, wondering if the boy had a name but appreciating Harishbhai’s clear and strong sense of branding. ‘Let’s go, over there, there are a few lonely souls who need a flyer.

It’s 2019 and Mukesh, who lost his wife two years ago, is just existing, really, a set of answerphone messages from his three bossy daughters and an interaction with the jolly grocer, Nikhil, who helps him with cooking tips, his only real human activity. He watches Blue Planet re-runs and fears he’s losing touch with his young granddaughter, who always had an understanding around books with her grandma. One day, he decides to make a trip to the local library to return his dear Naima’s last library book – he has read it (“The Time Traveller’s Wife”) and found it helped him through his grieving, but now he’s stuck.

At the library, he encounters disaffected library worker Aleisha, doing a summer job and bored silly. She’s rude to him, but comes to regret it. Can she use the library system to tempt him back, with a reservation for another book from this weird list she’s found on a scrap of paper? And Aleisha has got a lot on her plate, as she and her brother are caring for their single mum, who is going through a mental health crisis and has been for months. Nothing can reach her sometimes and they’re at their wits’ end.

Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, in 2017 we find all sorts of people finding the same book list popping up here and there, in a narrative which feels a bit confusing but does stitch together. The community of library workers is a lovely one, and their regulars, and Mukesh is pulled into this plus back into his original community in the Hindu temple (he moved to the UK from Kenya when his and Naima’s daughters were small). As a side point, I loved the positive portrayal of Mukesh and Naima’s arranged marriage and the space his parents gave her to take her time settling in when she moved in with them; so often we get the same narrative of pain and upset and overbearing in-laws and it’s nice to see a different side.

Friendships grow and flourish, helped by talking about the various books on the list. Mukesh even starts to bond with his granddaughter as he gets to grips with this reading lark after all these decades not bothering with books. But there’s trouble brewing: his friendship with one of Naima’s oldest friends gets noticed, and while Aleisha starts to feel able to talk about her mum with her new friends, her brother doesn’t seem to have that opportunity.

Appealing to fans of “The Lido” and other community-based books, with its nice multicultural cast, there’s an event at the library which pulls almost everyone together. It’s nicely structured and well-done, and there’s a fair bit of humour, but it’s also not all light and fluffy and certainly one event (which is quite cleverly foreshadowed but took me by surprise) is a big emotional punch and I wonder if it could have been rolled back just a little bit. Hard to talk about without disclosing the plot however. I will definitely look out for this author’s next books.

Thank you to HarperCollins for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “The Reading List” was published on 22 July.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “The Amateur Marriage”

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I read my second August Anne Tyler 2021 project books the weekend before this review was due, after almost catching myself out with “Back when we were Grownups“. This was the one I always thought I hadn’t liked so much and which saw the beginning of a perceived decline in her work, but I enjoyed it a lot more this time around. It’s the second of my QPD volumes, bought (or arrived) on 11 February 2004. I haven’t yet digitised my reading journal for that year, so I can’t tell when I read it, but it would have been a few months after that.

If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Anne Tyler – “The Amateur Marriage”

(11 February 2004, Quality Paperbacks Direct)

By nature, Pauline tumbled through life helter-skelter while Michael proceeded deliberately. By nature, Pauline felt entitled to spill anything that came into her head while Michael measured out every word. (p. 45)

I think this book is quite unusual in Tyler’s oeuvre in that there’s a sort of chorus of the Polish-American community in which Michael Anton and his mother run a general store – and this set of friends and neighbours is poignantly there right through this family saga, which takes us from Michael meeting Pauline as youngsters to old age. As was so common in the Second World War, a brief flare of attraction and the emotion of someone going off to war get mistaken for something that can be turned into a lasting love, and we have the usual Tyler pairing of one light and one heavy character, mismatched and rowing, never knowing if this is going to be the marriage-ending row or whether other couples have the same tribulations.

We see it from both sides, stodgy Michael, but he will always know how to keep the furnace going / passionate and headstrong Pauline who feels trapped by her family but has such a wonderful way with people. And then their daughter gets darker and darker and walks out and there’s all sorts of other Tyler stuff like a woebegone child and the good children vs the bad children, everyone ageing in the stops and starts we’d lost for a little bit, and always that chorus circling.

The scene is set from the very beginning – Pauline is nothing, not even Ukrainian and Michael gets somehow tricked into signing up, they have a rocky courtship when Michael is more careful of his mother than his girlfriend, and Pauline almost misses seeing him go away. Then we find out later she starts to lose interest then can’t bring herself to dump a wounded man. Perhaps not the best start, but Tyler is so good at laying out those tiny clues. We go through their life, their children, their aspirations for a new house, following the path of so many American couples, but with Michael always feeling that everyone else has got the hang of things and they’re the only amateurs left.

In an echo of the last book, someone reappears from the past, will there be some kind of circling back, some kind of resolution? If the last book was about surviving the death of your spouse, though, this one is about surviving a marriage that never really gets going properly.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

Book review – D.E. Stevenson – “Music in the Hills” and “Winter and Rough Weather”

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Steaming through my 20 Books of Summer project now, these are book 16 and 17 on the list, with just three Angela Thirkell novels to go (and although they look slender, they have densely packed print and are decent, satisfying novels). They also count for All Virago (and publishers doing similar things republishing women authors) / All August. As they’re the sequels to Stevenson’s “Vittoria Cottage“, but set in the same place with much the same characters, I thought I’d review them together.

My best friend Emma (of the readalongs fame) gave me these two for Christmas 2020, and they’re published by Dean Street Press from their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint. This just shows that sending out review copies engenders sales, by the way, both from hopefully people reading that first review and then from me putting these two on my wish list!

D. E. Stevenson – “Music in the Hills”

(25 December 2020 – from Emma)

Jock Johnstone was fortunate but his circumstances were not entirely due to luck, for although he had inherited good property he had improved it by his own efforts. (p. 1)

We open this fine novel, whose central tenet is basically the above: the value of hard work and making something of what you’ve been given, meeting Jock and Mamie Johnstone, who live at the Scottish lowlands farmhouse in Mureth and are preparing for their nephew, James to visit for a good, long stay. James has been in Malaya and needs a rest; he’s also interested in taking up farming, and as Jock and Mamie sadly have no children, he’ll fill a role in their lives as they teach him their ways. But first, Mamie gets to know their new shepherd, Dan, and gets a few surprises.

In an interesting contrast to a lot of books where we find a woman hesitating between different suitors, here it’s James, running away from London heartbreak, who attracts the attention of different young women. This is woven naturally into the portrait of the farm and its inhabitants and the town and its additional friends, and a bit of a mystery involving the new shepherd and some sheep missing from the farm. There’s worry about the new owner of the adjoining farm, fancy folk (no, he’s not Jewish, he’s “Assyrian” (slight cringe, but there we have it) who have bought it on a whim, stripped away the trees and done up the house in an unfitting modern style (more of them in the second book).

Mamie is a lovely character and obviously her author adores her – she’s simple but can be forthright when she wants to be – and she pretty well saves one character’s sanity by speaking out smartly to her social superior. I loved her, too. And she’s a great confidante when James’ lost love explains to her:

It’s different for a man. A man can do the thing he’s good at and be married too. A woman can’t. I explained that to James and he understood. He’s very understanding. You see, if I married James he would want all of me – it would be no good if he couldn’t – and I couldn’t give him all of me. (p. 185)

Shades of the last book there and Dorothy Whipple’s struggles to be a writer and a married woman! And in fact in the lovely little interview with Stevenson reproduced in the back of this book, she shares her own struggles:

Occasionally when my patience begins to wear thin I hang a notice upon the door, a notice which says ‘WRITING’ in large letters, but even this does not bring me absolute peace. (p. 217)

A lovely satisfying book, most of the plot brought together by the end but not all of it. For instance, Mamie’s slightly odd housekeeper Lizzie and her two unruly children are still there, husbandless and fatherless and seemingly not caring …

D. E. Stevenson – “Winter and Rough Weather”

(25 December 2020 – from Emma)

She was alone in the house. She had never been alone in a house before. No, never thought [she] looking back down the years. She had been alone in a flat […] but that had been different for there were people all around, moving about and breathing and there was the sound of people in the street. Here there was nobody, nobody moving or breathing or making a sound. The only sound was the sound of the wind … (p. 44)

In this installment (which has a map in the front: hooray), James has made his match, and comes back from honeymoon to settle down in the farm across the river from Mureth where we spent most of the time in the last book. This is a lovely house which has been done up and furnished with a fortuitous cook by Mamie, but it is terribly isolated, with an awful road down to the town and no way across the ford between the two farmsteads when the river rises. Will James’ new wife settle to these ways?

We spend more time with the doctor and his sister, both happily settled in the town and attractive, gentle characters (Nan has already acquitted herself well at horrible Nestor’s horrible party in the last book). Our heroine gets to know more characters than these, different ones from in the last book with some overlaps, and we do catch up with other residents’ stories, too. She takes a shine to Lizzie’s son and helps him grow into a talent he displays, and there’s a lot of great detail about how this is done, something I always love in a book.

When the winter comes and all the houses are snowed in, there’s drama and intrigue and some mysteries, which are happily solved in this lovely small community. Mamie is still beloved by the author, quiet and reticent as ever, hiding her knowledge of the Classics in general murmured comments.

A lovely pair of books to sink into, ones I will reread and which are perfect comfort and escape reading, with beautiful scenery and lovely characters. I’m so glad they’ve been republished and are now easily available!

These are Book 16 and 17 in my 20 Books of Summer project and Books 3 and 4 in AV/AA

Book review – Dorothy Whipple – “Random Commentary”

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I’m getting on nicely with my 20 Books of Summer now, with this charming little volume representing Book 15 and I’ll probably be on my second D.E. Stevenson by the time I publish this review. This counts for All Virago (and other publishers reclaiming lost women writers) as published by the lovely Persephone Books.

Ali of Heaven-Ali fame gave me this book for my birthday this year (I met up with her a bit late, or did she even have it sent to me? That’s lost in the mists of time already! I wonder if I bought it for her birthday or Christmas).

Dorothy Whipple – “Random Commentary”

(28 January 2021 – from Ali)

On Thursday I was a writer being interviewed by a publisher, a creature soaring to the seventh heaven. Today I am to be found doing fires, boiling a chicken and sweeping the front steps. But I am so happy I don’t care what I do. (p. 11)

As the Publisher’s Note that introduces this volume explains, the beloved author Dorothy Whipple (all of whose novels republished by Persephone I own – use the search function to find my reviews) compiled this book in 1965, picking out what she thought readers would like to know about her writing life. So we have notes about writing and publishing all the novels up to “They were Sisters” as well as one volume of memoir and on the reaction to these books, and dealings with her publishers, plus snippets on her short story writing and publication (goodness, she could bang out a short story in no time!) and then bits about her family, her life with her husband, their dogs and their beloved country cottage.

As the Publisher’s Note also makes clear, this is a facsimile edition, and what Whipple didn’t do was really divide it up at all or date her entries. So you kind of get a new day / topic per paragraph, with some notable dates like the first day of the year (but which year?) or the end of WW2, but otherwise feeling a bit jumbled and hard to find a place to stop for a bit. However, the text itself is charming and enlightening, really spelling out the realities of a woman writer’s life, when, as she mentions often, if there are hostessing or other house duties to be done, the notebook is closed and the novel in progress put aside:

If I were a man, i should be able to shut myself up in a study with never a thought but for writing, but as i am a woman anybody, anything, can interrupt me – without even a faint apology. (p. 120)

I loved the little details of where she got her ideas, characters and settings – she’s not averse to peering through an open curtain to see the inhabitants inside, for example, especially young married couples. There are other little details about her books which she adds with hindsight, for example when Cape turn down “High Wages”, she can add that the book went into ten editions and was still selling well 30 years later – delicious!

I also love the little glimpses of other beloved writers. Winifred Holtby reviews “They Knew Mr Knight” but seems not to have finished reading the serialisation in Good Housekeeping as she misses an important point. And she’s as thrilled as I was to find that, to find that E.M. Delafield (“so much admired by me” (p. 117)) mentions “The Priory” in her “The Provincial Lady in Wartime”. Finally, Noel Streatfeild rather confusingly invites her to visit a Home for Blitzed babies. She also meets and is friends with various male writers, but these were the details I cherished.

A writer’s diary is always a fun thing to read, and this is a lovely addition to the genre. And, naturally, it made me want to go back and re-read all the novels!

This is Book 15 in my 20 Books of Summer project and Book 2 in AV/AA

Book review – Maya Angelou – “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas”

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I and my friend Ali plus our non-blogger friend Meg are working our way through Maya Angelou’s autobiographical books in a sort of mini-challenge that has no rules or time constraints – we just try to read the book at approximately the same time. We’ve just all finished this third volume and I think we all agreed it was an excellent, and fun, read. Ali’s review will come out soon and I’ll link to it when it does.

Maya Angelou – “Singin’ & Swingin’ & Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas”

(April 2021)

My life was an assemblage of strivings and my energies were directed toward acquiring more than the basic needs.” (p. 19)

Again we pick up where the last book ended. Maya is living in a rented room and working at two jobs; she finds a great local record shop and is busy picking up records, distrustful of the White owner who offers her credit but eventually accepting her – and a job at the shop. This is good news, as she can finally take her son out of childcare (which involves him boarding at someone else’s house again and only staying with her one night a week; this seems so harsh and sad, especially when she almost lost him before when the childminder moved house) and she enjoys her work.

But men get in the way again – as always, although she’s more resolute and even more independent by the end of this volume. She gets married to a man who seems loving but practises what we’d call today coercive control. She retains enough spirit that when he actively insults her and her son, she gets out and we cheer for her. But what to do now? Stripping in a local joint seems the only option – but she gets on the wrong side of the other girls when she’s honest about what’s in the “champagne cocktails” she’s supposed to get men to buy her, and thus attracts more attention. She is such an attractive and honest character that she can’t help making friends, and so through them she gets another and better job, singing and dancing in another bar but without being on the edges of prostitution. And from there, as well as gaining the name “Maya Angelou”, she manages to secure a role in the touring opera Porgy and Bess, and things start to get really fun.

For the latter part of the book, we’re touring Europe and North Africa with Maya and the company, all Black American singers and performers, with varying reactions as they visit places where almost no one’s seen a Black person before then end up in Africa, with Black and Brown faces all around them (but inequalities and racial tensions still). She has some great stories to tell and when she has to make more money, she has the attractive character and skills to do so in side-hustles to her main performance. Her description of her cast-mates and the transformation from tired and bickering people to bright and emotional performers is absorbing.

There are a couple of mis-steps – at one point, and she does seem to imply she redressed this later, Angelou admits that she was as distant from the idea of Palestinians being displaced by the formation of Israel as she was from the idea of native Americans being displaced by White settlers, and shortly afterwards she mentions that she doesn’t want to bring her son over to tour with them for fear of the gay men in the company having an influence over him – she does explain it’s not that she worries about them “molesting” him but him copying their gestures and way of being to win admiration. Not her finest moment, although as ever, well-explained.

There are some very interesting notes on race in this book, from Maya’s natural distrust of first her record-shop employer and then a White Southern man who accompanies her songs, to her reaction to being in Canada , which had been the dream destination for enslaved people escaping via the Underground Railway, the effect of which had carried through to her times, to Europeans’ preference for Black Americans over White Americans, even in countries like Italy which America had defeated in war only a decade previously, to the information I found newly in my recent reading, but was here all the time, that white Americans then and apparently now found it easier to accept Africans, Cubans and South Americans than the Black people who had shared their country for generations.

We end with Maya and her son, now Guy, both having moved away from the names they started the book with, in Hawaii on a performing job after she puts her foot down and insists he must be able to accompany her. I wonder where she’ll go next …

This is Book 14 in my 20 Books of Summer project and Book 1 in my All Virago (and other publishers doing a similar thing) / All August project.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Back when we were Grownups”

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It’s time for my first August Anne Tyler 2021 project and I finished it yesterday – oops! Interesting fact, though: this must have been the book that I had just acquired when I claimed to my then friend, soon to be boyfriend, now husband Matthew that Tyler was, well I’m going to say ONE OF my favourite authorS, given the date inside the front cover. So I’m pleased that, while as usual remembering nothing of it, I absolutely loved this one. Oh and this is the first of my QPD Tylers, visible in the pile combining the frailty of a paperback with the size of a hardback …

If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Anne Tyler – “Back when we were Grownups”

(05 July 2001, Quality Paperbacks Direct)

She loved these children, every last one of them. They had added more to her life than she could have imagined. But sometimes it was very tiring to have to speak in her grandma voice. (p. 49)

We open with Rebecca at a picnic, wondering how she came to be who she is. Who she is now: a 53 year old larger woman, a mother, stepmother and grandmother, widow, carer and party-giving company owner with a penchant for flowery and embroidered clothes and a good relationship with her many tradesmen. But her life sort of split off when she met a man at the very party venue she now hosts, the bottom floor of one of those run-down terraced houses in Baltimore that most Tyler books are set in, chucked her high-school boyfriend, flunked out of university and joined his huge and ramshackle family.

The complicated Tyler family is in full flood in this one (three stepdaughters and a daughter, each with a partner of some sort and children, plus her late father-in-law’s 99 year old brother and her late husband’s younger brother and a family retainer who ends up being invited to as many parties as she helps clean up after). Because Rebecca, Beck to her family, has got into the habit of hosting parties for every family occasion, coming out with a rhyme for each, the backbone of a family who, as is often the case, take her for granted. Could she walk out of this life, she wonders, as the phone rings again? (No). Could she move back to her home town and her bickering mother and aunt? (But she knows no one there now). Can she find her way back to where her life path split? (Sort of, but does she want to?).

There’s no sloppy one here, just the organised one who keeps everything going. We get glimpses of the routines that held other Tyler characters together, from the man who dresses his son in tomorrow’s clothes for bed to the man who makes a batch of the same dinner every Sunday to feed himself through the week. But things are more nuanced now, and those are only glimpses (maybe she’s saying women don’t go like this as it does tend to be the men). Other Tyler standards are a weedy child of a new partner, a family house that’s subsumed an incomer.

In “Patchwork Planet” we noticed the book was dedicated to Tyler’s late husband and this novel is in part a meditation on grieving, with old uncle Poppy constantly reciting the verse he wrote for his wife’s funeral and Rebecca musing on her loss of Joe, only six years into their marriage. This is made more poignant by knowing the background, even though I don’t usually need to know the background.

Will Rebecca find herself and indeed reclaim her name (one family member does use it, we note)? Will Poppy make it to his 100th birthday? Will Rebecca trace that old boyfriend? But most importantly again, will she reclaim herself? A lovely novel, full of characters and colour, little moments of observation, and also very funny.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

Book review – Armistead Maupin – “Logical Family: A Memoir”

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I feel like I might be getting there (finally!) with my 20 Books of Summer! This is Book 13, but I’ve already read Book 14 (reviewing on Thursday) and I’m over half-way through Book 15, with just five more novels to go. How are you getting on with yours?

This is one of the three books I bought in Oxfam Books in the Between Times in summer 2020 (one of the others being “The Stopping Places“, so I’m doing well with that set of books; I’ve also read three of the other four new ones in mentioned in that post).

Armistead Maupin – “Logical Family: A Memoir”

(22 July 2020 – Oxfam Books)

My youth would be like that, the slow decay of cherished myths – about politics and race, about love itself – until nothing was left but compost from which something authentic could finally begin to grow. (p. 22)

Your logical family is the group of people you gather around you when your birth family doesn’t match you in needs and expectations. Maupin grew up in a proper Old South environment, where his father, frequently referred to as “unreconstructed” held non-ironic opinions about the Civil War and people of colour, their military forebears were celebrated and only his mum and sister really understood him. So this memoir, which takes Maupin into his 30s but refers forward to his coming life and relationships, details how he found his true self and his logical family.

There’s lots of detail on who and what inspired the beloved “Tales of the City” series, and there’s a lovely cameo from Laura Linney, who played Mary Ann in the original TV series and has remained a close friend. Indeed, Maupin has a knack for close friendships, and while there’s a touch of name-dropping here and there, he has a wide circle of friends who he’s kept for decades, only really lost through death (and the Aids epidemic is of course referenced here several times). With these friendships, he flashes forwards through time satisfyingly, and sometimes amusingly, to fill in details, so you don’t feel short-changed by the book finishing in his relative youth.

There’s a lot about Maupin’s service in Vietnam – not a natural serviceman by his own admission, he takes on a comms role in the Navy and volunteers for more direct work when he gets the chance. The stories of his comrades and superiors are told kindly and generously and it’s a very interesting aspect to the book. There’s a particularly moving moment when a young man he’d recommended for some medals turns up at a book signing to show him them in person; Maupin has changed in the intervening three decades but is still very moved.

Maupin is searingly honest about his former self, seeing much in his right-wing attempts to make his father love and accept him not to like and to be ashamed of. He seems particularly upset by the closed-off nature of his emotional life: “his heart was still closed to the possibility of real tenderness. The lid was locked down for fear of what might escape” (p. 69). But of course he does find love, and his real authentic self, and while he is constantly disappointed by his parents’ denial of him and support for right-wing projects and people, he gathers enough like-minded souls around him to be able to cope. He’s also then honest about mis-steps, for example with his character D’Orothea in “Tales of the City” whose lack of authenticity he’s called out on by a reader – “My Southern white-boy bones had been laid bare for all to see” (p. 206) – but he shares how he finds a solution to redress this, too.

A lovely, generous book it was a treat to read.

This is Book 13 in my 20 Books of Summer project.

I’ve got a few for Bookish Beck and her “Book serendipity” theme, when something crops up in two or more books read at the same time. Two of these relate to Maya Angelou’s “Singin’ & Swinging’ & Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas” but the first I came across was that Maupin’s English teacher also taught Anne Tyler, whose set of novels I’m of course reading at the moment! The two Angelou connections are, rather oddly, mention of the Seabees branch of the US Armed Services and the opera Porgy & Bess (Angelou performs in a touring production and mentions the street which Maupin lived on which they both say was the inspiration for the street in the book then opera).

Book review – Pete Paphides – “Broken Greek”

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This excellent memoir, weaving together a second-generation immigrant perspective and the discovery of pop music, by a renowned music writer, has just come out in paperback, so I reviewed it for Shiny New Books and my review came out this week.

I was a bit more formal in my Shiny review of course, but the two things that captivated me were that I and the author are of almost exactly the same vintage (he is a couple of years older than me), and so the music he experienced that’s such a vital part of the book was woven into my life at the same stages, and he grew up a couple of suburbs along from where I live now, and mentioned many places I know well from my two sojourns in South Birmingham. I got rather too excited when he went past my good friend Ali’s house, in effect, and it was lovely reading about Acocks Green, Olton and Yardley in the time before I arrived in the area.

Here’s part of what I wrote about it:

It’s more than just music and cultural struggles. We open with Paphides’ couple of years of elective muteness (resolved very movingly) and his struggles with anxiety – and more and more things to be anxious about are added as we move through the years. He seeks refuge in music, very sweetly auditioning members of bands to be his replacement parents if, as he expects, his tire of him. His friends are important to him, and the friendships detailed beautifully, and, while he gets unwillingly sucked into an almost-gang and a few exploits he’s embarrassed about, the ending, with an epic journey and an inevitable, inescapable event is a tribute to friendship and the love of your found family as well as your birth family. 

Read my full review here. The book was my own.

Book review – Anisha Bhatia – “What are we Doing About Zoya?”

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This novel is touted as a mix between “Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows” (which I have read) and “Crazy Rich Asians” (which I haven’t); I spotted it on Literary Potpourri’s upcoming NetGalley reads post and sought it out for myself. It was published in July and indeed I read it last month but I’m keeping my reading in front of my reviewing so I don’t have to scramble to write reviews during my work week. Note that this is also published under the title “The Rules of Arrangement” (thanks to Literary Potpourri for that info as well as the lead on the novel’s existence).

Anisha Bhatia – “What are we Doing About Zoya?”

(29 June 2021, NetGalley)

Zoya is a 26 year old woman living in Mumbai and, shockingly to her family, not yet married; she dresses unconventionally and is carrying a bit of weight (she’s shamed for this by various people, but it’s notable that she doesn’t lose weight in order to be happy and get the guy). She works in an ad agency (and she’s good at her job, organised and creative) for a rather alarming boss who wants everyone to call him by his first name, and has a good set of similarly unconventional friends around her – the one who gets married first starts to look increasingly troubled as the plot progresses.

Sheila Bua, Zoya’s mum’s oldest friend, is a marriage arranger and gets to work finding some boys – cue the usual excruciating family meetups. But Zoya remembers other layers of Aunty Sheila – an artist, a second mum to her after she loses a baby, someone who takes her for treats, as well as someone who pins aforementioned boss to the foyer wall and demands to know who his mother is. And the pressures on young men to get married are covered too: Zoya meets one chap who’s very happy with his boyfriend and stays friends with her on WhatsApp but is going through the marriage motions to please his parents. It’s also an interesting picture of well-off families with lots of conspicuous wealth on show.

When Zoya meets a guy who is sort of OK, they sort of agree to get married. But he’s a bit of an arse, and why do things go funny when he gets near one of her cousins? Are all engagements this argumentative? Meanwhile, we find out someone has been doing secret good turns for other people in the office … and Zoya has the opportunity of a lifetime, but it means turning down other opportunities.

There’s a lot to like in this fast-paced and funny novel, full of farce but with serious moments and commentary. It’s also quite racy for an India-based family / arranged marriage romcom tale; Zoya has a dope-smoking on/off lover and someone for whom this would be frowned upon has a pregnancy scare, which isn’t something you come across that often. But that’s fine, obviously, and probably gives a more accurate picture of life for young Indian people than some of the more smoothed-over stories. We get family stories and trendy restaurants; there’s one mis-step in the continuity which doesn’t matter massively but is a slight shame.

I’d certainly read more by this author. Thank you to Headline for making the book available to read on NetGalley in return for an honest review. It was published on 13 July. You can find out what Literary Potpourri thought of it here.

Book review – Iain Sinclair – “London Overground”

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I really need to get a new shot of Emma and me reading, as this was probably our first Lockdown Read and we both have different hair now. Anyway, even though we can go out and about now, I’m so happy that we’ve continued our Reading Time (usually on a Thursday evening, sometimes at the weekend) and we’ve enjoyed some really interesting books. We were pretty excited about this one, as we like a fact-finding walk (see our Birmingham Jewellery Quarter walk here) and thought this walk around the London Overground line might be fun to walk when we can get together again. Still might be fun … reading the book wasn’t the most fun we’ve ever had.

Iain Sinclair – London Overground: A Day’s Walk around the Ginger Line

(09 September 2020)

I think we’d probably both agree that we might not have got through this on our own – either of us. As it was, we could only manage a chapter per session, and that involved a lot of Looking Up. We’ve both read his “London Orbital” (I apparently did so before I started blogging!) and I have to admit I found his John Clare book a bit heavy going, but this was just very challenging.

Two problems: the amount and density of information, both blinding lists of artists and writers and obsessions with Clare, with JG Ballard was a bit bewildering. We were VERY glad when we got to a bit about Angela Carter, who we understand. Sometimes we looked it all up, sometimes we didn’t. But the references felt A Bit Much and, to be honest, we both felt a bit dim a lot of the time (and neither of us IS dim; we’re both well-educated and well-read, but the cultural references were off ours). Oh, there was a LOT about Freud and what I’ll politely call his final illness here, described in excruciating detail. And then he goes on little detours in order to sneer about various things in well-off areas.

Secondly, he had his mate Andrew Kotting with him. Now, Sinclair likes the liminal and the icky – he starts the book with a pile of dead birds and ends with a road accident (not his) and jolly photo of a big scar. OK, psychogeography is pretty dark at times, and that’s fine. But Kotting has a habit of peeing up walls and talking about his manky feet. And he just takes over a lot of the time. Obviously we were glad Sinclair had a friend with him, but what a friend.

There are funny moments, lighter moments – a wry smile at psychogeographers rushing in when access gets denied, a view of Boris Johnson opening some event then cycling away (how far?) echoing the fact Sinclair was on the first train when Johnson opened the line.

So, we’re glad we read it (I think!) because we’d have been intrigued by it anyway. It was fun to moan about Kotting and share info we looked up. It’s always lovely to have a read together. But it wasn’t the best book we’ve read together.


We’ve moved on to our next book now: Raynor Winn’s “The Salt Path”. Hooray, we could understand the sentences! However, although I knew it was about an older couple, the husband gets a scary diagnosis, they become homeless and go for a walk around the South-West Coast Path (no spoilers: that’s the thing everyone knows about it), and I had had to wait until I could see there was a sequel, a) I hadn’t realised Raynor is 50, around Em’s and my age, and b) I suppose we should have realised we’d have the hard bit before the nice walk. So we were in floods of tears at the end of chapter 2 and had to read on! But it does look good …

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